A Study Guide
See Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Annotated Texts
Table of Contents
Type of Work Key Dates Sources Settings Tone Title Information Characters
Plot Summary Climax Themes Structure and Characterization Imagery Figures of Speech
Historical Cymbeline Use of Disguises Imogen's Charm Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, and 2013 .©
Type of Work
Cymbeline is a stage comedy with elements of romance. The play is a comedy in the classical sense—that is, it has a happy ending. Its primary purpose is not to provoke laughter but to present a story with an interesting plot. Some observers, such as the English critic and essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), maintain that the play is primarily a historical drama (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817).
Date Written: 1609 or
Shakespeare based Cymbeline on an account in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?). The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. Shakespeare also used a story in The Decameron, by Boccaccio (1313-1375). The Decameron, written between 1349 and 1353, consists of one hundred tales told by seven men and three women to pass the time after they isolate themselves in a villa to escape the plague. An English translation of The Decameron appeared in 1566 in Palace of Pleasure, by William Painter. Shakespeare may also have used A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), by George Ferrers and William Baldwin, as a source.
The tone of the play is generally serious, although it has lighthearted moments.
However, the marriage of Imogen to Posthumus infuriates King Cymbeline because he had arranged for Imogen to marry Cloten, his stepson by his marriage to his second wife, now the queen. Cloten is obnoxious, mean-spirited, repulsive. His mother, the new queen, is no better than her son, although her wheedling tongue has apparently deceived Cymbeline into believing that she has regal qualities and that Cloten is a worthy heir to Cymbeline’s title and property.
The first gentleman then discloses that Cymbeline had two sons by his first wife. One of the boys was destined to inherit the throne. However, a kidnapper absconded with them when they were infants. In the twenty years since the two boys disappeared, no search has turned them up and no word has been heard of their fate. Because Imogen defied his wishes and married the lowly Posthumus Leonatus, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus before the lovers can consummate their marriage. Henceforth, they are not even to speak to each other, the first gentleman says as he finishes his account of recent events.
The action of the play then begins when Posthumus decides to go to Rome and lodge with Philario, who was a friend of his father. The queen smarts from Imogen’s rejection of her son, Cloten. In retaliation, she pretends that she will intercede on behalf of Posthumus, then tattles to the king that Posthumus has not yet left the court but lingers with Imogen, thus defying the king’s command.
Posthumus asks Imogen to write to him, and the couple exchange gifts. Imogen gives Postumus a ring, saying:
This diamond was my mother’s; take it, heart;Posthumus swears he will die before marrying another, then places a bracelet on Imogen’s wrist. By these tokens, they mean to keep alive their love for each other. Cymbeline storms in and orders Posthumus to leave immediately, then scolds Imogen severely for marrying a base commoner.
In Rome, at the house of Philario, Posthumus speaks of his beloved Imogen as a woman of extraordinary virtue. Her constancy, he says, is beyond reproach. Present is Philario’s acquaintance Iachimo, a young man who delights in working evil against others. Iachimo wagers that he can make Imogen submit to him. Philario attempts to divert the conversation to another subject, but Posthumus unwisely accepts the challenge. Iachimo then bets ten thousand ducats against Posthumus’s diamond ring that he can seduce Imogen. Posthumus confidently declares that Iachimo will fail.
Iachimo travels to Britain and, using a letter of commendation from Posthumus, introduces himself to Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus. When Postuhumus left for Rome, Pisanio remained behind to look after Imogen. After reading the letter, Pisanio introduces Iachimo to Imogen. Not long after meeting and conversing with her, Iachimo realizes that Posthumus was right: This young woman is as constant and faithful as a sunrise. Iachimo then resorts to deceit to advance his cause. First, he tells Imogen that Posthumus lives the life of an unprincipled pleasure-seeker in Rome. In revenge, Iachimo says, Imogen should give herself to him. However, Imogen remains steadfast, refusing to believe Iachimo and refusing to yield to his advances. The clever Iachimo then admits his lies, claiming he was merely testing her to see whether she was true to her husband. Imogen accepts his explanation. What is more, she agrees to safeguard overnight in her room a chest which Iachimo says contains treasure.
