Yesterday, I read the very last word of my very last “new” Shakespeare play. And it just so happened that that play was Cymbeline. Around nine years ago, I read my very first line of Shakespeare. I remember it clear as day: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” And yesterday, I read my last line: “Never was a war did cease, ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace.” My first line made me skeptical, and my last filled me with a bittersweet longing for more. I’ll leave the theatrics for my upcoming ranking post, though – this post is about Cymbeline.
Before we start, I just want to say that the title of this play shouldn’t be Cymbeline at all. It should be Imogen. The reasons for this will become obvious, but if you’ve already read this play, you know why.
We open in King Cymbeline’s court, where drama is brewing:
But what’s the matter?
His daughter, and the heir of ‘s kingdom, whom
He purposed to his wife’s sole son – a widow
That late he married – hath referred herself
Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. She’s wedded,
Her husband banished, she imprisoned. All
Is outward sorrow, though I think the King
Be touched at very heart.
You heard it here first, folks: Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, has secretly gotten married. Cymbeline wanted her to marry her stepbrother Cloten. Let’s just say that Imogen has dodged a massive bullet by going against her father’s wishes. Despite not having met her yet, I think we can all agree that Imogen is already proving to us that she is one of Shakespeare’s sharp-as-a-tack/follows-her-own-heart-and-mind heroines. Exactly the kind of heroine I like!
Cymbeline is up in arms about all of this, but that’s because Imogen is his sole heir. It’s important to note that he had two sons once, but they were kidnapped as children and never seen or heard from again. So everything sits on Imogen’s shoulders, so to speak.
Imogen has married Posthumus, a gentleman below her in rank. In a rage, Cymbeline banishes him.
O disloyal thing
That shouldst repair on my youth, thou heap’st
A year’s age on me.
I beseech you, sir,
Harm not yourself with your vexation.
I am senseless of your wrath. A touch more rare
Subdues all pangs, all fears.
Past grace? Obedience?
Past hope and despair; that way past grace.
That mightst have had the sole son of my queen!
O, blessèd that I might not! I chose an eagle
And did avoid a puttock.
Imogen is actually very upset here, and although she does cry later, she is very sharp when she expresses her anger. She doesn’t bend to her father for one second, and I admire that about her. But, really, this entire situation is out of her hands. She has no power, and she knows it. Her new husband is sent packing to Rome almost instantly.
And, instead of pining for his lady love, Posthumus finds himself discussing women with other Italian gentlemen. He waxes poetic about Imogen immediately, but Iachimo, an Italian gentleman, isn’t really having it:
That lady is not now living, or this gentleman’s opinion by this worn out.
She holds her virtue still, and I my mind.
I would have loved for this conversation to end here, but things take a very stupid turn.
With five times so much conversation I should get ground of your fair mistress, make her go back even to the yielding, had I admittance and opportunity to friend.
I dare thereupon pawn the moiety of my estate to your ring, which in my opinion o’ervalues it something. But I make my wager rather against your confidence than her reputation, and, to bar your offense herein too, I durst attempt it against any lady in the world.
What lady would you choose to assail?
Yours, whom in constancy you think stands so safe. I will lay you ten thousand ducats to your ring that, commend me to the court where your lady is, with no more advantage than the opportunity of a second conference, and I will bring from thence that honor of hers which you imagine so reserved.
By the end of this exchange, Iachimo convinces Posthumus to place a bet on Imogen’s virginity. If Iachimo succeeds in seducing Imogen, then he wins Posthumus’ diamond ring – a ring given to him by Imogen.
I, of course, do not like this at all.
The characters in this play speak very highly of Posthumus. Very highly. But I’m not quite sure he deserves it. He bothers me for so many reasons, but his decision to actually go along with Iachimo’s game is reason enough for me to dislike him. It’s clear to any reader that Iachimo is a terrible person, nothing more than a cad. His proposal annoyed me, yes, but what annoyed me even more is Posthumus’ agreeing to it. Iachimo isn’t some great manipulator. Neither of these men should feel entitled to talk about Imogen like this, behind her back, and about something so private. But maybe I am being too modern about this.
Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s Queen is creating drama of a different sort. Apparently, she’s asked her doctor Cornelius to make her some poison. Cornelius, sensing that the Queen is off her rocker, decides to make her a sleeping potion instead, à la Romeo and Juliet. He tells her that it’s poison, of course. She immediately pawns it off on Posthumus’ servant Pisanio (who is my second favorite, after Imogen), and tells him that it’s medicine. Her hope is that he’ll drink it, die, and that this will somehow make Imogen miss her husband less.
I know, I know. It’s ridiculous.
Speaking of ridiculous, Iachimo has found himself in Britain, face-to-face with Imogen.
[…] What, are men mad? Hath nature given them eyes
To see this vaulted arch and the rich crop
Of sea and land, which can distinguish ‘twixt
The fiery orbs above and the twinned stones
Upon the numbered beach, and can we not
Partition make with spectacles so previous
‘Twist fair and foul?
What makes your admiration?
Imogen is literally this play’s saving grace. Immediately, she is unimpressed, and doesn’t seem too keen on engaging with Iachimo at all. He keeps trying, though, and Imogen becomes less impressed with each passing moment. She shoos him away, offended, and Iachimo finds himself dazzled by her immunity to his charms (I use that word very, very loosely).
This should end here, but no. Iachimo asks Imogen to keep a trunk filled with valuables in his room and, being the gracious woman that she is, Imogen agrees. The thought, “What if he hides himself inside?” briefly crossed my mind, but it was quickly followed with, “No, no. That’s too silly.”
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now.
Cloten, meanwhile, is busying himself by being the literal human embodiment of the devil.
It is not fit your Lordship should undertake every companion that you give offense to.
No, I know that, but it is fit I should commit offense to my inferiors.
Cool. Seriously though, I was not kidding when I called Cloten the devil. He is quite literally one of the worst, most irredeemable characters Shakespeare has ever written. I literally couldn’t find a single good thing about him – me! The person who even found something nice to say about Coriolanus! About Angelo! Even about Richard III, who waltzes onto the stage in the first act of his play to tell us that he’s evil. Cloten outdoes them all, and I think it’s because there’s something about him that reminds me of a bratty child. And, honestly, that is a personality trait that I can barely stand in real life, let alone in an already subpar play like Cymbeline.
Anyway. Remember how I thought to myself that Iachimo might hide himself in his trunk?
Iachmio from the trunk.
I was right.
This entire scene was incredibly uncomfortable for me to read. As Imogen sleeps, Iachimo takes a good, long look at her body. He also takes note of the room and, finally, removes Imogen’s bracelet from her wrist. A bracelet that was given to her by Posthumus, of course.
All of this is just ridiculous. I feel terrible for Imogen. She was actually far more patient with Iachimo than I would have been, and she was gracious enough to let him keep his trunk in her room for safekeeping. But Iachimo is a terrible person – she should have just kicked his ass to the curb.
And speaking of terrible people…
I would this music would come. I am advised to give her music a-mornings; they say it will penetrate.
Come on, tune. If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so. We’ll try with tongue, too. If none will do, let her remain, but I’ll never give o’er. First, a very excellent good-conceited thing; after, a wonderful sweet air with admirable rich words to it, and then let her consider.
First of all, ew. The sexual innuendo in Cloten’s speech gives me the creeps, and the fact that he’s trying to serenade Imogen doesn’t help things at all. In true Imogen fashion, she is unimpressed.
Still I swear I love you.
If you but said so, ’twere as deep with me.
If you swear still, your recompense is still
That I regard it not.
This is no answer.
Sounds like an answer to me. Cloten keeps badgering Imogen, and she eventually (and rightfully) loses her temper.
Wert thou the son of Jupiter and no more
But what thou art besides, thou wert too base
To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,
Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made
Comparative for your virtues to be styled
The under-hangman of his kingdom and hated
For being preferred so well.
The south fog rot him!
He can never meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His mean’st garment
That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men. – How now, Pisanio!
“His garment”? Now the devil –
IMOGEN, [to Pisiano]
To Dorothy, my woman, hie thee presently.
This may have been the only time I actually laughed while reading this play. Imogen tears into Cloten, and leaves him spluttering. He tries to scare her by threatening to tell Cymbeline, but this is Imogen we’re talking about.
You have abused me.
“His meanest garment”?
Ay, I said so, sir.
If you will make ‘t an action, call witness to ‘t.
I will inform your father.
Your mother too.
She’s my good lady and will conceive, I hope,
But the worst of me. So I leave you, sir,
To th’ worst of discontent.
“Your mother too.” I love it! Imogen isn’t scared of Cloten, big bratty baby that he is. She is very faithful to Posthumus, but I’m not quite sure he’s worthy of her…
Because when Iachimo goes back to Rome with all of his “evidence,” Posthumus believes him. Oh, sure, he rolls his eyes at first, but he falls for Iachimo’s tricks eventually. And you may be wondering: does he decide to go confront Imogen about all of this?
