Like other Shakespearean romances, Cymbeline's tone jumps back and forth throughout the play. At first, the play is obsessed with death and punishment: the first two-thirds of the play are filled with jealousy, misogyny, slander, and the constant threat of death.
There's a lot dark and heavy stuff, and that includes mourning and loss. Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, for example, believe Imogen has died, as does Posthumus; this leads to some of the play's more memorable lines—which are about the nature of death. On top of that, the Queen and Cymbeline mourn for the unexplained disappearance of their sons, and poor Imogen mourns the loss of her good name and of husband's faith in her.
In fact, the play is more dark and scary than it is joyful. It's only at the end, in the final act, that we get any glimpse of happiness for the characters. It seems like the joy that Cymbeline feels is so overwhelming that it makes up for the gloom and doom before it.
It's like Shakespeare is reminding us that the line between comedy and tragedy is very thin. One different move, and this play could have ended in a bloodbath.
Cymbeline is often called a "problem play" because it defies traditional categories of genre. Many Shakespeare critics settle on calling it a "tragicomedy" since the first three acts of the play feel like mini-tragedy, while the play's second half feels like a comedy.
In the first three acts, Imogen and Posthumus are separated and torn apart by Cymbeline, the Queen, Cloten, and Iachimo. There's a murder plot (or two or three) and a kidnapping. It seems like the whole thing is doomed by the time Imogen herself "dies," yet, Cymbeline, unlike Shakespeare's full-out tragedies, has a happy ending: families are reconciled, a couple is reunited, and order is restored between the kingdoms.
Plus, only the evil characters (Queen and Cloten) actually die. It's like Shakespeare is punishing the mean characters and giving the good ones happier endings. As anyone who has a read Hamlet or King Lear knows, this is not how things go down in a Shakespearean tragedy. There, good characters are knocked off like flies, and some of the evil characters live to see many more days.
Many critics also refer to Cymbeline as a "romance"—and we're not talking about supermarket novels with steamy couples rolling around in the sand.
Shakespeare's "romance" plays (Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, Pericles, and The Tempest) were all written at the end of his career and involve the following features: loss and recovery (think of Guiderius, Arviragus, and Imogen all being found and revealed), a wandering journey (think of Posthumus's travels to Rome and back, and Imogen's journey in the woods), and elements of magic and the fantastic (think of Imogen's fake death and Jupiter's random visit to the jail with Posthumus's ghost family).
If you're thinking that all of this sounds a lot like a fairy tale, you're absolutely right—fairy tales, which are notorious for being purposely implausible and fantastical, share a lot in common with "romance" stories. The point isn't realism: these stories are symbolic and archetypal. It's like they're showing us a different kind of reality to help us see new aspects of our everyday reality.
The title seems pretty straightforward on the surface. It's about a guy (in this case, a king) named Cymbeline.
Or is it?
We're not so sure this is really Cymbeline's story. He's not exactly the protagonist, and his wife and daughter have much stronger presences in the play. So why isn't the play called Imogen, then?
It could be because Shakespeare doesn't name his plays after chicks. The best they ever get is to share a title with a guy (Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida), and even then they never get top billing.
It could also be because if there's a king in the play, Shakespeare usually names the whole thing after him, even the king in question isn't really the main character. Take Henry IVor Henry VI, for example. Both of those plays are named after the kings in them, even though a lot of people say these plays are about a bunch of characters finding their way in life... or taking over a kingdom (or two). They're not really about the kings themselves.
The title of this play also clues us in to the fact that the genre is all over the place. When the play was originally published in the First Folio in 1623, it was titled The Tragedy of Cymbeline. But there's nothing tragic about the ending, right? Is this play just called a tragedy because there's nothing else Shakespeare could have called it? (If you want to know more about this, check out what we have to say in our "Genre" section.)
So, why didn't Shakespeare give the play Imogen's name as the title? Well, usually his female characters are strongest in his comedies, but it would be hard to say that these comedies are "about" those female characters; they're more about groups of people and the issues they face. That could be why these kinds of plays get maxims (All's Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It) or plot hints (A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost) as titles.
