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Cymbeline (1609)

Cymbeline (1609)

Hundred Word Summary

Imogen, rejecting Cloten’s unwanted advances, secretly marries Posthumus.  But banished to Italy, his trust in his wife is poisoned by the devious Iachimo. 

Britain defaults on its debts to Rome, and legions sail north, with Iachimo – and Posthumus – conscripted: battle looms in Wales.   

Imogen, desperate for Posthumus, heads west, pursued by Cloten.  But he’s distracted by a quarrel with three local warriors, and loses his head. The Italian army is routed. 

The battle lost and won, the local warriors emerge as heroes: two acclaimed as the King’s long-lost sons, the once-banished Posthumus no less central to victory. 


Table of Contents


“Cymbeline” is an experimental play, not easy to classify by genre.  It has features of a Romance, especially in the love Imogen nurses for Posthumus, fitfully reciprocated.  There are elements of the History genre too, in the dysfunctional relationship between Imperial Rome and Celtic Britain, resolved on the battlefield.  It is generally classified somewhat neutrally as a Late or Problem Play, with all that that implies for the exploration of conscience, regret, forgiveness and long-lost family members reconciled. 

Essentially there are three stories here.  In the foreground, the immaculate Imogen, having married in secret the worthy Posthumus, finds her hopes of true love dashed first by his exile to Italy and then, increasingly, his seeming hostility to her.  Meanwhile the imbecilic Cloten and the devious Iachimo complicate an already confused picture – until she connects with three Welsh warriors who behave to her – now in disguise as a male – like a brother.  Shakespeare labours the simile, with reason. 

Next there is the background narrative, in which Rome is cast as an imperial power over Ancient Britain, extracting protection money and launching an invasion when the natives become restless.  The action shifts to West Wales where the Roman army is landed, then roundly defeated, and the kingdom is saved by the heroism of three Welsh warriors, already encountered, who have a back story of their own – aided by the now-penitent Posthumus. 

The connection between foreground and background is the Welsh warriors: the older Belarius and the two young men Guiderius and Arviragus.  Their connection to the King goes back two decades, with Belarius’s expulsion from court and the revenge he exacts by kidnapping the King’s two young sons.  As the play comes to a close, an avalanche of revelations restores the King to his sons and their sister to her brothers, while hinting at redemption for Posthumus.   

Much of this play, while not impossible, is highly improbable (“Shakespeare never bothers to be probable” says Harold Bloom), and there is confusion too in the locations it features: Wales is prominent some four or five centuries before it began to exist, and abroad is a confusion of Imperial Rome and Renaissance Italy.  Moreover, Cymbeline’s palace, the locus of much of what happens here, is not given a specific location.  But in numerous other features – the female disguised as male, the long-lost siblings reunited, the revelations and reconciliations in the closing scene – much of the play is authentic Shakespeare. 



Scene by Scene 


Act One Scene One 

Two gentlemen discussing affairs at court reveal that the king’s daughter has married against his will. 

Her husband, “poor but worthy”, orphan of a late warrior and raised by the King, is now to be exiled. 

Nobody sympathises with his losing rival, Cloten, the Queen’s son, seen as “Too bad for bad report”. 

The King did have two other sons but they disappeared twenty years ago, never to be seen again. 

The Queen disingenuously assures Posthumus she will be “your advocate” but Imogen is suspicious. 

Posthumus tells Imogen he will be staying in Rome at the house of a friend of his late father, Philario. 

Imogen gives him a diamond ring once her mother’s; he responds with a bracelet, then hurries away. 

The servant Pisanio reports that Cloten “drew on” Posthumus as he departed but no harm was done. 

Act One Scene Two 

Cloten, stung by his rejection in love, claims he would have killed Posthumus given the chance. 

His audience of two lords alternately flatter and insult him, deriding him as a “fool” and an “ass”. 

Act One Scene Three 

Pisanio, a servant, recounts to Imogen the details of Posthumus’s departure for Italy from Wales. 

Act One Scene Four 

Posthumus’s friends await his arrival in Rome with lavish praise for his “catalogue of endowments”. 

When he arrives, a French friend reminds him of a past conflict over his lover’s chastity and fidelity. 

Now he engages the Italian Iachimo in the same debate, though the host Philario tries to intervene. 

Iachimo wagers “ten thousand ducats to your ring” that he can compromise Imogen’s honour. 

Posthumus agrees, on condition that if Iachimo fails the task “you shall answer me with your sword”. 

Act One Scene Five 

The “master doctor” Cornelius has been asked by the Queen for drugs that cause a “slow death”. 

But he “will not trust one of her malice”, and gives her instead drugs whose effects are temporary. 

The Queen charges Pisanio to persuade Imogen of Cloten’s virtues, and gives him the box of drugs. 

She hopes he will take the drugs himself and administer some to Imogen, but nobody trusts her. 

Act One Scene Six 

Imogen laments her loneliness and wishes she could have been “thief-stol’n” like her two brothers. 

Iachimo arrives from Italy with a letter from Posthumus suggesting he is “merry” despite his exile. 

Iachimo adds that Posthumus laughs at the idea of women’s constancy and “Has forgot Britain”. 

But when he propositions her, Imogen rejects him, persuading Iachimo to change his approach. 

Claiming to be testing her honour, he praises her fidelity and reports Posthumus is widely respected. 

But he asks her to keep safe a trunk of expensive plate and jewels bought in France bound for Rome. 

Act Two Scene One 

Cloten discovers an Italian associate of Posthumus has “come to court tonight” and goes to find him. 

The Second Lord wonders at Cloten’s stupidity, and sympathises with Imogen’s “horrid” situation. 

Act Two Scene Two 

In Imogen’s bedroom Iachimo emerges from the trunk, committing to memory details of her room. 

He removes her bracelet, notes the mole on her chest, then repairs to the trunk to conceal himself. 

Act Two Scene Three 

Cloten maintains his pursuit of Imogen by recruiting musicians to serenade her, but without success. 

The King advises him to be persistent since she will soon forget Posthumus – “And then she’s yours”. 

Cloten tries to bribe one of Imogen’s servants, then encounters Imogen and tells her he loves her. 

She calls him a fool, says she hates him, and adds he isn’t worth Posthumus’s “meanest garment”. 

She summons Pisanio to go and find her missing bracelet, which she believes she saw this morning. 

Act Two Scene Four 

Posthumus predicts that Rome will soon punish Britain for failing to pay the “arrearages” it owes. 

Iachimo has returned from visiting Imogen, and reveals he has been “the winner of her honour”. 

Iachimo describes Imogen’s bedroom in detail, produces her bracelet, and describes her mole. 

Posthumus believes his evidence, and swears to return to Britain to murder Imogen “i’the court”. 

Act Two Scene Five 

Alone, Posthumus imagines Iachimo seducing Imogen, believing he may have “found no opposition”. 

He berates women for a wide range of shortcomings, and resolves to “Detest them, curse them”. 

Act Three Scene One 

Ambassador Caius Lucius reminds Cymbeline that Britain’s “tribute” to Rome has not been paid. 

The Queen supported by Cloten reminds Lucius that Julius Caesar’s invasion was “twice beaten”. 

Cymbeline adds the British became “a warlike people” to free themselves from “injurious Romans”. 

Cymbeline notes that other tribes are revolting against the Romans, and dares them to “beat us”. 

Act Three Scene Two 

Pisanio recoils to hear from Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful and he must “murder” her. 

Imogen hopes her letter from Posthumus will “relish of love”, but it simply says he is in West Wales. 

She immediately calls on Pisanio to help her escape the palace and then accompany her to Wales. 

Act Three Scene Three 

Belarius in West Wales sings the praises of country living to his two sons Guiderius and Arviragus. 

The boys regret that, unlike their father, they have “seen nothing” of life at court and feel “prison’d”. 

But Belarius believes life at the centre is treacherous – he was himself deceived two decades ago. 

He recounts how at Cymbeline’s court he was accused of treachery and sent into exile in Wales. 

He left with the King’s two sons, the older Guiderius, now Polydore, and Arviragus, now Cadwal. 

Act Three Scene Four 

When Pisanio and Imogen arrive in West Wales, he grimly hands her a letter from Posthumus. 

His letter accuses Imogen of infidelity, and instructs Pisanio to murder her at Milford Haven. 

She accuses Posthumus of betrayal, and draws her sword to invite Pisanio to carry out the threat. 

He refuses, and suggests instead she disguise herself as a man, and offer her services to Lucius. 

He adds he has brought male clothing for her – and a box of medicinal herbs “if you are sick at sea”. 

Act Three Scene Five 

Cymbeline and his court bid farewell to Caius Lucius who, with war inevitable, heads home to Italy. 

Cymbeline notices Imogen’s absence, and the Queen remembers that Pisanio has the box of herbs. 

If she takes them and dies as a result, the Queen believes she will “have the placing of the crown”. 

Cloten has mixed emotions about her – then, bullying Pisanio for news, he is given a letter to read. 

He bribes Pisanio to provide him with a suit of Posthumus’s clothes, then reveals his plans. 

He will travel to Wales where Posthumus is to meet Imogen, then kill the former and rape the latter. 

Act Three Scene Six 

Alone, lost and hungry, Imogen – now Fidele – comes across a deserted cave with food to eat. 

When its inhabitants return – an older man and two boys – they treat Fidele as if he were a brother. 

Act Three Scene Seven 

In Rome, Lucius is appointed to lead the Roman army in “our wars against / The fall’n-off Britons”. 

Act Four Scene One 

Cloten, newly arrived in West Wales, focuses on his plans to murder Posthumus and rape Imogen. 

Act Four Scene Two 

Imogen is unwell, so self-medicates with Pisanio’s herbs, to sleep while the three men go off to hunt. 

Cloten arrives, admitting to being “faint”, to be recognised by Belarius and confronted by Guiderius. 

Cloten reveals his identity (“Hear but my name and tremble”), only to be denounced as a “fool”. 

Guiderius kills him and cuts off his head, much to Belarius’s alarm what repercussions may follow. 

Guiderius departs to dispose of Cloten’s head while Belarius reflects on the boys’ instinctive nobility. 

Arviragus returns with Imogen’s body apparently dead in his arms and prepares to inter her remains. 

The brothers deliver their funeral song “Fear no more the heat of the sun” over Imogen’s body. 

Belarius brings in the body of Cloten, and scatters wild flowers over him, as the three men depart. 

Imogen awakes delirious, to find Cloten’s headless body in Posthumus’s clothes lying next to her. 

She believes she recognises Posthumus’s body, and blames Pisanio and Cloten for the murder. 

She falls on the body as Lucius appears, looking ahead to fresh Roman troops arriving under Iachimo. 

Lucius asks Imogen to explain the corpse, to be told it is her master’s body, and asks her to join him. 

She agrees but first the body must be laid to rest and “a century of prayers” intoned before they go. 

Act Four Scene Three 

Cymbeline, lamenting his wife’s illness and his daughter’s absence, threatens Pisanio with torture. 

News of the Roman landing concerns Cymbeline less than that “We grieve at chances here”. 

Meanwhile Pisanio is troubled and anxious, clear in his patriotism but trusting to good fortune. 

Act Four Scene Four 

With the Roman army intruding on their territory Belarius advises retreat “higher to the mountains”. 

He fears being recognised by Cymbeline’s army, but his two sons are keen to join up and fight. 

Act Five Scene One 

Flourishing a “bloody handkerchief”, Posthumus regrets Pisanio seems to have murdered Imogen. 

Though Pisanio was ordered to kill her, even so, “Every good servant does not all commands”. 

Wracked with guilt, he renounces any loyalty to Rome and resolves to “die / For thee, O Imogen”. 

Act Five Scene Two 

Posthumus, disguised as a “carl” or foot-soldier, fights and defeats the guilt-ridden Iachimo in battle. 

Cymbeline is captured, but is rescued by Belarius, Guiderius and Arvirargus, as Rome is defeated. 

Act Five Scene Three 

Posthumus describes the heroic fighting of Belarius and his sons, which turned the battle for Britain. 

The three warriors, defending a narrow lane on the battlefield, proved to be “the Romans’ bane”. 

Posthumus says he sought death on the battlefield, but disguised as a Roman he means to die now. 

British soldiers report that a fourth warrior helped to win the day, then find and arrest Posthumus. 

Act Five Scene Four 

Imprisoned by the British, Posthumus yearns for death to release him from his feelings of guilt. 

He sleeps and dreams of his father and mother – and two brothers who once died of wounds in war. 

Ghosts of his late family deliver encomiums of sympathy for Posthumus, calling for his forgiveness. 

Riding an eagle, Jupiter promises to “uplift” their “low-laid son”: “He shall be lord of Lady Imogen”. 

The ghosts disappear, and Posthumus awakes to discover an end to “his miseries” is predicted. 

Posthumus is taken by two gaolers to be hanged, convinced that Hell rather than Heaven awaits him. 

At the last moment a messenger arrives to announce that the prisoner is to be brought to the King. 

Act Five Scene Five 

Cymbeline praises the three warriors who saved his throne, and laments the absence of the fourth. 

Asked by the KIng to describe their origins, Belarius limits himself to a fictional birth in “Cambria”. 

Cornelius announces the Queen’s death, along with a death-bed confession to having killed Imogen. 

Caius Lucius arrives, to accept his army’s defeat and to beg for the life of his “boy” to be spared. 

Cymbeline agrees and offers Imogen “what boon thou wilt” – and she requests a private hearing. 

The three Welsh warriors – and Pisanio – think they recognise the boy, but she focuses on Iachimo. 

Asked how he came by the diamond ring he’s wearing, he gives the King a long-winded explanation. 

Posthumus admits he had Imogen killed because of Iachimo, and bitterly laments the part he played. 

Told by Fidele to listen further, Posthumus strikes him, at which Pisanio recognises him as Imogen. 

But Imogen is angry at him for giving her poison – a charge Pisanio rejects with Cornelius’s support. 

As the three warriors recognise Imogen as Fidele, she embraces her still more guilt-ridden husband. 

The King gives Imogen his blessing and tells her of the Queen’s death and Cloten’s disappearance. 

Guiderius confesses to having killed Cloten – for which crime the King condemns him to execution. 

Belarius intervenes to reveal that his two sons “are none of mine”, but are “the issue of your loins”. 

He recounts the story of his banishment, his marriage to Euriphile and the theft of the children. 

Imogen welcomes her “gentle brothers” and Cymbeline, reconciled to Belarius, praises the Gods. 

Posthumus reveals his real role in the battle, which Iachimo supports and Arviragus can confirm. 

Posthumus asks the soothsayer to explain the prophecy, which promises reconciliation to all. 

Cymbeline announces he’ll “submit to Caesar”, and means their flags to “wave / Friendly together”. 


Thinking Aloud 

The play opens in a way familiar to students of Shakespeare – with a summary of the “back story”.  Three themes emerge: the King’s only child, a daughter, has lately chosen between two rivals for her hand, disdaining the suitor favoured by her father; second, the chosen suitor, Posthumus, has been an adopted member of the royal family since his warrior father was killed in battle, and has grown up an exemplary young man by comparison to his rival, but has now been exiled; finally, the King did once have two other children, sons mysteriously “stol’n” twenty years ago, with no trace left of them. 

Shakespeare’s plots are often built around binary oppositions – that is, pairs of characters or themes that invite comparison with one another.  For example, Juliet has two suitors, Paris and Romeo, who are very different from one another.  A similar narrative structure is used here: Imogen, the King’s only daughter, shares Juliet’s situation, romanced both by the estimable young orphan Posthumus and the worthless son of the King’s wife, Cloten.  As a general rule in Shakespeare, suitors supported by parents (as Cloten is here) rarely win the maiden’s hand.  So it will prove in “Cymbeline”. 

An “Aside” in Shakespeare is a comment intended for the ears of the audience only.  Two Asides in the opening two scenes shed light on how we are meant to understand the play. In 1.1, the Queen pretends to take the side of the soon-to-be-parted Posthumus and Imogen by warning them of the King’s anger – “Yet” she tells the audience, “I’ll move him to walk this way”, and she does.  The audience realises at once that she is not to be trusted.  Then in 1.2 (and again in 2.1), two lords toy with the Queen’s self-important son Cloten, alternately flattering him to his face while deriding him for a fool to the audience.  It follows that dramatic irony – where the audience is better-informed than the characters – plays a central part in the unfolding of events. 

