(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wickham, Glynne. “Riddle and Emblem: A Study in the Dramatic Structure of Cymbeline.” In English Renaissance Studies: Presented to Dame Helen Gardner in Honour of Her Seventieth Birthday, pp. 95-113. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Wickham 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.]

I know not by what fortune the dicton of Pacificus was added to my title at my coming to England, that of lion, expressing true fortitude, having been my dicton before. But I am not ashamed of this addition. For King Solomon was a figure of Christ in that he was a king of peace. The greatest gift that our Saviour gave his apostles immediately before His ascension was that he left His peace with them.1

It will be my contention in this essay that the sentiment lying at the heart of this pronouncement by King James VI of Scotland and I of England provided William Shakespeare and the King's Men with both the riddle and the icon upon which to graft the tragicomedy of Cymbeline for presentation at Court in the autumn of 1609.

Although the misfortunes of British Imogen in her love for the Roman Leonatus Posthumus supply the driving force of the play's story-line, the title role is that of Cymbeline, King of Britain: Britain, we must note, not England. It is with this King that Augustus Caesar's envoy, Lucius, negotiates for the resumption of neglected tribute: and it is this King who, on refusing to pay it, receives from Lucius the declaration of war that, without some intervening miracle, can only serve to precipitate his daughter Imogen's predicament towards a tragic conclusion.

                                                                                I am sorry, Cymbeline,
That I am to pronounce Augustus Caesar—
Caesar, that hath moe kings his servants than
Thyself domestic officers—thine enemy.
Receive it from me, then. War and confusion
In Caesar's name pronounce I 'gainst thee. Look
For fury not to be resisted. Thus defied,
I thank thee for myself.

(III. i. 59-66)2

At the start of Act IV Britain has been invaded, though not, as we might expect, at Dover nor at Hastings; instead the landing has been effected at Milford Haven where, in 1485, Henry, Duke of Richmond, had landed to claim the throne of England for the House of Tudor. Lucius is at the head of the Roman legions and consults a soothsayer about his army's prospects. He is answered with a riddle.

I saw Jove's bird, the Roman eagle, winged
From the spongy south to this part of the west,
There vanished in sunbeams.

(IV. ii. 349-51)

This vision he interprets, not unreasonably, as signifying Roman victory. The battle itself is spread over the next four scenes; but, contrary to the southsayer's prediction, it concludes with a British victory and the capture and imprisonment of Leonatus Posthumus. At this point Shakespeare interpolates an extended, masque-like intermezzo seemingly to effect, with the aid of a deus ex machina, a reversal in the otherwise inevitably tragic outcome to the romantic story of Imogen's true-love for Posthumus. While Posthumus sleeps, the ghosts of his dead father, mother, and brothers all plead to Jove to save him: whereupon Jupiter ‘descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle’ and causes a tablet, bearing an inscription, to be placed on Posthumus's breast. On waking, he reads it; but he can make no sense of it.

'Tis still a dream; or else 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. 144-7)

It is another riddle. This one concerns lions conjoined with peace, interlaced with a strange medley of tender air, a stately cedar, and lopped branches: yet, strikingly, Leonatus appears here to be deliberately linked with Pacificus, since it is predicted that not only will Posthumus's miseries end, but Britain will ‘flourish in peace and plenty’.

With this much achieved, and with the way thus open to a happy ending, Shakespeare has seemed to most of his critics to have been singularly inept in electing to revive in his audience's mind at this point in the play the vexed question of tribute. Cymbeline has won. He says to Lucius, now his prisoner,

Thou com'st not, Caius, now for tribute; that
The Britons have razed out, though with the loss
Of many a bold one.

(V. v. 69-71)

Indeed, not only will Augustus not be receiving tribute, but all Cymbeline's Roman prisoners (as is the case in Titus Andronicus) are to be sacrificed to appease the kinsmen of the ‘good souls’ who died at their hands. Yet by the end of this scene, and without any external pressure upon him to do so, Cymbeline stages a complete volte-face: the prisoners are spared, and the King volunteers

To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
We were dissuaded by our wicked Queen;
Whom heavens in justice both on her and hers
Have laid most heavy hand.

(V. v. 460-3)

In between these two contradictory stances, however, lies the double reunion of Imogen with Posthumus and that of Cymbeline with his three children, together with the unravelling of the two riddles posed earlier by the soothsayer and by Jove: and the play then ends with the couplet,

Set on there! Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace.

It is my case that these riddles and the emblems they contain supply the key to the cipher that explains the play's construction and removes the contradictions implicit in what for earlier critics appeared to be spurious passages in the text,3 and in what for actors and critics alike today still appear to be the play's most awkward scenes, even if they have come to be regarded as Shakespeare's own.

