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William Shakespeare: Cymbeline
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2000

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgment: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is adequately satisfying late Shakespeare, though not deeply moving, and the language is not as memorable as in earlier plays.

Per Bevington: Cunobelinus or Cymbeline was a leader of the Celtic chieftains in SE England during the period of Roman hegemony following Julius Caesar's invasion in 54 BCE, ruling c. 5 to 40 AD at Camulodunum. He had become quasi-legendary by the time of the writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britanniae" c. 1136, in which he was included with Leir, Locrine etc. He is also described in Holinshed's "Chronicles" (1587 edition) and Spenser's "Faerie Queene", as well as Blenerhasset's contribution to "The Second Part of The Mirror for Magistrates". WS also drew for the romantic elements of the plot from the ninth tale of the 2nd day of Boccaccio's "Decameron", in which a wager on a wife's virtue is made. He also drew on "Frederyke of Jennen", and the plays "The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune" and "Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes". The play "Philaster" by Beaumont and John Fletcher was written about the same time and is similar in its use of the romantic genre. The play is a romance, tragicomedy, or a comedy of forgiveness. It deals in improbable fictions of romance, etc. but WS was responding to a new literary fashion, for tragicomedy of refined sensibilities. He is experimenting in an innovative and unique way. Initially, the prevailing tone is serious but gradually this mood lightens...

Act I

Act I Scene 1

Britain, court of King Cymbeline. Two gentlemen discuss the marriage of the king's daughter Imogen to Posthumus Leonatus against the king's will, leading to Posthumus' banishment. Cymbeline had wanted Imogen (born of his former wife/queen) to marry his second queen's son (by a former husband) Cloten. Cloten is "too bad for bad report". Posthumus is an orphan of non-noble origin, the son of Sicilius Leonatus (who fought valiantly under Cymbeline's uncle against the Romans, showing great courage & thereby earning the surname "Leonatus", meaning lion-born). His mother died at his birth and the king put him under his own protection and raised him in the court. Leonatus had two other sons who died in battle, and he died soon afterwards before Posthumus was born. The king had two children of his own [Guiderius and Arviragus], who have been long missing and thought dead after they were kidnapped at the age of 3 some 20 years ago.

Queen enters with Posthumus and Imogen. She duplicitously promises to advocate Posthumus' cause to the king, then leaves the couple together alone. Imogen fears her father's wrath and tells him to be gone. He is going to visit his friend in Rome, Philario, and they agree to write. Posthumus receives a diamond ring from Imogen (it belonged to her mother) and he gives her a bracelet which she puts on.

Cymbeline enters (the encounter is instigated by the Queen) and angrily threatens him with death for his presumed disloyalty--P. leaves. Imogen pleads with him. Cymbeline disparages the low birth of Posthumus. Imogen says it was not her fault to fall in love with her playfellow.

Pisanio, Posthumus' servant, announces that Cloten has drawn his sword on Posthumus, who responded by merely toying with him. Pisanio has been discharged from serving the banished Posthumus in exile, and asks to serve the queen instead.

Act I Scene 2

Same. Cloten enters with 2 lords--he is still sweating from his duel. They comment (aside) how he has been a fool for trying to fight Posthumus, etc.

Act I Scene 3

Pisanio describes to Imogen the departure of Posthumus. She regrets she was unable to give him a goodbye kiss. She is called to the queen.

Act I Scene 4

Rome, at Philario's house, perhaps at a feast. Philario, his friend Iachimo, and a Frenchman speak of Posthumus' achievements and his sad banishment. Posthumus enters. The Frenchman tells of a dispute in Orleans between Posthumus and another man over the chastity and honor etc. of their respective country mistresses. Posthumus says she (Imogen) still holds her honor and virtue. Iachimo challenges her worthiness of such praise and Posthumus defends her to him. Iachimo wagers that, with adequate conversation and an introduction from Posthumus, he could seduce even her. Posthumus bets his ring from Imogen against 10,000 ducats that Iachimo cannot seduce her. Philario unsuccessfully tries to stop this wager. Posthumus adds that if Iachimo succeeds, the two men will remain friends and Posthumus will have no further use for Imogen, whereas if he fails he will answer to Posthumus' sword. They shake on it.