O, that I had her here, to tear her limb-meal!
I will go there and do ‘t i’ th’ court, before
Her father. I’ll do something.
Nope! I can’t tell you how much I dislike this. I understand that this is an upsetting situation, but Posthumus’ reaction is far too violent for my taste. But maybe he’s just over-exaggerating, hmm?
In other news, Britain apparently owes a tribute to Rome, and Augustus has sent over Caius Lucius to get Cymbeline to cough it up. And yes, interestingly, Cymbeline takes place in a post-Julius Caesar, post-Antony and Cleopatra world. Who would have thought?
Again, as with most of the issues in the play, this one is very solvable. If Britain promised to pay tribute to Rome, then Cymbeline should pay it.
Except he refuses.
I am sorry, Cymbeline,
That I am to pronounce Augustus Caesar –
Caesar, that hath more kings his servants than
Thyself domestic officers – thine enemy.
Receive it from me, then: war and confusion
In Caesar’s name pronounce I ‘gainst thee. Look
For fury not to be resisted. Thus defied,
I thank thee for myself.
And now Britain is at war with Rome. Great! Exactly what this play needs! More plot points!
Pisanio, meanwhile, has received two letters from Posthumus. One letter is addressed to Pisanio – in it, Posthumus tells him to kill Imogen. The other letter is for Imogen. It tells her to travel to Milford Haven with Pisanio. Posthumus writes that he will be waiting for her there. Color me unimpressed. Imogen, poor Imogen, is so excited to see her husband. Look, I know that the lack of communication between Posthumus and Imogen makes for good drama, but I’m not really enjoying it. Even if Imogen had been unfaithful, what right does Posthumus have to take her life? And he isn’t even planning on doing it himself! He’s pushing it onto poor Pisanio.
Here’s another plot point (you thought we were done?): we cut to the forest, where three men exit from a cave. They are Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal. That’s right: two names each. Remember Imogen’s kidnapped brothers? Well, here they are. Belarius/Morgan was wrongfully banished by Cymbeline, so he kidnapped Cymbeline’s sons to get back at him. Oh, and just to make this play more confusing, he gave them fake names. I guess that’s one way to do it.
On the way to Milford Haven, Pisanio is all nerves. He eventually breaks down and tells Imogen the real purpose of their trip. He gives her the letter that Posthumus wrote to him.
False to his bed? What is it to be false?
To lie in watch there and to think on him?
To weep ‘twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge nature,
To break it with a fearful dream of him
And cry myself awake? That’s false to ‘s bed, is it?
Alas, good lady!
I haven’t watched Cymbeline, on stage, TV or otherwise, so I’m not sure how this is supposed to play out. Does Imogen say these lines angrily? Or is she weeping? I think I’d lean toward an angry Imogen – I think the opportunity is there to play her as a firecracker. But, as always, just because the opportunity is there, doesn’t mean it is actually ever taken. I thought the same about Isabella while reading Measure for Measure, but goodness knows that she’s always played as a weepy mess.
Imogen takes so much offense to all of this that she asks Pisanio to stab her right then and there. I was kind of hoping that she’d want to seek revenge on Posthumus instead, or at least go tell him off a bit, but I guess not!
Pisanio, of course, refuses to stab Imogen. Instead, he encourages her to disguise herself as a boy and offer her services to Caius Lucius, who is supposedly heading toward Milford Haven himself. It looks like we’ve come back to this tried-and-true storyline – how many times have we read through it now? Before parting, Pisanio hands Imogen the “medicine,” that the Queen gave him. Looks like that plot point is back to haunt us as well.
Imogen’s disappearance is noticed pretty quickly, and Pisanio, unlucky creature that he is, finds himself face-to-face with Cloten. Pisanio is forced to tell Cloten what he knows. He shows him the letter that Posthumus wrote to Imogen instructing her to meet him at Milford Haven. Cloten reacts much as you’d expect.
Meet thee at Milford Haven! – I forgot to ask him one thing; I’ll remember ‘t anon. Even there, thou villain Posthumus, will I kill thee. I would these garments were come. She said upon a time – the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart – that she held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect than my noble and natural person, together with the adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my back I will ravish her. First, kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment dined – which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so praised – to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in revenge.
I don’t know if I’m being particularly sensitive, but there are so many suggestions of violence against Imogen in this play. I really can’t stand it. Cloten, who, again, is the literal human embodiment of a demon, forces Pisanio to give him some of Posthumus’ clothing. He intends to travel to Milford Haven, murder Posthumus, rape Imogen, and drag her kicking and screaming back to court.