Or maybe Shakespeare was just like, "I don't know what to call this baby, so I'm just going to slap Cymbeline all over it and call it a day." It could have happened.
This one is a head-scratcher. In the final scene, Cymbeline and his lost children all reunite, Imogen and Posthumus make up, Cymbeline forgives Belarius for stealing his sons, and Posthumus tells Iachimo that the pretend cheating on his wife is just water under the bridge. Basically, everyone is overjoyed; it's the kind of happily-ever-after we only find in fairy tales.
It's no wonder critics sometimes call this play and Shakespeare's other romances fairy tales.
But we can't help but wonder if—just as in a fairy tale—it's all a little make-believe. Sure, miraculous reunions involving kidnapped kids and their parents or dead wives and their husbands can happen in Disney movies or kids' books, but can they happen in real life? Are we meant to take the ending at face value, or are we supposed to dig a little deeper?
We'll break it to you: this is something Shakespeare leaves up to you. He puts the wheels in motion for both interpretations to be plausible. Maybe it's just a fairy tale; maybe it's not.
So you have to ask yourself: are you the head-over-heels romantic who believes the guy will always get the girl at the end of the movie, no matter what the obstacle? Then the ending might seem really happy to. Imogen and her family will live happily ever after together in the palace, right?
Or are you the type of cynical pragmatist who thinks that in real life, no guy stands out in the rain waiting for a girl after she's trashed his heart? Then maybe Cymbeline's ending is just as problematic as the rest of the play. You decide.
Cymbeline is set in super-ancient, pre-Christian Britain, just like King Lear, and Cymbeline was actually a king who ruled in those way-back days. We see glimpses of the fact that Britain was pre-Christian when the pre-Christian Jupiter shows up (even though Jupiter is a Roman and not native British god). The characters in this play all worship the king of the gods and believe he has the power to change their lives.
The play goes back and forth between Britain and Rome. This is partly because Posthumus has been banished and needs somewhere to go. But in more general terms, this play is about Britain finding its place in a world dominated by the Roman Empire. The shifting of scenes between Britain and Rome heightens the tension between these two powers until they meet in the final scene and come to an agreement.
In the play, a lot of characters speak in a flowery, formal language that suits their noble status. These speech habits are notorious for making Cymbeline one of Shakespeare's more challenging plays to read—at first.
As in all of Shakespeare's work, some of the language here takes some getting used to. But once we get the hang of people running around saying things in 17th-century verse, it starts to get a little easier.
The play does have some twists and turns that can be a tad confusing. The deaths, potions, and schemes make for one wild ride, for sure, but if you can follow the drama that goes down in your favorite soap opera (or fairy tale), then you should have no problem with the play's plotline. We pretty quickly discover that Cymbeline is basically a fairy tale, complete with a sleeping princess and evil stepmother.
Cymbeline, like Shakespeare's other plays, is written in a combination of verse (poetry—some of it rhymed) and prose (how we talk every day).
In most of Shakespeare's plays, a lot of characters speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter (also called "blank verse"). Don't let the fancy names intimidate you—it's pretty simple once you get the hang of it.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats: ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on these lines from Cymbeline:
You DO not MEET a MAN but FROWNS: our BLOODS
No MORE oBEY the HEAvens THAN our COURTIERS
Every second syllable is accented, so this is classic iambic pentameter. Poets (and playwrights) hardly ever write in perfect meter, because perfect meter sounds like a nursery rhyme. Varying the meter draws attention to certain words and helps the verse sound a little more natural.
That takes care of iambic pentameter. Since these lines have no rhyme scheme ("bloods" and "courtiers" don't rhyme), we call it "unrhymed iambic pentameter," which is also known as "blank verse."
Blank verse is a pretty formal way to speak, so it's usually reserved for nobles and formal situations in Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare also drops little hints about his characters with his writing style. Did you notice that the Queen never really seems to have full lines? That's what we call broken lines. It's when a line of verse doesn't come to a complete end. In iambic pentameter, each line is supposed to have 10 syllables. But not all do.