Since I have already documented elsewhere the climate of opinion that was fostered at all levels in society by poets, playmakers, and pageanteers concerning King James's accession, I do not feel obliged to devote space here to more than a brief résumé of those earlier findings.4 The names matter: Samuel Daniel, as author of the Panegyrike Congratulatorie and provider of the first masque of the new reign; Ben Jonson, who together with Inigo Jones devised most of the other early masques; Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton who, together with Jonson devised ‘The Magnificent Entertainment’ that welcomed the new King into his new capital on the way to his Coronation in 1604; Anthony Munday, as author of the first Jacobean Lord Mayor's Show in 1605—The Triumphs of Reunited Britannia; Thomas Campion, the poet and musician commissioned by James I, together with Inigo Jones, to devise the wedding masque for Lord Hay and Lady Honora Denny on Twelfth Night, 1607. Themes matter too: phoenix and turtle; union; peace and plenty; youth and the springtime of the year; old and new Troy; the first and second Brutus; Roman and British imperial power; forgiveness and revenge.

Between 1603 when Daniel published his Panegyrike Congratulatorie in Edinburgh and London,5 and 1611 when Jonson and Jones staged their Masque of Oberon at Court, many authors picked up these themes and related them to the new King and his family in one variation after another: and in doing this they were aided and abetted by the King himself every time he elected to address his Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament.6 What then was the attraction of these themes at this point in time? Why were they projected so frequently and so forcefully, both verbally and visually, to Londoners in every walk of life?

The simplest answer—and in my view the correct one—is that it was politic to do so: it was expected. In other words, both singly and collectively, these themes offered analogues, figures, and mirror images of the new King's picture of himself and of how he wished his approach to domestic and foreign policy to be viewed. Although such emblems might be regarded as ‘Court hieroglyphics’ and thus as ‘caviare to the general’, poets and painters, and the devisers of plays, masques, pageants, and entertainments, swiftly made it their business to translate them into public property whenever an occasion for doing so presented itself and attracted a commission.

James himself viewed the union of the Scottish and the English Crowns as a major step forward in securing both countries from the threat of foreign invasion, itself the prime requirement for the future commercial prosperity of the nation. He told his subjects as much when he met his Parliament for the first time in 1604, and his speech was immediately made available in print.7 Just as, a century earlier, English prestige and strength had stemmed from the ending of the Wars of the Roses which Henry VII had effected by uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York in his marriage to Elizabeth of York, so in James's view the future prosperity of Great Britain depended on ending the crippling war with the Catholic League.8 A Peace Treaty with Spain was duly signed in 1604. Peace as the bride of Union, and Prosperity as the child begotten of that marriage, thus figured among the first of these potent images to become established in the poetic and visual iconography of the new reign.

This was accompanied by another theme that could only serve to reinforce it: the idea that this metaphoric marriage and its progeny was both a fulfilment of prophecy and a direct expression of the will of Heaven. The vision thus came to possess a messianic quality that required an active quickening of faith if it was to attain fulfilment. To this end the poets returned to the legend of British descent from Troy; to Merlin's prophecy that Arthur was not dead but sleeping and would return to reclaim his inheritance in the fullness of time; to the belief that a second Brutus would eventually reunite the three severed members of the former single Kingdom which the first Brutus (son of Ascanius, son of Aeneas) had seized from the Giants. And to these myths they added a new one of their own coining: that just as the mantle of Troy's greatness had fallen on Rome, so the fame and prosperity of imperial Rome was destined in the hands of Divine Providence to pass to that Protestant and Elect nation which had challenged the whole of Catholic Europe and survived. For not only had the much vaunted ‘invincible Armada’ been scattered by the conjoined efforts of the English fleet and the winds of heaven, but civil war had been avoided in the phoenix-like arrival in London of the Protestant James within days of Elizabeth's death. In the euphoric and inflated thinking of the times, one major issue alone remained unresolved: whether to pursue this advantage by trying to wipe the Roman Catholic Church from off the face of the known world, or to attempt instead to heal the rift within divided Christendom in a truly Christian spirit by substituting forgiveness for revenge of past wrongs. King James himself opted for the latter course of action, a policy in line with the teachings of Solomon and Christ: ‘blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’.9 Yet this was a policy that could not be entertained with any realistic expectation of success without the readiness of both parties to the quarrel to accept compromise and concessions; in a word, tribute. This James himself was ready to do by following Henry VII's example in taking recourse to dynastic marriages for his own children (the eldest two of whom had significantly been christened Henry and Elizabeth), provided Catholic Kings were prepared to acknowledge the legitimacy of Britain's Protestant allegiance: he also urged his Protestant subjects to marry Roman Catholics and vice versa. This policy, however, was not one that could escape strenuous opposition from the militant Puritan and anti-Spanish factions both at Court and in Parliament, more especially after the scare of the Gunpowder Treason in November 1605.

