Cymbeline: Plot Summary
From Stories of Shakespeare's English History Plays by Helene Adeline Guerber. New York: Dodd, Mead and company.
Note that modern editors classify Cymbeline as a comedy and the editors of the First Folio (1623) classified the play as a tragedy.
The first act opens in the days of Caesar Augustus, in the royal garden in Britain, where two Romans are declaring their country is no longer in good order. Besides, trouble is brewing at court, for King Cymbeline's daughter has secretly married Posthumus, — a poor but worthy gentleman, — instead of Cloten, son of the Queen by a former marriage. But, although the royal couple are angry, the courtiers rejoice that Imogen has not selected the man they despise, for her brothers having been
stolen from the nursery twenty years before, she is now heir to the throne.
The arrival of the Queen, with her step-daughter and Posthumus, drives these men away. Then the Queen is overheard stating that although appointed jailor to Imogen, she will allow the couple a parting interview, and will strive to appease the King's wrath. While she strolls away, the young people exchange tender farewells, Posthumus promising to
remain true to his wife, whose letters he will eagerly await in Rome. Just then the Queen reappears,
urging the married lovers to part; but, although she pretends to favour them, she is secretly their foe, for she hurries off to decoy Cymbeline hither.
After receiving from his wife a diamond ring, and fastening on her arm a bracelet she is to wear constantly for his sake, Posthumus is about to leave, when Cymbeline arrives and expresses great indignation at finding the banished man with his wife. Although Posthumus submissively departs, Cymbeline hotly reproaches Imogen for marrying without
his consent, becoming angry when she declares she has picked out the best man and only wishes she were poor enough to be free to follow him. The Queen now returns, apparently surprised to find her husband, and meekly listens to his reproaches for not
mounting better guard, ere he departs. She and Imogen are about to withdraw too, when Posthumus's servant, Pisanio, comes to report that his master, on his way out of the palace, quarrelled with Cloten, who barely escaped from his rage. But,
although the Queen expresses keen anxiety for her son, Imogen wishes the duel had been fought to a
finish, ere she begs Pisanio to escort her husband to his ship.
We next behold Cloten on a public square boasting of his late encounter with Posthumus to two lords, one of whom lavishes fulsome praise upon him, while the other, in asides, stigmatises him as a coward. A moment later we find ourselves in
Imogen's room, where she is interviewing Pisanio, — who has watched her husband out of sight, — interrupting his account with loving exclamations and regretting that they had no time in their last interview to agree on stated hours wherein to commune
in spirit. When summoned to join the Queen, Imogen leaves the scene, bidding her servant carry out her orders.
The curtain next rises on a house in Rome, where Posthumus is sojourning, and where foreigners are
discussing his affairs. When he enters, introductions take place, and the conversation gradually
turns upon women, each traveller boasting those of his land are most beautiful and best. When Posthumus lovingly declares his wife surpasses all the rest, the Italian Iachimo insinuates that if admitted to Imogen's presence he would soon prove her husband over-confident! By sly arts he then eggs Posthumus on to grant him such an introduction after staking his diamond ring upon his wife's virtue. The counter wager settled, stakes are deposited with the host, and Posthumus and Iachimo go off to draw up a legal document in regard to the bet.
We now return to Cymbeline's palace, where the Queen bids her women gather flowers for her simples, ere she turns to her physician, who, after delivering a tiny box, earnestly inquires why she wants the deadly poison it contains. The Queen
carelessly replies she wishes to use it on noxious creatures, adding in an aside, as soon as Pisanio
appears, that this drug is to be tried upon him. Having surprised her baleful glance, the physician feels
glad he gave her only an innocent drug, which will leave the partaker none the worse after a period of deathlike sleep.
After dismissing her doctor, the Queen inquires how Imogen feels, promising Pisanio a rich reward provided he induce her to favour Cloten. Then she drops the box she holds, graciously offering it to Pisanio when he picks it up, and assuring him it
contains a cordial which five times saved Cymbeline's life. After a few more remarks, she declares in
an aside, that, knowing Pisanio is betraying her, she means to dispose of him before attempting Imogen's life. Her women now returning with the flowers, the Queen leaves the apartment with them, while Pisanio mutters he will die rather than cheat
Meantime, in another room of the palace, Imogen is mourning over her trying situation, guarded by a false step-mother, wooed by the latter's son, parted from her husband, and ignorant of her brothers' fate. Her soliloquy is Interrupted by Pisanio,
ushering in Iachimo, who brings a letter from Rome. As Posthumus's messenger, he is warmly welcomed, and while Imogen eagerly peruses the missive he hands her, he slyly notes her charms, muttering that if her mind corresponds to her appearance, his wager is lost. However, determined to make an attempt to win it fairly ere resorting to fraud, Iachimo, after
Imogen has read aloud part of the letter, moralises upon the folly of those who, possessing the best, run
after inferior things. His first insinuations being unheeded, he fancies he may prosper better if left
alone with Imogen, and therefore bids Pisanio look after his servant.
Entirely absorbed in thoughts of her husband, Imogen questions the traveller, only to learn Posthumus is [carousing], and indulges in such free talk about women that he evidently feels no respect for her sex. Such news seems so incredible, that when the
stranger pities her for being married to such a man, Imogen fails to understand him. When Iachimo next hints that she can take her revenge, she innocently inquires what revenge could exist for such an injury. Then Iachimo becomes too explicit to be misunderstood, and Imogen denounces him as a villain, vows he has slandered her husband, and calls for her servant to turn him out.
Seeing no prospect of attaining his vile ends, the subtle Iachimo now pretends to have been testing Imogen's virtue, and after apologising, depicts her husband as a most virtuous and happy man. Then he explains that having purchased treasures Posthumus intends to offer to the Emperor, he wishes she would take charge of them until his departure on
the morrow, a trust Imogen gladly accepts, promising to keep the chest in her own room and to have
a letter ready to forward with it to Rome.
The second act opens before the palace, where Cloten, complaining of ill-luck at cards, swallows the praise of one lord without heeding the sarcastic asides of the other. Cloten having left with his toady to gamble with Iachimo, the satirist expresses surprise that so clever a woman as the Queen should have so stupid a son, and pities divine
Imogen for being placed between a father, ruled by a base queen, and this clownish youth, whom they
are vainly trying to force her to love instead of her gallant husband.
The curtain next rises on Imogen's bed-chamber, which, besides its usual furniture, contains the huge
chest which Iachimo has sent here for safe-keeping. Lying in bed, Imogen inquires the hour, and learning that midnight has already struck, concludes to cease reading and try to sleep. She therefore bids her attendant retire, leaving the lamp lighted, and after a brief but touching prayer, drops asleep.
While she is lost in slumber, the trunk softly opens, and Iachimo, slipping out, surveys the apartment and its unconscious inmate. Although admiring the sleeping Imogen, he dares not touch her, for he knows his evil purpose could never be fulfilled
should she awaken. Taking out his note-book, he jots down in it data about all he sees, and drawing close to the bed, stealthily removes the bracelet from Imogen's wrist. A slight motion she makes, then enables him to catch a glimpse of a tiny mole on her fair breast; and, after gleefully noting it, Iachimo slips back into his chest, hoping morning will soon
appear so his servant can call for the trunk and set
The next scene is placed in the antechamber to this room, whither Cloten has come to serenade Imogen. After he has dismissed his musicians, the King and Queen enter, the former praising his stepson for trying to win the Princess's favour although
regretting her continued indifference. While they are talking, announcement is made that a Roman ambassador craves audience. As Cymbeline knows this emissary bears an irate message from Rome in regard to the tribute he has refused to pay, he begs
queen and step-son assist him in the coming interview.
The royal couple having left, Cloten knocks at Imogen's door, and receiving no answer at first, decides to insure prompter attention hereafter by tipping the first servant he sees. He is talking to one when Imogen comes in, and after gravely inorming him she has no heart to listen to his suit, reproaches him for decrying Posthumus. Cloten's taunts and strictures finally goad Imogen into stating the meanest garment her husband ever wore is dearer to her than her interlocutor's whole person, a contemptuous statement which enrages the Prince. Meantime, Imogen, paying no heed to him, summons Pisanio to search for her missing bracelet, which she remembers kissing last night. The servant having gone, Cloten reviles Imogen, who leaves
the room, vowing she will never speak to him again. Left alone on the stage, the Prince then swears to
be avenged, for the words she uttered rankle deep in his base heart.
