“Sluttery, to such neat excellence opposed,/Should make desire vomit emptiness,/Not so allured to feed.”


Act One, Part One

By Dennis Abrams



Cymbeline, King of Britain

Princess Imogen (aka Innogen in the Oxford edition), Cymbeline’s daughter (later disguised as Fidele

Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen’s husband, a poor gentlemen

Queen (unnamed), Cymbeline’s second wife and Imogen’s stepmother.

Lord Cloten, the Queen’s son by a former husband, Imogen’s suitor

Pisanio, Posthumus’s servant

Cornelius, a doctor

Helen, a lady attending Imogen

Two Lords attending Cloten

Belarius, a banished British lord (going under the name of Morgan)

Guiderius (known as Polydore) and Arviragus (known as Cadwal), Cymbeline’s sons, stolen by Belarius

Filario, Posthumus’s host in Rome

Iachimo, an Italian friend of Posthumus

Posthumus’s other friends: a Frenchman, a Dutchman, and a Spaniard

Caius Lucius, a Roman ambassador, later general of the Roman army

Various Romans: Senators, Tribunes and a Captain

Philharmonus, a soothsayer

Apparitions: Jupiter, King of the gods; Sicilius Leonatus, Posthumus’s father, Posthumus’s Mother, Posthumus’s two Brothers


nigro-hamilton-cymbelineAct One:  By marrying Posthumus, Imogen has disappointed and saddened her father and angered her stepmother, who wanted her son, the remarkably doltish Cloten, to marry her. Posthumus is therefore banished and heads for Rome, but only after exchanging tokens and vows of fidelity with Imogen.  Overseas, Posthumus and his friends debate the relative chastity of their countrywomen, and Iachimo bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. Arriving in Britain, Iachimo finds himself unable to work his charms on Imogen. The Queen, meanwhile, has obtained what she thinks is poison from the doctor, which she presents as a gift to Pisanio, persuading him that it is a life-restoring medicine.


Dame_Ellen_Terry_as_Imogen_Shakespeare_heroine_in_CymbelineJust from reading Act One, it should seem obvious that any attempt to wrestle any kind of kitchen-sink realism from the romance world of Cymbeline is going to be a losing battle.  Not for nothing has the play frequently (and I think correctly) been compared to fairy tales such as Snow White and Goldilocks, and indeed, Cymbeline’s Queen fits easily into every conceivable stereotype of the Wicked Stepmother. Angling for her moronic son Cloten to seize her stepdaughter from the “poor but worthy” Posthumus, she tried to persuade Imogen that “you shall not find me, daughter,/After the slander of most stepmothers,/Evil-eyed.” (1.1.71-3). But Imogen, the Doctor as well as the audience and readers know that to be utterly false: ‘I do not like her,’ the Doctor mutters just out of earshot,

     She doth think she has

Strange ling’ring poisons. I do know her spirit,

And will not trust one of her malice with

A drug of such damned nature.

With ‘poisonous compounds’ the Queen intends to murder Imogen and her husband’s servant Pisanio, but she is (at least for the moment) foiled: the ‘drugs” that Cornelius supplies merely tranquilize, not kill. As Cymbeline begins, this cheerful resistance to evil seems built into the plot: although the King is furious that his beloved daughter has gone against his wishes by marrying beneath her station, he has done little to prevent it. In the same way, Cloten is presented as far too dimwitted to offer much of a threat. Constantly attended by a brace of lords – one sycophantic, the other annoyingly rude — Cymbeline’s stepson is simply “Too bad for bad report” (1.1.17), and so hopeless on every level as not to be worth the effort of describing in any greater detail.

