Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.
Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.
In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's final plays. Composed and performed around 1609-10, probably on the indoor Blackfriars stage rather than at the more famous Globe, it joins Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest in the list of genre-defying later plays that are usually referred to as romances or tragicomedies. The happy ending of each of these productions distinguishes them from earlier histories and tragedies, but each play emphasizes the danger and power of evil in the world, and death, while never victorious in the end, looms as an ever-present force in the stories. Indeed, the plot of Cymbeline bears a striking resemblance at various points to a number of the great tragedies: the Imogen-Cymbeline relationship suggests Lear and Cordelia in King Lear, while Iachimo plays a role similar to that of Iago in Othello, and the sleeping potion taken by Imogen reminds us of a similar device in Romeo and Juliet. In Cymbeline, however, disaster may threaten but it never strikes: Only the wicked characters die, and the end of the play treats us to a joyous reconciliation.
There is no obvious source for Cymbeline. The titular king and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus are quasi-historical figures; Cymbeline, according to a dubious source available during Shakespeare's time, ruled in Britain around the time of Christ. (The same source was used for the title character in King Lear, another play set in pre-Christian Britain.) The Iachimo plot, in which a seduction is attempted on a virtuous wife, may have its roots in the celebrated Decameron, a collection of stories by the Renaissance author Boccaccio. And the scenes in the Welsh wilderness, especially Imogen's death-like slumber, bear a striking resemblance to fairy tales like "Snow White." The bulk of the plot and most of the characters, however, can be attributed directly to Shakespeare's imagination; such pure originality was rare for the playwright, who adored lifting and reworking plots from other authors, writing in dialogue with older stories.
I just finished Cymbeline in quest to read all Bard's plays by next April. Entertaining play, lots of twists, and I have a theory. In case you're interested, check it out on my blog of the play: