As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
Cymbeline is king of a city in Britain, during the time of The Roman Empire. His daughter, Imogen, has married Posthumus Leonatus, a poor nobleman. However, Cymbeline does not approve of the match, so has banished Posthumus to Italy and imprisoned his disobedient daughter.
In Italy, Posthumus meets Jachimo (or Iachimo), who makes a wager that he can seduce Imogen, proving that all women are naturally unfaithful. Posthumus accepts the wager and Jachimo goes to Britain, fails to seduce Imogen and resorts to lies and trickery.
Hiding himself in Imogen's room, Jachimo steals her bracelet and watches her sleep. Returning to Italy, he hands Posthumus the bracelet, as well as providing details on Imogen's room and describing her naked body.
Posthumus then sends word to his servant Pisanio in Britain, ordering him to kill Imogen for her infidelity. Pisanio does not believe Imogen has cheated, so he convinces her to disguise herself as a boy and find her husband, so she can tell him her side of the story; Pisanio, meanwhile, will tell Posthumus she's dead. Imogen goes off to find her husband, but gets lost in Wales; she meets an exiled nobleman and his two sons. Unbeknownst to them but knownst to the nobleman, they are actually Cymbeline's sons (and Imogen's brothers); the nobleman kidnapped them in revenge for being exiled.
We learn that Cymbeline's Queen has convinced him to stop paying tribute to Rome, so Rome is about to attack. Due to circumstancesnote , Imogen believes Posthumus is dead, and Posthumus regrets murdering her; she mourns, and he tries to kill himself by first fighting for Britain against Rome, then switching into Roman garb when the Britons win. Jupiter, the god, shows up to say he'll protect Posthumus. The next day, Posthumus is brought out as a prisoner, and one by one the cast shows up to explain the plot. Everyone lives happily ever after, except the Queen, who dies; with her dead, Cymbeline decides to start paying tribute to Rome again.
Basically, the play is a mishmash of plots Shakespeare regularly used in other plays. One interesting aspect of it, though, is that the characters can be read as allusions to Jacobean figures. James of England is Cymbeline, who wishes for unity and peace. The play also emphasizes the concept of "Britain" — the word appears more in this play than any other Shakespeare play, while the word "England" appears not once, averting the common anachronism of making reference to England before its existence.
In March 2015, a film adaptation was released, directed by Michael Almereyda (who previously directed the 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet). Ed Harris played the title role, with Milla Jovovich, Ethan Hawke, Penn Badgely, Anton Yelchin, Dakota Johnson, and John Leguizamo in supporting roles. The film is a Setting Update, portraying Cymbeline as the leader of a modern-day biker gang at odds with a corrupt police force.
This play provides examples of:
- Anachronism Stew: Among other things, while the play is set in Roman times during the reign of Claudius, Jachimo is pretty much a (stock evil) Renaissance Italian and his scenes with Posthumus feel "contemporary" (for the time of Shakespeare).
- Ancient Rome: Where we lay our scene.
- And Another Thing...: The entire last act of the show. In the space of a few dozen lines, Jachimo's treachery is revealed, Posthumus reveals who he is and claims to have killed Imogen, Imogen reveals who she is and that she is alive, the Queen is revealed to have been behind everything, Guiderius admits to having killed Cloten, and the princes are revealed to be royalty.Cymbeline: New matter still?
Imogen: It poison'd me.
Cornelius: O gods!
I left out one thing which the queen confess'd.
Which must approve thee honest: 'If Pisanio
Have,' said she, 'given his mistress that confection
Which I gave him for cordial, she is served
As I would serve a rat.'"
- Arcadia: Guiderius and Arviragus have always lived with their adoptive father Belarius, far from civilization, subsisting on what nature provides them with.
- Ask a Stupid Question...: Immediately after one of the banished princes decapitates Cloten, their caretaker roars "What has thou done?" The response: "Cut off one Cloten's head."
- Berserk Button: Posthumus is so convinced of Imogen's purity that he goes straight into a berserk rage vowing to "tear her limbmeal" when he's convinced she's cheated on him.
- Contrived Coincidence: Possibly the grandest one in any Shakespeare play. Imogen erroneously thinks that her husband Posthumus is dead when she just so happens to see Cloten's dead body, dressed like Posthumus, and she confuses him for Posthumus. How did that come about? Well, let's handle all the required coincidences one by one:
- Wandering the mountains where Guiderius, Arviragus and Belarius live, Cloten is searching for Imogen and Posthumus. Cloten says aloud that he "cannot find those runagates" (or "runaways," to use the modern term). He doesn't just think this—he states it aloud, and he does so just at the moment when the three are within hearing distance.
- Erroneously, they assume that Cloten is searching for them, since Cloten doesn't mention the names of Imogen or Posthumus, or any other detail that would make it clear to Belarius and his sons that they're not the ones Cloten's after.
- Guiderius talks to Cloten to try to gauge the situation, and is not recognized. But Cloten is so insulting that Guiderius responds in kind, and ends up killing him even though he didn't pose any real threat.
- Once this is over, Imogen is seemingly killed by the queen's poison, and is laid on the grave of the mother of Arviragus and Guiderius. They place Cloten's body here too, out of respect. He was a bad man, but being killed is punishment enough.
- When Imogen wakes up, she doesn't recognize the familiar sight of Cloten's face—because he was beheaded, and Belarius and his sons buried his head at a different spot from his body, in accordance with Celtic burial practices that requires his head to be buried to the East.
- Of course, Imogen isn't going to just assume that any and all beheaded bodies must belong to Cloten. But now she does, because Cloten is dressed in Posthumus's stolen clothes.
- Okay, and why did Cloten dress in Posthumus's clothes? Because Imogen once told Cloten that even if the hairs on his head were to turn into men, each one every bit as good a fellow as Cloten, then all those men still wouldn't be as dear to her as even the clothes on Posthumus's body are. Cloten's dressed in Posthumus's stolen clothes as a reference to that—in other words, he was not even trying to disguise his identity in the first place.
- So why doesn't the physical body strike her as being strangely unlike Posthumus's body? Because Cloten's body just happens to be similar enough to Posthumus' to be confused for it by Imogen in the state she's in.
- So to sum things up: Cloten just happened to be near Belarius's family, and just happened to say the exact wrong thing at the very worst moment to say it, and just happened to be rude to a man hot-tempered enough to kill him over it, and just happened to be killed through beheading, and just happened to have his head buried in a different spot than his body, and just happened to be dressed exactly like Posthumus, and just happened to have a body near-identical to Posthumus's.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Posthumus, in typical Shakespearean tradition (see also Claudio, Othello and Leontes). At the very least, unlike them, he doesn't wait until after finding out his wife was innocent before repenting of his jealousy.
- Death Seeker: Posthumus becomes one out of remorse over his (unbeknownst to him, unsuccessful) attempt on Imogen's life. He returns to fight for Britain, strips himself of his armour and fights against the heavily-armed Roman soldiers, but successfully fends them off and rescues the king. He then dresses up as a Roman soldier and tries to get killed in battle, but is instead captured.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": King Cymbeline's second wife is simply the Queen, and is not referred to by a name in dialogue or text.
- Exact Words: When confronting Posthumus with fabricated signs of Imogen's supposed infidelity, Jachimo swears by Jupiter that he had the ring "from her arm" (as opposed to her having lost it). This is technically true, because he stole it from her arm while she was asleep.
- Expy: Jachimo essentially means "little Iago"; some have argued he's supposed to be a toned-down version of Othello's infamous villain. Like Iago, Jachimo sets out to make a husband suspicious of his wife's fidelity, though in Cymbeline, tragedy is averted and the couple is reconciled at the end.
- Faux Death: Imogen is presumed dead thanks to the cordial Pisanio gave her thinking it a restorative; the Queen gave it to him thinking it a poison, but it was actually a deep sleeping draught thanks to the foresight of Cornelius.
- Fidelity Test: Imogen passes, but Posthumus thinks she doesn't.
- Friendly Enemies: Cymbeline and Lucius.
- George Lucas Altered Version:
- The play was significantly rewritten by Thomas D'Urfey when he revived it in 1682, almost fifty years after Shakespeare's version was last performed. Pisanio gets a new subplot, and is blinded by Cloten after he kills one of Cloten's servants who's menacing his daughter. Posthumus is renamed to Ursaces, Imogen is renamed to Eugenia and Jachimo becomes the French villain Shatillon. D'Urfey also significantly rewrote the last two acts, removed Zeus and the prophecy, and renamed the play The Injured Princess, hiding Shakespeare's identity as the playwright. D'Urfey's version became the default for the next fifty years, with a revival in 1718 giving it a new lease of life. The original version of Cymbeline eventually returned to theatres in 1746.
- David Garrick revived the play in 1761 with his own significant changes. The text was significantly cut, with 500 lines reportedly removed from the final act alone. Visions and gods were omitted, in the belief that Garrick's audience didn't want those supernatural elements, and scenes were restructured to fill the gaps this created. The new version became part of Garrick's standard repertoire for the rest of his career, with over a hundred performances spanning fifteen years. The changes didn't endure for too long after his retirement, though.
- God Save Us from the Queen!: The Queen attempts to poison Imogen, and persuades Cymbeline to antagonise Caesar.
- Hidden Backup Prince: Two of them, actually.
- Honor Before Reason: One of Posthumus' main flaws. He agrees to a wager which, if lost, will require him to forfeit a ring which he has solemnly sworn to keep forever. This is not the first time he has entered a quarrel over Imogen's virtue.
- Inciting Incident: Posthumus and Imogen's marriage leads to his exile and Imogen's detention, as well as complicating the Queen and Cloten's ambitions.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Jachimo, which is part of why he gets reprieved. Notably, in the Boccaccio story the play is based on, the equivalent character is covered in honey and put in a cage and gets stung to death by insects. In particular, the whole "hiding in the chest" idea is vaguely ridiculous, making him a literal Jack-in-the-box, as is the Peeping Tom aspect, even though his reason for doing so isn't funny.
