For further information on the critical and stage history of Cymbeline, see .
Numbered among Shakespeare's final plays, Cymbeline has suffered a largely negative critical reputation as commentators typically have emphasized the work's deficiencies, including its ambiguous genre, inconsistent characterization, and disjointed plot. Historically, many critics have dismissed the play, seeing it as an amalgamation of comedy and tragedy with a poorly realized hero and multiple denouements. Critical assessments of Cymbeline in the latter half of the twentieth century, however, have endeavored to formally reconstruct the play. Using new approaches that emphasize Shakespeare's historical and rhetorical strategies and unique methods of characterization in the work, contemporary scholars have seen beyond the play's Byzantine plot, seemingly implausible characters, and generic complexity to locate aesthetic and thematic unity.
A tale of deception, slandered virtue, and political turmoil, Cymbeline is set in England and Rome around the time of the birth of Christ. The main plot of the play involves the discovery by Cymbeline, a semi-legendary king of Britain, that his daughter has secretly married below her station. The king banishes his new son-in-law, Posthumus Leonartus, who flees to Rome. There he speaks of the unassailable virtue of his estranged wife, Imogen, and is overheard by Iachimo, the drama's principal agent of deception. Iachimo proposes a wager to test Imogen's virtue and by trickery convinces Posthumus that she is inconstant in her love. After war erupts between England and Rome, Posthumus eventually realizes that his wife has been wronged by Iachimo's deceit and experiences a radical shift from anger to contrition and redemption.
Following this primary plot many critics have focused their study on the closely related issues of deception, disguise, and misperception in Cymbeline. Brook Thomas (1983) has observed the work's emphasis on deceit as a metatextual concern that frames the play's theme of misinterpretation and its subversive critique of patriarchy and textual authority. John Scott Colley (1974) has considered the topic of clothing and disguise in the drama and contends that the figure of Posthumus functions emblematically rather than realistically in Cymbeline. He argues that Shakespeare uses the imagery of clothing to flesh out the humble and eventually redeemed character of Posthumus, as well as to underscore themes of deceptive and mistaken virtue related to Iachimo and Imogen. Imogen and cross-gender disguise are the topics of Michael Shapiro's 1994 study, which investigates the sources and tragic dynamics of Shakespeare's Imogen in male disguise. Shapiro has described Imogen as primarily a victim, contrasting her with the active heroines—Julia, Portia, Rosalind, and Viola—who assume male guises in Shakespeare's earlier romantic comedies.
Historical and political analysis of Cymbeline has also drawn the attention of many contemporary critics. Hugh M. Richmond (1972) has seen Cymbeline as the last in Shakespeare's trilogy of Roman history plays—the others being Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. For Richmond, Cymbeline presents the culmination of themes taken up in these earlier works and is indicative of a historical transformation in the conception of natural law during the Roman era. A similar line of thought has been undertaken by Patricia Parker (1989) who has seen in Cymbeline's anachronistic melding of early-modern Britain and imperial Rome Shakespeare's romantic revision of the concept of empire.
Others lines of critical commentary have concentrated on the language of the drama, its ambiguous genre, and Shakespeare's methods of characterization. R. J. Schork (1972) has responded to Shakespeare's use of classical allusion in the play to delineate his characters, principally Imogen and Iachimo. Christy Desmet (1994) has examined the rhetorical strategies Shakespeare employs in Cymbeline by shifting the focus of character analysis from psychological to ethical models. Accordingly, Desmet has emphasized that the work's characters may be best understood in light of their moral nature. Elena Glazov-Corrigan (1994), while acknowledging the aesthetic flaws of the play, has found in the seemingly paradoxical language of Cymbeline a synthesis of comic and tragic genres.
John P. Cutis (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Cymbeline: 'In Self-Figur'd Knot'," in Rich and Strange: A Study of Shakespeare's Last Plays, Washington State University Press, 1968, pp. 26-50.
[In the following essay, Cutts presents an overview of Cymbeline, discussing imagery, characterization, and the dream-like quality of the play.]
Since he gives his name to the play Cymbeline might reasonably be expected to dominate it in some way. Yet it is obviously difficult to claim that he is vitally essential to those parts of the play, the wager (Posthumus-Iachimo-Imogen), and the Milford Haven episode (Guiderius-Arviragus-Belarius-Cloten-Imogen), which give the play its best strength. He is by no means as vitally dramatic in himself as Pericles, with whom he invites obvious comparison if only on the grounds that both plays are usually considered together as examples of Shakespeare's experimentation with a new art form, romance. It is difficult to forget Pericles at any time in the play other than the brothel scenes, but even here, as I have tried to show earlier, there are too many echoes of Pericles in Marina for the episode to be totally divorced from consideration of Pericles, and the subsequent scenes make this clear enough. It is too easy to forget Cymbeline. The temptation is to write him off and concentrate on Imogen and Posthumus. To do this may not appear as catastrophic as to single out interest in Perdita and Florizel to the exclusion of the courts of Sicilia and Bohemia in The Winter's Tale, a usual eighteenth-century procedure, or to single out interest in Miranda and Ferdinand to the exclusion of the courts of Naples and Milan in The Tempest, but it is, nevertheless, a terrible distortion.
One should not have to plead that, in accordance with the Elizabethan and Jacobean doctrine of degree, the king is inescapably the most important person in the play, and that all resolutions and unifications are made perfect in him, in order to avoid underestimating him. Cymbeline is the central controlling force of the whole play's structure, not in the sense that he functions merely as the symbolic king of fairy tale, a puppet who never comes sufficiently to life to stir the audience's emotions, nor yet in the sense that he is a feeble monarch governed by a spleen of a woman and thereby unapt to stir at such indignities that tread upon his patience and keep him in subjection. When the play opens Cymbeline is without a male heir to the throne: when it closes he has recovered both of his sons and through them himself.
