Classified as a dramatic romance that serves as a celebration of British national history, Cymbeline is part of a group of plays known as Shakespeare's late romances; scholars generally agree that it was written circa 1609-10. The story is set in England and Rome at about the time of Christ's birth and tells the tale of Cymbeline, a semi-legendary king of Britain, his daughter Imogen, who has married beneath her station, and her husband, Posthumus. Following the discovery of the marriage, Posthumus is banished from England and flees to Rome. There an Italian named Iachimo overhears Posthumus speaking of the unassailable virtue of his wife, and a wager on her chastity follows. After many trials and tribulations, the play is resolved in a mood of contrition and redemption. Shakespeare drew on many sources for this story, including Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1353), the anonymously written Frederyke of Jennen (1560), and Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1577). The play's dramatic structure has received a good deal of critical attention. Shakespeare's combined use of material from pastoral romances, British and Roman history, and the techniques of seventeenth-century tragicomedy have frequently led critics to question how well all these disparate elements are blended in the play. Seventeenth-century commentators tended to focus heavily on these perceived structural disparities, while in the nineteenth century Cymbeline was lauded as a remarkable example of dramatic unity, and considered a work of serious import that dealt with religious and theological issues. The early twentieth century saw a reversal of this assessment, with many critics pointing to the work as an example of Shakespeare's declining dramatic skills. However, since the publication of G. Wilson Knight's landmark essay on Cymbeline in 1947 the play has enjoyed a revival in status. Knight's study suggests that the historical elements included in the tale are extremely significant and that the play's concerns are representative of contemporary issues of emerging British nationhood.
Debate over Cymbeline's dramatic structure and unity has continued through the latter half of the twentieth century. Derick R. C. Marsh (see Further Reading) calls Cymbeline one of the most neglected and undervalued Shakespearean plays. Marsh contends that while the text presents several difficulties typical of the romance group, a closer examination of it reveals that the unifying power of poetry knits the various themes into a complete work of art. The end result, according to the critic, is a play that explores such varied topics as the nature of life and death, the nature of piety and fidelity, and the life-giving power of goodness and virtue. Marsh places Cymbeline among Shakespeare's later plays, calling it a hopeful story in its affirmation that life, even with its pitfalls and suffering, is worth living. Leonard Powlick (1974) concurs with the assessment that the work showcases Shakespeare's affirmation of faith in men and life. However, Powlick proposes that its structure is deliberately varied in order to allow Shakespeare to lead his audience to this premise. According to the critic, Cymbeline contains all the elements of a comedy, yet it is subtly different from typical comedies because of a consistent use of the technique of deflation—a frustration of expectations at each step, especially in relation to the story of Imogen and Posthumus. This unpredictability allows Shakespeare to show the audience numerous possibilities in the action, thus opening up the plot and allowing the characters to order their world. In this sense, says Powlick, Cymbeline exposes the constricting nature of tragedy, giving way instead to the broad possibilities of comedy and allowing characters to make decisions and control their own fate.
In the years since the publication of Knight's study, many critics have acknowledged the topical nature of the play, aligning much of the action to contemporary Jacobean politics. Considered by many to be a work that was written expressly with James I in mind, the court of King Cymbeline is often compared to the court of James I, particularly in terms of the king's character and his foreign policy. In his essay detailing this comparison, Emrys Jones (1961) draws a parallel between the birth of Christ in the time of the historic Cymbeline and the peacemaking role assumed by James I. Leah S. Marcus (1988) examines the play's political symbolism, noting that a close reading will support an interpretation of the action as a political allegory. According to Marcus, although Cymbeline presents a vision of concord under the reigning monarch, there are also subtle references to some discomfort on Shakespeare's part regarding this vision of idealized harmony. Glenn Clark (1998) examines the geopolitical context of Cymbeline, noting that just as James I was interested in the geopolitical restructuring of England and in altering the mentalities of its inhabitants, Cymbeline dramatically highlights the relation between geography and a subjective sense of identity and otherness.
Although it is most often studied as a dramatic comedy focusing on the political issues paramount to England at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Cymbeline has also generated great critical interest as a romance. The subplot of the wager story involving Imogen, Posthumus, and Iachimo has led many critics to examine in detail the themes of marital fidelity, love, and family relationships. In fact, the nineteenth century saw an intense focus of critical scholarship on the character of Imogen, who was lauded as a dramatized ideal of female existence. Twentieth-century studies of the human relationships depicted in the play have tended to be more inclusive in their examination, focusing on both male and female characters. Homer Swander (1964) closely examines the character of Posthumus and his relationship to Imogen. According to Swander, Posthumus's progress towards excellence is defined largely by his rejection of conventional attitudes and the stock responses that are typically found in romantic comedies. In fact, the critic contends, Shakespeare used the character of Posthumus and his relationship to Imogen in order to criticize the generally accepted ideas about the kind of insight love demands and provides. Swander argues that the play begins with a traditional story and traditional moral attitudes, and then slowly exposes and destroys their rationale. In contrast to such heroes as Claudius in Much Ado about Nothing, Posthumus is not allowed to go unchanged—instead he is transformed until he realizes the value of love and trust.