Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline | Act 1, Scene 5 | Summary



At the king's palace, the queen is having her ladies gather herbs and flowers for her. She has had Cornelius, her doctor, bring her some poison, and now reassures him she only wants it to discover how it affects small animals, as a sort of scientific experiment. In an aside Cornelius says he does not trust her, so he has substituted a sleeping potion that will temporarily simulate death. The queen tries to convince Pisanio to help make Imogen fall in love with her son Cloten, promising him the king's favor. But Pisanio refuses. The queen drops the poison, and Pisanio picks it up. He tries to give it back to her, but she tells him to keep it, as it contains powerful medicine. In an aside, she notes Pisanio will die if he takes the "medicine."


Although the queen's dishonesty and wickedness was clear from the first scene, it becomes even clearer now. For one thing, she has asked Cornelius for "poisonous compounds, / Which are the movers of a languishing death, / But though slow, deadly." Her true reason for wanting these compounds is to kill Pisanio, she says in an aside. Cornelius doesn't trust her, of course. He has already countered her lie with one of his own—the poison isn't poison at all but a sleeping potion.

Just so the audience understands the queen is one of the villains of the play, he gives her the line "Unless thou think'st me devilish." This bit of verbal irony—she is devilish—makes certain the audience knows she is up to no good. Her attempt to buy Pisanio's help with promises of "any shape of thy preferment such / As thou 'lt desire" is evidence she doesn't value virtues such as loyalty but operates in a world where money and status are more important than personal integrity. And the fact she tries to buy his loyalty at the same time she is giving him poison she thinks will kill him is further evidence of just how wicked she is.

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