Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

Long before the play opens, King Cymbeline's two sons were kidnapped, leaving him with only one child—his daughter, Imogen. He also raised an orphan boy, Posthumus Leonatus, and became a widow. Imogen and Posthumus grew up and fell in love, and Cymbeline remarried. But his new queen had a son, the boastful and foolish Cloten, and she wants Imogen to become her son's wife. Imogen refuses and marries Posthumus, whom Cymbeline promptly banishes. The play begins as Posthumus is making plans to go live in exile in Rome.

After exchanging items of jewelry as love tokens, Imogen and Posthumus part and Posthumus leaves for Rome. He arrives and takes up residence at the home of Philario. There he meets a man named Iachimo, who ridicules Posthumus for his boast of Imogen's faithfulness. Iachimo bets Posthumus he can seduce Imogen, and Posthumus, angered by Iachimo's disrespect, agrees to the bet.

Back in Britain, the queen obtains a box from her doctor, Cornelius, that she believes contains poisonous compounds. But Cornelius, not trusting her, has substituted a substance that will cause a sleep that simulates death. The queen allows Pisanio to take the box.

When Iachimo arrives at Cymbeline's palace to pursue Imogen, he first tries to persuade her to have sex with him by saying Posthumus has taken a lover. Imogen knows Iachimo just wants to get in her bed, so she threatens to call her father. At this Iachimo says he was just testing her fidelity to Posthumus. She becomes friendly and agrees to store Iachimo's trunk in her bedroom to keep it safe.

Act 2

After Imogen goes to sleep, Iachimo emerges from the trunk, where he has concealed himself. He takes note of the appearance of the room as well as a mark on Imogen's body. He steals the bracelet Posthumus had given Imogen as a love token. Then he hides again in the trunk until morning.

Cloten, meanwhile, has been drinking with two of his lords. He's been boasting to them about how awesome he is and gambling. He arrives near Imogen's bedroom in the morning, accompanied by musicians he has hired to serenade Imogen. When she comes out of her chamber, however, she rebuffs and insults him. He becomes angry and vows revenge for her disrespect.

Iachimo has returned to Rome carrying with him his proofs of Imogen's infidelity to Posthumus—the bracelet and his intimate knowledge of her body and bedchamber. Posthumus is enraged at Imogen's apparent infidelity.

Act 3

Meanwhile, Britain has stopped paying tribute to Rome, and a messenger from Rome, Caius Lucius, is sent to tell Cymbeline to resume the payments. If Cymbeline does not obey, war between Rome and Britain is unavoidable.

Posthumus, enraged by his belief that Imogen slept with Iachimo, has sent two letters to Pisanio. One letter instructs Pisanio to kill Imogen for her adultery. The other is a letter to give to Imogen saying Posthumus has come secretly to Britain. This second letter is meant to give Pisanio a way to get Imogen out of the palace so he can kill her. Pisanio does not believe Imogen committed adultery, but he gives Imogen her letter. They make plans to leave the palace and secretly meet up with Posthumus.

In the mountains of Cambria (Wales), a man named Morgan and two young men known as Polydor and Cadwal live a rural life, far from Cymbeline's court. The two young men leave to go hunting, and Morgan reveals he is really Belarius, and the two young men are not his sons but the king's lost sons. Belarius kidnapped the boys when they were young as revenge for being unjustly banished, and he has raised them as his own.

On the way to meet Posthumus, Pisanio reveals the truth to Imogen, telling her Posthumus intended her to die. She is distraught and wants Pisanio to kill her. But he refuses, saying instead she should go into hiding disguised as a young man. Pisanio will tell Posthumus he carried out the murder, providing a bloody cloth as proof. She agrees.

Pisanio goes back to Cymbeline's palace, where he is confronted by Cloten, who intends to go after Imogen and Posthumus. Cloten plans to dress in Posthumus's clothes, kill Posthumus, then rape Imogen. Pisanio gives him the clothes, and Cloten leaves.