We are again transferred to Rome, where Posthumus, conversing with his host, assures him he will win the wager; confessing he has proved a dull companion of late, merely because his thoughts are so constantly with his wife. Hoping to divert
him, his friend mentions the Roman ambassador must have claimed tribute, and that if Cymbeline again refuses it, war will ensue. Sure his King will fight rather than pay, Posthumus intimates that his countrymen being no longer the undisciplined barbarians Cassar conquered, the war may end differently from what Rome expects.
Just then Iachimo enters, having journeyed with such speed that Posthumus deems so prompt a return spells defeat. After assuring him Imogen is one of the most beautiful women he has even seen, Iachimo delivers her letter, and while Posthumus
reads it, tells his host the Roman ambassador was expected at court the day he left. When Posthumus
slyly remarks his diamond sparkles as brightly as ever, Iachimo fervently retorts no jewel in the world
would compensate the pleasure he enjoyed in Imogen's society in Britain! Then, seeing his words fail to shake Posthumus's faith, he minutely describes the princess's bed-chamber, information the husband thinks could easily be obtained from a
chamber-maid. After playing upon Posthumus's emotions long enough to awaken unreasoning jealousy, Iachimo suddenly produces the bracelet, saying Imogen gave it to him as a thing she once prized.
Still unable to credit evil, Posthumus asserts his wife sent it to him, but as this claim is not substantiated
by any mention of the bracelet In his letter, he feels compelled to surrender his ring. On perceiving the rage and jealousy the husband can no longer restrain, the host, suggesting that the bracelet may be stolen, demands some other proof of Iachimo's success. When the traitor thereupon describes the mole on Imogen's breast, — adding the false statement that
he kissed it, — the frantic Posthumus, unable to cherish further doubt of his wife's infidelity, rushes off the stage, while the host exclaims they must watch him lest he do himself harm!
Meantime, In another room, Posthumus despairingly comments upon the faithlessness of womenkind, for now that his wife has fallen from her exalted pedestal, he refuses to believe any member of her sex can be virtuous. He bitterly exclaims
that all women are deceivers, and that Imogen's modesty, which was one of her chief charms, was mere pretence, since she so readily accepted a stranger's advances. The curtain falls while he tragically avers all man's faults are due to women!
The third act opens in a hall in the palace, where all is ready for the ambassador's reception, and where Cymbeline enters with his train. When haughtily summoned to speak, the ambassador states that having conquered Britain, Caesar exacted
a tribute, which after being paid for some time, has now been refused. Before Cymbeline can answer,
the Queen exclaims the tribute will never again be paid, her son insolently adding that although granted to Caesar, it will be tendered to no one else. Then, encouraged by a further speech from his mother, depicting island Britain's inaccessibility,
Cloten blusters on, until the King seizes his chance to deliver his answer. Stating that previous to
Caesar's coming all Britons were free, Cymbeline firmly refuses all tribute, and although the ambassador declares war, shows no fear, for, having taken lessons in warfare from Caesar, he knows something about the art. Besides, he is encouraged by reports that other nations are rebelling, which will prevent Rome's forces being turned exclusively upon Britain; so after courteously inviting the ambassador to tarry as long as he likes, Cymbeline withdraws, while his noisy step-son boastfully challenges Rome.
The curtain next rises on a room in the palace, where Pisanio is perusing a letter just received from Posthumus, accusing his wife of yielding to Iachimo's suit, and charging his servant to punish this infidelity. Horrified by the contents of this letter, — for he does not believe the accusation it contains, — Pisanio is still poring over it when his mistress comes to
ask what he is doing. On discovering he has received recent tidings from her lord, Imogen begs for news, and gladly peruses the missive Pisanio hands her, wherein Posthumus bids her meet him at a neighbouring seaport, so they can flee together from Britain. So anxious is Imogen to join her husband, that she eagerly inquires how this port can be reached, vowing she can double the distance most people travel in a day, such is her impatience to join her beloved. Then, mistress and man discuss ways and means, and decide that Imogen, by pretending illness, keep her room, escaping thence
undetected to accompany Pisanio to the port.
