Comedy by William Shakespeare


Dramatis Personae.

Act 1

  • Scene 1. Britain. The garden of Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 2. The same. A public place.
  • Scene 3. A room in Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 4. Rome. Philario's house.
  • Scene 5. Britain. A room in Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 6. The same. Another room in the palace.

Act 2

  • Scene 1. Britain. Before Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 2. Imogen's bedchamber in Cymbeline's palace:
  • Scene 3. An adjoining ante-chamber to Imogen's apartments.
  • Scene 4. Rome. Philario's house.
  • Scene 5. Another room in Philario's house.

Act 3

  • Scene 1. Britain. A hall in Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 2. Another room in the palace.
  • Scene 3. Wales: a mountainous country with a cave.
  • Scene 4. Country near Milford-Haven.
  • Scene 5. A room in Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 6. Wales. Before the cave of Belarius.
  • Scene 7. Rome. A public place.

Act 4

  • Scene 1. Wales: near the cave of Belarius.
  • Scene 2. Before the cave of Belarius.
  • Scene 3. A room in Cymbeline's palace.
  • Scene 4. Wales: before the cave of Belarius.

Act 5

  • Scene 1. Britain. The Roman camp.
  • Scene 2. Field of battle between the British and Roman camps.
  • Scene 3. Another part of the field.
  • Scene 4. A British prison.
  • Scene 5. Cymbeline's tent.

Cymbeline is the medieval/Renaissance version of the name of Cunobelinus or Cunobelin, a British ruler, sometimes called king, who ruled before the Roman conquering, but had economic ties to Rome. His appearance in The History of the Kings of Britain helped to inspire Shakespeare's play, which jumps between the 1st and 16th centuries. Cymbeline was the last British king before Rome took full control.

Cymbeline the name used in Renaissance times to refer to the King Cunobelin(us) of Britain, who encouraged trade with Rome, but then fought them off as the then Emperor of Rome, Aulus Plautius tried to take Britain. He was the last of Britain's kings before the Romans took control, and he died in the year 40 or 41.

See also: The History of the Kings of Britain.

Written in 1609-1610, Cymbeline is the least known, and least performed of the canon of William Shakespeare's plays. Printed in the first folio in 1623 under the title 'The Tragedie of Cymbeline' it is generally classed, along with The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, and Pericles, as a comedy, and more particularly, as a romance. The reason it is not frequently performed is that it is rather "experimental", including lyrical poetry (Fear no more the heat o' the sun and Hark, Hark, the lark), and many unreal sequences.

Cymbeline is a love story in five acts, set in Ancient Britain and Rome, and it explores the themes of fidelity, virtue, and deceit. It contains elements from many of Shakespeare's other plays, including a woman dressing up as a young man, an unsanctioned marriage, the politics of royalty, a mad Queen, a false-death potion, a deceitful villain, a beheading, and missing family members.

Plot Synopsis
Imogen (also written Innogen), daughter of King Cymbeline, is the last remaining heir to the throne, as her two brothers were stolen from their nursery by the courtier, Belarius, banished to Wales.

Imogen's stepmother, the Queen, would marry her to her loutish son, Cloten, but Imogen married a common man, Posthumus Leonatus, whom she loved dearly, in secret. Cymbeline banishes Posthumus, and locks Imogen in her chamber.

Posthumus, now banished and at his friend Philario's home in Rome, meets Iachimo, a devious Italian who persuades Postumus to bet upon Imogen's faithfulness. Iachimo tries to seduce Imogen, and failing this, deceives Posthumus into believing that Imogen had lain with him, by providing certain evidence (description of her chamber, a stolen bracelet that Posthumus gave her, and a mark on her breast). Believing that all was lost, Posthumus sends his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen in the countryside of Milford-Haven, for her infidelity (woman, then being the cause), but Pisanio is too sympathetic toward Imogen to do the deed.

At Pisanio's bequest, Imogen dresses as a page (by the name of Fidele), and brings a special medicine, given to Pisanio by the Queen, which is really a false-death potion (as in Romeo and Juliet), on her quest to find her husband, Posthumus. Meanwhile, the buffoon prince Cloten, anxious to kill the banished Posthumus, and ravish Imogen, dresses in Posthumus’ clothing, and seeks out the two lovers. Imogen struggles her way to a cave, where she finds three noble savages, in fact Belarius and her two now-grown brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus, kidnapped so long ago. She then self-administers the "medicine", falling into a temporary sleep of death.

One of Belarius' sons makes battle with Cloten, beheading him. They discover Imogen at the cave, lying dead, and place Cloten's body next hers. Imogen wakes to find this headless body, wearing the clothes of her husband, and she despairs. An ambassador from Rome, Caius Lucius, now at war with Britain, takes the princess, still dressed as a page into his service. Meanwhile, the mad Queen dies. Rome loses the war with Britain. Posthumus, his world as good as over, lets himself be taken prisoner, to be put to death. He has a vision of the ghosts of his family, and of the Roman god, Jupiter. He is taken to King Cymbeline, where everyone meets, and the web of lies, deceits, and disguises is unravelled. Imogen and Posthumus are together once more, with Cymbeline's blessing. Cymbeline's sons are reunited with the royal family, Belarius is unexiled, everyone is forgiven their errors, and peace is established with Rome. The Roman soothsayer, and then the King make everything clear in the end.

There is also a variety of English rose by the name of Cymbeline. It has glossy, pale green foliage, and 14cm flat, loose, double blooms that are a mix of pink, grey, and off-white. Cymbeline roses are described as smelling of myrrh. They blossom through Summer and Autumn months. The bush grows up to 2m tall, and slightly more so in breadth and depth. It tends to resist fungi well, and thrives in filtered shade.

"Cymbeline" is one of Shakespeare's later written, and lesser known plays. It was probably composed around 1610, according to The Royal Shakespeare company. As with many of Shakespeare's final plays, it is harder to sort into tragedy or comedy, having aspects of both. The fact of being obscure and hard to categorize made it more interesting to read: unlike almost every other play by Shakespeare, which I know by pop cultural osmosis, I really didn't know what is going on here, and what the plot twists are going to be.

And this story has a lot of plot twists. We start out in Roman-era Britain, although with many anachronisms. Cymbeline is the King of the Britons. Despite the play being named for him, he is not the main character. He has a daughter, Imogen, who is the main character of the story. Imogen's mother has died, and Cymbeline is remarried to an evil woman, who has an equally evil son, Cloten, who is a mixture of every spoiled rich kid stereotype you can imagine. Imogen has married Leonatus, a poor-but-noble lord. Cymbeline and his unnamed queen disapprove of this, because they want Imogen to marry her step-brother Cloten for dynastic reasons. And yes, that is weird, even within the play. Meanwhile, one of Cymbeline's generals is raising Imogen's brothers in a cave in Wales, having kidnapped them when they were babies because he was falsely accused of treason. Meanwhile, Rome is demanding tribute from Britain and war is brewing...

That is the setting of the play. Got all of that? Good. So did I, which was somewhat of a surprise. Despite the complex political and personal background of the play, Shakespeare actually manages to work all of this backstory in quite naturally. The plot begins properly when Iachimo, a friend of a friend that Leonatus meets in Italy (which, of course, didn't exist yet), makes a wager that he can seduce the perfectly chaste Imogen, and Leonatus takes him up on it. (And you might be thinking, that sounds kind of messed up, a point that I will return to later). Then the plot is launched, a plot that involves, in true Shakespearean fashion, cross-dressing, disguised identity, mistaken identity, faked death, foolish wisemen, wise fools, side switching, sudden revelations, visits from ghosts and gods, comeuppance, reunions, etc. I won't spoil it for you. As in many Shakespeare plays, many of the plot devices are very contrived, and too coincidental, as disguised characters run into each other and have comedic (and sometimes) tragic misunderstandings. But of course, that is part of Shakespeare's charm.

After having established that the plot is convoluted, and not realistic, I want to say a little bit about what I got out of this play. For me, a large part of this play has to do with the difference between appearance and reality, and between role and person. The problem is, it is very easy to imagine that Shakespeare is saying something that modern readers would agree with, even when that isn't the case. Imogen is in the role of a princess, even though she doesn't want her royal privilege, but just marriage to Leonatus. Her brothers are in the role of "mountaineers", even though they are princes. The Queen is in the role of a loving wife, even though she is a devious poisoner. Her son is in the role of a prince, even though he starts out as a rude braggart and turns into an attempted rapist. Leonatus believes Iachimo has seduced Imogen because Iachimo has a bracelet he stole from her. (In the play, Leonatus' servant Pisanio tells Leonatus not to believe him, and even within the confines of the play, the type of man who gambles that he can seduce your wife really isn't the type of man you should be trusting.) So a modern reader might read this play and think Shakespeare is telling us "Treat people as people, and not as roles, and don't always trust your first impressions" and that is a good message that modern readers can get behind. But the problem is, Shakespeare might have meant that in a way that is much different than we would. While Leonatus is shown as foolish for doubting his wife's chastity, and for thinking violent thoughts against her...the general idea that women's value is tied up with who they don't have sex with isn't challenged. Imogen's main value is still promoted as being her "honor", even when she is falsely accused. The play presents a few reservations on the idea that violence is a way to control women's sexuality, but only a few. As well, in the play, Cymbeline's true sons are condemned to death for killing Cloten in self-defense, but are given a reprieve---not because Cloten was violent and they were acting in self-defense, but because it is revealed that they were actually princes too. Their crime was that they were violent against someone of higher social status, not that they were violent. The play seems to take it for granted that social status is the real and singular guide for ethics and morality, and that a transgressor can only be punished by someone of higher social status. So while I liked the play, and there were parts of it that still resonated with me, parts of its value system seemed bizarre to my sensibilities.

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