Cymbeline at the end of the play is no puppet, no symbolic king of fairy tale, no storybook henpecked husband, no ignorant island of darkness unto himself cut off from the mainland of civilization and Roman light, but a triumphant monarch with princely stars about his throne. Not until that which was lost is found again can Cymbeline really live. His gains and victories—"a widow / That late he married";1 her "sole son," a substitute son for Cymbeline, whom he purposed to marry to his own sole child, Imogen; his victory over the invading Roman forces—are truly losses which he acknowledges by freely submitting to Caesar "[a]lthough the victor." His losses—two "lopp'd branches" of sons; Belarius, his own warlike might, "a tree / Whose boughs did bend with fruit" (III. iii. 60-61)—are truly gains that come back to him through the narrow lane, an old man and two boys, having found the back door open.
Just as Cymbeline is full of questions as to how this could come to pass, knowing as he does that "t]his fierce abridgement / Hath to it circumstantial branches, which / Distinction should be rich in" (V. v. 383-385), so is the audience meant to look into the "backward and abysm of Time," and realize that all the interim has been as a dream. Surely here is the answer to all those criticisms of the play which find it difficult to understand how purported symbolic characters can be allowed to "lapse into a realism which is detrimental to the romantic tone."2 It is not that Shakespeare has been for the most part successful in creating flattened, insulated, idealized, and unreal characters who belong to no normal system of life but to a world of romance which in its use of conventional symbols demands nothing more of them than that they should belong to their "world of enchanted unrealities." This kind of criticism breaks down immediately when one scrutinizes not only the central figures who all too obviously have a damaging reality about them, but also the minor figures who do not satisfy the demands of romance. Arviragus and Guiderius, for instance, are not successful as symbols when they can exclaim against the Arcadia world as a "cell of ignorance" (III. iii. 33) and plead that when they "hear / The wind and rain beat dark December" (III. iii. 36-37) they will only be able to discourse of having seen nothing, for they are beastly "shrinking slaves of winter" (IV. iv. 30)—better "cease to be" (IV. iv. 31) than be so. These so-called symbols mentally break the bondage of the romance cage they are imprisoned in, and that imprisoning was caused by Belarius who is trying to escape reality. It's not that Shakespeare is following the conventions of romance for romance's sake, but that within the easy framework of romance he can show how dramatis personae turn themselves for various reasons into more or less unreal beings, living in an unreal world very largely of their own creation—"The dream's here still: even when [they] wake it is / Without [them], as within them" (IV. ii. 306-307). They are in a dream world into which every now and again something of reality, of more normal life, intrudes but not sufficiently strongly to disturb the overall effect of dream, until to varying extents they find themselves and are found at the end of the play. When they do this they are not defeating "Shakespeare's intentions by coming to life"3 but fulfilling them.
Looked at in this light Cymbeline does indeed represent deeper probings into what causes dramatis personae to live in a dream world than does Pericles. Pericles never really of his own volition finds himself, never really sees the crooked smokes that climb to the nostrils of the gods from his crooked altars, never sees the necessity to try to untie the self-figur'd knot of himself, but has all these things added unto him because the ripeness of his suffering was all. But in Cymbeline there are probings and elemental attempts to untie the self-figur'd knot. That these attempts are naive should not detract from our looking at the process of probing.
Cymbeline would have us believe that his eyes, ears, and heart were not in fault, that it would have been "vicious / To have mistrusted" (V. v. 65-66) the Queen for she "was beautiful" (V. v. 63) to look at and he "thought her like her seeming" (V. v. 65). But he does talk about "fault" no matter what his excuse, and in the next breath knows that he feels answerable to his daughter for this "folly in [him]" (V. v. 67)—"Heavens / How deeply you at once do touch me!" (IV. iii. 3-4)—whereas a Pericles only vaguely acknowledges the possibility of fault "When all, for mine if I may call offence, / Must feel war's blow" (I. ii. 92-93),4 and then carries on as an offended innocent for the rest of his days. Cymbeline tries to hide behind the very realistic "Who is't can read a woman?" (V. v. 48) and attribute his troubles to his "wicked queen, / Whom heavens in justice both on her, and hers, / Have laid most heavy hand" (V. v. 464-466), when it is painfully obvious that the responsibility for allowing the queen to control and to dissuade from "wonted tribute" to Roman civilizing influences is entirely his.
The first scene in the play emphasizes Cymbeline's arbitrary neglect of government and aberration from commonsense. In this respect it is not unlike the beginning of Lear. Cymbeline, like Lear, had earlier shown true judgment and discretion. Lear had always known that Albany was more truly honorable than Cornwall, and the rest of the play shows this to be correct, "but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the Dukes he values most" (I. i. 3-5).5 Cymbeline has always known that Posthumus was worthy of great honors if only for his father Sicilius' sake who like Cymbeline had lost two sons, and had taken the babe to his protection and brought it up in his own court. Now to value him less than a Cloten is indeed cause for alarm for the whole court who must cloak hearty indignation with a seeming show of approval. Cymbeline can hardly plead that his daughter's marriage plans frustrated his attempt to settle "o]n her kind nursery" (I. i. 124), though he does say that she who should "repair [his] youth" now heaps a "year's age" on him (I. ii. 63, 64), and no excuse for the banishment of Posthumus and the imprisoning of Imogen is ventured except for the suggestion that the king is already under the influence of the queen who is promoting the match between Cloten and Imogen. The king is thought to be "touch'd at very heart" (I. i. 10) at the imprisoning of his daughter, but he does nothing about it. This wedding of the widow, advancement of marriage propositions for Imogen with Cloten, banishment of Posthumus and imprisonment of Imogen, suggestions of outward seeming and inward being—all are hurried over in the first fourteen lines of the scene. The remaining three quarters is taken up with an elaborate description of Posthumus' lineage and accomplishments in which he is described as being the perfect blend of outward and inward worth—"So fair an outward, and such stuff within" (I. i. 23-24)—and with the courtiers' talk about the king's loss of his two sons from their nursery, and criticism that a king's children should be "so convey'd, / So slackly guarded, and the search so slow / That could not trace them!" (I. i. 63-65). Such "fierce abridgement / Hath to it circumstantial branches, which / Distinction should [indeed] be rich in" (V. v. 383-385). Careful distinction and scrutiny of this first scene shows how deeply the son-less state of Cymbeline affects him. He is deliberately paralleled with Leonatus Sicilius in the loss of his two sons. Sicilius, "old, and fond of issue, took such sorrow" (I. i. 37) that he "quit being" and had a son born posthumously to him, Posthumus: Cymbeline took such unsorrow that he "quit being" and had a "son" born by proxy to him, Cloten. Sicilius died from genuine grief for the loss of his sons: Cymbeline metaphorically dies from lack of grief for the all too willingly believed-in loss of his sons. Cymbeline's "negligence may well be laugh'd at" (I. i. 66) over his real sons who are no dearer in his account than the sole son of his queen. How could his search for his lost sons be "so slow / That could not trace them!"?