Against this background, the verbal and stage images of Cymbeline begin to make sense, not only in the form of occasional isolated allusions, but comprehensively as formal elements of the device upon which I believe the entire text to have been erected.

The most important of these images, if only because they are reiterated on more than one occasion, are the eagle—more especially an eagle which in its flight from south to west is diminished by the beams of the sun, yet phoenix-like renews itself—the cedar, tribute, and Jove himself. Both the eagle and the cedar are emblems of Jupiter, and Jupiter, as deus ex machina within the play, signifies the will of Divine Providence. Divine Providence, moreover, elects to favour the King of Britain at the expense of his ‘wicked Queen’, her churlish son, Cloten, and Augustus Caesar, who are the explicit losers in this tragicomedy. The winners are Cymbeline, his two sons, his daughter, and her Roman fiancé: for them the play ends happily. ‘A Roman and a British ensign’ are henceforward to ‘wave friendly together’.

If we now take the step which I believe Shakespeare intended his own patron and the Court audience to take and temporarily equate Cymbeline with James, then all the emblems that Shakespeare uses within his riddles hold. James, like Cymbeline, spoke to the ambassadors of continental Europe with the voice of ‘the Empire of Great Britain’; and James, like Cymbeline, was in a position to refuse or sanction the marriage of his children to the heirs to Europe's crowns. Thus James, in real life, could aspire, like Cymbeline in the play, to be thought of and discussed in the familiar imperial imagery of Renaissance iconography: and Shakespeare in Cymbeline responds as his fellow poets had done in masques, pageants, and entertainments, and were continuing to do. Ben Jonson was the first to speak literally of James as a new Augustus Caesar. Describing the Temple of Janus erected at Temple Bar to greet James on his way through London to his Coronation, Jonson states that the gate, when shut, carried this inscription:

                              Imp. Jacobus Max.
                                                  Caesar Aug. P. P.
                              Pace Populo Britannico
                              Terra Marique Parta
                                                  Janum Clusit. S.C.(10)

The Pageant of London itself was erected in Fenchurch Street and presided over by Genius Urbis, who hailed James with these lines:

How well doth he become the royal side
Of this erected and broad-spreading tree,
Under whose shade may Britain ever be!
And from this branch may thousand branches more
Shoot o'er the main, and knit with every shore
In bonds of marriage, kindred and increase;
And style this land the navel of their peace.

This figure closely resembles that in which Cymbeline's relationship with his three children is depicted in the words inscribed on the tablet placed by Jupiter on Posthumus's breast.

Thomas Dekker in his part of the same Entertainment devised a Pageant of ‘Arabia Britannica’ presided over by Circumspection, who addressed James as

Great Monarch of the West, whose glorious Stem,
Doth now support a triple Diadem,
Weying more than that of thy grand Grandsire Brute,
Thou that maist make a King thy substitute,
And doest besides the Red-rose and the white,
With the rich flower of France thy garland dight,
Wearing aboue Kings now, or those of olde,
A double Crowne of Lawrell and of gold,
O let my voyce passe through thy royall eare,
And whisper thus much, that we figure here,
A new Arabia, in whose spiced nest
A Phoenix liu'd and died in the Sunnes brest,
Her losse, made Sight, in teares to drowne her eyes,
The Eare grew deafe, Taste like a sick-man lyes,
Finding no rellish: euery other Sence,
Forgat his office, worth and excellence,
Whereby this Fount of Vertue gan to freeze,
Threatned to be drunke vp by two enemies,
Snakie Detraction, and Obliuion,
But at thy glorious presence, both are gone,
Thou being that sacred Phoenix, that doest rise,
From th'ashes of the first: Beames from thine eyes
So vertually shining, that they bring,
To Englands new Arabia, a new Spring:
For ioy whereof, Nimphes, Scences, Houres, and Fame,
Eccho loud Hymnes to his imperiall name.(11)

This speech was delivered by one of the Choristers of St. Paul's. It was immediately followed by a song equating London with New Troy, sung by two other choristers: ‘Troynovant is now no more a Citie’. The second verse explains...

