In Act One, we learn that in ancient Britain, king Cymbeline’s heir and daughter Imogen has enraged her father by marrying Posthumus; instead, the king wanted her to marry the son of his new wife. The newly-wed couple is separated: by her in-castle imprisonment and his banishment. And the Queen’s son, Cloten, desires Imogen as well…so much so that he attempts to attack Posthumus on his way out of town. Meanwhile, we learn that Imogen was not Cymbeline’s only child. There were two older sons, both kidnapped as toddlers, some twenty years ago; no one knows where they are now. 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 (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. Back in Britain, the Queen has had a doctor create a killing drug. What she doesn’t know, however, is that the doctor has created not a poison, but a potion that “will stupefy and dull the sense awhile” (I.v.37), looking like death, but from which the taker will awake later. Add another gun to Chekhov’s arsenal. She attempts to hire Posthumus’ servant Pisanio, even giving him the potion, which she tells him is 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. As Imogen bemoans her state, who should arrive but Iachimo. He intimates that Posthumus as been less than faithful in Rome, and 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 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. He apologizes profusely, and she accepts him. As he is about to leave her, he asks if a trunk that contains a gift for the Roman emperor could be stored in her “bedchamber” (I.vi.196). She agrees And the first act of Cymbeline comes to a close.
In Act Two, we see more of Cloten’s loutishmess. Then when Imogen goes to bed, that chest from Iachimo opens and out pops Iachimo. He creeps about her room, talking of touching her, kissing her, writing down everything he sees. If he can’t seduce her, he will get as much detail about her room, so that he can describe it to Posthumus to convince him that the seduction worked. He takes the bracelet Posthumus gave Imogen, and takes note of a mole on her left breast. “This secret,” he says, “Will force him [to] think I have picked the lock and ta’en / The treasure of her honor” (II.ii.40-2). He then pops back into the trunk as daylight comes.
In the next scene, Cloten and his lords arrive beneath Imogen’s window for a serenade. Both king and queen offer wooing tips,before messengers from Rome arrive, and the king and queen exit. Cloten then speaks with the princess. When he tries to argue, she tells him that Posthumus’ “meanest garment / That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer / In my respect than all the hairs above thee” (II.iii.133-5), then realizing that she no longer has the bracelet Posthumus had given her.
Act Two, Scene Four takes us back to Rome, where Posthumus and Phlario discuss how it now appears that Rome and Britain are now on a collision-course to war, as Augustus wants past-due tribute from Cymbeline–and Posthumus believes that Britain would rather fight than submit. Into this political discourse, Iachimo returns, delivering to Posthumus letters from Imogen. Posthumus brags of his ring, thinking that Iachimo has failed; instead, Iachimo proclaims that “the ring is won” (II.iv.45), calling Imogen “so easy” (II.iv.47). He describes her bedchamber in general terms, then in greater detail. But then he shows Posthumus the bracelet. Iachimo then describes the mole under her breast. The fifth and final scene of the act is a soliloquy by Posthumus, railing against men, nature, Imogen, but more than anything women in general.
Act Three of Cymbeline begins with a state meeting between Cymbeline and his court and the representatives of the Roman emperor Augustus in Britain. Lucius demands the payment of tribute that was begun under the rule of Julius Caesar. The Queen and Cloten refuse the Roman, subtly then clumsily; and the king follows along. Lucius proclaims then that Augustus in now Britain’s enemy. Despite that, the Brits are still going to play nice host to Lucius.
In the second scene of the act, Pisanio reads a letter from Posthumus outlining Imogen’s betrayal, and demanding that the servant “murder” (III.ii.11) her in revenge. Posthumus has sent his wife another letter, directing her to meet him Milford Haven in Wales, where he claims to have sneaked back into the country. This pleases and excites her, only what she doesn’t know is that this is where Pisanio will have opportunity to kill her. And because she doesn’t know this, she hatches a plan for her and Pisanio to escape to Wales.
In Act Three, Scene Three, the action moves to Wales, where we meet three men in the woods. One older, the other two young men in their twenties. The old man paints a wonderful picture of life in the woods, compared to that “of courts, of princes, of the tricks in war” (III.iii.15). It feels pastoral, not a little like Duke Senior in Forest of Arden in As You Like It. And yet the younger men, feel somehow as if they are missing something, that they are trapped in a “cell of ignorance” (III.iii.33). The older man tries to tell them of the “city’s usuries … [and] the toil o’th’ war” (III.iii.45,49). He talks of a past in which the king “Cymbeline loved [him]” (III.iii.58; but that love was torn asunder by claims that he was “confederate with the Romans” (III.iii.68), for which he was banished. But now, he says, he lives in “honest freedom” (III.iii.71), and then he sends them off to hunt. Alone, and in soliloquy, the old man says that it is “hard … to hide the sparks of nature” (III.iii.79), as these boys are the “sons to th’ king” (III.iii.80). One that is now known by the name Polydore, was once called Guiderius, and is heir to the throne; the other Cadwal was originally named Arviragus. The speaker, known as Morgan in the woods, but was Belarius in court, admits to stealing the babes from court to raise them here in the wood, and raising them as if they were his own sons, so that they call him their “natural father” (III.iii.107). So remember that Chekhov’s gun (the first one) from Act One? Well, we’re seeing it now brandished.
