Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Summary

By William Shakespeare

Cymbeline, King of Britain Summary

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


Imogen didn't want to wait around for her dad to marry her off to her new lame stepbrother Cloten; she got married to Posthumus instead. Who's up for a quickie wedding in Vegas? Wait, there is no Vegas. There is a lot of drama, though: when Imogen's dad, Cymbeline, finds out what she's done, he hits the roof. He can't believe his daughter has disobeyed him, so he sends her new hubby off into banishment, never to return again. Some wedding gift.

The lovers only have moments before they have to leave each other's sides, so they give each other a parting gift. She did put a ring on it, and he... well, he put a bracelet on it. Hey, that's how they rolled back then. Imogen and Posthumus promise to wear these tokens forever and ever—that way they're always together in spirit. Tear.

Trouble is, no one else really wants that. Cymbeline wants to lock Imogen up until she agrees to marry Cloten. Imogen's evil stepmother creates a poison and hands it over to Imogen's servant, Pisanio, for future use. Meanwhile, Cloten, ever the tool, tries to serenade Imogen and win her over. She tells him he's not even worth Posthumus's last-season clothes.

Enter Iachimo. As if Imogen didn't have enough problems, this Roman gent has made a bet with Posthumus that he can convince Imogen to cheat on her hubby. When it doesn't work, Iachimo resorts to drastic measures: he hides in a trunk in Imogen's bedroom. Then, once she is asleep, he takes a good look around and steals her precious bracelet from Posthumus.

Once he returns to Rome, Iachimo brags to Posthumus that he landed his girl. Posthumus is furious and hands over the ring, since that was the deal. Embarrassed and angry, Posthumus instructs Pisanio to kill Imogen. Gasp.

Pisanio can't go through with it and helps Imogen disguise herself as a boy named Fidele. She's supposed to hitch a ride to Rome, but she gets lost along the way and comes across three hunter-outlaws: Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus. (Don't look at us like that. We didn't name them.) They all love her instantly. Little does she know that Guiderius and Arviragus are actually her long-lost brothers who were kidnapped when they were young.

Yeah, you read that right.

Cloten comes looking for Imogen in Wales and stumbles upon the hunters. After making a fool of himself (as usual) by offending them and boasting about his superior strength, he gets in a fight with Guiderius. He loses his head in the fight. Literally.

Meanwhile, Imogen takes some medicine Pisanio gave her to feel better. It's actually a poison from the Queen, but Pisanio doesn't know that. It makes her appear dead for a couple hours, after which she'll be able to wake up from a deep sleep. But it's long enough: when Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus come back to the cave to find Fidele dead, they mourn and bury her—above ground, luckily.

Back at the palace, a war is brewing. The Queen is controlling the country and has gotten everybody in some hot water. She's also taken sick because her son is missing. Rome has decided to invade Britain, and it doesn't look good, since Rome is all set to win.

Things almost get nasty, but just in the nick of time, Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus emerge from the woods and into a peasant (actually Posthumus in disguise). They save the day... and the king's life. With the war over, and Britain safe, Posthumus changes into Roman uniform and is taken off to prison.

Meanwhile, Imogen wakes up next to Cloten's headless body. Since Cloten was wearing Posthumus's clothes at the time, she thinks her hubby is dead meat. She runs away and mourns.

Posthumus himself believes Imogen is dead (um… since he ordered that and all) and just wants to roll over and die. Luckily, his dead ancestors team together and show up at his cell. Or their ghosts do, at least. They summon Jupiter to help him, and miraculously, the big J deigns to do so.

In one colossal final scene, a bunch of crazy things happen. The Queen dies offstage and tells Cornelius of her plan to murder Cymbeline and give the crown to her son. Imogen (a.k.a. Fidele) notices her husband's ring on Iachimo's finger and confronts him about it. Iachimo feels pretty guilty and reveals everything—from how he hid in the trunk in Imogen's room to the lies he told Posthumus.

If Posthumus didn't want to die before, he certainly does now: he's beyond angry that he ordered Imogen's death without reason. Luckily, she's right there and reveals herself. Everyone is overjoyed.

As if one family reunion weren't enough, Belarius exposes the truth about Guiderius and Arviragus. Yes, he kidnapped them from their dad Cymbeline twenty years ago and raised them as his own. But hey, at least he returned them, right? Cymbeline is so ecstatic to see his sons again that he totally lets Belarius off the hook. Then he sends the Romans home with a slap on the wrist.