King Lear

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).

Act 1, Scene 1. (739-46, Lear’s plan, daughters’ contest, Kent’s exile) 

Kent and Gloucester agree that it seemed most likely the King would favor Albany over Cornwall. But now they aren’t so certain, so the play opens with a note of uncertainty that becomes ominous later when we realize how much better a person (739, 1.1.1-2, 740, 1.1.18-23) Albany is compared to Cornwall. This is a new, strange state of affairs, in which merit must demonstrate itself by means of rhetorical skill. Gloucester says his legal son is no dearer to him than the illegitimate Edmund. Lear enters, saying that he has decided to divide his kingdom into thirds, and “shake all cares and business” for the remainder of his life. His declared intention is to “prevent future strife” and to confer royal authority on “younger strengths” (740, 1.1.34-43). He means to assist the process of generational renewal, passing on matters of state to younger and more energetic kin while “preventing future strife” and leaving himself the private space necessary to practice the art of dying well, ars moriendi. Each daughter will receive a third; the only question is how opulent that portion will be.

The question of authority is a main item in King Lear. Kent may be responding in part to the King’s unwise disparagement of Cordelia on the spot, but his line “Reverse thy doom / . . . check / This hideous rashness” (742, 1.1.149-51) may owe something to his shock at the notion of an absolute king’s decision to divest himself of his unitary power, keeping only the name and perks of authority. I don’t know that there’s a coherent political theory during Shakespeare’s time; I would only suggest that Lear is confused because he goes off on a private mission while at the same time trying to retain symbols that he confuses with power itself. This is not to say that Shakespeare is criticizing monarchy per se, but I believe he’s always aware that no human system is perfect (not even one that claims divine sanction). The questions are, what are the consequences when things go wrong with social and political systems, and what happens when they go right?

It’s true that the King’s “natural body” is wearing down, and one can feel only empathy for him on that account, but what about the King’s political body, the one that isn’t capable of death? Can he actually abandon his responsibilities the way he does, without causing a disaster? What has he given up? He has given up the “power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty” (742, 1.1.130-32). Another way of stating this is that he has ceded the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (742, 1.1.137) aside from what he retains, which he specifies as “The name, and all the additions to a king” (742, 1.1.136), which additions are to be embodied in the person of the stipulated “hundred knights” (742, 1.1.133). Lear makes a distinction between the name and pomp of kingship and the executive, effectual power of a king. So we might ask, how does he expect to give away all his power and yet hold on to the “addition” of a king? Do the symbols, privileges and name mean anything, apart from the power wielded by those who claim them?

With respect to Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, what does Lear want? He wants a public declaration of their affection for him as a loving father. The public and private in Renaissance kingship were of course inextricable; royal absolutism of King James’ sort always made hay of the idea that the King was “the father of his people,” and James’ model was the scriptural patriarchs. He believed that his subjects owed him the reverence due to such a father. In practice, as I’m sure Shakespeare understood, the intertwining of public and private in powerful families makes for a great deal of coldness, sterility, and alienation, even in settings beyond the monarchy: read biographies of some of our presidents and the modern royal family of Great Britain, and you’ll hear a tale that is at times painful to read: mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters for the most part looking on at the spectacle of one another’s lives, never knowing what to consider acting and what to accept as real, and finding it difficult to sort out personal loyalties from official duties and the demands of power.

Well, Lear has no trouble demanding in the form of public spectacle what would for most families be a purely private display of affection. Perhaps this isn’t entirely unreasonable on his part. Neither are Goneril and Regan necessarily to be blamed for giving the old man what he wants; they know his nature, and this is the sort of thing they have come to expect from him. The point is that he’s the king, and he finds this public display of affection necessary. Why can’t Cordelia do something even better than did Regan and Goneril, bearing with her father and making a generous allowance for his weaknesses? Isn’t it sometimes acceptable to be a little insincere when regard for another person’s feelings requires it? But she won’t work at it, and even if there’s an austere beauty in the figure of Cordelia speaking truth to power, it’s fair to suggest that she is in her way as brittle and abrupt or absolute in her temperament as her frail old father: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (741, 1.1.90-91). She can’t verbally express the genuine affection she feels for Lear. Cordelia isn’t capable of flattery; she lacks Prince Hal’s ability to say to a joker like Falstaff, “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4 I Henry IV), at least for a while. Learning to be a good ruler involves a some play-acting and feigning to be what one is not. Cordelia sees both monarchy and marriage as consisting of specifiable bonds or reciprocal obligations. So when Lear demands that she declare her “love,” she understands the term in something like the sense of “obligation, duty, attention.” Obviously, a woman who marries must balance her duties as a wife with her duties as a loyal daughter; she cannot love her father altogether and spend all her time with him.

But it may be that Lear’s demand isn’t as all-encompassing as she supposes, and it’s fair to ask how someone like Cordelia could rule a kingdom if she is incapable of getting beyond the king’s simple request for affectionate flattery. As Regan later says, “‘Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (746, 1.1.291-92), and Goneril chimes in with “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” (746, 1.1.293); both daughters see that Lear is being somewhat absurd, but they aren’t surprised and are willing to gratify him, especially given the great reward he is offering for so little. But so as not to make them seem generous, which we know they aren’t, Goneril admits to knowing the King’s casting off of Cordelia is unfair; it shows, in her words, “poor judgment” (746, 1.1.289). Rashness is a charge commonly made against Lear, one made by Kent and two of his daughters. And those two daughters correctly recognize, I think, that the King’s unkindness towards Cordelia represents a threat to them as well: “if our father carry authority with such dis- / position as he bears, this last surrender of his will but / offend us” (746, 1.1.301-03). The King’s surrender, they understand, is not really a surrender but a shifting of responsibility, and he will continue to play the tyrant, taking his stand upon the privilege of majesty and great age.

As for the question of whether power can be divested and divided, well, I suppose a monarch can do these things, and there are historical precedents for it from ancient Rome onwards, but it seldom seems to work. Almost nothing goes the way Lear thinks it’s going to go, once he gives away what was formerly his power to wield alone: in the first place, he had thought Albany and Cornwall would be in charge of their respective thirds, but as it turns out, neither man can stand up to those two strong-willed daughters. It is Regan and Goneril who immediately take charge of state affairs. Moreover, Lear’s conduct after giving away power is anything but responsible: he charges about with his hundred knights behaving more or less like a “lord of misrule.” His presence with either daughter, it seems, would inevitably create a public perception that they are not in charge. Lear wants to retain far more authority than he has any business keeping, now that he has stepped aside to let those “younger strengths” do the hard work of governing and maintaining order.

Lear is partly a tragedy about the terrors of growing old, of feeling slighted, neglected, weak, and useless as you make way for the young. Knowing that you must do so doesn’t necessarily make doing it any easier. In this way, it’s true that in King Lear as in other of Shakespeare’s plays that involve monarchy, “a king is but a man.” This somewhat broader frame probably accounts for the fairy-tale quality of the play. We see the disintegration of a “foolish, fond old man” (802, 4.7.61) who evidently doesn’t understand the nature of genuine affection or the nature of the power he has been wielding for many of his eighty or so years. Cordelia, too, may appear as something like a Cinderella figure: surrounded by a pair of evil sisters, she cannot make her inner virtue known to the powerful, shallow authorities who determine her fate. Well, at least the King of France is able to discern the purity of Cordelia’s virtue, discounting her lack of Machiavellian wiles (745, 1.1.251-54).

Banished Kent will pursue his “old course in a country new” (743, 1.1.188). As it turns out, the “country new” is Britain. Lear’s refusal of responsibility has created a new dispensation of power, radically transforming the nation into a cauldron of anarchy and selfish desire for satisfaction and advancement.

Act 1, Scene 2. (746-50, Edmund: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess”; dupes father, brother) 

This scene begins with Edmund’s soliloquy (746-47, 1.2.1-22), the upshot of which is that Edmund believes he has all the right qualities to rule his own house, and lacks only “legitimacy”; by contrast, the King has given all his power away and expects to hang on to his legitimacy. He stands upon rank as if it in itself constituted inner virtue or fitness to rule, whereas Edmund sees this legitimacy as a function of mere custom, of “the curiosity of nations” (746-47, 1.2.4). Yet as this same soliloquy reveals, Edmund is nearly obsessed with what others think of him; he repeats the word “legitimate” several times, and can’t seem to let it go. We will see that later on, his undoing will stem from this concern for that which he seems most to despise. A most unhealthy selfishness—”I grow; I prosper” (747, 1.2.21)—also drives him on first to victory and then to destruction. Edmund demands that the gods ally themselves not with custom but rather with natural qualities and ripeness for rule. Old Gloucester his been taken aback by the King’s strange behavior, which to him seems unnatural—this view makes him susceptible to the scheming of his illegitimate son. In a world turned upside down, what could make more sense than that a man’s legitimate son and heir should betray him without compunction, all appearances of goodness and history of virtue between the two notwithstanding? Edmund declares his father’s belief in astrology “the excellent foppery of the world” (748, 1.2.109) and insists, “All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit” (750, 1.2.168). He will trust in his dark vision of nature as a place that rewards the most savage and cunning predator. Tennyson (who before composing In Memoriam had become acquainted with the work of Sir Charles Lyell and other pre-Darwinian natural scientists) described this kind of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Edmund is a human predator, and thanks to Lear, he now has an opportunity to use his predatory skill to remake a formerly stable, human order into one that suits him best. Lear hasn’t made him what he is, but he has given him an opening to thrive. If legitimate authority doesn’t know itself, this is what happens. Perhaps, in terms of political theory, Lear early in the play assumes too easily that there is an automatic connection or concordance between the two “bodies” of a king—the perishing and erring mortal one and the immortal and immaterial political or corporate one: he follows his desires, makes unwise decisions, and then is surprised to find that his decisions as an erring human being have deranged his kingdom. Others in this play see more clearly the Machiavellian point that the exercise of power generates an authority all its own.

Act 1, Scene 3. (750-750, Goneril grows impatient, sets Oswald to call Lear’s bluff) 

Goneril is alarmed at the King’s disorderly conduct. At line six, she complains that “his knights grow riotous” (750, 1.3.6), and devises a stratagem whereby Oswald will make the King feel the weakness of his position by slighting him. Goneril gets to the heart of Lear’s error when she calls him an “Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away! (750, 1.3.16-18)

Act 1, Scene 4. (750-57, Kent; Fool judges Lear; Lear’s anger at Goneril, self-questioning) 

Kent begins to serve the King, professing to the old man that he really is what he seems to be—a trusty middle-aged servant who knows authority when he sees it, which quality he says he “would fain call master” (751, 1.4.27). Evidently he sees this quality in the visage of Lear, even if Lear has lost command of himself. The Fool, we are soon told, has “much pined away” (752, 1.4.63-54) since Cordelia went to France. He is Cordelia’s ally. Kent earns his keep by giving Oswald a rough education in rank, or “differences” (752, 1.4.76). Lear’s own words begin to speak against him: he had said to Cordelia, “nothing will come of nothing,” and now the Fool responds to a similar utterance (“nothing can be made of nothing”), “so much the rent / of his land comes to” (753, 1.4.115-16). Lear has given away not only the executive function of his office, but even the title, according to the Fool, and now retains only the title of “fool” that he was born with. The Fool says the King split his crown in two and gave it to his daughters (754, 1.4.163-64); the implication of this remark is that power is indivisible and cannot be handled in this way. “[T]hou gavest them the rod and put’st / down thine own breeches” (754, 1.4.150-51), says the Fool, drawing a clear picture of Lear’s childishness. He applies the word “nothing” to the King (754, 1.4.169), and this application may remind us of Hamlet’s similar mockery—”the king is a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing” (394, 4.1.25-27). Like Lear, too, Hamlet is confronted with the inevitable downward slide of even the greatest to what is most common: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away,” as the Prince says (Norton Tragedies 412, 5.1.196-97).

