The ending of the play, with its series of mystical riddles, unlikely coincidences and extraordinary reunions has baffled critics for centuries. Some read it as a heavy-handed political allegory of Jacobean national union under the new sovereign of the time, King James I, whilst others see in it Shakespeare pushing theatrical realism to its furthermost limits, with its decapitated bodies, complex staging and unlikely mistaken identities. Cymbeline remains a puzzling, enigmatic play. --Jerry Brotton
Enter two Gentlemen.
You do not meet a man but frowns. Our bloods
No more obey the heavens than our courtiers'
Still seem as does the King's.
SECOND GENTLEMAN But what's the matter?
His daughter, and the heir of 's kingdom, whom
He purposed to his wife's sole son -- a widow
That late he married -- hath referred herself
Unto a poor but worthy gentleman. She's wedded,
Her husband banished, she imprisoned. All
Is outward sorrow, though I think the King
Be touched at very heart.
SECOND GENTLEMAN None but the King?
He that hath lost her, too. So is the Queen,
That most desired the match. But not a courtier,
Although they wear their faces to the bent
Of the King's looks, hath a heart that is not
Glad at the thing they scowl at.
SECOND GENTLEMAN And why so?
He that hath missed the Princess is a thing
Too bad for bad report, and he that hath her --
I mean, that married her, alack, good man!
And therefore banished -- is a creature such
As, to seek through the regions of the earth
For one his like, there would be something failing
In him that should compare. I do not think
So fair an outward and such stuff within
Endows a man but he.
SECOND GENTLEMAN You speak him far.
I do extend him, sir, within himself,
Crush him together rather than unfold
His measure duly.
SECOND GENTLEMAN What's his name and birth?
I cannot delve him to the root. His father
Was called Sicilius, who did join his honor
Against the Romans with Cassibelan,
But had his titles by Tenantius, whom
He served with glory and admired success,
So gained the sur-addition Leonatus;
And had, besides this gentleman in question,
Two other sons, who in the wars o' th' time
Died with their swords in hand. For which their father,
Then old and fond of issue, took such sorrow
That he quit being; and his gentle lady,
Big of this gentleman our theme, deceased
As he was born. The King he takes the babe
To his protection, calls him Posthumus Leonatus,
Breeds him and makes him of his bedchamber,
Puts to him all the learnings that his time
Could make him the receiver of, which he took
As we do air, fast as 'twas ministered,
And in 's spring became a harvest; lived in court --
Which rare it is to do -- most praised, most loved,
A sample to the youngest, to th' more mature
A glass that feated them, and to the graver
A child that guided dotards. To his mistress,
For whom he now is banished, her own price
Proclaims how she esteemed him; and his virtue
By her election may be truly read
What kind of man he is.
SECOND GENTLEMAN I honor him
Even out of your report. But pray you tell me,
Is she sole child to th' King?
FIRST GENTLEMAN His only child.
He had two sons -- if this be worth your hearing,
Mark it -- the eldest of them at three years old,
I' th' swathing clothes the other, from their nursery
Were stol'n, and to this hour no guess in knowledge
Which way they went.
SECOND GENTLEMAN How long is this ago?
FIRST GENTLEMAN Some twenty years.
That a king's children should be so conveyed,
So slackly guarded, and the search so slow
That could not trace them!
FIRST GENTLEMAN Howsoe'er 'tis strange,
Or that the negligence may well be laughed at,
Yet is it true, sir.
SECOND GENTLEMAN I do well believe you.
We must forbear. Here comes the gentleman,
The Queen and Princess.
Enter the Queen, Posthumus, and Imogen.
No, be assured you shall not find me, daughter,
After the slander of most stepmothers,
Evil-eyed unto you. You're my prisoner, but
Your jailer shall deliver you the keys
That lock up your restraint. -- For you, Posthumus,
So soon as I can win th' offended king,
I will be known your advocate. Marry, yet
The fire of rage is in him, and 'twere good
You leaned unto his sentence with what patience
Your wisdom may inform you.
POSTHUMUS Please your Highness,
I will from hence today.
QUEEN You know the peril.
I'll fetch a turn about the garden, pitying
The pangs of barred affections, though the King
Hath charged you should not speak together. She exits.
Dissembling courtesy! How fine this tyrant
Can tickle where she wounds! My dearest husband,
I something fear my father's wrath, but nothing --
Always reserved my holy duty -- what
His rage can do on me. You must be gone,
And I shall here abide the hourly shot
Of angry eyes, not comforted to live
But that there is this jewel in the world
That I may see again. [She weeps.]
POSTHUMUS My queen, my mistress!
O lady, weep no more, lest I give cause
To be suspected of more tenderness
Than doth become a man. I will remain
The loyal'st husband that did e'er plight troth.
My residence in Rome at one Philario's,
Who to my father was a friend, to me
Known but by letter; thither write, my queen,
And with mine eyes I'll drink the words you send,
Though ink be made of gall.
QUEEN Be brief, I pray you.
If the King come, I shall incur I know not
How much of his displeasure. [<Aside.>] Yet I'll move him
To walk this way. I never do him wrong
But he does buy my injuries, to be friends,
Pays dear for my offenses. [She exits.]
POSTHUMUS Should we be taking leave
As long a term as yet we have to live,
The loathness to depart would grow. Adieu.
IMOGEN Nay, stay a little!
Were you but riding forth to air yourself,
Such parting were too petty. Look here, love:
This diamond was my mother's. [She offers a
ring.] Take it, heart,
But keep it till you woo another wife
When Imogen is dead.
POSTHUMUS How, how? Another?
You gentle gods, give me but this I have,
And cere up my embracements from a next
With bonds of death. [He puts the ring on his finger.]
Remain, remain thou here,
While sense can keep it on. -- And sweetest, fairest,
As I my poor self did exchange for you
To your so infinite loss, so in our trifles
I still win of you. For my sake, wear this.
[He offers a bracelet.]
It is a manacle of love. I'll place it
Upon this fairest prisoner. [He puts it on her wrist.]
IMOGEN O the gods!
When shall we see again?
Enter Cymbeline and Lords.
POSTHUMUS Alack, the King.
Thou basest thing, avoid hence, from my sight!
If after this command thou fraught the court
With thy unworthiness, thou diest. Away!
Thou 'rt poison to my blood.
POSTHUMUS The gods protect you,
And bless the good remainders of the court.
I am gone. He exits.
IMOGEN There cannot be a pinch in death
More sharp than this is.
CYMBELINE O disloyal thing
That shouldst repair my youth, thou heap'st
A year's age on me.
IMOGEN I beseech you, sir,
Harm not yourself with your vexation.
I am senseless of your wrath. A touch more rare
Subdues all pangs, all fears.
CYMBELINE Past grace? Obedience?
Past hope and in despair; that way past grace.
That mightst have had the sole son of my queen!
O, blessèd that I might not! I chose an eagle
And did avoid a puttock.
Thou took'st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne
A seat for baseness.
IMOGEN No, I rather added
A luster to it.
CYMBELINE O thou vile one!
It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus.
You bred him as my playfellow, and he is
A man worth any woman, overbuys me
Almost the sum he pays.
What, art thou mad?
Almost, sir. Heaven restore me! Would I were
A neatherd's daughter, and my Leonatus
Our neighbor shepherd's son. [She weeps.]
Thou foolish thing!
They were again together. You have done
Not after our command. Away with her
And pen her up.
Beseech your patience. -- Peace,
Dear lady daughter, peace. -- Sweet sovereign,
Leave us to ourselves, and make yourself some comfort
Out of your best advice.
Nay, let her languish
A drop of blood a day, and being aged
f0 Die of this folly. He exits,
Fie, you must give way.
Here is your servant. -- How now, sir? What news?
My lord your son drew on my master.
No harm, I trust, is done?
There might have been,
But that my master rather played than fought
And had no help of anger. They were parted
By gentlemen at hand.
QUEEN I am very glad on 't.
Your son's my father's friend; he takes his part
To draw upon an exile. O, brave sir!
I would they were in Afric both together,
Myself by with a needle, that I might prick
The goer-back. -- Why came y...