Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Suffering

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He had two sons—if this be worth your hearing,
Mark it—the eldest of them at three years old,
I' th' swathing clothes the other, from their nursery
Were stol'n, and to this hour no guess in knowledge
Which way they went. (1.1.65-69)

The two gents kick things off for us by describing the king's suffering over the past twenty years. Maybe Shakespeare's trying to rack up some sympathy points before we meet the guy himself and we see him doing some seriously stupid crap.

Weeps she still, say'st thou? Dost thou think in time
She will not quench and let instructions enter
Where folly now possesses? (1.5.55-57)

Imogen is crying, and no one can stop her. We can't blame her: her husband has just been banished. Here, the Queen makes it clear that Imogen isn't letting go of her hubby so easily: she's prepared to suffer through it, and that's not good news for the Queen, who wants Imogen to marry her nasty son Cloten.

A father cruel and a stepdame false, 
A foolish suitor to a wedded lady 
That hath her husband banished. O, that husband,
My supreme crown of grief and those repeated
Vexations of it! Had I been thief-stol'n,
As my two brothers, happy; but most miserable
Is the desire that's glorious. Blessed be those,
How mean soe'er, that have their honest wills,
Which seasons comfort. Who may this be? Fie! (1.6.1-9)

We feel bad for Imogen: she doesn't have anyone in her corner. But why does she suffer so much? Is she the only truly good character in the play? Or does she cause some pain of her own?

Alas, poor princess,
Thou divine Imogen, what thou endur'st,
Betwixt a father by thy stepdame governed,
A mother hourly coining plots, a wooer
More hateful than the foul expulsion is
Of thy dear husband, than that horrid act
Of the divorce he'd make! (2.1.56-62)

Give it up for the minor characters: the two lords have a lot of say about how ridiculous Cloten is. They help us understand these characters, and they make us have more sympathy for Imogen. It seems that everyone can see how bad she has it except for Cymbeline himself. Why are the lords able to see through things, while characters directly involved with the plot have a hard time understanding what's actually going on?

It is a basilisk unto mine eye,
Kills me to look on 't. Let there be no honor
Where there is beauty, truth where semblance, love
Where there's another man. (2.4.136-139)

Okay, okay. For the sake of fairness, we also have to think about Posthumus's side of things. Sure, he creates a lot of heartache for our main gal, but he also thinks she's been unfaithful. Does that excuse him when he orders her killed? Uhh, we don't think so. But it does mean he's hurting about the whole Iachimo trick, and hurting hard.

The fear's as bad as falling; the toil o' the war,
A pain that only seems to seek out danger
I' the name of fame and honor, which dies i' th' search (3.3.54-56)

Telling his sons about the dangers of the city, Belarius sheds some light on why he left in the first place. It turns out he was wronged, too, and that the city is full of falseness and dishonesty. Why are things like this in the city but not in the country? What makes city people—or the people at Cymbeline's court—so dishonest?

Why, I must die,
And if I do not by thy hand, thou art
No servant of thy master's. Against self-slaughter
There is a prohibition so divine
That cravens my weak hand. Come, here's my heart—
Something's afore 't. Soft, soft! We'll no defense—
Obedient as the scabbard. (3.4.81-87)

Things go from bad to worse for Imogen when Pisanio shows her the letter from Posthumus instructing him to kill her. Hasn't she suffered enough? But it turns out that this is the push she needs to do something about all the lies and deceit that are going around town about her.

Where is our daughter? She hath not appeared
Before the Roman, nor to us hath tendered
The duty of the day. She looks us like
A thing more made of malice than of duty. 
We have noted it.—Call her before us, for
We have been too slight in sufferance. (3.5.37-42)

When his daughter leaves for Milford, Cymbeline loses control; he can't believe she would stray at a time like this, and he's going to make her pay. Why is Cymbeline so hard on Imogen here? Sure, he's being duped by the Queen, and he doesn't know everything, but still. We guess he's suffering in a lot of ways, too. It must be hard to try to please your subjects, your wife, and your daughter, too, especially when all their interests conflict. What's a king to do?

A Roman with a Roman's heart can suffer.
Augustus lives to think on 't: and so much
For my peculiar care. (5.5.94-96)

Not many people accept their suffering like Lucius does. He knows he's in for a rough time after invading and losing, but he doesn't care. Bring on the pain—he'll take it like a Roman: stoically, without complaining.

With horror, madly dying, like her life,
Which, being cruel to the world, concluded
Most cruel to herself. What she confessed
I will report, so please you. These her women
Can trip me if I err, who with wet cheeks
Were present when she finished. (5.5.38-43)

When Cornelius announces the Queen's death, he doesn't hold back. He knows she was wicked, and he spells it out for everyone. We're also interested in the way he attributes a lot of the suffering that's gone down in this play to the dead Queen. She could dish it out, but she just couldn't take it.

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