BUT…these seeming hard outlines between characters – the wicked queen and her idiot son, the virtuous daughter, the faithful husband – begin to blur the moment that Posthumus is banished from Cymbeline’s court. His departure seems to do something to the play’s optics, hinting that things will soon change and shift beyond all recognition. The first to be deceived is Posthumus himself. No sooner has he met up with his companions in Italy than Iachimo is goading him into betting on his “unparagoned” and absent wife’s fidelity, a segment of the plot taken from Boccaccio’s the Decameron. Bragging that “strange fowl light upon neighbouring ponds” (1.4.87), Iachimo successfully angers Posthumus with his insistence that he cannot fail to seduce Imogen. Posthumus’s sealing of the bargain strays into the kind of misogyny we’ll see in even stronger force in The Winter’s Tale. “Only thus far you shall answer,” he tells Iachimo,

If you make your voyage upon her and give me directly to understand you have prevailed, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate.


Fortunately, though, Imogen proves herself far less willing to be misled than her husband – at least initially. When Iachimo’s attempts to woo Imogen with flattery fall on deaf ears, he tries a nastier trick hinting that Posthumus himself has been unfaithful to her. “Are men mad?” he wonders, apparently commenting on their inability to value beauty (and by extension Posthumus’s insanity in abandoning his wife):

It cannot be i’th’ eye – for apes and monkeys,

‘Twist two such shes, would chatter this way and

Contemn with mows the other; nor i’th’ judgement,

For idiots in this case of favour would

Be wisely definite; nor i’th’ appetite –

Sluttery, to such neat excellence opposed,

Should make desire vomit emptiness,

Not so allured to feed.


Iachimo is coldly calculating here (much like a lesser version of Iago), trying to perplex Imogen while also intimating that she has been betrayed. In this cruel trick language itself becomes twisted almost beyond recognition, with the thrust of Iachimo’s words (that the “eye” of the absent Posthumus prefers the beauty of “shes” other than his own wife, even though “apes and monkeys” or “idiot” would make the right choice) all but disappearing behind sinister insinuation.


From Tanner:

cymbeline-1“It is perhaps most helpful to identify three potentially quite separate stories which Shakespeare has most cannily interwoven. They involve, respectively, a newly married by separated couple (mainly romance); a disrupted dynasty (which involves both pastoral and something close to fairy tale); and an international dispute (history and pseudo-history). The marriage between Imogen and Posthumus must have been a ‘handfast’ (I.v.78 – a word used only once again by Shakespeare, curiously enough in his very next play, The Winter’s Tale). This was an old form of irregular or probationary marriage contracted by the parties joining hands and agreeing to live as man and wife – for a princess to agree to such an unceremonious bonding does indeed reveal ‘a strain of rareness,’ as Imogen claims. It was a marriage but not yet a legal finality, which is presumably why, out of her innate ‘pudency’ (lovely word, and used only this once for this rarest of heroines – II.v.11), ‘Me of my lawful pleasure she restrained’ (II.v.9), as Posthumus bitterly complains, insanely convinced that Imogen has afforded Iachimo what she refused him. That it was this sort of unsanctified marriage would seem to be born out by the simple fact that the boorish Cloten still thinks he can win her, denying the validity of her ‘contract’; and she, while doing everything possible to repulse him, never simply says – you’re wasting your time, I’m already married.

It is this recent, secret away-from-court ‘marriage’ – to a commoner, at that – which so enrages her father, King Cymbeline (in this way the play starts rather like Othello), who instantly separates them by banishing Posthumus. In this, he plays the traditional role (in comedy) of the obstructing, prohibiting father who seeks to block young love. Here, he literally ‘comes between’ the lovers.

     Or ere I could

Give him that parting kiss which I had set

Betwist two charming words – comes in my father,

And like the tyrannous breathing of the north

Shakes all our buds from growing.


