How Shakespeare's strangest play helps us confront the climate crisis

At first glance, Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for confronting the climate crisis. But seven theatre companies around the world, from Argentina to Australia, have adapted Cymbeline to respond to the climate crisis in their local environments.

Seven theatre companies around the world have adapted ‘Cymbeline’ to respond to climate change

The cast of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performs Cymbeline, June 15, 2021, at Montana State University, as part of their 49th season. (Montana State University/Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

*Originally published on September 7, 2022.

At first glance, Shakespeare's late play Cymbeline — which features a runaway princess, an evil step-mother, a broken treaty, a war between Britain and Rome, and the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy — doesn't seem like an obvious choice for confronting the climate crisis. 

But Canadian scholars Randall Martin and Rebecca Salazar argue that Cymbeline contains important lessons for us now in the Anthropocene.

"It's a play of emotional and experiential extremes. It's a play of resilience, focused mainly on the journey of Imogen from the court into her own banishment. She goes into Wales, eventually returns to the court, and that journey symbolically represents a regeneration of the anti-environmental attitudes of the court," said Martin. 

"That represents a kind of a beacon for what we need to face the current crisis with the kind of resilience and survivor skills that Imogen demonstrates."

The play is famous for its sprawling, knotted plot. But Salazar believes the chaotic storyline makes the play fit for adaptations about the climate crisis, "particularly because it's such a huge problem that's attacking us on more fronts and larger scales than we've ever been able to comprehend."

In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the central character Imogen appears to die, but then wakes up again. She must confront the horror of realizing she’s in a grave and find a way to move forward. Shakespeare scholar Gretchen Minton sees Imogen’s death and resurrection as a metaphor for our own confrontation with the climate crisis. (Montana State University/Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

"A lot of environmental art and ecological art right now is just having to break traditional forms. A cohesive genre doesn't really work to tell the story because it's happening on so many levels."

As part of an ambitious, intercontinental project called Cymbeline the Anthropocene, Martin and Salazar partnered with seven theatre companies around the world, from Australia to Argentina. Each company staged a site-specific, ecologically-minded adaptation of Cymbeline.

Bushfires and the dangers of isolationism

"At the onset of this project, both Australia and California … were literally on fire," said Rob Conkie, an Australian theatre scholar who directed a production of Cymbeline at LaTrobe University in Melbourne. "So it was the only vision that we could come to, which was to talk about fire."

His production was influenced by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which are considered one of the worst natural disasters in Australian history

A bushfire spread through the town of Labertouche, east of Melbourne February 7, 2009. The heatwave sparked dozens of blazes across the country. (Mick Tsikas/Reuters)

The original play includes a plotline about a war between Britain and Rome, triggered when the British King Cymbeline refuses to pay a tribute to Rome. In Conkie's production, the war became a bushfire. 

"In our version, the ambassador from ancient Rome is a park ranger who's coming to the court to solicit the king for funding. So the tribute has a contemporary parallel as a lack of investment in forestry management and fire management," he said. 

"The more kind of global parallel that I told the actors is, think about it as what it was like when we withdrew from the Paris climate accord," said Gretchen Minton, the dramaturg for the 2021 Montana Shakespeare in the Parks production of Cymbeline.

"Like, 'that's the rest of the world. We don't have to be part of what those Europeans think.' And what we all realize, of course, is what we do locally or in any nation is, of course, going to impact the rest of the globe."

(Submitted by Rob Conkie)

A journey into Tehuelche cosmology, through Shakespeare

For her production in Buenos Aires, Argentina, director and scholar Mónica Maffía wanted a name for her company "which could reunite the Shakespearean, the geographical, and the ecological."

"Suddenly, in just one word that could encompass all those things, it just appeared, the perspective I would give to this version of Cymbeline, and the name was Setebos," she said. 

"Setebos is a god who's the father of the ancestral people of Patagonia who were the Tehuelche. And in their tradition, animals are people."

But many people in Argentina today have never heard of Setebos. Or if they have, they've likely heard of him through Shakespeare, because Setebos is the god Caliban prays to in The Tempest

In her meta-theatrical production, a group of actors journey to Patagonia at the southern tip of South America to rehearse Shakespeare's Cymbeline and to learn about Setebos and other ways of relating to the natural world. 