Sometimes this is just comes down to the topic and the other words in the line—after all, it's pretty darn hard to write in perfect iambic pentameter all the time. Not even Shakespeare does it totally consistently. But when this happens again and again with one character in particular, we know it's more than just an accident.
Now, the Queen's lines are totally like this. Check out what she tells Imogen here:
This hath been
Your faithful servant. I dare lay mine honor
He will remain so. (1.2.214-216)
So what's the deal? Well, maybe these broken lines show the Queen's nervousness or anxiety. After all, these lines can be said more quickly than complete lines could. The stop-and-start nature of the lines might mean she's out of breath or quickly uttering her lines.
Now that we've gone over verse, let's tackle prose. Characters who don't get to speak in verse just talk. Take Cloten's lines when he searches for Imogen in Wales, for example:
I am near to the place where they should meet,
if Pisanio have mapped it truly. How fit his garments
serve me! Why should his mistress, who
was made by him that made the tailor, not be fit
See how there's no pattern to the lines? That's because he's just talking; there's no meter involved. What's that called? Yup: prose.
Everyone likes to have a little bling—even Shakespeare's characters. When Imogen and Posthumus say goodbye to one another, they give each other jewelry. Even though these are just little items, they carry huge significance in the play—Imogen and Posthumus aren't just into jewelry: these are love tokens, or signs that show that the two of them are together. Elizabethans used love tokens to tell everyone around "she's mine" and "he's mine."
What's the big deal about these love tokens? Well, Imogen's ring used to belong to her mother, so it's important to her even before she gives it to Posthumus. Posthumus calls the bracelet a "manacle of love" (1.1.143), and he later refers to "my ring I hold dear as my finger" (1.4.141). So far, so good.
Things quickly go awry when Posthumus bets the ring in his wager with Iachimo (why, Posthumus? why?). We know that Iachimo gets the ring and bracelet before too long, but we think it's interesting what he does with them. He tells Posthumus, "I beg but leave to air this jewel. See— / And now 'tis up again. It must be married to that your diamond" (2.4.121-123). It's as if the jewels are intertwined in some way—or "married," as Iachimo puts it.
Even Iachimo gets the symbolic value of these jewels: they're not just precious because of their monetary value—they've become symbols of the love and trust Posthumus and Imogen share (or think they share). That's why Iachimo thinks it's so important to steal Imogen's bracelet as proof that he hooked up with her: it's not just a sign that he was with her—it's also a sign that he has taken away that love and trust.
What's surprising is how easy it is for Iachimo to get it. When he's removing the bracelet from Imogen's arm, he says: "Come off, come off; / As slippery as the Gordian knot was hard!" (2.2.37-38). Seriously: it just slips right off like it's nothing. Does Posthumus consider that Iachimo may have just stolen the bracelet from Imogen? Nope. He's too invested in that bracelet to consider any possibility but the worst.
If you've read Othello, you know that Shakespeare's jealous husbands can be tricked pretty easily by small trinkets like bracelets and handkerchiefs.
In the end, it's the jewelry that saves the day. When Imogen sees her husband's ring on Iachimo's finger, she questions him about it… and this time, he unravels the entire plot. The truth has a nice ring to it.
Think about how close this story came to becoming a tragedy, folks. It came really close… and all over a little bracelet.
Did you notice how Imogen is called a bird? Iachimo calls her "th' Arabian bird" when he visits her (1.6.20), and Arviragus announces her death by saying "the bird is dead" (4.2.197). What gives?
Well, the Arabian bird is a phoenix. Since traditionally, only one phoenix can exist at a time, Imogen's association with one highlights how rare she is. She lives in a world filled with lies and mischievous plots, but she never schemes; she's virtuous almost to a fault. But she also has something else in common with the phoenix: she rises from the ashes. Maybe this association foreshadows her death and resurrection to come.
So, if Imogen is a rare, magical bird, what does that make everyone else? Well, Belarius tells his companions to "perceive me like a crow" (3.3.14). It seems like Arviragus and Guiderius take this to mean he's intelligent, but it could hint at his manipulative nature, as well. Crows are known for both for intelligence and for darker qualities, after all.
