Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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is a stage play in the form of a comedy with elements of romance.
Written: 1609 or 1610.
Performance: Probably 1611.
Published: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection
of Shakespeare's plays.
based Cymbeline on an account in The Chronicles of England, Scotland
and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?),
who began work on this history under the royal printer Reginald Wolfe.
The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes.
also used a story in The Decameron, by Boccaccio (1313-1375). The
written between 1349 and 1353, consists of one hundred tales told by seven
men and three women to pass the time after they isolate themselves in a
villa to escape the plague. An English translation of The Decameron
appeared in 1566 in Palace of Pleasure, by William Painter.
may also have used A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), by George Ferrers
and William Baldwin, as a source.
action takes place in ancient England, Wales, and Rome in the age when
the forces of imperial Rome occupied Britain (probably between AD 10 and
14). However, there is a fairy-tale quality to the play that transcends
time and place.
locales include Cymbeline's palace in England (perhaps in the vicinity
of the present-day city of Colchester, which is northeast of London and
south of Ipswich, in the county of Essex along the North Sea coastline),
a house in Rome, a cave in the mountains of Wales, the port of Milford
Haven in southwest Wales, a Roman military encampment in Britain, and a
field of battle in Britain.
the play is entitled
Cymbeline, other characters—notably
Imogen and Posthumus—dominate the stage. However,
the play seems appropriately named, for all of the action grows out of
Cymbeline's decisions: his marriage to a miscreant, his designation of
her son as his heir, his banishment of Posthumus, his banishment of Belarius,
and his refusal to pay a tax to Rome.
the garden of the palace of Britain’s King Cymbeline, two gentlemen discuss
surprising news: Against Cymbeline’s wishes, his daughter—the beautiful
and virtuous Imogen—has married a young man of meager means named Posthumus
Leonatus. The first gentleman says Posthumus is the son of a deceased soldier,
Sicilius, who distinguished himself in service against invading Romans.
As a reward for his battlefield valor, Cymbeline bestowed on Sicilius the
surname Leonatus, meaning lion-born. After Sicilius died, his wife also
died. The ordeal of childbirth killed her while she was bearing Posthumus,
and Cymbeline took the orphan under his protection. It was the king who
named the child Posthumus (Latin, born after death) and allowed him to
retain the surname of his father, Leonatus. Posthumus Leonatus is now a
young adult of noble qualities, like his wife, in spite of his lack of
wealth and position.
Devious Characters and Situations
Cymbeline: King of
ancient Britain who attempts to marry his daughter to a worthless lout
of Cymbeline by a former queen; Imogen defies her father and marries the
man she chooses. Because of her nobility of character and fidelity to her
husband and her ideals, she is the most appealing character in the play.
Lower-class man who marries Imogen. Although he has many good qualities,
he falters when the evil Iachimo persuades him that Imogen has been unfaithful.
In this respect, he resembles Othello, the leading character in one of
Shakespeare great tragedies.
Queen: Wife of Cymbeline
and Imogen's malevolent stepmother. She resembles an archetypical "evil
queen" or witch who appears in fairy tales.
Iachimo: Friend of
Philario. Iachimo, the play's central villain, bets ten thousand ducats
that he can seduce Imogen. Although he fails to do so, he persuades Posthumus
that he succeeded. In this respect, he resembles Iago, the antagonist in
son of the new queen by a former husband.
Belarius: Lord who
had fought for Cymbeline but was banished because he was falsely accused
of being a traitor.
Adult sons of Cymbeline. They were kidnapped by Belarius when Guiderius
was three years old and Aviragus two. Belarius kidnapped them to gain revenge
against Cymbeline for banishing him. While they grow up in the wilds in
the care of Belarius, he comes to love them. They believe he is their father.
As the elder boy by a year, Guiderius is the rightful heir to Cymbeline's
Caius Lucius: General
of the Roman forces.
Two British Captains
A Frenchman, friend to
Two Lords of Cymbeline's
Two Gentlemen of Cymbeline's
Two Gaolers (Jailers)
Apparitions in Posthumus's
Dream: Sicilius Leonatus, Mother, First Brother, Second Brother, Jupiter.
