Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline | Character Analysis



Imogen, the beautiful and slandered princess, is often seen as a paragon of feminine virtue. She is perfectly loyal to her husband, even asking Pisanio to kill her when her husband instructs him to even though she is completely innocent. She refuses Iachimo's advances but treats him with friendliness because Posthumus asked her to. In the end, although Posthumus has shown a disturbing willingness to believe Iachimo's version of events without even asking for her side of the story, she forgives without hesitation. These characteristics may cause Imogen's strength, independence, and resilience to go unnoticed. She begins the play having just disobeyed her father's wishes, marrying Posthumus for love rather than Cloten out of duty. When she must flee in disguise, she easily takes on more "masculine" characteristics, not just wearing a man's clothing but fearlessly facing being alone in the wilderness. She fends for herself in the mountains of Wales, entering the home of Belarius to secure food without obtaining permission. She interacts with Belarius and his "sons" without missing a beat. Despite her return to a more traditional woman's role at the end of the play, she shows the grit and determination characteristic of a Shakespearean heroine.


Orphaned as child, Posthumus was taken in by Cymbeline and raised at court. Growing up alongside Imogen, he fell in love with her. However, when the widowed king remarried, his new queen insisted that her son, Cloten, should marry Imogen, and Cymbeline agreed. This led Imogen and Posthumus to marry in secret, which in turn led Cymbeline to banish Posthumus. As the play begins, Posthumus is preparing to leave for Rome, where he will live in exile. After saying his farewells to Imogen, he goes to Rome and lives at the house of Philario, where he meets Iachimo. Iachimo's crude wager, and the deception employed to "win" the wager, cause an enraged Posthumus to issue instructions to kill Imogen. However, after he believes this bloody deed is done he regrets his hasty action and repents. He seeks death in battle as punishment for his sin. However, fate or the gods intervene, and Posthumus is ultimately reunited with Imogen, who easily forgives him. Posthumus is often compared to Othello because he is convinced of his wife's adultery by false proofs that have been cleverly orchestrated by a villain and quickly flies into a murderous rage. However, in this play the jealous husband is spared Othello's fate. Posthumus does not succeed in killing his wife. He lives to be forgiven and to live in peace with his love.


Cymbeline is the title character of the play, though not its most present. His susceptibility to his queen's bad advice is a prominent feature of the play's plot. Not unlike Macbeth, Cymbeline has a wife with more resolve and greater ambitions than his own. The queen pressures him to have Cloten marry Imogen, which causes her marriage to Posthumus and his subsequent banishment. She pressures Cymbeline to discontinue payments of tribute to Rome, causing a war between Rome and Britain for which Cymbeline is unprepared. Yet his susceptibility to these pressures shows his deep insecurity about his position and power. As an independent nation in the Roman Empire, he is subject to Rome's demands of tribute. And as a king without sons (his two sons were kidnapped as children), the royal line is also in danger. These insecurities fuel his decision to have Imogen marry Cloten, who ranks higher than Posthumus, and his decision to stop paying Rome's tribute. However, for all these poor decisions, fate appears to favor and forgive Cymbeline. His sons are returned, his evil wife dies, Cloten is killed, and payments to Rome are reinstated, essentially resetting Cymbeline's life as if his poor choices had never occurred.


Cloten, son of the new queen, begins the play as a pathetic fool, constantly bragging about his fighting skills and just as consistently losing at gambling. He is often accompanied by two lords who take turns flattering and ridiculing him. Under pressure from his new queen, Cymbeline had promised Cloten would marry Imogen, but Imogen secretly married Posthumus instead. As a result Cloten tries to instigate a fight with Posthumus. Posthumus refuses to engage in a fight with Cloten—a fact that Cloten complains about bitterly. However poor Cloten's chances are at winning Imogen's favor, Cymbeline and the queen encourage him to keep trying once Posthumus is banished. But Cloten's crude attempts at wooing get him nothing but disdain from Imogen. Enraged at what he sees as extreme disrespect, he decides to pursue Imogen when she leaves the palace, rape her, and kill Posthumus. Although he does arrive at the home of Belarius while she is hiding there, he quickly gets in a fight. Not having the skill to back up his boasting, he is soon beheaded.


Iachimo makes a bet with Posthumus, who has boasted that Imogen is the most beautiful and virtuous woman in the world. Iachimo will win the bet if he can seduce Imogen. When Iachimo tries to seduce Imogen, however, she turns him down. Not one to lose a bet so easily, Iachimo hides in a trunk that is stored in Imogen's room. While she is asleep he sneaks out, observes the room and her sleeping body, and steals a bracelet. The bracelet and his intimate knowledge of her body and bedchamber convince Posthumus that Iachimo's seduction was successful. This sends Posthumus into a murderous rage that nearly costs Imogen her life. Iachimo begins the play as a villain more like Othello's Iago—looking to cause mischief for no other reason than his own pleasure and willing to ruin the life of a virtuous woman and her true love in the process. Like Iago, Iachimo trumps up evidence against a woman that convinces her husband she has been unfaithful. But once the damage is done, Iachimo's character arc diverges from Iago's. While Iago was unrepentant until the last line of Othello, Iachimo regrets his harmful actions and, in the end, is forgiven.


Pisanio, Posthumus's servant, stays with Imogen when Cymbeline banishes Posthumus for marrying his daughter. When Posthumus believes Imogen has been unfaithful, he sends a letter to Pisanio, instructing him to kill Imogen. Pisanio, not believing Imogen is guilty, instead helps her escape, sending a bloody cloth to Posthumus as "proof" of Imogen's death. Throughout the play Pisanio steadfastly stands by Imogen and protects her secret, even when Cloten and Cymbeline both demand he give up any knowledge of her. Pisanio is both strategic and loyal, and his sense of what loyalty is proves to be nuanced. He does not simply obey Posthumus, although he is Posthumus's servant. Rather, he remains loyal to Posthumus by protecting Imogen and by extension by protecting Posthumus from making a terrible mistake. In the end his approach of using deception to achieve a good outcome proves to be the right course.

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