Lear soon begins to ask key questions about identity. ”Are you our daughter?” he asks Goneril (755, 1.4.193), and she tells him to “put away / These dispositions which of late transport you / From what you rightly are” (755, 1.4.196-98). Finally, the exasperated Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (755, 1.4.205) and is answered by the Fool with “Lear’s shadow” (755, 1.4.205). When Goneril tells him he ought to be surrounded by men who sort well with his age-weakened condition, Lear swears her off altogether, and suggests that Cordelia’s brittle response to his demand for love has deprived him of his proper judgment (756, 1.4.243-446). His judgment of Goneril that she should, as he does now, “feel / How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (756, 1.4.265-66) identifies what he believes to be the source of his troubles. But the question of proportion now comes into play because what Goneril has done far outstrips anything Cordelia may have done to offend the King.

The first mention of “plucking out eyes” occurs when Lear addresses Goneril as follows: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out, / And cast you, with the waters that you lose, / To temper clay. Yea, is it come to this?” (756, 1.4.278-81) Lear now transfers his stock to Regan, and threatens to reassume the majesty he has cast off. At 341, Goneril refers to her husband Albany’s “milky gentleness” (757, 1.4.320) as ill-suited to the times; his sententiae, such as “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (757, 1.4.325), don’t bode well for his ability to manage power, as far as she is concerned. They seem more like passive judgments than active principles by which a kingdom could be governed.

Act 1, Scene 5. (758-59, Lear begins to see his error, rages against Goneril, fears madness) 

Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with letters. He begins to see that he has done Cordelia wrong (758, 1.4.20), and his anger shifts to Goneril and her “Monster ingratitude” (758, 1.5.33). The Fool points out something Goneril had said earlier: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” (758, 1.5.37). Lear is out of joint with the seven ages of man—he has never really attained to years of wise discretion and so is unprepared to practice the art of dying as he proclaimed at the play’s beginning, and now he fears madness (758, 1.4.38). His kingdom is paying the price.

Act 2, Scene 1. (759-61, Edgar driven out, Edmund in with Gloucester, Cornwall) 

Edmund completes his villainy against Edgar, driving him away (759, 2.1.20-32), and by the end of the scene, Gloucester has made Edmund his heir (760, 85-86). Regan insinuates that Edgar was associated with the “riotous knights” in Lear’s service, a claim that Edmund seconds. Cornwall takes a liking to Edmund for his “virtuous obedience” (761, 2.1.111-17). The affinities of the wicked in this play are beginning to make themselves known, as if the bad characters come together by nature.

Act 2, Scene 2. (762-65, Kent abuses Oswald, gets stocked; Cordelia knows king’s distress) 

This is a counterpoint-style scene in which Kent recognizes Oswald for the knave he is, unlike Gloucester with his evil son Edmund. Kent’s putdown “Nature disclaims in thee: / a tailor made thee” (762, 2.2.48) is a classic—Oswald is, after all, a man of artifice who gilds the ugly, base version of nature upheld by Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall. But Kent as “Caius” gets himself into a bad fix in this scene when he finds it impossible to explain his hatred for Oswald to Cornwall (763, 2.2.64ff), who takes him for an arrogant and affected inferior, a man who has learned to get praise for his “saucy roughness” (765, 2.2.89). Cornwall for once takes the lead, ordering that the stocks be brought (764, 2.2.117). Gloucester can’t help (765). While in the stocks, Kent mentions that he has a letter from Cordelia—she is aware of the King’s distress (765, 2.2.156-58).

Act 2, Scene 3. (766-766, Exiled Edgar takes on “Poor Tom” disguise) 

Here Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, who will “with presented nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky” (766, 2.3.11-12). For this role, he says, “The country gives me proof and precedent” (766, 2.3.13). His model of the natural man comes from neglected humanity in the English countryside; it is hardly a mere invention on his part. Poor Tom is not a mere negation when he says, “Edgar I nothing am” (766, 2.3.21), which means “I am no longer Edgar.” Poor Tom will be the “something” that rescues Edgar from the “nothing” forced upon him, and that serves as “precedent” to Lear in the storm.

Act 2, Scene 4. (766-73, Ineffectual Lear stripped of knights, shut out) 

Lear is outraged when he sees Kent in the stocks, and becomes increasingly obsessed with this slight as the scene continues. He is sensitive to the shift in tone of his keepers—Gloucester’s ill-chosen remark that Cornwall has been “inform’d” of his demands drives him to an incredulous, “Dost thou understand me, man?” (768, 2.4.93) But his summons to Regan and Cornwall sounds pathetic by this point: “Bid them come forth and hear me, / Or at their chamber-door I’ll beat the drum / Till it cry sleep to death” (769, 2.4.111-13). This intemperance earns him only the Fool’s mocking tale about the cockney woman’s attempt to quiet live eels as she made them into pie (769, 2.4.116-19). Lear is at the mercy of his passions, which have no outlet in action. Suffering is inevitable, suggests the Fool’s wisdom.

Turning to Regan for comfort, Lear gets only the following counsel: O sir, you are old, / Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine. You should be rul’d and led / By some discretion that discerns your state / Better than you yourself. Therefore I pray you / That to our sister you do make return” (769, 2.4.139-44). It would be difficult to strip an elderly man of his dignity any more cruelly than this, and already we may begin to sense the change in attitude that marks a leap beyond ordinary meanness to the “hard hearts” beyond anything we had thought possible in nature—the transition Lear asks about later (see 783, 3.6.70-72). For now, Lear still believes there is a world of difference between Regan and Goneril: “Thou better know’st / The offices of nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude: / Thy half o’ th’ kingdom hast thou not forgot, / Wherein I thee endow’d” (770, 2.4.171-75). The phrase “offices of nature” indicates that to Lear, nature is something civil and beneficent—it is to be identified with the properly functioning family unit.

But Regan’s request is along the same lines as her previous remark: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (771, 2.4.196). Then comes the reverse bidding war between Regan and Goneril over the number of knights Lear is to be allowed, ending with Regan’s question, “What need one?” (772, 2.4.258) Lear offers them a remarkable comeback: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (772, 2.4.259-62). Humanity must not, he insists, be reduced to natural necessity; we are creatures of excess, artifice, and, symbol. Nature as a concept enfolds all of these qualities. It is not to be sundered from decorum, either. Then Lear offers a contradictory prayer to the gods, asking for both patience and anger. He is soon to rage in the storm (mentioned in the stage directions as “storm and tempest” after 772, 2.4.281), but for the moment he denounces his two present daughters as “unnatural hags” and declares almost comically, “I will do such things— / What they are yet I know not; but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!” (772, 2.4.273-78) Regan’s cruel sententia to worried Gloucester is her justification for exiling Lear into the storm: “O sir, to wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (773, 2.4.297-99).

It’s true enough that the unwise learn, if at all, only by sad experience—perhaps that is a fundamental point in Christian-based tragedy—but mere decency should have been enough to instruct Regan that this is not the time for such sententiousness. Her cruel excess (along with that of Edmund, Goneril, and Cornwall) is the demonic inverse of the generous excess Lear had invoked in exclaiming, “O, reason not the need!” The play affords scant opportunity for finding any middle ground between these two extremes—between that which is almost infinitely above nature and that which is a great deal more savage than nature. The patience and acceptance that Edgar will counsel Gloucester and that loyal Kent has been practicing goes some way towards building a bridge, but the outcome of their efforts is not heartening.

In Act 2, families are sundered, and like affines itself with like, both indoors and out of doors. Lear has brought up the issue of the heavens—which side will the gods take in this great confrontation between house and house, between one group of sinners (himself included) and another, far worse, group? (770, 2.4.184-87)

Diagram that may be useful for exploring the source of the tragedy that occurs in King Lear: 

Lear’s “O, reason not the need!” outburst in Act 2, Scene 4 offers us an excellent opportunity to understand what goes wrong and why; the king may be telling us something that’s more important than he fully recognizes.  Shakespeare seldom, if ever, sanctions reducing humanity to “need” (i.e. mere necessity) or some bedrock version of “human nature.” Humans are the artificial animals: there’s always excess to deal with, and that can be either a good thing or a bad thing.  The decisions we make are mostly responsible for which path of excess we take.  Here are the two tracks human nature can follow, as I draw them from general reading of Shakespeare:

Basic Tendency (familial ties, sympathy, acceptance) + generous excess >>  sustainable society

excess = accommodation of others’ frailties & eccentricities & modes of insight, linguistic sophistication & play, fancifulness, adornment within reason, regard for decorum and civility, etc. 

Basic Tendency (self-regard, dissatisfaction) + cruel excess >>  unsustainable anarchy 

excess = predation: taking advantage of the gentle or weak, intolerance, insistence on maintaining authority, linguistic impoverishment and literalism of imagination, disregard for decorum and civility of any kind, etc.

In King Lear, the initial mistake the king makes is to abandon the work of accommodation or mediation that makes it possible to keep the balance towards generous excess.  Lear and Cordelia together generate the play’s tragic descent: Cordelia is fundamentally kind, but she is too brittle and earnest to flatter her father, and he in turn is too vain and shallow to understand why she cannot give him the public performance he requires; there’s nothing left in between, and we head straight down to anarchy, a cauldron of primal lust for sex, attention, and power in which only characters like Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall thrive while others are crushed.  We could say that Cordelia’s basic failure to accommodate her father’s frailty and desire, her lack of linguistic playfulness, drives Lear to a response that borders on the cruel excess we find in the play’s much worse characters: disappointed to the point of mortification, he lashes out against Cordelia and disinherits her on the spot.  His conduct is only excusable to the extent that it stems not from deep depravity or hatred but rather from ignorance of himself and those closest to him: Cordelia’s incapacity mirrors his own, but he can’t make the connection and, in his enfeebled, confused state, Lear’s most beloved daughter’s behavior frightens and enrages him.

Act 3, Scene 1. (773-74, Who’s tending Lear? Albany/Cornwall fall out) 

Kent’s question when Lear is abandoned to the “fretful elements” (773, 3.1.4) isn’t about grand political theory or power, it is simply about who is attending the frail old man: he should not, thinks Kent, be left alone and at the mercy of the weather. The Gentleman informs him that only the Fool is with Lear, “labour[ing] to outjest / His heart-struck injuries” (773, 3.1.116-17). That is a generous way of describing the Fool’s job in this play—we know him to be a teller of discomfiting truths, sometimes in a bitter way. But then, it isn’t comfort that brings characters insight in this play—that would not suit its tragic mode. Albany and Cornwall have fallen out by this time (773-74, 3.1.19-25), and both are following events in France. Kent excuses the King’s fall into madness unnatural, attributing it to the “bemadding sorrow” (774, 3.1.38) caused by Lear’s two evil daughters.

Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, 6. (774-84, Lear in Storm, Edgar “Thing Itself”; Mock Trial; Fool goes) 

In 3.2 and 3.4, the storm is clearly a metaphor for Lear’s internal discord, for the howling madness in the king himself. As the Fool has told him, he has turned his daughters into domineering mothers, and in a sense he has done the opposite of what he declared he wanted to do—recall that he said he was dividing the kingdom in part so he could go off and practice the art of dying well. His daughters were to exercise power while Lear would be free to “crawl towards death.” But instead the old man clings to life, trying desperately to maintain control and clinging to his dearest daughter Cordelia. Even after he has cast them all off, he remains obsessed with them. What we have in King Lear is in part the “tragedy” of growing old and being unable to deal with the changes and the loss that must come since, as Claudius in Hamlet says, reason’s constant law is “death of fathers” (343, 1.2.104) James Calderwood of UC Irvine, applying a philosophical thesis of Ernest Becker, wrote a book called Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. Lear is a death-denier in spite of his claims of willingness to accept his demise, and his daughters represent perpetuity to him. This denial may be in part what’s behind Lear’s raging in the storm, and even at the storm in a confused way, as he does in the utterance that begins, “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness, / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children …” (775, 3.2.15-23). 

As his rage rolls onward and takes aim at the “great gods, / That keep this dreadful potherer o’er our heads” (775, 3.2.47-48), his insight is summed up in the sentence, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (776, 3.2.57-58). This broad realization seems to go beyond a specific grievance involving his treatment by Regan and Goneril; it sounds more like an indictment of the universe than anything else. With these words, Lear claims that he feels his “wits begin to turn” (776, 3.2.65), and shows compassion enough for Poor Tom to accept the offer of shelter, though he won’t go in for some time.