Lords, ladies, Roman senators, tribunes, soothsayer, Dutchman, Spaniard,
musicians, officers, captains, soldiers, messengers, other attendants.
Michael J. Cummings...©
the marriage of Imogen to Posthumus infuriates King Cymbeline because he
had arranged for Imogen to marry Cloten, his stepson
by his marriage to his second wife, now the queen. Cloten is obnoxious,
mean-spirited, repulsive. His mother, the new queen, is no better than
her son, although her wheedling tongue has apparently deceived Cymbeline
into believing that she has regal qualities and that Cloten is a worthy
heir to Cymbeline’s title and property.
first gentleman then discloses that Cymbeline had two sons by his first
wife. One of the boys was destined to inherit the throne. However, a kidnapper
absconded with them when they were infants. In the twenty years since the
two boys disappeared, no search has turned them up and no word has been
heard of their fate. Because Imogen defied his wishes and married the lowly
Posthumus Leonatus, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus before the lovers can
consummate their marriage. Henceforth, they are not even to speak to each
other, the first gentleman says as he finishes his account of recent events.
action of the play then begins when Posthumus decides to go to Rome and
lodge with Philario, who was a friend of his father. The queen smarts from
Imogen’s rejection of her son, Cloten. In retaliation, she pretends that
she will intercede on behalf of Posthumus, then tattles to the king that
Posthumus has not yet left the court but lingers with Imogen, thus defying
the king’s command.
asks Imogen to write to him, and the couple exchange gifts. Imogen gives
Postumus a ring, saying:
This diamond was
my mother’s; take it, heart;
swears he will die before marrying another, then places a bracelet on Imogen’s
wrist. By these tokens, they mean to keep alive their love for each other.
Cymbeline storms in and orders Posthumus to leave immediately, then scolds
Imogen severely for marrying a base commoner.
But keep it till you woo
When Imogen is dead.
Rome, at the house of Philario, Posthumus speaks of his beloved Imogen
as a woman of extraordinary virtue. Her constancy, he says, is beyond reproach.
Present is Philario’s acquaintance Iachimo, a young man who delights in
working evil against others. Iachimo wagers that he can make Imogen submit
to him. Philario attempts to divert the conversation to another subject,
but Posthumus unwisely accepts the challenge. Iachimo then bets ten thousand
ducats against Posthumus’s diamond ring that he can seduce Imogen. Posthumus
confidently declares that Iachimo will fail.
travels to Britain and, using a letter of commendation from Posthumus,
introduces himself to Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus. When Postuhumus
left for Rome, Pisanio remained behind to look after Imogen. After reading
the letter, Pisanio introduces Iachimo to Imogen. Not long after meeting
and conversing with her, Iachimo realizes that Posthumus was right: This
young woman is as constant and faithful as a sunrise. Iachimo then resorts
to deceit to advance his cause. First, he tells Imogen that Posthumus lives
the life of an unprincipled pleasure-seeker in Rome. In revenge, Iachimo
says, Imogen should give herself to him. However, Imogen remains steadfast,
refusing to believe Iachimo and refusing to yield to his advances.
The clever Iachimo then admits his lies, claiming he was merely testing
her to see whether she was true to her husband. Imogen accepts his explanation.
What is more, she agrees to safeguard overnight in her room a chest which
Iachimo says contains treasure.
this while, Imogen’s stepmother has been up to no good. She directs her
malevolence this time against Pisanio. The queen orders her physician to
prepare a poison she will offer to Pisanio as a kind of health elixir.
However, the physician, aware of her evil ways, cooks up a drug that numbs
the senses temporarily, but does not kill. When she present the drugt to
Pisanio, she tells him to
take it for thy labour:
when attendants deliver the chest to Imogen’s room, Iachimo is in it. After
Imogen falls asleep, Iachimo emerges and spies out the evidence he will
need to convince Posthumus that his wife was unfaithful. Not only does
he write down details about the room that Posthumus will surely recognize,
but he also makes a note of a birthmark under Imogen’s breast. In addition,
while Imogen remains in deep sleep, he steals the bracelet Posthumus gave
Imogen. He then returns to Italy with a false story to tell.
