Matter-Theatre: Conspicuous Construction in Cymbeline

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    Cymbeline repeatedly refers to “matter,” a term that holds both physical and abstract meanings simultaneously. The word draws attention to the nature of rhetorical construction, in which “matter” is a crucial term, and also to the material spectacles that characterize the play. Matter is a major element in Cymbeline’s self-conscious artifice and it places emphasis on the rhetorical construction of Shakespeare’s playworld, its narrative fragility, and its generic and tonal complexities. Shakespeare’s repetitions of “matter” in Cymbeline consequently serve as metatheatrical reminders about its fictional status and the material conditions of its performance.
    This article therefore concentrates on the various “materials” of theatre—rhetoric, technology, narrative—and situates discussion of “self-conscious theatre” away from twentieth and twenty-first-century vocabularies to concentrate instead on how such materials and media were articulated and understood by early seventeenth-century playwrights, actors, and spectators. The article gestures not only to moments of or metaphors indicating metatheatricality, but to a more fundamental concern with dramatic construction that pervades a play: in Cymbeline, theatrical recognition and self-awareness work both theoretically—through early modern understandings of “matter”—and at the level of narrative, verse, and dramaturgy.
    Shakespeare’s verbal inventiveness in Cymbeline is particularly conspicuous. The circuitous syntax of Shakespeare’s so-called “late style” shows the play’s speech to be especially contrived. The noticeable rhetorical “matter” encourages spectators and readers to appreciate that Cymbeline’s rhetorical constructions are not hidden or elided but are conspicuously present. Verbal invention is also complemented by material invention through the play’s elaborate stagecraft. Characters’ puzzlement at the narrative and visual surprises of the play—“what’s the matter?”—reflect the term’s verbal and material importance. The play’s verbal and visual “materiality” contributes to its fragile and reflexive self-awareness, a characteristic that is structurally present in Shakespeare’s continual delight in delaying and frustrating the answer to the question, “what’s the matter?”.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)69-88
    JournalShakespeare Bulletin
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 24 Mar 2018

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