We next behold a mountainous region of Wales, near the mouth of a cavern, from whence the outlaw Belarius emerges, and summons his two young companions to worship the sun as it rises over their desert world. Both handsome youths having paid
their devotions to the god of light, Belarius bids them hasten to the highlands to hunt, while he
ranges through the lowlands in quest of game. The youths, who eagerly drink in all he says, openly
wonder why he never sends them into the great
world from whence he came, one of them expressing regret they should grow up in ignorance of
it, while the other vows they will have nothing to talk about in old age if they do not seek adventures now. Thereupon Belarius exclaims they are fortunate in dwelling far away from mankind, as bitter experiences await one in the world. When
the lads inquire how he forfeited the King's love without doing wrong, Belarius relates that perjurers
swore he was a confederate of the Romans, and thus caused his banishment. The remembrance of this disgrace is still so bitter, that he refuses to say anything more, and merely repeats his orders for the hunt, promising the slayer of a deer shall be master of their feast.
The young huntsmen having left, Belarius murmurs they little suspect they are Cymbeline's sons, stolen from the nursery in revenge for royal injustice. He admits, however, that he has learned to
love both Princes as dearly as if they were really his own offspring. Every token they give of high descent and martial courage affords him keenest pleasure, and when he hears them in the distance raising
the game, he expresses remorse that he and their nurse deprived Cymbeline of such worthy lads.
We next behold the road to the harbour, whither Imogen is travelling with Pisanio to join her husband. After dismounting and walking a short distance in the direction where she expects to find Posthumus, Imogen starts at the tragic expression on
her servant's face. As he does not reply to her anxious inquiries, she concludes he has bad tidings to impart, whereupon he reluctantly exhibits his master's letter, bidding him kill his faithless wife! Having perused the fatal missive, Imogen sinks
down, stricken by the cruel words, while Pisanio exclaims no weapon will be needed to kill her, since such a slander is powerful enough to do so unaided.
When he finally succeeds in reviving his mistress, her first words reveal her horror at Posthumus's accusation, for she touchingly wonders whether it is faithless to think incessantly of one's husband and ardently desire his presence? She then calls Pisanio to witness that she has ever been true, and vows
Posthumus must have grown weary of her, since he resorts to so mean a subterfuge to get rid of her.
When the servant pities her, she avers many faithful wives have suffered in this way; but, having no desire to live without her husband's love, bids Pisanio execute his master's orders, offering to draw his sword from its scabbard so he can more easily plunge it into her empty heart!
Horrified at the thought of such a crime, Pisanio throws away his weapon, swearing he will never touch her; and Imogen bursts into tears, for although unable to take her own life, she longs to be relieved of existence. She therefore bares her breast
to receive Pisanio's blows and when he refuses to strike, reproaches him for bringing her away from home. When Pisanio confesses he did so for fear someone else would carry out Posthumus's cruel orders, she sorrowfully asks what she is to do.
Then he suggests that she let him send his master the bloody token he requires to prove she is dead, and disappear, adding that she will best escape Cloten's pursuit by donning the costume of a page and entering the service of the Roman ambassador. As inducement, Pisanio further suggests that his master will doubtless join the Roman host, and that hence
she will be near Posthumus when he lands. This prospect proves enticing enough to make Imogen accept the costume he has prepared, sadly promising to assume the saucy demeanour which will prove her best safeguard in the midst of the Roman army.
Then, afraid lest his absence be noted at court, Pisanio hastens away, leaving with Imogen the Queen's box, and telling her it contains a priceless cordial. The curtain falls upon the Princess, left alone in the wilderness to assume the garb of a page and the name of Fidele.
We are next transported to the palace, where Cymheline is dismissing the ambassador, and announcing his people have definitely shaken off the Roman yoke. After expressing regret at having no better report to carry home, the Roman departs with an escort detailed to see him safely across the Severn. The ambassador gone, the Queen and her son rejoice
over Cymbeline's decision, although he reminds them the British must prepare for war, as the Romans,
in anticipation of such a decision, have legions in Gaul ready to cross the Channel. Then he inquires
why Imogen has not appeared, and bids a servant summon her.