But as Lear’s angry conversation with the elements (as quoted above) suggests, the storm is also a natural phenomenon not entirely reducible to the King’s inner disharmony. In this capacity, it is beyond his control, just as the decay of his body is. He calls the storm the “physic” of pomp (778, 3.4.34), the only event and setting that allows him, as a half-naked octogenarian, to make contact with what is common to all human beings. He has learned something in this storm that exceeds his inward tempest: as is said in other Shakespeare plays, “the king is but a man” (Henry 5, 4.1) no matter what the courtiers or the lore of kings or the theory of kingship may say. But Lear isn’t alone for long in the tempest—the Fool is with him for a time (776, 3.2.78-93), as is Kent, and it’s the place where he meets Poor Tom. Such weather isn’t to be endured long. Nature is outdoing itself for ferocity.

In 3.4, Poor Tom plays a significant role with respect to Lear, who says to him, “Thou are the thing itself: unac- / commodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked / animal as thou art” (779, 3.4.98-100), the very lowest level to which a man may sink. Poor Tom attests to the rightness of Lear’s baring himself to the effects of the storm, but it isn’t good for a human being to be “out in the storm” permanently—shelter must be sought, we must return to a more “accommodated” model of humanity where we can abide. Poor Tom has already learned this himself (780, 3.4.135), and Lear, when he calls Edgar “the thing itself,” is in fact looking at a man’s artistic construction, a willed madness that he has probably begun to cast off even by that point, as indeed we see him declare forcefully at the end of 3.6: “Tom, away!” (784, 3.6.103) Lear doesn’t seem to understand Tom’s situation fully, but he learns from this supposed madman nonetheless.

In 3.6 (782-84) comes the great “trial scene,” with Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom serving as judge and jury against some hapless joint stools enlisted to substitute for Regan and Goneril. The causes Lear derives for his misery, his lines are confused but also genuinely moving. He had been told he was no less than a god, and in the storm he has found that he’s just a miserable old man. He abandoned his only true identity when he cast off Cordelia. He keeps coming back to Regan and Goneril, those willful daughters who, he thinks, have done nothing but indulge their shameful lusts and follow their primal hunger for power. What sort of justice now prevails but a system of spiraling oppression and hypocrisy, one that he has loosed upon himself and others? Virtue at present is nothing more than a device to facilitate the evil now afoot. Lear’s horror at a degree of cruelty beyond what he had thought possible shows in the question that wells up from the bottom of his being towards the end of the mock trial: “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about / her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard / hearts?” (783, 3.6.70-72) When we have renounced our limits, what, if anything, can reestablish them again, aside from exhaustion unto death?

Act 3, Scenes 3, 5. (777, 781, Edmund betrays Gloucester, becomes earl) 

Edmund had said earlier, “Now Gods, stand up for bastards” (747, 1.2.22) He’s obsessed, understandably enough, with the distinction between baseness and legitimacy, between nature and convention. Now he seizes the opportunity Gloucester has given him for further betrayal—Edmund will tell Cornwall that Gloucester is going to help the king (777, 3.3.18-19; 781, 3.5.8-9). Lear unleashed Edmund upon the kingdom by his unwise actions and irrationality—indeed, Edmund is inevitable since, thanks to Lear, there seems to be nothing between anarchy and the generosity and tact that maintain human dignity and shore up the frailty of our nature. Shakespeare is apparently aware that human nature is not a given—it is something we must work at and maintain, and if we sink beneath it, we are worse than any violent predator in the animal kingdom since such predators don’t add superfluous cruelty to their bloody actions. Edmund is in full evildoer mode at present, but later he will find that he can’t permanently jettison the trappings of convention: security requires order, it requires something like a social contract.

Act 3, Scene 7. (784-87, Gloucester blinded and cast out, Cornwall wounded) 

In this scene, Gloucester is interrogated and then blinded. Gloucester’s bold justification of his secret trip to Dover in aid of the king is, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes” (785, 3.7.57-58). To Gloucester, the phrase represents the worst thing he can imagine, and is purely metaphorical. Gloucester can hardly imagine their disrespect: “You are my guests. Do me no foul play, friends” (785, 3.7.31). Not so for Regan, who has been interrogating him, or for Goneril, who, in the presence of Regan, had already uttered her preference even before the current exchange: “Pluck out his eyes” (784, 3.7.5). For them, the literal punishment seems entirely appropriate. Sophocles didn’t want his audience to see Oedipus blind himself with those pins from the dress of his wife Jocasta—it was reported to the audience, but not shown. Shakespeare, however, serves up the sickening spectacle along with the unforgettable lines, “Out, vile jelly! / Where is thy lustre now?” (786, 3.7.85-86) This is the lowest point in the play, the nadir of cruelty into which Lear’s initial mistake made it possible for others to descend.

Act 4, Scene 1. (787-88, Suicidal Gloucester asks Poor Tom the way to Dover cliffs) 

Blinded Gloucester has abandoned any notion of a just moral order rooted in nature; he has understandably lost patience, and declares, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” (787, 4.1.37-38). Edgar, who believes that the gods are just, must bring his father round to patience again, to acceptance of the predicament that his own foolishness has at least in part created (788, 4.1.57-63). But at this point, Gloucester seeks only death (788, 4.1.73-78).

Act 4, Scene 2. (788-91, Albany asserts himself, vows to avenge Gloucester) 

At last Albany asserts his own virtuous will against Goneril and her evil compatriots, telling her that she isn’t worth “the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face” (789, 4.2.31-32). But Goneril doesn’t care what he thinks—she is too busy thinking passionate thoughts about her lover Edmund, the newly created Gloucester: : “O, the difference of man and man!” (789, 4.2.26). Albany is not to be gainsaid, however, and calls Goneril what she is: a “tiger” and a “fiend” (789, 4.2.41); he realizes that the anarchic violence she and her sister are participating must either be stopped or destroy the kingdom altogether: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (790, 4.2.50-51).

Act 4, Scenes 3-4. (791-93, Kent muses, gathers info; Cordelia’s ready for battle) 

Kent hears news from a Gentleman about Cordelia’s actions and frame of mind, and Kent asserts the traditional view that “The stars above us, govern our conditions” (792, 4.3.32). Else how could such differences be between three sisters of the same king? Cordelia, meantime, is ready to take on the British whom she knows to be marching against her (793, 4.4.23-30). Kent is moving towards casting off his “Caius” disguise (792, 4.3.52-53).

Act 4, Scene 5. (793-94, Regan enlists Oswald in pursuit of Edmund’s affection) 

Regan shows her jealousy over Goneril’s desire for Edmund, and tries to enlist the fop Oswald on her side: “My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talk’d, / And more convenient is he for my hand / Than for your lady’s” (794, 4.5.31-33). Oswald is also told that he should, if possible, put the old “traitor” Gloucester out of his misery, lest he incite the people to compassion against her and her allies (794, 4.5.38-39).

Act 4, Scene 6. (794-800, Gloucester’s Fall; Lear’s insight: justice, authority, kill 6x! Gloucester affirms patience; Edgar kills Oswald) 

Gloucester had abandoned his virtuous son Edgar at the bidding of a knave. He was too willing to suppose that the world had been turned upside down, and his fear of betrayal made him most susceptible to it. Now Gloucester’s attitude verges on unacceptable despair as he implores Edgar to lead him to a Dover cliff where he may end his life. Edgar, dressed as a rustic but still Tom, does for him what Cordelia would not do for her father: he graces Gloucester’s way forwards with a lie, telling him, “You are now within a foot / Of th’ extreme verge” (794, 4.6.25-26). Some may take Edgar’s long maintenance of his rustic disguise as somewhat excessive, but in this play, extreme actions are sometimes required as homeopathic remedy for states of extreme error. That’s the kind of remedy the king’s rash behavior has helped to make necessary, although we shouldn’t blame him too harshly for others’ downward spiral into utter depravity. Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, and their ilk are responsible for their own misdeeds. There is some comedy in this scene since, of course, Gloucester’s fall is only onto the bare planks of the stage (795, 4.6.34-41). The old man’s fake descent turns out to be a fortunate fall since it persuades him to have patience even in his almost unbearable condition (796, 4.6.75-77).

In this newfound patience, Gloucester is confronted with a flower-decked Lear, who apparently hasn’t recovered his wits as well as he had thought. Edgar calls him “a side-piercing sight” (796, 4.6.85), adding a Christ-like aura to our vision of Lear as a suffering, dying, universal man. Lear asks if Gloucester is “Goneril with a white beard” (796, 4.6.95), and reproves his former ministers for their flattery: “they told me I was every thing. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (796, 4.6.102-03). Everywhere he looks, Lear sees demonic sexuality as the base of things: “Let copulation thrive” (796, 4.6.112), he bellows, and declares of women, “Down from the waist they are Centaurs” (797, 4.6.121). This rant culminates in a dark vision of systemic injustice and hypocrisy, beginning “[A] dog’s obeyed in office…” (797, 4.6.153, see 153-59). 

This is as strong a view as we find in William Blake’s “London”: “the chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every blackening church appals, / And the hapless soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down palace-walls.” He has finally accepted the Fool’s old offer of the title “fool,” and his eloquence peters out in an exhausted, enraged repetition of the word “kill”: “And when I have stol’n upon these son-in-laws, / Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (798, 4.6.180-81)

Gloucester has gained patience (799, 4.6.211-13). The sixth scene ends with Edgar putting an end to the rascal Oswald, who has stumbled upon Gloucester alone and tried to kill him for the prize Regan has offered (799, 4.6.241-45). In Oswald’s purse he discovers Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund, imploring him to kill her virtuous husband Albany (800, 4.6.257-58).

Act 4, Scene 7. (800-02, Lear’s recognition, subdued i.d.-recovery, Cordelia’s generosity) 

Lear recovers his wits, and says to Cordelia, “Pray do not mock me. / I am a very foolish fond old man. . . . Methinks I should know you” (802, 4.7.61, 65). He fully understands the wrong he has done her—something he had begun to sense earlier, even as far back as (758, 1.5.20). Lear expects only hatred, but Cordelia mildly tells him there is “no cause” (802, 4.7.77) why she should hate him. Lear had to seek into the cause of his other daughters’ “hard hearts,” but for Cordelia’s loyalty, she is suggesting, he need not trouble himself to find the reason why. As Portia says in The Merchant of Venice Act 4, “The quality of mercy is not strained”— it is not to be sifted or parsed, or forced.

Act 5, Scene 1. (803-04, Ed/R/G struggle intensifies; Edmund using Albany; Edgar’s letter) 

Edmund, Goneril, and Regan are locked in a struggle for erotic supremacy as they prepare to fight Cordelia’s French; Regan admits, “I had rather lose the battle than …” lose Edmund (803, 5.1.18-19). Edmund plays both women against each other (804, 5.1.55-58), and plans to use Albany while the fighting is on, and then dispose of him afterwards as a bar to his advancement (804, 5.1.62-69). Edgar in disguise delivers a letter to Albany—a challenge to be taken up if victory smiles (804, 5.1.40-46).

Act 5, Scene 2. (804-05, Gloucester again depressed, Edgar counsels endurance) 

Edgar is disappointed to find his father abjectly depressed during the confusion of battle, and tells him, “Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither, / Ripeness is all” (805, 5.2.9-11).

Act 5, Scene 3. (805-13, Lear/Cordelia prisoners, Edmund loses challenge, Lear dies lamenting Cordelia, Edgar inherits kingdom) 

The worst of the worst win the day, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia is brief but supremely fine: “Come let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage …” (805, 5.3.8-19). The old king predicts that he and Cordelia will participate in God’s mysterious knowledge of all things, knowing the ins and outs of his secret dispensation of affairs and men. But all this eloquence is too much for Edmund, who ends Lear’s words with a harsh command: “Take them away” (805, 5.3.19) Political and military events have outstripped the process whereby Lear has discovered his mistakes and recovered his identity and his affiliation with Cordelia. It is simply too late for a reconciliation of more than a few minutes’ time, and in the worst of circumstances. Edmund’s blunt order completes the triumph of literalism and matter-of-fact depravity over legitimate power, virtue, and (here) prophetic rhetoric. Lear is rehumanized and endowed with new insight into what is right and wrong, what is human and what is not. But he and Cordelia are crushed because they are a threat to Edmund, and he determines that they must go.