(The entire section is 7134 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wayne, Valerie. “The Woman's Parts of Cymbeline.” In Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, edited by Jonathan Gil Harris and Natasha Korda, pp. 288-315. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Wayne explores the commoditization and objectification of Imogen in Cymbeline. ]

In his introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai proposes that “economic exchange creates value,” and that focusing on the things that are exchanged rather than the forms or functions of exchanges, as Marxist critics have traditionally done, makes visible the political linkages between exchange and...

(The entire section is 9975 words.)

Janet Gupton (review date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gupton, Janet. Review of Cymbeline. Theatre Journal 51, no. 1 (1999): 78-80.

[In the following review, Gupton evaluates Andrei Serban's 1998 New York Shakespeare Festival production of Cymbeline, set in the city's Central Park, and contends 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.]

Set against the backdrop of Central Park and the Delacorte Theatre, the set of Andrei Serban's production of Cymbeline blended with its surroundings. Four trees were nestled atop a grassy mound, a circular sand pit took center stage and a...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Kenneth Tucker (review date spring-summer 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Tucker, Kenneth. “Cymbeline at the Globe.” Shakespeare Newsletter (spring-summer 2001): 37.

[In the following review, Tucker praises Mike Alfreds's 2001 Globe Theatre production of Cymbeline as a “sprightly, well-paced production.”]

Cymbeline offers an acting company a formidable challenge. Not only is its plot convoluted, but many playgoers find its apparent hero, Posthumus, reprehensible. In the throes of jealousy (created by the lies of the cynical Iachimo), Posthumus believes that his beloved Imogen is untrue and orders his servant to murder her. In fact some critics have judged their apparent inability to like Posthumus as the...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Charles Isherwood (review date 28 January 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Cymbeline. Variety 386, no. 5 (28 January 2002): 42.

[In the following review, Isherwood appraises director Bartlett Sher's rendition of Cymbeline performed by A Theater for a New Audience at the Lucille Lortel Theater in 2002. Sher is referred to as “ingenious” for his approach to the “play's preposterous extremes.”]

Shakespeare's densely plotted late romance Cymbeline is an unruly animal. Let the ornery thing run wild and it will bowl you over. Try to tame it and you're in trouble, too. Smooth out its contrasting textures and tones, and boredom ensues. Bartlett Sher, the ingenious director of the new...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Charles Isherwood (review date 18 March 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. Review of Cymbeline. Variety 386, no. 5 (18 March 2002): 33.

[In the following review, Isherwood discusses Mike Alfreds's 2002 Globe Theatre Company production of Cymbeline at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the critic argues that the play's ascetic approach “emphasized its weak points and downplayed its strengths.”]

The company of the Shakespeare's Globe Theater, recently reconstituted on the South Bank of the Thames, is making its first U.S. foray this month with a leisurely visit (almost two weeks) to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mark Rylance, the acclaimed actor who is the company's artistic chief, introduced the...

(The entire section is 624 words.)

Constance Jordan (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jordan, Constance. “Contract and Conscience in Cymbeline.Renaissance Drama 25 (1994): 33-58.

[In the following essay, Jordan examines the theme of verbal contracts in Cymbeline, focusing on the marriage of Posthumus and Imogen and Cymbeline's payment of the annual tribute to the Roman Empire.]

Early modern bodies politic—of the family and of the state—were shaped by the terms of verbal contracts observed over time by the continuous consent of the parties to them. In large measure this compliance reflected the fact that what was contracted for were duties of no quantifiable value but rather in the nature of benefits. The services of love...

(The entire section is 11023 words.)

Maurice Hunt (essay date fall 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “Dismemberment, Corporal Reconstruction, and the Body Politic in Cymbeline.Studies in Philology 99, no. 4 (fall 2002): 404-31.

[In the following essay, Hunt suggests that Shakespeare's use of corporal metaphors implies that body politics is a core theme in Cymbeline.]

Certain verses in Shakespeare's Cymbeline suggest that the early modern religio-political idea of the body politic is relevant for understanding this late tragicomedy.1 The two distinct strains composing this idea complicate my argument in this essay. The religious component of the body politic motif can be traced to New Testament passages such as...

(The entire section is 11738 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Gillies, John. “The Problem of Style in Cymbeline.Southern Review 15, no. 3 (November 1982): 269-90.

Outlines alternative methods for reading, staging, and approaching Cymbeline.

Lawrence, William Witherle. “The Wager in Cymbeline.” In Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, pp. 174-205. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931.

Urges a more historically sensitive understanding of Cymbeline's Posthumus.

Marsh, Derrick R. C. “Cymbeline.” In The Recurring Miracle: A Study of Cymbeline and the Last Plays, pp. 25-124. Sydney: Sydney University Press,...

(The entire section is 263 words.)