The answer to this is imbedded, I suggest, in his relationship to Belarius, the link between himself and his sons. According to Belarius Cymbeline had listened to false oaths by two villains who swore that Belarius was "confederate with the Romans" (III. iii. 68), and for this Belarius was pronounced a traitor and banished. At the end of the play when the old man and two boys are being accounted for in the recognition scene, all Belarius has to do is remind Cymbeline—"Thou hadst, great king, a subject, who / Was call'd Belarius" (V. v. 317) for Cymbeline to rush in immediately and say "What of him? he is a banish'd traitor" (V. v. 318) and to order him to be taken hence for the "whole world shall not save him" (V. v. 322). Cymbeline's memory of something that happened twenty years ago is remarkably fresh. Prior to the slander Belarius had enjoyed Cymbeline's love, his report had been first with the "best of note" whenever a soldier was the theme, for his body was "marked / With Roman swords" (III. iii. 57). This suggests to me that Belarius had largely represented the dignity of Cymbeline's military potential against those enemies which his uncle Cassibelan and father Tenantius had warred against so successfully. Just as Tenantius had given titles to Sicilius for the "glory and admired success" (I. i. 32) against the Romans, so later will Cymbeline bestow knighthood on the old man and two boys who preserved the British throne against the Roman invasion, make them companions to his person and fit them with dignities becoming their estates. Cymbeline's own knighthood, however, had been received at the hands of Caesar himself under whom he had spent his youth and from whom he "gather'd honour" (III. i. 72), and this is crucial to an understanding of his position.
Belarius' believed confederation with the Romans undermined Cymbeline so seriously that he could never forget it. It made him feel a traitor himself, and he tried to cut himself off from all Roman affiliations, banish them with a thought. Hence his unconcern about his sons—they were banished with his Roman self. When they are returned to him they are British champions of a British throne, and they restore him his original dignity in line with his father Tenantius and uncle Cassibelan. This does not make the play either a national or a history play as Wilson Knight'6 would have us believe. History and nationality are only subsidiary to Cymbeline's use of them; they are the framework of his illusions.
Trying to blame all that has happened on the queen—"long of her it was / That we meet here so strangely" (V. v. 271-272)—is merely an excuse for what Cymbeline has done himself His condemnation of the queen never encompasses degradation of Cloten, however. Even when Cymbeline is explaining to Imogen that the queen, who caused all the trouble, is dead, his next thought is anxiety for Cloten's disappearance, and rage that Guiderius has slain him, for Cloten "was a prince" (V. v. 291). Cloten is dignified in Cymbeline's eyes as a British prince to whom he turned for support on Belarius' believed defection. This explains why Cloten is largely in charge of answering the Roman deputation, why he is afforded dignity in this sphere—"we shall have need / T'employ you towards this Roman" (II. iii. 63-64), when in every other sphere he is as a puttock to an eagle (I. ii. 70, 71). Cymbeline in attempting to banish his Roman thoughts resorts to British physicality; like King John he banishes his legitimate strength and cleaves to his illegitimate. This characteristic largely explains why he banishes Posthumus whom he raised in the first place in gratitude to his father Sicilius' help against the Romans. Posthumus, brought up in the court, a fellow of the king's bed-chamber profiting from "all the learnings that his time / Could make him the receiver of (I. i. 43-44), too closely reminds Cymbeline of his own Roman tutelage under Caesar. This is very similar, I suggest, to Henry V's basic concern over his companion of the bed-chamber, Scroop)—it is too close a personal image for comfort.
Cymbeline's banishment of Posthumus, this "poison to [his] blood" (I. ii. 59), as a beggar, "basest thing" (I. ii. 56) that would have made the British throne a "seat for baseness" (I. ii. 73), is an ironical castigation of his own Roman training. Posthumus' presumption in marrying Imogen without the king's consent is sufficient warranty for Cymbeline to banish him, but the real banishment is of a younger version of himself. At the end of the play, despite the presence of the old man and the two boys, who are acknowledged by all as the main preservers of Cymbeline's throne, and whom he is knighting, his gratitude goes out to "the poor soldier that so richly fought, / Whose rags sham'd gilded arms, whose naked breast / Stepp'd before targes of proof (V. v. 3-5). Cymbeline's intense desire to find this poor soldier of whom there is no trace, despite the search "among the dead and living" (V. v. 11), is climaxed with Cymbeline's recognition—"To my grief I am / The heir of his reward" (V. v. 12-13). Posthumus' vacillations from being an Italian to a Briton, back to an Italian and back to a Briton again—"I'll disrobe me / Of these Italian weeds, and suit myself / As does a Briton peasant: so I'll fight / Against the part I come with" (V. i. 22-25); "No more a Briton. I have resumed again / The part I came in" (V. iii. 75-76); "Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die" (V. v. 263-264)—ironically reflect Cymbeline's own.