Act I Scene 5

Britain, court. Queen meets with her physician, Cornelius, to receive poisons from him. She makes excuses about what she intends to do with them (aside, she says she will poison Posthumus). He warns her about them and, aside, expresses his suspicions as to her dark intent. But instead of giving poison that causes a lingering death as she requested, he has given her a nonlethal drug that makes one only temporarily appear dead ("stupefy and dull the sense awhile").

Queen gives Pisanio the box of poison and tells him to use it when he is in need, as it has redeemed others from death. She secretly wants him dead and out of the way because she knows he is Posthumus' supporter, and also intends to poison Imogen unless she accepts Cloten as her husband. 

Act I Scene 6

Same. Imogen laments her fate. Pisanio introduces her to the newly arrived Iachimo. Iachimo gives her a letter of introduction from Posthumus. She reads while he marvels at her beauty. He begins to praise her eyes, her beauty, etc. and she wonders if he is unwell. Iachimo sends Pisanio away. He tells her how merry and full of revelry Posthumus has been in Rome, never sad. He tells of Posthumus' cynical attitudes toward women. He hints that she should be pitied, but feigns reluctance to say more. Prompted by her, he goes on to describe Posthumus' wanton life of dissipation with prostitutes and says she should be revenged on him. He offers to dedicate himself to providing her pleasure such as her husband has been enjoying. But she calls in Pisanio and angrily condemns his dishonorable attempt on her virtue. Knowing now he cannot seduce her, he shifts direction, saying he was just testing her virtue on Posthumus' behalf, and is grateful to see hers is intact. He says all that he said was merely a false report. She is relieved. He asks her to store his valuable trunk of jewelry and plate overnight in her bedchamber which she agrees to.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Same. Cloten speaks with 2 lords--he has had an unseemly dispute with another man. He rages on profanely. They tell him Iachimo has arrived from Posthumus. Around him, they speak in cleverly and ambiguously disparaging terms of him, and left alone, they comment on what an ignoble stupid ass Cloten is, how unworthy he is for Imogen.

Act II Scene 2

Imogen's bedchamber. Helen brings in the trunk and Imogen bids her goodnight, then falls asleep. Iachimo comes out of the trunk, compares himself to Tarquin (in the Rape of Lucrece), admires her beauty. He writes down the details of her chamber, removes her bracelet, and notes a characteristic mole on her left breast, then reenters the trunk.

Act II Scene 3

Near Imogen's apartment. Cloten converses with his lords about his gambling losses, and how winning Imogen would bring him more gold. He has heard that providing music for Imogen will help to win her over, and has musicians play a song: "Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings ... "

Cymbeline and Queen enter. Cloten laments how his wooing has been unsuccessful to date. She gives him some advice on how to win her.

A messenger arrives to announce the arrival of Caius Lucius, ambassador from Rome. Left alone, Cloten plans to bribe one of Imogen's attendants to gain admittance to her room: " 'Tis gold / Which buys admittance--oft it doth--yea, and makes / Diana's rangers false themselves, yield up / Their deer to th' stand o' th' stealer". He knocks and gives gold to the lady who answers, then enters. He swears to Imogen he loves her, but she disdains him and calls him a fool, saying she hates him. He condemns her allegedly invalid marital contract with Posthumus, and envisions the brats and beggary such a union would result in. But she continues to berate him, saying he is too base to be Posthumus' groom and that Posthumus' meanest garment is dearer to her than any part of Cloten. Pisanio enters and she sends him to her woman Dorothy. She is worried that she cannot find the bracelet that Iachimo has stolen. Cloten angrily leaves, saying he will inform his father of her actions.

Act II Scene 4

Rome, Philario's house. Philario tells Posthumus that Caesar Augustus is sending Caius Lucius to demand a renewal of the tribute previously won by Julius Caesar but lapsed in recent years and in arrears. But Posthumus says his countrymen are better prepared to defend themselves than when JC conquered them.