The Queen explains that since Posthumus's departure, the Princess has led a most retired life; and is just begging the King to be lenient, when the attendants return without the Princess. Cymbeline, amazed to learn no reply was received to their loud summons, hastens out to discover what this silence means, while the Queen and her son comment that
neither Pisanio nor Imogen have been visible for the past two days. While Cloten hurries off to seek the missing servant, his mother wonders whether her drug has already proved efficacious. But although she could thus account for Pisanio's absence, that of Imogen is unaccountable, although she suspects her of having committed suicide, or of having followed
her husband. However this may be, the Queen joyfully decides that the Princess out of the way, she
will easily be able to persuade the King to place her son on the throne.
Just then Cloten returns, announcing Imogen's flight, and the King's consequent anger. When the Queen has gone to soothe the royal wrath, Cloten swears to forget his former love for Imogen, and remember only his hatred. Seeing Pisanio enter at
that moment, he hotly questions him, but, getting no Information, threatens to kill him unless he speaks. Then only, Pisanio produces the letter to Imogen, which Cloten recognises as penned by Posthumus, and hence considers a sure clue to her present whereabouts. But, while he expresses a determination to pursue her, the servant softly rejoices that Imogen
is too far away to be overtaken, and adds that he must send Posthumus word his wife is dead.
Having devised a plan to efifect his revenge, Cloten summons Pisanio to serve him or forfeit his life. Under such circumstances the servant meekly obeys when told to fetch some of Posthumus's garments. During his absence, Cloten exclaims that after donning these clothes he will pursue the fugitives to the harbour, and that after slaying Posthumus, and defiling his wife, he will drive the disgraced Imogen home. As soon as the servant reappears with the suit, Cloten eagerly Inquires how long the Princess has been gone, and hastens off to dress, while Pisanio openly rejoices because he will
find neither of the victims he seeks.
The curtain next rises upon the cave of Belarius, whither Imogen wearily drags herself, exclaiming 'a man's life is a tedious one,' for she has wandered two days in the mountains, unable to find her way to the harbour, although Pisanio pointed it out from the top of the hill. In her grief at her husband's cruelty, Imogen begins to fear lest Pisanio, too, has played her false. So, trembling at every noise, she creeps to the opening of the cave where she hopes
to find food to sustain her, assuming a martial air her feelings belie, in hopes of intimidating its rustic
She has scarcely vanished in the cave, when the huntsmen return, Belarius praising one youth for having killed a deer, and stating he and the other lad will dress the meat as soon as possible. Still, feeling hungry now, he hastens to the cave to get some food already prepared. It is while stooping to enter, that he starts back affrighted, exclaiming
were not the creature within eating their victuals, he would deem it a fairy!
Peeping in curiously, both young men are charmed by the beauty and grace of Fidele, whom, judging from his size and apparel, they take for a lad somewhat younger than themselves. Creeping out, Fidele now piteously implores the three men to
spare him, vowing he intended to pay for the food eaten. Then, seeing the money he proffers rejected, he fancies his hosts angry, and tries to appease them by stating he would have died had he not eaten.
In answer to questions, he next explains he is on his way to the harbour, and when cordially invited
to remain and partake of the venison, seems strangely
moved by the kindness of the young men, toward whom he feels as toward the brothers lost in early youth. Seeing tears in the page's eyes, the generous woodsmen offer him a home, so Fidele decides to become their companion and leaves the stage with them to prepare dinner.
The next scene is on a Roman square, where senators and tribunes are discussing a call for volunteers to fight the Britons. As soon as it becomes known that the ambassador is in command, many express readiness to enlist, ere the curtain falls.
The fourth act opens near the cave of Belarius, whither Cloten has made his way in pursuit of Imogen, dressed in the garments of Posthumus, which he flatters himself he becomes. Expecting soon to come across the fugitive, he is gloating over his evil intentions, for he feels confident that however cruel he proves to Imogen, his mother will obtain pardon from the King. A moment after Cloten passes out of sight, Belarius appears, bidding Fidele remain in the cave, since he is not well
enough to accompany them. Although both youths express solicitude for the page's comfort, call him brother, and offer to stay with him, Fidele urges them to pursue their usual vocations. They therefore depart, wondering that they should feel more
devoted to a lad whom they have known so short a time, than to their father, — remarks which prove to
Belarius they are dimly conscious they are not related.
