In Act One, British king Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen has enraged her father by marrying Posthumus; instead, the king wanted her to marry the son of his new wife. The king has imprisoned bride and banished the groom. We learn that Imogen has two older brothers both kidnapped as toddlers, whereabouts unknown. In Rome, Posthumus speaks lovingly of Imogen’s beauty and virtue. A local, Iachimo challenges Posthumus: Iachimo will travel to Britain and will attempt to sleep with Imogen. If he succeeds, Posthumus will give up his ring (one given to him by Imogen); if Iachimo fails, then he must pay Posthumus ten thousand ducats, plus agree to a duel that Posthumus demands. Back in Britain, the Queen attempts to hire Pisanio away from Posthumus, even offering what she says a curative potion, only she thinks it’s a poison, but it’s actually one that will resemble death. As Imogen bemoans her state, Iachimo arrives, intimating Posthumus as been less than faithful in Rome, and suggests that she sexually revenge herself on Posthumus. She immediately calls Iachimo out on his deceit; he apologizes, and she agrees to storing Iachimo’s trunk in her room overnight.
In Act Two, when Imogen goes to bed, that chest opens and he emerges. He creeps about her room, talking of touching her, kissing her, writing down everything he sees, in hopes of using these details to win his bet. He takes the bracelet Posthumus gave Imogen, and takes note of a mole on her left breast. He then pops back into the trunk as daylight comes. Cloten and his lords arrive beneath Imogen’s window for a serenade. It really doesn’t work, and she tells him that she cares for Posthumus’ worst suit more than for Cloten. In Rome, Iachimo convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s infidelity.
Act Three begins with the Britons’ refusal of Rome’s demand of tribute, presaging war. Pisanio receives a letter from Posthumus demanding that the servant murder Imogen for her infidelity; he also sent one to Imogen, directing her to Wales, where he claims to have sneaked back into the country (and where Pisanio can kill her). In the woods of Wales, the king’s kidnapped two sons and their kidnapper are living as a family. Imogen and Pisanio arrive in the woods, where Imogen asks repeatedly for Posthumus, and a tormented Pisanio gives her his letter from Posthumus. She is incredulous, turning from shock to anger. Pisanio suggests that she dress as a man and stay in the woods, and present herself to Lucius (whose Roman army is heading to Wales), join his service, and thus gain access to transportation away. In case she gets injured, Pisanio gives her the drug the queen gave him. Pisanio returns to the castle and is questioned by the Queen’s son. Cloten reads Imogen’s letter from Posthumus, then orders Pisanio to bring Posthumus’ clothes: he’s going to go to Milford Haven, dressed as Posthumus, rape Imogen, then kill Posthumus in her presence, then drag her back to the castle. Back in the woods of Wales, Imogen and the three woodsmen meet. They ask her to join them, treating her like a brother.
Act Four of Cymbeline opens with Cloten arriving in the Welsh woods, wearing Posthumus’ clothes, and noting in soliloquy how well they fit him. Then he reiterates his plan to kill Posthumus and rape Imogen. The second scene opens with the unknowingly reunited “brothers” of the king (Imogen is pretending to be a boy, Fidele). Imogen is not feeling well, so the brothers tell her to stay in the cave. She takes some of “the potion” and enters the cave, while the three remaining men continue praising the youth in her/his absence. Into this scene enters Cloten. Belarius (faux father) recognizes him, and instantly worries that Cloten’s brought others; he and the younger brother Arviragus go looking, while Cloten tries to intimidate the other brother, Guiderius. Cloten insults the heir, the heir doesn’t take it kindly, and the two exit the stage fighting. Meanwhile, “father” and brother return from finding no one, to find their place abandoned, too. And Guiderius returns with Cloten’s head. Belarius freaks out. Guiderius leaves to dispose of the head by throwing in the creek. The little brother goes to wake Fidele/Imogen for dinner, only to return with “dead Fidele” in his arms. They decide to bury Fidele and Cloten; Belarius retrieves Cloten’s body and lays it next to Imogen, and the three of them leave to dig the graves. Imogen wakes up, a little disoriented. She finds the dead headless body next to her, and recognizes the clothes. When she ponders what has happened, she jumps to the conclusion that Pisanio and Cloten joined forces, Pisanio using the knock-out drug on Imogen, while Cloten found, killed, and decapitated Posthumus. Enter Lucius and his Roman army and they find Imogen over the body of Cloten. “Fidele” says that this body is “his” master’s; Lucius, impressed by the boy’s loyalty, takes the boy into their fold for protection, and orders his soldiers to bury the body. The third scene of the act has Cymbeline musing on the Queen suffering an illness over the disappearance of her son. The fourth and final scene of the fourth act takes us back to Wales, where war is approaching. The two younger men convince Belarius to join with the Britons and fight for their nation.