The play has three locations.  Initially events are set in the King’s palace – location undisclosed – and eventually the scene will shift to West Wales.  Act One Scene Four, however, takes us to Rome, and this serves as a reminder that the play is set in the period when Rome dominated the known world as an imperial power.  Britain’s role here is essentially that of a reluctant colony, a relationship that must have triggered thoughts in the minds of the audience of a much later power struggle between Britain and Rome, ongoing at the time Shakespeare was writing. Around one third of Shakespeare’s plays are set (either wholly or in part) in Italy. 

Act One Scene Five is a festival of deceit and mistrust.  First the Queen, having asked the doctor to provide her with poisonous drugs, lies about why she wants them.  The doctor supplies her with drugs, but not the ones she asked for, because he does not trust her.  The Queen gives these drugs to Pisanio, and lies about them, claiming they have saved the King from death many times, and encouraging him to take the drugs himself.  Pisanio says nothing in reply, but closes the scene by telling the audience he will not be doing what the Queen has asked. It’s notable that throughout this avalanche of lies, the audience has been kept fully informed. Further lies are delivered – and exposed – in 1.6, with the visit to Imogen of the cynical Iachimo. 

When Iachimo emerges from the trunk in Imogen’s bedroom as she sleeps in 2.2, he remembers how Tarquin “Did softly press the rushes, ere he waken’d / The chastity he wounded”.   This is a reference to the Classical myth in which Tarquin, a son of the Roman royal family, attacks and rapes Lucrece, the wife of a Roman general, then sees his family chased out of Rome as a result. This story is mentioned in five of Shakespeare’s plays, most famously perhaps at the moment when Macbeth creeps towards Duncan’s chamber to murder him.  Here, as there, the implication is of criminal intentions while the world sleeps.  Shakespeare’s most detailed exploration of the story appears in “The Rape of Lucrece”, a 2,000 line poem published in 1594 near the start of his career. 

From the Interview between Cloten and Imogen in 2.3 emerge two narrative saplings that will blossom as the play progresses.  First, when Cloten presses Imogen to respond to his romantic overtures, she tells him he is worth less than Posthumus’s “meanest garment”.  It’s an insult that sticks in his mind – not only here (he repeats it four times) – but also later in the play, when he goes in search of Imogen wearing clothes belonging to his rival, with unforeseen consequences. The second theme is the missing bracelet, which Imogen feels sure she has seen this morning.  As the audience know already – dramatic irony once again – Imogen lost the bracelet the night before, as she slept. 

When Iachimo shows the bracelet to Posthumus in 2.4, the audience is reminded that villains in Shakespeare are always more devious than their victims.  In producing the bracelet, Iachimo does certainly seem to produce evidence of Imogen’s infidelity – though the audience know the bracelet was acquired by deception.  It’s a reminder, among other echoes, of the main plot of “Othello”, in which the hero is persuaded of his wife’s infidelity by a misplaced handkerchief.  Confusing the object for the act is perhaps an easy mistake to make, and both Posthumus and Othello come to regret the false conclusions they jump to. 

Following his outburst in 2.5, laying at women’s door every imaginable shortcoming, the once-admirable Posthumus disappears from the play for two acts.  His soliloquy, though forgivable in the context of his wounded pride and fading idealism, does little to endear him to the audience – it seems more Cloten than Posthumus.  With the cynical Iachimo the third of three young men dancing attendance on Imogen, one can only wonder at Shakespeare’s view of young men at this stage in his writing: deceitful, intemperate and self-regarding (as Iachimo, Leonatus and Cloten might be described), the male of the species seems rather more deserving of the insults in 2.5 than the female.   

