Gullible Cymbeline and his conniving queen intend that his daughter Imogen should marry his stepson Cloten. Instead, Imogen chooses the gentle Posthumus and secretly marries him. In a fit of anger, the king banishes Posthumus, who flees to Italy after promising to remain loyal and faithful to his bride. As a token of their vows, Imogen gives Posthumus a diamond ring that belonged to her mother; in turn, Posthumus places a bracelet of rare design on Imogen’s arm.
In Rome, Posthumus meets Iachimo, a vain braggart who tries to tempt Posthumus by appealing to his sensuality. Posthumus, not to be tempted into adultery, tells Iachimo of his pact with Imogen and of the ring and bracelet they exchanged. Iachimo scoffingly wagers ten thousand ducats against Posthumus’s ring that he can seduce Imogen.
Iachimo goes to Britain with letters to which he forged Posthumus’s name, which persuades Imogen to receive him. Using ambiguous implications and innuendo, Iachimo plays on her curiosity about her husband’s faithfulness. When that fails to win her favor, he gains access to her bedroom in a trunk which, he tells her, contains a valuable gift he bought in France that is intended for the Roman emperor; he asks that the trunk be placed in her chamber for safekeeping. While Imogen sleeps, he notes the details of the furnishings in the room, takes the bracelet from her arm, and observes a mole on her left breast.
Back in Italy, Iachimo describes Imogen’s room to Posthumus and produces the bracelet, which he says Imogen gave him. Incredulous, Posthumus asks Iachimo to describe some aspect of Imogen’s body as better proof of his successful seduction. Iachimo’s claim that he kissed the mole on Imogen’s breast enrages Posthumus. He sends a letter to Pisanio, commanding that the servant kill Imogen, and a letter to Imogen, asking her to meet him in Milford Haven. Pisanio is to kill Imogen as they travel through the Welsh hills.
On the journey Pisanio divulges the real purpose of their trip when he shows Imogen the letter ordering her death. Unable to harm his master’s wife, Pisanio instructs her to dress as a boy and join the party of Caius Lucius, who is in Britain to collect tribute to the Emperor Augustus and who is soon to return to Rome. Then Imogen will be near Posthumus and can try to disprove Iachimo’s accusations against her. Pisanio also gives Imogen a box containing a restorative, which the queen entrusted to him ostensibly in case Imogen became ill during her trip. The queen actually thinks the box contained a slow-acting poison, which she procured from her physician; he, suspecting chicanery, reduces the drug content so that the substance will do no more than induce a long sleep. Pisanio takes leave of his mistress and returns home.
Dressed in boy’s clothing, hungry, and weary, Imogen comes to the mountain cave of Belarius, who was banished from Cymbeline’s court twenty years earlier and kidnapped Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline’s infant sons. In Wales, the two boys were brought up to look upon Belarius as their father. Calling herself Fidele, Imogen wins the affection of the three men when she asks shelter of them. Left alone when the men go out to hunt food, Imogen, worn out and ill, swallows some of the medicine that Pisanio gave her.
Cymbeline, meanwhile, refuses to pay the tribute demanded by Rome, and the two nations prepare for war. Cloten, who was infuriated by Imogen’s coldness to him, tries to learn her whereabouts. Pisanio hopes to trick her pursuer and show him the letter in which...
(This entire section contains 1216 words.)
Posthumus asks Imogen to meet him at Milford Haven. Disguised as Posthumus, Cloten sets out to avenge his injured vanity.
In Wales, he comes upon Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius while they are hunting. Recognizing him as the queen’s son, Belarius assumes that Cloten comes to arrest them as outlaws. He and Arviragus go in search of Cloten’s retinue while Guiderius fights with and kills Cloten. Guiderius then cuts off Cloten’s head and throws it into the river. Returning to the cave, the three men find Imogen, as they think, dead, and they prepare her for burial. Benevolent Belarius, remembering that Cloten is of royal birth, brings his headless body for burial and lays it near Imogen.
When Imogen awakens from her drugged sleep, she is grief-stricken when she sees lying nearby a body dressed in Posthumus’s clothing. Sorrowing, she joins the forces of Caius Lucius as the Roman army marches by on their way to engage the soldiers of Cymbeline.
Posthumus, who is a recruit in the Roman army, now regrets his order for Imogen’s death. Throwing away his uniform, he dresses himself as a British peasant. Although he cannot restore Imogen to life, he does not want to take any more British lives. In a battle between the Romans and Britons, Posthumus vanquishes and disarms Iachimo. Cymbeline is taken prisoner and rescued by Belarius and his two foster sons. These three build a fort and, aided by Posthumus, so spurred the morale of the fleeing British soldiers that Cymbeline’s army is victorious.
Since he did not die in battle, Posthumus identifies himself as a Roman after Lucius is taken, and he is sent to prison by Cymbeline. In prison, he has a vision in which Jove assures him that he will yet be the lord of the Lady Imogen. Jove orders a tablet placed on Posthumus’s chest. When Posthumus awakens and finds the tablet, he reads that a lion’s whelp will be embraced by a piece of tender air and that branches lopped from a stately cedar would revive. Shortly before the time set for his execution, he is summoned to appear before Cymbeline.
In Cymbeline’s tent, the king confers honors upon Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus and bemoans the fact that the fourth valiant soldier, so poorly dressed, is not present to receive his reward. Cornelius, the physician, tells Cymbeline that the queen died after her villainies. Lucius pleads for the life of Imogen, still dressed as a boy, because of the page’s youth. Pardoned, Imogen asks Iachimo to explain his possession of the ring he wears. As Iachimo confesses to lying to win the ring from Posthumus, Posthumus enters and identifies himself as the murderer of Imogen. When Imogen protests against his confession, Posthumus strikes her. Pisanio then identifies Imogen to keep Posthumus from striking her again. The truth disclosed, Belarius understands his foster sons’ affinity for Imogen. Posthumus and Imogen, reunited, profess to remain devoted to each other for the rest of their lives.
After Guiderius confesses to the murder of Cloten, Cymbeline orders him bound, but he stays the sentence when Belarius identifies himself and the two young men. Cymbeline then blesses his three children who stand before him. A soothsayer interprets Jove’s message on the tablet left on Posthumus’s chest. The lion’s whelp is Posthumus, the son of Leonatus, and the piece of tender air is Imogen. The lopped branches from the stately cedar are Arviragus and Guiderius, long thought dead, now restored in the king’s love. Overjoyed, Cymbeline makes peace with Rome.