The final act of Cymbeline begins with a soliloquy by Posthumus in Wales. Holding the bloody handkerchief (Pisanio’s proof of killing Imogen), Posthumus laments the order and the death. He kinda throws Pisanio under the bus, saying some orders should be refused, and then announces he’s deserting his Italian clothes and army, vowing to take on the garb of a British peasant and fight against the Romans.
Scene Two (and its many stage directions) takes us onto the battlefield, today’s war already in progress. The armies meet, with Lucius and Iachimo on the Roman side, and Posthumus in his peasant’s clothes on the British. In the battle Posthumus defeats, disarms, and leaves Iachimo behind. Iachimo in soliloquy bemoans the “heaviness and guilt” (V.ii.1) he feels over lying about Imogen, then he leaves the field. The battle continues. Cymbeline is captured, but Belarius and his (note the purposefully ambiguous antecedent there) two sons come in and rescue to the king. Posthumus assists in the rescue and they all leave. Lucius, Iachimo, and the disguised Imogen enter. Lucius tells “Fidele” to flee the army for his own safety.
In the third scene, Posthumus explains to a British lord the rescue of Cymbeline by Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius. The rescue and their subsequent heroics on the battlefield make for a great speech (right up there with the bloody soldier’s near the beginning of Macbeth). When the lord voices a little skepticism, Posthumus explodes and chases him off. He decides, “Fight I will no more… But end my life by some means for Imogen” (V.iii.76, 83). When two British captains arrive celebrating the capture of Lucius, Posthumus turns himself in as a Roman soldier. Cymbeline, Belarius and the two sons come in, Pisanio and the Roman captive enter. The captains present Posthumus to Cymbeline as a prisoner and all exit.s
Act Five, Scene Four begins with jailers bringing in a chained Posthumus, then leave him for a soliloquy in which he prays for his own death, so that he can join Imogen “in silence” (V.iv.29).
And here’s where it gets weird. He lies down and sleeps. He is visited by the ghost of his father, who is then joined by that of his mother, and his two brothers. The ghosts pray to Jupiter to show Posthumus mercy; think of the exact opposite as the pre-battle dream of Richard III. And Jupiter descends (think here Diana in Pericles). Jupiter promises mercy, but not because of their prayers, but because Jupiter’s cool like that: “Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift, / The more delayed, delighted” (V.iv.100-1). He then gives the ghost father a tablet to place on Posthumus. Jupiter leaves, and the ghosts then share one of my favorite lines from this play: “Thanks, Jupiter” (V.iv.119). The ghosts vanish; Posthumus wakes, wonders at this dream, finds the tablet, and reads it:
It’s a real WTF moment for Posthumus.
The jailers return, asking him if he’s ready for death, to which he responds with a Shakespearean version of ‘born ready’: “Over-roasted rather; ready long ago” (V.iv.151). The jailers then tell him this is good, over and over and over again (think Fluellen in Henry V). It’s comic, or at least supposed to be, I think. And then a messenger comes in with orders to remove the chains and bring him to the king.
