We open in Britain, at the palace of King Cymbeline, where two Gentlemen are discussing the news. Actually, the First Gentleman is reporting it, while the Second Gentleman just eggs him on with questions. Cymbeline's daughter has married "a poor but worthy gentleman," much to the king's displeasure: He had planned for her to marry his new wife's son. So he has banished the poor gentleman and imprisoned his daughter.
Everyone at court is upset at the banishment of the gentleman, one Posthumus Leonatus, who is well thought of. The First Gentleman comments, "I do not think / So fair an outward, and such stuff within / Endows a man, but he." His father, Sicilius, fought the Romans with Cymbeline's father, who bestowed on Sicilius the surname Leonatus. Sicilius died broken-hearted when his other two sons were killed in battle, and when his wife died giving birth, Cymbeline decided to raise the baby and called him Posthumus. Cymbeline had two sons of his own, but they were kidnapped from their nursery twenty years ago. Otherwise, he had only the daughter whom Posthumus has married.
That daughter enters now. Her name, we will learn, is Imogen. Or maybe it's Innogen, which is the way the name is spelled in Holinshed and in Simon Forman's account of watching the play sometime before his death in 1611. There is also a reference to Innogen, Leonato's wife, in the 1600 quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, though she doesn't actually appear in the play. Given these facts, and the suggestive parallel of Innogen/Leonato with Imogen/Leonatus, many scholars have assumed that Shakespeare wrote "Innogen," and that a transcriber or typesetter misread his -nn- as an -m-. So you'll find the character called Innogen in some recent editions, such as The Oxford Shakespeare. Still, the mistake (if it was one) gave rise to a long theatrical tradition that's hard to break on speculative grounds. "Imogen" has the authority of the First Folio behind it, and out of respect to the late Imogene Coca and the town in Iowa named Imogene, I think we should stick with it.
Anyway, she enters now with her stepmother, the Queen, and Posthumus, who is getting ready for his exile. The Queen assures her that Imogen is not "After the slander of most stepmothers, / Evil-ey'd unto you," and tells Posthumus, "So soon as I can win th' offended king, / I will be known your advocate." Don't buy it for a moment. Imogen certainly doesn't, and when the Queen leaves, she refers to her assurances that she's on their side as "Dissembling courtesy!" She tells Posthumus that he had better hurry and leave, and he tells her that he is going to Rome, to a friend of his father's named Philario.
The Queen returns to tell them to hurry up, and in an aside lets us know that she has tipped off Cymbeline to their whereabouts. When she exits, Imogen gives Posthumus a diamond ring that belonged to her mother and tells him to "keep it till you woo another wife, / When Imogen is dead." He protests against such a morbid thought, and gives her a bracelet, "a manacle of love," in exchange.
They are discovered by the king, who orders Posthumus to be gone, and calls Imogen a "disloyal thing" who's making him age rapidly. She stands her ground and when he says she could have married "the sole son of my queen," replies, "I chose an eagle, / And did avoid a puttock." (I.e., a kite, a lesser bird in the hierarchy of raptors.) She says it's his "fault that I have lov'd Posthumus: / You bred him as my playfellow."
The Queen returns in the midst of this quarrel and tells them to calm down. Cymbeline storms off, and Pisanio, Posthumus's servant enters to report that the Queen's son -- his name, we'll learn, is Cloten -- drew his sword in a challenge to Posthumus, but that Posthumus "rather play'd than fought" and some gentlemen prevented the duel. Imogen expresses her scorn for Cloten, and asks why Pisanio hasn't gone with Posthumus. He tells her that Posthumus sent him to serve Imogen in his absence.
Cloten and a pair of attendant lords discuss the set-to with Posthumus, the First Lord urging Cloten to change his shirt because "the violence of action hath made you reek," the Second Lord mocking Cloten in sarcastic asides. It's a brief scene that serves mainly to establish that Cloten is a fool and a braggart.
Pisanio has witnessed Posthumus's departure, and Imogen begs him for a fuller description of what he saw. Then she is summoned to the queen.
We are in Rome, where Philario awaits Posthumus's arrival. With him are Iachimo, a Frenchman, a Dutchman, and a Spaniard, but the last two have no lines and are clearly superfluous to any staging of the play. Iachimo reports that he has seen Posthumus in Britain, where his reputation was growing, and asks why he is going to stay with Philario. "His father and I were soldiers together," Philario explains as Posthumus enters.
The Frenchman is already acquainted with Posthumus, having met him when he was a "young traveller" in Orleans. Posthumus and another Frenchman came close to fighting a duel because Posthumus had boasted that the woman he loved, namely Imogen, was "more fair, virtuous, wise, chaste, constant, qualified and less attemptable than any the rarest of our ladies in France."
The account of this earlier quarrel inspires Iachimo to provoke Posthumus to a wager. Noticing the diamond ring that Imogen gave Posthumus, Iachimo suggests that just as the ring might be stolen, so might "a cunning thief, or a (that way) accomplished courtier" steal away Posthumus's beloved's virtue. Posthumus assures him that he's not afraid of losing either his ring or Imogen. Iachimo persists: He will wager half his estate against Posthumus's ring that he can steal Imogen's virtue.
