Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

A brief dialogue between two gentlemen introduces events that occur before the opening action in the play. It is revealed that King Cymbeline of Britain became the protector of the orphaned son of Sicilius Leonatus, a man known for his bravery as a soldier. Cymbeline raised the child as his own, naming him Posthumus Leonatus, since he was born after his father died. Cymbeline also had two sons, named Guiderius and Arviragus, and a daughter named Imogen. His two sons were kidnapped when they were just a few years old and have never been found. When Imogen and Posthumus were grown, they fell in love. Cymbeline's wife died, and he married a new queen, who had a son named Cloten. Cymbeline wanted his daughter Imogen to marry Cloten, but she refused, marrying Posthumus instead. This caused Cymbeline to banish Posthumus from Britain.

As current time in the play begins, the banished Posthumus is preparing to go to Rome. At Cymbeline's palace, the two gentlemen discuss this situation. The queen enters, accompanied by Imogen and Posthumus. She acts friendly toward the two lovers, but Imogen doesn't trust the queen and shares her suspicions with Posthumus. The queen warns them Cymbeline will not like it if he discovers them together, but then she leaves and tells the king exactly where they are. Imogen and Posthumus exchange love tokens: she gives him a diamond ring and he gives her a bracelet. Posthumus plans to stay with a man named Philario in Rome—someone who had known Posthumus's father, Sicilius Leonatus. Cymbeline enters and furiously breaks up the lovers' good-byes. Posthumus leaves, but Pisanio, Posthumus's servant, enters and tells Imogen that Posthumus left him behind to serve her. He reveals Cloten had attacked Posthumus, but Posthumus refused to fight seriously with him.

Analysis

Through a conversation between the first gentleman and second gentleman, the audience is brought up to date on the extensive backstory to this play, which has enough plot to nearly be a play of its own. Through this extensive exposition, the audience is introduced to the conflict that drives much of the play: Cymbeline's desire for his daughter Imogen to marry his stepson Cloten and her defiant marriage to Posthumus, whom the gentlemen describe as a "poor but worthy gentleman." In response to his daughter's disobedience, Cymbeline has imprisoned his daughter and banished Posthumus.

Posthumus, it turns out, has quite a dramatic backstory himself. He was orphaned and taken in by King Cymbeline, who arranged for the young Posthumus to be brought up at court and to receive "all the learnings that his time / Could make him the receiver of." Given the king's personal interest and generosity toward Posthumus, it might not be so startling that he becomes angry when the young man secretly marries his only daughter.

Again, that might seem like enough plot to generate a play or two—just in the first 60 lines. But Shakespeare shows little restraint in crafting the plot of this play. As such, there is another wrinkle in the fabric of the play: Imogen is the king's only daughter, but there were also two young princes who were kidnapped when they were very young (one three years old and one an infant). As the play progresses, Shakespeare weaves all three of these plot lines together using a number of narrative devices, including a series of unlikely coincidences, three villains, and a war between Rome and Britain, which was then part of the Roman Empire.

Many readers have noticed this Shakespearean play has a cast of characters that resemble those of a fairy tale. For example, Shakespeare has already provided the play with a widowed king, an evil queen/wicked stepmother, and a virtuous princess. This fairy tale quality, as well as the play's sprawling plot, add to the play's charm and give the audience some assurance that its protagonists will live "happily ever after." But before that happy ending, there will be complications.

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