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 the absent Posthumus, even offering what she says is 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 Iachimo emerges. He creeps about her room, talking of touching her, kissing her, writing down everything he sees, 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 Cloten. In Rome, Iachimo convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s infidelity.
Act Three begins with a state meeting between Cymbeline and his court and the representatives of the Roman emperor Augustus. When the Britons refuse Rome’s demand of tribute, their leader Lucius proclaims then that Augustus in now Britain’s enemy. Pisanio receives a letter from Posthumus outlining Imogen’s betrayal, and demanding that the servant murder her; he sent a second letter to Imogen directing her to meet him Milford Haven in Wales, where he claims to have sneaked back into the country (and where Pisanio can kill her). Happy, she hatches a plan for her and Pisanio to escape to Wales. In the woods of Wales, three men live as father and sons. Only it turns out this is the king’s man and the king’s two sons. Imogen and Pisanio arrive in the woods outside Milford Haven. Imogen asks repeatedly for Posthumus, and a tormented Pisanio gives her his letter from Posthumus. She is incredulous, turning from shock to anger. Pisanio says that bringing her to the woods was a delaying tactic so that he could come up with a plan, which is for her to dress as a man and stay in the woods, then he can return to announce her death. He thinks she can present herself to Lucius (whose army is heading to Wales), join his service, and thus gain access to transportation away. In case she gets injured, Pisanio give her the drug the queen gave her. Pisanio returns to the castle and is questioned by the Queen’s son. Pisanio presents to Cloten the letter from Posthumus to Imogen, commanding her to go to Milford Haven. Cloten “convinces” Pisanio to work for him (Pisanio accepts to keep an eye on Cloten), and orders his new man 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 (oh, irony). And with that, and the Romans about to invade Wales, Act Three ends.
Act Four of Cymbeline opens Cloten arriving in the Welsh woods, wearing Posthumus’ clothes, and noting in soliloquy how well they fit him. Then he reiterates his plan:
The incredibly, ridiculously long second scene (how long is it? Over 400 lines. Is it the longest in the play? Alas, no…that’s still to come) opens with the unknowingly reunited “brothers” of the king (remember, Imogen is pretending to be a boy, Fidele), about to leave for their hunt. Imogen is not feeling well, so the brothers tell her to stay in the cave; the two brothers proclaim their love for their “brother.” She takes some of “the potion” in hopes that it will cure her “heartsick[ness]” (IV.ii.37). She enters the cave, and the three remaining men continue praising the youth in her/his absence. Into this scene enters Cloten. Belarius (the kidnapper and faux father) recognizes him, and instantly worries that there are more of the royal house in the woods searching for them; He and the younger brother Arviragus go looking, while Cloten tries to intimidate the true heir to the throne of Britain, Guiderius. Cloten insults the heir, the heir doesn’t take it kindly, and the two exit the stage fighting. Meanwhile, “father” and brother return to find the place abandoned; we learn there’s “no company” (IV.ii.101) around, and Belarius tells the younger brother that he’s pretty sure that was the Queen’s son. And Guiderius returns.
With Cloten’s head! (dum Dum DUMMMMMMM)
Belarius freaks out. Guiderius, while admitting that the fight was self-defense, is smart enough to know that “the law / Protects not [them]” (IV.ii.125-6). He leaves to dispose of the head by throwing in the creek. The two decide that there’s no use hunting today, and little brother goes to wake Fidele/Imogen for dinner. Guiderius returns to join Belarius, and they both hear music; they recognize it as solemn funeral music, and Arviragus playing (singing?) it. Then enter little brother with “dead Fidele” in his arms. They decide to bury Fidele next to their foster mother, Euriphile; Belarius convinces them to “bury [Cloten] like a prince” (IV.ii.251), and exits to retrieve Cloten’s body, while the boys sing their funereal song. Belarius returns with the body and lays it next to Imogen, and the three of them leave to dig the graves.
Can you guess what happens next?
Imogen wakes up, a little disoriented (think Juliet in the tomb). She finds the dead headless body next to her. She recognizes “the garments of Posthumus” (IV.ii.309). She also thinks she recognizes his hand and leg (though we know that’s impossible). 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. She hugs what she thinks is her husband’s dead body, already thinking ahead, “Give color to my pale cheek with thy blood, / That we the horrider may seem to those / Which chance to find us” (IV.ii.330-2).
Enter Lucius and his Roman army. Before they notice Imogen, Lucius listens to the ravings of a soothsayer:
I fast and prayed for their intelligence—thus:
I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged
From the spongy south to this part of the west,
There vanished in the sunbeams, which portends—
Unless my sins abuse my divination—
Success to th’ Roman host.
Anyway, they find Imogen over the body of Cloten. And upon examination, she says that this body is “his” master’s Richard du Champ. Lucius is impressed by the fidelity Fidele has show his master, takes the boy into their fold for protection, and orders his soldiers to bury the body.
And thus the really long Act Four, Scene Two comes to a close.
The third scene of the act has Cymbeline musing on the Queen suffering “a fever with the absence of her son, / A madness, of which her life’s in danger” (IV.iii.2-3). He questions Pisanio but gets nothing from him; Pisanio reveals in soliloquy that he is confused because
- he has received “no letter from [Posthumus] since / [Pisanio] wrote him Imogen was slain” (IV.iii.36-7)…of course, that’s asking a lot given the distance
- he hasn’t heard from Imogen; she “promise[d] / To yield [him] often tidings” (IV.iii.38-9)…of course, how exactly was she supposed to get word to him?
- and he hasn’t heard from Cloten…who’s dead but he doesn’t know that
The fourth and final scene of the fourth and penultimate act of Cymbeline takes us back to Wales and the manly “family.” They hear the sounds of approaching war. Belarius wants to retreat up into the mountains, fearing the Roman army or retribution for Cloten’s death by the British army. Both boys want to join the army and fight for their country, but Belarius knows that if he recognized Cloten after all those years, they’ll remember him. Guiderius is sure, however, that Belarius “so out of thought, and thereto so o’vergrown, / Cannot be questioned” (IV.iv.33-4). Belarius finally agrees and follows them to the battle, noting to the audience via aside that it’s time to “show them princes born” (IV.iv.54), saying that they will prove themselves in battle.
And with the war coming to them, the fourth act ends.