Study Guide

Cymbeline, King of Britain Themes

  • Love

    Remember when Posthumus and Imogen proclaim their love for one another in the beginning of the play? Everything is candy hearts and flowers: they're madly, head-over-heels, rom-com in love with one another. But it's not too long before things start getting dicey for them. Sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder, but for these two lovebirds, it causes a whole lot of problems, too. As they say, the course of true love never did run smooth.

    But newlywed love isn't the only form of love we get in Cymbeline: we also hear a lot about family love (or lack thereof). By the end of the play, we're asked to think about what happens next: Will the family live happily ever after? Will Imogen and Posthumus ride off into the sunset? We sure hope so. It seems even Shakespeare loved a happy ending.

    Questions About Love

    1. Can true love withstand any trial, or are some problems just too big to get over? Who is to blame for the rift between Posthumus and Imogen?
    2. Do you think Imogen and Posthumus really love each other? What does true love mean in this play?
    3. Why do Guiderius and Arviragus love Imogen (Fidele) immediately after meeting her? What does their bond tell us about family love? Why are they more attached to her than to Belarius?

    Chew on This

    Imogen loves Posthumus way more than he loves her. His willingness to make a bet about her shows he's not as invested.

    Iachimo is totally to blame for the fighting between Imogen and Posthumus. Without him, the two lovebirds would have been happy throughout the entire play.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Call the fire department, because everyone's pants are on fire in Cymbeline. Iachimo lies to Posthumus about hooking up with his wife. The Queen tricks Cymbeline into believing that she loves him and wants the best for his family, when really she is conspiring to kill him and his daughter. Cornelius lies about the potion he gives the Queen. Belarius lies to Guiderius and Arviragus about their identities. Even honest Imogen joins the game by making people believe she's a dude, and by marrying Posthumus behind her father's back.

    No wonder it's hard to keep track of what's really going on in this play. It's lies that make the plot go round, and that leads us to the question: why is there so much deceit in this play? Does the artificiality of politics and court power turn people into liars? Do love and lust turn people into liars?

    Either way, let's get out those polygraphs and watch these folks go off the charts.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Why does Imogen dress as a guy? What else could she do to clear her name? Does her ruse actually come to anything?
    2. How do characters talk about lying? Is lying something associated with one gender or class?
    3. Which characters avoid deception completely? What does this tell us about lies?
    4. Is there a difference between certain lies and others? Is Imogen's deception the same as Iachimo's? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Every character must lie in Cymbeline,because no one can be trusted.

    Imogen lies for personal gain—just like Iachimo and the Queen. All lies are equally bad in the play.

  • Society and Class

    Social class was a big deal in Shakespeare's England, and Cymbeline is totally reflective of that. Take Posthumus: the main argument against him getting together with Imogen is that he doesn't come from a good enough class. Posthumus's social class? Cymbeline mocks it, Cloten mocks it, and Imogen knows it and doesn't care. For many, the play seems to challenge and critique some social and political structures. For others, the play takes a good hard look at some of Britain's social ills but eventually ends up supporting the status quo.

    Which is it? That's for you to decide, but we're here to help.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why is Posthumus considered worse than Cloten? Aside from their ranks, what is different about them?
    2. What does Cloten's character tell us about social class? Is he worthy of his princely title? Are Guiderius and Arviragus worthy of theirs?
    3. In what ways does Cymbeline challenge the idea that the higher the social class, the better the person?

    Chew on This

    Social class doesn't matter in the end, because Cymbeline realizes that Posthumus is noble and valiant despite his class.

    Cymbeline might challenge rank in some ways, but eventually, normal social order is restored.

  • Mortality

    Hardly a scene goes by without someone reminding us of death: Imogen might as well launch into singing Pink Floyd's "Goodbye Cruel World." Posthumus orders Pisanio to kill her for her (fake) infidelity. Cloten promises to kill Posthumus. The Queen tries to kill off Pisanio and Imogen and Cymbeline. Cloten gets his head lopped off. And Posthumus just wants to die.

    But the play's fascination with death doesn't stop there. Imogen "dies" and comes back to life, but not before she gets a proper funeral from her brothers, who sing a song about death—probably the play's most famous passage.

    Death is never far off in Cymbeline. Perhaps Shakespeare, nearing the end of his career, is thinking about his own death—and asking us to think about our own mortality, too.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why does Imogen "die" at all? How might the play be different if she hadn't "died" in the cave?
    2. It seems like only the wicked characters die in Cymbeline. Is anyone left alive at the end of the play who you think should have died? Are some evil deeds just unforgiveable?
    3. What leads to Posthumus's fascination with death? Even his name refers to death (he was a "posthumous" baby because he was born after the death of his father). What does he think he will accomplish by dying?

    Chew on This

    Imogen has to die so that Posthumus will reconsider his actions toward her.

    Iachimo is spared from death because he is repentant, whereas the Queen and Cloten are not.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    How do you manage to forgive a person who has ruined your life?

    Shmoop's answer: we don't know. It's a tricky question, but it's one that Cymbeline asks again and again. Cymbeline is faced with his sons' kidnapper; Imogen is confronted with the man who slandered her name and almost ruined her marriage; Posthumus comes face to face with the guy who made him order his wife's death.

