Twenty years before the play begins, King Cymbeline had three children, two boys and a girl. Cymbeline mistakenly believed his officer Belarius was a traitor and banished him. In revenge, Belarius kidnapped the two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, renamed them and settled in the mountains of Wales. Posthumus Leonatus was an orphan of common birth who was brought up in Cymbeline’s court. After Cymbeline’s first wife died, the king remarried a beautiful woman with a son named Cloten.
As the play opens, Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, has secretly married Posthumus. The furious Cymbeline, spurred on by his overly ambitious wife (who hopes to have Cloten marry Imogen), banishes Posthumus. Before he leaves for Italy, Posthumus exchanges tokens with Imogen—a diamond ring for him and a bracelet for her.
In Italy, the rogue Iachimo, hearing Posthumus extol his wife’s virtues, bets 10,000 ducats against Posthumus’ diamond ring that he can bed Imogen. First, Iachimo tries unsuccessfully to trick Imogen into believing her husband false. Next, he asks her to keep a trunk of valuables safe in her room—and then hides in the trunk. Once she is asleep, he creeps out to get a look at her bedroom and her birthmarks and steals the bracelet.
The Queen, meanwhile, is convinced that Imogen will never give up her husband and marry Cloten. So she gives Imogen’s servant, Pisanio, a box containing what she thinks is poison, hoping to kill either Pisanio, Imogen or both. But the Queen’s doctor, Cornelius, suspecting her motives, has given her a less harmful herb.
Iachimo returns to Italy, and by describing Imogen’s body and bedroom and displaying the bracelet, convinces Posthumus that he has won Imogen’s virginity. Angry, Posthumus writes to his wife that he has returned and asks her to meet him in Milford Haven. He also orders Pisanio to kill Imogen. On their way, Pisanio tells her of his master’s intent and devises a plan: Imogen shall disguise herself as a boy and get a position serving the Roman ambassador Caius Lucius, who, after Cymbeline’s refusal to pay the traditional tribute to Rome, will be sailing for Italy.
Imogen, now disguised as the boy Fidele, loses her way in Wales and stumbles upon a cave where she finds food. The cave’s inhabitants, Morgan (formerly Belarius) and his two sons, Polydore and Cadwal, return. The sons adopt Fidele as a brother.
Back at court, Cloten learns of Imogen’s flight. He decides to dress himself in Posthumus’ clothes (since Imogen had said that even those garments were a better thing than Cloten himself) and go to Wales to kill Posthumus, rape Imogen and bring her back to court.
Morgan and his sons go out to hunt. The ailing Fidele stays behind. She takes some of the drugs Pisanio gave her, which put her into a death-like sleep. Cloten arrives in Wales and loses his head in a fight with Polydore. The Welshmen return to discover Fidele “dead” and lay her to rest next to Cloten’s body. When Imogen awakes, she discovers the headless body dressed in her husband’s clothes and assumes the worst. Caius Lucius arrives and takes her on as a page.
The Roman troops, including Iachimo and Posthumus, arrive to force Cymbeline to pay the tribute. Cymbeline is captured and the British forces put to flight. Morgan and his two sons come to their aid, along with Posthumus, who, out of guilt at his hasty orders, is fighting on the British side. Together they rescue Cymbeline, capture Lucius and rout the Romans. Posthumus changes back into his Roman clothes and is captured.
Triumphant, Cymbeline knights Morgan (whom he doesn’t recognize as Belarius), Polydore and Cadwal (his long-lost sons) for their service. Disguises are thrown off, secrets revealed and confessions made, and the play ends in a blaze of peace and reunion of families, lovers and nations.
The following edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
Transformation in the Forest
In some of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, most notably As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, characters leave the court and city, taking refuge instead in a nearby wilderness. This “green world” (a term coined by Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye), separated from the rules and organization of urbanity, gives the characters space to transform (sometimes literally), fall in and out of love and discover who they truly are.
In Cymbeline, the wilds of Wales perform this function. For the characters who dwell there —Belarius, Aviragus and Guiderius—the environment doesn’t provoke a transformation, but merely lays a veneer of nature’s savage nobility over their own inherent qualities. But for the characters who travel to this place, transformation and revelation await. Cloten, unfortunately, meets with the wildness of this world in the form of Guiderius and loses his life to it. Imogen, transformed into the likeness of a boy, discovers her long-lost brothers, while her husband Posthumus realizes the error of his ways and changes himself from Roman to Brit and back again to best serve his country and his presumed-dead wife.