All this while, Imogen’s stepmother has been up to no good. She directs her malevolence this time against Pisanio. The queen orders her physician to prepare a poison she will offer to Pisanio as a kind of health elixir. However, the physician, aware of her evil ways, cooks up a drug that numbs the senses temporarily, but does not kill. When she present the drugt to Pisanio, she tells him to
take it for thy labour:Meanwhile, when attendants deliver the chest to Imogen’s room, Iachimo is in it. After Imogen falls asleep, Iachimo emerges and spies out the evidence he will need to convince Posthumus that his wife was unfaithful. Not only does he write down details about the room that Posthumus will surely recognize, but he also makes a note of a birthmark under Imogen’s breast. In addition, while Imogen remains in deep sleep, he steals the bracelet Posthumus gave Imogen. He then returns to Italy with a false story to tell.
After Imogen awakens in the morning, Cloten enters her room, tells her he loves her, and insists that her marriage contract to Posthumus means nothing because it was not approved by the king. But Imogen bluntly rejects him and asserts that he could never be the equal of Posthumus even if he were the son of Jupiter. The humblest garment that Posthumus owns, she says, is dearer to her than anything of Cloten’s. She then calls for Pisanio. When he enters, Imogen reports that she cannot find the bracelet Posthumus gave her; Pisanio is to ask her servant, Dorothy, to search for it. In Rome, Iachimo confronts Posthumus with what appears to be overwhelming evidence of Imogen’s infidelity: the bracelet and knowledge of Imogen’s birthmark. Posthumus, dumbfounded, concludes that Imogen yielded to Iachimo; he gives up the diamond ring and curses Imogen: “O, that I had her here, to tear her limb-meal!” (2. 4. 189) But even as Posthumus loses faith in Imogen, her faith in him remains as strong as ever as she rejects the advances of Cloten, declaring he is not worth even the humblest garment ever worn by Posthumus.
Cymbeline has problems of his own. Caius Lucius, an ambassador from Rome, arrives at Cymbeline’s court to remind him that he has not paid the emperor a required annual tax, or tribute, of three thousand pounds. Cloten speaks up, saying Britain will no longer pay the tribute. His mother, the queen, supports her son’s refusal to pay, saying Rome’s so-called conquest of Britain was really not a conquest at all; for Britain retains a hearty fighting force capable of defending itself and a government capable of self-rule. Cymbeline himself then refuses to pay. In the name of Rome, Lucius issues a declaration of war on Britain and leaves under a safe conduct pass he has received as an ambassador.
Meanwhile, Posthumus, depressed and angry over Imogen’s “infidelity,” sends a message to Imogen asking her to meet him in at Milford Haven in Wales. He sends another message to his servant Pisanio, telling him to escort Imogen to Wales, then kill her. Pisanio is shocked that his master would issue such a command; Pisanio well knows that Imogen is the noblest and most virtuous woman in the land. Under no circumstances would she even contemplate disloyalty to her husband. Nor would Pisanio ever raise a hand against her. While he considers what to do, Imogen leaves for Milford Haven, as instructed by Posthumus in her letter.
Near a cave in Wales, the sons of Cymbeline—Guiderius and Aviragus—hunt for deer with Belarius, the man who kidnapped them twenty years before. They think he is their father. He tells them that he fought for Cymbeline against Rome, suffering many wounds. However, he says, two villains told the king that he had defected to the Roman side. Consequently, the king banished him. When the two young men run off to chase deer, Belarius reveals, in a soliloquy, that Cymbeline is their real father. Further, he reveals that, out of revenge for his banishment, he kidnapped the boys when Guiderius was three years old and Aviragus two. Guiderius, the first-born, is heir to Cymbeline’s throne.