    From the outside, such a person may seem vile, stupid, or just plain incomprehensible. But if you can imagine what it's like inside that person's head, you might be surprised by the answers—and compassion—you find. Of course, there's also the danger that the person is just as nasty as you thought, but that's the risk a good person has to be willing to take in this play.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Why does Cymbeline forgive Belarius for kidnapping his sons and the Romans for waging war? Is his judgment clouded by the joyous events happening around him? Does it matter?
    2. Does Imogen forgive Iachimo for insulting her good name and pushing Posthumus away from her? Why is she silent when Iachimo apologizes?
    3. What's the deal with the Queen and Cloten dying? Why aren't they formally forgiven for their actions, as Iachimo, for example, is?

    Chew on This

    Cymbeline forgives everyone because he realizes there are more important things in life than holding grudges.

    The Queen and Cloten were too evil to be forgiven; they had to be killed off for their evil actions.

  • Suffering

    In Cymbeline, there's only one way to deal with suffering: endure it.

    That's doesn't mean the characters in this play are always up to the task: they may put up with the suffering, but they also weep, rant, and lament about it. Some of them try to scheme their way out of suffering, and the consequences of that are rarely good. You can't take any shortcuts in the world of this play.

    Imogen arguably suffers the most in this play: her husband orders her death, her stepmother plots her demise, and her father tries to control her life. It's rough. Imogen doesn't have a monopoly on suffering, though: Posthumus is put through the ringer by Iachimo, Cymbeline loses all three of his children, and Guiderius and Arviragus mourn the loss of their friend/sister with their wannabe father. We'd say these characters have it pretty tough—or at least they think they do.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Why do so many of the characters suffer in Cymbeline? Do they learn anything from their tough times?
    2. How does Imogen deal with her trials? Does she wallow in self-pity, or does she fight back?
    3. Who causes most of the suffering in the play? Does it come external causes, internal causes, or both? Sure, the Queen is evil, but is she to blame for everything that happens?

    Chew on This

    Posthumus creates his own suffering by betting with Iachimo and believing Iachimo's stories.

    Her struggles with her dad and husband give Imogen the strength to stand up for herself. She is much stronger at the end of the play because she's suffered so much.

  • Women and Femininity

    Women: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

    That's the philosophy of a lot of the guys in Cymbeline (we're looking at you, Posthumus and Iachimo). But underneath the jokes and bets about women, there are some things that aren't so funny. Yes, times were different in Shakespeare's day, and we do get to see some traditional traditional 17th-century ideas about men and women. For example, it was typical for a father to arrange his daughter's marriage, so when Cymbeline insists on choosing Imogen's hubby for her, that would have been pretty normal.

    But other events in the play make us take a good, hard look at women and their function in society. There's a lot of talk about manipulation, control, and even rape here—even the Queen joins in for some of it. A lot of the plot hinges on Imogen's sexual purity, but nobody cares much about Posthumus's, except Imogen herself.

    So what gives? What's a woman's role in this society? How does Imogen fit in (or not fit in)? How does Shakespeare try to play with these ideas—and possibly subvert them?

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How do men interact with each other in the play? How do they discuss women?
    2. How are relationships between men and women portrayed? Are there any healthy marriages?
    3. What kinds of authority and power are women given? How does Imogen's agency compare to the Queen's?
    4. Pisanio claims that women are fickle, fearful, pretty, and weak-hearted. Is this true of all women in the play?

    Chew on This

    All women are portrayed as deceitful and untrustworthy in Cymbeline.

    In the play, a man's happiness is dependent on how much control he has over his wife and daughter.

  • Patriotism

    Bring out the Union Jacks, because this play is patriotic.

    … Or is it?

    As is often the case with Shakespearean plays that deal in some way with fair England and her politics, it's very heard to tell in Cymbeline on what side of fence Shakespeare himself falls. In this play, we've got a British king who ultimately follows Rome's rules and pays them a fee. We've got a battle that ends with a family reunion rather than rousing patriotic speeches.

    On the other hand, we've also got characters like Guiderius and Arviragus, who insist on fighting for Britain even though they aren't affected by the outcome of the war. We've got Posthumus, who changes his clothes and allegiance to help his countrymen, even though his king has caused him pain and sadness. And then we've got Imogen, who tells Pisanio she can't imagine going anywhere else but Britain.

    Shakespeare's a master of putting what seem to be straightforward scenes on the stage but then undermining these scenes with sarcasm, irony, and other kinds of weirdness. Don't try to pin this dude down: he's more interested in making you think than he is in telling you a simple story with an easy moral.

    So put on those thinking caps, and take the long-live-England stuff with a grain of salt.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. Do you think the play is patriotic? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think Shakespeare portrays the Roman leader (Lucius) as noble and valiant? How do you think he characterizes other Romans?
    3. Why might Britain be symbolized with a sun? If Britain is the sun, then how does Rome compare?
    4. Why do Guiderius and Arviragus want to defend Britain, even though they live outside conventional British society?
    5. Why do Posthumus and Belarius fight for Britain even though they've had horrible experiences there? What is it about Britain that attracts these men?

    Chew on This

    Posthumus, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius fight for Britain because they are bound to the country where they were born—even if it scorned them.

    Cymbeline is a patriotic play that celebrates the strength of Britain and its people.