The Play’s the Thing: In ancient Britain, Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, the king, is in trouble because she married Posthumus Leonatus rather than her idiot step-brother, Cloten, like her evil step-mother (who is trying to kill Imogen) wanted so Posthumus is banished to Italy where he makes a bet with an Italian named Iachimo that Iachimo won’t be able to seduce Imogen in his absence. Iachimo smuggles himself into Imogen’s bedchamber, steals her bracelet while she’s sleeping, and gets enough details to convince Posthumus that he slept with his wife, which drives Posthumus ’round the bend a bit. Imogen gets a letter from Posthumus and head’s off to Wales (much to the consternation of everyone at home) only to discover it was a plot to have her servant murder her but the servant refuses and tells her to disguise herself as a man until they can straighten everything out, leaving her in Wales to meet her (unkown to her) long lost brothers and Cloten heading off with an evil plan to rape Imogen. Cloten gets his head chopped off by one of the (still unknown) brothers, Imogen looks a little dead for a while (thanks to evil step-mother poison) and then joins up with one of the Roman military leaders as they head off to attack Britain while the brothers head off to defend Britain with their kidnapper in tow. Posthumus hearing false news of Imogen’s death regrets his assassination of her, the Brits and Romans fight and eventually make up, the evil step-mother dies, Cymbeline forgives Imogen, she and Posthumus are reunited, and the long lost brothers are restored to their roles as princes and everyone lives happily ever after (thanks to a literal deus ex machina).
Heroes and Villains: Imogen is definitely my favourite, partially because I like her name, and partially because she’s just a really great heroine.
Wordsmith: “bo-peeping” (I.vi)
Speech to Know: Posthumus gives a really great penitent speech while in prison when he still thinks Imogen is dead.
“Most welcome, bondage! for thou art a way,
I think, to liberty: yet am I better
Than one that’s sick o’ the gout; since he had rather
Groan so in perpetuity than be cur’d
By the sure physician death, who is the key
To unbar these locks. My conscience, thou art fetter’d
More than my shanks and wrists: you good gods, give me
The penitent instrument to pick that bolt,
Then free for ever! Is’t enough I am sorry?
So children temporal fathers do appease;
Gods are more full of mercy. Must I repent?
I cannot do it better than in gyves,
Desir’d more than constrain’d: to satisfy,
If of my freedom ’tis the main part, take
No stricter render of me than my all.
I know you are more clement than vile men,
Who of their broken debtors take a third,
A sixth, a tenth, letting them thrive again
On their abatement: that’s not my desire:
For Imogen’s dear life take mine; and though
‘Tis not so dear, yet ’tis a life; you coin’d it:
‘Tween man and man they weight not every stamp;
Though light, take pieces for the figure’s sake:
You rather mine, being yours: and so, great powers,
If you will take this audit, take this life,
And cancel these cold bonds.” (V.iv)
View from the Pit: I had absolutely no familiarity with Cymbeline when I began reading it and was thrilled to discover in the midst of all the tragic endings of the ancient histories I’d read thus far, a play with a happy ending. The play itself is an interesting mix of fairy tale with the evil step-mother and step-brother, Greek drama with an actual appearance from Jupiter himself (a literal deus ex machina), and some Shakespearean standard elements with a cross-dressing woman, hidden princes, drugs that fake death, and a king who doesn’t realize what he had until he’s lost it. The play also has intriguing dash of British nationalism thrown into act III, which is particularly fascinating as the play ends with Britain bowing to the will of the Roman empire and Caesar (Augustus in this case). Not the most polished of the plays but a nice change in the midst of all the tragedies.