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A Modern Perspective: Cymbeline

By Cynthia Marshall

Cymbeline shows an unusual, even perverse, interest in sleeping characters. “Playing Imogen,” the actress Harriet Walter remarks, “one spends quite a lot of time ‘asleep.’ ”1 The villain Iachimo steals from a trunk in the bedroom of the sleeping Imogen and breathlessly inventories the attractions of the furniture and of the princess’s exposed body. Later in the play, Imogen struggles to consciousness, still groggy from a narcotic potion, to discover a headless corpse beside her. Imogen’s husband Posthumus, the play’s putative hero, experiences a climactic dream vision while he lies sleeping in prison. Throughout his career Shakespeare was apparently interested by the resemblance between deep sleep and death (one thinks of Juliet, and of Henry Bolingbroke on his deathbed in 2 Henry IV) and by the seam separating the unconscious mind of dreams from the control of waking consciousness (instanced by the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, and, in a different key, by Bottom awakening from his forest adventures in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But the dramatic possibilities of an actor miming sleep are distinctly limited, and Cymbeline’s repeated slowing to a still focus on an unconscious character seems especially odd given the busy complexity of the play’s multiple plots. Dramaturgically and thematically, the play engages questions about the relative merits of activity and passivity: Does history happen to us, or do we happen to it? Do individuals direct their own actions, or are they pawns within an encompassing structure? Are we ever entirely awake to life’s meanings and complexities?

These questions do not emerge from the characters’ philosophical musings—Cymbeline’s characters are refreshingly lacking in profundity—but from the play’s often sensational efforts to entertain its audiences. Like Shakespeare’s other late plays, Cymbeline, dating from 1609 or 1610, was written in a fashionable coterie style apparently designed to appeal to audiences at the Blackfriars, the indoor playhouse that Shakespeare’s acting company acquired around 1608. These more sophisticated viewers might relish the way the play calls attention to its own theatricality: for example, the courtiers speak with mannered opacity, and Cloten’s severed head advertises its status as a stage prop. Posthumus’s dream vision, with its chanting spirits and the spectacular descent of Jupiter, suggests the influence of the masque (an elaborate form of court entertainment), while at the same time displaying the theater’s technical apparatus for presenting a deus ex machina. The play’s attention to historical patterning resembles the experimental tendencies of The Winter’s Tale and Henry VIII, late Shakespearean plays likewise skeptical of the reliability of narrative storytelling. Yet the complexity of Cymbeline’s plot lines, concluding in a “twenty-four-fold dénouement,”2 defies the faith in temporal logic evidenced in the other romances: whereas Time the Chorus appears in The Winter’s Tale to move the play toward a happy ending, outcomes in Cymbeline seem more the effect of chance or surprising choices, and judgments are clouded by deception and self-deception.

Defying historical chronology in the manner of dream or myth, the play features three distinct settings: the historical King Cymbeline’s first-century B.C.E. Britain, an apparently fifteenth-century Italy, and the remote mountains of Welsh legend. It also incorporates elements of tragedy, comedy, and romance. In creating a play that straddles temporal, spatial, and generic boundaries, Shakespeare drew on a variety of sources. The framing story of war between Britain and Rome originates in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, as does the incident in which a man and his two sons defeat an army. The wager plot can be traced to Boccaccio’s Decameron, a fourteenth-century Italian collection of prose tales (available to Shakespeare in French translation), and to an English version of the same story known as Frederyke of Jennen. The notes on a 1611 performance (probably at the Globe theater) recorded by Simon Forman, the early modern physician and astrologer, testify to a confusing array of actions:

Remember also the story of Cymbeline king of England in Lucius’ time. How Lucius came from Octavius Caesar for tribute and being denied after sent Lucius with a great army of soldiers who landed at Milford Haven, and . . . 3 outlaws of the which 2 of them were the sons of Cymbeline stolen from him when they were but 2 years old. . . . And how one of them slew Cloten. . . . and how the Italian that came from her love conveyed himself into a chest. . . . And in the deepest of the night, she being asleep, he opened the chest & came forth of it. And viewed her in her bed and the marks of her body. . . . (spelling modernized)

Forman is an erratic reporter at best, but his difficulty in seizing on a central action to follow has been shared by other readers and viewers.

In an effort to make sense of all this confusion, critics have often inferred an overarching design in the play. Some detect a Christian framework, citing as evidence the coincidence of Cymbeline’s reign with Christ’s birth and the Jailer’s wish for moral unity (5.4.207–8). Others find a political agenda, such as tribute to King James, who fancied himself a force for unity among nations and for renewal at home. Certainly the play’s welter of action can make a commentator wish for a grand design, but the case for a consistent pattern of religious or historical allegory seems weak. Though there may be fleeting hints of larger patterns, Shakespeare has arranged the “plot lines [so] that large expectation patterns about the play’s action are never allowed to develop”3; consequently, no scheme can be said to dominate. For instance, the pattern of translatio imperii—the westward expansion of empire—bears a force almost of destiny in the play.4 Yet the delicacy with which Caius Lucius’s ambiguous relation to Britain is presented—he reluctantly declares Augustus Caesar’s enmity while being cordially entertained at court, then departs to take the opponent’s part—suggests the complexity of the individual’s role within the unfolding history of empire, society, or family.

Sometimes called Shakespeare’s last Roman play, Cymbeline extends the attention shown in Antony and Cleopatra to the difficulties of maintaining an empire, with the focus here on the British colony and events seen from that northern perspective. The Queen and Cloten have urged King Cymbeline to renegotiate an earlier agreement to pay tribute, a plot line lacking in historical validity but valuable in demonstrating British subjects’ complicated attitude of defiance and deference toward Rome. Cymbeline continues the self-conscious interest of the other Roman plays—Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra—in exploring how history is written and dramatized. Postmodern historiographers call attention to the shaping role of the historian in formulating an account of the past,5 and Shakespeare seems similarly aware that any story is colored by its framework, to the extent that an individual’s role may be determined by external forces. So Posthumus submits to a prophetic text he scarcely understands. He describes the tablet left behind by the visiting ghosts as “senseless speaking, or a speaking such / As sense cannot untie,” even as he accepts its relevance and validity: “Be what it is, / The action of my life is like it” (5.4.150–52). He seems willing to take his place in a larger action, although its meaning remains inscrutable to him—and to us.

The play’s emphasis on plot may account for the flat quality of some of the characters—most notably the Queen, who is foiled in her worst schemes and thus lacks the intensity of passionate malignity. Cymbeline himself is surprisingly passive, a kind of absent center around which the action moves, manipulated by his wife and defrauded by Belarius. However, the insistent motif of the outer and inner person (see, e.g., 1.1.25–27, 1.4.8–10, 1.6.18–20, 5.1.33) provides a clue that in this play, Shakespeare is continuing his exploration of subjectivity. The final scene reunites a hero and heroine who are each doubly disguised: Posthumus, fighting officially for the Roman army but wearing the garb of the British cause he has adopted apologetically, and Imogen, dressed as a boy who has been employed as a page by the Roman Lucius. Fighting for opposite armies and displaced from their own identities, the couple nevertheless manage eventually to recognize each other. Although the disguise motif assumes the existence of inner truth, the principal characters in Cymbeline are not static. Instead, they show a striking capacity for change. One of the most stunning moments in the play is Posthumus’s decision to forgive his wife (whom he mistakenly thinks has been unfaithful) “For wrying but a little” (5.1.5). Posthumus does not receive contradictory evidence and no one encourages him to reconsider: he simply changes his mind. The revisionary action is repeated on a grand scale when Cymbeline in the final moments of the play offers to pay tribute to his defeated foe and the battle becomes suddenly inconsequential. The strict logic of cause and effect, winners and losers, is replaced by an endorsement of the metamorphic properties of human experience.

Oddly, the capacity for change is not accompanied by self-understanding. The play’s mood is “not introspective,”6 and even the best-developed characters seem peculiarly unaware of their actions, almost as though they are sleepwalking or drugged. Soliloquies, of which there are many, tend to report feelings and responses rather than to explore them. In Cymbeline Shakespeare relies on symbolic and structural means of unfolding character. For instance, Posthumus, whose name announces him traumatically deprived of family (see 1.1.41–47), is psychologically and morally reborn through the dream vision of Act 5, which supplies him the missing nexus of familial concern and support. Posthumus’s maliciousness is partially displayed (and displaced) through symbolic doubling: during the play’s middle acts, Cloten serves as his psychic stand-in. Different as they apparently are, the play insists on an analogy between them. Cloten, who wishes to take Posthumus’s place in Imogen’s favor and in her bed, devises a plan to rape her while wearing Posthumus’s clothing. Securing the garments from the servant Pisanio, Cloten sets off for Milford Haven, where he is vanquished by Guiderius. That Imogen, awakening next to a headless corpse dressed in her husband’s clothing, mistakes Cloten’s body for that of Posthumus confirms the physical and symbolic links between the two men. Posthumus’s disrespectful gambling on his wife’s chastity and his murderous response to Iachimo’s false report of enjoying Imogen’s body are paralleled by Cloten’s aggressive wish: “With that suit upon my back will I ravish her” (3.5.162–63). Through a dreamlike logic, Cloten and Posthumus sporadically merge, and Posthumus’s slide from devoted husband to suspicious trickster to murderous misogynist and finally back to repentant noble combatant is made dramatically coherent, even in the absence of dialogue that might provide conscious motivation.

The use of dream logic might alert us to another cause of the characters’ apparent lack of self-awareness: this play is remarkably attentive to the role of fantasy in shaping human actions. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory points out how fantasy is particular to the individual yet shaped by ideological forces within a culture.7 Although Posthumus should know better than to doubt his wife’s fidelity, his insecurity, fostered by Iachimo’s lubricity, prepares the ground for a vivid, misogynistic suspicion:

This yellow Iachimo in an hour, was ’t not?

Or less? At first? Perchance he spoke not, but,

Like a full-acorned boar, a German one,

Cried “O!” and mounted.


Fantasy can be a generative force, providing the screen on which a person projects himself; but, as with Posthumus’s fantasy, it also carries the danger of reducing other people to objects.

Fantasies likewise drive the villainous Iachimo. In contrast to the boarlike creature of Posthumus’s imagination, Iachimo in the bedchamber displays literary sensibility (pointing out the similarity between himself and Tarquin [2.2.15–17]) and an aesthetic appreciation of Imogen’s qualities. His breathless sensual admiration necessitates, at line 26, his recalling himself to his dastardly plot:


How bravely thou becom’st thy bed, fresh lily,

And whiter than the sheets.—That I might touch!

But kiss, one kiss! Rubies unparagoned,

How dearly they do ’t. ’Tis her breathing that

Perfumes the chamber thus. The flame o’ th’ taper

Bows toward her and would underpeep her lids

To see th’ enclosèd lights, now canopied

Under these windows, white and azure-laced

With blue of heaven’s own tinct. But my design:

To note the chamber.


Iachimo may lack the intellectual subtlety of his dramatic forerunner Iago, but Shakespeare provides ample clues to his unhappy emotional life. The ache and longing that mark his visual violation of Imogen (“Why should I write this down that’s riveted, / Screwed to my memory?” [2.2.47–48]) are converted to bravado and bluster when he reports to Posthumus a “night of such sweet shortness” (2.4.54). Eventually a repentant Iachimo will explain how Imogen’s virtue left him “quenched / Of hope, not longing” (5.5.231–32). Shakespeare has given us access to the mind of the voyeur, for whom looking provides erotic pleasure; in this sense, Iachimo is not lying when he speaks of the delight he took in Imogen’s company.

Of course, as viewers in the theater we necessarily share Iachimo’s violation of Imogen’s privacy. By positioning Iachimo as an illicit viewer who enables our gaze, Shakespeare uses a technique associated with pornography. He sets the tone by specifying Imogen’s Ovidian reading material and adds to the effect by having Iachimo later describe the room’s titillating decorations (“Proud Cleopatra,” “Chaste Dian bathing,” “two winking Cupids” [2.4.87, 103, 112]). The bedroom scene functions as an erotic fantasy, to be both observed and experienced by theatergoers. Lest we miss the point that the episode is a symbolic rape of Imogen, Shakespeare in the following scene shows Cloten scheming to “penetrate her” (2.3.14).

Submission to a fantasy sequence can eclipse a sense of one’s own identity—as when Cloten channels his hatred and desire into identification with Posthumus.8 Cloten’s fantasy of raping Imogen while wearing her husband’s clothes indicates this pathological identification. Although often played as a buffoon, Cloten displays a frightening capacity for self-hatred: it seems that Cloten desires to be Posthumus as much as to have Imogen. Again, we are led to ponder the way in which theater, by offering fresh scripts for imaginative involvement, invites viewers to experience compelling fantasies.

