Cymbeline, empire and now: Not just a history play

by Matthew Godfrey | 1 September 2016

Applying Shakespearian text to contemporary history.

My approach to directing Cymbeline was that art should reflect society. Artists can and should make society look at itself and see its triumphs and flaws. They should be able to see how they fit into the grand scheme of things: gain knowledge, empathy and understanding of the human journey in the context of its time.

Hamlet said: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature…” It is generally accepted that this line of Hamlet’s speaks directly to actors, then and now, cautioning them as to how they should approach the art of playing upon the boards. The line, of course, continues: “…to hold the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Hamlet’s advice to the players, in its entirety goes beyond just speaking to actors. Here the Upstart Crow speaks to all theatre artists and even the audience. He sets up the expectation of the contract between theatre practitioner and patron and speaks of playing and players on an even deeper level. Challenging them, as he did himself and his contemporaries, to use their art to reflect back on society and engage in societal and political discussion.

In my teens, I saw Cymbeline on stage in Stratford, Canada, and loved the show.

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