The old man, the two boys, and the beggar give "the liver, heart, and brain" (V. v. 14) and soul back to Britain's king, but cleansed somewhat by bitter experiences. Belarius, Arviragus, Guiderius, Posthumus, and Imogen have taken life's bitter knocks and have fought their way out of their life of escapism. They, each in his own way, break out of the dream—"such stuff as madmen / Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing, / Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such / As sense cannot untie" (V. iv. 146-149). The wager and Milford Haven episodes are linked in this way with each other. What is more intriguing, perhaps, is how they are linked to Cymbeline. Cymbeline wagered with Cloten against Posthumus just as Posthumus wagered with Imogen against Iachimo. Each staked great claims on the object of his union, claims which did not so much reflect the unassailable strength of that union as the unconfident inner weakness of the one making the wager. Cymbeline's escape from his Roman self of enlightenment into the dark crudity of Cloten's world is paralleled by Belarius', Arviragus', and Guiderius' escape world in the bestiality of Wales. The destruction of Cloten in Wales at the hands of Cymbeline's real sons is a fitting shattering of Cymbeline's crude escape, and a foreshadowing of how his restoration to former dignity is to come about. Having Cloten dressed in Posthumus' clothes serves also to point up not just Imogen's dream world in which her husband is a dressed thing of beauty, but also Cymbeline's own infatuation with the dignity of a Cloten which is entirely of Cymbeline's own construction. He has clothed Cloten and mistakes crudity for the gorgeous garb by which it is concealed. That is why he is so intensely concerned about the poor soldier, the beggar in rags at the end of the play. He would like to convince himself and the audience that he could not be blamed for not seeing through the gorgeous exterior of the queen, but that he was right in putting his trust in unadorned physical prowess, un-Roman, un-knighted British strength, the "natural bravery of [the] isle" (III. i. 19), which made "Britons strut with courage" (III. i. 34) than "whom to show less sovereignty . . . must needs / Appear unkinglike" (III. v. 6-7).
This is the real power of the queen over Cymbeline, the secret of her witchcraft. She gives him an identity as a natural Briton, not as a naturalized Roman. She cannot seriously be taken as the "embodiment of malevolence in the person . . . of the fairy-tale witch" who with her "flowers, her poisons, her cats and dogs, bears little or no relation to every-day experience."7 Nor is she fully explainable by saying that since the "convention requires a malign puppet, and not a woman scheming evil, she might reasonably be reckoned a success," because the access of human vigor temporarily shatters the illusion when Caius Lucius first comes to the British court. It is fairly clear that the queen, too, is living in a world of illusion, thinking that her power resides in "poisonous compounds," which are the "movers of a languishing death" (I. vi. 8, 9), in a "mortal mineral, which, being took, / Should by the minute feed on life and ling'ring / By inches waste" (V. v. 50-52) Cymbeline, and then "w]ork / Her son into th' adoption of the crown" (V. v. 55-56). The extent of her witchcraft in this direction is an open book to the physician, Cornelius, who renders it harmless. The queen is "fool'd / With a most false effect" (I. vi. 42-43) most unlike fairy-tale witches. Her real strength over Cymbeline comes from that natural British vigor. Her real strength over Imogen is that symbolically she carries out what Cymbeline desires, for it is Cymbeline who cries out against Imogen "let her languish / A drop of blood a day, and being aged / Die of this folly" (I. ii. 87-89). The cordial that she claims she gave Cymbeline which "f]ive times redeem'd [him] from death" (I. vi. 63), which she thinks has something of a drug addiction on him, for the "King himself doth woo [her] oft / For [her] confections" (I. vi. 14-15), can only succeed because Cymbeline seeks it.
What I am suggesting is that Cymbeline, like Macbeth, outwardly looks as if he is being controlled by his wife, when in point of fact inwardly he is applying the desired effect he knows he can count on. In his affairs at court he is lethargic because his new garb sits uncomfortably on him. But when Roman affairs burst in on him, he is careful to point out that to show less sovereignty than his subjects would necessarily diminish his own stature, measuring himself by his subjects. In affairs with Rome he can move—"Our expectation that it would be this / Hath made us forward" (III. v. 28-29)—to shake off Rome's yoke, but at the height of confrontation with Rome, when war and confusion in Caesar's name are pronounced against him, Cymbeline cannot prevent himself greeting Lucius personally as a civilized Roman would—"Thy Caesar knighted me; my youth I spent / Much under him; of him I gather'd honour" (III. i. 71-72). He is a world divided against himself and cannot stand.
Imogen is caught between his Roman self and his British self, and she is lost to him. In striving for an identity he has lost his last heir to himself. His bitterness over her opposition to his marriage plans for her; his violent castigations of her as a "thing more made of malice than of duty" (III. v. 33), when she is thought of as near; his deep regret—"Imogen, / The great part of my comfort gone" (IV. iii. 5)—at her absence; bestowal of all gentleness due to her on a page boy whose favor is familiar to him though he knows not why; and all the kindness of being allowed to choose for one's self, which he had denied her; the wheel of fire going round for him—"I stand on fire" (V. v. 168), "Does the world go round?" (V. v. 232); the mortal joy rushing in on him at regaining her, and his tears falling and proving "holy water" on her—all these would bear favorable comparison with Lear's conduct over Cordelia, if he could but shake off the lethargizing effect of his insular dream, and not destroy the audience's sympathy for him the moment it is really building, by turning to Imogen and saying "Thy mother's dead" (V. v. 270). Imogen as a human being has been subordinated throughout the play to Cymbeline's British plans for her, and now at the moment when the queen is dead and Cloten gone, he "know[s] not how, or where" (V. v. 273), and Imogen has been miraculously restored to him, he cannot refrain from saying "Thy mother's dead," as if the queen ever meant anything to Imogen or Imogen to the queen. And Imogen's reply to him—"I am sorry for't, my lord" (V. v. 270)—plays in with that delusion. An Imogen who can in the second scene of the play see through the queen's tyranny and "dissembling courtesy" (I. ii. 15) might reasonably be expected to speak up at the end of the play against the machinations of the queen, but her union with Posthumus—"Hang there like fruit my soul, / Till the tree die" (V. v. 263-264)—naturally takes preeminence over reunion with her father, and the "dream's t]here still: even when [she] wakes it is / Without [her], as within [her]" (IV. ii. 306-307).