To provoke heightened emotional effects, Shakespeare takes large risks in Cymbeline, using sensationalism and odd combinations of tone. The funeral obsequies in 4.2, for instance, create a moving impression of grief, with the tender lyric “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun” (331) offset by the realistic details of Guiderius’s inability to sing and his impatience with his brother’s poetic bent. Viewers will be aware that Imogen is not actually dead (and is not Fidele), and the stage dummy (or disguised actor) representing the headless Cloten is a reminder of an unmourned character. Still, it is a terrifying moment when Imogen wakes beside the corpse to find herself in a nightmare: “The dream’s here still. Even when I wake it is / Without me as within me, not imagined, felt” (4.2.379–80). The gothic horror of the mutilated corpse is compounded by Imogen’s mistaken identification of Cloten’s manly parts for those of Posthumus. Harley Granville-Barker long ago declared the scene a “fraud on Imogen.”9 As in the bedroom scene, the play here solicits our participation in a misogynistic structure, perhaps punishing Imogen for the violent fantasies she has provoked in the other characters, and at the very least creating a difficult challenge for the actress who must maintain intensity and focus while grieving for a beheaded would-be rapist—or the dummy representing him.

With her steadfast devotion, her quaint epithets, and her courageous adaptability, Imogen provides a moral center even as she provokes the play’s central fantasies. As such, she was a favorite of Shakespeareans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Swinburne gushed about her as “the immortal godhead of womanhood,” and Arthur Quiller-Couch labeled her “the be-all and end-all of the play.”10 More recent commentators have been less in tune with the virtues of this patient Griselda, whose personal energy is compromised by betrayal and looming threats of violence. The late solidification of patriarchal rule afforded by the return of Guiderius and Arviragus has been seen as a lamentable check on her strength. Nevertheless, Imogen exhibits considerable force, functioning as the central character in tying together the three plots: war with Rome, Posthumus’s wager, and the return of the lost princes. Her crucial decision “to begin a new life as Caius Lucius’s page” rather than surrendering herself to grief serves as “the turning-point of the whole play.”11

Notably, a reliable moral compass seems to guide certain characters through the play’s surprising plot twists: Belarius, falsely accused of treason, is vindicated for stealing Cymbeline’s sons, and Pisanio receives not nearly enough praise for disobeying Posthumus’s lethally misguided command to kill Imogen. Their examples contribute to the play’s recognition of the importance of individual choice and action. But in general Cymbeline emphasizes story more than character, fantasy more than self-knowledge. King Cymbeline retains power despite what appears to be a long history of lamentable rulership. The final settlement, in which “Pardon’s the word to all” (5.5.515), erases lines of political opposition. Structurally, Cymbeline seems to advocate retreat, such as Belarius’s escape to Wales. This escape is repeated within the play’s action by the removal of Imogen, and then of the other characters, from the supposedly corrupt British and Roman courts to the remote Welsh wilderness. In terms of the play’s genre, pastoral romance finally trumps tragedy or history, thus apparently endorsing passivity and patience. For despite Guiderius’s and Arviragus’s bluff ethical sensibility and the rehabilitation of Posthumus and Iachimo, ultimately Cymbeline does not depict a heroic world in which the characters discover the moral certainty to take up arms against a sea of troubles. To modern audiences living in a global civilization, the pattern of geographical escape presents an inadequate political solution. But pastoral drama has never been prized for its practical relevance; rather, the prospect of contemplation and perspective, heightened here by the fiction’s emotional intensity, offers rejuvenation. Cymbeline’s meditation on the collision of empires and its scrutiny of the mind-altering function of fantasy continue to hold poignant appeal because the sensational stories the play brings before us are so altogether absorbing.

  1. Harriet Walter, “Imogen in Cymbeline,” in Players of Shakespeare 3, ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 214.
  2. Frank Kermode, William Shakespeare, the Final Plays (London: Longmans, Green, 1963), p. 28.
  3. Barbara Mowat, The Dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s Romances (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 78.
  4. Patricia Parker, “Romance and Empire: Anachronistic Cymbeline,” in Unfolded Tales: Essays on Renaissance Romance, ed. George M. Logan and Gordon Tesky (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 189–206.
  5. See Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
  6. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 1 (1946; reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 510.
  7. See Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), and The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 1997).
  8. See Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Freudian Subject, trans. Catherine Porter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), p. 39.
  9. Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, p. 539.
  10. Quoted in Cymbeline, ed. J. M. Nosworthy, Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1969), pp. xlii, xliii.
  11. Roger Warren, Shakespeare in Performance: Cymbeline (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 56, 18.