When Guiderius and Arviragus regret in 3.3 that they have only ever known life in the natural world, and feel trapped by their own limited experience, their father replies that he has had quite enough experience of life at court, and would not recommend it.  In particular, it’s a life of restless ambition, insecurity, anxiety, rivalry and mistrust, where the virtuous and deserving are routinely punished or short-changed.  This is his own experience, he says – and it may well be Shakespeare’s too, since this is a theme to which he returns in many of his later works, including the long poem “A Lover’s Complaint”, published in 1609, the year “Cymbeline” was written.  Shakespeare’s last complete play, “The Tempest”, was written in 1611. 

Pisanio reveals in 3.4 that he has been instructed by Posthumus to kill Imogen as punishment for her alleged infidelity, but he suggests instead she disguise herself as a man and join the staff of the visiting Roman Lucius.  The strategy is familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences, who will have seen many of his best-loved female characters don male clothing to dramatic effect: these include Portia (in “The Merchant of Venice”), Rosalind (in “As You Like It”) and Olivia (in “Twelfth Night”).  His audiences would also have been aware that all female parts were played by young men, thus redoubling the gender fluidity the playwright implies in scenes like these. 

In 3.3, as mentioned above, Belarius tries to persuade his country-bred sons that life lived close to nature is healthier psychologically and morally than life at court. In 3.6 and 4.1, Shakespeare signals his agreement with Belarius by contrasting the instinctive kindness of the two young men with the cynical violence Cloten intends for Imogen and Posthumus.  The three country-dwellers are presented as generous and inclusive – indeed, as brothers, or at least as siblings – whereas Cloten’s intentions focus partly on his crimes and partly on escaping responsibility for them. If Imogen is Shakespeare’s most virtuous female character, as one critic suggests, then only Cloten’s lack of depth saves him from being Shakespeare’s most grotesque male creation. 

Where Cloten ranks in the scales of Shakespeare’s villains is a moot point.  But in the opinion of the other characters in the play, he is less villain than fool – a remarkably common observation on the part of the other characters.  The Second Lord says so in 1.2.  Imogen says so in 1.6.  The Second Lord confirms his first impressions in 2.1 (“You are a fool, granted; therefore your issues, being foolish, do not derogate”) and Imogen confirms her view in 2.3 (“I am sprited with a fool”).  Pisanio reaches the same conclusion in 3.5 (“This fool’s speed / Be cross’d with slowness”), and Guiderius underlines the point four times in 4.2, often with admirable clarity: “Thou art some fool”, he tells Cloten, and then, once he is dead, an uncompromising “This Cloten was a fool”.  On that, it seems, agreement is general. No character in Shakespeare has been the target of such relentless disrespect since Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, written ten years earlier. 

When in 5.1 Posthumus regrets that Pisanio seems to have followed his instructions and murdered Imogen for her apparent infidelity (“Every good servant does not all commands” he claims), he is echoing a seminal moment in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603). In 1587, when Shakespeare was a young man, Mary Queen of Scots, a prisoner in the English Midlands, was condemned to death and her death warrant signed by Elizabeth.  But she did not pass it on to the relevant authority for action – that was left to members of her Privy Council, who acted on their own initiative, and were never forgiven.  Shakespeare explores this idea in “King John” (1596) – where the victim is Prince Arthur, a young pretender to the throne – and returns to it here, some two decades after the incident it evokes. 

When Posthumus recounts in 5.3 the story of the three warriors – an older man and his two young lads – who win the day for Britain defending a narrow lane on the battlefield, Shakespeare’s audience would have been reminded of the tale of the Horatii and the Curiatii, a legend from Ancient Rome.  With war between Rome and Alba Longa a stalemate, it was agreed that three warriors from each side should settle the issue.  The Roman Horatii were quickly reduced by two-thirds, but adopting a cunning strategy, the last survivor defeated his three rivals and won the day for Rome. In 5.4, incidentally, it emerges that Posthumus himself is one of three warrior brothers, two of whom have died in battle. 

Just as the opening scene condenses various “back stories” on which later events develop, so the closing scene looks back on what has happened to make sense of a somewhat convoluted narrative.  Yet very little in 5.5 adds to the audience’s understanding of what has taken place: on the contrary, because of the use of dramatic irony, the audience has generally been better informed than the characters, and will learn little from the 600 lines it comprises.  Matters arising in 5.5 include: Fidele’s true identity; Belarius’s back story and the true identity of his sons; Pisanio’s innocence of poisoning Imogen; Posthumus’s role in the battle; Iachimo’s abysmal behaviour.  Other than these (all of which were already known to the audience), we are informed of two new developments in this long closing scene: the Queen is dead, and all is revealed and forgiven.  