Iachimo returns to them. He gives letters, then claims he has won the wager and the ring. As evidence, he recounts the paintings in her bedchamber, the chimney and chimneypiece of the chaste Dian, the andirons, and then shows the bracelet. Posthumus concedes he has won and gives the ring, condemning her infidelity. But Philario protests, saying the evidence is insufficient and could be stolen. Posthumus demands a corporal sign, and Iachimo describes the mole under her breast, then receives the ring again from Posthumus, who is persuaded beyond doubt and very bitter.

Act II Scene 5

Same. Posthumus condemns the infidelity, changeability, and other bad traits of women in a long soliloquy.


Act III Scene 1

Britain, court. Cymbeline meets with Caius Lucius and discuss the requested tribute. Cloten speaks out intemperately and disparagingly of the Romans and of the Briton's strength. Queen also recalls with satisfaction the resistance put up by the valiant Cassibelan against Julius Caesar. Cymbeline speaks of their past freedom prior to the arrival of the Romans. Lucius warns them their refusal to pay tribute will mean war. Cymbeline recalls his own service under Augustus, but notes that the Pannonians and Dalmatians are currently in rebellion against Rome, and so should his realm be. Despite these words, they warmly welcome Caius Lucius to receive their hospitality before he bears news of their defiance back to Rome as their enemy.

Act III Scene 2

Same. Pisanio reads a 1st letter from Posthumus accusing Imogen of adultery and is incredulous, knowing she has been slandered. The letter asks him to kill her and provides a 2nd letter for him to give her to make this possible.

Imogen enters and he gives her the 2nd letter, which says Posthumus is in Cambria [Wales] and wishes to meet her at Milford Haven [the language is studiously ambiguous]. She does not see the ambiguity and rejoices at the thought of seeing him again, and wants Pisanio to take her to him.

Act III Scene 3

Wales, before the cave of Belarius. Belarius is a banished lord, living in primitive conditions in disguise as Morgan. He speaks to his "sons" "Polydore" (actually Guiderius) and "Cadwal" (actually Arviragus). He sends them out to hunt... He recalls his days when he valiantly fought against the Romans and was loved by Cymbeline. Two villains swore false oaths that claimed he had allied with the Romans, leading to Cymbeline banishing him 20 years ago. Alone, he recalls how he kidnapped Cymbeline's young sons in retaliation, to prevent him from having heirs to the throne. They were brought up by the nurse Euriphile, whom they thought was their mother.

Act III Scene 4

Wales, near Milford Haven. Posthumus is not to be seen and Pisanio shows Imogen the 1st letter instructing him to kill her, accusing her of being a strumpet, etc. She cannot understand these false accusations, recalls Iachimo's tales, and suspects some woman has put her husband up to this. She offers her sword and asks Pisanio to kill her, but he refuses. And she is prevented from suicide by divine prohibition. She takes letters she received from Posthumus from her bodice and throws them away, condemning Posthumus for leading her into disobedience against her father only to suffer this fate. She wonders why Pisanio brought her so far, but he says he has done this to win time and lose bad employment. She realizes Posthumus has been misled and hatches a plan. He will say she is dead and present bloody proof [in the form of a bloody handkerchief]. She will present herself, disguised as a man, to Caius Lucius when he comes to Milford Haven and will ask to serve him. They agree to the plan and he provides her with a cloak bag. He also gives her the poison from the queen, saying it will comfort her if she is seasick or having stomach distress.

Act III Scene 5

Britain, court. Cymbeline and Lucius bid each other goodbye, now to be enemies at war. Lucius asks for safe conduct to Milford Haven. Cymbeline remarks to Queen and Cloten that they must prepare for war, soon to come, as the army is already in Gallia.

Cymbeline calls for Imogen, and the attendant reports her to be absent--as is Pisanio. To herself, Queen hopes that Pisanio is dead from her poison, and that Imogen has fled to death or dishonor--"my end can make use of either". Cloten confirms Imogen is fled and swears vengeance on her for rejecting him. 

Pisanio arrives and Cloten demands to know where Imogen is. Pisanio, thinking she is far away by now with Lucius, shows Posthumus' 2nd letter (instructing her to meet him at Milford Haven) to Cloten. Cloten vows to pursue her to there. Cloten asks Pisanio to serve him by giving him some of Posthumus' clothes in which to dress himself. Recalling her contemptuous comments comparing Posthumus' treasured garments with himself, Cloten plans to ravish her after killing Posthumus before her eyes, then kick her back to the court. Cloten swears Pisanio to silence.

