sometimes referred to as Cymbeline, King of Britain
by William Shakespeare is set in ancient Britain. The play based on legends from the Matter of Britain
, a body of medieval literature interested in ancient Britain, and often Brittany, and the legendary heroes and kings of this time, notably King Arthur. Cymbeline
was likely based on the Celtic British King Cunobeline. The play was originally described as a tragedy, but later critics often categorise Cymbeline
as a romance or comedy. It focuses primarily on themes of innocence and jealously, similar to Othello
and The Winter’s Tale
. The play was produced as early as 1611, but the exact date of completion remains unknown.
The King of Britain sits on the throne with his second wife, a wicked woman and queen. The King’s daughter, Imogen, is in love with Posthumus, a lowborn gentleman. Her stepmother wants her to marry Cloten, her own son but Imogen decides to run away and have a secret wedding with Posthumus. When the king hears the news, he has Posthumus banished from the kingdom. Before he leaves, Posthumus gives Imogen a bracelet, and she gives him a ring. In secret, the queen has her physician, Cornelius, create a poison for future use. Cornelius is suspicious and instead gives her a harmless sleeping potion. Posthumus then goes to Rome. He is bragging about his wife’s fidelity and beauty when he meets the smooth-talking Italian, Iachimo. Iachimo bets Posthumus that he can seduce his wife; Posthumus agrees to the bet. Iachimo hurries to Britain, and tries again and again to prove Imogen’s infidelity. He is turned down several times.
Finally Iachimo becomes desperate. He decides to hide in a chest that is carried into Imogen’s bedroom chambers, and once Imogen is asleep, he sneaks out and looks around. He sees the bracelet and steals it, but not before taking a good look around and noticing a less than obvious mole on Imogen’s breast. At the same time, Clotus is becoming more and more angry that Imogen will not return his affections, and vows revenge.
Iachimo returns to Posthumus, and brags about his success. He has the bracelet and the detail about the mole. Posthumus must then give up the ring that Imogen had previously given him. He is utterly furious. Posthumus sends one letter to Pisanio, his friend and former servant, and tells him to kill Imogen for him. The second letter he sends tells Imogen to meet him at Milford Haven, where Posthumus wants Pisanio to kill her. Wisely, Pisanio ignores this order, believing instead Imogen’s innocence. Instead, he tells Imogen that Posthumus is angry with her. Fearing what Posthumus believes, Imogen runs away from her father’s court disguised as a page, names herself Fidele, and heads to the Haven anyway. Pisanio reports to Posthumus that he has killed Imogen successfully. He also gives Imogen the “poison,” which he has been led to believe is a restorative. At the same time, Cymbeline angers a Roman ambassador named Lucius, and Rome declares war on Britain because of unpaid tribute to Caesar.
Clotus hears about the meeting planned between Imogen and Posthumus. He dresses himself in Posthumus’ clothing and sneaks away, planning to kill Posthumus, and then rape, abduct, and marry Imogen himself.
Imogen ends up lost in Wales, and runs into Belarius. Her health is declining, so she stays with him and his two “sons,” actually her long lost brothers Guiderius and Arviragus, who were kidnapped as children. The two men feel a certain affinity for the page, whom they do not know is their sister. Cloten arrives close behind and insults Guiderius outside the cave which they live in. Guiderius kills Cloten in a swordfight. He cuts off his head and tosses it into the river. Imogen, meanwhile, is very ill, and decides to take the “restorative” draught. She seems to be dead, and Belarius and his sons lay her body beside Cloten’s. When she wakes, she sees the headless body next to her, dressed in Posthumus’s clothes, and believes him to be dead. She faints, and wakes up just as Lucius is travelling by. Still looking like a page boy, she agrees to serve him in the coming war.
The queen, meanwhile, has begun to go mad from her son’s disappearance. Posthumus returns to Britain with the invading army, but disguises himself as a British soldier. He hopes to die in battle against the invaders. But as it turns out, Britain wins a glorious battle, with Belarius, the two brothers, and Posthumus, all fighting the Italians. Posthumus is mistaken for an Italian, however, and is thrown into prison, where he has a strange prophetic dream. Iachimo, Lucius, and Imogen disguised as Fidele, are also captured and brought to the king, Cymbeline.
The final climax comprises a long list of confessions. The queen confesses her plot to overthrow the king on her deathbed. Iachimo also confesses his stealing the bracelet and lying about Imogen. Posthumus then reveals his own identity and Pisanio admits to him that Imogen is yet alive and that he helped her escape. Belarius admits to kidnapping the boys, who discover their true lineage. With trueborn sons set to inherit the crown, it does not matter who Imogen marries. Posthumus and Imogen are therefore allowed to be reunited and married. A soothsayer of Lucius interprets Posthumus’s dream as the joy and success of Cymbeline’s family. Overjoyed with all of this news, Cymbeline shows mercy to all of his remaining prisoners and finds peace with Italy.