Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Cymbeline, a tragicomedy by William Shakespeare, is one the Bard's more obscure plays. Borrowed, barely, from Celtic lore, it tells the story of a king who rebels against Rome because of his evil wife. For unrelated reasons, his daughter spends most of the play cross-dressing and looking for her banished husband. Actually, it's more about the latter than the former.

Cymbeline is king of a city in Britain, during the time of The Roman Empire. His daughter, Imogen, is in love with Posthumus, a poor nobleman. They marry, which infuriates Cymbeline, and so he banishes Posthumus to Italy. In Italy, Posthumus meets Jachimo (or Iachimo), who makes a bet. He says he can seduce Imogen, and prove that all women are naturally unfaithful. Jachimo goes to Britain, but failing to seduce Imogen by traditional means, resorts to trickery. Hiding himself in a chest in her room, he watches her sleep and collects details from her room. He also steals a bracelet, which was a gift from Posthumus.

Jachimo returns to Italy, hands Posthumus the bracelet, and provides details on Imogen's room and her naked body. Posthumus sends word to his servant Pisanio in Britian to kill his wife for her infidelity. Pisanio does not believe Imogen has cheated, so he convinces her to disguise herself as a boy and find her husband, so she can tell him her side of the story; Pisanio, meanwhile, will tell Posthumus she's dead. Imogen goes off to find her husband, but gets lost in Wales; she meets an exiled nobleman and his two sons. Unbeknownst to them but knownst to the nobleman, they are actually Cymbeline's sons (and Imogen's brothers); the nobleman kidnapped them in revenge for being exiled.

We learn that Cymebline's Queen has convinced him to stop paying tribute to Rome, so Rome is about to attack. Due to circumstances, [1] Imogen believes Posthumus is dead, and Posthumus regrets murdering her; she mourns, and he tries to kill himself by first fighting for Britain against Rome, then switching into Roman garb when the Britons win. Jupiter, the god, shows up to say he'll protect Posthumus. The next day, Posthumus is brought out as a prisoner, and one by one the cast shows up to explain the plot. Everyone lives happily ever after, except the Queen, who dies; with her dead, Cymbeline decides to start paying tribute to Rome again.

Basically, the play is a mishmash of plots Shakespeare regularly used in other plays. One interesting aspect of it, though, is that the characters can be read as allusions to Jacobean figures. James of England is Cymbeline; his goal of unity and peace is upset by the warmongering Queen (Elizabeth I). When the Queen dies, peace resumes. The play also emphasizes the concept of "Britain" -- the word appears more in this play than any other Shakespeare play, while the word "England" appears not a once; James was a big pusher of British unity.

Tropes used in Cymbeline include:

  • Anachronism Stew: Among other things, while the play is set in Roman times during the reign of Claudius, Iachimo is pretty much a (stock evil) Renaissance Italian and his scenes with Postumus feel "contemporary" (for the time of Shakespeare).
  • Ancient Rome: Where we lay our scene.
  • And Another Thing: The entire last act of the show. In the space of a few dozen lines, Iachimo's treachery is revealed, Posthumous reveals who he is and claims to have killed Imogen, Imogen reveals who she is and that she is alive, the Queen is revealed to have been behind everything, Guiderius admits to having killed Cloten, and the princes are revealed to be royalty.

Cymbeline: New matter still?
Imogen: It poison'd me.
Cornelius: O gods!
I left out one thing which the queen confess'd.
Which must approve thee honest: 'If Pisanio
Have,' said she, 'given his mistress that confection
Which I gave him for cordial, she is served
As I would serve a rat.'"

"Kneel not to me
The power that I have on you is, to spare you;
The malice towards you to forgive you: live,
And deal with others better."

"Me of my lawful pleasures she restrained / And prayed me oft forbearance"

  1. The Queen, who is evil, gives Imogen a potion that is supposed to be poison but Imogen thinks it's medicine but it turns out to just be a sleeping potion; while she's sleeping, Imogen's brothers kill the Queen's son, who has the hots for Imogen and was out looking for her, and when she wakes up she thinks he's Posthumus. Whew!