There are women’s names in only three of Shakespeare’s titles: Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida. I think this play should be called Imogen. Cymbeline, the king is a dolt whereas his daughter Imogen shimmers with courage, imagination and integrity. It’s a long play which tries to encompass the doings of the Roman Empire with the doings of Celtic Britain which is a bit of a trick since they happened in different centuries. But it’s the Imogen story that most interested me.
Imogen has married Posthumus (so called because he was born after his father died) and her father Cymbeline is furious. He intended her to marry his step-son, a clod named Clotus, son of his current Queen whose hobby is to mix deadly poisons and try them out on small animals. In his rage, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus and imprisons Imogen. Before they part Posthumus gives Imogen a bracelet and she gives him a ring.
In exile, Posthumus gets into a locker room exchange with some other frat boys. As he boasts about his wife’s virtue, he inflames the desire of a villainous character named Iachimo who bets Posthumus he can bag Imogen. Posthumus puts up his wedding ring, Iachimo leaves for Britain and I almost throw my Pelican Shakespeare out my bay window. I am so sick of this “proof of women’s virtue” crap especially since it’s still going on 400 years later and in our “modern” society.
There’s a truly creepy scene where during the night Iachimo steps out of a trunk that has been delivered to Imogen’s room. He takes note of the room’s décor before examining Imogen while she sleeps. While he notes a mole on her left breast, I throw up. He removes her marriage bracelet.
The next morning while Cymbeline is setting up a forced marriage ceremony to Clotus, Imogen escapes with the help of Pisanio, a sympathetic servant the Queen has been trying to poison. Pisanio has received two letters from Posthumus. The one addressed to Imogen tells her to meet him at Milford Haven in Wales. The one address to Pisanio tells him to kill Imogen. Pisanio shows both letters to Imogen and together they figure out a plan.
Imogen dresses as a boy and Pisanio gives her a “tonic” that the Queen has given him. He doesn’t know the Queen intended it as poison. But the Queen doesn’t know that the herbalist she has been working with is on to her and he has given her a recipe to induce sleep, not death. In Wales, Imogen is befriended by Belarius and his two sons. She takes the “tonic” and falls into a deep sleep. Meantime Cloten, the clod, has dressed himself as Posthumus and has followed her to Wales. He tries to intimidate one of Belarius’ sons by pulling rank, “Know’st me not by my clothes?” The son lops off his head. So I guess not.
Now comes the most sublime song in all of Shakespeare. (My favorite setting of it is the one by Roger Quilter). The sons entomb Imogen, believing her to be dead, and sing:
Fear no more the heat o’ the Sun,
Nor the furious Winters rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast don,
Home art gon, and tane thy wages.
Golden Lads, and Girls all must,
As Chimney-Sweepers come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ th Great,
Thou art past the Tyrants stroak,
Care no more to clothe and eat,
To thee the Reed is as the Oak:
The Scepter, Learning, Physick must,
All follow this and come to dust.
Fear no more the Lightning flash.
Nor th’ all-dreaded Thunderstone
Fear not Slander, Censure rash.
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All Lovers young all Lovers must,
Consign to thee and come to dust.
No Exorcisor harm thee,
Nor no witch-craft charm thee.
Ghost unlaid forbear thee.
Nothing ill come near thee.
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.
Their father insists they add the headless body of Cloten to the tomb because he is dressed like nobility. Imogen wakes from her deep sleep and thinks the body next to her is Posthumus.
In order to tie up the plot I would have to bring in the secondary political plot, which didn’t interest me. I just hoped it would go away. Isaac Asimov who can usually be relied upon to elucidate the historical bits seems to want to throw his Pelican Shakespeare out the window because he can’t get over that ancient Britain is in a different century than early modern Italy. But in the end, all is revealed. Belarius turns out to be a former courtier who Cymbeline, in a snit, had banished. The two sons turn out to be sons of Cymbeline who Belarius, also in a snit, took with him when he went into exile. Both Posthumus and Iachimo repent their sophomoric, unconscionable behavior (I think they get off lightly) and the Queen conveniently poisons herself.
Besides the wonderful song quoted above, here are more lines:
*Lest the bargain should catch cold and starve (I, iv)
*Hark! Hark! The lark at heaven’s gate sings (I, iii)
*The game is up. (III, iv)
*What is it to be false? (III, iv)
*I have not slept one wink. (III, iv)
*Society is no comfort to one not sociable. (IV, ii)
*Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d. (IV, iii)
*Sir I would advise you to shift a shirt; the violence of action hath made you reek as a sacrifice. Where air comes out, air come in; there’s none abroad so wholesome as that you vent. (I, ii)