To Cymbeline Imogen had been a thing of value not valued for herself, and this false sense of values permeates the whole play, just as Lear's does his. But the great difference, obviously, is that we follow Lear's play through with Lear and watch the destruction of his false set of values largely from his domination of the dramatic scene. With Cymbeline the dramatic domination in terms of physical presentation on the stage is delegated very largely to Imogen, and to a lesser extent to Posthumus. It is Imogen who walks on the stage in all the worlds of operation and acts as the audience's connecting link. To a certain extent her association with Posthumus had been the natural outcome of Cymbeline taking Posthumus as one of his own bed-chamber, and in this sense Imogen is right in claiming that it is Cymbeline's fault she has loved Posthumus because Cymbeline "bred him as [her] playfellow" (I. ii. 76). But she has, nevertheless, inherited her father's system of values, and prizes Posthumus not for himself either, but as a precious thing. Posthumus, she tells Cymbeline, "overbuys [her] / Almost the sum he pays" (I. ii. 77-78), and would add "lustre" (74) to the throne. He is a "jewel in the world" (22) which she hopes to see again, but ironically at their parting she gives him a "diamond" (43) which had been her mother's, and asks him to keep it till he "woo another wife, / When Imogen is dead" (I. ii. 44-45). The lasting quality of her relationship with Posthumus is subconsciously jeopardized by this mention of "another wife," and by her rejoinder to her father's questioning her madness in valuing Posthumus over Cloten—"Would I were / A neatherd's daughter, and my Leonatus / Our neighbour-shepherd's son!" (I. ii. 79-81). This latter is a strong enough indication of dissatisfaction with the artificiality of Cymbeline's court, though Imogen little realizes how it betrays her own artificiality. It mentally leads her to Milford Haven long before her feet take her there.
Posthumus echoes the same thing-of-value terminology in placing a bracelet on her arm, for he exchanged his poor self for her, to her so infinite loss, and in their trifles he still wins of her—his parting gift is a "manacle of love" shackling his "fairest prisoner" (I. ii. 53, 54). Both Imogen and Posthumus are prisoners in their dream world of one another. Cymbeline physically pens up Imogen (I. ii. 84) in court: Posthumus manacles her with thoughts of his absent self, and Imogen accepts both. Posthumus might just as well be "in Afric" (I. ii. 98), whither she could wish Cloten to be also so that she might be able to "prick / The goer-back" (I. ii. 109-110), as in Britain for as much-as she is prepared to do anything about her love.
The similarity of her parting from Posthumus (I. iv.) and Alcyone from Ceyx in Ovid's Metamorphosis, XI, has long been pointed out, and is generally accepted, especially in view of the fact that Ovid's Metamorphosis is specifically mentioned as Imogen's reading matter in her bedroom by Iachimo who has just untied the Gordian knot of her chastity with slippery ease. What needs to be stressed further, however, is that Alcyone begged to go along with her husband and was refused. Imogen never even suggests going along with her husband. Her physical imprisonment in the court was not severe enough so that she could not have escaped either with him or to join him—as is proved the case later in the play. She seems still to hold on to the "dignity" of her court position before the dignity of her marriage. When she threatens Iachimo for having traduced Posthumus, it is with the power of the "king my father [who] shall be made acquainted / Of [his] assault" (I. vii. 149-150), though in the next breath she admits the possibility that her father may not respect his daughter at all (155). Even Pisano levels criticism against the way she has made "great Juno angry" by her "laboursome and dainty trims" (III. iv. 165, 164)—all part of the richness of her "out of door" presentation. Desdemona and Cordelia had much more serious obstacles to overcome, but they cleaved to their husbands and abandoned their fathers. Imogen eventually brings herself to accept a course of action to join her husband, but not before the play has carefully exploited a more serious imprisoning than that which her father imposes upon her, or than that to which Posthumus sweetly commends her, or even than that to which in her evaluation of love in terms of jewels and diamonds she shackles herself. She is imprisoned in her frigid chastity "like Diana's priest, betwixt cold sheets" (I. vii. 133).
When all the wagering business is over, Posthumus' bitterness at losing is made much more acrimonious by his claim—"Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain'd, / And pray'd me oft forbearance . . . that I thought her / As chaste as unsunn'd snow" (II. iv. 161-162; 164-165). Some of the play's richest imagery portrays this prisoner to a false chastity complex. Posthumus is partly responsible, of course, for this. The underlying significance of his wager with Iachimo is his belief in the purity of a statue, for this is what Imogen means to him, a fair prisoner manacled to a monument glistening in white. He has to champion her statue to the utterance, and go on doing so, because this is subconsciously his compensation for being denied his lawful pleasure, for not really knowing.Imogen other than her gorgeous outward appearance. Iachimo is reasonably correct in making the wager not so much against Imogen's reputation as against Posthumus' overconfidence (I. v. 114-115). Posthumus has been too busy in public contention night after night championing Imogen as "more fair, virtuous, wise, chaste, constant, qualified and less attemptable than any the rarest of. . . ladies in France" (I. v. 61-63), not to be challenged. One could argue that he is subconsciously wanting to test Imogen, and that his overconfidence is really covering basic insecurity.
How ironical it is, too, that the same kind of terminology as had been used to describe his relationship with Imogen—diamond, jewel—categorizes the terms of the wager. Iachimo's claim that Posthumus has not seen the most virtuous lady any more than he Iachimo has seen the first diamond is particularly appropriate when Posthumus continues even in foreign society to talk in terms of "debtor" and "ever to pay, and yet pay still" (I. v. 37, 38). The Frenchman's and Iachimo's estimate of his worth, namely that the catalogue of his virtues "without and within" (I. v. 10) is overdone, that there are very many who could "behold the sun with as firm / eyes as he" (I. v. 12-13), and that one could look on him "without / the help of admiration" (I. v. 4-5), may be cynical, but it is based on what they have seen and heard of Posthumus in his bragging about Imogen. The rest of the play shows that their estimate is much nearer the truth than the First Gentleman's in I. i.8 Posthumus' basic insecurity is later emphasized by his searching for an identity, changing in and out of Italian and British garbs, which I have already suggested parallels Cymbeline's own.
Iachimo is after all only Posthumus' agent in testing Imogen. Without Posthumus' permission the attempt could never be made, and, of course, should never have been deemed necessary. And when the attempt is over all that Posthumus requires for proof is to see that very bracelet, that manacle of his fair prisoner. This kind of proof of Imogen's incontinency is almost as farcical as Othello's handkerchief, but just as Othello believed in the magic of its web so Posthumus believes in the efficacy of the bracelet's manacling. It is the bracelet that is married to the ring (II. iv. 97-98) rather than the owner of either. When Philario points out that such evidence is "not strong enough to be believed / Of one persuaded well of (II. iv. 131-132), his criticism is sound enough coming from one who had been bound to Posthumus' father "for no less than [his] life" (I. v. 27), and who would wish, therefore, instinctively to think the best of Posthumus possible under the circumstances. Posthumus' raging over the sight of the bracelet, threatening to tear Imogen "limb-meal" and to go and do it there in the court before her father (II. iv. 147-149), reduces him to the level of Cloten, who threatens to "ravish her" (III. v. 142), and when his lust has dined to "knock her back" (148) to the court, foot her home again, "spurn her home / to her father" (IV. i. 20-21). The parallel is made all the more powerful by Cloten being dressed in Posthumus' clothes and so convincingly that Imogen later embraces the body of Cloten thinking it to be that of Posthumus.
Imogen suffers from a similar basic insecurity. She had "m]ost pretty things to say" (I. iv. 26) at parting with Posthumus, but in her heart was dark December, because the parting had been too sudden for her to "make him swear / The shes of Italy should not betray / [Her] interest, and his honour" (I. iv. 28-30). Those critics who find this "quite out of character"9 are obviously caught out again by their need to see Imogen as a straight symbol of chastity and purity, when in point of fact this is but her dream of herself and others' dream of her. She claims that it is her father who "like the tyrannous breathing of the north, / Shakes all [their] buds from growing" (I. iv. 37) when it is largely her own frigidity. Even the parting kiss which she did not manage to give him was to have been "set / Betwixt two charming words" (I. iv. 34-35) like a jewel in the middle of a lover's brooch. It is again, I suggest, the self-figur'd knot. Imogen sees herself as a goddess whom Posthumus is to worship at certain of the canonical hours.
The clearest exposition of Imogen's complex is afforded first by her interview with Iachimo and then by the description of her in her bedroom; Diana and Cytherea are most significantly juxtaposed. Even before the interview gets underway she is heard wishing she had been "thief-stolen, / As [her] two brothers" (I. vii. 5-6) and is caught between the thought of this happiness and the misery of its unfulfillment, and envies those "[h]ow mean soe'er, that have their honest wills" (I. vii. 8)—lines which further strengthen her earlier wish that she were a "neat-herd's daughter, and [her] Leonatus / [Their] neighbour-shepherd's son!" (I. ii. 80-81). Metaphorically the audience does pick the lock of Imogen's imprisoning chastity.
All of Imogen that is "out of door" is "most rich" (I. vii. 15) to Iachimo's first sight of her. He knows his testing must be of her mind to see whether it can "p]artition make with spectacles so precious / 'Twixt fair, and foul" (I. vii. 37-38). Maligning Posthumus as the "Briton reveller" (I. vii. 61) who is hiding himself from the "radiant sun" of Imogen and solacing himself "i]' th' dungeon by a snuff (I. vii. 87) eventually brings down the threat of Cymbeline's power to be used against him, but it is more successful than would first appear. Imogen does not condemn her ears for having "s]o long attended" (I. vii. 142) on Iachimo until Iachimo plainly and boldly offers to "dedicate [him]self to [her] sweet pleasure" (I. vii. 136) and be more noble to her bed than the runagate Posthumus. Even when Iachimo had suggested that she revenge herself on Posthumus, the idea of revenge itself did not upset her unduly; her iterative concern was how she should be revenged (I. vii. 129-132). It was Iachimo's scornful remark—"Should make me / Live like Diana's priest, betwixt cold sheets, / Whiles he is vaulting variable ramps" (I. vii. 132-134)—immediately before his offer of ennobling her bed that struck up the heat of her indignation. This was the real insult for reasons we have already been exploring. How else are we to explain her willingness to let Iachimo so easily "make amends" (I. vii. 168) on but thirteen lines of pure flattery of her as the perfect mistress fit for the "most worthiest" (162) Posthumus. All the sting of his prior remarks that had been building up for something like a hundred lines is immediately forgotten when Iachimo suggests that his words have proved that the affiance between Imogen and Posthumus is "deeply rooted" (164), and confirms Posthumus "new o'er" as her lord. From this point on only ten more lines' lavish praise of Posthumus as one who "sits 'mongst men like a descended god" (I. vii. 169) and of herself as made by the gods "(unlike all others) chaffless" (I. vii. 178) gives Iachimo the open sesame of "All's well sir: take my power i' th' court for yours" (I. vii. 179).
It seems possible to suggest that Imogen subconsciously wanted to test Posthumus, that vicariously she has been partaking in Iachimo's maligning of him. Her earlier fears about the shes of Italy (I. iv. 28-30) are gaining strength, and as long as blame for this is attributable to others she will not condemn her ears for listening, but the moment talk mentions her own position as "Diana's priest, betwixt cold sheets," the testing has gone far enough because it is striking too close to home. When with a few well-chosen words of flattery Iachimo puts the Posthumus-Imogen relationship back into its dream-world category of "more than a mortal seeming" (I. vii. 171), Imogen can easily be reassured. Iachimo's request that she give safe stowage to "plate of rare device, and jewels / Of rich and exquisite form, their values great" (I. vii. 189-190) is willingly seized on by Imogen who would so like to make amends to her absent lord that anything as easy as this to prosper his concerns is immediately welcomed. Iachimo is clever to suggest that Posthumus is a partner in the business of buying these jewels as a present for the Emperor. It is a fine stroke of dramatic irony to have Imogen herself volunteer to "keep them / In [her] bedchamber" (I. vii. 195-196) and "pawn [her] honour for their safety" (194). The Imogen-Posthumus relationship is still in terms of jewels. There is the added irony that she has invited the wooden horse into her own Troy. Later she will liken Posthumus' "fail" to that of Sinon and Aeneas.
