A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010..©
This page has been revised, enlarged, and moved to
.......Cymbeline is a stage play in the form of a comedy with elements of romance.
Written: 1609 or 1610.
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.
.......However, 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.
.......The 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.
.......The 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.
.......Posthumus 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;.......Posthumus 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.
.......In 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.
.......Iachimo 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.
.......All 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:.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......After 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.
.......Cymbeline 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......Near 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.
.......Elsewhere, 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 daughter.
.......Pisanio 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.
.......When 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.
.......At 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.
.......When 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.
.......After 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......During 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.
.......In 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. Witnesses to her evil deeds are there to swear that Cornelius’s story is true.
.......Lucius, 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.
.......Pisanio 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.
.......Posthumus 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.
.......The 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, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,Another example is Pisanio's condemnation of slander (Iachimo's crime) in Act III, Scene IV, beginning at Line 35:
Slander,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).
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. Which character in the
play do you most admire? Which character do you least admire?