Act III Scene 6

Wales, before cave of Belarius. Imogen has become lost trying to find Milford Haven and has spent 2 nights out sleeping on the ground. She sees the cave (currently empty) and enters. Belarius and sons arrive and Belarius discovers Imogen, who appears to him like an angel or fairy. She offers money for them not to harm her. She is posing as the young man Fidele. The father and brothers are immediately attracted to Fidele/Imogen, as she is to them and their honest life. They will feast, then hear his story.

Act III Scene 7

Rome, a public place. Senators discuss the planned attack on Britain, led by proconsul Caius Lucius.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Wales, near Belarius' cave. Cloten arrives dressed in Posthumus' garments. He muses that the garments will help him win Imogen, that women's sexual desire comes in fits.

Act IV Scene 2

Same. The men emerge with Fidele/Imogen, noting she is tired. Arviragus marvels at the love he feels for him, while she marvels that there are such civilized persons in the woods. She feels heartsick for Posthumus and takes the poison given her by Pisanio, thinking it will comfort her. She has not told the men much of her origins. The sons continue to marvel at her gentleness, etc.

Cloten arrives blusteringly, and Belarius tells the sons who Cloten is, then leaves with Arviragus. Cloten lambastes Guiderius (why?) and is surprised that he is not mistaken for Posthumus because of his clothes. They trade insults, then Cloten rashly draws on him, and they exit fighting.

Belarius and Arviragus return, as does Guiderius with Cloten's head. Belarius regrets this killing and believes this means their doom. Guiderius throws the head in a creek and leaves the body behind. Belarius marvels at the courage and princely natures these divine sons of royalty show despite their country upbringing.

Solemn music plays as Cadwal/Arviragus enters with the seemingly dead Fidele/Imogen, "the fairest lily" or "bird". The men lament, Guiderius thinks for a moment she merely sleeps. They plan her burial, and Arviragus says "With fairest flowers / Whilst summer lasts and I live here, Fidele, / I'll sweeten thy sad grave." They resolve to lay her by Euriphile and will bury Cloten as a prince despite his bad behavior.

They lay out Imogen's body with her head to the east and sing a tender song of lamentation: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun, / Nor the furious winter's rages; / Thou thy worldly task hast done..." Next they lay out Cloten next to Imogen and strew flowers, then depart.

Imogen awakes and is confused. She is aghast to see the headless body of Cloten, dressed as Posthumus, and suspects Pisanio is to blame for conspiring with Cloten to murder Posthumus and to poison her. She falls on the body and laments Posthumus' presumed death.

Lucius and his captains and a soothsayer arrive. A captain tells him a contingent is coming to meet them from Rome, led by Iachimo. The soothsayer has had a vision predicting Roman success. Lucius sees Imogen and the body of Cloten. Fidele/Imogen says Cloten was her master named Richard du Champ, slain by mountaineers. Lucius asks him/her to serve with him, and she consents, but first wants the body buried.

Act IV Scene 3

Britain, court. Cymbeline notes the queen is in a fever from the absence of Cloten. Pisanio claims to know nothing of Imogen's whereabouts. A lord speaks up in Pisanio's defense, saying Pisanio was still there when Imogen first disappeared.

A lord announces the imminent arrival of the Roman legions, as they have arrived on the British coast. Pisanio worries to himself that he has heard no further word from Posthumus (or from Imogen) since he wrote him that Imogen was slain [a letter including a bloody handkerchief].

Act IV Scene 4

Wales, before the cave. Belarius and sons hear the approaching Romans and decide they must flee to the mountains to avoid battle either for or against the Romans, but the sons suggest they should act more valiantly. Belarius recalls his valiant days of war. Arviragus regrets he is an unknown and has not had the opportunity to show his valor. Inspired by the sons, Belarius resolve to go to battle with their assistance.

