Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays. Originally called The Tragedie of Cymbeline, or Cymbeline King of Britain. However modern critics often list it as a romance and sometimes even a comedy. While its precise date or composition isn’t known, it was probably sometime around 1609 and its first performance was almost certainly by 1611 at the latest.
So this play takes place in Ancient Britain, during the Roman occupation. Cymbeline is the King of Britain, and about 20 years ago two of his sons were stolen from him by someone called Belarius, leaving him with one child, his daughter Imogen. Cymbeline discovers that Imogen has married her lover Posthumus in secret and banishes Posthumus, because he feels that Imgoen being his only heir, must produce an heir of her own of full royal blood. Meanwhile the Queen is conspiring to have her son from a previous marriage, Clotten, marry Imogen, and to then poison her and King Cymbeline taking the throne for herself. She goes to the court doctor to procure what she thinks is poison, but is in fact a harmless sleeping potion switched out by the doctor who is suspicious of her. She passes the potion onto Imogen and Posthumus’ servant under the guise of medicine. Imogen, heartbroken, hides herself away in her chambers, and away from Clotten aggressive advances.
So Posthumus has been banished to Italy. While there he meets Iachamo. Iachamo bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen and bring him back proof. If he wins he gets Posthumus wedding bracelet and if he loses he has to pay Posthumus and fight him in a duel. And so he goes to Britain where he aggressively tries to seduce Imogen who strongly shuts him down, and sends him packing. So Iachamo hides in a chest in Imogen’s chamber and waits for her to sleep. Once she’s sleeping he comes out, takes the bracelet and takes notes of the mole on Imogen’s chest as proof that he won the bet. Returning to Rome he manages to convince Posthumus that he won the bet and this sends Posthumus into a rage. He sends two letters: one to Imogen, telling her to meet him at Milford Haven on the Welsh coast, another to their servant, ordering him to kill her at Milford Haven. However, Pisanio refuses to kill Imogen and reveals to her Posthumus’s plot. He has Imogen disguise herself as a boy and continue to Milford Haven to seek employment. He also gives her the Queen’s “poison”, believing it will alleviate her psychological distress. In the guise of a boy, Imogen adopts the name “Fidele”, meaning “faithful”.
Back at the British court, Cymbeline is refusing to pay his taxes to Rome. He’s warned by ambassadors to Rome that if he doesn’t he and his kingdom will be invaded by the Roman army. Meanwhile, Cloten learns of the “meeting” between Imogen and Posthumus at Milford Haven. Dressing himself in Posthumus’s clothes, he decides to go to Wales to kill Posthumus, and then rape, abduct, and marry Imogen against her will. Imogen has been travelling through the mountains in disguise and her health has been getting poor. She decides to take refuge in a cave. Little does she know it’s home to Belarius, and the two lost princes of Britain, who are unaware of their royal blood. When they discover Imogen, they’re instantly drawn to ‘him’ and take them under their wing. Cloten arrives outside the cave and is met by Guiderius. Cloten insults him which results in a sword fight between the two leading to Clotens death and beheading. Imogen’s fragile state worsens and she takes the “poison” as a hopeful medicine; when the men re-enter, they find her “dead.” They mourn and, after placing Cloten’s body beside hers, briefly depart to prepare for the double burial. Imogen awakes to find the headless body, and believes it to be Posthumus because the body is wearing Posthumus’ clothes. Lucius’ Roman soldiers have just arrived in Britain and, as the army moves through Wales, Lucius discovers the devastated “Fidele”, who pretends to be a loyal servant grieving for his killed master; Lucius, moved by this faithfulness, enlists “Fidele” as a pageboy.
Meanwhile the Queen is deteriorating due to the loss of her son Clotus and Posthumus has enlisted himself in the Roman army as they invade Britain. Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus all help rescue Cymbeline from the Roman onslaught; the king does not yet recognise these four, yet takes notice of them as they go on to fight bravely and even capture the Roman commanders, Lucius and Iachimo, thus winning the day. Posthumus, allowing himself to be captured, as well as “Fidele”, are imprisoned alongside the true Romans, all of whom await execution. In jail, Posthumus sleeps, while the ghosts of his dead family appear to complain to Jupiter of his grim fate. Jupiter himself then appears to assure the others that destiny will grant happiness to Posthumus and Britain.
Cornelius arrives at the court and tells everyone that the Queen has died suddenly. Cymbeline goes to execute his new Roman prisoners but is stopped in his tracks when he notices ‘Fidele’. “Fidele” has noticed Posthumus’ ring on Iachimo’s finger and abruptly demands to know from where the jewel came. A remorseful Iachimo tells of his bet, and how he could not seduce Imogen, yet tricked Posthumus into thinking he had. Posthumus then comes forward to confirm Iachimo’s story, revealing his identity and acknowledging his wrongfulness in wanting to kill her. Hearing this, Imogen throws herself around Posthumus, who still thinking she is “Fidele”, knocks her down. Pisanio then rushes forward to explain that “Fidele” is Imogen in disguise; Imogen still suspects that Pisanio conspired with the Queen to give her the poison. Pisanio sincerely claims innocence, and Cornelius reveals how the poison was a non-fatal potion all along. Insisting that his betrayal years ago was a set-up, Belarius makes his own happy confession, revealing Guiderius and Arviragus as Cymbeline’s own two long-lost sons. With the Princes returned, this means Imogen and Posthumus can finally be married. Lucius calls on the soothsayer for a prophecy who see’s happy times ahead for all. Cymbeline releases the Roman prisoners and, blaming the Queen for his late payment, pays his tax to them as a gesture of good will between Britain and Rome and invites everyone to a feast.
Cymbeline – Modelled on the historical King of Britain, Cunobeline, and father to Imogen
Queen – Cymbeline’s second wife and mother to Cloten
Imogen – Cymbeline’s daughter by a former queen, later disguised as the page Fidele
Posthumus – Imogen’s husband, adopted as an orphan and raised in Cymbeline’s family
Cloten – Queen’s son by a former husband and step-brother to Imogen
Belarius – banished lord living under the name Morgan, who abducted King Cymbeline’s infant sons in retaliation for his banishment
Guiderius – Cymbeline’s son, kidnapped in childhood by Belarius and raised as his son Polydore
Arvirargus – Cymbeline’s son, kidnapped in childhood by Belarius and raised as his son Cadwal
Pisanio – Posthumus’ servant, loyal to both Posthumus and Imogen
Cornelius – court physician
Helen – lady attending Imogen
Two Lords attending Cloten
Philario – Posthumus’ host in Rome
Iachimo – a Roman lord and friend of Philaro
Caius Lucius – Roman ambassador and later general
Two Roman senators
Philharmonus – soothsayer
Jupiter – King of the gods in Roman mythology
Sicilius Leonatus – Posthumus’ father
Posthumus’ two brothers
Imogen, Act 3, Scene 4, Line 70, Why I must die;
Queen, Act 3, Scene 1, Line 19, That opportunity Which then they had to take from ‘s
Imogen, Act 1, Scene 4, Line 165, Away! I do condemn mine ears that have