It is a thing I made, which
hath the king
Five times redeem’d from
Imogen awakens in the morning, Cloten enters her room, tells her he loves
her, and insists that her marriage contract to Posthumus means nothing
because it was not approved by the king. But Imogen bluntly rejects him
and asserts that he could never be the equal of Posthumus even if he were
the son of Jupiter. The humblest garment that Posthumus owns, she says,
is dearer to her than anything of Cloten’s. She then calls for Pisanio.
When he enters, Imogen reports that she cannot find the bracelet Posthumus
gave her; Pisanio is to ask her servant, Dorothy, to search for it. In
Rome, Iachimo confronts Posthumus with what appears to be overwhelming
evidence of Imogen’s infidelity: the bracelet and knowledge of Imogen’s
birthmark. Posthumus, dumbfounded, concludes that Imogen yielded to Iachimo;
he gives up the diamond ring and curses Imogen: “O, that I had her here,
to tear her limb-meal!" (2. 4. 189) But even as Posthumus loses faith
in Imogen, her faith in him remains as strong as ever as she rejects the
advances of Cloten, declaring he is not worth even the humblest garment
ever worn by Posthumus.
has problems of his own. Caius Lucius, an ambassador from Rome, arrives
at Cymbeline’s court to remind him that he has not paid the emperor a required
annual tax, or tribute, of three thousand pounds. Cloten speaks up, saying
Britain will no longer pay the tribute. His mother, the queen, supports
her son’s refusal to pay, saying Rome’s so-called conquest of Britain was
really not a conquest at all; for Britain retains a hearty fighting force
capable of defending itself and a government capable of self-rule. Cymbeline
himself then refuses to pay. In the name of Rome, Lucius issues a declaration
of war on Britain and leaves under a safe conduct pass he has received
as an ambassador.
Posthumus, depressed and angry over Imogen’s “infidelity," sends a message
to Imogen asking her to meet him in at Milford Haven in Wales. He sends
another message to his servant Pisanio, telling him to escort Imogen to
Wales, then kill her. Pisanio is shocked that his master would issue such
a command; Pisanio well knows that Imogen is the noblest and most virtuous
woman in the land. Under no circumstances would she even contemplate disloyalty
to her husband. Nor would Pisanio ever raise a hand against her. While
he considers what to do, Imogen leaves for Milford Haven, as instructed
by Posthumus in her letter.
a cave in Wales, the sons of Cymbeline—Guiderius
and Aviragus—hunt for deer with Belarius,
the man who kidnapped them twenty years before. They think he is their
father. He tells them that he fought for Cymbeline against Rome, suffering
many wounds. However, he says, two villains told the king that he had defected
to the Roman side. Consequently, the king banished him. When the two young
men run off to chase deer, Belarius reveals, in a soliloquy, that Cymbeline
is their real father. Further, he reveals that, out of revenge for his
banishment, he kidnapped the boys when Guiderius was three years old and
Aviragus two. Guiderius, the first-born, is heir to Cymbeline’s throne.
as Imogen makes her way to Milford Haven, Pisanio catches up with her and
reveals the contents of the letter in which Posthumus ordered Pisanio to
kill Imogen. Imogen, devastated, sees no reason to go on living and urges
Pisanio to carry out the order. But Pisanio tells her that Posthumus must
have been deceived by an evildoer
and persuades her to take part in a plan to make things right. Here is
the gist of it: Pisanio will send a message informing Posthumus that Imogen
is dead. In it will be proof of her death (a piece of her clothing, blood-stained).
Imogen, meanwhile, will continue on to Milford Haven in the guise of a
page boy, wearing male clothing Pisanio has brought with him. Such a disguise
will help protect her against those who would harm her, whether Cloten
or invading soldiers, and also enable her to join up with the Romans so
that she can observe coming events without giving herself away as the king’s
gives her the elixir prepared by the queen’s physician as a curative against
stomach qualms or other distempers that may arise from stressful situations
on her journey. Calling herself Fidele, Imogen walks on but loses her way.