Wrathful, foolish, ‘imperceivant’ King Cymbeline (the italicized word only appears this once in Shakespeare – Cloten ludicrously misapplies it to Imogen, but it will do very nicely for Cymbeline, and indeed many others in this fog-bound play) has indeed sunk his court and realm into a ‘winter’s state’ (II.4.5). He has disrupted the due processes of nature (‘shakes all our buds from growing’); he has somehow los this two sons (the legitimate heirs), alienated his one remaining true child (Imogen), and effectively handed power over to a poisonous, poisoning second queen and her monstrous son, so the feeling of sterility is strong in the air. It will require the enactment of an apparent ‘death’ and rebirth, or resurrection – as in some primitive fertility rite – to re-establish the proper cycle of the seasons, and bring the fruit back to the trees.

Cymbeline was a king of ancient Britain when the Romans still held sway over it, and I will return to this. But following the banished Posthumus, we find ourselves in Renaissance Rome – a curiously easy modulation – and here the romance story starts. It is based – closely – on a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (Day 2, Novella 9), which is, in turn, a relatively sophisticated version of a widespread folk tale involving the wager on a virtuous wife. The husband who bets on his wife’s virtue is invariably tricked by false evidence into believing that she has betrayed him, and orders her death. She escapes, often in male disguise, and is finally enabled to reveal the truth. She is reunited with her contrite husband, and the villain is punished. Boccaccio’s version, involving Italian merchants, is decidedly middle-class. Shakespeare prefers to set it at the level of the court, since that way he can make it intermesh with the historical-political material which will later come into prominence – but he retains much of the mercantile talk of coins, prices, values, weights, measures, etc. Boccaccio has his wronged wife, Ginevra, escape, as a young man, into the Oriental and Moslem world of the eastern Mediterranean, where (s)he rises to high office under the Sultan of Alexandria. This was no use to Shakespeare, who needed to restrict his already sufficiently disparate material to Britain and Italy, so, in Bullough’s words, ‘he substituted the popular medieval theme by which the ill-used woman wanders in search of her man into a pastoral setting and their finds solace and help until she can be reinstated.’ Thus, instead of the Orient – Wales. Also, in Boccaccio, the convicted villain who faked the evidence is fiendishly tortured to death (impaled on a stake, covered in honey, devoured by flies, wasps, and hornets). Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus aside (MY NOTE:  I’d have to include the eyeballs in Lear), the least ghoulish of writers, prefers to have him forgiven – though he may have a specific reason for this, as well.

The story involving dynastic disruption only starts to emerge in the first scene set in Wales (III.iii). Here we meet Belarius who combines two conventional roles in pastoral romance – the rusticated courtier, and the shepherd father. We learn that he was unjustly banished – Cymbeline’s angry mistakes go a long way back – and that he abducted the two baby princes (fearing the corrupting influence of Cymbeline’s disastrous court), so that the lost royal children (who don’t know their true parentage) have grown up in the wild Welsh mountains. When the starving Imogen stumbles into their cave, it is the beginning of a process which will in time knit them into the swelling master-narrative accommodating them all. Shakespeare could have found material for the interlude in Wales in a number of Greek romances (In this connection Carol Gesner makes an interesting observation: the motif of the hero striking the unrecognized heroine at a trial-like public occasion, as Posthumus does Imogen, is standard and recurrent in Greek romance, It never advances the plot, so it must be there for another reason. It is certainly the most painful, literally-shocking, moment in Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare almost certainly borrowed from an anonymous play, Love and Friendship (acted 1582). This play contains, for instance, a fleeing heroine named Fidelia (c.f. Imogen’s pseudonym Fidele) who finds refuge with a hermit in a cave. Shakespeare added the folk-tale motif of the Wicked Stepmother, eager to advance her own, hideous child. But there was almost certainly a more substantial reason for choosing Wales as the setting for this part of the play. The summer of 1610 saw the investiture of Prince Henry as Prince of Wales, to great rejoicings and many entertainments – one of which may well have been Cymbeline. The use of Milford Haven as the landing place for Posthumus and the Romans would certainly resonate for the contemporary audience, since it was there that Henry, Earl of Richmond, landed when he came to save England from Richard III. He became Henry VII, the Tudor ancestor through whom the current James I could be connected with the Tudor mythology of the descent from the Trojan Brut. Wales plays a special part in the legends and myths concerned with the founding of England. And this looks towards the third, international story.