Philario tries to put an end to this bet: "Gentlemen, enough of this, it came in too suddenly, let it die as it was born, and I pray you be better acquainted." But Posthumus won't back down either: "My mistress exceeds in goodness the hugeness of your unworthy thinking. I dare you to this match: here's my ring." Iachimo accepts: "If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoy'd the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours, so is your diamond too." Fine, says Posthumus, and if you don't seduce her, we'll have a sword because you dared insult her.
As they exit, the Frenchman asks if they are really going to go through with this bet, and Philario indicates that Iachimo isn't the type to back down on a wager.
Back in Britain, the Queen meets with a physician named Cornelius who gives her a box of drugs she has requested: "most poisonous compounds, / Which are the movers of a languishing death." She has been studying how to make perfumes and preservatives with Cornelius, and has asked for the chemicals because she wants to "try the forces / Of these thy compounds on such creatures as / We count not worth the hanging (but none human)."
When Pisanio enters, Cornelius reveals in an aside before he exits that he doesn't trust the Queen, and that the drugs he has given her will only "stupefy and dull the sense awhile," and that "there is / No danger in what show of death it makes, / More than the locking up the spirits a time, / To be more fresh, reviving." Meanwhile, the Queen is attempting to persuade Pisanio to help her get Imogen to accept Cloten as her lover, telling him she'll reward him whereas his current master, Posthumus, is a loser.
She gives Pisanio the box of drugs Cornelius brought her, claiming that it contains medicines "which hath the king / Five times redeem'd from death." When he has gone, she calls him "A sly and constant knave" who is loyal to Posthumus, so if he takes the drugs in the box, that will be one less person working to bring Imogen and Posthumus together. And if Imogen doesn't come around to her plan to unite her with Cloten, she'll "taste of" the drugs too.
Imogen soliloquizes about her sad lot: She has "A father cruel, and a step-dame false," and she has "A foolish suitor" in Cloten, even though she is already married. Moreover, her husband has been banished. She wishes she had been kidnapped like her brothers. Then Pisanio enters with Iachimo, whom he describes as "a noble gentleman of Rome," who "Comes from my lord with letters."
She welcomes and thanks Iachimo, who, while she reads her letter, comments in an aside on her beauty: "If she be furnish'd with a mind so rare, / She is alone th' Arabian bird; and I / Have lost the wager." So he has to come up with something quick.
When she is finished with the letter, Iachimo begins to rattle on in praise of her to the point that she finally asks, "Are you well?" Iachimo sends Pisanio away to check on his own manservant whom he describes as "strange and peevish." Imogen asks how Posthumus is doing, and Iachimo tells her he is "merry" and "gamesome" and is known as "The Briton reveller." This doesn't comport with her impression of Posthumous who "did incline to sadness." But Iachimo goes on in this vein, until he says he pities Imogen.
She is puzzled, and demands to know, "Why do you pity me?" She doesn't get a straight answer from him, however, until she insists, "discover to me / What both you spur and stop." So Iachimo tells her that if he had "this cheek / To bathe my lips upon," meaning hers, he wouldn't "Slaver with lips as common as the stairs / That mount the Capitol." He implies that he would be faithful to Imogen whereas Posthumus is consorting with prostitutes. He wouldn't be telling her this, he claims, "but 'tis your graces / That from my mutest conscience to my tongue / Charms this report out."
"Let me hear no more," Imogen urges. But he persists, urging her to "Be reveng'd" on Posthumus for his infidelity. She's astonished at the suggestion: "if it be true, / How should I be reveng'd?" Why, he says, how else but by loving him:
I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure,This is too much for Imogen, who calls out for Pisanio. She suddenly realizes what Iachimo is up to:
More noble than that runagate to your bed,
And will continue fast to your affection,
Still close as sure.
Away, I do condemn mine ears, that haveShe'll tell the king what Iachimo is, she threatens, and calls out for Pisanio again.
So long attended thee. If thou wert honourable,
Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not
For such an end thou seek'st, as base, as strange.
Thou wrongst a gentleman, who is as far
From thy report as thou from honour, and
Solicits here a lady that disdains
Thee, and the devil alike.
But Iachimo wriggles out of the trap. "O happy Leonatus!" he says. He was just kidding around. Posthumus "is one / The truest manner'd," and he only told her all that "To try your taking of a false report." He begs her pardon, and she gives it.
Then, he says, he had really meant to ask a favor from her: He and Posthumus and "Some dozen Romans" have pooled their money to buy a gift for the emperor, and he needs to store it someplace safe. Well, says Imogen, what could be safer than my bedchamber? So Iachimo says he'll have the trunk in which the gift is stored sent to her room, "only for this night: / I must abroad to morrow." If she has a letter to send to Posthumus, she should do it tonight.
She says she'll write it tonight, and to have the trunk sent to her room.
Cymbeline isn't performed a lot, but there is a BBC-TV production from 1982. The complete film appears below.
Richard Johnson as Cymbeline; Helen Mirren as Imogen; Michael Pennington as Posthumus; Claire Bloom as the Queen; Paul Jesson as Cloten; Robert Lindsay as Iachimo; John Kane as Pisanio; Hugh Thomas as Cornelius; Geoffrey Lumsden as Philario; Patsy Smart as Helen; Alan Hendrick as the Frenchman; Michael Gough as Belarius; Geoffrey Burridge as Guiderius; David Creedon as Arviragus; Marius Goring as Sicilius Leonatus: Michael Hordern as Jupiter