When Imogen tells her father she doesn't regret marrying Posthumus over Cloten, she uses bird imagery to describe her feelings. She declares, "I chose an eagle, and did avoid a puttock" (1.1.167-168). A puttock is a greedy scavenger, which sums up Cloten pretty well. And a strong, noble, intelligent eagle is a fitting symbol for Posthumus.
By the end, we've got a bunch of birds flying around the play. But these aren't just any birds: each one symbolizes a character's personality, and each one gives us clues about that character's past or future.
So it should come as no surprise that birds are a central part of the oracle at the end of the play: not only does Jupiter soar like an eagle (or on an eagle to be precise), he also leaves a cryptic message for Posthumus by means of birds. The dream here seems to be an augury—that's a way of telling the future by watching the behavior of birds.
When the Soothsayer interprets the oracle, she states: "For the Roman eagle, / From south to west on wing soaring aloft, / Lessened herself and in the beams o' th' sun / So vanished; which foreshadowed our princely eagle, / Th' imperial Caesar, should again unite / His favor with the radiant Cymbeline" (5.5.570-574). Instead of just saying Rome and Britain are pals again, she uses "eagle" to represent something Roman: princely, noble, powerful, smart—you get the idea.
But even something as powerful and majestic as the eagle is no match for the sun. Eventually, the eagle (Rome) disappears into the sun (Britain). Hint, hint: Britain is better and more powerful than Rome.
Calling all fashionistas. Clothes are a big deal in this play—just ask Cloten. Here's how Imogen compares him to Posthumus: "His mean'st garment / That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer / In my respect than all the hairs above thee" (2.3.152-154). When Imogen says this, Cloten goes crazy on her. He keeps repeating "garment" and is super insulted. Why?
Well, Cloten is all about appearances. Early on, we hear him boasting of his abilities to anyone who will listen—in fact, that's what gets him killed. Cloten thinks clothes are representative of someone's social class and worth. He can't believe Imogen thinks he's worse than Posthumus's cheapest digs. Posthumus is basically a commoner, while Cloten is a prince. How dare she?
Cloten's so convinced of his superior status that he borrows Posthumus's clothes to prove a point to Imogen. When he wears these borrowed clothes, he's convinced he looks stunning—"How fit his garments / serve me!" (4.1.2-3)—but he can't cloak what's inside those clothes: Cloten himself.
What Cloten doesn't get is that Imogen doesn't want him, no matter how he's dressed. He's a fool, and no garments will change that. Cloten, on the other hand, really believes that what you wear determines who you are.
We see the exact opposite idea when Posthumus picks out his own clothes. When he's supposed to fight for the Romans but actually wants to fight for the British, he changes his clothes to fit in. He proclaims, "I'll disrobe me / of these Italian weeds and suit myself / as does a Briton peasant" (5.1.22-24).
Posthumus knows the look doesn't matter: it's the man the counts. In fact, he (and other misfits) save the king's life and win the battle for Britain, all while wearing cheap, dirty rags. He proves that clothes don't make the man.
Get out the SPF 30, because the sun shines bright in this play. Imogen might be talking about her own rough situation when she talks about the sun to Pisanio, but what she says sums up a larger idea in the play. She asks: "Where then? / Hath Britain all the sun that shines?" (3.4.157-158). Translation: Britain is basking in the sun. It's the best and has all the good stuff in life. Why go anywhere else?
Later, Imogen's brother explains that he will fight for Britain, and he uses this imagery to talk about his decision, as well. Arviragus announces: "I am ashamed / to look upon the holy sun, to have / the benefit of his blest beams, remaining / so long a poor unknown" (4.4.48-51). Arviragus sees how sunny and bright Britain is, and he wants it to stay that way. Of course, by the end of the play, thanks to him (and his brother and brother-in-law), it will.
The Soothsayer interprets the oracle to mean that Rome "lessened herself, and in the beams o' th' sun / so vanished"(5.5.572-573). It looks like Rome forgot to wear its sunglasses when it stared down the sun. Because Britain is represented with the image of the sun, the suggestion is that it will keep shining long after the play is done.