What exactly is the ‘name and birth’ of that Posthumus who has just married Imogen? asks the somewhat bemused Second Gentleman in the busy, frowning first scene of the play. First Gentleman:

I cannot delve him to the root. His father

Was called Sicilius, who did join his honor

Against the Romans with the Cassibelan,

But had his titles by Tenantius, whom

He served with glory and admired success,

So gained the sur-addition Leonatus


Shakespeare and his contemporaries were interested in origins and in delving their nation ‘to the root’ – Troy? Rome? Lud? Brutan? Britain? – but if they strained their eyestrings to see where the gnat of early Tudor history melted into the air of the unseeably previous, they would find themselves in the, well, fog of ungraspable legend – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain; Holinshed’s early Chronicles. Shakespeare certainly turned again to Holinshed, not this time for the historically anchored Tudor material, but to glance at the insecurely drifting Brutan material (Brut was supposedly descended from ‘Aeneas the Trojan,’ legendary founder or Rome, and was said to have founded Britain). There he would have found those British-Latin names – Sicilius, Tenantius, Cassibelan; not to mention Posthumus, Innogen (possibly what Shakespeare intended) Guiderius and Arviragus, Cloton and, of course, ‘Kymbeline or Cimbeline.’

‘Kymbeline or Cimbeline the sonne of Theomantius was of the Britains made king after the decease of his father…This man (as some write) was brought up at Rome, and there made knight by Augustus Caesar, under whome he served in the warres, and was in such favour with him, that he was at libertie to pay his tribute or not. Little other mention is made of his doings, except that during his reigne, the Saviour of the world our Lord Jesus Christ the onelie sonne of God was born of a virgine, about the 23 years of the reigne of this Kymbeline…some writers doo varie, but the best aprooved affirme, that he reigned 35 years and then died, and was buried at Londonn, leaving behind him two sonnes, Guiderius and Arviragus.’

Holinshed notes that there was some subsequent dispute between Britain and Rome over tribute money, with the Romans planning (at last) to invade. He thinks it was the son, Guiderius, who ‘gave occasion to breach of peace betwixt the Britains and the Romans, deniening to pay them tribute:’

‘But whether this controversie which appeareth to fall forth betwixt the Britains and Augustus was occasioned by Kymbeline, or some other prince of the Britains, I have not to avouch: for that by our writers it is reported that Kymbeline, being brought up in Rome, and knighted in the court of Augustus, ever shewed himself a friend to the Romans, and chieflie was loth to breake with them, because the youth of the Britaine nation should not be deprived of the benefit to be trained and brought up among the Romans, whereby they might learne both to behave themselves like civill men, and to atteine to the knowledge of feates of warre.’

From these hints Shakespeare drew out the international theme of the play, the rising tension between Rome and Britain. This third action starts properly in III.i, with the arrival of the Roman ambassador, Lucius, though we have had preparatory hints concerning the paying of Roman tribune in II, iii and iv. Shakespeare, in facts, makes it Cymbeline who refuses to pay the tribute – not his son. He could have taken this idea from Spenser’s Fairie Queene (which he certainly knew). This is from the ‘chronicle of Briton kings’ (Book II, Canto 10):

‘Next him Tenantius raigned, then Kimbeline,

What time th’eternall Lord in fleshly slime

Enwombed was, from wretched Adams line

To purge away the guilt of sinfull crime:

O joyous memorie of happy time,

That heavenly grace so plenteously displayd;

(O too high ditty for my simple rime.)

Soon after this the Romanes him warrayed;

For that their tribute he refused to let be pay’d.’

The most important feature of the remote and misty reign of Cymbeline was that it coincided with the reign of Caesar August in Rome and the birth of Christ. This, understandably, has been used to suggest that there is a larger, more significant action going on here, a play we can’t see behind the play we can. Thus Northrop Frye: ‘The sense of a large change in human fortunes taking place off stage has to be read into Cymbeline.’ And Francis Yates: ‘The universal imperial justitia and pax was sanctified through that birth, and through the interpretation of the prophecy in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue as applying both to the peace and justice of the Augustan golden age, and to the birth of Christ, the Prince of Peace, in that age.’ Thus was the Empire Christianized. ‘The interpretation of the reign of Cymbeline as contemporary with the reign of Augustus, in which Christ was born, gave it an atmosphere of the sacred; it approximated the British sacred reign to the sacred reign of August Caesar; it drew together British imperial and Roman imperial sacred legend in some new fusion of Britain and Rome. This is exactly what happens in Cymbeline which is dominated by a vision of a Romano-British imperial eagle.’ Shakespeare certainly knew all about the sacred importance of the Augustan Peace. The increasingly dominant Octavius Caesar confidently predicts, near the end of Antony and Cleopatra, ‘The time of universal peace is near’ (IV.vi.5). There is, perhaps, a just comparable moment in this play, when the ‘curious oracular jailer’ (Frye) says, after the freeing of Posthumus: ‘I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good. O, there were desolation of jailers and gallowses.’ (V.iv.175-6). But I hardly think that this, or indeed anything else in the play, points to what Felperin calls ‘a momentous change for the better in the fortunes of the entire human community.’

Felperin offers what might be called an eschatological reading of the play. ‘The incarnation represents a turning point within Christian history from the ears of nature and law to a new era of grace. The former are characterized by wrath and justice – motives associated with tragical history [ = the first four acts of Cymbeline]; the latter by love and mercy, motives associated with romantic comedy [ = Act V of Cymbeline]. He could hardly be more confident: ‘Jupiter is a divine lame duck whose term of office is about to expire and the ending of the play has more to do with the doctrine of another deity whose reign is about to begin…The Roman gives way to the Christian not only within the action as a whole but within each character, the tragical history gives way to romance.’ (I imagine that this far from even-tempered Jupiter would be surprised to hear of his imminent redundancy, and might well feel inclined to pay Felperin one of his sulphurous visits – but I stray from the real world.) This is all very satisfyingly neat and cut-and-dried; and the evidence for such a reading is – just about – there, if you care to isolate it and, as I think, exaggerate it. But it risks turning the play into something of a tract, albeit of a high order (Felperin is a very subtle reader). Many intelligent people read the play along these lines, and it is only appropriate to place this version before readers of this introduction. But the play just doesn’t feel like this to me. I think we need something with a bit more of a ‘stagger’ in it.

One other aspect of the Roman material in the play should be mentioned. Caius Lucius, the Roman ambassador and general, is ‘honourable’ and ‘holy’; he is also courteous, gracious, kind and reasonable. All of which, the King of Britain – on the evidence we see – is notably not. Yet, we recall from Holinshed, Cymbeline was knighted in the court of August Caesar, and wanted the youth of Britain to be brought up among Romans so that they would learn to behave ‘like civill men’ and acquire the martial virtues. In a word, for Britain, Rome – and this was felt to be historically true – was the civilizing influence. The strident, sneering nationalism of Cloten and the Queen when they refuse and reject Lucius (III.i) should be registered as a jarring and inappropriate isolationism – football-terrace stuff (admittedly, in a different kind of history play, it might pass for rough-tongued patriotism). Cymbeline’s final, willing reconciliation with Rome signals his release from thralldom to the wicked Queen, and a return to the larger civilizing forces of the world.

