Cymbeline | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline | Themes


Appearance versus Reality

Throughout the play, appearance and reality are in tension. Of the sprawling cast of characters, four deliberately don disguises in order to appear as a different person, class, gender, or nationality. Imogen disguises herself as the young man Fidele. Cloten wears the clothes of Posthumus. Posthumus wears the clothes of both a Briton peasant and a Roman soldier. Belarius, a former courtier, lives life as a peasant under an assumed name. Two princes, kidnapped as children and raised in rural Wales, appear to be peasants.

This contrast between appearance and reality manifests in other ways as well. Various proofs are offered for events that did not happen: Iachimo "proves" Imogen slept with him by displaying intimate knowledge and a bracelet. Pisario "proves" Imogen is dead using a bloody cloth. A potion that is presented as a medicine causes Imogen to appear dead, and she wakes next to a man who appears to be her dead husband.

Over the course of the play, reality begins to win out over appearances. By the final scene, the truth—the reality—about all these false appearances is revealed. Imogen is not dead, despite seeming so twice. The dead man is not Posthumus, but Cloten. Imogen did not betray Posthumus by sleeping with Iachimo. Even the princes, who are not even aware of their true identities, are revealed to be royal—first by their courageous actions, and then by the admission of Belarius, who had kidnapped them as an act of revenge.

Trust and Betrayal

The nature of trust and loyalty is woven into the plot of Cymbeline, and at times its characters are faced with difficult moral dilemmas because of competing loyalties. There are true betrayals of trust, such as Belarius's kidnapping of the king's sons, the queen's plot to kill Pisanio and her husband, and Posthumus's terrible readiness to believe the worst of Imogen. It is important to note that not all of these are treated equally in the play: while the queen's treachery is clearly evil and unforgivable, both Belarius's and Posthumus's acts of betrayal are forgiven in the play's final scene. There are also false betrayals of trust, such as Imogen's adultery with Iachimo and Pisanio's murder of Imogen—both events that did not happen but were presented as having occurred.

This theme is also developed through the character Pisanio, Posthumus's servant, who stays with Imogen to serve her when Posthumus goes into exile in Italy. Pisanio's loyalty to Posthumus is tested when Posthumus instructs Pisanio to kill Imogen. Pisanio, of course, feels loyalty to Imogen, and she trusts him to look out for her best interests while her husband is away. So Pisanio must come up with a creative way to resolve this moral dilemma, which he successfully does by only pretending to kill Imogen, hoping Posthumus will come around. However, Pisanio's loyalty troubles don't end there. Later in the play, when Cymbeline realizes Imogen is missing, he demands Pisanio tell him where she is. Pisanio swears he is the king's loyal servant, but then he lies, saying he doesn't know anything about the missing Imogen. Ultimately, Pisanio does what is right by protecting Imogen, and both Cymbeline and Posthumus are glad she is alive. But his story line does suggest that being trustworthy does not always mean being honest—and perhaps sometimes even necessitates being dishonest in a world in which treachery and danger are everywhere.


Of course, whenever betrayal is part of a plot, there are two main ways characters can respond: revenge or forgiveness. This play, unlike Hamlet, ends happily, with forgiveness. That's not to say there is no revenge in the play. Belarius's act of stealing the king's two sons was an act of revenge, as is Posthumus's demand that Pisanio kill Imogen. But even Belarius is forgiven as Cymbeline admits he did a fine job raising the princes: "I lost my children. / If these be they, I know not how to wish / A pair of worthier sons" (Act 5, Scene 5).

Posthumus, driven by Iachimo's deception into a murderous rage that threatened the life of Imogen, is remarkably forgiving when Iachimo expresses his deep regret: "The power that I have on you is to spare you; / The malice towards you to forgive you." Imogen, too, has some forgiving to do. She was wronged first by Iachimo, and then by Posthumus. But she is quick to forgive, asking Posthumus only "Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?" before embracing him.

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