This play, like a number of Shakespeare’s works, revolves around erroneous mistrust regarding infidelity. While it’s usual for star-crossed lovers to spend the length of a play trying to be wed — against all odds and opposition — this story turns the tables. At the beginning of “Cymbeline,” the King’s daughter (Imogen) is already married to a gentleman named Posthumus Leonatus. However, Leonatus is being deported from Britain back to Rome because the King, Cymbeline, doesn’t sanction the wedding. So, the young lovers in question (Imogen and Leonatus) are forced into a long-distance relationship. Both Cymbeline and his Queen would prefer Imogen marry Cloten, the Queen’s son. [While that sounds incestuous, the hitch is that Cymbeline is twice married. Imogen is his daughter from his first wife; Cloten is the Queen’s son from her previous marriage. So, the problem with marrying Cloten isn’t incest, but rather that the Prince is a pompous gas-bag who nobody likes — except his treacherous mother. Not to mention, Imogen still considers herself wed to her true love, Leonatus.]
The geopolitical context of the play is that Britain has stopped paying tribute to Rome, and the Romans are sore about it. However, Britain has been on the rise as the Roman empire has apparently been waning — having transitioned from Julius Caesar to Augustus. At any rate, it’s no longer a slam-dunk that Rome would defeat Britain in battle. This broader context is important because it explains why Rome sends diplomats and – eventually — soldiers to Britain.
One of the Romans sent to Cymbeline’s court is Iachimo, who is cast as a “gentleman,” but whom we will learn is anything but. Iachimo, insulted by Leonatus’s pining over his wife when Rome has so many lovely women, tells Leonatus that he should just get on with getting busy, because he can be sure that Imogen has. Leonatus refutes this. Iachimo says that he’s going to visit Cymbeline’s castle as part of a Roman delegation and he bets Leonatus that he can get in the sack with Imogen. Leonatus tells Iachimo it will never happen; Leonatus has iron-clad trust in his wife’s chastity. However, Leonatus goes along with the bet because winning it will be the next best thing to stabbing Iachimo.
During the visit Iachimo is sternly rebuffed by Imogen. But before she can summon the guards to bounce him, Iachimo really gets despicable — cleverly shifting his tack. He plays off his proposition as being a bad joke in bad taste, apologizes, and – behaving in a gentlemanly fashion – he warms her up to him. So much so, that when he asks a small favor, she readily agrees. The favor is to store a trunk of valuables in her room that he doesn’t trust being shipboard. However, he uses the trunk to Trojan horse his way into her sleeping chambers. That night, once she is asleep, Iachimo sneaks out and makes note of the furnishings of the room, a birthmark that he can see given Imogen’s nightie that he wouldn’t be able to see in her daytime attire, and – for good measure – he thieves a bracelet off her wrist. The bracelet and the information he acquired will become the evidence Iachimo uses to convince Leonatus that he made the beast with two backs with Imogen. While Leonatus is dubious at first, he eventually concedes the bet, giving Iachimo his ring and sending an order to his servant, Pisanio (who stayed in Britain to serve Imogen,) to murder Imogen. Pisanio, being near Imogen on a day-to-day basis, doesn’t at all believe she has been unfaithful, and finds himself on the horns of a dreaded dilemma.
The story plays out moving from Cymbeline’s palace to the countryside, and then to a chaotic fifth act in which all is reconciled in the aftermath of a battle between the Romans and the British in which Cymbeline’s forces are victorious. (As you might have realized, despite the play being named for him, Cymbeline is not one of the lead characters. However, his fifth act interrogations are the means by which the resolutions and revelations are made.)
The tension that is maintained throughout this work is visceral. It plays with a number of common plot devices seen in Shakespeare: women disguised as men, a potion that causes a short-lived appearance of death, and unexpectedly reunited family, but still it remains a distinctive story. It may be one of the lesser known works of Shakespeare, but it’s definitely worth reading.