Cymbeline 2_tce_2177 copyBut if Lucius is one (ancient) Roman, Iachimo is another (Renaissance) Italian, closer to Machiavelli than to August Caesar. In him the civilized virtues have run to super-subtly smooth manners and a refined self-satisfying aestheticism (he certainly seems to appreciate Imogen’s physical beauty more than Posthumus does). Posthumus, despite the hyperbolically good report we hear of him in the first scene, emerges as neither particularly refined, nor conspicuously elegant of manner. His first appearance in Italy shows him prickly and quarrelsome, while his subsequent behavior, however we finally take it, is hardly that of a truly civilized man. There is a national point here, concerned with Britain’s ancestral strengths and weaknesses, which certainly interested Shakespeare. Brockbank quotes a contemporary Description of Britain in which the dullness of the British – ‘men of great strength and little policie, much courage and small shift’ – is contrasted witih the ‘craftinesse, subtile practises, doubleness, and hollow behaviour’ of the ingratiatingly polite Italians. As a straightforward, honest, literal-minded British lad, Posthumus is hopelessly out of his depth in Rome (there is a hint of the bull in the china shop). But, while Iachimo simply crumbles in battle, Posthumus’s heroism turns the day for Britain, and there is no doubt that his basic virtues and strengths are vindicated – having been, though, not only sorely tried, but all too easily abused.

The enlarged inter-national (and thus, as it were, inter-spatial, inter-temperal) dimension is absolutely vital; but the core and main thread of the play is the romance story concerning the (recently married) lovers, just as Imogen is herself the linking ‘strain of rareness’ that runs through its more ‘common passages.’ The first two acts dramatize the testing of that love, with, as is invariably the case in Shakespeare, the man failing the test while the woman remains constant. Forced apart in the bustling, scattering first scene, Imogen and Posthumus barely have time to swear their love (‘I did not take my leave of him, but had/Most pretty things to say’ – Imogen’s sweet words, I.iii.25-6), and plight their troth with the exchange of a ring and a bracelet (and how important these little things prove to be; how deeply involved we are with our merely material adjuncts and accessories!).  But she has, as it were, barely finished her incomplete farewell to her paragon and ‘jewel,’ when we are in Rome in the company of assorted foreign gentlemen expressing degrees of skepticism about the growing reputation of this British Posthumus, who is about to arrive to spend his banishment with his friend Philario.

The leading sneerer is Iachimo – he clearly finds his pleasure in disparaging and belittling – and he reveals an important aspect of his mentality in his opening remarks. I think I saw the man once: ‘But I could then have looked upon without the help of admiration, though the catalogue of his endowments had been tabled by his side and I do peruse him by items’ (I.iv.4-7). He will, in due course, peruse by items, catalogue, and tabulate the sleeping body of Posthumus’s wife, though of course no one can know that yet – except Shakespeare, who is giving us an early clue as to how Iachimo’s mind works. He thinks in inventories. As far as he is concerned, a man – and a woman – is exactly the sum of his, or her, isolatable and itemizable parts. What he can’t peruse and catalogue – as might be, devotion, loyalty – isn’t there. A sharp eye, but a hard eye – and a cold one. he is the last person for the rather hot-headed young Briton, now depayse (out of  his country, thus disoriented), to tangle with; but that is what Posthumus impetuously does.

He allows himself to get involved in a quite improper and degrading wager about the physical virtue of his absent wife, foolishly – and arguably offensively – boasting her to be more chaste, more virtuous, more everything, than any other woman of any country. Cunningly, Iachimo starts to play on the comparable and relative values of the diamond ring on Posthumus’s hand, and the wife who gave it to him – both no doubt excellent, but you cannot be sure that either is the absolute best. Posthumus maintains that he ‘rates’ them just as he has said, maintaining a difference. The exchange which follows is crucial:

The one may be sold or given, or if there wealth enough for the purchase or merit for the gift. The other is not a thing for sale, and only the gift of the gods.

Iachimo: Which the gods have given you?

Posthumus:  Which by their graces I will keep.

Iachimo: You may wear her in title yours, but you know strange fowl light upon neighboring ponds. Your ring may be stol’n too. So your brace of unprizable estimations, the one is but frail and the other casual. A cunning thief, or a that-way-accomplished courtier, would hazard the winning of first and last.