Just before they leave the scene, Fidele decides to try the effect of Pisanio's cordial, and immediately
after partaking of it creeps back into the cave. He has no sooner vanished than his companions comment upon his noble bearing, his angelic voice, his skill in cookery, and the patience he shows, although he is plainly labouring under some great grief. They are just about to leave, when Cloten reappears, looking for his victims and muttering something about runaways. Fancying he is being pursued, Belarius peers out between the bushes, and recognising Cloten, bids one of the youths help him head off this assailant's suite while the other
meets this foe. It is one of the lads, therefore,
whom Cloten taunts as an outlaw, and who leaves
the stage with him, fighting.
Having ascertained that no troops follow Cloten, Belarius and the other lad soon return, and are relieved to see their companion reappear with his opponent's head. While Belarius expresses dread lest harm may be brewing, the youth admits it is
likely, since Cloten was threatening to place their heads on the gates of London! The three outlaws now decide not to hunt, and while one youth goes off to cast his victim's head in the stream, the other talks to Belarius. After a time, however, he steals off to inquire how Fidele is feeling, while the old man exclaims his foster sons show their royal origin
by tenderness to the weak, and bravery toward the strong.
Having disposed of Cloten's head, the elder prince notices, on his return, sounds from an aeolian harp
which has been mute since the death of Belarius's wife. Before he can ascertain the meaning of this
miracle, his brother comes out of the cave, bearing the apparently lifeless body of Fidele, and mournfully crying, 'the bird is dead!' Both youths and their aged companion now bewail the early death of so rare a boy, the younger Prince describing how
he found the page lying on the ground, and how, deeming him asleep, he crept about noiselessly, only
to discover no sound would ever waken him again!
As Fidele is dead, the brothers decide to bury him in the forest, covering his corpse daily with fresh
flowers, and using the same funeral rites as for their foster-mother, although speaking instead of singing
the words, since their voices are no longer boyish enough to carry a tune. Sorrow over the dead page makes them forget the murder of Cloten, until Belarius reminds them another corpse must be buried,
thereupon they carelessly bid him bring it after
Both princes now transport Fidele to a lovely spot in the forest, where, after turning his head toward the east, they recite a funeral hymn. It is barely finished when Belarius deposits the headless body of Cloten near that of the page, and the lads
hasten off in quest of dainty flowers to strew over the corpse of the lovely boy they have learned to
love so dearly.
Shortly after they have gone, Imogen rouses from her trance, under an impression of intense fatigue.
Still half dazed by her drugged sleep, she gazes around her, and is startled to behold a headless trunk by her side. Imagining this a delusion, she closes her eyes, murmuring she thought she had been living in a cave with honest men, whom she
served. Then, reopening her eyes, and still confronted by the same corpse, she creeps toward it, only to discover it is wrapped in her husband's garments! She therefore despairingly concludes Posthumus has been slain by Pisanio, who also tried
to poison her, and falls over the headless trunk in a dead faint.
A few moments later, the Roman ambassador appears with his escort, talking over news just received,
and consulting a soothsayer, who has observed omens of good luck. The ambassador, stumbling over Cloten's corpse, discovers Fidele, who, on recovering his senses, brokenly relates his master was slain by outlaws, and that his like will never be seen again. Touched by his sorrow, the ambassador offers to befriend him, — a proposal Fidele gratefully accepts,
after obtaining permission to bury his master, — the Roman meantime doing his best to comfort him by
kindly assuring him 'some falls are means the happier to arise.'
The curtain next rises in the palace, where Cymbeline is inquiring for the Queen, whose serious illness he attributes solely to the disappearance of her son. After commenting upon the sorrows which have visited him of late, Cymbeline inquires whether
Pisanio has discovered any trace of Imogen, acquitting him of connivance in her escape only when creditably informed he was seen in the palace the day she disappeared. While one of the lords present reports they are searching for Cloten, another an
nounces the Roman legions have landed, and a battle is imminent. Deprived of the ever ready counsels of the Queen and her son, Cymbeline now begs the advice of his courtiers, who bid him move forward without delay, his troops being ready and eager to defeat the Romans.
All having left the scene, Pisanio marvels that no news has come from Posthumus, that Imogen has not notified him of her safety, and that Cloten should have disappeared. Still, he rejoices to think
the coming war may prove an occasion to serve his country, and philosophically concludes 'fortune
brings in some boats that are not steer'd.'
