Cymbeline was composed and initially performed toward the end of Shakespeare's life, between 1609 and 1610, during a period when the playwright produced the works that are known as his romances. Like his other romances, Cymbeline is a tragicomedy, which contains elements of tragedy but resolves with the traditional happy ending of a comedy. The play relates the tale of Cymbeline, a chieftain king who ruled Britain during the first century, when the country was part of the Roman Empire. Cymbeline imprisons his daughter Imogen, heir to the throne of Britain, for marrying Posthumus Leonatus, a gentleman greatly favored at court until his marriage to Imogen interrupted the Queen's plan for Imogen to marry her son, the villainous Cloten. While in prison and with her husband banished from the country, Imogen becomes the target of several schemes. Posthumus, exiled to Rome, has his idealistic view of Imogen challenged by the Italian Iachimo, who wagers that he can prove Imogen is not as chaste and loyal as Posthumus believes her to be. When he receives Iachimo's false proof of Imogen's infidelity, Posthumus orders his faithful servant to return to Britain and murder her. The Queen also plots to murder Imogen in order to ensure the throne of Britain for her son. Adding further tension to the plot is the war that erupts between Rome and Britain as Cymbeline refuses to continue paying an annual tribute to the Romans. The play is resolved with the deaths of the Queen and her son Cloten, the reestablishment of peace with Rome, and the redemption of Posthumus.
Shakespeare's romances all share several important themes, including separation and reunion, exile, jealousy, and divine providence. Many critics have also noted that the female characters are integral to the action and substance of these plays. Derrick R. C. Marsh (see Further Reading) theorizes that, as in The Tempest and The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline's moral standard is set by the main female character. Although surrounded by characters who have compromised their moral convictions, Imogen refuses to be seduced by the corrupt temptations of the world. Believing love to be paramount, she marries a man for whom she feels genuine affection and admiration, even though the man has a lower position, and thus less value, in her father's court. As Marsh explains, rather than falling prey to the notion that ideals are dictated to and formed outside of the individual, Imogen consistently embodies moral courage by living according to her own principles. For Imogen, genuine humanity comes from living by what she knows to be right and just. Her conviction throughout the play is unwavering, and Marsh refers to her moral sensibility as the play's touchstone. Valerie Wayne (2002) focuses on the relationship between Imogen and Posthumus and explores the commoditization and objectification of Imogen in Cymbeline. Wayne notes that the wager between Posthumus and Iachimo on Imogen's chastity “permits them to exercise the privilege of their gender by debasing women into sexual signs of questionable worth.” However, the critic notes, by the end of the play Posthumus loses his “impulse towards possession” and is redeemed.
Cymbeline has never been widely produced, and although it has been historically regarded as inferior to Shakespeare's other plays, modern critics usually welcome the chance to see Cymbeline on the stage. Critics are especially interested in the character of Imogen, who has long been a favorite among Shakespeare's heroines. Janet Gupton (1999) reviews director Andrei Serban's 1998 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Cymbeline set in the city's Central Park. Gupton notes that the convoluted story is a challenge for directors and finds that “even Serban's magic with the actors, set, and text could not weave together all the disparate elements that make up the tangled web of Cymbeline.” Kenneth Tucker (2001) reviews Mike Alfreds's 2001 Globe Theatre staging. Although Tucker praises the play overall as a “sprightly, well-paced production,” he suspects that the “the fast and incessant identity switchings” likely confused the audience. Charles Isherwood (2002) reviews Alfreds's 2002 Globe Theatre Company production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He argues that the play's ascetic approach “emphasized its weak points and downplayed its strengths.” He also criticizes Jane Arnfield's Imogen, whom he contends “was lacking in charm.” Charles Isherwood also reviews Bartlett Sher's 2002 Theater for a New Audience production of the play. The critic lauds Sher's “ingenious” approach to one of Shakespeare's “most troublesome plays.” Isherwood also praises the performances of the cast, except for Erica N. Tazel's Imogen, whose performance “never really touched our hearts.”
Several critics, including Maurice Hunt (2002), have studied the theme of body politics in Cymbeline. As Hunt explains, the monarch or ruler of a country is generally understood to be both a political and moral leader. Due to the ruler's position as the governor of society, he or she is the metaphoric head of the social body. The theory that a society and its ruling force can be understood as a symbolic physical body is referred to as the body politic, and Hunt uses this concept to critique Shakespeare's play. Hunt suggests that Shakespeare's use of corporal metaphors implies that body politics is a core theme in Cymbeline. He argues that the reconstitution of a sound and well-functioning political body is the underlying message of the plot, since the ruling head of Britain is presented early in the play as negligent and ineffective—Cymbeline's remiss governing and villainous courtiers are the antithesis of what is needed for effective management of the social body. Hunt states that the deaths of several characters—particularly Cloten and the Queen—serve to bring the kingdom back to health, as the elements preventing it from functioning are successfully purged. Glynne Wickham (1980) relates images of the imperial eagle, Jupiter, the cedar tree, and military reparations in Cymbeline to the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603. Wickham contends that “Shakespeare was deliberately manipulating his source material when constructing his play in order to be able to comment indirectly on his patron's own aspirations for his children and for Europe.”