The description of Imogen in her bedroom synthesizes all the analytical pointers that have so far been indicating Imogen lost in the world of her dreams, beset with an unreal chastity. Nor is this merely Iachimo's construction in our minds. All the details of the chamber noted down in II. ii are checked out in II. iv, and were there any possibility of mistake Posthumus could surely be expected to pounce on it in his attempt to save face. Iachimo forces us one moment to think of Imogen in terms of Lucrece's chastity that is to be wounded by Tarquín, and the next moment in terms of Cytherea bravely becoming her bed. This surely tells us about Iachimo's state of mind, but dramatic irony shows him "fool'd / With a most false effect" (I. vi. 42-43), too, because the detailed description of the bedroom indicates that the chimney-piece, portraying "Chaste Dian, bathing" (II. iv. 82) so lifelike that the "cutter / Was as another Nature, dumb; outwent her, / Motion and breath left out" (II. iv. 83-85), had flanking andirons in the shape of "two winking Cupids / Of silver, each on one foot standing, nicely / Depending on their brands" (II. iv. 89-91). Diana and Cupids! Lucrece and Cytherea! There is, of course, the irony that the winking Cupids are "blind to the alleged deeds in the bed-chamber,"10 but the greatest irony must surely be that Imogen's bedroom-chapel closely associates Diana bathing and Cupids depending on their brands. Iachimo in this kind of a context becomes less of a Tarquín than an Actaeon. Those critics who still subscribe to the puppet image of Imogen as purity and chastity will certainly have to resort to claiming that the imagery is not very clear" if they are to maintain their position against such weighty opposition. Further details reinforce Imogen's complex.
The room is described largely in terms of a place of worship, not just casually by Iachimo's apostrophe to sleep, to lie "dull upon her / And be her sense but as a monument, / Thus in a chapel lying" (II. ii. 31-33), lines that have overtones for the "dead" relationship between Posthumus and Imogen. The flame of the taper is described as bowing toward her, as if it would under-peep her eyelids to see eyes "canopied / Under these windows, white and azure lac'd / With blue of heaven's own tinct" (II. ii. 20-23); the roof of the chamber is fretted with "golden cherubims" (II. iv. 88); and she herself is a "heavenly angel" (II. ii. 50).
This Iachimo-Imogen situation is paralleled closely by Cloten's assault on Imogen in the scene which is sandwiched between the descriptions of the bedroom. Cloten talks bawdily to the musicians about the possibility of penetrating Imogen with their fingering (II. iii. 14-15) and then applies his aubade at the window of her chamber. The larks of the musicians sing at Imogen's heavenly gate, and heaven's own light begins to wake, to refresh his powers at those springs that lie on ".chalic'd flowers," and "winking mary-buds begin to ope their golden eyes." Imogen lying in her chamber-chapel becomes the eucharistic cup of the godhead, the source of the light of the world. Of course, on one level the whole song is a delightful expression of courtier love conceits made all the more damning for Cloten who does not have the gifts naturally but has to pay to have them applied in his name by others. Both Posthumus and Cloten have to employ others to get at Imogen!
The juxtaposition of this chamber aubade with Iachimo's descriptions of the chamber is too deliberate to allow the significances to apply only to Cloten and Iachimo. Imogen, a Diana-Cytherea figure bathing her beauty under heaven's cherubims with winking Cupids and Mary-buds close by, is indeed complex. God Phoebus watering his steeds at the springs in the chaliced cups of flowers is crudely juxtaposed with Iachimo's feeding his eyes on the "Crimson drops / I' th' bottom of a cowslip" (II. ii. 38-39)—a cinque-spotted mole on Imogen's left breast. Her bedchamber "is hang'd / With tapestry of silk and silver, the story / Proud Cleopatra, when she met her Roman" (II. iv. 68-70)—details which again cannot be considered only from Iachimo's point of view, that is, just as Antony was Cleopatra's Roman so Iachimo is Imogen's.12 What was the chaste Imogen doing with such spicy subjects on her arras, "a] piece of work / So bravely done, so rich, that it did strive / In workmanship and value" (II. iv. 72-74)? Critics have attempted to deny the existence of a painted backcloth in Imogen's bedchamber,13 on the grounds that the scenic impressions arise not from what we see but from what we hear in Iachimo's speeches. But this argument ignores Posthumus agreeing that the description is true (II. iv. 76) and the general appeal to spectacle which the whole play so clearly evidences. The beautiful hangings and ornamentation of Imogen's room are skilfully used by the dramatist to emphasize further the dream-world context of Imogen's life. Only in dreams are such unreconcilable opposites—Diana and Cupids, chastity and peeping Tom voyeurism—reconcilable. Imogen is busy creating on the outside world a "divine" (II. i. 59) image, as "chaste as unsunn'd snow" (II. iv. 165), but is subconsciously inviting us to look through her casement where the manacle of this self-imposed and unreal chastity comes off "a]s slippery as the Gordian knot was hard" (II. ii. 34). The description of the bedchamber affords for Imogen what Ophelia's flower-strewing lyrics afford for Ophelia—a look into the inner recesses of the mind.
The dichotomy is. even evidenced by the nature of Imogen's reading as preparation for bed. For three hours she has been reading in Ovid's Metamorphosis,14 and has her woman Helen "f]old down the leaf where [she has] left" (II. ii. 4). Her prayer before sleep—"To your protection I commend me, gods, / From fairies and the tempters of the night, / Guard me, beseech ye!" (II. ii. 8-10)—is orthodox enough, echoing as it does the Collect for Aid against all Perils in the Order for Evening Prayer. The juxtaposition of church prayers and the Metamorphosis obviously invites close scrutiny. Iachimo points out that Imogen's book is turned down at that point in the "tale of Tereus" where Philomel gave up. The ravishing of Philomel by her sister-in-law's husband, Tereus, is hardly the kind of reading the divine Imogen would have the outside world know of. The first part of Book VI of the Metamorphosis is taken up with Arachne's contention with Pallas Athene in which Pallas warns mortals not to "strive with God in word nor thought / Nor deede,"15 and in which Arachne scorns the gods for the adulter-ies and rapes they have committed in various shapes on mortals. The spirit of Ovid pervades Imogen's chamber-chapel. Obviously Iachimo suggests another Tereus, but his contribution to the Ovidian atmosphere is more than this. His "Swift, swift, you dragons of the night" (II. ii. 48) may be a perversion of the Ovidian lover's "O lente, lente currite noctis equi," which Marlowe, for instance, makes Faustus exclaim with Helen in his arms. Iachimo, after all, does not want the night to pass slowly so that he may enjoy his love the longer, but quickly so that he may the sooner escape with his evidence which will force Posthumus "think [he] ha[s] pick'd the lock, and ta'en / The treasure of her honour" (II. ii. 41-42), when in point of fact the only treasure he has is the noted description of the room, of the mole on Imogen's left breast, and the bracelet.
Imogen's reading matter "sorts with the sustained bird imagery of the play," as Nosworthy points out,16 but its significance goes much further. It supports the basic discrepancy between the outward—"So virgin-like without" (III. ii. 22)—and the inward show so vibrant with longing desires. Imogen would indeed be "alone th' Arabian bird" (I. vii. 17) if her inward show conformed to her outward. She would indeed be the unreal statue that Posthumus has made of her, the Celia puppet, nonpositive entity, of a Volpone-Iachimo situation, but instead she is a victim of her own self-delusion, a bird in a cage of some of her own making, and, wonder of wonders, despite herself she is beginning to flutter her wings, though "a thing perplex'd / Beyond self-explication" (III. iv. 7-8).
The trial to which Posthumus has subjected her strangely enough is positive for her in a way which neither Posthumus nor Iachimo can begin to understand. By means of the wager Shakespeare has been able to take us into the inner recesses of Imogen and to show us further stages in those desires of hers to escape to another world where desires are fulfilled—the road to Milford Haven. This technique is not unlike the process of showing us through Ophelia's songs what is really going on in Ophelia's mind. The chaste Ophelia sings very bawdy songs. It is the Diana-Cytherea complex at a different level. In Cymbeline the technique is more statuesque, less of action. We hear at great length the details of the bedroom-chapel complex, and I think a Blackfriars production would make us see these things very elaborately, just as I feel the House of Death in Pericles was constructed exactly along these lines, not just talk of skulls but visible evidences.
When Pisanio presents Imogen with Posthumus' invitation to join him at Milford Haven all her pent-up desires are suddenly released, she must "g]lide thither in a day" (III. ii. 53) on the wings of Pegasus,17 for her intense longing is "beyond beyond" (III. ii. 57). She is not now like a recumbent effigy on a chapel tomb, but a winged desire whose oblivion is a very Posthumus to override the gap that she shallmake in time. Temporarily the dream is shattered and she is awake in the world. Although she has heard of "riding wagers, / Where horses have been nimbler than the sands / That run i' th' clock's behalf (III. ii. 72-74), she pronounces this "foolery" and faces life with a practical and philosophical boldness, looking through a glass darkly, to be sure, but at least looking, for she sees "before [her], man: nor here, nor here, / Nor what ensues, but have a fog in them, / That [she] cannot look through" (III. ii. 79-81). It is suggestible that all she needed in the first place was for Posthumus to make plans for her to get away. If this is so then it is yet another positive result from the wager business. Not until Posthumus has had his false image of Imogen destroyed can something of the real Imogen begin to be born. Imogen is hurrying to Milford Haven to be born—"ne'er longed [her] mother so / To see [her] first" (III. iv. 2-3) as she has longings to be in Milford Haven. And the birth is accompanied with intense labor and trouble. It is not only Pisanio, trying to explain his own predicament in being bidden by Posthumus to "take away her life" (III. iv. 27), who is "a thing perplex'd / Beyond self-explication" (III. iv. 7-8). Imogen, despite her fears lest Pisanio's "wildness / Vanquish [her] staider senses" (III. iv. 9-10), does retreat again into dream world. Her premonition of bad news makes her exclaim that the "drug-damn'd Italy hath out-craftied" (III. iv. 15) her husband even before she reads the letter, and she reinforces this idea after reading by claiming some "jay of Italy / (Whose mother was her painting) hath betray'd him" (III. iv. 49-50). There is nothing but hiding behind some "she[.] of Italy" (I. iv. 29), or behind her own absolute innocence—"False to his bed? What is to be false? / To lie in watch there, and to think on him?...
(The entire section is 20155 words.)
John Scott Colley (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Disguise and New Guise in Cymbeline" in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. VII, No. 1974, pp. 233-52.
[In the essay below, Colley examines the significance of Shakespeare's use of costume and disguise in Cymbeline as they relate to the characterization, action, and theme of the play.]
W. W. Lawrence felt that the central problem of dramatic characterization in Cymbeline could be resolved in only one way. Modern readers must imagine the play as the Elizabethans understood it, "as they saw it on the stage":
(The entire section is 26289 words.)
Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Roman Trilogy: The Climax in Cymbeline" in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. V, No. 1, April, 1972, pp. 129-39.
[In the following essay, Richmond evaluates Cymbeline as a drama concerned with natural law and its transformation by Christianity.]
The New Arden editor asserts that "Cymbeline has evoked relatively little critical comment, and no completely satisfactory account of the play's quality and significance can be said to exist."1 Another recent editor proves even more pessimistic when he accepts Johnson's view, which concedes a few incidental...
(The entire section is 11797 words.)
R. J. Schork (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Allusion, Theme, and Characterization in Cymbeline," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIX, No. 2, April, 1972, pp. 210-16.
[Below, Schork maintains that the classical allusions spoken by Imogen and Iachimo highlight key elements of their characterization in Cymbeline.]
Granted Shakespeare's penchant for classical allusions and the pseudo-antique setting of the play, it comes as no surprise that two central characters in Cymbeline frequently view present actions in terms of the mythology, heroic legends, and history of ancient Rome. The purpose of this brief paper is to show that several of...
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Clark, Glenn. "The 'Strange' Geographies of Cymbeline." In Playing the Globe: Genre and Geography in English Renaissance Drama, edited by John Gillies and Virginia Mason Vaughan, pp. 230-59. Madison, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.
Explores Shakespeare's concern with "the relation between geography and a subjective sense of identity and otherness" in Cymbeline.
Evans, Bertrand. "Cymbeline." In Shakespeare's Comedies, pp. 245-89. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960.
Praises Shakespeare's sustained dramaturgical control of his characters, imagined universe, and art in...
(The entire section is 613 words.)