We now return to the space before the cave, where the princes exult at the noise of warfare in the neighbourhood and the prospect of taking an active part in the fray. As true-born Britons, they mean to join Cymbeline's forces, where, owing to his changed appearance, Belarius fancies he will not be recognised. He therefore approves of the youth's
noble ardour, exclaiming, as they pass off the scene, 'the time seems long; their blood thinks scorn, till
it fly out and show them princes born.'
The fifth act opens near the Roman camp in Britain, where Posthumus is brooding over a bloody token, and bitterly regretting Imogen's death. He murmurs that since she proved faithless, no woman can ever have been loyal, humbly confessing had his own shortcomings been treated with the severity he meted out, he would never have lived to perpetrate this crime. But, although he has returned to Britain with the Roman forces, he intends to fight only for his country, casting off his
Roman garb when the fray begins so as to join his countrymen as a nameless peasant.
Posthumus has barely left the scene, when the battle breaks out, and Romans rush madly to and fro across the stage. Finally Iachimo and Posthumus appear, fighting fiercely without recognising each other. Disarming this foe, after a brief encounter, Posthumus rushes off in quest of the death he is vainly seeking, while, left alone on the battlefield, Iachimo concludes a guilty conscience robs him of strength and courage, ere he limps off the scene.
The tide of battle now turns, for Cymbeline is seized by the Romans, who are leading him off in triumph, when checked by Belarius, the two princes and Posthumus, who bravely rescue their monarch. Not only do these four hold the whole Roman army
at bay, but capture the ambassador, who, seeing no hope of escape, bids his page flee lest he be slain in
Victory thus assured, Posthumus hastens away, only to meet a British nobleman, overcome with remorse at having fled. While relating Cymbeline's rescue, Posthumus speaks so bitterly, that his interlocutor pities him ere he departs. Left alone once
more, Posthumus decides since death shuns him in battle, to resume Roman apparel, and be slain as
prisoner of war. He has just redonned Roman attire, when the Britons rush in, elated with their
victory, and exclaiming that angels fought for their King! Their one regret is not to find any trace
of the British peasant who so valiantly assisted the two brave youths, the King having bidden them seek
him even among the dead. It is while doing so, that, by the King's command, they add Posthumus
to the prisoners to be sacrificed.
The rising curtain next reveals the British prison, into which Posthumus is thrust, after the jailors
have made sure he cannot escape. Solitude seems welcome, and Posthumus calls upon death soon to end his woes, for conscience leaves him no rest. Besides, he hopes by the sacrifice of his own life to atone for the murder of his wife. It is with Imogen's name upon his lips, therefore, that he falls asleep, only to be visited in slumber by a vision of the father, mother and brothers he never knew.
But, while all four approve of his services to his country, they bewail his trials, and passionately implore Jupiter's aid. In answer to this invocation, the Thunderer appears, and while the ghosts kneel before him, promises to protect Posthumus, on whose breast he bids them place a tablet whereon is inscribed an Olympian decree. Then, Jupiter having
again vanished heavenward, the ghosts obey ere they too disappear; and when Posthumus awakes, he
discovers with surprise an oracle on his bosom. Far too mysterious to be understood, he decides to keep it for sentiment's sake, and has barely secreted it when the jailors return to inquire whether he is ready to die. Then, seeing his indifference to his fate, they crack rough jokes with him, until a messenger summons all prisoners into the King's presence. While the rest depart, one jailor comments that never before did he see prisoner so indifferent
We now behold the royal tent, where, supported on either side by the youths who rescued him, Cymbeline expresses regret not to have found the brave peasant who seconded them so bravely. Then he promises rich rewards to the youths, whom he is
so glad to discover of gentle birth, that he immediately knights them. This ceremony concluded, the King questions the entering physician, who gravely announces the Queen is dead. He adds that before breathing her last, she confessed never to have loved her husband, and having planned to poison him and his daughter, so as to place her son upon
the throne. These terrible revelations, — confirmed by the Queen's women, — fill Cymbeline's heart with
tempestuous emotions, chief among which is anxiety for Imogen, concerning whom he has been so sorely
The entrance of the Roman prisoners, led by the ambassadors, now reminds Cymbeline this is no time for private griefs; so, after proudly announcing no further mention will be made of tribute, he decrees the Romans shall suffer the treatment which they would have awarded him had he been defeated. The ambassador, — a Roman of the old school, — stoically accepts this sentence, for 'a Roman with a Roman's heart can suffer,' but begs that his page, a Briton born, may be spared.