H._A._Saintsbury_in_CymbelineIachimo wants to bring Imogen down from the gods and into the market – and to his great shame, Posthumus lets him. He seems to have a grasp of the crucial difference between the ring, which indeed must remain, at least theoretically, within the realm of the purchasable; and his wife, who is, as he correctly says, ‘not for sale.’ The ring is a symbol of their love; Imogen is love itself. But for Iachimo, a woman, any woman, is simply another ‘ring’ (the obscenity intended), so he can speak mockingly to Posthumus of his ‘brace of unprizable estimations,’ and refer indifferently to ‘she your jewel, this your jewel’ (I.iv.159), as much as to say – six of one, half a dozen of the other. And notice how Iachimo draws seemingly casual traces of suggestive insinuation in front of the less urbane young Briton: ‘you know strange fowl light upon neighboring ponds.’ If he doesn’t take the hint and make the application, Posthumus might well register this as a meaningless irrelevance. But when the grosser parts of his imagination have been stirred, it will be a different matter. (In the next play, Leontes will give himself the nightmare of imagining how any man may have ‘his pond fished by his next neighbor’ – The Winter’s Tale I.ii.195). Iachimo wants matters of value and worth to be measure in ducats, and when Posthumus agrees to remove his ring (when she gave it to him, Imogen abjured him to keep it on till ‘Imogen is dead,’ I.i.114 – she will, duly, ‘die’) to match the gold which has been staked on Imogen’s seducibility, he effectively hands her over to Iachimo, who promises to bring him ‘sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress’ (I.iv.155-6, my italics). Posthumus enters wholeheartedly into the business of ‘articles,’ ‘covenants,’ ‘lawful counsel,’ whereby the disgraceful wager is given specious respectability. Only the sensible Philario ‘will have it no lay’ (I.iv.153); ‘Gentlemen, enough of this. It came in too suddenly; let it die as it was born…’ (I.iv.126-7). Things coming in ‘too suddenly’ – eruptive violence – is often the mark of tragedy, and, at the moment, that’s the way this play is tending. The wager, once ‘born,’ will not ‘die,’ and there will have to be other deaths before there are other births.

There follows a strange little scene, back in Britain, which looks rather pastoral – the Queen and her ladies gathering flowers – violets, cowslips, primroses. For distilling fragrances, you might think. But the Queen has graduated from perfumes to poisons, and she’s after a real killer – only to be tricked by her virtuous physicians, as we have seen. There is something pantomimic in this scene; but we might recall that a dumb-show of a sleeping king having literal poison poured into his ear was at the center of Shakespeare’s first tragedy; and while the Queen’s efforts are rather fee-fi-fo-fum, there are always subtler poisons for the unsuspecting (or too suspicious) ear in Shakespeare. As loyal Pisanio instantly recognizes when he incredulously reads the letter from his master, describing Imogen’s adultery and ordering her murder.


O master, what a strange infection

Is fall’n into thy ear! What false Italian,

As poisonous-tongued as handed, both prevailed

On thy too ready hearing?


Spot on – and, as so often in Shakespeare, it is a pity that a master can’t see what is instantly clear to his servant. But that’s the play. The poisonous-tongued and poisonous-handed (both – quite right, Pisanio) ‘false Italian’ is, of course, Iachimo; and after the wager scene we see him working his poison.

Or failing to. Obviously, his first destination is the court of King Cymbeline, where he can try out his assorted wiles on Princess Imogen. He arrives with flattering letters of introduction from Posthumus (part of the wager), but as soon as he sees her, he knows he has an impossible task.

All of her that is out of door most rich!

If she be furnished with a mind so rare,

She is alone th’Arabian bird, and I

Have lost the wager.


