Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Mortality

By William Shakespeare

Mortality

POSTHUMUS
You gentle gods, give me but this I have,
And sear up my embracements from a next
With bonds of death. (1.1.135-137)

From the beginning, the lovers are aware of death. Posthumus promises he won't give away the ring until he's dead. In a way, that's true: he gives the ring up once he believes his marriage is dead.

IMOGEN
There cannot be a pinch in death
More sharp than this is. (1.1.155-156)

At seeing Posthumus leave, Imogen is immediately struck with a pain greater than death—or so she thinks. It won't be too long before she knows the torment (pinch) of death herself. It's curious how she's fixated on death right away, even before her troubles really begin, as if being in love gives her a special, more immediate connection with death.

CORNELIUS
Those she has
Will stupefy and dull the sense awhile,
Which first perchance, she'll prove on cats and dogs,
Then afterward up higher. But there is
No danger in what show of death it makes,
More than the locking-up the spirits a time,
To be more fresh, reviving. (1.5.43-49)

Cornelius tells us all about the potion he's made for the Queen. We can't help but wonder why we're given this description: could it be a foreshadowing of what will happen later in the play?

BELARIUS, as Morgan
Great griefs, I see, med'cine the less, for Cloten
Is quite forgot. (4.2.310-311)

It's funny how nothing seems quite so bad in comparison to death. Belarius isn't over the surprise and emotion of Cloten's death and then—boom: Fidele's death puts it into perspective.

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
. (4.2.331-336)

Guiderius mourns Fidele with a song that describes how death is comforting. There's no more fear, no more winter, and no more cruelty. This is one way of looking at death that may be comforting for those left behind: at least the person who has passed will no longer have to suffer. This is one of the play's most famous passages. How do you think it relates to the rest of the play? Most of the characters don't actually die, so why does the play focus on death so much?

BELARIUS, as Morgan
Here's a few flowers, but 'bout midnight more, 
The herbs that have on them cold dew o' th' night
Are strewings fitt'st for graves. Upon their faces.—
You were as flowers, now withered. Even so
These herblets shall, which we upon you strew.—
Come on, away; apart upon our knees.
The ground that gave them first has them again. 
Their pleasures here are past; so is their pain. (4.2.356-363)

At Imogen's grave, Belarius provides flowers and comforting words about Fidele's death. It's a somber moment for the men. Check out how he describes death as final and certain: at least there's no more pain? How does this passage relate to the rest of the play? Why is mortality so important, even when most of the characters don't actually die? Maybe the idea is to remind us what a limited amount of time we have—we'd better make the most of what we have before the final curtain call. Could there be other interpretations?

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. (5.5.296-305)

Cornelius is no fool. He knows if he tells everyone that he made a secret death potion, he'd end up dead, too—and there'd be no potion to revive him. He finally lays out the specs about his magic potion here, showing us that even a doctor can be obsessed with death. In this case, he prevented it—just not in the way we would have expected.

POSTHUMUS
By th' sure physician, Death, who is the key
To unbar these locks. My conscience, thou art fettered
More than my shanks and wrists. You good gods,
   give me
The penitent instrument to pick that bolt,
Then, free forever. (5.4.8-13)

Morbid much? Posthumus is down in the dumps while in jail. He doesn't want to keep living in a world that doesn't have any Imogen in it. Aww, it's kinda sweet…. in a weird he-was-the-one-who-ordered-her-death-and-now-he's-all-morbid kind of way.

POSTHUMUS
I am merrier to die than thou art to live.
JAILER 
Indeed, sir, he that sleeps feels not the
toothache. But a man that were to sleep your
sleep, and a hangman to help him to bed, I think
he would change places with his officer; (5.7.175-179)

Posthumus may talk and talk of death, but he doesn't ever do anything about it: he's all doom and gloom. But no matter how glass-half-empty he gets, he can still provide witty comebacks to the jailers. Here, he readily admits he's ready to die. He has nothing left to live for, and wants to reunite with his love in death.

POSTHUMUS
Hang there like a fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die. (5.5.313-314)

Now that Posthumus totally doesn't want to die anymore, he wants Iachimo to die. After all, Iachimo lied and stole his way into winning that bet—plus,he made Posthumus believe the worst about his own wife. So is that deserving of death?