After two days, tired and hungry, she takes refuge in the cave of Belarius,
Guiderius, and Arviragus. When they return from their hunt after killing
a deer, the young men take a liking to the “page boy"; Imogen warms to
them as well. But Imogen, of course, is not aware that Guiderius and Aviragus
are her long-lost brothers; nor are they aware that she is their sister.
The men go back out to dress the deer and roast the meat. Imogen prepares
it to their liking.
Cloten learns of Imogen’s absence from court, he dons some old clothes
of Posthumus (proving to himself that he is at the very least the equal
of Posthumus as he remembers Imogen’s jibe that he was less esteemed than
Posthumus’s humblest garment). Then he sets out after her. Believing that
Posthumus has returned from Italy and that she has gone to meet him, Cloten
plots to kill Posthumus and defile Imogen.
the cave the next day, Imogen, perhaps still fatigued from her long journey,
feels woozy. While the men go off to hunt again, she remains behind to
recover her strength. To help nature along, she takes a swig of the elixir.
Before the men go very far, they happen upon Cloten. Belarius, realizing
he is the son of the queen, goes off to scout the area, thinking there
may be others traveling with Cloten. While they are gone, Cloten assumes
Guiderius is an outlaw and insults him. They spar verbally, then fight.
Guiderius decapitates him and throws his head into a stream.
the Belarius and Aviragus return, Imogen is in a stupor induced by the
elixir, and everyone thinks she is dead. Aviragus and Guiderius experience
deep sorrow, for they had grown to love the page boy as if he were their
own brother. They carry her body into the forest, lay it down beside the
headless Cloten, and cover both bodies with flowers. When Imogen awakens
later in a daze from the effects of the drug, she thinks she must have
been walking toward Milford Haven. Then she sees the headless body of Cloten
in the clothes of Posthumus and concludes that Pisanio must have killed
Posthumus. She faints, falling on the body.
Roman troops under Lucius arrive at Milford Haven and march eastward, they
discover Imogen—still disguised as a page—lying
on Cloten’s corpse. She awakens from her fainting spell, still thinking
the body next to her is that of Posthumus. She praises him to the Romans,
and they think her a fine lad and take her with them.
young men of Rome—including Iachimo and Posthumus—have
also landed at Milford Haven to fight for the Romans. Posthumus, who has
a blood-stained handkerchief sent to him by Pisanio as evidence that he
killed Imogen, deeply regrets ordering her death. He takes off his Roman
garb and puts on the clothes of a British peasant, deciding he will fight
to the death for the Britons for the sake of Imogen. In the Roman camp,
Iachimo, too, regrets his past action, saying he betrayed a noble lady.
During the battle, Belarius, Guiderius, and Aviragus take the field on
the British side. The Romans capture Cymbeline, but Guiderius and Aviragus
rescue him. Then the tide turns and the Britons capture Lucius. Posthumus,
who has fought valiantly, regrets that he did not die in battle, so he
tells two British soldiers that he is a Roman, hoping they will arrest
him for execution. He gets his suicidal wish, and they take him into custody.
his captivity, he falls asleep and sees the ghosts of his father, Sicilius,
and other dead family members. When they petition Jupiter for mercy on
him, the great god appears and predicts Posthumus’s fortunes will rise
and that he will reunite with Imogen.
his tent on the battlefield, Cymbeline, victorious, inquires about the
peasant (Posthumus) who fought valiantly for the Britons. Belarius says
he is nowhere to be found. The physician Cornelius arrives to announce
that the queen has died. The absence of her son, Cloten, from the court
apparently precipitated a fatal malady. Before she died, she confessed
that she never loved the king but married him for his position and power.
Furthermore, Cornelius says, she despised Imogen and concocted a plan to
kill her. Finally, he says, she intended to murder the king himself by
giving him poison in small doses, enabling her to care for him while he
was dying and extract from him a promise that Cloten would succeed as king.
to her evil deeds are there to swear that Cornelius’s story is true.
now a prisoner of Cymbeline, enters and graciously begs mercy for the page
boy (Imogen) with him, saying the boy served him with great distinction.
Belarius, Guiderius, and Aviragus are surprised to see that the boy they
thought dead is still alive. Imogen then sees Iachimo—and
the ring he won from Posthumus. Still conscience-stricken, Iachimo confesses
his evil scheme against Posthumus and Imogen. While Posthumus is led away
for execution, Iachimo identifies him. Posthumus curses Iachimo, then condemns
himself as the murderer of Imogen. To the astonishment and joy of everyone,
the page boy then reveals himself as Imogen.
then discloses the villainy of Cloten, and Guiderius owns up that he beheaded
Cloten during a violent quarrel. His disclosure makes Imogen realize that
the headless body she saw when she awakened from her stupor was Cloten’s.
Belarius next takes his turn at a confession, revealing that Guiderius
and Aviragus are the king’s true sons and that it was he, Belarius, who
made off with them two decades before. When the king sees a birthmark on
the neck of Guiderius, he knows that Belarius is telling the truth. Meanwhile,
Aviragus and Guiderius are joyful at the news that the page boy turns out
to be their sister.
forgives Iachimo, and the king pardons all captives. In addition, although
he has won the battle against Lucius, he agrees to pay tribute to Rome,
realizing that the empire is a mighty power with many more legions in reserve.
Peace reigns and Posthumus and Imogen are reunited as husband and wife.
climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a
novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins
to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events.
climax of Cymbeline occurs, according to the first definition,
when Pisanio refuses to carry out an order to kill Imogen. Here are the
key events leading up to this moment: First, Iachimo persuades Posthumous
that Imogen has been unfaithful. Next, Posthumous, believing the terrible
lie, sends a message to Pisanio directing him to kill Imogen. Pisanio then
tracks down Imogen and shows her the message. Brokenhearted, Imogen bids
Pisanio to carry out the order, saying,
draw the sword myself: take it, and hit
innocent mansion of my love, my heart;
not; 'tis empty of all things but grief;
master is not there, who was indeed
riches of it: do his bidding; strike. (3. 4. 61-65)
Pisanio, who has always believed in the innocence of Imogen, refuses to
carry out the order. The climax comes when Pisanio says, "Hence, vile instrument!
/ Thou shalt not damn my hand" (3.4.68-69). In refusing to murder her,
Pisanio thwarts Iachimo's evil plan, saves Imogen's life, and allows the
drama to proceed to a happy rather than tragic ending.
to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Iachimo
is revealed as a villain, the "page" is revealed as Imogen, and Imogen
and Posthumous are reunited, supposedly to live happily ever after.
triumphs over treachery. A faithful and innocent young woman overcomes
mistreatment, calumny, and other injustice to be reunited with her husband.
is not as it seems. (1) Posthumus is deceived into believing that Imogen
has been unfaithful even though she remains steadfast in her love for him.
(2) Imogen disguises herself as a male page to join the Romans and return
with them to Italy to find Posthumus. (3) After Imogen swallows a potion
and goes into a stupor, Arviragus and Guiderius believe she is dead. (4)
After Imogen awakens she mistakes the
dead Cloton, who is wearing Posthumus's clothes, for Posthumus.
is never too late to redeem oneself. Posthumus, who plotted to kill
Imogen, suffers deep remorse and redeems himself.
queen owns up to her treachery on her deathbed. Cornelius says she repented
her misdeeds during the long absence of her son, Cloten. Iachimo likewise
confesses his evil deeds and gains a pardon. At the same time, Belarius
reveals that it was he who kidnapped Cymbeline's son. Cymbeline and Lucius
is everywhere in life. Iachimo tricks Posthumus into believing Imogen
has been unfaithful. Posthumus deceives Imogen in his letter to her, telling
her he loves her at a time when is plotting to kill her. Imogen deceives
everyone with her disguise as a page boy. Cloten, though dead, deceives
Imogen into believing that he is Posthumus because he is wearing Posthumus's
clothes. Belarius deceives Guiderius and Aviragus into believing that he
is their father. The queen pretends to love Cymbeline even as she plots
to poison him. Only Imogen, the virtuous heroine, benefits by deceiving
has a complicated plot requiring time leaps and rapid shifts in scenes
from one locale to another. As the details of the plot unfold, the central
love story broadens into many subplots or episodes involving the evil schemes
of Iachimo, the queen, and her son; the war between Rome and Britain; and
the adventures of the king's lost sons.