Act V

Act V Scene 1 Britain, an open place. Posthumus arrives dressed in Italian clothes, carrying the bloody handkerchief reputed to prove Imogen's slaying. He regrets that Pisanio carried out his request without questioning it. He has accompanied the Italian gentry to fight against Britain, but he resolves he will not further wound Britain (after causing Imogen's death). He casts off the Italian garb and dresses himself as a Briton peasant to fight against the Romans. 

Act V Scene 2

Britain, field of battle. Lucius and Iachimo arrive leading the Roman army, and the Britons appear. Posthumus vanquishes Iachimo and disarms him, then leaves. Iachimo is feeling very guilty for belying Imogen (exits). Cymbeline is captured, then rescued by Belarius and the 2 sons. Posthumus joins them and aids in the rescue of Cymbeline, though unrecognized. Lucius, Iachimo, and Imogen arrive again. Lucius notes that friends kill friends, and orders Fidele/Imogen to save himself by fleeing the troops.

Act V Scene 3

Same. Posthumus and a Briton Lord enter. Posthumus comments with contempt how the latter seems to have fled the battle. Posthumus discusses how the battle seemed to be lost and all the Britons were fleeing through a straight lane while the enemy struck many down. But they were defended by an ancient white-bearded man with two striplings--the three had exhorted the fleeing Britons to turn and fight. Their heroic example had stopped the rout, and soon the Britons were chasing and slaughtering the Romans instead. Posthumus gets testy with the lord, who leaves.

Alone, Posthumus scorns the fleeing lord and the other cowardly acts he saw that day, yet he who wanted only to die could not find death. He resolves that he will find Death and will fight no more, and takes off the Briton garb to force his capture. Britons come by and praise how Lucius has been taken with the assistance of an angel-like old man with 2 sons. They encounter Posthumus, who claims to be a Roman, and capture him to take him to the king.

Act V Scene 4

British prison or stockade. Jailers converse. Posthumus, imprisoned, welcomes his bondage, by which he can be penitent. 

He sleeps, and an apparition appears to him comprising his father Sicilius Leonatus, his mother, and his two brothers who exhibit the battle wounds they died of. To solemn music, they appeal in song to Jupiter, lamenting Posthumus' fate and asking for mercy for him. Sicilius asks that Jupiter no longer show his spite toward Posthumus, saying that Posthumus deserves praise. Mother says that Lucina goddess of childbirth did not aid her but let her die in childbirth. First Brother and mother recount Posthumus' marriage and exile, and Sicilius recalls how Jupiter let Iachimo taint Posthumus' heart and brain with jealousy. The second brother recalls how they fell defending Britain and Cymbeline's father, Tenantius. First brother asks why Jupiter has deferred rewarding Posthumus for his good deeds. They continue their pleas to Jupiter for mercy. 

Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, causing the ghosts to fall on their knees. He chastises the ghosts for their accusations but agrees to uplift Posthumus, give him comfort, and that he will be married to Imogen. He lays a tablet on Posthumus' chest and ascends. The ghosts give thanks and vanish.

Posthumus awakes, recalls the vision he has experienced thinking it was a dream, but notes the tablet and reads the prophecy contained in it of his flourishing to come.

The jailer returns to ask if he is ready for death, commenting wryly in black humor on the benefits of being dead. Posthumus is indeed ready to die. But a messenger arrives commanding Posthumus to be brought to the king. Posthumus thinks it is for his execution.

Act V Scene 5

Britain, court. Cymbeline praises and commends Belarius, whom he thinks is like an angel to him, and wonders who was the fourth, ragged person (Posthumus) who defended him against the Romans, and where he is now. Cymbeline asks Belarius to tell him who he is, and he lies, saying they were born in Cambria. Cymbeline knights the three brave men.

Cornelius arrives to say the Queen is dead. He reports she has confessed her evil deeds: that she never loved Cymbeline, that she had Imogen poisoned by Pisanio (against Pisanio's knowledge), that she intended to poison Cymbeline so Cloten could assume the throne. But Cloten's absence had driven her to despair. Cymbeline recalls how her beauty, flattery, and seeming love etc. deceived him, and expresses regret for how his daughter was treated.