Who’s Who / Characters  


Sceptical about Iachimo and his story – but also, conversely, exceptionally credulous and easily fooled.  At first she is crestfallen at what Iachimo tells her about Posthumus’s life in Italy, but when she realises that this is all quite improbable she cannily rejects his story.  Yet when Iachimo changes tack and asks for her to provide room for his chest of jewels in her bedroom, her scepticism disappears, she is anxious to please and readily assents. 

She is determined and passionate.  She could remain at her father’s palace enjoying the life of a princess.  Instead she goes in search of her husband Posthumus and puts her life on the line in pursuit of him.  She is resourceful enough to disguise herself as a male, and resilient enough to overcome the horror of Posthumus’s letter to Pisanio, instructing him to murder her for infidelity. 

She is fiery when provoked.  When Cloten tells her he loves her, she has the courage to tell him he is a fool, she hates him and he isn’t worth one of her husband’s meanest garments.  Meanwhile her attention is distracted by her missing bracelet, the source of many ills to come. 



An orphan raised at court as a poor relation, he marries Imogen in secret, ahead of his putative rival Cloten and against the King’s wishes.  Highly regarded by his contemporaries at court, he is equally welcomed in Rome by friends there who are much taken with his “catalogue of endowments”. 

Nevertheless, his wager with Iachimo is a vertiginous fall from grace.  The audience’s opinion of him plummets, partly because we know him to be grievously mistaken, largely because the wager is below his dignity (as is the company he seems to be keeping).  His reaction when told of his partner’s infidelity – he means to kill her – contrasts with Imogen’s scepticism when told something similar about him.  Our view of him declines further with his misogynistic outburst in 2.5. 

His performance on the battlefield and thereafter is meant to redeem him in our eyes and Imogen’s.  To a modern mind this is largely unsuccessful.  True, when he hits Imogen in 5.5 he thinks he is hitting her male alter ego Fidele, but the moment is still shocking and overshadows a gathering sense of redemption the audience may have felt.  Imogen is clearly special and it would be hard for any male character to be worthy of her.  Posthumus probably isn’t. 

Quick Quiz

What do we learn of Posthumus’s father in the opening scene? 

What gift does Imogen give Posthumus before he leaves for Rome? 

Identify the stakes involved in Posthumus’s wager with Iachimo. 

What does Iachimo claim to Imogen is in the trunk? 

Which physical feature on Imogen’s body does Iachimo commit to memory? 

By which name is Imogen known in her disguise as a male? 

What is the effect of the herbs Imogen takes in Act Four? 

Why when she awakes does Imogen think the body next to her is Posthumus? 

Who is responsible for Cymbeline’s release after he is captured by the Romans? 

What does Jupiter promise for Posthumus in 5.4? 

He was a warrior, now dead 

A diamond ring 

Ten thousand ducats to the diamond ring. 

Expensive plate and jewels 

The mole on her chest. 


They induce sleep, and their effect is temporary 

Cloten has come dressed in Posthumus’s clothes. 

Belarius, Guiderius and Arvirargus 

That he will be “lord of Lady Imogen” 

Last Word 

Shakespeare will always be associated with The Globe Theatre, but in 1609, the year “Cymbeline” was written, the King’s Men bought into a new arena and began staging plays there.  This was The Blackfriars Theatre, north of the Thames, facing The Globe – an arena that offered the playwright untried opportunities to experiment because it was covered, an indoor theatre.   

In 5.4 there is evidence that “Cymbeline” was performed here – the moment when Jupiter descends on an eagle, an episode which would have been complicated at The Globe (an open-air theatre), but was much more manageable at The Blackfriars.  More importantly, perhaps, The Blackfriars was an exceptionally lucrative arena for the share-holders of the King’s Men, catering to a well-heeled clientele and capable of bringing in twice the take at The Globe. 

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