weave all the plot elements into a whole and to resolve all the conflicts,
Shakespeare leaves little time for character development and sometimes
forces contrived resolutions. For example, Iachimo and the queen—both presented
as irredeemably evil at the beginning of the play—surprisingly confess
their crimes to other characters before the end. Imogen becomes sick—of
what ailment, who knows—providing a way for Shakespeare to have her drink
the elixir concocted by Cornelius and fall into a stupor on the headless
body of Cloten, who just happens to be wearing the clothes of Posthumus.
(Because of the clothes, Imogen believes Posthumus is dead.)
imagery in Cymbeline is typically Shakespearean—absolutely brilliant
at times, with many memorable lines. One example of the outstanding imagery
is the aubade (joyful song about dawn
and its beauty) performed by musicians:
hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,
example is Pisanio's condemnation of slander (Iachimo's crime) in Act III,
Scene IV, beginning at Line 35:
steeds to water at those springs
chaliced flowers that lies;
winking Mary-buds begin
ope their golden eyes:
every thing that pretty is,
lady sweet, arise:
An allusion to the Greek god Apollo, who personified the sun. Each day,
he drove his golden chariot across the sky, from east to west..
In Act III, Shakespeare,
through Pisanio, gives the English-speaking world a familiar phrase to
describe a restless night: “I have not slept one wink" (3.4.98).
edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue
all the worms of Nile, whose breath
on the posting
winds and doth belie
corners of the world: kings, queens and states,
matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave
viperous slander enters.
Cymbeline is known to history as Cunobelinus, who ruled over southeastern
Britain from AD 10 to 41 from his capital in Colchester, then known as
Camulodunum, on the Colne River. [Curiously, for whatever it is worth,
the pronunciation of the first seven letters of Camulodunum—Camulod—sounds
not unlike the legendary name for King Arthur's residence, Camelot.]
The Roman historian Suetonius referred to Cunobelinus as the king of all
the Britons. During his reign, Cunobelinus kept Roman advancement at bay,
forging treaties with Emperors Augustus Caesar and Tiberius. An invasion
attempt by forces of the demented Emperor Caligula came to naught in AD
40. However, Romans under Emperor Claudius I captured Camulodunum in AD
43 and ruled it as the first Roman colony in Britain.
and again, Shakespeare disguises women as men to further a plot. For example,
In All's Well That Ends Well, Helena wears the attire of a pilgrim
to get close to Bertram. In Cymbeline, Imogen becomes a page boy
to win back Posthumus. Julia also becomes a page boy in The Two Gentlemen
of Verona, as does Viola in Twelfth Night. In The Merchant
of Venice, Portia disguises herself as a male judge to save the friend
of her lover in a court of law. Rosalind, in As You Like It, dons
the garb of a man to become a shepherd as she seeks out her love, Orlando.
In each of these plays, the women disguised as men eventually reveal their
true female identities All of this could have been quite confusing to playgoers
in Shakespeare's day, for only men played women's roles. Thus, in the above-mentioned
plays, men played women disguised as men who at some point doffed their
male identities to reveal themselves as females
Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the
play do you most admire? Which character do you least admire?
on DVD (or VHS)
2. Against the wishes of
her father, Imogen marries Posthumus. In today’s society is it still commonplace
for parents to.attempt to choose spouses for
3. What are Cymbeline’s
strengths and weaknesses as a king?
4. Explain the role birthmarks
play in creating and resolving problems.
5. After Iachimo dupes Posthumus
into believing that Imogen has been unfaithful, Posthumus orders his servant,
Pisanio, to kill her. In your opinion, do the subsequent actions of Posthumus
redeem him for doubting Imogen and ordering her death?
6. Write an informative
essay discussing the extent to which imperial Rome helped shape the early
history of Britain.
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