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.