Elsewhere, as Imogen makes her way to Milford Haven, Pisanio catches up with her and reveals the contents of the letter in which Posthumus ordered Pisanio to kill Imogen. Imogen, devastated, sees no reason to go on living and urges Pisanio to carry out the order. But Pisanio tells her that Posthumus must have been deceived by an evildoer and persuades her to take part in a plan to make things right. Here is the gist of it: Pisanio will send a message informing Posthumus that Imogen is dead. In it will be proof of her death (a piece of her clothing, blood-stained). Imogen, meanwhile, will continue on to Milford Haven in the guise of a page boy, wearing male clothing Pisanio has brought with him. Such a disguise will help protect her against those who would harm her, whether Cloten or invading soldiers, and also enable her to join up with the Romans so that she can observe coming events without giving herself away as the king’s daughter.
Pisanio gives her the elixir prepared by the queen’s physician as a curative against stomach qualms or other distempers that may arise from stressful situations on her journey. Calling herself Fidele, Imogen walks on but loses her way. After two days, tired and hungry, she takes refuge in the cave of Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus. When they return from their hunt after killing a deer, the young men take a liking to the “page boy”; Imogen warms to them as well. But Imogen, of course, is not aware that Guiderius and Aviragus are her long-lost brothers; nor are they aware that she is their sister. The men go back out to dress the deer and roast the meat. Imogen prepares it to their liking.
When Cloten learns of Imogen’s absence from court, he dons some old clothes of Posthumus (proving to himself that he is at the very least the equal of Posthumus as he remembers Imogen’s jibe that he was less esteemed than Posthumus’s humblest garment). Then he sets out after her. Believing that Posthumus has returned from Italy and that she has gone to meet him, Cloten plots to kill Posthumus and defile Imogen.
At the cave the next day, Imogen, perhaps still fatigued from her long journey, feels woozy. While the men go off to hunt again, she remains behind to recover her strength. To help nature along, she takes a swig of the elixir. Before the men go very far, they happen upon Cloten. Belarius, realizing he is the son of the queen, goes off to scout the area, thinking there may be others traveling with Cloten. While they are gone, Cloten assumes Guiderius is an outlaw and insults him. They spar verbally, then fight. Guiderius decapitates him and throws his head into a stream.
When the Belarius and Aviragus return, Imogen is in a stupor induced by the elixir, and everyone thinks she is dead. Aviragus and Guiderius experience deep sorrow, for they had grown to love the page boy as if he were their own brother. They carry her body into the forest, lay it down beside the headless Cloten, and cover both bodies with flowers. When Imogen awakens later in a daze from the effects of the drug, she thinks she must have been walking toward Milford Haven. Then she sees the headless body of Cloten in the clothes of Posthumus and concludes that Pisanio must have killed Posthumus. She faints, falling on the body.
After Roman troops under Lucius arrive at Milford Haven and march eastward, they discover Imogen—still disguised as a page—lying on Cloten’s corpse. She awakens from her fainting spell, still thinking the body next to her is that of Posthumus. She praises him to the Romans, and they think her a fine lad and take her with them.
Meanwhile, young men of Rome—including Iachimo and Posthumus—have also landed at Milford Haven to fight for the Romans. Posthumus, who has a blood-stained handkerchief sent to him by Pisanio as evidence that he killed Imogen, deeply regrets ordering her death. He takes off his Roman garb and puts on the clothes of a British peasant, deciding he will fight to the death for the Britons for the sake of Imogen. In the Roman camp, Iachimo, too, regrets his past action, saying he betrayed a noble lady. During the battle, Belarius, Guiderius, and Aviragus take the field on the British side. The Romans capture Cymbeline, but Guiderius and Aviragus rescue him. Then the tide turns and the Britons capture Lucius. Posthumus, who has fought valiantly, regrets that he did not die in battle, so he tells two British soldiers that he is a Roman, hoping they will arrest him for execution. He gets his suicidal wish, and they take him into custody.
During his captivity, he falls asleep and sees the ghosts of his father, Sicilius, and other dead family members. When they petition Jupiter for mercy on him, the great god appears and predicts Posthumus’s fortunes will rise and that he will reunite with Imogen.