And then we have the finale, the super long (and longest in the play) Act Five, Scene Five. Cymbeline, Belarius and the sons, Pisanio, and attendants enter. Cymbeline tells Belarius and the “sons” to stay at his side as “preservers of [his] throne” (V.v.2). Oh, he has no idea. He is disappointed, however, by the absence of the “poor soldier that so richly fought” (V.v.3), a.k.a. Posthumus. Belarius remarks that he’d never seen “such precious deeds” (V.v.9) before, echoing what that poor man said about Belarius and the boys two scenes earlier. Only no one knows where this poor man is. Regardless, Cymbeline knights the three rescuers. Cornelius the doctor enters with news that the Queen is dead, dying of despair, but only after she confessed to:
- Never loving Cymbeline, marrying only his “royalty” (V.v.40)
- Planning to kill Imogen with poison if the princess hadn’t fled the castle
- Using a mineral which “should by the minute feed on light, and ling’ring, / By inches waste [the king]” (V.v.52-3), and thus, take the throne
But with her son’s disappearance, she repented and died.
The Roman prisoners are brought in, with Lucius and Iachimo among them, and Posthumus and the still disguised Imogen trailing behind. Cymbeline tells Lucius to give him a reason NOT to execute them all. Lucius responds that this is the way war goes, but please spare the page Fidele, who did “no Briton harm” (V.v.91). Cymbeline grants this request, saying “His favor is familiar to me” (V.v.94). No kidding. He also offers to spare any prisoner of Fidele’s choosing. Despite Lucius’ pleas, she tells the king that she chooses Iachimo. Cymbeline asks why, but Fidele says he will only tell him in private. As they go aside to talk, Belarius notes to the sons that the boy looks exactly like their dead friend, Fidele; and Pisanio recognizes Imogen/Fidele.
Cymbeline and Imogen return, and if you think she revealed her identity to him, you’d be wrong (she pulls a Rosalind from As You Like It). Cymbeline calls Iachimo forward and asks him how he got the diamond ring he’s wearing. Iachimo begins to confess, faints half-way through, then revives, and then tells all of it–and not in a Reader’s Digest overview, either. It gets to the point where Cymbeline actually has to prompt Iachimo to finish already. Multiple times.
As Iachimo does finish, Posthumus comes forward and reveals himself.
As Posthumus finishes, Imogen comes forward and hugs Posthumus, who–thinking it’s just some page-boy–pushes her away.
As Imogen faints, Pisanio comes forward to announce this girl’s identity. She wakes, recognizes Pisanio and begins to verbally assault him for poisoning her. Pisanio says that he thought is a good potion, that he “had it from the queen” (V.v.245). Cornelius comes forward to say–and I kid you not–”O gods! / I left out one thing…” (V.v.246-7), and he goes on to explain about the drug. Imogen says that she took it and “was dead” (V.v.262). Belarius tells the sons, “My boys, / There was our error” (V.v.262-3). Imogen hugs her husband again, and he gladly returns the embrace.
Pisanio says how Cloten had entered the woods as well, dressed in Posthumus’ garments, but Pisanio doesn’t know what happened to him. Guiderius responds, “Let me end the story: / I slew him there” (V.v.289-90). Even with Guiderius’ justifications, Cymbeline sentences the young man to death, Imogen realizes the headless body that she thought was Posthumus was actually Cloten, and Belarius tells Cymbeline not to execute Guiderius. Belarius reveals himself and the true identities of the two boys he’s been calling his sons.
Cymbeline accepts the boys, telling Imogen that she has “lost by this a kingdom” (V.v.376), but she’s happy as she’s now “got two worlds by’t” (V.v.377). Imogen is reconciled with her father, Posthumus reveals himself as the “forlorn soldier” (V.v.408) that helped to save Cymbeline’s life. And when Posthumus forgives Iachimo, this compels Cymbeline to pardon all the Roman soldiers.
But Posthumus has a question: what did that tablet that he found after his dream of Jupiter mean? Lucius calls forth the Soothsayer who read it, and he explains it all.
Cymbeline tells Lucius that even though Britain defeated Rome here, they “submit to Caesar…promising / To pay our wonted tribute” (V.v.262, 263-4).
And thus, the play Cymbeline ends with reunion, forgiveness, and peace. And enough plot resolution to make your head spin…