Discuss the different plot strands in Cymbeline and how they are interconnected.
The opening scene establishes two separate "problems" that the action of the play will resolve: the problem of Imogen's marriage to Posthumus and his subsequent banishment, and the problem of the disappearance of Cymbeline's two sons. After this introduction, however, the plot of the missing princes disappears completely for two acts before it resurfaces, and even then, it remains strictly secondary to the Imogen-Posthumus plot line. At the same time, a political subplot emerges in Act II, involving the conflict between Rome and Britain. The fact that these three strands are not successfully integrated for most of the play is often pointed to as a structural problem with Cymbeline. It should be noted, however, that the sudden and remarkable convergence of the three strands in Act V, scene v, is one of the most impressive parts of the play, despite being located in the final scene.
Discuss the play's villains.
There are three obvious candidates for this role: the Queen, her oafish son, Cloten, and Iachimo. Together, they are responsible for most of what goes wrong in the play, beginning with the banishment of Posthumus and continuing with Iachimo's deception of Posthumus in Italy. Of the three characters, however, the most active is also the most appealing--Iachimo does as much damage as the Queen and Cloten together, but he lacks their overt malice, and his supple mind and ability to think fast on his feet endear him to the audience. He is, significantly, the only one of the three allowed a chance to repent, a chance he eagerly takes (and so saves his life)--suggesting that he was not so bad after all. The Queen, meanwhile, has no redeeming characteristics, save perhaps for her devotion to her son--and he is so awful that only a mother could love him. Indeed, they are both completely two-dimensional: She is little more than a stereotyped version of a traditional evil stepmother, and he is a vicious idiot. They are, not incidentally, the only characters killed off in a play that otherwise provides its characters with forgiveness.
Discuss the character of Posthumus; how does Shakespeare portray him? How do his actions reflect upon his personality, his virtues, and shortcomings?
Imogen's beloved is one of the play's more problematic characters. He is lavished with high praise by all who know him, and he would need to be a shining figure indeed in order to make a worthy husband for the inimitable Imogen. Unfortunately, his behavior in the play is often unpleasant, as he does little to live up to the high regard he enjoys. Most of the time, he is a rather wooden figure, and when he deviates from this dull persona it is to fall into a peculiar and unexpectedly violent jealousy of his wife. Iachimo tricks him, it is true, but he also makes a willing victim, and the fierceness of his anger seems utterly inappropriate given the tenor of the play and given what we know of his character. Inappropriate, too, is his decision to order his servant, Pisanio, to kill Imogen for her supposed infidelity, a decision that completely alienates him from the audience. Shakespeare allows him contrition and guilt later on, and we are meant to rejoice in his reunion with his wife at the end of the play--but his behavior leaves one wishing that Imogen, like many estimable women in Shakespeare, could have found a better mate.
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