Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Women and Femininity

By William Shakespeare

Women and Femininity

IACHIMO
If she went before
others I have seen, as that diamond of yours outlusters
many I have beheld, I could not but
believe she excelled many. But I have not seen the
most precious diamond that is, nor you the lady. (1.4.77-81)

Iachimo's been around the block. He thinks all women are just like jewels—shiny objects that men think are amazing… until they meet a prettier one. It's clear that he has a lot to learn about Imogen—but is he partly right about Posthumus?

IACHIMO, aside
All of her that is out of door most rich!
If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare,
She is alone th' Arabian bird, and I
Have lost the wager. (1.6.18-21)

We know Imogen must be a looker, because when cynical Iachimo actually sees her, he's impressed. We're talking very impressed. We learn that Imogen is pretty here, but we also see that deep down, Iachimo realizes that women can be smart and pretty—even if he won't admit it to his buddies.

IACHIMO
'Can my sides hold, to think that man, who knows
By history, report, or his own proof 
What woman is, yea, what she cannot choose
But must be, will's free hours languish for
Assurèd bondage?' (1.6.80-84)

Iachimo tells Imogen that lots of women can't be trusted, so he's just testing her. Well, that's ironic, not to mention totally hypocritical, since he is the onecan't be trusted, and she doesn't even need testing. Why doesn't Posthumus realize how good his wife is? Why test her like this?

POSTHUMUS
Is there no way for men to be, but women
Must be half-workers? We are all bastards, (2.5.1-2)

Once he thinks Imogen has cheated on him, Posthumus says he can't trust any woman, since in his mind, all women are liars. He's a little dramatic, yes, but he's also right on the money in terms of 17th-century thinking. A lot of men then really did believe all women were untrustworthy and would give in to their every desire. Have things changed since then?

POSTHUMUS
The vows of women
Of no more bondage be to where they are made,
Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing. (2.4.139-141)

Yikes. All women are traitors and go back on their word? It sure seems that way to Posthumus. What's funny is that he's just done that very thing: he promised Imogen he wouldn't let go of his ring until he was dead, and—voilà—he bet it right away to Iachimo. One thing that many of the men in this play lack is self-awareness; they pretty easily spot problems in others, but they have a hard time seeing the bad or imperfect things about themselves.

POSTHUMUS
I thought
   her
As chaste as unsunned snow. O, all the devils! (2.5.12-14)

This dude is outraged at the fact that his bride is not as honest as he thought. There might be a little more to it than that, though: we can't help but wonder whether he's mad at the fact that his wife cheated on him, or that he lost the bet. Which one is he more upset about when he rants about Iachimo besting him? Why is there a bet in the first place? To test his wife's loyalty, or to be the big man around town?

POSTHUMUS
Could I find out
The woman's part in me—for there's no motion
That tends to vice in man but I affirm
It is the woman's part
[…]
They are not constant but are changing still
One vice but of a minute old for one
Not half so old as that. I'll write against them,
Detest them, curse them. Yet 'tis greater skill
In a true hate to pray they have their will;
The very devils cannot plague them better. (2.5.20-23; 31-36)

Women are always changing, but Posthumus wants them to stay the same. That, however, hints at how insecure he is about women. He only feels like he's in control if his wife remains exactly the same forever. One thing he learns in this play is that remaining exactly the same forever is impossible—more than that, it's not even desirable. By the end of the play, Posthumus seems more okay with the idea of change; he's been forced to rethink his views (and his insecurities) by the events in the play.

PISANIO
You must forget to be a woman; change
Command into obedience, fear and niceness—
The handmaids of all women, or, more truly,
Woman it pretty self—into a waggish courage,
Ready in gibes, quick-answered, saucy, and
As quarrelous as the weasel. Nay, you must
Forget that rarest treasure of your cheek,
Exposing it—but O, the harder heart! (3.4.179-186)

Here's a how-to manual on becoming a man. Aside from the comedy of it all, we think this is an important quote because of what it tells us about men and women: women are always changeable, fearful, pretty, and weak hearted. We don't agree with these characteristics, but we do think they sum up what many of these men think about women.

IMOGEN
I see a man's life is a tedious one.
I have tired myself, and for two nights together
Have made the ground my bed. I should be sick
But that my resolution helps me. (3.6.1-4)

As Imogen wanders around in Wales, she thinks about gender since she's just "become" a man. Is she just tired from her own experiences, or does she think all men's lives are as bad as hers is right then? There's not much else in the play to support a full-scale investigation into what makes a man a man, but we get a small glimpse here. It turns out that being a man and being a women may be equally difficult, if in different ways.

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