I’m not a fan of Posthumus, but I will say again that Imogen dodged a huge bullet by marrying him instead of Cloten.
Also, I do enjoy that he’s still upset over what she said to him earlier. Such fragility.
Speaking of Imogen, she is lost in the woods. Exhausted, she ends up in the cave where Belarius/Morgan and her two lost brothers live. She tells them her name is Fidele, and they fall in love with her instantly. Not too long after, she begins to feel unwell, so she decides to take the medicine that Pisanio gave her. Much like Juliet, she is put into a deep, death-like sleep.
Cloten, meanwhile, antagonizes the three men and swiftly has his head cut off by Guiderius/Polydor. Finally. I don’t think I could have stood another second of Cloten’s childish brand of villainy.
The men come across Imogen’s body and think her dead. They lay Cloten’s beheaded corpse beside her (?!) and leave. When she awakes, she is distraught.
[…] O Posthumus, alas,
Where is thy head? Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?
Pisanio might have killed thee at the heart
And left his head on. How should this be? Pisanio?
‘Tis he and Cloten. Malice and lucre in them
Have laid this woe here. O, ’tis pregnant, pregnant!
The drug he gave me, which he said was precious
And cordial to me, have I not found it
Murd’rous to th’ senses? That confirms it home.
This is Pisanio’s deed, and Cloten. O,
Give color to my pale cheek with thy blood,
That we the horrider may seem to those
Which chance to find us. O my lord! My lord!
Believing Cloten to be Posthumus, Imogen switches between grief and anger. She believes Pisanio to be in cahoots with Cloten and, frankly, I’m a little offended for Pisanio. He has probably shown himself to be the most level-headed man in this play, and he’s very easy to love despite being a minor character.
Caius Lucius comes across the grieving Imogen and, pitying her, takes her under his wing. I shouldn’t say ‘her,’ though, because she’s still play-acting as Fidele.
Going back to the war between Britain and Rome: in the midst of the mounting tensions, Posthumus (who is fighting for the Romans) begins to regret Imogen’s murder, which he thinks actually occurred. What’s that, Posthumus? Killing Imogen was a mistake? What a revelation. Posthumus decides that the best way to punish himself is to disguise himself as a British soldier and get killed.
While disguised, he finds himself fighting Iachimo (who deserves it, the fool), and somehow finds himself helping Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal free a captured Cymbeline (though, to be honest, they should have left him). At some point, though, Posthumus realizes that his get-killed-quick plan isn’t working. He reverts back to a Roman soldier and is promptly captured and imprisoned.
And here is where things begin to take a nonsensical turn. “Really?” you ask. “Now? Everything before this wasn’t nonsense?” It wasn’t. Brace yourselves.
While in jail, Posthumus falls asleep. He is visited by the ghosts of his family who continually harass Jupiter (i.e. Zeus, for us fans of Greek mythology) to try to get him to come to Posthumus’ aid. Jupiter eventually grows tired of their pleading and materializes. He leaves a tablet for Posthumus who, upon waking, is unable to decipher it.
This is literally the only supernatural incident in this entire play, and it is so out of place. It sticks out like the worst sore thumb, and I can’t stand it. If I were to actually put on a stage production of this play, this scene would be the first to go.
Anyway. Posthumus is eventually dragged to Cymbeline’s court, and things finally begin to come to a boil. Cymbeline knights Belarius/Morgan, Guiderius/Polydor, and Arviragus/Cadwal for helping to save him from the Romans. Cornelius, the Queen’s doctor, enters. Apparently, the Queen is dead.
First, she confessed she never loved you, only
Affected greatness got by you, not you;
Married your royalty, was wife to your place,
Abhorred your person.
So it turns out that the Queen didn’t love Cymbeline at all. I guess it makes sense that she’d be heartless, given that she raised a demonic child like Cloten. Cymbeline takes this announcement in stride, and is more or less like, “Nah.” But Cornelius eventually exposes the Queen’s hatred for Imogen – that is enough to convince Cymbeline of her two-faced nature.
Caius Lucius is brought before Cymbeline. As the Britons have (somehow) won the war, it seems that Caius Lucius is due for an appointment with the chopping block. He has one favor to ask, though:
[…] This one thing only
I will entreat: my boy, a Briton born,
Let him be ransomed. Never master had
A page so kind, so duteous, diligent,
So tender over his occasions, true,
So feat, so nurselike. Let his virtue join
With my request, which I’ll make bold your Highness
Cannot deny. He hath done no Briton harm,
Though he have served a Roman. Save him, sir,
And spare no blood beside.
