Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain

By William Shakespeare

Cymbeline, King of Britain Introduction

Read the full text of Cymbeline with a side-by-side translation HERE.


Imogen and Posthumus sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes adultery, hate, and death.

Wait, what?

Cymbeline, King of Britain, tells a pretty crazy story, complete with an evil stepmother, a wicked villain, a scheming suitor, and a death potion. Written around 1611, the play follows Imogen, a smart and resourceful young woman wrongly accused of being unchaste but who is later reconciled with her hubby.

Stories about young women wrongly accused, brought close to death, and then rejoined with their lovers were really popular during the Renaissance. Shakespeare used this plot (which can be traced all the way back to the Greek romances) in Cymbeline. But even though there's a happy ending, it's not all fun and games. In fact, there's a whole lot of nasty stuff going on in this play.

Which brings us to the question of genre. Cymbeline is sometimes called a "problem play," and sometimes it's called a "romance" or a "tragicomedy." These days, it's most often thought of as a "romance."

Shakespeare's "romances" (The Winter's Tale, Pericles,and The Tempest) were all written at the end of Willy's career and involve:

  • loss and recovery
  • a wandering journey
  • elements of magic and the fantastic

If you're thinking that all of this sounds a lot like a fairy tale, you're totally right, smarty pants—these "romance" plays, which are notorious for being implausible and fantastical, really do share a lot in common with fairy tales; even Shakespeare scholars think so.

Whatever its genre, Cymbeline is one wild ride: the play's got beautiful, cross-dressing princesses; wicked stepmothers; fake deaths (and real ones); Roman invasions; a random interlude from Jupiter, king of the gods; and a bunch of ghosts.

Just try not to love it.

What is Cymbeline, King of Britain About and Why Should I Care?

So, you read Othello and Romeo and Juliet,and you thought to yourself, "Gee. Shakespeare's tragedies are crazy brilliant, but they're also downright depressing. Wouldn't it be great if Big Willy had written a play that wasn't afraid to explore weighty issues like jealousy and chastity but could also offer up his audience a little hope for the future?"

Well, look no further, because Uncle Shakespeare totally came through when he wrote Cymbeline.

In fact, Shakespeare didn't just stop there. With Cymbeline, he gave us the kind of happily-ever-after ending that we look for in fairy tales. Tell us if you've heard this before:

  • A wicked stepmother hates her husband's daughter and plots against her. (Cinderella?)
  • A beautiful princess falls into a deep sleep kind of like death from an evil spell. (Sleeping Beauty?)
  • An evil queen uses magic to kill her stepdaughter. (Snow White?)
  • Dead ancestors unite to pray to the gods for the safely of their child. (Mulan?)

You might think we were talking about some serious Disney classics, but we were actually talking about Cymbeline: all of those elements come directly from Shakespeare's play. Sounds pretty rad, right?

This one's got a little something for everyone. Want a little banishment, suffering, and death? You got it. Want a fairy tale with a happy ending? You got it. Want to impress everyone by saying you've read a Shakespeare play they've never heard of? You've even got that.

Cymbeline, King of Britain Resources

WEBSITES

Based on a True Story
PBS uncovers the truth behind Cymbeline.

Early Reviews
What did Shakespeare's audiences think of Cymbeline? Find out by reading this take on a 1611 performance.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Shakespeare Goes Modern
Ethan Hawke and Michael Almereyda team up for a modern take on Shakespeare's romance. Also starring Pen Dadgley, Dakota Johnson, and Ed Harris.

BBC Knows Best
The Queen herself—Helen Mirren, that is—plays the beautiful Imogen in this 80's version of the play.

Black and White and Watched All Over
This silent black and white 22-minute film comes from 19-freaking-13.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Shakespeare Sisterhood
Henriette Palmer discusses Imogen's virtue and her status among other Shakespearean heroines.

Renaissance Woman
An essay on the perils of women in Cymbeline.

Shakespeare Never Reveals a Source
But we do. Shakespeare used Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio as a source for some of his plot.

VIDEO

Forgiveness and Tolerance
A commentary on the themes of forgiveness in Cymbeline, from Cloten's perspective.

Homeward Bound
Director Antoni Cimolino's take on the play, based on his experience directing it at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Flyin' Like an Eagle
If you wondered what was up with Jupiter's entrance on an eagle, check out this video about the props used for one production.

AUDIO

Listen Up
A full audio version of Cymbeline, recorded by Librivox.

Cymbeline the... Song?
Actually, Cymbeline has such famous songs that it's no surprise somebody set one to music. Check out Loreena McKennitt's version here.

IMAGES

Princess Warrior
Who wouldn't root for this sword-wielding heroine after seeing this image?

Tragedy or Comedy?
Shakespeare's fellow actors and friends labeled the play a "tragedy" with its first printing.

A Stolen Glance
Iachimo got an eyeful when he snuck out of the trunk in Imogen's bedchamber.