In another part of the Welsh woods, in the next scene, Imogen and Pisanio arrive in the woods outside Milford Haven. Imogen asks repeatedly where Posthumus is, as he is supposed to be meeting them there. She grows suspicious, questioning Pisanio, ordering him to respond. Finally, Pisanio gives her the letter he had received from Posthumus, the one that accused Imogen of infidelity…and that called for Pisanio to take her to Milford Haven and “strike and to make [Posthumus] certain” (III.iv.29-30) that the killings been done. After she reads the letter, in an undirected aside, Pisanio asks the audience, “What shall I need to draw my sword? The paper / Hath cut her throat already” (III.iv.32-3). She is incredulous, turning from shock to anger. She moves to challenge him to do Posthumus’ bidding, even drawing the sword herself. Pisanio admits that he hasn’t been able to “sl[ee]p one wink” (III.iv.101) since receiving the command from Posthumus. She asks then why Pisanio has brought her to the woods; Pisanio says that it was a delaying tactic so that he could come up with a plan.
His plan is to leave Imogen in Wales, announce her death, and send Posthumus “bloody sign” (III.iv.126) of it. He advises her to stay in Milford Haven, since Lucius and Romans are arriving there the following day. If she were to dress as a man, take on a “waggish courage” (III.iv.158), she would be able to “tread a course / Pretty and full of view” (III.iv.147-8). She could then present herself to Lucius, join his service, and thus gain access to transportation away…and to Italy, one would presume. She agrees, and Pisanio heads back to court, so that he won’t be “suspected of / [Her] carriage from the court” (III.iv.187-8). But before he leaves her, he leaves with her
What’s in’t is precious. If you are sick at sea
Or stomach-qualmed at land, a dram of this
Will drive away distemper.
And now we get another of Chekhov’s guns…the drug that the queen told him was a cure, though she thinks is a poison, but really is a potion to fake death. Got that?
In the fifth scene of the Act, we’re back at court, where Lucius is readying to leave the court under orders of the emperor. Cymbeline apologizes about their refusal to pay the tribute, but says that his people “will not endure [the emperor’s] yoke” (III.v.5), and to do so “appear unkinglike” (III.v.7) for Cymbeline. Lucius understands, and asks for safe passage to Milford Haven. And civility abounds
Lucius leaves and they discuss Roman military moves in the region. It’s only now that Cymbeline notices that his daughter hasn’t been around. He sends a messenger, who returns with news that her chamber’s locked with no answer. Cloten notes that Pisanio has been missing for two days. Alone onstage, the Queen muses on Pisanio’s absence, wondering if he might have taken the drug, since “he believes / It is a thing most precious” (III.v.58-9). As for Imogen, she can think of only two actions: suicide or flight. Either one works for the Queen as that will “have [her] the placing of the British crown” (III.v.65). Cloten returns with news that Imogen is gone, and the king is in a rage. She leaves to take care of the king, and Cloten muses in soliloquy how he loves and hates the missing Imogen. Cloten is joined onstage by the returned Pisanio, who is questioned by the Queen’s son as to the whereabouts of Imogen. Pisanio feigns ignorance, but says that he’s found something, and presents to Cloten the letter from Posthumus to Imogen, commanding her to go to Milfort Haven. Now, Pisanio knows that Imogen is now dressed like a man, so he doesn’t worry that Cloten–not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer–will recognize her. Cloten “convinces” Pisanio to work for him (this allows Pisanio to keep an eye on Cloten). Cloten asks if there are “any of [Pisanio’s] late master’s garments” (III.v.123) around. When Pisano leaves to retrieve them, Cloten reveals his plan: he’s going to go to Milford Haven, dressed as Posthumus, to kill Posthumus (remember how he obsessed over Imogen’s comparison of Cloten to Posthumus’ “meanest garment”? Well, it doesn’t seem that he’s gotten over that quite yet). But then he comes up with an even better plan, he’s going to first rape Imogen, then kill Posthumus in her presence, then drag her back to the castle.
In Act Three, Scene Six, we’re back in the woods of Wales near Milford Haven, where Imogen appears, dressed as a man. She ponders the life of men, then realizes she’s hungry. She finds a cave, and she feels that people in the cave will have food…and so she enters.
Just as Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, enter, returning from their hunt.
You know what that means…family will be reunited. Only they won’t know it. Belarius can see from the opening of the cave someone is eating their food (Goldilocks, anyone), and the old man describes this “boy” (III.vi.44) in ethereal and lofty terms (fairy, angel, divineness, paragon). Imogen comes out, and explains that s/he had called into the cave, but when hearing nothing, went in and ate. But Imogen is willing to “pay’st for the provider” (III.vi.52). The boys scoff, saying they have no use for the “dirty gods” (III.vi.55) of money. Upon prompting, she introduces herself as “Fidele,” meaning Faithful. Belarius apologizes for their poverty; the boys each state that if she was a woman, she would be the one each would want to woo. And thus we get audience discomfort that breaks through the irony. But the young man says that Fidele’s a man so he’ll “love him as [his] brother” (III.vi.71). Even more irony, especially when she says in an aside, “Would it had been so that they / Had been my father’s sons!” (III.vi.75-6). But thoughts of Posthumus upset her (even stating she’d change sexes just to be with them since her husband has proved false), and this show of emotion worries the men of the forest. And they beckon their new-sworn brother to follow them home.
The very short Act Three, Scene Seven, takes us back to Rome, where we get some exposition: the emperor Augustus has called for war against Britain. Lucius will be the general of the forces, and the army now wait in Gallia for the invasion. (of course, Pisanio seemed to know this about five scenes ago). Anyway, this is how Act Three of Cymbeline ends.