Things aren’t simple for Edmund, either. Albany has nothing but contempt for him, which bodes ill for his hopes to wield tremendous power in the new order of things. His presence in the army camp provokes a life-and-death struggle between Goneril and Regan for his hand (806-07, 5.3.62-82), and after he refuses to turn over the prisoners Lear and Cordelia (806, 5.3.42-45), Albany arrests him and Goneril for “capital treason” (807, 5.3.83). No sooner is this declared than Albany challenges him (807, 5.3.91-96) and Edgar shows up to fight him in single combat. Edmund, worshiper of animalistic nature and the Regan Revolution though he may be, is now trapped into securing his ill-gotten gains, his newfound legitimacy as bestowed upon him first by Gloucester and then by Cornwall after Gloucester’s blinding and exile. He must accept Edgar’s challenge, and ends up hearing the legitimate son’s pious declaration that “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (809, 5.3.169-72). Regan, meanwhile, has been poisoned by Goneril, who then takes her own life when she sees Edmund gravely wounded (810, 5.3.225-26).

Edmund shows some insight: “All three / Now marry in an instant” (810, 5.3.227-28), and tries to redeem himself by revealing his condemnation of Lear and Cordelia (811, 5.3.242-45). Edgar has found time to reclaim the honor of his title and to avenge Edmund’s betrayal of their father, and to some extent he has reasserted the principle of a divine moral order. But the Gloucester and Lear plots do not come together: Lear and Cordelia have run out of time, and not even Edmund’s last-minute repentance can save Cordelia from being hanged or Lear from dying of grief over her lifeless body: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (812, 5.3.305-07)

In later-C17-18 versions such as that of Nahum Tate’s 1681 revival of the play (, Cordelia actually thrives as Queen, married by a beaming Lear to Edgar. Neoclassical critics and audiences found the actual Shakespearean ending an intolerable violation of representational ethics: the good must be rewarded, and the wicked must be punished. Here is Dr. Johnson’s pronouncement on the matter in Rambler #4:

In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.  (

In Cordelia’s death, the justice of the heavens is not at all apparent. It is true that vice is thoroughly disgusting in King Lear, but virtue is by no means shown triumphant. We must endure the old king’s “going hence” in unbearable agony and near incoherence, as he bewails Cordelia’s death and laments, “my poor fool is hang’d” (812, 5.3.304), which may also refer to the Fool, who disappeared with the line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (783, 3.6.78). Nobody wants to rule this blighted kingdom anymore: neither Albany nor Kent will take the reigns of power, and all is left to Edgar. His concluding lines are oddly unsatisfying: “ The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say: The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (813, 5.3.822-25).

If the play has been a quest for the restoration of authority, Edgar is hardly the quester who heals the Fisher King and makes the waters flow. But this play is, of course, a tragedy and not a romance. What it may have taught us, in the end, is that the deepest kind of insight into humanity does not accompany the workings of earthly power: as so often in tragedy, the cost of such insight is an untimely death. Edgar can’t do much more than repeat the stale “truism” of his father Gloucester: better days have been. There’s no easy accommodation, or magical reconciliation, no middle ground to occupy—just a pair of departed royal visionaries and a remnant of confused and disillusioned people repeating unconvincing truisms. Much of the play has been about trying different strategies of accommodation, recognizing the constrictions of nature, mortality, political power, and language, but no satisfying arrangements have emerged. No one has come to terms with what it means to be mortal and yet not identical with the workings of raw physical nature.

Finally, even though King Lear has pagan trappings, I treat it as tinged with Christian principles, and it seems that within this framework, tragedy is constituted by the enormous gap between wisdom and felicity. Much human suffering is preventable, but at the deepest level, sorrow and loss are the only true teachers. And at this level, even a great man like Lear is the “natural fool of fortune” (798, 4.6.185). All along, the Fool had helped prevent Lear from falling into a hopeless state of self-pity, and had helped the audience from over-pitying the king. The Fool had stood for the possibility of artistic redemption, with his playful songs and insouciance. He knew that Lear was willing to listen to him speak the truth in an eccentric form, unlike Regan and Goneril, whose stern authority he feared and whose disregard for his rhymes stemmed from their obscene literalism and savagery. But comfort is cold in this play—at a certain point, the Fool simply had to disappear, leaving Lear to face the impossibility of setting things right, even after his self-recovery and acknowledgment of error to his kind daughter Cordelia.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).

Act 1, Scene 1 (221-25, Cymbeline has banished Posthumus for marrying his daughter Imogen; Imogen rightly distrusts the queen and stands up to her father; she and Posthumus exchange love tokens—a ring and a bracelet, respectively; Posthumus will go stay with  Philario in Rome; Cloten makes an unsuccessful attempt to assault Posthumus.)

An irrational old king vexed with his virtuous but stubborn daughter, surrounded by an untrustworthy royal family—this should sound familiar to anyone who has seen or read King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia are torn asunder while vulture-like Regan and Goneril gobble up their fortuitously enlarged helpings of British land to rule. Posthumus Leonatus has a problem similar to that of Edmund of Gloucester in King Lear—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona non grata at Cymbeline’s court. Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s stubborn, if honest, repetitions of “nothing”—Cymbeline’s daughter fights back spiritedly when the king derides her suitor with the phrase “basest thing” (224, 1.1.125) and banishes him. Cymbeline, says Imogen, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and the situation is worsened by his refusal to recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.

Looking forward, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable. In true comic fashion, they can be revoked with a change of heart and a word or two. Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are. The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in King Lear would be the wronged but ultimately loyal Belarius, who—having spitefully kidnaped Cymbeline’s two young sons some twenty years previously—returns them to the king when he least expects it, thereby ushering in the play’s happy ending.

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear. Indeed, Dr. Johnson wrote that pointing out the play’s many flaws would be “to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”[1] In our own day, Harold Bloom has insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner certain silly plot contrivances that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation; a massive violation of the so-called unity of time since the action seems to shuttle back and forth between ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy; identity switches and disguisings sufficient to make a viewer’s head spin; a gender-bending heroine; a presumptuous husband with a potentially lethal Madonna/whore complex; a loquacious villain who does evil—oh, we don’t know why; a foppish aristocratic oaf who stands on his unimpressive masculinity and threatens Tarquin-ravishment against a chaste woman; a potion that induces a death-like coma; an ultra-unlikely family reunion; and a final-act virtual symphony of improbabilities.[2]

Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the playwright is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are by no means to be despised. That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: a memorable heroine, she rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her. It’s a high-class problem to have, this “rising above,” and as Harold Bloom would be quick to tell us, it’s one she shares with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.[3]

To open the play, we are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (221-22, 1.1.28-50). Imogen has married the young man only to see him banished by her father the King because of the great gap between the two in rank. It seems as if everyone except Cymbeline can see the truth, which is that Posthumus is a worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the buffoonish son of Cymbeline’s new queen. The courtiers may not say so to their master’s face, but all of them are “Glad of the thing they scowl at” (221, 1.1.14), meaning the frustration of Cloten in his suit for Imogen’s hand in marriage. As for the new queen, she is a master dissembler who feigns affection for her daughter-in-law while secretly seething at her for failing to accept her son as husband and heir to Cymbeline’s throne. Imogen, however, is not fooled: “O dissembling courtesy!” (223, 1.1.84), she exclaims after speaking with this deceptive woman.

Posthumus informs Imogen that he is about to depart to the home of  Philario, a friend of his deceased father (223, 1.1.97-99). Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (223-24, 1.1.109-24). But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms in and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (224, 1.1.125, 131). The king is wrong: Imogen is by no means disloyal. In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the perilous adventures she undertakes, she will only reconfirm the excellence that resides within her. In the romance world, adventure and happenstance have magic properties all their own. In a broadly Christian scheme, they turn out to be providential with regard to the discovery of truth and the partial fulfillment of desire. As William Hazlitt suggests in his essay on Cymbeline in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817),[4] Imogen’s faithfulness to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty. Imogen shows herself to be as headstrong as her imperious father when she defies his will: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (224, 1.1.143-46). These are not the words of a woman who would submit meekly to an unjust royal prerogative.

As for the departure of Posthumus, there is some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (225, 1.1.161-64). This departure will profoundly alter the life of Imogen as well as Posthumus. The romance genre emphasizes the necessity of alienation: you don’t know the value of a person, quality, or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss. Alienation is one of the main ways people discover who they are. The time will come when Imogen herself must leave the court in order to return to it on a firmer basis, after many accidents. In this first act generally, Imogen confirms the quality of her character: what we can expect isn’t so much growth and development on her part but rather confirmation of and insight into what she already is.

None of this reassurance about Imogen’s goodness, it is worth noting, fits neatly within the characters’ tendency early on to define others in terms of untested superlatives and absolutes. Posthumus, for example, swears to Imogen, “I will remain / The loyal’st husband that did e’er plight troth” (223, 1.1.95-96). And at the play’s outset, the first gentleman speaks effusively about Posthumus, reporting him as “a creature such / As to seek through the regions of the earth / For one his like, there would be something failing / In him that should compare” (221, 1.1.19-22).[5] This sort of language says very little about those who are praised, but it says considerably more about the turbulence in Cymbeline’s court. Hyperbolic praise is an instrument Shakespeare uses to expose the hollowness and unsustainability of courtly environments and political dispensations. A healthy society or state can tolerate some degree of linguistic exuberance and even flattery, but when it is wholly dependent on such tendencies, that is a sign that all is not well.

Act 1, Scene 2 (225-26, Cloten preens himself and waxes jealous against the now absent Posthumus while his assistant the second lord cuts him down to size.)

The second scene is a comic introduction to the queen’s villainous son Cloten, who shows himself to us as a puffed up, foppish oaf amply given his comeuppance by a wisecracking second lord who undercuts him throughout, though not in a way that makes Cloten himself aware of the undercutting. It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: he decries the intolerable fact that his love object Imogen “should love this fellow and refuse me!” (226, 1.2.22) When people tell us who they are, as Maya Angelou used to say, we had best believe them. The laws of Cloten’s being are envy, cupidity, and seething resentment.

Act 1, Scene 3 (226-27, Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus shines: she regrets that their parting could not last longer.)

Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus is touching in his absence, and she relates how her parting from her new husband was interrupted by Cymbeline: “comes in my father, / And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north, / Shakes all our buds from growing” (227, 1.3.35-37). With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be far behind: the organicism implied by this metaphor implies the acceptance of loss and death in exchange for the possibility of regeneration and reconciliation. We know that Imogen’s father the king, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and participate in the play’s harmonies and reconciliations. The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round?

Act 1, Scene 4 (227-31, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’s ring for Imogen’s compromised honor.)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we immediately understand that he is not given to crediting the grand praise that others have apparently been showering upon Posthumus Leonatus, about whom he says, among other things, “I have seen him in France. We had very many / there could behold the sun with as firm eyes as he” (228, 1.4.9-10).

Whatever we may gather about Giacomo, we also quickly see that Posthumus has learned little from experience in his relatively short life thus far. Immediately after recounting a quarrel he fell into with a Frenchman over the relative qualities of English and French females, he allows Giacomo to tempt him into making the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian. This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most precious / diamond that is, nor you the lady” (229, 1.4.63-64). In other words, he mocks Posthumus for his naïve ideals about feminine virtue. Giacomo boasts that without much ado he will strip Imogen of her virtue and win the ring her husband wagers: upon only a second meeting with her, he insists, he will take away “that honour of hers which you imagine so / reserved” (230, 1.4.114-15). Posthumus raises the stakes as high as he can, promising that if Giacomo fails in his attempt, he will answer for the insult to Imogen in a duel (230, 1.4.139-45).

As for this “trial of virtue” plot, as Prof. Harold Toliver of UC Irvine pointed out to me years ago, it is a medieval commonplace, probably because of the martyrdom patterns established in Christian narratives. Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” which validates the Marquis Walter’s long and painful testing of his wife Griselde, illustrates this penchant for putting female virtue to the test. Posthumus decides to put Imogen’s virtue to a similar test, and allows Giacomo to tempt her. We may well question Posthumus’s judgment: the man’s actions at this point are bound to disappoint us. As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”[6]

For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’s proof-by-temptation scheme seems ethically dubious. Shakespeare’s regard for this old plot device doesn’t seem wholehearted. No less a moral authority than Jesus led his flock in prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”[7] It’s hard to argue with a statement like that. In modern times, we would call what Posthumus does to Imogen “entrapment.” And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering monster jealousy. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello, Iagopins down this passion with his lines about Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”[8] Once indulged, such a powerful feeling admits of no going back, and Posthumus must act upon it. Only the fullness of romance time will allow this situation to be made good, at least to a great extent.

