Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Cymbeline Study Guide." Course Hero. 2 Apr. 2018. Web. 22 June 2021. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2018, April 2). Cymbeline Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 22, 2021, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)



Course Hero. "Cymbeline Study Guide." April 2, 2018. Accessed June 22, 2021.


Course Hero, "Cymbeline Study Guide," April 2, 2018, accessed June 22, 2021,

Cymbeline | Context


The Historical King Cymbeline

It is likely that Shakespeare first encountered the figure of King Cymbeline in English chronicler Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (second edition 1587). This somewhat loose historical text is a main source for history plays and one commonly referenced in tragedies. According to legend, Cymbeline was taken prisoner by the Romans at a young age but later returned to Britain as a powerful leader. Shakespeare borrows descriptions of the political situation from Holinshed, as well as many of the play's characters' names.

Scholars believe the historical Cymbeline was king of the southern part of Britain at a time when the Roman Empire (27 BCE–1453 CE) was a dominant military force in Europe. The Roman Empire encompassed territory in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Roman general Julius Caesar's 55 BCE invasion of Britain brought the nation within the Roman Empire's borders, but it still did not share monetary and trade relationships with Rome, and Britain remained largely independent. In Shakespeare's play, tension with Rome occurs because the king stops paying tribute, or taxes, to Rome. When the tribute payment is restored at the end of the play, peace returns to the relationship.

Late Romance

Shakespeare's career as a playwright produced tragedies, such as King Lear; comedies, such as Comedy of Errors; and histories, such as Henry V. Toward the end of his career, he began writing what are now often called his late romances: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and sometimes the play he cowrote, The Two Noble Kinsmen. These plays have elements of both tragedy and comedy, though they generally end with reunions rather than a high body count. In fact, their plots tend to have many of the seeds of a tragedy that just happen to work out to a happy ending rather than a tragic one. They often center on themes of redemption, forgiveness, and reunion.

Other Sources

Shakespeare regularly borrows plot elements from a variety of other sources, and this play is no exception. There are traces of Fasti (8 CE) by Roman poet Ovid, which includes the story of the Roman king Tarquin's (534–509 BCE) rape of the Roman woman Lucrece. Ovid's Metamorphoses (8 CE), which includes the story of Thracian king Tereus's rape of Athenian princess Philomel, is also a source. Both are mentioned in the text of Cymbeline. Iachimo mentions the rape of Lucrece when he sneaks out after hiding in a trunk in Imogen's bedchamber and observes her sleeping. He notices Imogen has been reading about Philomel near the end of the scene. Iachimo does not rape Imogen, but the references are intended to evoke a sense of violation and suspense.

The Decameron (1353) by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio is another likely source for some of the plot of Cymbeline. In one story in the Decameron, a similar bet is wagered to the one between Iachimo and Posthumus. To win the wager, Boccaccio's character sneaks into the lady's bedchamber and takes note of its furnishings. He also steals some items to prove he was with her. This compares to Iachimo's behavior after he is unable to seduce Imogen. Shakespeare may have also consulted The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1582) by an anonymous author for parts of the Posthumus and Imogen plot line.

Similarities to The Winter's Tale and Othello

Many readers have noted Cymbeline seems to be something of a mash-up of Shakespeare's other plays. It contains several plot devices that appear elsewhere in Shakespeare, such as a cross-dressing woman, lost children, parted lovers, and a sleeping potion that mimics death. But in particular, its many plots include elements that bear striking resemblances to Othello (1603–04) and The Winter's Tale (1609–11).

The structure is much like Othello, which focuses on a villain's (Iago) strategic plot to cause a true lover (Othello) to believe his lady (Desdemona) is untrue when she is perfectly virtuous. Iago uses various staged "proofs" to drive Othello into a jealous, murderous rage. In Cymbeline, Iachimo uses similar proofs to deceive Posthumus into believing Imogen is unfaithful. Posthumus goes into a rage and directs his servant to murder Imogen.

The most noticeable parallel with The Winter's Tale is the plot line involving Cymbeline's two sons. In Cymbeline, Guiderius and Arviragus, Imogen's brothers, are kidnapped as very young children. They are raised as peasants—Polydor and Cadwall—far from court, in a rural area. They have no recollection of their princely rank or life at court. The play takes place when they are in their early 20s. Then, through a series of coincidences, they are reunited with their father.

Similarly, in The Winter's Tale Queen Hermione's infant is taken from her and raised in the forest as a shepherdess. The young princess, Perdita, has no knowledge of her true identity. Then, through an unlikely sequence of events, she is reunited with her mother and father. The Winter's Tale also includes the plot device of a jealous husband (Leontes, king of Sicilia) believing his wife (Hermione) is unfaithful. He takes action against her, even though she is innocent. Like Imogen (and like Hero in Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado about Nothing, 1598–99), Hermione hides from her unjust accuser by faking her death. She is revealed to be alive once the danger has passed.

Early Performances and Critical Reception

Early performances of Cymbeline would have likely been at both Blackfriars and Globe theatres by The King's Men. The play is not noted in reviews of the time to the extent that other plays, such as Macbeth (1606–07) and The Winter's Tale, are mentioned. English king Charles I is recorded as having "well liked" the play in 1634, but this is not quite a rave review.

Over time the play has enjoyed steady but infrequent staging in performances of Shakespeare. This may stem from the fact there are a number of potential "main character" roles, depending on which subplot is emphasized and the cultural trends of the time. In addition, the play is complex to stage because of its many plot lines and challengingly long final scene.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Cymbeline? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!