Lucius, Iachimo, Soothsayer, Posthumus, and Imogen/Fidele and other Roman prisoners are brought in. Cymbeline speaks first with Lucius about the tribute. Lucius thinks the battle was won by accident. But he asks for the protection and ransoming of Fidele, who has done no harm to Britain. Cymbeline notes how the boy seems familiar, and grants not only his pardon but a boon to him as well. Lucius hopes Fidele will ask that Lucius' life be spared, but Fidele, seeing Iachimo, has more pressing plans. Lucius is dismayed to be so disdained.

Fidele stares at Iachimo, and asks to speak in private to the king.

Belarius marvels with the sons that Fidele seems to have returned from the dead. Pisanio recognizes his mistress in Fidele. 

Fidele/Imogen and king return, and Cymbeline asks Iachimo to answer her questions. She asks where he got the ring on his finger, and he replies it was by his own villainy that he won it from Posthumus, whom he praises. He tells of the wager, how Posthumus praised her virtues, of Imogen's faithfulness and his unsuccessful attempt to seduce her, of his misrepresentations and how he convinced Posthumus of her infidelity with her bracelet and the secret marks. Posthumus advances on him, denounces him, and announces who he is, that his own actions have killed Imogen. He laments her death. Fidele/Imogen tries to console him, but he strikes her for interfering, not recognizing her. Pisanio goes to her assistance, saying she indeed is Imogen. Cymbeline and Posthumus are confused. She awakens and condemns Pisanio for attempting to poison her. But he pleads innocence in this action, and Cornelius now is prompted to say the Queen also confessed to setting up Pisanio to poison Imogen against his knowledge. Cornelius recounts that he instead prepared a potion that would induce only a temporary death-like state. Belarius now understands what happened to Fidele/Imogen.

Imogen and Posthumus passionately embrace. Feeling neglected, Cymbeline asks her to address him, and she kneels for his blessing. Belarius now understands why the 2 sons loved her so. Cymbeline tells her that her mother is dead and that Cloten is missing.

Pisanio tells of giving Cloten the 2ne letter which prompted him to go to Milford and how he demanded Posthumus' garments from him. Guiderius finishes this story, saying he slew Cloten, and Cymbeline promptly condemns him to death.

But Belarius/Morgan stops the king, saying Guiderius is a better man than the man he slew. He begins his tale of how he is the unjustly banished man Belarius, though not a traitor. Cymbeline is angry and wants him taken away. But Belarius says he has nursed the king's sons, whom he kidnapped. He tells the story how he assumed the role of Morgan and father to the sons, how their nurse Euriphile stole them for him. Cymbeline praises his worthy sons, and hears their names, recognizing the star like mole on Guiderius' neck. Imogen greets her brothers, though Cymbeline notes she has lost her right to inherit the kingdom by their return. She tells Cymbeline how she met them in the woods and how they thought she had died.

Cymbeline rejoices and wants to hear the complex stories more in the future, warmly and forgivingly tells Belarius he is now like his brother. Imogen joins in the warm feelings to Belarius.

Imogen also tells Lucius she will now do him a service. Posthumus confesses he was the ragged Briton that aided Belarius et al in saving Cymbeline. He asks of Iachimo to confirm this, which he does. Iachimo also returns the ring and bracelet and is prepared to die. But Posthumus magnanimously lets him live "and deal with others better". Cymbeline is impressed by the noble act and says all will be pardoned.

Posthumus asks Lucius to call forth the soothsayer Philharmonus. Posthumus tells him the vision he had of Jupiter and shows the tablet to him. The soothsayer interprets what is inscribed: Leonatus is the lion's whelp, and Imogen is his most constant wife, Cymbeline is the lofty cedar, his revived sons are the lopped branches now rejoined, and Britain is promised peace and plenty.

Cymbeline tells Lucius, though Britain was the victor in the battle, it will nevertheless submit to Caesar and pay their tribute, saying it was the wicked queen who had dissuaded him from doing so before. The soothsayer envisions the Roman eagle soaring from south to west, the sun again uniting with its radiant beams Rome and Britain. Cymbeline concludes with praise to the gods, declares peace and friendship between Rome and Britain, and great feasting in Lud's Town [London], saying "Never was a war did cease, / Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace."