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Cymbeline

William Shakespeare

Act II, scenes iii-v

Act I, scenes iii-iv; Act II, scenes i-ii

Act III, scenes i-iv

Summary

The following morning, Cloten orders musicians to play under Imogen's window, in the hopes of winning her heart. While the musicians play, Cymbeline and the Queen pass by, and they advise Cloten to be persistent--Imogen will forget Posthumus eventually, they promise. At that moment, a messenger comes in, bringing word that ambassadors from Rome have arrived. The royal couple goes to greet the Romans, asking Cloten to join them once he has bid Imogen good morning.

Cloten then knocks on Imogen's door, and when one of her ladies-in-waiting comes out, he clumsily attempts to bribe her. Then, Imogen herself appears and treats her suitor coldly, telling him that she will never accept him as a husband. Cloten replies that she is being disobedient to her father and for no better reason than for the sake of Posthumus, whom he calls a second-rate, lowborn fool. Imogen retorts that Cloten is far inferior to Posthumus--indeed, that he is not fit to be Posthumus's servant and that Posthumus's "meanest garment / That hath ever but clipped his body is dearer / In my respect than all the hairs above thee, / Were they all made such men (II.iii.133-36)." This last insult cuts Cloten to the quick, and he swears that he will be revenged on Posthumus--but Imogen is no longer paying attention to him. She has noticed that her bracelet is missing and orders Pisanio to have her servants look for it, since it was given to her by Posthumus.

Meanwhile, Iachimo has returned to Italy and comes to Philario's house, where Philario and Posthumus are discussing the prospects of war between Rome and Britain over the tribute that Cymbeline's kingdom owes to the Romans. ("Tribute" here means a payment of one nation by another in exchange for a promise of non-aggression.) Iachimo bears letters from Imogen and declares that he won the bet, claiming to have slept with the princess. Posthumus refuses to believe him, but Iachimo proceeds to describe Imogen's bedroom in detail and displays the bracelet as a token of his triumph. Posthumus, heartbroken, begins cursing his wife, but Philario tries to calm him, pointing out that this is not perfect proof: The bracelet might have been stolen. But when Iachimo adds the detail of the tiny mole on Imogen's breast, Posthumus is convinced, turns over the ring that he wagered, and storms out, cursing the treachery of women: "We are all bastards (II.v.2)," he cries and asserts that all of a man's sins come from the "woman's part (II.v.20)" in him.

Commentary

The scene between Cloten and Imogen serves mainly to heighten our appreciation for the heroine, whose clever wordplay reduces the blundering prince to spluttering imprecations against Posthumus. But here, too, the plot is being furthered (indeed, Cymbeline has more plot than any other work of Shakespeare): For Imogen's last insult--that Cloten matters less to her than a scrap of Posthumus's garments--plants in Cloten's mind an absurd, sick plan; he decides to rape her while wearing her husband's clothes. And in the background of the scene, we have a reference to the Roman ambassadors, which serves as an introduction to the third plot strand in the play--the political conflict between Rome and Britain.

Meanwhile, Iachimo has managed to return to Italy as quickly as he arrived in Britain--Cymbeline may be plot-heavy, but the plots themselves are fleet- footed. The Italian knave toys skillfully with Posthumus, revealing his "evidence" one piece at a time, but his virtuosity seems unnecessary, since Imogen's husband is oddly eager to believe in her infidelity. The scene is a peculiar one, with Philario acting as the voice of reason and Imogen's defender, while her own husband proves ridiculously ready to think the worst of her. "Have patience, sir (II.iv.113)," Philario pleads, and he repeatedly suggests alternate explanations for how Iachimo may have come by his evidence. In contrast, even before Iachimo's mention of the mole, Posthumus is ready to declare definitively, "Hark you, he swears; by Jupiter he swears. / 'Tis true-- nay, keep the ring--'tis true... he hath enjoyed her. / The cognizance of her incontinency / Is this (II.iv.122-128)." Posthumus displays a remarkable lack of faith for a man so certain of his wife's fidelity that he made a wager on it; perhaps the willingness to wager signified not confidence but a deep sexual anxiety.

But while we receive hints of such an anxiety, it never manifests itself explicitly, nor has it reared its head prior to this scene; rather, Posthumus remains almost deliberately two-dimensional throughout--rendering his remarkably venomous speech against women and his subsequent decision to kill his wife all the more unexpected. In a sense, Posthumus is a parody of Othello; like Othello, he represents a jealousy-crazed husband; yet, unlike Othello's distrust of Desdemona, Posthumus's frantic distrust is neither understandable nor accessible. Posthumus repeatedly makes such statements as the following: "Could I find out / The woman's part in me--for there's no motion / That tends to vice in man, but I affirm / It is the woman's: flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; / Lust, and rank thoughts, hers, hers...(II.v.19-24)." Yet the play never shows us any reasons for him to think this way. And he goes on; we hear line after line of vitriol from a man who otherwise seems the epitome of plodding decency. It is an amazing speech, and Posthumus risks forfeiting our sympathy entirely, especially since Shakespeare gives him such a wonderfully sympathetic wife. Following the speech, the action shifts away from Imogen's husband for a long time, and when we return to him, his madness will have passed--but the peculiar anger of these scenes remains with the audience, leaving a bitter aftertaste when Imogen and Posthumus are reunited.

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My scissors and paste and the real Shakespeare theory.

by ReadingShakespeareby450th, October 24, 2013

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:

http://ow.ly/q8TWL

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