Act 1, Scene 5 (231-33, the queen demands poisonous substances from Cornelius, who gives her a potion that only causes deathlike sleep; the queen gives this potion to Pisanio, whom she attempts to win away from Posthumus; she threatens absent Imogen with death if she does not relent and give in to Cloten.)

Cornelius conscientiously asks the queen what she wants with the “poisonous compounds” she has ordered (231, 1.5.8), and he does not like the answer he receives, which is that she plans to use them on defenseless animals and note the effects the poison has upon them (231, 1.5.18-23). He knows her for what she is, and resolves not to give her what she wants, but rather a simulacrum that will “stupefy and dull the sense a while” (232, 1.5.37). The queen next sets to work on Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus, trying to win him away from his master towards Cloten and giving him a box filled with Cornelius’s fake poison that she hopes Pisanio himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy. The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humor, shall be assured / To taste of [the drug] too” (233, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (233-38, Giacomo comes to Cymbeline’s court and slanders Posthumus as a playboy; Imogen believes him but is uninterested in repaying Posthumus in kind, so Giacomo pretends he was testing Imogen’s faith in her husband and asks if she will store a chest allegedly containing gifts for Cymbeline.)

By letter, Posthumus recommends Giacomo to Imogen (234, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes mostly excellent use of his first conversation with the lady. He paints a picture of a feckless, adulterous Posthumus living it up in Italy, exhibiting the opposite of the chief qualities Imogen thinks he possesses: earnestness and fidelity. He is known, says Giacomo, simply as “The Briton Reveller” (234, 1.6.60). Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails, first when he overdoes the runup portion of his gambit and Imogen bluntly (and hilariously) asks him “Are you well?” (234, 1.6.49), and then when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (236, 1.6.135). This latter declaration causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honorable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (236-37, 1.6.141-42). But Giacomo is more than up to the occasion, protesting boldly that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (237, 1.6.162-64). With the addition of a simple device—namely, a request to store a chest full of plate and jewels meant as a gift for Cymbeline—Giacomo’s diabolical plot is set (237-38, 1.6.184-92).

Giacomo’s assault on Imogen, we should note, is in some ways similar, and in some ways different, from the more famous one detailed by Shakespeare’s source here, the Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) in Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. In Livy’s account, the villainous Sextus Tarquinius is said to be “inflamed by the beauty and purity of Lucretia,” and while he tries to seduce the faithful Roman wife of Collatinus with pleadings calculated “to influence a female heart,” in the end he is reduced to making a stark threat to disgrace her by killing Lucretia and placing the body of a slave next to her corpse, thereby tricking the Romans into believing she had been cut down in the midst of adultery.[9] That alone is what convinces Lucretia that there’s no way out of the dire situation, and suicide soon becomes her response. Giacomo’s attempt upon Imogen is also “calculated” in this way, and it fails just as miserably, at least in the most immediate sense.

Giacomo’s calculation, however, is perhaps worse than Tarquin’s in its contemptuous a priori construction of female nature as easily moved to uncontrollable, complicit lust. Even Tarquin probably didn’t quite believe about Lucretia what Giacomo apparently does about his “mark” Imogen. We may recall that Giacomo didn’t initiate his wager with Posthumus because he was “inflamed by the beauty and purity” of Imogen, as Tarquin was smitten by the description of Lucretia (or as Angelo is driven to act against the saintly Isabella in Measure for Measure), but instead because he wanted to prove a cynical, abstract proposition about female humanity. For us today, it’s hard to avoid equating Giacomo’s actions with the most obnoxious sort of “pickup artists” who plague the internet with their macho posing and vulgar assumptions about women as bottomless wells of lustfulness or suckers for a deceptive, fast-talking man. Even as this play has given us so much rhetoric proclaiming various characters’ impossibly high pitch of virtue, Giacomo presents as a comic-book villain: he is a stereotypical “supersubtle Italian,” a sexually predatory Machiavel. This may be another way in which Shakespeare gets mileage from the otherwise risible violation of the “unity of time” in Cymbeline: Giacomo’s sly Renaissance Italian “Rape of Imogen” is cast as something like a parody of Livy’s reverse-heroic or high-villain narrative of the Tarquin prince’s “Rape of Lucretia.” What transpires here may remind some readers of Karl Marx’s witticism that history repeats itself—“the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[10] It’s a peculiarly mirthless farce, but a farce all the same.

Act 2, Scene 1 (238-39, Cloten again puffs himself up, worries about meeting anyone of lesser rank, including Giacomo; as usual, the second lord mocks him in a witty aside.)

Cloten interprets the actions of others as motivated by what drives him: lust, ambition, and avarice. We often find this oppositional representation of love in romance plays: true and charitable love versus the prideful and empty sort (“cupidity”) that we find in Cloten. The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance. Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (239, 2.1.40-41) if he condescends to meet the newly arrived stranger Giacomo. He doesn’t want to mix with those below his station. That fear constitutes the law of his being: it makes him tick, so to speak.

This tendency in Cloten is interesting since the play in general emphasizes the inherent goodness of aristocratic characters such as Belarius and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus. Shakespeare is careful not to go too far in that direction, but he doesn’t appear to dismiss altogether the claim that blood bestows nobility, that virtue can in part be inherited. Cloten is rather like the dragon in the old romances—he is the monster who must be slain because he would cut off the quest for reunification and reconciliation, and cut short the generosity of romance time. The “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius. Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the disturbing but less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus. The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall” like the imaginary insect in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[11] The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (239, 2.1.52-53). Well, as they say, talent skips a generation. Sometimes it skips more than that number.

Act 2, Scene 2 (240-41, Giacomo emerges from the trunk he asked Imogen to store in her bedchamber, taking note of ornaments and structure in the room as well as a mole on sleeping Imogen’s left breast; he takes her bracelet.)

It is time for Giacomo to carry out his wicked designs upon Imogen’s happiness. Emerging from the trunk in which he has stowed himself, the devious fellow describes himself in the grand style: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” (240, 2.2.12-14). He notes various ornamentations and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (241, 2.2.37-38). Assiduous readers of Shakespeare will feel perfectly at home betting that Giacomo’s perusal of the book Imogen had been studying will yield him Ovid’s recounting of rape and cannibalistic revenge, “The tale of Tereus”(241, 2.2.45). Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’s love by means of a deceptive command of the facts: he cheats at his wager with Posthumus, and is able to describe Imogen’s room and her personal characteristics.

It may seem ironic that Giacomo works his wickedness with the aid of facts: they may be “stubborn things,” but they don’t often matter much in Shakespearean romance, or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Augustus Caesar, and in fact Raphael Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.[12] But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli. This temporal abyss is so extreme that it lends credence to the view of critics who insist that Cymbeline is self-conscious parody. Shelley’s friend the satirist Thomas Love Peacock may have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern characters greeting one another across what logic tells us should be a gap of around 1,500 years, when he mocked the Elizabethans for their disregard of the neoclassical unities:

Shakespeare and his contemporaries … used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer. This makes the old English drama very picturesque … though it is a picture of nothing that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival.[13]

Shakespeare’s millennium-and-a-half hop-skip to modern Italy is undeniably bizarre, but just as in his early revenge tragedy, that barbarous masterpiece Titus Andronicus, he seems determined to unsettle any comfortable notions about the grand qualities that supposedly distinguished ancient Rome from every other place and culture on earth, so in Cymbeline he challenges these same notions by means of a deliberately absurd temporal rift between the ancient City and the modern.[14] It is not so much that Shakespeare represents human nature as essentially the same through the ages as that he appears to resist any idea of a rock-solid, foundational Rome upon which to build our conception of history or humanitas. The Eternal City has been reinventing itself from time immemorial, aided by an uncanny ability at once to believe and disbelieve its own self-spun legends.

Act 2, Scene 3 (241-45, Cloten orders a serenade for Imogen, who despises him to his face; her insults provoke him to vow revenge; Imogen is almost frantic with the thought that she has lost the bracelet Posthumus gave her.)

Cloten makes a thoroughly ineffective attempt (if an actual one, unlike Giacomo’s) to win Imogen’s affections. The only good thing that comes of it is the fine air, “Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings…” (242, 2.3.17-23). Face to face, Cloten declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you…” (244, 2.3.103-05). One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s witty journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome.[15] But while Cloten may be dense, even he gets the point when Imogen tells him the hair on his head isn’t worth the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus (244, 2.3.128). This scornful flouting elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (245, 2.3.150-51). Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 240, 2.2.33) she has lost the bracelet given her by Posthumus: “I hope it be not gone to tell my lord / That I kiss aught but he” (245, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (245-49, Giacomo returns to Rome and declares victory over Imogen and Posthumus, who unwisely believes him especially because of the bodily “evidence” and denounces all womankind.)

As Philario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (245-46, 2.4.10-26), Giacomo enters and triumphantly declares his victory in the contest of female virtue. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of Posthumus’ pitiful performance here, with Giacomo egging him on and Philario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (248, 2.4.114). But when Giacomo brings out his supposedly irrefutable evidence—Imogen’s bracelet and that unfortunately noted lovely mole on her breast, the game is up, and Posthumus is quite certain that this wily stage Italian has (as the Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore.”[16] The reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain, as big as hell can hold…” (249, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (249-50, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him.)

Posthumus hits enough home runs to make it into the Misogynists’ Cooperstown on the first ballot: “We are all bastards…” (249, 2.4.2), he whines, and then comes the grand slam: “there’s no motion / That tends to vice in man but I affirm / It is the woman’s part…” (250, 2.4.20-22). He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (250, 2.4.15-17). For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leontes from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no / more on’t.”[17]

Act 3, Scene 1 (250-52, spurred on by the queen and Cloten, Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Romans.)

The Roman ambassador Lucius delivers Augustus Caesar’s demand for tribute from the Britons, but the queen and Cloten sway Cymbeline from paying the 3,000 pounds Caesar wants. Cloten says arrogantly, “If Caesar can hide the / sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, / we will pay him tribute for light…” (251, 3.1.41-43), and Cymbeline himself, while reminding present company that he spent time at Caesar’s court in his youth, comes round to the idea that failure to resist would “show the Britons cold” (252, 3.1.74), especially because just now the Pannonians and Dalmatians are in open warfare with Roman armies. Cymbeline will not fail to keep up with the barbarian Joneses.

Act 3, Scene 2 (252-54, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she at once makes plans to do.)

Pisanio is dismayed at the letter Posthumus has sent requiring him to kill Imogen: “Thy mind to hers is now as low as were / Thy fortunes” (252, 3.2.10-11), he laments. He tries to break this news to Imogen, but only succeeds in rendering her more eager to get to Milford Haven in Cambria than she already was upon reading the deceptive letter Posthumus dedicated to her. Imogen makes her plans, which include a female assistant fetching her “a riding suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (254, 3.2.76-77). Pisanio’s role is similar to that of the banished Kent in King Lear: while his immediate goal is to protect Imogen, he also keeps Posthumous from doing harm so long as an insane fit of jealousy drives his actions. In this way, he also resembles Cornelius, who refused to give the queen the deadly concoctions she sought. There is a special sort of fidelity that consists in not doing the bidding of a master who has taken leave of his or her senses. It may not be in line with the eighteenth-century Kantian “categorical imperative”[18] that would enforce the keeping of promises no matter the circumstances, but it is rooted in a time-honored sentiment. Authority combined with impulsiveness and immaturity is a deadly combination, and sometimes, stripping away the agency of those thus afflicted is the only way to prevent things from reaching the worst.

Act 3, Scene 3 (254-55, we meet Belarius and his supposed sons Arviragus and Guiderius; Belarius gives us—not the boys—the complete back story as to why they are living in the Welsh countryside; both young men lament their lack of experience.)

