Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays to tackle. Written towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, the play seems to veer away from his traditional structures and tropes. In this play he seems to be breaking form and experimenting with the boundaries of theatre and storytelling. Cymbeline has layers upon layers of sub plots and deceits, characters from vastly different worlds stacked on top of each other and magical dream-like sequences like something out of a fairy tale. And at the centre of this all, we have Imogen. Imogen is one of Shakespeare’s most fantastic characters, and it’s a shame that the inaccessibility of the play seems to limit people’s confidence in choosing to play her. Imogen is defiant and courageous, and we meet her in this monologue after she has run away from home dressed as a man to save her life after being betrayed by several men. Let’s take a look.
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…
I see a man’s life is a tedious one,
I have tir’d myself: and for two nights together
Have made the ground my bed. I should be sick
But that my resolution helps me: Milford,
When from the mountain-top Pisanio show’d thee,
Thou wast within a ken. O Jove! I think
Foundations fly the wretched; such, I mean,
Where they should be reliev’d. Two beggars told me
I could not miss my way. Will poor folks lie,
That have afflictions on them, knowing ’tis
A punishment, or trial? Yes; no wonder,
When rich ones scarce tell true. To lapse in fulness
Is sorer than to lie for need, and falsehood
Is worse in kings than beggars. My dear lord,
Thou art one o’ th’ false ones. Now I think on thee,
My hunger’s gone, but even before, I was
At point to sink, for food. – But what is this?
Here is a path to’t; ’tis some savage hold:
I were best not call; I dare not call: yet famine,
Ere clean it o’erthrow Nature, makes it valiant.
Plenty and peace breeds cowards, hardness ever
Of hardiness is mother. Ho! Who’s here?
If any thing that’s civil, speak: if savage,
Take, or lend. Ho! No answer? Then I’ll enter.
Best draw my sword; and if mine enemy
But fear the sword like me, he’ll scarcely look on’t.
Such a foe, good heavens!
Milford: Place. Milford Haven, where Pisanio said Imogen would meet Lucius, who would help her.
Pisanio: Character. Servant to Imogen and loyal to her throughout the play.
Ken: Within reach
My dear lord: Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen’s husband, who has betrayed her
I now realise that a man’s life is a hard and tiring one!
I am so tired: For two nights I’ve slept on the ground.
I should give up with exhaustion now were it not for the fact that I must be close to Milford. When Pisano pointed my towards Milford the town only seemed a little while away! Oh God! I think all help must abandon the damned. I even asked two beggars for help and directions and they told me I couldn’t miss the town! Could they have lied, even though they were suffering too? Yes, of course – rich people rarely tell the truth, why shouldn’t the poor? To do wrong when you are wealthy is worse than to lie when you are poor, lying is worse for Kings than it is for beggars.
My husband: you are one of the liars. Now that I’m thinking about you my hunger has left me even though I was about to faint from starvation.
Wait, what is this? There’s a path here to it: some hideout for savages.
I shouldn’t call out, I wouldn’t dare call out – but my hunger before it kills me will make me courageous. Privilege and peace makes people cowards; strength is borne from hard times. Hello? Is anyone there? If there’s any civilised person in here, speak! If there are any savages, give me food or take my life! Hello! No answer? Ok, then I’ll go in. I better get my sword out… if my enemy fears my sword as much as I do, he’ll barely be able to look at it! Please let my enemy be this cowardly, God!
Notes On Performance
This is a soliloquy which is holding very true to form. It begins with a problem, goes through a list of arguments, and comes up with a solution. In this case, Imogen’s problem is that she is lost and hungry, and she should have found her way to Milford Haven by now. She’s in denial of her situation: the town looked near enough when Pisanio pointed it out to her. She even asked a few beggars along the way, surely they couldn’t have been lying to her, right? Finally and thankfully for Imogen, she discovers a cave where she may take refuge. But hold up, how did this daughter of the British King end up lost in a forest dressed as a man? Well, let’s cover off on a few of the conundrums Imogen faces at this moment.
At this point in the play for Imogen, everything seems upside down. The man she loved, Posthumus Leonatus (odd name, even for Shakespeare) has betrayed her. He was deceived by another man, Iachimo, who has managed to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful. Posthumus believes Iachimo and the evidence he has provided, and sends word to the servant Pisanio that Imogen is to be murdered. Pisanio, being endlessly faithful to Imogen, helps her escape Britain instead of murdering her.
That’s a lot of events for the actor playing Imogen to process. The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to. Imogen has enough obstacles in front of her to overcome, without burdening herself with finding the solutions for the reasons she had to flee Britain. All the actor needs to do with this soliloquy is build the detail of the obstacles in the world around them: the isolation, the fact that she’s lost, the beggars and the fact they might have lied to her, the exhaustion. All of these factors are ‘targets’ outside of the actor which they may focus their attention towards overcoming. Imogen must find food and shelter immediately, it’s a life and death situation. As is always the case in acting, focus on the objective, not the obstacle.
One other key factor of making this a successful performance is remembering this: a monologue is never a monologue. By that I mean that a monologue is always a conversation, even when the character is alone. They are using their words to search for answers and assistance, whether it is from the world around them, or even the audience. The actor needs to ‘unlearn’ the fact that this is a monologue which will be uninterrupted for 20-30 lines. At any point someone could come out of the cave, at any point Milford Haven could appear through the trees. Imogen must be continually searching for a solution and always allowing the ‘responses’ of the world around her to inform her next actions and the way she speaks her next lines. On a technical level, this boils down to becoming quite literal about things. When Imogen asks a question, really ask the question. Expect an answer. When she is talking about something, she is seeing that thing, either in the world around her or in her mind’s eye. The things she is talking about are ‘Targets’ as Declan Donellan would put it: things outside the actor which will energise the actor when they are paid attention. So, with that in mind, search for the solutions to this conundrum! Don’t get lost in your head, just because Imogen is lost in the woods.
Imogen is a golden reason not to shy away from Shakespeare’s more daunting plays. One of the best ways I have found to access the tricker plays in the canon is to organise a reading party. Similar to a book club, gather a group of people around to read the play out loud. It makes the play SO much more accessible than reading it alone in your head. At the end of each scene or act, stop and discuss the events which have unfolded. Ask questions and look up the answers if you can’t figure anything out. Make sure you’re all on the same page about what’s going on. It’s tricky stuff! There’s no use letting pride get the better of you and not engaging with Cymbeline because it appears less accessible than another play.
Imogen, as a character, is more similar to Roseline or Viola than she is to Lady Anne or another of Shakespeare’s historical characters. She is courageous, independent, and overcomes many challenges. She should be a top priority for people looking to add characters/ monologues to their repertoire!