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
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    General Introduction


    The play takes place in three different locations: Cymbeline's court is held in Roman Britain; the scenes of Posthumus' exile occur at Philario's house in Rome; and the scenes of Imogen's travels are from Wales, near Milford-Haven, where the battle scenes also happen. Traditionally, critics have also emphasized a temporal disjunction between Cymbeline's court, with its references to the Rome of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, and the Renaissance Italy of Philario and Iachimo. Certainly, Iachimo's character and his plot display more elements linked to early modern Italy than to ancient Rome. Iachimo's clever duplicity, the references to Roman courtesans, and the verbal associations with poisoning conform to xenophobic English stereotypes of their Italian contemporaries, while the emphasis on stoicism, nobility, military prowess, and references to great Roman philosophers and authors that one might find in other texts about ancient Rome are largely absent from the Italian wager plot.

    At the same time, aside from a few glancing references to ancient Britons such as Tenantius, the names of many of the British characters, which are taken from Holinshed, and the conflict with Emperor Augustus, nor does Cymbeline's court seem particularly ancient. Because the English court contains more references to ancient times than does the Roman setting, it may be perceived as relatively old, but the behavior of the English characters appears no more recognizably Augustan than that of the Italians. It is easy to imagine the actors representing both the English and the Italian characters wearing Jacobean costumes, as was customary, with little sense of discrepancy.

    The Welsh setting has no greater evidence to place it temporally. It differs from Cymbeline's court and from Rome by virtue of its rustic location and by Belarius' repudiation of the corruption of court, but it has more in common with the bucolic "green world" of As You Like It. Like the Forest of Arden, it is not without its dangers, but it can also provide a safe haven for the banished, and a position from which to critique the hypocrisy and lack of ethics at court.

    Sometimes, too, the settings reflect the magical properties of space in prose romances. Time and distance are elastic. Distances which should take days if not weeks to travel appear to be covered in hours. Imogen's expectations about her horseback voyage to Wales offer some insight into this inconsistent way of imagining distance:

    Oh, for a horse with wings! Hearst thou, Pisanio?
    He is at Milford Haven. Read, and tell me
    How far 'tis thither. If one of mean affairs
    May plod it in a week, why may not I
    Glide thither in a day? Then, true Pisanio,
    Who longst like me to see thy lord, who longst --
    Oh, let me bate -- but not like me; yet longst,
    But in a fainter kind. Oh, 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 blessed Milford. And by th' way
    Tell me how Wales was made so happy as
    T'inherit such a haven. But first of all,
    How we may steal from hence, and for the gap
    That we shall make in time from our hence-going
    And our return to excuse -- but first, how get hence.
    Why should excuse be born or ere begot?
    We'll talk of that hereafter. Prithee speak:
    How many score of miles may we well ride
    'Twixt hour and hour? (1516-36)

    80For Imogen, emotion translates fancifully into reality. In her eagerness to be reunited with Posthumus, time and space become as jumbled as her words, and the pragmatic questions of travel are subordinate to her desire, while the well-grounded Pisanio displays a firmer grasp on the realities of travel. Still, whether the world of the play agrees with Pisanio's rationality is another matter, as time and space are only two of the subjects which seem to support the marvelous over the probable. At the end of the play, for instance, the battle takes place near Milford-Haven in Wales, but Cymbeline suggests they march to Lud's-Town (London) for a feast—that is, a journey which would take considerably longer than an afternoon—an improbable feat without the flexible geography of the romance.

    The action through the first half of the play tends to reinforce the view of Britain as an isolated and unique location. Clotten asserts that "Britain's a world by itself" (1390-91), and the Queen develops that theme. Shakespeare is once again indebted to Holinshed for the substance of the Queen's declarations to Cymbeline (for Lucius' benefit) that

    The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
    As Neptune's park, ribbed and paled in
    With oaks unscalable and roaring waters,
    With sands that will not bear your enemies' boats
    But suck them up to th' top-mast (TLN 1397-1401)

    sets Britain apart. The Queen's isolationistic view of the realm portrays it as impenetrable, particularly to Roman attack. This view is notable for the historical half-truth it tells: Julius Caesar had been unsuccessful in his initial attempt at conquering the island due to such environmental factors, but if he had been unsuccessful the second time, Cymbeline would not have been under the obligation of paying tribute to Augustus to begin with. Imogen, on the other hand, recognizes that Britain is geographically discrete, but instead of emphasizing the military advantages of its natural fortifications in an attempt to exclude the world, she describes it as a locus of germination from which she might naturally travel, as a swan would: "I'th' world's volume / Our Britain seems as of it but not in't: / In a great pool, a swan's nest. Prithee think / There's livers out of Britain" (1824-27).

    The key to understanding Cymbeline's puzzling agreement to resume paying tribute to Rome even after defeating their army may lie in this distinction between the Queen's isolationism and Imogen's more outward-looking perspective. Considering the Elizabethan hostilities between England and Spain, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada off the Irish coast in 1588—an event with numerous parallels to Julius Caesar's unsuccessful first attempt at invasion—Shakespeare's audiences might have thought of Spain rather than Rome when hearing the Queen's nationalistic comments. However, under the Jacobean Peace established by James I, English sympathies may have been more divided on the subject of isolationism than previously. James had signed the Treaty of London (1604) with Spain, which ultimately allowed greater security for both nations' mercantile, maritime, and colonial interests, and a general return to "peace and prosperity." Even though some may have felt that James, like Cymbeline, was providing unnecessary concessions to a foreign power to whom they should owe nothing, on the whole, the resolution achieved its aims, and, by perhaps glancing at this debate, Cymbeline may serve as a mild bit of Jacobean propaganda as well.