Cutting off the king’s issue can be a vicious affair in ancient literature—recall Ovid’s tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses[19]—but in this play things aren’t so bad. Belarius has kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons and raised them with a healthy distrust of courtly deception, but they subsequently get their chance to prove the nobility that is their birthright. The two young men, Arviragus and Guiderius, are understandably reluctant to accept the limitations Belarius has placed upon them. When he says, “this life / Is nobler than attending for a check…” (255, 3.3.21-22), both of these supposed sons chime in with a rebuttal: Guiderius says of his rough existence, “unto us it is / A cell of ignorance, traveling abed …” (255, 3.3.32-33). Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (255, 3.3.42-43). Both of them complain of being inexperienced in the wide world and show themselves very impatient to enter it. The narrative that Belarius has fed them does not satisfy anyone but himself, an older man who has already seen too much of that world and paid the price for it.

Belarius provides us with the necessary background information on why he and his two young men are living as hunters in the Welsh countryside, a rough place that always gave even the Romans trouble. It seems that Belarius was taken down by a couple of villains who accused him of treason against Cymbeline on behalf of the Romans. Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (256, 3.3.65-69). Once the boys have made their exit, Belarius is free to tell us the rest of the story, which is simply that in his anger against Cymbeline’s injustice, he decided to take away the king’s futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile his two male children, whose names are now Polydore (Guiderius, the heir to Cymbeline’s throne) and Cadwal (Arviragus, the younger of the two). Belarius himself is now called Morgan, and the boys believe he really is their father (256, 3.3.79-107). That’s the way he wants to keep it since he has come to regard them as his own sons.

We might note in passing that Wales is hardly a green world of the Forest of Arden type, and that the court from which Belarius was exiled doesn’t appear to have been particularly corrupt, though it is peopled with some disturbing characters. The setting in this romance play is fairly unrealistic in the first place, so there’s no need to escape into a magical world to grow and develop and then return to achieve social reintegration. The main value of the Welsh setting is that it gives Arviragus and Guiderius a martial edge: they are hunters, not shepherds, so when the time comes, they will be admirably prepared to do heroic service against the Roman invaders, which in turn paves the way for them to regain entry to Cymbeline’s court.

Act 3, Scene 4 (257-61, Pisanio reveals the contents of Posthumus’ letter commanding him to kill Imogen; he has a plan to rescue her: she must dress as a young man and enter the service of the Roman Lucius; Pisanio also gives her the potion-box the queen had given him.)

Pisanio takes Imogen part-way to Milford Haven, and at last reveals to her the contents of the letter Posthumus had sent him. Imogen is overwhelmed, and declares herself “a garment out of fashion” that must be ripped to shreds by the owner since it is “richer than to hang by th’ walls …” (258, 3.4.50-51). Pisanio refuses Imogen’s request to run her through with a sword, and reveals his plan to get her out of her predicament: he will deceive Posthumus into thinking that he has indeed killed Imogen. Then she must go to Milford Haven and, dressed as a young man, present herself to the Roman ambassador and general, Lucius, in whose service she may come to a place in Rome not far from where Posthumus is staying (259-60, 3.4.123-79). Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” (261, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (261-65, suspected of helping Imogen escape from court, Pisanio deceives Cloten into expecting to come upon Posthumus at Milford Haven; Cloten sets forth his diabolical plans to murder Posthumus and ravish Imogen.)

The king begins to miss his daughter, and Cloten points the finger at Pisanio (263, 3.5.54-55), who comes in for much questioning. The queen, meanwhile, is spinning her wheels in her usual conspiratorial fashion: of Imogen, she says, “Gone she is / To death or to dishonor, and my end / Can make good use of either” (263, 3.5.62-64). Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than remain the servant of Posthumus, and Cloten’s first order is to bring him the suit the fellow was wearing when he left to begin his banishment (264, 3.5.124-25). This villain’s plan is to murder Posthumus at Milford Haven, where he believes (in accordance with the original deceptive letter Pisanio gives him) the man is headed. Afterwards, he will compound his evil by sexually assaulting Imogen: “With that suit upon my / back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes…” (264, 3.5.133-34). This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, Cloten will slake his jealous rage at Posthumus; second, he will pay Imogen back for her contemptuous words to him earlier, where she cast it in his teeth that the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus was worth more to her than the hair on Cloten’s head (244, 2.3.128-30); third, he will obtain his ultimate objective of forcibly making her his wife, kicking her all the way back to Cymbeline’s court (265, 3.5.138-41).

To top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, we would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where the author tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’s rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or indeed to Shakespeare’s own retelling of that story in The Rape of Lucrece. We could even go to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where we would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor, who brags about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors, most likely to mock the key Roman concept of friendship or amicitia.[20] Of course, we need not worry too much since this is Cloten, and Cloten never accomplishes anything he sets out to do. He’s no Tarquin, and neither would he pass a class in basic Machiavelli since he manages to make himself a hated object of contempt.[21] Even so, his loser-status doesn’t make him any less wicked—the crudely literalistic turn of his mind is characteristic of Shakespeare’s nastiest villains.[22]

Act 3, Scene 6 (265-67, Belarius and his charges light upon disguised Imogen eating their food, and give “him” a warm welcome.)

Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius light upon the disguised Imogen eating their camp rations, and they respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner. She claims that her name is Fidele. Belarius tenders her an unexpectedly warm welcome: “Think us no churls, nor measure our good minds / By this rude place we live in” (266-67, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (267, 3.6.69), declares Arviragus. As is usually the case in Shakespeare, we cannot take for granted that the countryside is a less civilized place than the city or the court, and Imogen is pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the same insight. So too with Orlando in As You Like It, when, in search of sustenance for his poor old servant Adam, he stumbles upon the exiled Duke Senior’s rustic circle and is shocked to find that his show of pirate-like ferocity is unnecessary.[23]

Act 3, Scene 7 (267-68, Lucius is appointed proconsul and Rome’s general against the Britons.)

Lucius is appointed proconsul (provincial governor), with the responsibility of marshaling the Roman forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (268, Cloten admires himself in the mirror and rehearses his evil designs against Posthumus and Imogen.)

Cloten admires himself in the mirror and waxes poetical about his coming destruction of Posthumus and rape of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her / father” (268, 4.1.16-17) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline. This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear a pseudo-courtly fop, a stock character in the Shakespearean canon. If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with dishonest courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively—men who are already very far from acting as the renowned author Baldassare Castiglione prescribes in his Book of the Courtier.[24] But as mentioned earlier, even though Cloten does not meet the high standards of Shakespeare’s more serious villains, he is not deficient in their degree of innate wickedness.

Act 4, Scene 2 (268-79, Imogen-as-Fidele is ill and takes Pisanio’s potion; Cloten arrives and is beheaded by Guiderius, to the dismay of Belarius; Arviragus carries in the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen-as-Fidele and offers this stranger a chance to join up with the Romans.)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at the capacity for decency she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (269, 4.2.32-33). Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen-as-Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try the supposedly wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (267, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (270, 4.2.64-67). Guiderius is left alone to face Cloten, who immediately demands that he yield to him. Guiderius parries the oaf’s threats and insults expertly, and cuts off his head. Belarius is by no means pleased—he realizes the consequences of killing a Briton royal: “We are all undone” (272, 4.2.122), he tells Guiderius. But to himself, he marvels at the noble nature of both Guiderius and Arviragus: “’Tis wonder / That an invisible instinct should frame them / To royalty unlearned …” (273, 4.2.175-77). Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (273, 4.2.182-84).

Arviragus soon enters with the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele (274, 4.2.194-96). Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial that a member of the royal family deserves (275, 4.2.245-49).[25] For Imogen-as-Fidele, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (275, 4.2.257-58; see 275-76, 4.2.257-80). The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers must “come to dust” (276, 4.2.274).

When Belarius and the two brothers have departed, Imogen awakens next to the headless body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus’s clothes: “A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?” (276, 4.2.307) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was not the cordial he claimed it to be (277, 4.2.325-28).

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul (“Gallia”) and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (277, 4.2.332-41). A soothsayer portends success to the Romans, declaring, “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (277-78, 4.2.347-51). Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen-as-Fidele. The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen-as-Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (278, 4.2.379-81), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried. Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-80, the queen is gravely ill, and Cymbeline is desperately isolated; Pisanio is confused about the current state of affairs, but trusts to time and the gods.)

The queen is desperately ill and in a state of madness thanks to the absence of her son Cloten, so Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (279, 4.3.1-9): the Romans have now landed in force. Pisanio is in the dark regarding the whereabouts of Posthumus, Imogen and Cloten. His only plan is to fight for the Britons and leave the rest to the heavens: “All other doubts, by time let them be cleared: / Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered” (280, 4.3.45-46). This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.[26]

Act 4, Scene 4 (280-81, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius agree to fight for Cymbeline against the Romans.)

Belarius tries to explain to his courageous charges that it would be unwise to expose themselves by volunteering to fight for Cymbeline because Belarius himself would be recognized: “I am known / Of many in the army” (280, 4.4.21-22). But his realist argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight. As Jaques says in As You Like It, young men will be “Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.”[27] We may be reminded, too, of Harry Hotspur in . Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (281, 4.4.51-52). The old man does not make the tragic mistake made in the Aesop’s fable about the king who loves his little son so much that he won’t let him leave his lodgings, only to lose the boy to an infection caused by an injury stemming from his extreme frustration.[28] He realizes that he can’t keep the young men he took from Cymbeline away from danger forever. The time has come for them to make their mark on the world, come what may.

Act 5, Scene 1 (281-82, Posthumus believes Imogen is dead at Pisanio’s hands; he will fight for Cymbeline and seek death to honor Imogen.)

Posthumus believes Pisanio’s claim that he carried out his order to execute Imogen, and decides that instead of fighting on the side of the Romans, he will switch over to support Cymbeline and, with any luck, die for Imogen. He describes this transformation in part as a casting off of external appearances: “I will begin / The fashion—less without and more within” (282, 5.1.32-33). This seems like a welcome turn toward self-reflection and a healthy interior state for Posthumus, but he manages to dissipate any good will we may feel toward him by continuing to believe that Imogen was, in fact, unfaithful to him, as appears when he says, “You married ones, / If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little?” (281, 5.1.2-5) There’s just something unlovable about a man who works himself up to “forgiving” a woman who has done him no wrong.

Act 5, Scene 2 (282-83, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen-as-Fidele.)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo, and the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (282, 5.2.1) for his base betrayal of Imogen. In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but is then instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, who, as they put it, “Stand, stand, and fight” (282, 5.2.13). They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus. Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen-as-Fidele from the Briton advance since, in the fog of war, Roman troops are killing their own.

Act 5, Scene 3 (283-85, Posthumus, disheartened by an aristocratic onlooker’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured by the Britons; at this point he wishes only for death, to atone for his offense against Imogen.)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and others, and rebukes that same lord for treating his story like fiction: “you are made / Rather to wonder at the things you hear / Than to work any” (284, 5.5.53-55). Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s chatty cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (285, 5.5.75-83). He is promptly captured by Briton troops. Shakespeare’s treatment of the loquacious lord is another instance of his interest in exploring the balance between representing martial action and indulging in the desire to talk about such things, to spin webs of language about the pathos and glory of war.[29]

Act 5, Scene 4 (285-89, in prison, Posthumus reflects on his debt to Imogen. His departed parents and brothers come to him in a dream, and complain to Jupiter about Posthumus’s fate. Jupiter promises them that all will be well, and provides them with a prophetic tablet that the ghosts place upon the chest of their sleeping family member. A messenger arrives and says that Posthumus must be brought into the presence of Cymbeline.)

Cast into prison, Posthumus meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.1-29). His departed father, mother and brothers appear to him in a vision as he sleeps. They complain to Jupiter of the wrongs that he has suffered through the villainy of Giacomo, who labored “To taint his nobler heart and brain / With needless jealousy” (287, 5.4.49-50). Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross…” (287, 5.4.71). In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (287, 5.4.77-78). Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast—this is the play’s one apparent instance of the miraculous instead of the merely implausible—and reads a prophecy from it having to do with “a lion’s whelp,” “a piece of tender air,” a “stately cedar,” and branches therefrom. (288, 5.4.108-10) When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, says the tablet, Britain will thrive. Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell Posthumus he is to be hung. “Oh, the charity of a / penny cord!” (289, 5.4.135-36) exclaims the philosophical jailer who duly passes the information along. He seems so disillusioned with his job that we might half-suspect he’s floating his résumé in hopes of finding something better. Before his execution, Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline.