The relationship between what a person looks like on the outside (‘out of door’) and his internal ‘furnishing’ – misleading discrepancy and contradiction, or honorable congruence and continuity – is a concern, and a dramatically exploitable resource, in almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. Here, there are quite a number of references to ‘without/within,’ but they are fairly relaxed – ‘less without and more within’ says Posthumus amiably enough, as he pulls on a peasant’s smock prior to plunging into battle – and possible discrepancies do not seem to occasion much concern. Cymbeline is every inch a bloody fool, and shows it; Imogen is a virtuous as she is fair; Cloten is reliably boorish all the way down, and so on. Iachimo is quite a smooth ingratiatory, but he is manifestly not a man to go on a tiger hunt with. If anyone, Posthumus is the big letdown: ‘so fair an outward and such stuff within,’ says the eulogizing First Gentlemen in the first scene (I.i.23). But some of that ‘stuff within’ turns out to be rather nasty.

Recognizing that he will never win the wager in the sense in which it was made, Iachimo invokes ‘boldness’ and ‘audacity,’ and first he tries something he is good at – filthy sexual innuendo, murmured with courtly disgust as if in a half-aside. The line is – how could any man, with such a peerless woman, want to go after trash?

Sluttery, to such neat excellence opposed,

Should make desire vomit emptiness,

Not so allured to feed…

…The cloyed will –

That satiate yet unsatisfied desire, that tub

Both filled and running – ravening first the lamb,

Longs after garbage.


These are very powerful speeches, and the very idea of uncontrolled sexual lust (since that is all this is) seems always enough to call forth Shakespeare’s strongest, indeed most disgusted language – that tub both filled and running seems to have stood permanently somewhere in the grounds of his imagination. Sane Imogen simply thinks Iachimo is mad; so, abandoning the oblique approach, he more straightforwardly describes Posthumus as living a wild, debauched life in Rome, in terms taken from the extreme reaches of lasciviousness and foulness. Clean Imogen simply hears it with sadness, and tells him to desist. ‘My lord, I fear/Has forgot Britain…Let me hear no more’ (I.vi.112, 117). Iachimo then makes a perhaps desperate, certainly, disastrous, attempt to incite Imogen to take her revenge – with him:

Should he make me

Live like Diana’s priest betwixt cold sheets,

Whiles he is vaulting variable ramps,

In your despite, upon your purse? Revenge it.

I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure…


at which point Imogen promptly calls for the police – or rather Pisanio and, by implication, the palace guards, telling him to report to the King that a ‘saucy stranger’ is using his court ‘to expound his beastly mind to us’ (I.vi.l151-3). Not, certainly, a good day for Iachimo. But, never without a stratagem, he recoups by congratulating Imogen on her performance, and felicitating Posthumus in having such a faithful wife – he was just testing her. By nature given to trust, Imogen believes and forgives him, and indeed offers hospitality. But no, he must leave on the morrow, only asking as a favour that she will afford a trunk full of precious gifts for the Emperor ‘safe stowage.’ Of course – ‘I will keep them/In my bedchamber’ (I.vi.195-6). ‘send your trunk to me’ – so she concludes the first act (I.vi.209); how ominously, we have yet to learn.

This confrontation of Iachimo and Imogen is one of Shakespeare’s great scenes – never more piquant adversaries, with such different resources to draw on! Never mind the looming war between Rome and Britain, this – however you care to name its contesting qualities or virtues or skills or powers – is the battle at the soul of the play, to be shortly followed by what must be a unique scene in Shakespeare…”

More, obviously, to come.



And a question for the group regarding the upcoming holidays and our reading/posting schedule.  My estimation is that we will be up to the beginning of Act Four just before Xmas:  What would you think if I did a couple of posts on Act Four during the week between Xmas and January 1st, and we then move on to Act Five when the holidays are over?  What works best for all of you?


My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning – more on Act One

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2 Responses to “Sluttery, to such neat excellence opposed,/Should make desire vomit emptiness,/Not so allured to feed.”

  1. peajayar says:

    Your suggested schedule is fine for me, Dennis.

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