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Shakespeare's Characters: Posthumus (Cymbeline)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 18. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

The design of the play evidently required that Posthumus should be kept in the background. For he could not be in the foreground without staying beside Imogen; staying there, he could not be cheated out of his faith in her; in which case there would be no chance for the trial and proof of her constancy. Hence the necessity of putting so much respecting him into the mouths of the other persons; and certainly their tongues are rich enough in praise of him. It was no easy thing to carry him through the part assigned him in the play, without disqualifying overmuch the lady's judgement in choosing him; and the Poet manifestly labours somewhat to plant such second-hand impressions of him as may secure the vindication of her choice in our thoughts. For he clearly meant that her wisdom and insight, as approved in other things, should serve to us as a pledge and guaranty of his worth; that "by her election should be truly read what kind of man he is." And not the least of his merits as an artist is the skill he has in making his characters so utter themselves as at the same time to mirror one another. And so here, being forced either to withdraw Posthumus from our immediate view, or else to set him before us in a somewhat unfavourable light, the best thing he could do, was to give us a reflection of him from Imogen; and if that reflection, confirmed as it is by others, be not enough, there was no help for it; it was the best that the nature of the case admitted of. And surely it were something bold in any man to wage his own judgement in a matter of this kind against such a woman's as Imogen; for, as Campbell says, "she hallows to the imagination every thing that loves her, and that she loves in return."

Still we can hardly keep quit of the suspicion, that his high credit with her and others is partly owing to the presence of such a foil as Cloten, in comparison with whom he is an angel of a man indeed. And at all events one cannot choose but wish that the Poet had made him hold out a little more firmly against the forged or stolen evidences of his wife's infidelity, and keep his faith at least till the last and strongest item was produced. It is observable, that the Poet represents his very fullness of confidence at first as rendering him all the more liable to the reverse in the contingency that is to arrive: because he is perfectly sure that no proofs of success can be shown by Iachimo, therefore, when some such proofs are shown, he falls the more readily into the opposite state. And this, undoubtedly, is in the right line of nature. For to shake the confidence of such a man in such a case is to invert it all into distrust at once. The character of Posthumus is crowned with a liberal measure of redemption in the latter part of the play. After his revenge, as he believes, has been taken, his exceeding bitterness of remorse and penitence turn our revenge into pity; for his experience presses home to our hearts as well as his own, that, "though those who are betray'd do feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe"; and his persevering quest of death finally repeals the feeling which we should otherwise be apt to have, that death were none too bad for him.
Hudson: The Works of Shakespeare.


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 Introduction to Guiderius and Arviragus
 Introduction to Cloten