What happens in Cymbeline

Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline just a few years before he died. It has some divine, confident, heartwrenching language, the kind you would get late in the career of the finest writer in English of all time.

The plot, though. Critic Kerry Reid had this to say:

“Cymbeline at times feels as if William Shakespeare were going through some of his favorites, tossing them in a blender and hitting “frappe.” (Yes, there were no blenders in Elizabethan England. Work with me. Or substitute “mortar and pestle,” if it makes you feel better.)

You’ve got your scheming, power mad queen, a la Lady Macbeth. You’ve got your siblings separated in infancy and miraculously reunited, a la “The Comedy of Errors.” There’s even a villain bent on sowing suspicion about a wife’s fidelity, named Iag — er, Iachimo.”

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Don’t marry evil queen. Don’t bet yr wife can’t be seduced. Don’t let someone cut off yr head. All good advice.” 

What happens in Cymbeline

Imogen is the daughter of the British king Cymbeline. She secretly marries a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus. The king is being influenced by his power-hungry new wife and wants her to marry his wife’s frat boy of a son, Cloten.

Cymbeline and the Queen send Posthumus into exile in Italy. He makes a friend, Iachimo, who makes the timeless claim that all women are sluts. Iachimo bets Posthumus that he will be able to seduce Imogen. Posthumus takes the bet, beginning to show his perhaps less than stellar side.

Iachimo goes to Britain to pitch woo at Imogen, but being already married and having standards, she won’t sleep with him. He hides in a chest and has it sent to her room, where he slips out, watches her sleeping, and takes note of marks on her body. He steals a bracelet that Posthumus gave her.

Cloten pursues Imogen, but again, the girl is already married and has standards. She keeps rejecting him. He goes full men’s-rights rage and decides to get revenge.

Iachimo goes back to Italy and convinces Posthumus that he won the bet. He has Imogen’s bracelet and he knows where her moles are.

Posthumus orders his servant to go back home and murder Imogen. Strike 2 against Posthumus, who is now looking like just another unworthy Shakespeare boyfriend a la Orlando in As You Like It, Hamlet in Hamlet, and every other young man in the greater Stratford-Upon-Avon metro area, but worse.

The servant believes Imogen is innocent. He convinces her to go search for Posthumus, disguising herself as a boy. He reports to Posthumus that he has killed her.

Imogen does dress a boy and leaves the court, but she gets lost. She comes across Belarius and his two adopted sons. (Quick side plot: Belarious was banished from Britain. He kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons as young children in revenge. So, Imogen’s brothers. These are those boys, all grown up). The family instantly adore Imogen-as-a-boy and take her in.

Cloten shows up looking for Imogen. He is wearing Posthumus’ clothes. He and one of the sons fight. The son kills Cloten and cuts off his head.

Imogen is feeling understandably not 100% after being lost in the wilderness, having a perv count her moles in her sleep, and having her husband try to kill her. She takes medicine the queen had given her, which the queen said was restorative but believed was actually poison. It’s actually just a sleep aid.

Belarius and sons find Imogen, who seems to be dead but is only asleep. They bury her next to Cloten’s body.

She wakes up, sees a man with no head wearing Posthumus’ clothes, and thinks it’s Posthumus.

A Roman army invades Britain. Imogen-as-a-boy gets a job with them as a page.

Posthumus and Iachimo are with the Roman army, but Posthumus dresses as a British peasant and fights for Britain. He wants to die because he believes his servant carried out his orders and killed Imogen, which he now regrets. So he fights maniacally.

The British win the battle, thanks to Belarius, his sons, and Posthumus. He is still trying to punish himself, so he switches back to his Roman clothes and gets taken prisoner by the Brits.

Cymbeline demands to see the prisoners. Now the confusion is sorted out. Posthumus and Imogen are reunited. Iachimo confesses. They forgive him. Cymbeline and his lost sons are reunited. Cymbeline forgives Belarius.

The Queen, who has been sick since her son Cloten was killed, dies. Cymbeline realizes on reflection that her influence was less than salubrious.

Cymbeline releases the Roman prisoners in one last all-is-well gesture.


Read Kerry Reid’s full review of Cymbeline at the Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago for more. 

For my sake wear this; it is a manacle of love; I’ll place it upon this fairest prisoner.