- It doesn't hurt that he's shown as remorseful when he realizes that his actions might have caused Imogen's death. His motivation for the deception lies somewhere between For the Lulz and For The Money.
- Infodump: By the time he wrote this play, Shakespeare really couldn't be bothered to find an elegant way to do backstory. The dialogue between the two gentlemen at the beginning of act one basically amounts to "Oh, did you hear about the entire backstory to this play?"
- In the Blood: The exiled princes, Caius Lucius, and Cymbeline all echo the sentiment of Imogen's essential noble nature when they meet her disguised as Fidele.
- Intimate Marks: Imogen, the heroine, has a mole under one of her breasts. Jachimo is able to falsely win a bet that he could seduce her, by spying on her while sleeping and noting this distinguishing mark.
- It's for a Book, the evil Queen asks the court physician, Cornelius to brew for her an extremely deadly and painful poison. When he questions why she would want something like that, she offers the excuse that she plans to test it on animals and create an antidote based on treating its effects. Since Cornelius is not an idiot, he doesn't actually create the requested poison but instead gives her a compound that will cause the victim to have initial discomfort and fall into a death-like sleep but wake up healthy.
- It Was a Gift: Imogen gives Posthumus a ring, Posthumus gives Imogen a bracelet. (Jachimo effectively steals both.)
- Killed Offscreen:
- Guiderius and Cloten exit the stage while fighting with each other. A little later Guiderius returns holding Cloten's head.
- At the end of the play, after Cloten's death, Cornelius brings Cymbeline news that the queen is dead. Her death was "most cruel to herself", but leaves some ambiguity as to whether it was grief or suicide.
- Laughably Evil: Cloten is amusing in a stupid thug kind of way. Even when yelling about how he will rape his sister while wearing her lover's clothes to prove he's more worthy of her.
- Meaningful Name: Posthumus Leonatus was named Posthumus because his mother died in childbirth and his father died while she was pregnant. Both of his brothers died before his parents did, leaving him as the last of his line.
- Mistaken for Cheating: As stated by Posthumus in one of his ranting monologues, it's made worse by the fact that Imogen had consistently refused to sleep with him."Me of my lawful pleasures she restrained / And prayed me oft forbearance"
- My God, What Have I Done?: Posthumus after he thinks he's successfully orchestrated Imogen's murder.
- Not Blood Siblings: Cloten lusts after his step-sister Imogen, and his mother the queen is keen for Cloten to marry her and inherit the throne. Imogen, however, thinks he's loathsome—and has instead married Posthumus.
- Not What It Looks Like: Jachimo secretly gains entrance to Imogen's room, memorises the details within and the distinguishing marks on her body, and steals her bracelet, to make Posthumus think her unfaithful.
- Off with His Head!: Thus ends the life of Cloten in battle with Guiderius.
- Parental Marriage Veto : Cymbeline, to Posthumus and Imogen. They did it anyway.
- Secondary Character Title: Cymbeline doesn't show up much in the play, and it's not really about him.
- Signature Item Clue: Jachimo "proves" that he seduced Posthumus' wife Imogen by showing him a bracelet which he claims that Imogen gave to him; in reality he sneaked into her bedchamber while she was asleep and stole it.
- Suicide by Cop: Ancient version—Posthumus, who wrongly believes that he caused the death of Imogen (who in fact is alive), feels so guilty about it that he plans to die in battle with the Romans. Subverted when Posthumus's intervention helps turn the tide of the battle. To ensure he will die, Posthumus then pretends to be a traitor in the hope that he will be executed by the Britons.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: The Queen tells Imogen she's not a Wicked Stepmother... even though nobody else broached the subject in the first place.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Imogen disguises herself as a boy called Fidele with Pisanio's help, to escape the wrath of Posthumus.
- Those Two Guys: The creatively named First Lord and Second Lord who exist to explain the prologue and to play the Straight Man to the more comical Cloten. Productions frequently have the two actors playing First and Second Soldier also play the roles of First and Second Jailer, who have similar parts.
- Trojan Horse: After failing to seduce Imogen, Jachimo asks her to store a trunk. It supposedly contains silver and gemstones, gifts from Posthumus, Jachimo and their friends to the Roman emperor. Jachimo fears it'll be stolen, so wants it kept securely overnight. As it's partly her husband's property, Imogen views this request as a matter of honour and offers to store it in her own bedchamber. Unfortunately, the story's a lie and the trunk only contains Jachimo himself, who's still looking for a way to convince Posthumus that Imogen's been unfaithful. Once the trunk is in her room he creeps out in the the night, while Imogen sleeps, to steal her bracelet and make notes about her room and her birthmarks.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: The two main plotlines in the play concern the unjustly accused Imogen and the misled Posthumus.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Imogen in her disguise as Fidele.
- Wicked Stepmother: Discussed in that one of the Queen's first lines is declaring that she is not like the wicked stepmothers of the tales. (She totally is.)
- Wrongful Accusation Insurance: Guiderius gets off scot-free after murdering Cloten.