Meanwhile, Imogen manages to end up at the home of Belarius. She introduces herself as the young man Fidele. The two young men feel a strange, brotherly affection for Fidele.

Act 4

At the home of Belarius, Imogen is feeling ill, so she takes some medicine Pisanio left with her (but which is really the sleeping potion Cornelius gave the queen). She falls into a deep sleep. Meanwhile, Cloten, dressed in Posthumus's clothing, also manages to come upon Belarius's home. Cloten is insulting to Guiderius, and the two fight; Guiderius cuts off Cloten's head.

Arviragus, son of Cymbeline who lives with Belarius, discovers Imogen asleep and thinks she is dead. Arviragus, Guiderius, and Belarius decide to bury the two dead bodies later in the evening and leave them next to each other in the meantime. The men leave, and Imogen wakes. Seeing the headless body wearing her husband's clothing, she believes Posthumus dead. She faints.

War between Britain and Rome has begun, and Caius Lucius, who is to lead an army of gentlemen against Britain, happens to be passing by the cave of Belarius. He finds Imogen, who (still as Fidele) pledges to serve and follow him.

Cymbeline is increasingly stressed by the threat of war, and now there are several missing persons in his household. The queen is also ill. Some of the fighting is near the home of Belarius. Arviragus, Guiderius, and Belarius join in the fight on the British side.

Act 5

Posthumus has joined the Roman army, in which Iachimo is also serving. Posthumus feels remorse for his deadly actions against Imogen and ironically wishes Pisanio had disobeyed his orders and saved Imogen's life. Full of remorse, he dresses as a Briton peasant and joins the fight against Rome, hoping to die in battle. Disguised in this way, he meets Iachimo on the battlefield and vanquishes him. With the help of Posthumus, Arviragus, Guiderius, and Belarius, the Britons come out on top in the battle.

But Posthumus decides he will dress in his Roman garb again and be taken prisoner by the Britons. In prison he prays for death. That night he has a visionary dream in which the god Jupiter and deceased members of his family appear to him.

Cymbeline, in his tent on the battlefield, makes Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus knights for their help. Word comes to him that the queen confessed on her deathbed she planned to kill the king and Imogen so that Cloten could become king.

The Roman prisoners are brought in, including Caius Lucius, Iachimo, Fidele, and Posthumus. Cymbeline thinks Fidele looks familiar, but she lies and says her name is Fidele. Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus are shocked, having believed Fidele to be dead. Pisanio realizes Fidele is Imogen. Iachimo now reveals his deception against Imogen and Posthumus, and Posthumus, shocked and angry, reveals his presence. Pisanio reveals Fidele's true identity and what happened to Cloten. Then Belarius reveals how he kidnapped the two princes. Everyone is surprised, and Cymbeline is so pleased to have his sons back he forgives Belarius. A celebration follows all these happy revelations.

Cymbeline Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Long ago, King Cymbeline's two young sons were kidnapped.

Rising Action

2 Widowed Cymbeline remarries; the new queen's son is Cloten.

3 Cymbeline agrees to have his daughter Imogen marry Cloten.

4 Imogen marries Posthumus.

5 Angered, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus.

6 Iachimo hears Posthumus boast that Imogen is faithful.

7 Iachimo bets Posthumus that Iachimo can seduce Imogen.

8 Iachimo sneaks into Imogen's room and steals a bracelet.

9 Iachimo uses the bracelet as proof he seduced Imogen.

10 Posthumus sends his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen.


11 Pisanio warns Imogen, and she flees, disguised as a man.

Falling Action

12 Cloten, wearing Posthumus's clothing, is beheaded.

13 Imogen finds the headless body and thinks it is Posthumus.

14 Imogen, Posthumus, and the lost sons come before Cymbeline.


15 Secrets are revealed, and Imogen and Posthumus are reunited.

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