Imogen has the ability to make just about anyone fall in love with her, and Caius Lucius is no exception. He asks for his “boy,” to be spared. Cymbeline obliges because, well, there’s something strangely familiar and lovable about Fidele. He grants Imogen one wish. Perfect timing, because Imogen spots the diamond on Iachimo’s hand and demands that he tells them the story of how he obtained it.
So he does. In excruciating detail. Posthumus immediately loses his cool, upset that he believed Iachimo and had Imogen killed for something she didn’t do. Imogen, bless her, rushes over to him.
IMOGEN, [running to Posthumus]
Peace, my lord!
Hear, hear –
Shall ‘s have a play of this? Thou scornful page,
There lie thy part.
[He pushes her away; she falls.]
Again, I am unimpressed by Posthumus’ behavior. I know Imogen is disguised as a boy, but pushing away someone who is clearly trying to comfort you is pretty terrible.
We aren’t done, though! There’s the matter of the “medicine,” that Imogen took.
[To Pisanio.] I left out one thing which the Queen confessed,
Which must approve thee honest. “If Pisanio
Have,” said she, “given his mistress that confection
Which I gave him for cordial, she is served
As I would serve a rat.”
What’s this, Cornelius?
The Queen, sir, very oft importuned me
To temper poisons for her, still pretending
The satisfaction of her knowledge only
In killing creatures vile, as cats and dogs,
Of no esteem. I, dreading that her purpose
Was of more danger, did compound for her
A certain stuff which, being ta’en, would cease
The present power of life, but in short time
All offices of nature should again
Do their due functions. – Have you ta’en of it?
Most like I did, for I was dead.
BELARIUS, [as Morgan, aside to Guiderius and Arviragus]
There was our error.
The Queen used to ask for poison to do what? Kill cats and dogs? Who the hell did Cymbeline marry? No wonder Cloten was such a sociopath. I mean, look at his mother.
Speaking of Cloten, when it is revealed that Guiderius killed him, Cymbeline decides he has no choice but to have him executed for murder. Belarius/Morgan rushes to his aid by announcing to everybody in the room that the two young men before them are actually the missing princes.
And so everyone is reunited. Imogen is allowed to remain with Posthumus. Cymbeline is suddenly filled with love and decides to pardon Caius Lucius. Oh, and he’s fine with paying the tribute to Rome.
Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is insane. This entire war could have been avoided if he had just paid in the first place. Clearly the money wasn’t the issue. Was this a matter of pride? Was it worth the lives lost? I can’t deal with this.
Jupiter’s tablet, of course, predicted all of this.
While reading this play, I was a bit mystified at all of the negative press I’d read and heard about it. But the deeper I got into it, the most I began to understand its unpopularity. Cymbeline is far, far too long for what it is. The entire kidnapped princes subplot could have been cut out. Those pages could have been used to give the audience more time with Imogen, who is the best part of this play.
The men really leave much to be desired. Posthumus is lauded as being some kind of saint, but I could barely stand him. His refusal to actually confront Imogen about her supposed infidelity drove me nuts. It was supposed to make for good drama, but all it did was make for frustrating drama. And the fact that he even thought it was okay to bet on Imogen’s chastity is disgusting.
The other men, from Cymbeline to Cloten (don’t get me started on him!) also leave much to be desired. It was very difficult to root for anyone outside of Pisanio and Caius Lucius who, to me, came off as very honorable and sensible despite being a part of the enemy camp.
And that is Cymbeline for you. A total mess of a play that pulled me all over the place, randomly had Jupiter intervene, and left me completely unsatisfied for some reason. Not the best note to end on, but it is what it is.
Only one question remains – what’s next for me? Well, I still have to rank all of the plays, and I want to do something special for that. After that, I really do want to try to do as much for this blog as possible. I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I’ve poured my heart and soul into writing these entries. So expect more theater reviews, maybe a couple of more in-depth character analysis posts, and hopefully some cool entries about Shakespeare and Elizabethan England. Plus, for the sake of completeness, I’d like to write entries for all the plays I had already read before starting this blog: Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, and Henry IV, Part One. I really do love some of those plays, so it’ll be fun to revisit them!
If you have read this far, thank you so much. I know I am prone to rambling, and it must be exhausting trying to follow all the webs I make for characters and stories that I love. Doing this has made me so happy but all good things must come to an end. But, hey, it’s Shakespeare. There’s always going to be something new for us to talk about, right?