edited by J. M. Nosworthy
The intricate plot of Cymbeline folds comic, romantic, tragic and historical modes into a bittersweet and experimental play. Though listed under the ‘Tragedies’ in its first appearance in the 1623 First Folio, the play’s diverse elements of murderous jealousy, Roman invasion, dark schemes of sexual assault, female transvestism, passionate love, court, country and fairy-tale are all harmoniously and peacefully reconciled in marriage. Thought to have been written around 1608-10, the playgoing doctor Simon Forman noted seeing the play at the Globe in April 1611. Some critics have wondered if Cymbeline, as other late Shakespeare plays, could be a collaboration; the play’s similarity to Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster (c.1608-10) has led to debate as to which may have borrowed from which. Sources for Cymbeline include Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c.1136), Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577-87), and the anonymous romantic drama The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582).
Cymbeline, King of Britain is furious with his daughter Imogen for marrying Posthumus, because he wanted to marry her step-brother Cloten (son of Cymbeline’s second wife, the Queen). Posthumus is banished. In Rome, he meets Iachimo, who wagers that he will be able to sleep with Imogen.
Iachimo, failing to seduce Imogen, hides in a chest and is carried into her bedchamber. Once she is asleep he steals a bracelet given to her by Posthumus. Back in Rome, this convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s infidelity.
Cymbeline refuses to pay the tribute due to Augustus Caesar, and the Roman ambassador Lucius promises war. Posthumus writes to his servant Pisanio instructing him to kill Imogen; instead Pisanio advises Imogen to dress as a man and accompany Lucius to Rome. She goes as ‘Fidele’ to Milford-Haven to meet the departing Lucius. Cloten, believing that Posthumus will also be at Milford-Haven, wears Posthumus’ clothes and follows Imogen there. He intends to kill her husband and rape her.
On her way ‘Fidele’ meets Belarius and his two sons Guiderius and Arviragus – who are actually Cymbeline’s sons, stolen away in their infancy. Cloten arrives and Guiderius kills him.
‘Fidele’ is ill, and drinks a potion given to her by Pisanio, thinking it is a remedy. The Queen thought it was poison and intended it for Posthumus, but the potion creates the only the appearance of death. Her brothers, believing ‘Fidele’ to be dead, place her next to Cloten’s body - still in Posthumus’ clothes. Imogen wakes to what appears to be her husband’s headless corpse. She is found by Lucius and taken into his service.
The returned Posthumus, disguised as a peasant, fights against the Roman invaders. Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus also fight, saving Cymbeline. Posthumus re-disguises as a Roman, hoping for death; in prison he has an apparition of ghosts and Jupiter. The characters gather in front of Cymbeline. The Queen has died and her trick with the poison is exposed, as is Iachimo’s deception. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited, the identity of Belarius and Cymbeline’s sons is revealed, and Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.