Let’s kick off the plot synopsis of Act One of Cymbeline with a little scene-setting (you know: the setting). It’s ancient Britain. And the court of King Cymbeline. It is in this setting in which we get one those “quiet” beginnings, a dialog between characters bringing us up-to-speed (think Gloucester and Kent at the beginning of King Lear). Here, though, they are nameless (but numbered) characters…
First, we learn that the king’s daughter is the “heir of’s kingdom” (I.i.4); the king has also proposed that the son of his new wife marry this daughter. The only hitch is that said daughter has already married someone else, “a poor but worthy gentleman” (I.i.7); in anger over this disobedience, her father has banished the husband and imprisoned (in the castle) the daughter. And all of this information comes in the first ten lines of the play.
If this seems a whole-lotta-plot in a little space, methinks this is going to be par for the course in this particular play. (see what I did there: PARticular… oh, never mind)
We also learn that, despite the anger, the king is probably hurt by this marriage and banishment, as this newlywed husband is the son of a general who fought with the nephew of one of the king’s fellow rulers (did you get all that?). This father had two other sons killed as soldiers in the wars against Rome; that father then died of grief, and the mother died giving birth to the babe who would grow to be the man the princess marries; the king had adopted the baby, named him Posthumus Leonatus, and raised him in the castle. So that’s how the two met.
And then we learn that the princess was not the only child of the king:
Mark it—the eldest of them at three years old,
I’ th’ swathing clothes the other, from their nursery
Were stol’n, and to this hour no guess in knowledge
Which way they went.
Hmm. There were two sons who were kidnapped as small children “some twenty years” (I.i.62) ago. And no one knows where they are. Think this is important? After all, the first gentleman did say, “–if this be worth your hearing, / Mark it–”…yeah, I think this might come back (you know, Chekhov’s gun).
That’s a whole-lotta-plot in a little space (oh, wait, I’ve already said that), and it’s conveyed to us all before we meet any of the main players of the play. When we do meet some of those players, they are Imogen the princess, Posthumus the husband, and the Queen, the stepmother (and mother to the man she and the king wanted to Imogen to marry). The Queen must know the typical “evil-eyed” (I.i.72) stepmother stereotype, as she says that Imogen doesn’t need to worry; she will be both Imogen and Posthumus’ “advocate” (I.i.76) to the king. The unhappy couple says its goodbyes, and the Queen exits to give them a moment alone in case the king comes. In an aside before that exit, however, we learn that she’s actually going to “move him / To walk this way” (I.i.103-4). So maybe she isn’t the un-evil stepmother, after all.
Imogen gives Posthumus a ring; he gives her a bracelet; each now has a treasured token from the other. (another of Chekhov’s guns?)
King Cymbeline enters and berates Posthumus who blesses the king before leaving. Cymbeline then rages against Imogen, denouncing Posthumus as a “beggar” (I.i.145), but his daughter retorts that it’s the king’s fault she married him since Cymbeline allowed the two to meet by raising the boy himself. The king reiterates a call for his own daughter’s imprisonment then leaves.
We then learn from Pisanio, Posthumus’ man, that the queen’s son, Cloten drew on Posthumus at the harbor; neither was hurt, and Posthumus did manage to get away.
Whew, and the act’s first scene is in the books.
In the second (and thankfully much shorter) scene, we meet that queen’s son and his two men. The first lord flatters Cloten in his complaints and brags; the second, in asides, deflates those brags for some comic relief.
In another short scene, Act One, Scene Three, Pisanio recounts to Imogen Posthumus’ departure. Imogen hopes that the “shes of Italy should not betray” (I.iii.29) her memories in her husband’s mind.
Act One, Scene Four takes us to Rome, Italy, where we meet a Frenchman, a Dutchman, and a Spaniard (like the set-up of a bad joke), as well as Iachimo, and Philario, a friend of both Iachimo and–we learn–Posthumus. The scene begins with their complimentary discussion of Posthumus, and then he enters. It seems he has a history with more than one of them. The conversation turns to women, and when Posthumus praises Imogen for her beauty and her virtue, Iachimo challenges this, and says that he can “friend” (I..iv.103) her. As the subtle sexual innuendo turns more bawdy, there is a bet created: Iachimo will travel to Britain and will attempt to sleep with Imogen. If he succeeds, Posthumus will give up his ring (the 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. The bet is made and the scene ends.
Gee, if the two brothers amount to Chekhov’s gun, then what about this drug?
In Act One, Scene Five, the Queen meets with Cornelius the doctor, whom she has contracted to create a drug, a slow-moving “mover of a languishing death” (I.v.9). What she doesn’t know, however, and what he tells us in an aside: he has created not a poison, but one that “will stupefy and dull the sense awhile” (I.v.37) that only looks like death, but from which the taker will awake later–Cornelius, meet Friar Laurence; Friar, meet the doctor. After the doctor exits, she talks with Pisanio (remember, this is Posthumus’ man), trying to convince him to work for her, as his master can never return. To help his decision making process, she gives him the drug, telling him that it’s actually a cure, one that has “the king / Five times redeemed from death” (I.v.62-3). When she leaves, however, he reveals in aside that he doesn’t trust her, and will remain true to Posthumus.
In the sixth and final scene of Act One, Imogen bemoans her state, wishing that she had been “thief-stol’n” (I.vi.5) like her brothers. Into this scene, walks Iachimo. And we know what he’s there for. When he sees her, he already worries that he may “have lost the wager” (I.vi.18), but he emboldens himself and presents to her a letter from Posthumus. Once she has read the beginning (an introduction for Iachimo), he begins by praising Britain’s beauty, going so far as to say that this kind of beauty can drive men to a “cloyed will — / That satiate yet unsatisfied desire” (I.vi.47-8). The language he uses is filled with double entendre. Imogen asks after her husband, and Iachimo says that he’s doing so well that they’ve come to call him “the Briton Reveler” (I.vi.61). She questions Iachimo on his statement that Posthumus as talked about how a man could possibly be pent up with such desire.
While he doesn’t badmouth Posthumus (yet), he says that he pities Imogen. When she asks why, he says he pities her as “others do” (I.vi.90); when she pushes harder for an answer, he proclaims that if she were his, he would never “break the oath of loyalty” (I.vi.102), intimating–but not stating–Posthumus’ fall. He says that not only has her husband forgot Britain but also himself; he didn’t want to tell her these things, but her “graces” (I.vi.113) moved him to speak. Iachimo suggests that she revenge herself on Posthumus, and when she asks how she should do this, Iachimo says she could use him, conveniently enough, as he is willing to “dedicate [him]self to [her] sweet pleasure” (I.vi.136).
She immediately calls for Pisanio, then calls Iachimo out on his deceit, saying that if he were honorable, he would have told her for virtue, not “for such an end [he] seek’st, as base as strange” (I.vi.144). Caught, he tells her that Posthumus is a lucky man, and that he had done this as a test of her loyalty…and she passed. He apologizes profusely, and she accepts him. As he is about to leave her, he stops, having “almost forgot” (I.vi.180) a request. He has brought a trunk that contains a gift for the Roman emperor, and he, concerned over its safety, is wondering if she wouldn’t mind storing it during his visit; she agrees, and since Posthumus helped purchase the gift, she will even keep it in her “bedchamber” (I.vi.196). He thanks her and says that he will have the trunk delivered to her; he also tells her that he is willing to take Posthumus her correspondence when he leaves for Rome the next day.
And with that weird exchange (yet another Chekhov’s gun in that trunk, anyone? if so, he’s got a freaking arsenal in this play), the first act of Cymbeline comes to a close.