The hills must be alive, because the sound of music is all over this play. Where to begin? Well, music shows up in a big way when Posthumus's ghost family arrives on the scene; they've got to announce themselves in style, after all.
The stage direction tell us:
Solemn music. Enter, as in a apparition, Sicilius
Leonatus, father to Posthumus, an old man attired like
a warrior, leading in his hand an ancient matron, his
wife and mother to Posthumus, with music before
them. Then, after other music, follow the two young
Leonati, brothers to Posthumus, with wounds as they
died in the wars. They circle Posthumus round, as he
lies sleeping. (220.127.116.11).
Hmm… do you think there's music in this scene? The stage direction only mentions it three times, right? The music here sets the scene for the ghosts to come in and commune with Jupiter, but it also gives us a random musical interlude. Shakespeare doesn't usually go this route: more often, his songs and music are part of the play's dialogue and drama.
Here, he sets music apart, so we know it's important. Maybe it's supposed to remind us of a Greek or Roman drama, in which music would play between pieces of action. Maybe it's here because this play was performed at Blackfriars Theater, which had a well-known band in residence.
It might even have something to do with the fact that the whole play is thought of as a musical score. At the very end of the play, the Soothsayer notes: "The fingers of the powers above do tune / the harmony of this peace" (5.5.566-567). She's telling us that the gods are playing music with their lives. So there you have it. The play is music.
That's pretty appropriate for a "romance," don't you think? If the whole play is music, that just reinforces the idea that there's a higher plan to the whole thing (everything happens for a reason), and the final goal is harmony.
Music goes hand in hand with birds: birds a famous for their songs, right? Well, Cloten's awkward serenade for Imogen connects the two for us. Outside Imogen's door, he and the musicians sing:
Hark, hark, the lark at heaven's gate sings,
And Phoebus gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes.
With every thing that pretty is,
my lady sweet, arise,
Arise, arise. (2.3.20-28)
So, what's the deal with the lark? Well, on the one hand, larks usually symbolize the dawn of a new day. Cloten wants this to be a new day for him and Imogen: forget that old husband and take me instead, he's saying. Okay, we get it.
But on the other hand, this is really a new day for Imogen—just not in the way Cloten wants it to be. It's right after this that Imogen delivers that stinger to Cloten about how he's worth less than Posthumus's nasty clothes.
This also foreshadows what will happen with Imogen by the end of the play. When the song says "on chaliced flowers that lies" and "arise," we get an image of Imogen later in the play as she is resurrected. In that scene, she is surrounded by flowers, and she's "reborn."
By far the most popular song—and perhaps even the most popular quote—from Cymbeline is the song that Guiderius and Arviragus sing over Imogen's dead body. Here she is:
GUIDERIUS, as Polydor
Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
ARVIRAGUS, as Cadwal
Fear no more the frown o' th' great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic must
All follow this and come to dust. (4.2.3331-342)
Heartbroken and somber, the brothers band together to create an especially poignant moment in the play. We might be aware of the magical nature of the potion, but the characters certainly are not. The brothers remind us of the loss that many characters feel in the play.
Guiderius and Arviragus perform a funeral ceremony as best they know how; they even say Fidele has "come to dust" just as the funeral passage went at this time: "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." That comes from The Book of Common Prayer, which was a big how-to manual on life events like births, weddings, and funerals.
If we take a closer look at the song, we'll notice that the brothers are saying Imogen doesn't have to suffer any more. Finally. She's lost her husband, she's lost her reputation, and she's lost her country—or so it all seems. It seems like she's suffering all over the place.
In fact, it almost seems like these guys are saying that Britain (ahem… Cymbeline) won't make Imogen suffer any more. Notice how they say she shouldn't fear the sun? Well, if the sun symbolizes Britain, and Cymbeline is the king of Britain, maybe what they're really saying is that she doesn't have to endure the "heat" (wrath) of her dad any more.