In his tent on the battlefield, Cymbeline, victorious, inquires about the peasant (Posthumus) who fought valiantly for the Britons. Belarius says he is nowhere to be found. The physician Cornelius arrives to announce that the queen has died. The absence of her son, Cloten, from the court apparently precipitated a fatal malady. Before she died, she confessed that she never loved the king but married him for his position and power. Furthermore, Cornelius says, she despised Imogen and concocted a plan to kill her. Finally, he says, she intended to murder the king himself by giving him poison in small doses, enabling her to care for him while he was dying and extract from him a promise that Cloten would succeed as king. Witnesses to her evil deeds are there to swear that Cornelius’s story is true.
Lucius, now a prisoner of Cymbeline, enters and graciously begs mercy for the page boy (Imogen) with him, saying the boy served him with great distinction. Belarius, Guiderius, and Aviragus are surprised to see that the boy they thought dead is still alive. Imogen then sees Iachimo—and the ring he won from Posthumus. Still conscience-stricken, Iachimo confesses his evil scheme against Posthumus and Imogen. While Posthumus is led away for execution, Iachimo identifies him. Posthumus curses Iachimo, then condemns himself as the murderer of Imogen. To the astonishment and joy of everyone, the page boy then reveals himself as Imogen.
Pisanio then discloses the villainy of Cloten, and Guiderius owns up that he beheaded Cloten during a violent quarrel. His disclosure makes Imogen realize that the headless body she saw when she awakened from her stupor was Cloten’s. Belarius next takes his turn at a confession, revealing that Guiderius and Aviragus are the king’s true sons and that it was he, Belarius, who made off with them two decades before. When the king sees a birthmark on the neck of Guiderius, he knows that Belarius is telling the truth. Meanwhile, Aviragus and Guiderius are joyful at the news that the page boy turns out to be their sister.
Posthumus forgives Iachimo, and the king pardons all captives. In addition, although he has won the battle against Lucius, he agrees to pay tribute to Rome, realizing that the empire is a mighty power with many more legions in reserve. Peace reigns and Posthumus and Imogen are reunited as husband and wife.
I draw the sword myself: take it, and hitBut Pisanio, who has always believed in the innocence of Imogen, refuses to carry out the order. The climax comes when Pisanio says, "Hence, vile instrument! / Thou shalt not damn my hand" (3.4.68-69). In refusing to murder her, Pisanio thwarts Iachimo's evil plan, saves Imogen's life, and allows the drama to proceed to a happy rather than tragic ending. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Iachimo is revealed as a villain, the "page" is revealed as Imogen, and Imogen and Posthumous are reunited, supposedly to live happily ever after. .
Great Buys on the Following Items at Amazon.com
Cameras Cell Phones and Accessories Computers Digital Music Game Downloads Jewelry
Kindle E-Readers Musical Instruments Men's Clothes Women's Clothes Handbags and Shoes
Fidelity triumphs over treachery. A faithful and innocent young woman overcomes mistreatment, calumny, and other injustice to be reunited with her husband.
All is not as it seems. (1) Posthumus is deceived into believing that Imogen has been unfaithful even though she remains steadfast in her love for him. (2) Imogen disguises herself as a male page to join the Romans and return with them to Italy to find Posthumus. (3) After Imogen swallows a potion and goes into a stupor, Arviragus and Guiderius believe she is dead. (4) After Imogen awakens she mistakes the dead Cloton, who is wearing Posthumus's clothes, for Posthumus.
It is never too late to redeem oneself. Posthumus, who plotted to kill Imogen, suffers deep remorse and redeems himself.
The queen owns up to her treachery on her deathbed. Cornelius says she repented her misdeeds during the long absence of her son, Cloten. Iachimo likewise confesses his evil deeds and gains a pardon. At the same time, Belarius reveals that it was he who kidnapped Cymbeline's son. Cymbeline and Lucius make peace.
Deception is everywhere in life. Iachimo tricks Posthumus into believing Imogen has been unfaithful. Posthumus deceives Imogen in his letter to her, telling her he loves her at a time when is plotting to kill her. Imogen deceives everyone with her disguise as a page boy. Cloten, though dead, deceives Imogen into believing that he is Posthumus because he is wearing Posthumus's clothes. Belarius deceives Guiderius and Aviragus into believing that he is their father. The queen pretends to love Cymbeline even as she plots to poison him. Only Imogen, the virtuous heroine, benefits by deceiving others.
Structure and Characterization
Cymbeline has a complicated plot requiring time leaps and rapid shifts in scenes from one locale to another. As the details of the plot unfold, the central love story broadens into many subplots or episodes involving the evil schemes of Iachimo, the queen, and her son; the war between Rome and Britain; and the adventures of the king's lost sons.
To weave all the plot elements into a whole and to resolve all the conflicts, Shakespeare leaves little time for character development and sometimes forces contrived resolutions. For example, Iachimo and the queen—both presented as irredeemably evil at the beginning of the play—surprisingly confess their crimes to other characters before the end. Imogen becomes sick—of what ailment, who knows—providing a way for Shakespeare to have her drink the elixir concocted by Cornelius and fall into a stupor on the headless body of Cloten, who just happens to be wearing the clothes of Posthumus. (Because of the clothes, Imogen believes Posthumus is dead.)
Posthumus is the ostensible hero of the piece, but its greatest charm is the character of Imogen. Posthumus is only interesting from the interest she takes in him, and she is only interesting herself from her tenderness and constancy to her husband. It is the peculiar characteristic of Shakespear's heroines, that they seem to exist only in their attachment to others. They are pure abstractions of the affections. We think as little of their persons as they do themselves, because we are let into the secrets of their hearts, which are more important. We are too much interested in their affairs to stop to look at their faces, except by stealth and at intervals. No one ever hit the true perfection of the female character, the sense of weakness leaning on the strength of its affections for support, so well as Shakespear--no one ever so well painted natural tenderness free from affectation and disguise--no one else ever so well showed how delicacy and timidity, when driven to extremity, grow romantic and extravagant; for the romance of his heroines (in which they abound) is only an excess of the habitual prejudices of their sex, scrupulous of being false to their vows, truant to their affections, and taught by the force of feeling when to forego the forms of propriety for the essence of it. His women were in this respect exquisite logicians; for there is nothing so logical as passion. They knew their own minds exactly; and only followed up a favourite idea, which they had sworn to with their tongues, and which was engraven on their hearts, into its untoward consequences. They were the prettiest little set of martyrs and confessors on record.--Cibber, in speaking of the early English stage, accounts for the want of prominence and theatrical display in Shakespear's female characters from the circumstance, that women in those days were not allowed to play the parts of women, which made it necessary to keep them a good deal in the back-ground. Does not this state of manners itself, which prevented their exhibiting themselves in public, and confined them to the relations and charities of domestic life, afford a truer explanation of the matter? His women are certainly very unlike stage-heroines; the reverse of tragedy-queens.
The imagery in Cymbeline is typically Shakespearean—absolutely brilliant at times, with many memorable lines. One example of the outstanding imagery is the aubade (joyful song about dawn and its beauty) performed by musicians:
Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,Another example is Pisanio's condemnation of slander (Iachimo's crime) in the fourth scene of Act 3, beginning at line 35:
Slander,In Act 3, Shakespeare, through Pisanio, gives the English-speaking world a familiar phrase to describe a restless night: “I have not slept one wink” (3.4.98).
Following are example of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
I something fear my father’s wrath. (1.1.102)Anaphora
Had I this cheekApostrophe
Arm me, audacity, from head to foot! (1.6.24)Hyperbole
I would have broke mine eye-strings, crack’d them, butHyperbole and Metaphor
This Cloten was a fool, an empty purse,Irony, Dramatic
.......When Iachimo meets Imogen, he presents her a letter from Posthumus. In it, Posthumus says Iachimo is a noble person "to whose kindnesses I am most infinitely tied" (1.6.27). Consequently, Imogen treats Iachimo courteously. She is thus ignorant of what the audience well knows: that Iachimo is a rogue who will attempt to seduce her.Metaphor
And with mine eyes I’ll drink the words you send,Personification
I, in mine own woe charm’d, 76Simile and Metaphor
Ere I couldSimile
The Historical Cymbeline
Which character in the play do you most admire?
Which character do you least admire?