"Those actors come from different regions of Argentina so that through beliefs, through songs, through the traditions of each region, we could talk about the ecological problems of each region of Argentina," said Maffía.

For example, the production "alludes to fires deliberately set on Mt. Chaltén in a national biological reserve to reveal prospective mineral veins for mining companies," said Martin.

"This spiritual journey through Shakespeare ends up being a spiritual journey [for the actors, about] discovering this cosmology through our own ancestral myths," Maffía said. 

Finding common ground in Montana

In 2021, Montana Shakespeare in the Parks brought Cymbeline to 61 communities across Montana and its neighbouring states. 

"The tiniest town that they go to has a population of 17 people. There's a state park right next to it, and there's a high place called Poker Jim Butte. The local residents of this tiny town and the surrounding ranching communities all come up to this butte to watch Shakespeare," said Gretchen Minton, the dramaturg for the production. 

In Gretchen Minton’s adaptation of Cymbeline, she transformed a character named Belarius into Belaria. She became a symbol of Mother Nature and the central character Imogen’s biological mother. By reuniting with Belaria, Imogen begins to discover other ways of relating to the natural world. (Montana State University/Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

"Another place I saw it was in Townsend, which is a railroad town. I remember [I] got in the car afterwards, thinking about the natural world and everybody enjoying the play and turned the corner and went right by the train, which was carrying coal across Montana. There we were back to mineral extraction and those extractive industries driving the economy of Montana and creating a lot of the political and economic divide."

Because the company performs in so many different kinds of communities, from left-leaning college towns to mining towns, Minton said they thought hard about how to speak to people across the political spectrum. 

"What we really agreed upon is that everybody in Montana loves the natural world … whether it's living on the ranch or fishing or skiing or hunting or going out into the backcountry on a backpacking trip."

WATCH | Montana's Shakespeare in the Parks production of Cymbeline, directed by Kevin Asselin 

To tap into that shared appreciation of the land, her production focused primarily on "living more peacefully and in harmony with the natural world, learning its lessons and getting away from a world that poisons the not the natural world," she said.

"One thing that's really important and instructive in Montana is the farmers and the ranchers here know very, very well that weather patterns are changing and they're not just changing for an anomalous year … I think that having these conversations in ways that don't seem overtly political can be really productive and really generative. And I hope that by bringing art that's not propaganda into these communities, that it might offer people a way to think about and talk about these issues."

Guests in this episode:

Randall Martin is Professor of English at the University of New Brunswick and Adjunct Research Professor at Western University. His books include Shakespeare and Ecology. He is the project manager for Cymbeline in the Anthropocene

Rebecca Salazar is a writer, editor, and community organizer who recently completed a PhD at the University of New Brunswick. She is the researcher and web manager for Cymbeline in the Anthropocene. Their poetry collection sulphurtongue was a finalist for the 2021 Governor General's award for poetry. 

Mónica Maffía is a playwright, librettist, opera and theatre director based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her plays have been translated into English, French and Greek. She directed Cimbelino en la Patagonia with her company, Setebos.

Gretchen Minton is a Shakespeare scholar and Professor of English at Montana State University. Her books include Shakespeare in Montana: Big Sky Country's Love Affair with the World's Most Famous Writer. She was the dramaturg for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks' 2021 production of Cymbeline.

Rob Conkie is an Australian Shakespeare scholar and theatre director. He directed a production of Cymbeline at LaTrobe University in Melbourne in 2021. His research integrates practical and theoretical approaches to Shakespeare in performance. His books include Writing Performative Shakespeares: New Forms for Performance Criticism.

Other Cymbeline in the Anthropocene adaptations include a production at The Willow Globe (Y Glôb Byw) in Wales, a living version of the Globe in London" made from willow trees; a production in Yosemite National Park; a production at the University of Exeter in southwestern England; and a production at Cornell University, where Theo Black and his students "homed in on a central ecofeminist corollary embedded in Cymbeline & endemic to the Anthropocene: objectification of female bodies as comestible commodities & the ravaging of natural ecologies."

*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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