What makes this song doubly awesome is the fact that Imogen isn't actually dead at all. Everything the brothers are saying about death is true: it will come for everyone—even for young lovers—and if nothing else, it will spell the end of suffering for the dead person.
But at the same time, there's something sort of magical going on: death in this scene isn't actually real. All that stuff the brothers are singing may be true, but there also seems to be this mysterious possibility of rebirth underlying the whole thing. It's both a somber and a magical moment in the play—and that pretty much sums up Cymbeline as a whole.
It seems like no one is happy at the beginning of Cymbeline. Imogen has to say goodbye to her husband for no real reason other than the Queen wants her to marry someone else. Posthumus has to leave his home and travel to a foreign land by himself. Cymbeline, the Queen, and Cloten are all ticked off at Imogen for marrying someone other than the foolish Cloten. There isn't much hope for happiness in sight.
Sometimes things have to get worse to get better. And boy do they get a lot worse. Posthumus accuses Imogen of adultery and orders her death. Cloten threatens revenge on Imogen for making fun of him and really means it. Imogen accidentally drinks poison from the Queen and appears dead. Oh and did we mention Rome was invading Britain? Yep, that's the pressure of darkness all right.
All's well that ends well, we suppose. Imogen is discovered alive and well and reunites with her husband. All beef between them is gone once Iachimo reveals his lies and schemes to separate them. The evil characters—the Queen and Cloten—are dead so they can't harm anyone anymore. To top it all off, the kidnapped princes, Guiderius and Arviragus are found and reunited with their father and sister.
Imogen's evil stepmother pretends to be her friend and a calm counselor to the king, when she is really whipping up potions and planning their murders behind their backs (or paying people to at least.) The Queen desperately wants her son, Cloten to marry Imogen and become king of Britain. Imogen's new hubby Posthumus is banished along with her hopes and dreams for a happy life. The lovebirds give each other tokens—a bracelet for her, a ring for him—and promise to keep them forever.
Posthumus bets Iachimo that he won't be able to score with his honey, but he didn't know Iachimo would lie, cheat, and steal to get the job done. Imogen proves her faithfulness, but Iachimo takes her precious bracelet and a gander at things that aren't his.
Posthumus believes Imogen is a big fat cheater and orders Pisanio to kill her. She dresses as a boy (Fidele) and flits off to Wales to find a ride to Rome. Meanwhile, Cloten treks out to Wales as well in hopes of killing Posthumus and taking Imogen for himself whether she likes it or not.
Imogen has made some new friends in Wales, but little does she know that Guiderius and Arviragus are her long-lost, kidnapped brothers. She takes a medicine from the Queen but it's actually poison and she dies—only briefly—and wakes up again. But it's long enough for her new friends to mourn her. The good news is they've managed to kill Cloten when he happened upon them while hunting. No loss there! Meanwhile, Rome is invading Britain for some of the Queen's gutsy decisions.
Britain defeats Rome thanks to Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus. After they are knighted or released from prison, it's a whirlwind of family reunions as Fidele reveals herself as Imogen. Iachimo comes clean about his lies and apologizes. Then, Belarius fesses up to kidnapping Guiderius and Arviragus years earlier. Cymbeline and his family are together again at last!
Imogen is married to Posthumus but no one is happy about it. He is banished, Imogen is heartbroken, and the Queen unleashes her fool of a son on the princess. Imogen defends herself against his advances, as well as those brought on by Iachimo from his bet with her husband. Somehow, she still ends up labeled a whore and her husband wants to kill her. Rome decides to invade Britain and it doesn't look good for Cymbeline's home country.
After disguises and fighting galore, Imogen is thought to be dead by just about everyone. Posthumus is in jail for fighting with the Romans (even though he saved the British king). Imogen thinks he is dead. Cymbeline thinks his sons are dead since they were kidnapped 20 years ago.
Posthumus is rescued from prison and congratulated for saving the king's life. Imogen reveals herself and everyone is overjoyed she is alive. The lovers are reunited after Iachimo tells them of his nasty plot against them. And miraculously, Cymbeline's missing sons are discovered. It's almost too good to be true for the characters. Almost.