Act 5, Scene 5 (289-301, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queen’s death along with her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen-as-Fidele be spared death, but Imogen-as-Fidele doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing and details his villainy; after Posthumus strikes Imogen-as-Fidele, Pisanio identifies Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s sons; Posthumus admits that he helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans.)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the brave soldier who assisted Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in rescuing him could be found. This man we know to be Posthumus. But Belarius and his two charges are present, and Cymbeline makes them British knights (290, 5.5.19-22). Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (290, 5.5.25-27). Not only that, but he runs through a litany of dreadful revelations from the dying queen: she never loved Cymbeline but only coveted his power; she pretended to feel affection for Imogen but in fact hated her and planned to poison her; and finally, she intended to poison Cymbeline himself (290-91, 5.5.37-61) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten. When the latter went missing, however, the queen was driven to distraction, fell sick, and died. Cymbeline is stunned, but he does not blame himself for being taken in: “Mine eyes / Were not in fault, for she was beautiful; / … nor my heart / That thought her like her seeming” (291, 5.5.62-65). It appears that an ancient, staunchly British king fell victim to the Renaissance Neoplatonist desire to align the beautiful with the good.

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen-as-Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (291, 5.5.85-86). Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me…” (292, 5.5.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. But understandably, Imogen is more concerned about the tale Giacomo can be constrained to tell about how he got the precious diamond ring he now possesses, and so to undo the reputational harm he has done to Imogen herself.

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen-as-Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (292, 5.5.123). Pisanio recognizes her as well. Imogen-as-Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (293, 5.5.135-36), and Giacomo confesses that he received it from Posthumus. Cymbeline demands that he explain himself in full, which sparks a comic exchange in which Shakespeare may be making fun of his own tendency towards prolixity, or at least suggesting a lamentable return to the earlier part of the play’s rhetorical excesses. The old king hears the word “daughter” and is on fire to hear the rest of Giacomo’s story, but he proves all but helpless to stop the slow-motion carriage-wreck that is the anguished Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (293-94, 5.5.153-209). But at last, the Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad…” (294, 5.5.199-201). By this time, that kind of language passes for pure comprehensibility. Giacomo, as Matthew Arnold cites François Guizot pronouncing sentence on Shakespeare himself, has apparently “tried all styles except that of simplicity.”[30]

When Imogen-as-Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (294-95, 5.5.213-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (295, 5.5.231), to the amazement of Cymbeline and Posthumus alike. When Imogen blames Pisanio for her near-death experience, Cornelius interjects, remembering now to mention one of the queen’s admissions: she had given Pisanio the potion-box, but as we know from near the beginning of the play, Cornelius did not trust her with deadly poison and so gave her only a very strong sedative, one that mimics death. Imogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline greets her as his child (296, 5.5.263-65). The old king informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is paid to that event.

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’s deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, which told her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales. Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (296, 5.5.286). Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (297, 5.5.297). This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew…” (297, 5.5.301), which risks enraging Cymbeline. But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, he had, in fact, kidnapped them after his unjust banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (298, 5.5.343-44). Cymbeline’s response is entirely positive since he can see these young men’s quality for himself, and the tokens Belarius is able to provide (a mantle and a mole) only increase the king’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (299, 5.5.372), but she does not see the matter that way, preferring instead to dwell upon what she has gained: a pair of long-lost brothers. “I have got two worlds by’t” (299, 5.5.373), says she. Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and who can blame him? He expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (299, 5.5.381-86).

Posthumus is now able to declare that he is the poor soldier who assisted Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius in rescuing Cymbeline, and he calls upon Giacomo to verify his story. When this villain makes plain his sudden change of heart and asks for death once he returns the ring and bracelet he wrongly came by (300, 5.5.411-16), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (300, 5.5.417). That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (300, 5.5.419-21).  

The soothsayer rounds off the moment by explaining the prophecy that Posthumus’ ancestors had placed upon his chest: Posthumus is the “lion’s whelp,” Imogen is the “piece of tender air,” Cymbeline himself is the “lofty cedar,” and of course Guiderius and Arviragus are the two branches (300-01, 5.5.434-56).[31] Cymbeline surprises everyone by unilaterally offering to pay the Roman tribute whose refusal had led to the bloody struggle between the two nations, and his final pronouncements are, “Laud we the gods” and “let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (301, 5.5.474, 477-79).[32] This political and military turn of events may seem shocking, but as the Norton editors point out, it probably has to do with Shakespeare’s interest in indulging the increasingly strong desire among the English to see their country as a second Roman Empire, but also to preserve their sense of being independent agents rather than as thralls to the history and image of another powerful nation. Beyond that, as Jean E. Howard suggests in her introduction, a sense of “contingency” pervades the actions and decisions taken in this historical romance.[33]

By the end of the play, nearly everything has been set right, with the unaccented exception of the death of the queen and her mean-spirited, oafish son Cloten. Cymbeline’s wrath was real and his error deep, but the power that had seemed to be so absolute and irrevocable turns out not to be so after all. In a romance universe, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death. At the play’s outset, Cymbeline’s behavior was as irrational as that of King Lear, but time has given him the gift of coming round to a better perspective on love and life. Even the dread justice of royal absolutism is pushed aside in the final act with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son. Giacomo is found out as a villain and seems likely to go to the block, but he simply renounces his villainy and is forgiven, so all is well there, too.[34] Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread.

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true. Generosity reigns over chaos, and intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility. Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can draw mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities. Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of an alienation from identity and then a return to it in a more secure, if by no means permanent, state: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition, provided we understand that the losses and sorrows induced by our mistakes cannot simply be wished away or canceled out. Romance represents to us a world largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground a person’s time on earth. The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a strong feature of romance, too—lies in the king’s understanding of the pain he has caused Imogen and the many years he lost with his sons thanks to his own unjust treatment of Belarius, who, no doubt, must feel sorrow as well now that his revelation leads him to let go of the young men he has come to think of as his own.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


[1] Johnson, Samuel. Notes to Shakespeare, Vol. III. Comments on Cymbeline. The Augustan Reprint Society. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[2] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. See the essay on Cymbeline, 614-38.

[3] Bloom, Harold. Ibid. The essay on Hamlet, 383-431.

[4] Hazlitt, William. Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature. Ed. Jacob Zeitlin. New York and London: Oxford UP, 1913. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[5] Some of the characters who are so prone to overpraising in this play could stand to read Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of the Inconstancie of our Actions.” In it, the author, as translated by John Florio, writes, “We float and waver betweene divers opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.” Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[6] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 783, 1.4.318.

[7] The Gospel according to Saint Matthew 6:13. Bible Gateway. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[8] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 552, 3.3.319-21.

[9] Livy. Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. The relevant Latin is, “Tarquinium mala libido Lucretiae per vim stuprandae capit; [11] cum forma tum spectata castitas incitat.” and “Tarquinius fateri amorem, orare, miscere precibus minas, versare in omnes partes muliebrem animum.” Accessed 2/15/2024.

[10] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Accessed 2/15/2024.  

[11] Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In The Waste Land and Other Poems. New York, Vintage Classics, 2021. Pp. 5-11. 

[12] Holinshed, Raphael. The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587. Vol. 2, pg. 32. The Third Book of the Historie of England. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[13] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[14] We might say the same of Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which so mingles “barbarian” with “Roman” qualities that the two terms become all but inextricable.

[15] Burney, Frances. From Letters and Journals, “Mr. Barlow’s Proposal.” In Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed., Vol. C. pp. 2812-15. Norton, 2006.

[16] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 452, 3.3.356.

[17] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 398, 3.1.142-43.

[18] Kant, Immanuel. “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy.” (“Über ein vermeintes Recht, aus Menschenliebe zu lügen” (1797). In Practical Philosophy. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge and New York,  Cambridge UP, 1999. 605-16. At issue is Kant’s famous response to Benjamin Constant’s challenging question as to whether it’s acceptable to lie if a killer with an axe shows up at your home and wants to know if your best friend is there. The answer in light of the Kantian “categorical imperative” is No because it’s always wrong to lie; otherwise, the very idea of truth would soon be undermined.

[19] Ovid. Metamorphoses. See Book 6, “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Trans. Henry T. Riley. New York & London: George Brill & Sons, 1893. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[20] Shakespeare. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 145-98. See 170, 5.1.135-40.

[21] See, mainly, Machiavelli’s Chapter XIX of The Prince, titled “That One Should Avoid Being Despised and Hated.” Accessed 2/18/2024.

[22] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. In Act 3, Scene 7 of King Lear, Lear’s ally Gloucester, when asked why he helped the old king, had said to his tormentors Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes…” (811, 3.7.56-57). Little did he know that at the beginning of the scene, Goneril had already conjured up exactly that image, so Gloucester’s exclamation only spurs Cornwall to turn the image into literal reality at once. What the old lord Gloucester can scarcely imagine, these fiends eagerly turn into a gory event. Similarly, Posthumus isn’t satisfied with simply raping Imogen—he must rape her while wearing Posthumus’s clothessince, after all, she referred to those clothes when she insulted him earlier in the play.

[23] Shakespeare. As You Like It. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. 695, 2.7.88ff.

[24] Castiglione, Baldesare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Leonard E. Opkycke. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[25] Belarius seems to share the attitude of Thomas More’s narrator in Utopia, who in the final chapter of that book (titled “Of the Religions of the Utopians”) questions Raphael Hythloday’s enthusiasm for the communistic utopian society he visited on the grounds that such a society must lack “splendor” and “majesty,” which he calls “the true ornaments of a nation.” See More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Henry Morley. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[26] Perhaps the best example of this attitude is the shipwrecked Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In Act 1, Scene 2, after devising her scheme to disguise herself as a young male page and offer her services to the Duke of Illyria, Viola says to her fellow survivor the ship’s captain, “What else may hap, to time I will commit.” Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 743-97. See 746, 1.2.59.

[27] Shakespeare. As You Like It. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731). See 697, 2.7.152-53.

[28] Aesop. Fables. “The King’s Son and the Painted Lion.” Accessed 2/7/2024.

[29] The back-and-forth battle scenes make much the same point about human actions being fickle and inconstant, dependent more on circumstance than on any purported firmness of character. As in a previous note, see Montaigne’s Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[30] Arnold, Matthew. “Preface to Poems, 1853.” Pg. 12. In Poems by Matthew Arnold. London & New York: Oxford UP, 1909. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[31] Perhaps it’s best to leave aside the fact that this seemingly astute reading depends in part, as the Norton editors point out in a footnote to pg. 300, on a piece of bad etymology.

[32] With more self-consciousness to his credit, Cymbeline might adapt Richard the Third’s much-noted question about his improbable success with Lady Anne (“Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” 393, 1.2.214-15) and ask, “Did ever Roman in this humor go scot-free?” See Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465.

[33] See Norton editors’ footnotes for Cymbeline, Norton Romances and Poems 3rd ed., pp. 213, 216.

[34] Romance, which seems most comfortable dealing with archetypal characters rather than realistic, grounded individuals, need not lean into character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform as suddenly and completely as if they were in some modern work grounded in magical realism. This sometimes happens in comedy as well.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

King Lear

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).


1. How many different meanings for the term “nature” are developed in this play? Who articulates the various meanings? Are these significations kept distinct? Do they remain stable throughout, or are certain characters disabused of what they had formerly thought? Discuss your findings.

2. The various characters try to assert control over the play’s events by using a number of different linguistic strategies: rash invective, Machiavellian analysis, extreme bluntness, flowery evasion (Oswald), the language and song of madness and foolery, and visionary or prophetic poetry. Discuss a few of them by way of response.


3. In Act 1, Scene 1, does Lear’s division of his kingdom in 1.1 remind you of a fairy tale? If so, in what way, and of what specific fairy tale does it remind you? Describe your expectations about how the story might end based on Lear’s opening division of the kingdom in the particular manner Shakespeare has contrived.

4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what, if anything, is the problem with Lear’s decision to step aside (if not quite abdicate) and to divide his kingdom into thirds? Moreover, is there a problem with his demand for a public display of affection from his three daughters? Why does he appear to need such a display?

5. In Act 1, Scene 1, what reasons does Cordelia offer herself and the King for not going along with his request for a public display of affection? Are her speech and bearing appropriate, or inappropriate? Explain your reasoning.

6. In Act 1, Scene 1, Kent speaks truth to Lear’s raging power, and gets himself banished. How good is his attempt as a piece of rhetorical persuasion? If you find it flawed, do you think any other strategy might have worked where his failed? Why or why not?

7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what comments do Regan and Goneril offer at 1.1.286-307 regarding their father’s past character and his present conduct? In what sense might their views be considered reasonable? Nonetheless, what do they reveal about themselves in this conversation, especially in their upbraiding of Cordelia right before this conversation?

8. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, the Edmund/Gloucester sub-plot (or co-plot) also gets under way. At this early stage, what relation subsists between it and the main Lear/Daughters plot? What common theme or themes do you see in them both? (The same question might be asked subsequently, as the two plots unfold, and would make a good paper topic at this more detailed level.)

9. In Act 1, Scene 2, Edmund and Gloucester give us their respective understandings of “nature.” How does each talk about this concept? What advantage does Edmund have over Gloucester partly because of their differences regarding this matter, and why?

10. In Act 1, Scene 4, consider the Fool’s interaction with the King. What does the Fool do for Lear — how helpful are his insights to Lear (and to us as viewers)? Discuss also the manner (songs, riddles, etc.) he employs to convey his meaning. Which do you find most effective, and why? (This question might be asked of any segments in which the Fool appears, and could be developed into a good paper topic.)

11. In Act 1, Scene 4, observe how the servant Oswald behaves towards Lear after the latter has given away his kingdom. What manner does he use towards Lear from lines 44-85, and why? (Refer to Scene 3 for the latter issue.) What opportunity does Oswald’s behavior provide the newly disguised Kent?

12. In Act 1, Scene 4, Goneril enters around line 190 and makes herself odious to Lear. What in particular does he find so offensive in Goneril’s manner and in the things she says to him? By Scene 5, what insight does he begin to gain about his treatment of Cordelia? How would you characterize his state of mind by the end of Scene 5?


13. In Act 2, Scene 1, by what specific means (words and actions) does Edmund not only manage to drive Edgar out of doors but also to win himself still more credit with his father Gloucester and ingratiate himself with Cornwall?

14. In Act 2, Scene 2, Kent comes across Oswald and insults this servant in a very precise manner. Observe Kent’s tortured attempt afterwards to explain to Regan and Cornwall why he has been thrashing their sister’s messenger. What limitations does Kent show as a speaker in this episode?

15. In Act 2, Scene 3, Edgar takes on the identity of a mad beggar, calling himself “poor Tom.” Why might this be an appropriate identity for him now, aside from the obvious motive of avoiding detection? How do Edgar’s words in adopting this identity connect with the play’s central themes so far? (Possible paper topic: trace this question forwards: how does Edgar’s sojourn as “Poor Tom” through Act 4, and then his reassumption of his proper self in Act 5, help us understand the errors, sufferings, and human potential of other characters in the play?)

16. In Act 2, Scene 4, Lear is furious when he learns of Kent’s punishment. He blames Goneril but quickly learns that Regan, too, is against him. Explore what leads up to Lear’s frustrated exclamation, “O, reason not the need!” and his subsequent tirade (2.4.264-86). Why is it so important to Lear that he retain his hundred knights? What seems to be his state of mind towards the end of this scene?


17. Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, and 6 are concerned with the actions of King Lear and others during a raging storm. In what sense is the storm metaphoric of Lear’s inner disturbance? In what sense is it significant as a natural phenomenon not reducible to Lear’s inner state and, therefore, perhaps relevant to broader issues of heavenly or natural justice in the play?

18. In Act 3, Scene 2, what does the storm apparently mean to Lear himself? How does he address the storm — to what extent does he connect its operation with what Regan and Goneril have done to him?

19. In Act 3, Scene 2, what service do the Fool’s songs and other utterances provide the King as both men suffer in the storm? How do you understand the Fool’s “prophecy” from lines 80-96? What is he suggesting?

20. In Act 3, Scene 4, what significance does King Lear find in “Poor Tom’s” sufferings and in his crazed utterances? What connections does he make between himself and this supposed beggar? What does he learn from him?

21. In Act 3, Scene 5, King Lear stages a mock trial for Regan and Goneril, with Poor Tom (soon to cast off his disguise) and the Fool (who exits the play at the end of this scene) as judges. What accusations does Lear level against Regan and Goneril? What might he be trying to accomplish by putting them on trial — what kind of “justice” is he looking for, and how does he assess the quality of the ad hoc court he has established?

22. In Act 3, Scene 7 (one of the most distressing scenes in any play I can recall), Gloucester, having been taken prisoner in his own home, is blinded. Why is it appropriate to Goneril’s nature (and to that of her sister as well) that she should choose this specific punishment for Gloucester, and how do the prisoner’s words only reinforce the desire of Regan and Cornwall to inflict that very punishment on him?


23. In Act 4, Scenes 1 and 6, the wretched Gloucester conceives of and then tries to make his final exit, but as it turns out, he is — or rather isn’t — in for a real letdown. What is Edgar trying to accomplish with his artistic, but misleading, treatment of Gloucester? Also, to what extent does Edgar’s interaction with his father Gloucester parallel or differ from his interaction (as Poor Tom) with the mad King Lear in Act 3, Scene 4?

24. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and then 5, Goneril first plots with Edmund to have him replace her husband Albany, and then Regan attempts to gain Oswald’s help as a courier in winning Edmund’s affections. How does this sexual competition symbolize the new dispensation to which Lear’s mistakes have led his kingdom? How does Albany’s assessment of Goneril (and Regan) in Act 4, Scene 2 help characterize this kingdom-wide degeneration?

25. In Act 4, Scene 6 (line 80ff) Lear engages in mad a ramble about the nature of kingship and authority, womankind, and the institution of justice. What obsessions grip him, and what insights does he offer regarding some of these subjects?

26. In Act 4, Scene 6 (lines 227-70), Edgar catches Oswald in the act of attempting to kill old Gloucester and dispatches him, reading afterwards Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund. Why does Edgar confront Oswald in rustic dialect? What role in the unfolding tragedy has Oswald played up to his ignominious end?


27. In Act 5, Scene 3, Lear, on his way to an army-camp holding cell with Cordelia, lays out his vision of the future the two will share. How does he assess the pair’s present circumstances, and what predictions does he make for their future? To what extent do the King’s lyrical words at this point, and in the aftermath when he confronts Cordelia’s lifeless body, amount to tragic insight? What has he learned from the terrible events that he has partly set in motion?

28. In Act 5, Scene 3, Regan and Goneril argue over Edmund. Where do they do so? Is this setting important? As asked in a previous question, how does this sexual competition symbolize the new dispensation to which Lear’s mistakes have led his kingdom? If you already deal with that question, consider Goneril’s answer to Albany when he confronts her with the letter she wrote to Edmund: how does she construe the nature of the political power she has been given?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1, Edgar (as an anonymous knight) gives Albany the letter he had found on Oswald’s body, and issues a challenge against Edmund as a traitor to his brother, father, and Albany. In Scene 3, Edmund must defend himself against the accusation of treason that Albany has seconded against him. In what sense is it poetic justice that the fight with Edgar should prove to be Edmund’s undoing? (Edmund had earlier declared “nature” his ruling spirit or concept; in the name and service of what outlook does he in fact die?)

30. In Act 5, Scene 3, by the play’s end, everyone who had stood to inherit the kingdom has died or been slain. Someone has to accept the responsibility of governing. What attitudes do Albany, Kent, and Edgar adopt towards this responsibility? Do Edgar’s last four lines (5.3.324-27) adequately sum up the play? Why or why not?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, we are introduced to Cymbeline and Imogen. How does their discord (its causes and the manner of their interaction) compare to that of Lear and Cordelia in King Lear? Moreover, what other similarities and/or differences can you find between the current play’s opening scene and the beginning of King Lear?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, Cymbeline’s Queen converses with Imogen, and we meet the Queen’s son Cloten. In what regard are these two held, and why? What difference between the mother and the son begins to appear even at this early point? But in what sense do they resemble each other as well?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Posthumus’ “ring wager” come about? What are the terms of the wager between Jachimo and Posthumus? While such a bet no doubt seems unfair and even absurd to modern sensibilities, on what grounds might a medieval or early modern man have defended it?

4. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does the try to advance her plot against Imogen’s match with Posthumus? What does she ask of the doctor, Cornelius, and how does he respond in word and deed? What is the Queen’s use for Pisanio at this point?

5. In Act 1, Scene 6, how does Jachimo attempt to traduce Imogen? What virtues does she demonstrate in responding as she does? Based on all you have seen of Imogen thus far in Act 1, what seems to be the guiding principle by which she speaks and acts?


6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, what anxieties and ambitions does Cloten manifest in his conversations with the Lords, with Cymbeline and the Queen, and finally with Imogen? How does he understand his own situation at Court and with regard to Imogen, whose affections he covets?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, what details does Jachimo gather in order to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful? What significance do Jachimo’s classical allusions (to Tarquin, Tereus and Philomela) add to this wicked scene?

8. In Act 2, Scene 4, Jachimo lays out his “evidence” against Imogen’s chastity. What makes the pitch effective as a piece of rhetoric? What weakness in Posthumus does Jachimo shape his unveiling of the evidence to exploit? What general view of women does Posthumus proclaim by the fifth scene?


9. In Act 3, Scene 1, what different attitudes do Cymbeline, the Queen, and Cloten take up towards Augustus Caesar’s demand that the Britons pay tribute? What relationship obtains between Cymbeline and the Roman ambassador Lucius, and what seems to be the underlying reason for this relationship? If you are presenting on this question, please add some very brief background on relations between the Romans and the Britons around the time frame Shakespeare references (one helpful page is’s ).

10. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 4, how does Imogen react first to the news that Posthumus is in Wales (Cambria) at Milford-Haven and then to the knowledge that he believes she has been false to him? What is Pisanio’s plan to redeem the situation, or at least to avoid the worst that might happen? How does the Imogen react to this plan?

11. In Act 3, Scene 3, we meet Belarius and the two young men he has raised, Guiderius and his younger brother Arviragus. What is Belarius’ story — why was he banished? What sort of life do he and the two young men lead, and in what setting? In what ways do their perspectives on this situation differ? How does this new “Belarius subplot” relate to the main one?

12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how does Cymbeline react to the news that his daughter Imogen has fled the court? What more do we learn about the Queen and Cloten’s respective plans in this scene? In particular, what is Cloten’s rationale for the attempt he plans to make against Imogen?

13. In Act 3, Scene 6, how do Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus receive Imogen, disguised as “Fidele”? How does this reception deepen the contrast already established between the existence these three men lead and the life others lead at the court of Cymbeline?


14. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and 4, how do Arviragus and Guiderius show their “quality” as young men of aristocratic birth? What does Belarius apparently think of this manifestation of nobility, and what concerns him about the bold deed of Guiderius? To what extent does the play as a whole (up to this section) validate the idea that noble birth should be taken as a promise of innate goodness?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, what happens to Imogen as “Fidele” when she drinks the potion that Pisanio gave her some time ago? When she awakens to find a headless body next to her, what confusions set in that the rest of the play’s unfolding will have to resolve?


16. In Act 5, Scenes 1-3, what role do Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius play in saving Cymbeline and Britain from defeat by the Romans? What motivates Posthumus to join with these three against the Roman army?

17. In Act 5, Scene 4, Posthumus’ departed parents and brothers appear to him in a dream. What is the substance and import of his dream? How do the shades who appear to Posthumus in his sleep address Jupiter, and how does the God respond to their address? What does Posthumus learn, if anything, from the dream?

18. In Act 5, Scene 5, by what means is the identity of Imogen and Posthumus finally revealed to Cymbeline and the others at court? What specific device does Shakespeare employ to accomplish this revelation?

19. In Act 5, Scene 5, what further difficulty does this discovery lead to with respect to Belarius and Guiderius, and how is the new problem resolved? What about the fate of Lucius the virtuous Roman, and the devious Jachimo — what happens to them?

20. Act 5, Scene 5 concludes with Cymbeline’s commands, “Laud we the gods, / And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils / From our blest altars / . . . . Let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (474-79). Contrast the ending of King Lear with the concluding scene of Cymbeline: what makes it possible for the latter play (a romance) to end with forgiveness, concord, and security while the tragedy King Lear ends in crushed hopes and death? What assumptions are operative in Cymbeline that are not viable in King Lear?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake