Cymbeline by Shakespeare

COP170395030  01
Imogen From Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’. Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon. (1825-1876). Oil On Canvas, 1872.

If you follow the British show Pointless, where the point is to find the correct answer nobody else has guessed, you will realise that nobody ever knows about Cymbeline. While being quite popular in it’s time, it started getting quite critiqued from the 18th century, with George Bernard Shaw re-writing the ending (Cymbeline Refinished) and by many taken as a sign that William Shakespeare was getting bored. I liked the play immensely, though I recognise that the language isn’t as refined as other plays like Love’s Labour’s Lost. I can also understand that much of my love might have to do with how I read it. Plays are written to be performed and Shakespeare rarely wrote how lines should be read. This was most likely things that was decided by the director. If you read a line angrily or timidly changes the meaning and how you see the character proclaiming it. I will discuss what I mean later, but first…

What is Cymbeline about? Or more precisely what is it not about? I have read that Cymbeline is described as having all the plots. A funny notion, yet I don’t see that Cymbeline has more plot than other of Shakespeare’s plays.

The main plot is about Imogen, daughter of king Cymbeline, whom has just married

Posthumus and Imogen by John Faed

Posthumous, a poor, but worthy man of the kings court. This makes Cymbeline mad as he had planned for her to marry the son of his new wife. Posthumous is sent away and Imogen locks herself in her room. (So we have Romeo and Juliet mixed with King Lear). In Italy Posthumous bets another man, Iachimo, that Iachimo can’t woo Imogen. Iachimo can’t, though he tries, but decides to trick Imogen so he can get the “proof” he needs to win the bet. When Posthumous sees the “proof” he decides to order his servant to kill her. (So now we add Othello to the mix). Imogine runs away from the castle. After learning Posthumous has tried to have her killed she dresses up as a boy, (so we have the woman accused of adultery is thought dead from Much Ado About Nothing and dressing up

Slide 6a_1199555142
Imogen Discovered in the Cave of Belarius by George Dawe

as a boy to save her life reminiscent of As You Like It). She is saved by a group of men living in the wild and becomes the servant of a war-leader (similar to Twelfth Night). The confusion is resolved and they get together again (in ways that is reminiscent of All’s well that ends well).

Among the sub-plots is the new queens desire to learn medicine so she can kill the king and Imogine, (Think Lady Macbeth in Snow White and the seven dwarves). The queen’s son dressing up as Posthumous to find Imogen and force her to marry him. King Cymbeline who refuses to pay his due to the Roman empire (which reminded me a bit of the sub-plot about Fortinbras from Hamlet), two long lost children (similar to Comedy of Errors minus being twins) and last, but not least WAR (from… well… too many to count).

So okay, the play has all the plots.

It’s also all the plot that makes the play interesting. While even bad Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, the lines and soliloquises aren’t to the standard of Love’s Labour’s Lost or Hamlet. What makes the play interesting and readable is the plot. While it’s complex, the complexity shows the magnitude of what is happening. To explain what I mean I point to Kenenth Branagh and his version of Hamlet. The main thing that separates his Hamlet from other film adaptations is the unabridged text. Most films can’t have a six hours run time and therefore have to make cuts to the text. While that makes the play more palatable and simpler, you also lose a lot doing this. I have seen Hamlet the play been described as one emo guy who can’t make up his mind. If you also read the sub-plots and all the other things that happen you realise why he can’t make up his mind and what is actually at stake. Cymbeline is the same way. Why is it such a big deal that Imogine marries Posthumous behind her father’s back? It’s not just about a woman defying her father, but because her brother’s are gone she is the only heir to the thrown. Something pointed out by Cloten, the Queen’s son:

Cloten: And though it be allow’d in meaner parties–
Yet who than he more mean?–to knit their souls,
On whom there is no more dependency
But brats and beggary, in self-figured knot;
Yet you are curb’d from that enlargement by
The consequence o’ the crown, and must not soil
The precious note of it with a base slave. (Cymbeline Act II Scene III)

Here he is pointing out that though her marriage to Posthumous could have been accepted other places, as the future queen she also has other obligations. This is one of the reasons I really like Imogen. While she has been criticized for being to “perfect”, you are talking about someone so selfish that she just buggers off to be with a man despite having the responsibility that she has.

I fell in love with the character of Imogen in act III scene IV, when she has run away from 133aq4the castle and is told by Posthumous’s servant that Posthumous has ordered him to kill her. I read her as someone who has sacrificed everything, defied her father and left her home and friends, to follow her own way. I read it as someone who was angry because she has just lost everything and therefore has become suicidal. This reading was, too me, supported by the fact that when she has the option later to save someone, she chooses to do the selfish thing. But, I can see that if you don’t read the lines angry, but timid like most videos I have seen have interpreted it, she loses a lot of her character. This is what I meant with how tone can change things.

I also love how people react differently to her when she is a boy. It’s always bothered me when very feminine women disguises themselves as men and nobody question it. In this play they actually comment by saying, you boy look very much like a girl.

Guiderius: Were you a woman, youth,
I should woo hard but be your groom. In honesty,
I bid for you as I’d buy. (Cymbeline act III scene VI)

The ending is weak, unfortunately, a bit rushed to tie up all the plots. Cymbeline is one of the romantics plays. The romantics play was a term introduced by the critic Edward

By Henry Justice Ford – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Dowden. The term was meant to describe how the plays Shakespeare wrote later in life; The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles – Prince of Tyre and Cymbeline, differ from the Bard’s earlier comedies. The romantic are inspires by the trend of tragicomedy, mixing tropes from tragic and comedy. I have also heard them described as tragedies with happy endings. They very often mix genres, and in Cymbeline you find traces of both tragedy, comedy and pastoral. In Cymbeline you find themes of redemption, forgiveness and reunion, typical of his romantics. Another thing I noticed in the play with all the plots is how it gave a happy ending to so many of his tragedies. Plays like Othello, King Lear and Macbeth get a happy ending, even if it is a bit rushed and out of the blue. I don’t think Cymbeline can replace Othello and King Lear, nor that he tried to replace them, but it’s interesting to see that Shakespeare in his later plays focused on stories where the father is given room to redeem himself towards his daughter.

While the language might be simpler, the use of different styles and symbols make this a very interesting read.

If you have read or seen it, please let me know what you thought. If you agree or disagree.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: