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Cymbeline /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Cymbeline

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not—and many now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Cymbeline, for example, one finds the words allayments (i.e., antidotes, modifying agents), liegers (i.e., ambassadors), and sluttery (i.e., sluttishness). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Cymbeline, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Cymbeline, for example, the word confounded is used where we would say “killed,” convince where we would say “vanquish,” and qualified where we would say “accomplished.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of Cymbeline, for example, Shakespeare quickly constructs a background history for Cymbeline’s royal family and for Posthumus Leonatus, Cymbeline’s new, and unwanted, son-in-law. Shakespeare creates Posthumus’s past through details about his father, Sicilius, who died before his son’s birth. Sicilius had served the ancient British kings Cassibelan and Tenantius against the Romans and had, through his bravery, gained the “sur-addition” of “Leonatus” (i.e., lion-born). Posthumus Leonatus was brought into the court by King Cymbeline himself, who made him “of his bedchamber”; there, Posthumus became “a sample to the youngest,” a “glass” that “feated” the “more mature.” The princess, Imogen, has chosen Posthumus as her husband, her “election” showing “what kind of man he is.” Significant details about Cymbeline’s own history focus, in the opening scene, on the remarkable story of the theft of his two sons, one still “i’ th’ swathing clothes,” “conveyed” from the court some twenty years before, with no “guess in knowledge” how they were taken or where they went. Such language quickly constructs the world inhabited by Cymbeline and his family, a world that mixes legendary British history with deliberately improbable romance; the words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence. (Cymbeline, like others of Shakespeare’s very late plays, is written in language that sometimes steadfastly resists being reduced to any clear meaning. In performance the actors will clarify as far as the words and sentence structure allow, and we as readers will try to do the same.)

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Cymbeline, when Imogen says “but most miserable / Is the desire that’s glorious” (1.6.6–7), she is using such a construction. So is the Second Lord when he says “That such a crafty devil as is his mother / Should yield the world this ass” (2.1.52–53). The “normal” order would be “the desire that’s glorious is most miserable” and “as his mother is.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before or between the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit” or “I him hit”). Posthumus provides an example of the first kind of inversion when he says to Iachimo “My ring I hold dear as my finger” (1.4.141) and an example of the second kind when he says to Imogen “I my poor self did exchange for you” (1.1.140). The “normal” order would be “I hold my ring” and “I did exchange my poor self.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, the First Gentleman’s

                                  For which their father,

Then old and fond of issue, took such sorrow

That he quit being; and his gentle lady,

Big of this gentleman our theme, deceased

As he was born.


Here the first subject (“father”) is separated from its verb (“took”) by the subject’s modifiers, as is the second subject (“lady”) from its verb (“deceased”). Each of the two interruptions draws our attention forcefully and concisely to the needed facts they provide. Or take Iachimo’s lines to Imogen:

                                  The cloyèd will,

That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub

Both filled and running, ravening first the lamb,

Longs after for the garbage.


Here the subject and verb (“The will . . . longs”) are separated by two appositive phrases (“that satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub both filled and running”) and then by the participial phrase “ravening first the lamb,” interruptions that emphasize the sordid greed of the “cloyèd will.” In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“father took sorrow,” “lady deceased,” “the cloyèd will longs for the garbage”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.

Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate basic sentence elements by lengthy delaying or expanding interruptions, a common feature of dialogue in Cymbeline. One prominent example is Imogen’s speech asking Pisanio to “say . . . how far it is to . . . Milford.” Here, Imogen’s excitement makes her interrupt herself so often and at such length that her request to Pisanio is almost unintelligible:

                                  Then, true Pisanio,

Who long’st like me to see thy lord, who long’st—

O, let me bate—but not like me, yet long’st

But in a fainter kind—O, not like me,

For mine’s beyond beyond—say, and speak thick—

Love’s counselor should fill the bores of hearing

To th’ smothering of the sense—how far it is

To this same blessèd Milford.


Often in Cymbeline, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of Imogen as she explains why she parted with Posthumus without a proper leave-taking:

                                  Ere I could tell him

How I would think on him at certain hours

Such thoughts and such; or I could make him swear

The shes of Italy should not betray

Mine interest and his honor; or have charged him

At the sixth hour of morn, at noon, at midnight

T’ encounter me with orisons, for then

I am in heaven for him; or ere I could

Give him that parting kiss which I had set

Betwixt two charming words, comes in my father,

And like the tyrannous breathing of the north

Shakes all our buds from growing.


The basic sentence elements (an inverted form of “my father comes in”) are here delayed while Imogen rehearses, in the form of a series of four adverbial clauses, the farewell lines that she had wanted to say to Posthumus. If one reverses the order, placing the basic sentence elements at the beginning of the sentence, the adverbial clauses lose interest and force, and one sees the power of Shakespeare’s delaying strategy.

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. Even among Shakespeare’s later plays, all of which frequently omit words, Cymbeline stands out for the compressed nature of its language. Ellipsis (omission of words) sometimes takes a familiar form—that is, words are simply left out. When, for example, Imogen begs Iachimo to “discover to me / What both you spur and stop” (1.6.117–18), her compressed language can be easily expanded by supplying the missing words: “both what you spur [on] and [what you then] stop [from being revealed].” In the same scene, when she says “Had I been thief-stol’n, / As my two brothers, happy” (5–6), she has, through simple ellipsis, condensed “As my two brothers [were,] [I would now be] happy”—though even this example becomes complicated when one notices that “As my two brothers, happy” might instead be expanded to read “As my two brothers [were,] [that would have been] happy (i.e., fortunate),” since the ellipsis is extensive and since “happy” has more than one meaning.

Complicated ellipsis and compression are characteristic of the language of Cymbeline. When Iachimo claims, at 1.6.135–37, “Not I, / Inclined to this intelligence, pronounce / The beggary of his change,” one cannot simply restore omitted words; rather, if one wishes to expand, one must rearrange and paraphrase—perhaps as “I am not inclined to report this information regarding the base nature of his change.” Again, when Imogen says, “If he should write / And I not have it, ’twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is” (1.3.2–4), the extreme compression of “ ’twere a paper lost as offered mercy is” forces a reader looking for a plausible expansion to paraphrase Imogen as perhaps saying “failure to receive a letter from Posthumus would be like failing to receive an offered divine or royal pardon.” And when she says, a few lines later, “I would have broke mine eyestrings, cracked them, but / To look upon him till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle” (22–25), the phrase “the diminution of space” can be expanded only through such a paraphrase as “the apparent reduction in size caused by increasing distance.” To take one final example: when Iachimo, slandering Posthumus, speaks of men who are blameworthy and Imogen responds, “Not he, I hope,” Iachimo answers her cryptically “Not he—but yet heaven’s bounty towards him might / Be used more thankfully. In himself ’tis much; / In you, which I account his, beyond all talents” (1.6.91–94). The phrase “In himself ’tis much” can be expanded to read “with regard to himself, heaven’s bounty has provided him many gifts,” and the phrase “In you . . . beyond all talents” can be paraphrased as “in giving him you, heaven’s bounty has given him something beyond all talents.” There are, of course, many other ways in which such compressed language can be expanded and paraphrased—though the variations seldom differ much in their larger sense. In the flow of theatrical performance, we as audience members catch the general meaning, and the emotion being conveyed pulls us into the illusion that we understand what is being said; as readers, however, trying to make sense of each speech, we must occasionally admit that some speeches in Cymbeline are written in a late-Shakespearean style that refuses to be fully paraphrased.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. Puns in Cymbeline usually play on the multiple meanings of a single word. When, for example, at 1.1.114–16, Posthumus says to Imogen, “thither write, my queen, / And with mine eyes I’ll drink the words you send, / Though ink be made of gall,” he puns on two meanings of the word gall (bile, an intensely bitter substance; and oak-galls, used in making ink). When, at 1.2.9, a man’s body is described, after a swordfight, as “a passable carcass,” the phrase plays on the word passable as meaning (1) fairly good, and (2) easily pierced by a rapier.

Sometimes in Cymbeline puns are used more complexly, with a word introduced by one character answered by another character using the word in a different sense. When, for example, Cymbeline accuses Imogen of being “Past grace” and Imogen responds with “Past hope and in despair; that way past grace” (1.1.164–65), Cymbeline uses the word “grace” to mean “sense of duty or propriety,” while Imogen’s response shifts the meaning to “mercy” or “forgiveness,” from which persistence in the sin of despair would bar her. And in the following exchange between Iachimo and Posthumus, the word “attempt” becomes the focus of the confrontation:

IACHIMO  . . . I durst attempt it against any lady in the world.

POSTHUMUS  You are a great deal abused in too bold a persuasion, and I doubt not you sustain what you’re worthy of by your attempt.

IACHIMO  What’s that?

POSTHUMUS  A repulse—though your attempt, as you call it, deserve more: a punishment, too.


Here, the word “attempt” is introduced by Iachimo as a verb whose primary meaning is “venture,” though he probably hints at its secondary meaning of “try to ravish or seduce.” It is that second meaning that Posthumus focuses on when he twice reiterates the word “attempt,” using it as a noun that means “a personal assault on a woman’s honor.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, when the First Gentleman says that young Posthumus “in ’s spring became a harvest” (1.1.52), he is using metaphorical language to describe Posthumus as being simultaneously two seasons of the year—a springtime that yet yields the rich harvest of autumn. Posthumus, too, uses metaphor when, in declaring to Imogen that he will never seek a second wife, he exclaims: “cere up my embracements from a next [wife] / With bonds of death” (1.1.136–37). Since “cere up” means, literally, to wrap in a cerecloth, a waxed winding sheet for a corpse, his language transforms his future embraces into a body dead to anyone except his wife. When Imogen responds to her father’s anguished “That mightst have had the sole son of my queen!” with “O blessèd that I might not! I chose an eagle / And did avoid a puttock” (1.1.166–68), she metaphorically contrasts Posthumus the eagle with Cloten the bird of prey (a kite, for instance, or a buzzard). Iachimo uses metaphor in a comparable way when he represents Posthumus choosing a prostitute instead of Imogen by saying: “What, / To hide me from the radiant sun and solace / I’ th’ dungeon by a snuff?” (1.6.102–4); here, Imogen is the sun and the prostitute the burned-out end of a candle.

Metaphor can, of course, be used more complexly, as it is when the Queen, trying to persuade Pisanio to desert Posthumus, says to him:

                  What shalt thou expect,

To be depender on a thing that leans,

Who cannot be new built, nor has no friends

So much as but to prop him?


In this extended metaphor, Posthumus becomes a building or a wall that is falling down, that cannot be repaired, and that has nothing to prop it up.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. When Imogen says to Posthumus “Look here, love: / This diamond was my mother’s. Take it, heart” (1.1.129–31) and Posthumus then addresses the diamond with “Remain, remain thou here, / While sense can keep it on” (138–39), it is reasonably clear that Imogen hands him a diamond ring that he places on his finger. A few lines later, when Posthumus says “For my sake, wear this. / It is a manacle of love. I’ll place it / Upon this fairest prisoner” (142–44), it is again clear that he places on Imogen some object—presumably a bracelet, since he compares it to a manacle; later in the play we are told explicitly that his gift to her was indeed a bracelet. We can be fairly certain, then, that the stage gesture at 1.1.144 is his placing a bracelet on Imogen’s wrist.

Occasionally in Cymbeline, signals to the reader are not so clear. In 1.5, for example, it is not possible to trace precisely the path of a box of drugs as it moves from the doctor Cornelius to the Queen and thence to Pisanio. Early in the scene, the Queen asks Cornelius, “Now, Master Doctor, have you brought those drugs?” He replies: “Pleaseth your Highness, ay. Here they are, madam” (1.5.5–6). We can assume he hands them to her at that point. Later in the scene, however, after Cornelius has exited, the Queen, speaking to Pisanio, interrupts herself in mid-speech to say,

                                                Thou tak’st up

Thou know’st not what. But take it for thy labor.

It is a thing I made which hath the King

Five times redeemed from death. I do not know

What is more cordial.


The dialogue and action that follow leave no doubt that what Pisanio “takes up” is the same box that Cornelius earlier handed to the Queen. But why, and from where, does he take it up? It may be possible to stage this business in any number of ways, both onstage and in one’s imagination. We as editors have inserted a (bracketed) stage direction that reads “She drops the box and Pisanio picks it up,” but this is merely our best guess. Directors and actors—and readers in their imaginations—may find much better ways to stage the scene.

Learning to read the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business, such as scene 2.2, in which Iachimo suddenly emerges from a trunk in the bedroom of the sleeping Imogen; or scene 5.4, in which the ghosts of Posthumus’s family appear and in which the god Jupiter descends seated on an eagle; or, perhaps most crucially, scene 5.5, the play’s crowded final scene, in which the audience, sitting in a position of godlike knowledge, watches while multiple layers of misunderstanding are peeled away, the supposed dead return to life, betrayers confess and are forgiven, and numerous disguises are penetrated, abandoned, or removed.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.