Cymbeline, King of Britain

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

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 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 Filario 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 since we have 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 is the virtuous obverse of Edmund of Gloucester—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona not grata at Cymbeline’s court.  Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s—she fights back spiritedly when the King puts her suitor down as a “basest thing” (pg. 224, 1.1.125) and banishes him.  Cymbeline, she says, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and he will not recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.  Looking forwards, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable; in truth, they can be revoked with a change of heart, a word.  Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are.  The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in Lear would be the wronged and initially spiteful but ultimately loyal Belarius, who will return Cymbeline’s long-lost sons to him when he least expects it. 

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear—indeed, critics such as Harold Bloom have insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner any number of silly plot devices that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but somehow still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation (whee!); a preposterous violation of the so-called unity of time; identity switches / 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 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.  Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the Bard is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are still wonderful.  That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: she is a memorable heroine who rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her.

We are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (pp. 221-22, 1.1.28-42).  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; namely, that Posthumus is a far worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the aristocratic oaf of a son belonging to Cymbeline’s new queen: “not a courtier—/ … / … hath a heart that is not / Glad of the thing they scowl at” (pg. 221, 1.1.12-15), meaning the frustration of Cloten and the banishment of Posthumus.  As for that 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 for a moment: “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 Filario, a friend of his deceased father (287, 1.1.96-99).  Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (287, 1.1.113-124).  But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms up and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (287-88, 1.1.126, 132).  But of course, Imogen is by no means disloyal.  In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the adventures she undertakes she only reconfirms what was already inside of her.  In the romance world, adventure and happenstance turn out to have magic properties, or 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), Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty.  Imogen shows herself to be as strong as her imperious father when she defies his will as follows: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (288, 1.1.144-46).  These are not the words of a pushover in the face of royal prerogative. 

As for the departure of Posthumus, it is not without some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (289, 1.1.161-64).  As we shall see, this departure profoundly alters 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 or quality or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss.  Alienation is one of the main ways we discover what we 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.

Act 1, Scene 2 (289-90, 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.  It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: “that she should love this fellow and refuse me!”  (290, 1.2.22)

Act 1, Scene 3 (290-91, 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” (291, 1.3.36-38).  With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be infinitely 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, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and assent to the play’s harmonies and reconciliations.  The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round to that orientation?

Act 1, Scene 4 (291-94, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’ ring for Imogen’s compromised honor)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we quickly realize that Posthumus learns little from experience.  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 exactly the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian.  This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most pre- / cious diamond that is, nor you the lady” (292, 1.4.64-65).  In other words, he mocks Posthumus for positing 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” (293, 1.4.114-15).  Posthumus makes 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 (294, 1.4.141-43).

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.  Posthumus isn’t an evil character, but from our modern perspective, we may well question his judgment.  As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (Norton Tragedies 757, 1.4.325).  For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’ 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” (Matthew 6:13)  It’s hard to argue with a statement like that.  In modern times, we call what Posthumus does “entrapment.”  And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering, all-encompassing monster jealousy.  Iago of Othello pins 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” (Norton Tragedies 473, 3.3.326-28).  Once indulged, such a powerful emotion 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.

Act 1, Scene 5 (294-96, 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 up (294, 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 (295, 1.5.18-20).  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” (295, 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’ fake poison that she hopes the servant himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy.  The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humour, shall be assured / To taste of too” (296, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (296-301, 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 (297, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes 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” (298, 1.6.22).  Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (300, 1.6.137), which causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honourable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (300, 1.6.143-44).  But Giacomo is more than up for the occasion, declaring just as boldly as before that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (300, 1.6.163-65).  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 (301, 1.6.186-94).

Act 2, Scene 1 (302-03, Cloten again puffs himself up, it 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 we find in Cloten.  The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance.  Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (302, 2.1.40) 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 go, 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 deny 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 stop short the generosity of romance time.  And the “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius.  Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus.  The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” just like the imaginary insect in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (303, 2.1.52-53).  Well, as they say, talent skips a generation.

Act 2, Scene 2 (303-04, 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” (303, 2.2.12-13).  He notes various ornamentation’s and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (304, 2.2.37).  And if you are in assiduous reader of Shakespeare, by now you will feel perfectly at home betting your life savings 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”(304, 2.2.45).  Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’ love by means of a deceptive command of fact: 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,” as President Reagan famously called them, but they don’t often matter very much in Shakespearean romance or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Caesar, and in fact Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.  But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli, which is so far over the top and beyond credibility 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 might as well have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern “Italians” greeting one another across what simple logic tells us should be a gap of 1600 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. (“The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820)

Act 2, Scene 3 (304-08, Cloten orders up 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 heave gate sings …” (305, 2.3.17).  Face to face, the this declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply only a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you” (307, 2.3.103-05).  One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s hilarious journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome ().  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 (308, 2.3.128).  This elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (308, 2.3.150).  Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 304, 2.2.34) 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” (308, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (308-12, 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 Filario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (308-09, 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 Filario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (311, 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 Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore” (Norton Tragedies 474, 3.3.363-64).  And the reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the agonized romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain as big as hell can hold …” (312, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (312-13, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him)

Posthumus hits enough misogynistic home runs to make it into the woman-bashers’ hall of fame on the first ballot: “We are bastards all …” (312, 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 …” (313, 2.4.20-22).  He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (313, 2.4.15-17).  For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leonatus from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1.  As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t.”

Act 3, Scene 1 (313-15, 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 3000 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…” (314, 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” (315, 3.1.73), 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 (315-17, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she immediately 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” (315, 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 her female assistant fetching her “… a riding-suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (317, 3.2.77-78).

Act 3, Scene 3 (317-19, 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—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…” (318, 3.3.22), 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 …” (318, 3.3.32-33).  Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (318, 3.3.42-44).  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 back story we need to understand 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.  Needless to say, Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (318-19, 3.3.65-70).  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 his futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile the king’s 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 (319, 3.3.80-107).  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.  The setting in romance plays tends to be unrealistic, so there’s no need to escape into the magical world to grow and develop and then return to accomplish 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 (319-24, 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 …” (321, 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 (322-24, 3.4.124-79).  Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” 324, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (324-28, 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 (325, 3.5.53-54), who comes under 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 dishonour, and my end / Can make good use of either” (326, 3.5.2-64).  Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than 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 (327, 3.5.125-26).  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 space…” (327, 3.5.134-35).  This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, he 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 (308, 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 (327, 3.5.139-41).  If you want to top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, I suppose, you would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where he tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where you would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor.  And even Aaron sounded like he was making up some of that stuff about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors (Norton Tragedies 170, 5.1.135-40).  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.

Act 3, Scene 6 (328-30, 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 respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner.  She claims 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” (329, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (329, 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.

Act 3, Scene 7 (330-30, Lucius is appointed proconsul, i.e. Rome’s general against the Britons)

Lucius is appointed proconsul, with the responsibility of marshaling forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (331-31, 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 prospective ravishment of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her father” (331, 4.1.16) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline.  This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear an over-courtly fop, really a stock character in the Shakespearean canon.  If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with false courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively.  He certainly does not meet the high standards of any of the Bard’s more serious villains.

Act 4, Scene 2 (331-41, Imogen / 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 / Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless body of Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen / Fidele and offers “him” a chance to join up with the Romans)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at this ability she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (332, 4.2.32-33).  Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen as Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try that wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (332, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (333, 4.2.66-67).  Only Guiderius is left on the scene to face Cloten, who immediately demands that Guiderius 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” (334, 4.2.124), 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 …” (336, 4.2.177-79).  Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (336, 4.2.185-87).

Arviragus soon enters with what seems to be the lifeless body of Fidele / Imogen (336, 4.2.196).  Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial a member of the royal family deserves (338, 4.2.250-52).  For Fidele / Imogen, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (338, 4.2.259-60; see 259-82).  The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers “must come to dust” (338, 4.2.270).

Now alone next to the headless body of Cloten, Imogen awakens: “A headless man?  The garments of Posthumus?”  (339, 4.2.310) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was by no means the cordial he claimed it to be (339, 4.2.328-31). 

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul, or Gallia as this play terms it, and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (340, 4.2.334-43).  A soothsayer portends success to the Romans: “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (340, 4.2.350-82).  Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen / Fidele.  The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen / Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (341, 4.2.384), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried.  So Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (341-42, 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, and Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (341, 4.3.1-9), as 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” (342, 4.3.45-46).  This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.

Act 4, Scene 4 (342-44, 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” (343, 4.4.21-22).  But his argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight.  Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed, too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (344, 4.4.51-52).

Act 5, Scene 1 (344-44, 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” (344, 5.1.32-33).

Act 5, Scenes 2-4 (345-45, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen / Fidele)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo in the second scene; the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (345, 5.2.1).  In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus who, as they put it, “stand, and fight” (345, 5.3.4).  They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus.  In the fourth scene, Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen / Fidele from the Briton advance.

Act 5, Scene 5 (345-52, Posthumus, disheartened by an interlocutor’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured and imprisoned by the Britons: at this point he wishes only for death; Posthumus’ departed relatives beg Jupiter for justice; the god gives them a prophetic tablet to lay on the sleeping man’s chest)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and company, 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” (347, 5.5.53-54).  Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (347, 5.5.75-83).  He is promptly captured by those troops and cast into prison, where he meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.116-23).

Posthumus’ departed father, mother and brothers appear to Posthumus 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” (349, 5.5.159-60).  Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross …” (350, 5.5.195).  In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (350, 5.5.201-02).  Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast, 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 (351, 5.5.232-37).  When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, Britain will thrive.  Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell him he is to be hung: “O, the charity of a penny cord!”  (352, 5.5.258) Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline before his execution.

Act 5, Scene 5 (352-64, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queens’ death and her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen / Fidele be spared death, but “he” doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing, and details his villainy; Pisanio names Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s kidnapped sons; Posthumus admits that he’s the valiant soldier who helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy affixed to Posthumus; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the 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 (353, 5.6.20).  Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (353, 5.6.25-27).  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 (353-54, 5.6.37-52) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten.  But when he went missing, the queen was driven to distraction.  Cymbeline is stunned, but 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” (354, 5.6.62-25).

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen / Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (355, 5.6.85-86).  Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me …” (355, 5.6.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. 

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen / Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (355, 5.6.123).  Pisanio recognizes her as well.  Imogen / Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (356, 5.6.135-36), 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: 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 wreck that is Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (356-357, 5.6.153-208).  But at last, the wily Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad …” (357, 5.6.199-201).

When Imogen / Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (357-58, 5.6.214-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (358, 5.6.231), 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 “359, 5.6.263-64).  Cymbeline informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is accorded to that event. 

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’ deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, telling her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales.  Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (359, 5.6.287) Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (360, 5.6.299).  This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew …” (360, 5.6.303), which risks enraging Cymbeline.  But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that he had, in fact, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, kidnapped them after his banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (361, 5.6.345-46).  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 increases the old man’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (362, 5.6.373), 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” (362, 5.6.375).  Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (362, 5.6.383-85).

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 (363, 5.6.413-18), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (363, 5.6.419).  That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (363, 5.6.423).

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 (363-64, 5.6.443-58).  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” (364, 5.6.477, 479-81).

Nearly all has been set right by the end of the play, with the un-emphasized exception of the death of the queen and her wicked 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 romance, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death, at least for the characters who matter most.  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 royal absolutism of the final act is pushed aside with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son.  Iachimo 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.  (The point of romance doesn’t seem to be character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform altogether and as if by magic.)  Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread, even to the point of silliness: how, we might ask, could any British king be in such a good mood that he feels like paying tribute to the very Romans he has just beaten in battle?  This final strange twist in the plot is in part a nod to historical fact since, even though they seem to have had a great deal of trouble keeping the island fort locked down, so to speak, they had a permanent impact on English life. 

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true.  Generosity reigns over chaos, intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility.  Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can bring mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities.  Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of alienation from identity and return to it in a more secure state than ever: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition to the maximum extent possible, 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 that is at least largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground every person’s time on earth.  The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a 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 part somewhat with the young men whom 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 © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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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