Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline | Act 3, Scene 4 | Summary



Imogen and Pisanio have traveled to Milford Haven. Unable to keep his secret, Pisanio shows her the other letter he received from Posthumus. She is appalled and sad that her husband has accused her of infidelity and called for her death. She asks Pisanio to kill her. But Pisanio has a different suggestion: Pisanio will tell Posthumus that Imogen is dead and will send him a bloody cloth as proof. She will not return home, and her disappearance will further convince Posthumus she is dead. Imogen will disguise herself as a young man and join up with Caius Lucius, who is shortly returning to Rome. Hidden among the Romans, Imogen can be near Posthumus, whom she loves, while staying hidden. Imogen agrees and prepares to disguise herself. Pisanio gives her the queen's sleeping potion, which he still carries, believing it to be a medicine. He hopes it will help if Imogen becomes ill.


Pisanio's behavior is a lesson in how to use lies to do good. Deception in this play is not inherently moral or immoral: it is a tool that can be used to achieve both evil and good results. Pisanio gave Imogen Posthumus's deceptive letter, but rather than using the letter as Posthumus intended Pisanio has used it to get her out of sight and danger. Now he proposes fabricating proof of her death, much the same way Iachimo fabricated proof of her infidelity. But while Iachimo's false proof was intended to cause harm, Pisanio's false proof is intended to protect Imogen from harm.

This scene provides a fascinating look at gender expectations of the time, as Pisanio's instructions to Imogen on disguising herself as a man go farther than simply putting on male clothing. She is also to "change ... fear and niceness ... into a waggish courage," and she should be "ready in gibes, quick-answered, saucy, and / As quarrelous as the weasel." As to her appearance, she should expose the "rarest treasure of your cheek"—her fair complexion—to the sun. So rather than being fair-skinned, fearful, and nice, which are womanly traits, she should be tanned, brave, and looking for a fight—masculine traits, in Pisanio's view.

The queen's poison/sleeping potion/medicine reenters the plot here, as Pisanio gives it to Imogen, just in case she becomes ill while in hiding. This foreshadows its importance in future plot events.

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