Act One sets the scene: ancient Britain where king Cymbeline’s heir and daughter Imogen has enraged her father by marrying a “a poor but worthy gentleman” (I.i.7), Posthumus, who was raised in the castle; instead, he 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. And if you don’t think that’s not going to come back later on, you obviously have heard of Chekhov’s gun. While the Queen promises that she will act as an “advocate” (I.i.76) for Imogen and Posthumus to the king, it turns out that she’s not the un-evil stepmother she claims to be, after all.
We’re taken to Rome, where Posthumus arrives, speaking lovingly of Imogen’s beauty and virtue. A local, Iachimo, says that Posthumus is unbelievable, and intimates that he can seduce Imogen. And a challenge is 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.
Back in Britain, the Queen has had a doctor create a killing drug, a slow-moving “mover of a languishing death” (I.v.9). 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.
In the final scene of Act One, Imogen bemoans her state when who should arrive but Iachimo. And we know what he’s there for. He intimates that Posthumus as been less than sad in Rome, where 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. He tells Imogen 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 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 the first act of Cymbeline comes to a close.
Act Two of Cymbeline begins with another Cloten-and-the-two-Lords scene, in which Cloten complains over losing a bowling match, the first lord mollifies him, and the second lord cuts him down in asides for our amusement. The talk gets quite bawdy, and then serious: when the dufus Cloten and his sycophant leave, the second lord bemoans the state of Britain, what with its idiot royal son, a plotting Queen, and henpecked king (“by thy stepdame governed” [II.i.57]), and poor Imogen stuck in the middle.
The second scene of the act takes us to that poor princess as she is about to go to bed, sending out her woman, and falling asleep as she reads. When she does, that chest we talked about in Act One, the trunk Iachimo was so concerned about, well, that chest opens and out pops Iachimo. That scoundrel! That Chekhov’s gun! He spends the next forty lines creeping about her room, talking of touching her, kissing her, of how her “breathing … perfumes the chamber thus” (II.ii.19). And then he gets down to business, writing down everything he sees. And we begin to see what his plan is. 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 slides the bracelet Posthumus gave Imogen from off her wrist. Iachimo knows this will “witness outwardly” (II.ii.35), but he also knows that a more physical description would be a “voucher / Stronger” (II.ii.39-40), and thus he 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. The second lord doesn’t need to make Cloten seem a fool in this scene: the boy does the job perfectly himself. He insults her as “foolish” (II.iii.8), speaks of her as if her value is only the gold of the throne. He spouts ham-fisted single-entendre (to call it double-entendre is to beggar belief) in sickening detail, saying to the musicians, “If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too” (II.iii.13-4). After the song, Cymbeline and the Queen arrive. Cymbeline says of Cloten’s attempts to win Imogen:
She hath not yet forgot him. Some more time
Must wear the print of his remembrance on ’t,
And then she’s yours.
Both king and queen offer wooing tips, oblivious to the fact that Imogen loves Posthumus (and that no one in their right mind could love Cloten). Messengers from Rome arrive, and the king and queen exit.
After speaking to one of Imogen’s ladies, Cloten is allowed to speak with the princess. It doesn’t go well. He knows not how to woo, and she tells him as much. 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). And as she continues to rebuke him, Cloten can’t seem to get past this comparison to Posthumus’ clothes, repeating it over and over and over and over again through the rest of the scene, during which she finally realizes 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 the newly-wed groom’s desire to win back the king’s blessing. The only problem is that 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 says that he knows Posthumus won’t take his word for it, so he describes her bedchamber in general terms. Posthumus says that this information may have been gleaned by what Posthumus himself has earlier said. Iachimo speaks in greater detail, and Posthumus says that this might have come from a servant there. Iachimo describes the ceiling of her room, and again, the groom says that this proves nothing. But then he shows Posthumus the bracelet. Now the groom is showing some doubt, suggesting that Imogen gave Iachimo the bracelet to give to Posthumus. Iachimo asks if she mentions that in the letters; she doesn’t. And Posthumus breaks, giving Iachimo the ring. Philario cautions Posthumus on giving up too easily; Posthumus begrudgingly agrees and asks for the ring back unless Iachimo and give “some corporal sign about her / More evident than” (II.iv.119-20) the bracelet. Iachimo swears that he had it from her arm, and as the weakened Posthumus relents, agreeing now with Iachimo, the schemer drops the mic with the description of the mole under her breast. Posthumus, echoing Claudio (from Much Ado About Nothing) and Othello before him, vows to punish her, in this case to “tear her limb-meal” (II.iv.147).
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:
That tends to vice in man but I affirm
It is the woman’s part. Be it lying, note it,
The woman’s; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers;
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that have a name, nay, that hell knows,
Why, hers, in part or all, but rather all.
With that damnation from the new president of the He-Man Woman-Haters club, the second act of Cymbeline ends.