Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Cymbeline: General Introduction
  • Author: Jennifer Forsyth
  • ISBN: 1-55058-300-X

    Copyright Jennifer Forsyth. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Jennifer Forsyth
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Cymbeline: General Introduction

    1In some regards, it is difficult to say what Cymbeline is "about." To some psychoanalytic critics, Cymbeline is part of a series of plays developing the concerns about reproduction, especially the fear of cuckoldry, with Cymbeline expressing a misogynistic desire for parthenogenesis. Some critics have been exploring the political ramifications of the tragicomic genre; some find in Cymbeline a story of Christian redemption; some have found a topical royalist play lauding James I, casting him as Cymbeline and emphasizing his desires for peace in Europe; and some examine Cymbeline for its place in the record of Britain's pre-colonial or postcolonial positioning. Some have extolled Imogen's warmth and humanity and virtue and strength compared to the men, reading Cymbeline as a feminist or proto-feminist document; others have seen, in Imogen's silencing in the final scene, in the explicitly violent and exploitative views directed at or expressed about her, and in her loss of the British throne, a story of female disempowerment. When faced with such diversity of interpretations, it is tempting to conclude that such ambiguity is not an accidental artifact but an intentional authorial objective.

    2This confusion over the interpretation of what is one of Shakespeare's longest and most ambitious undertakings is perhaps only fitting given that in some ways, Cymbeline is about the bafflement of expectations. The play purports to be about Cymbeline, the king of Britain, but the story clearly follows his daughter, Imogen; it begins in Roman Britain but soon travels to (apparently early modern) Rome and the mountains of Wales; every character seems to believe that she or he is the moral center of the play, though none, even Imogen, can live up to the idealized characterizations to which they aspire; deceit and betrayal and love intermingle; a servant is more faithful than a husband; a hero and a villain are almost indistinguishable; a poison is actually a beneficial potion; prophecies are misread by a professional soothsayer; and Jupiter descends ex machina but fixes nothing.

    3The thematic interests of the play also reinforce the pattern of ambiguity. The play's obsession with treason and disobedience recapitulates this indistinctness, as conflicting loyalties force not just some but almost all of the characters into committing treason. Cymbeline thinks that his daughter Imogen's marriage to the insufficiently highly-ranked Posthumus is essentially treasonous, saying "Thou'rt poison to my blood" (TLN 152), an opinion which Imogen later admits has some justice, agreeing that Posthumus "set up my disobedience 'gainst the King" (TLN 1762). In addition, the Queen is attempting to kill the King and Imogen, who is his heir; Posthumus attempts to have Imogen killed; Guiderius—the true heir—is accused of treason for killing Clotten, the Queen's son, who is himself committing treason in attempting to kill Guiderius; and of course Belarius' false conviction of treason occasions his truly treasonous action of kidnapping the princes. Civil disobedience, seen by absolutists as a kind of treason, also figures in the physician Cornelius' disobeying the Queen's orders to give her poison and in Pisanio's refusal to kill Imogen. In fact, Cymbeline's refusal (prompted by the Queen) to pay tribute to Rome and his decision to go to war against Rome can ultimately be construed as a dereliction of duty to those to whom he owes allegiance.

    4Cymbeline is also a play characterized by the strange silences that surround some of the most puzzling or controversial elements. Constance Jordan identifies Cymbeline's planned marriage of his daughter to his step-son as potential incest according to early modern principles (35); furthermore, Imogen never uses the obvious defense that she cannot marry Clotten because she is already married to Posthumus. No mention is made of Posthumus' discovery that he had actually won the wager with the dishonest Iachimo or whether Iachimo will have to pay the ten thousand ducats he wagered in addition to returning the ring and bracelet. Cymbeline declines to explain why he has elected to pay tribute to Rome even though Britain defeated them in battle. Neither does he object anew to Posthumus' marrying Imogen upon discovering that Posthumus had attempted to kill Imogen. Such loose ends produce interpretive challenges for the attentive reader.

    5If the reversals and silences of the play often nonplus the modern audience, the characters are equally susceptible to the confusion. Listing all of the erroneous and questionable judgments the characters make would require this introduction to be almost as long as the play itself, but a list of the most prominent would begin with the following: Posthumus believes Iachimo's imputations regarding Imogen without so much as considering asking her for an explanation. Cymbeline not only has full confidence in his Queen's love while she is actually plotting to kill him and to install her son on the throne but also extends his trust in her to her political and military judgment as well, for when he has defied the Romans and needs to prepare for war, he worries that his normal advisors are missing: "Now for the counsel of my son and Queen" (TLN 2768), he says, and has to be reassured by a lord that all is in fact ready for the Romans' attack. Cornelius has reason to suspect that the Queen is murderous but decides that substituting a sleeping potion for her poison will sufficiently address of the problem. Imogen resists errors several times, or at least corrects them quickly. She at first listens to Iachimo's lies about Posthumus' supposed infidelity but soon refuses to listen further; later, however, she errs by jumping to the same conclusion herself. She mistakes the despised Clotten's body for her beloved husband's, which is at least partly understandable taking into account their reported physical similarities (and is more understandable in performance if the part was doubled by the same actor), but she then first illogically assumes that Pisanio has been in collusion with Clotten and is responsible for Posthumus' death but later tells Lucius, in her fictional account of how her "master" died, that he "here by mountaineers lies slain." "Mountaineers" are, as Ronald J. Boling points out, the Welsh, whether or not they live in the actual mountains; as virtually the only people in Wales she has met are Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, who have been, as she knows, nothing but good to her, this false accusation is a silly and potentially dangerous mistake. Pisanio, in turn, who has been loyal to Imogen the entire time, preferring to undergo torture by Cymbeline (fortunately not carried out) rather than reveal her whereabouts, makes his own error in judgment in giving those same directions to Clotten, reckoning incorrectly that Imogen would be far enough away to be safe. This list is not intended to suggest that Cymbeline is particularly rife with error or inconsistency; rather, the subjects of error, knowledge, confusion, and deceit lie at the heart of the play, and are reflected in the inability to interpret the play unambiguously.