Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's final plays. Composed and performed around 1609-10, it is often referred to as a romance or tragicomedy. The happy ending of each of this production distinguishes it from earlier histories and tragedies, but at the same the play emphasizes the danger and power of evil in the world. Death, while never victorious in the end, looms as an ever-present force. Cymbeline is the story of a marriage imperilled by mistrust and painfully rebuilt through the physical and spiritual journeys undertaken by the heroine and hero, set in a context of international conflict.
The King of Britain, Cymbeline, has a daughter named Imogen from a former marriage. His wife has a son named Cloten, also from a former marriage. The queen wishes that the two stepchildren be married. Imogen refuses to marry Cloten, and instead would rather be with Posthumus, a local hero. When the king hears of this, Posthumus is banished from Britain, and Posthumus’s long time servant Pisanio is left to be the messenger of the two. Before Posthumus leaves, he and Imogen exchange gifts; he gives her a bracelet and she gives him a diamond ring. As this is happening the queen visits Dr. Cornelius and asks him to give her deadly poisons. He instead gives her a potion that will incapacitate the taker, not kill him.
While in Italy, Posthumus wagers his diamond ring in a bet against Jachimo, the villain who later sets on destroying the couple’s happiness. Posthumus bets that Jachimo will fail to seduce Imogen. Instead of trying to seduce her, Jachimo hides in a trunk in her room, and takes down every intimate detail about her room and Imogen herself then steals the bracelet. When Jachimo returns with his evidence, Posthumus is hurt, and sends two letters to Pisanio telling him to bring Imogen to Milford-Haven, and to kill her for being untrue. Instead of killing Imogen, the two come up with a plan. Imogen disguises herself as a man, then takes the queens incapacitating drug while aboard a boat.
When Imogen is found missing at court, the king is outraged and Cloten interrogates Pisanio. Pisanio gives Cloten the letter telling him to bring Imogen to Milford-Haven, and Cloten leaves to get her in Posthumus’s clothes. Two days later Imogen is discovered in a cave by a banished lord Belarius (Morgan) and Guiderius and Aviragus (Cymbeline’s two sons whom Belarius abducted as infants). All three of the men treat her with kindness and respect. While the three of them are off hunting, they discover Cloten and kill him. When Imogen awakes, she sees the dead body and assumes it is Posthumus.
When Imogen is found by the Roman general he is so taken back by ‘his’ tears he requests that Imogen enlist in the Roman army preparing to attack Britain.
Posthumus receives a bloody cloth and believes that it is a sign from Pisanio that Imogen’s murder has been completed, and is filled with regret. He is then brought back to Britain to fight for Italy, but disguises himself as a peasant and fights for the English. He defeats Jachimo in battle, and three other heroes emerge: Belarius, Guiderius, and Avigarus. All three are honored for their bravery, however Posthumus can not be found because after switching back into his Roman uniform he was sent to jail.
While sleeping, Posthumus is visited by ghosts of his past who ask Jupiter to help Posthumus. In return Jupiter leaves a tablet with a prediction on it by his bedside. When he awakes Posthumus does not know why the tablet has been left there or what it says. He is then taken to Cymbeline’s tent, where on the way he learns the queen has died after confessing her plan to murder the Cymbeline and Imogen to make her son king. Cymbeline announces that all Roman prisoners must die, the Roman general asks that the boy (Imogen) be spared, and ‘he’ is. When Imogen sees Jachimo wearing Posthumus’s diamond ring he confesses to all of his crimes regarding the couple. Then all the deception comes undone, when Posthumus, Pisanio, and Cornelius all uncover their roles and Imogen’s disguise is no longer needed. At the end of the play they discover what the tablet reads. It predicted the reunion of Cymbeline and his family and the improved conditions of Rome and Britain.
Imogen - Cymbeline's daughter, the British princess. Wise, beautiful, and resourceful, she incurs her father's displeasure when she chooses to marry the lowborn Posthumus instead of Cymbeline's oafish stepson, Cloten.
Posthumus - An orphaned gentleman, he is adopted and raised by Cymbeline, and he marries Imogen in secret, against her father's will. He is deeply in love with her but is nevertheless willing to think the worst of her when she is accused of infidelity.
Cymbeline - The king of Britain and Imogen's father. A wise and gracious monarch, he is led astray by the machinations of his wicked Queen.
Queen - Cymbeline's wife and Imogen's stepmother. A villainous woman, she will stop at nothing--including murder--to see her son Cloten married to Imogen and, thus, made the eventual king of Britain.
Cloten - The Queen's son, he was betrothed to Imogen before her secret wedding to Posthumus. Her unwillingness to marry him is understandable, since he is an arrogant, clumsy fool.
Iachimo - A clever and dishonest Italian gentleman. He makes a wager with Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen, and when his attempt at seduction fails, resorts to trickery to make Posthumus believe that he has succeeded.
Pisanio - Posthumus's loyal servant, he is left behind in Britain when his master goes into exile, and he acts as a servant to Imogen and the Queen.
Belarius - A British nobleman, unjustly banished by Cymbeline. He kidnapped Cymbeline's infant sons to revenge himself on the king, and, under the name of Morgan, he has raised them as his own sons in the Welsh wilderness.
Guiderius - Cymbeline's eldest son and Imogen's brother, he was kidnapped and raised by Belarius under the name of Polydore.
Arviragus - Cymbeline's younger son and Imogen's brother, he was kidnapped and raised by Belarius under the name of Cadwal.
Philario - An Italian gentleman. Posthumus stays at his home during his exile from Britain.
Caius Lucius - The Roman ambassador to Britain and, later, the general of the Roman invasion force.
Cornelius - A doctor at the court of Cymbeline
Soothsayer - A seer, in the service of Caius Lucius
Jupiter - The thunder-god and king of Olympus in Roman myth
The finest scene, in such a work, is inevitably the final scene, in which all the tangled strands of plot unravel in a brilliantly constructed series of revelations, and everyone receives their just reward. The villains die, Imogen and Posthumus are reunited, and King Cymbeline's abducted sons are restored to him. Indeed, while the play invokes famous tragedies, these invocations heighten the relief at what doesn't happen. The king errs in his marriage and his treatment of Rome, but his kingdom survives; Imogen and Posthumus both mistakenly believe the other to be dead, but they do not kill themselves out of deluded grief; Cymbeline loses his sons but gets them back; the Romans are defeated but their lives are spared. Tragedy looms but never strikes, and, instead, as Cymbeline declares, "Pardon's the word to all" (V.v.422).