His intercession directs the King's glance to Fidele, in whose countenance he discovers somehing vaguely familiar, although he does not doubt he is a lad. Because of this resemblance, Cymbeline grants Fidele life and any boon he cares to ask, whereupon the Roman confidently expects his page to intercede in his behalf. Although evidently anxious to save him,
this youth hesitates to speak until the King draws him aside. While they converse, the ambassador grieves to be thus openly scorned by one whose love he thought he had won; the youths wonderingly comment on the page's likeness to the lad they loved
and buried; and Pisanio recognises the Princess, for whom he procured her present disguise.
The whispered conferences over, Cymheline calls Iachimo out of the ranks, and bids him confront Fidele, who wishes to make a request. To the amazement of all present, the page now demands an explanation of the manner in which Iachimo obtained his ring. After some demur, Iachimo remorsefully confesses that his ring was won by treachery from Posthumus; a statement which so whets Cymbeline's curiosity, that he cross-questions his prisoner, until he wrings from him the story of the
bet, a description of his journey, and an admission that the proofs he furnished of Imogen's infidelity were false. Unable to control himself any longer, Posthumus now hotly reviles Iachimo, and so despairingly accuses himself of having slain Imogen,
that Fidele springs forward to comfort him, only to be roughly flung back, for Posthumus fancies the
strange page is mocking his grief.
Seeing Fidele fall, Pisanio catches him, exclaiming indignantly that, Posthumus 'ne'er kill'd Imogen
till now!' a revelation of the page's identity which overcomes both Cymbeline and Posthumus, who
stand by dazed with joy, while Pisanio revives his mistress. On opening her eyes, Imogen denounces
Pisanio as a poisoner, an accusation he truthfully denies, pleading that the Queen gave him the cordial to which she refers. When Imogen declares it poisoned her, the physician testifies it was merely a sleeping potion, which, mistrusting the Queen's motives, he gave her instead of poison. This explanation also proves to the two lads that they really behold the page whom they deemed dead.
Meantime, Imogen, clasped to the heart of her overjoyed husband, leaves his arms only to kneel before Cymbeline, who, after welcoming her tenderly, sadly informs her the Queen is dead, and Cloten missing!
Belarius, who has heard all, exclaims that the love, binding together the three young people who dwelt in his cave, was natural, while Pisanio reveals how Cloten set out to seek revenge. He adds, however, that he does not know what has become of
the Prince, whereupon one of the youths confesses how he cut off Cloten's head, only to be instantly
condemned therefore to death.
At Pisanio's mention of her husband's clothes, Imogen understands her mistake, but before she can enlighten Cymbeline, Belarius forbids hands to be laid on his supposed son. Then, falling at Cymbeline's feet, he asks payment for the nursing and
education of his offspring, a demand which necessitates an explanation. Although overjoyed to recover his sons, Cymbeline refuses to accept them without proof of their identity, and when it is fully established, gravely pities Imogen for losing her realm. No such feeling, however, troubles the Princess, who gladly welcomes the brothers whom she has learned to love, and tells all present how kind they proved to a wandering page.
After pardoning and reinstating Belarius, freeing the ambassador, and thanking Posthumus — who confesses he was the British peasant, — Cymbeline is about to proceed to the punishment of Iachimo when Posthumus intercedes in his behalf. Next the tablet left on his breast in prison, is shown to a soothsayer, who interprets the oracle in a way that affords such general satisfaction, that Cymbeline volunteers to continue the tribute, saying he fully intended doing so until dissuaded by his wicked Queen. The British and Roman ensigns are therefore erected on the stage, side by side, amid general acclamations,
while all unite in giving thanks for the happy outcome of warfare and misunderstandings.
Shakespeare's Sources for Cymbeline
Famous Quotations from Cymbeline
Introduction to Imogen
Introduction to Guiderius and Arviragus
Introduction to Cloten
Introduction to Posthumus
Introduction to Cymbeline
Introduction to Iachimo
All About Shakespeare's First Folio