“For mine’s beyond beyond…”


Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


cymbeline act three photoAct Three:  In Britain, Cymbeline has refused to pay the annual tribute to Rome, to which the Roman ambassador Lucius responds by declaring war. Meanwhile, Pisanio has received a letter from his master telling him to kill Imogen, but he tells her about it instead. Horrified, she begs him to go through with, but he persuades her to disguise herself as a man and travel to Rome in Lucius’s company. In the Welsh countryside, Belarius is out with his two sons (who are, in fact, actually Cymbeline’s sons, stole in infancy to avenge Belarius’s banishment!) when a hungry Imogen (now Fidele) appears. Back at court, her absence has (at last) been noticed, and Cloten decides to hunt her down.

It seems that Posthumus’s inability to trust his own feelings rather than his eyes is what proves to be Imogen’s undoing. It also introduces another strand of deceit in a play that braids them ever so tightly together. Inventing for her a sequence of “faults” (For even to vice,” he rages, women “are not constant”) 2.5.29-30, he sends one letter to her claiming his undying love while simultaneously arranging for Pisanio to murder her in cold blood. But unlike his master, Pisanio is unable to lie – he is in some ways the closest the play has to a hero – and so reveals the truth to Imogen. Struck to the core, she can only respond in pain. “Come, fellow, be thou honest,” she cries,

Do thy master’s bidding. When thou seest him,

A little witness my obedience. Look,

I draw the sword myself. Take it, and hit

The innocent mansion of my love, my heart.


Imogen’s urgent desire for death dos not prevail (Pisano simply can’t help her die), and tragedy is, at least for the moment, averted, but Imogen elects instead to undergo a metaphorical death instead – “forgetting” her womanly identity and exchanging her clothes, like so many Shakespearean heroines before her, for those of a young man, in order to flee to Wales.  The touching pseudonym she chooses, “Fidele,” of course means “the faithful one.”

Yet death, as we shall see, will prove difficult to charm away, and it won’t be long before it makes its presence more heavily felt.


From Tanner: (Is anybody else enjoying his reading of the play as much as I am?)

cymbeline act three photo2“The third act sees the opening up of the action to the growing row between Rome and Britain and its extension to the new area of Wales, where we meet the long-banished Belarius and the King’s two lost sons, Guiderius and Arviragus. Imogen, following her ‘longing” (‘mine’s beyond beyond,’ III.iii.57), is deceived into setting out for Milford Haven (which is Wales) by a letter from Posthumus, where he has ordered Pisanio to murder her. It is at this point that Imogen enters the fog. The scenes in the Welsh mountains allow Shakespeare to open up pastoral issues concerning the differing claims and gifts of nature and nurture, and the various dispositions of natural man – thus, Cloten is a born savage made worse by civilization, while Guiderius and Arviragus are brought up as enfants sauvages yet reveal innately royal blood:

How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature!

These boys know little they are sons to th’ King

I’th’ cave wherein they bow, their thoughts do hit

The roofs of palaces, and  Nature prompts them

In simple and low things to prince it much

Beyond the trick of others.

(III.iii.79-80, 83-6)

Belarius, understandably perhaps, given his bad experiences at court, extols the superior nobility of their simple primitive life in the wild nature of the mountains. But for the young boys it is ‘a cell of ignorance…a prison’:

Out of your proof you speak. We poor unfledged

Have never winged from view o’ th’ next, nor know not

What air’s from home…

   We have seen nothing,

We are beastly; subtle as the fox for prey,

Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat.

Our valor is to chase what flies.

(III.iii.27-9, 39-42)

Now, this very aerial play – heights and distances, good and bad air to breathe – is full of bird, both mean and proud: puttock, crows (lots of them), jay, raven – most nobly, the eagle; and, supremely, the phoenix. Belarius reveals something about his cowed (not coward) state when he sends the boys racing up to the heights of the hills, telling them to look down on him with a bird’s-eye view – ‘I’ll tread these flats’ (III.iii.11). He thinks that they will thereby learn a lesson of caution, seeing:

The sharded beetle in a safer hold

Than is the full-winged eagle.


A defeated and disappointed man, Belarius has become a convinced hugger of the earth. But princes will need to be airborne, and warrior eagles rather than creeping beetles will command the concluding spaces of the play. And the Welsh mountains retreat is a far from safe refuge – as becomes apparent when the war threatens to engulf them all. Pastoral dreams cannot withstand the rigors of history; and the play refuses to sentimentalize life in the mountain wastes.

When Imogen learns, from the letter to Pisano, that Posthumus has convicted of her of adultery and ordered her death, she perceives a terrible danger which, potentially, threatens society itself.

     All good seeming,

By thy revolt, O husband, shall be thought

Put on for villainy, not born where’t grows,

But worn a bait for ladies.

Goodly and gallant shall be false and perjured

From thy great fail.

(III.iv.55-8, 64-5)

The world is full of bad seeming which takes in good people – Shakespeare has no more constant theme. But what happens when people will not believe in ‘good seeming’ – then nothing and no one will be trusted, and good-bye all the virtues. It is, indeed, a ‘great fail.’ Somehow, the play will have to work to rehabilitate ‘good seeming.’ But not before there has been some more ‘seeming’ of, let’s say, an indeterminate kind, not least in the form of two disguisings (Pisanio provides both sets of clothes – visibly, the wardrobe man). The first is nothing new in Shakespeare. Imogen, who is now ‘dead to my husband’ (III.iv.132 – since Pisanio is supposed to have killed her), dresses up as a boy and sets out to seek service with the ‘noble’ Roman, Lucius, who is advancing towards Milford Haven. She is thus the last, and it has to be said least high-spirited, of Shakespeare’s epicene heroines. One little aspect of this disguising is worth noting. The wondrous whiteness of Imogen’s skin has been noted, and Pisanio regrets that she must exposes it to ‘the greedy touch/Of common-kissing Titan’ (III.iv.164-5), i.e. get sunburned (‘Titan’ is a name applied to the sun by both Virgil and Ovid). Belarius and the princes worship the sun and ‘heaven’ (the boys are referred to as ‘hot summer’s tanlings,’ IV.iv.29, and you won’t be surprised to learn that they are the only ‘tanlings’ – little tanned ones – in Shakespeare, or indeed anywhere else!), and when Imogen stumbles, as it were, into their territory, she has exchanged the court for life under the open sky – the larger point being that the play is overseen by Jupiter, ruler of the heavens.

I will come back to Imogen’s Welsh interlude. But the other disguising – of Cloten – is something else again. I must go back to a short scene in the second act when Cloten was urging his exceedingly unpleasant and unwelcome attentions upon Imogen. She tries to remain courteous in her rebuffs, but when Cloten dismisses Posthumus as ‘base slave,’ she flares out:

     His meanest garment

That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer

In any respect than all the hairs above thee,

Were they all made such men.


All Cloten can do is stand there repeating incredulously ‘His meanest garment?’ – four times! Some critics have wondered at this – Frank Kermode, for example, found it excessive. But surely the impression we should get is that of a record that has got stuck. I register Cloten as a kind of automaton – an assemblage of all the conventional stage properties used to identify the villain. [MY NOTE:  Compare this with Wilson Knight’s take, in my previous post.] He makes all the most horrible and obnoxious villain-like noises – that is what the machine is geared up to do. But he is never intended to come across as a human being. Bizarrely enough, in one of my very appearances on the school stage, I played Guiderius, and when I walked on with Cloten’s head, saying:

This Cloten was a fool, an empty purse;

There was no money in’t. Not Hercules

Could have knocked out his brains, for he had none.


I was invariably met with gales of laughter. This was doubtless occasioned by my own inherent, undisguisable ridiculousness, but even then I dimly perceived that there was no known histrionic art which could render this entry anything but comic. Brockbank is surely right in suggesting that, with these lines, the ‘clotpole’ stage head would have been displayed as a hollow property. Very well, it might be said; but what is the point in confronting us with this noisy, hollow contrivance? This takes us to his disguising.

When Cloten hears that Imogen has fled from court, he is sure that she has gone to meet Posthumus, and he determines to follow. First, he bullies Pisanio into helping him, as now he has Posthumus’s servant. He tells Pisanio to bring him a set of Posthumus’s garments, and it so happens that Pisanio has ‘the same suit he wore when he took leave of my lady’ (III.v.125-6). While waiting for the clothes, Cloten runs over his planned revenge:

She said upon a time – the bitterness of it I now belch from my heart – that she held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect than my noble and natural person, together with the adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my back will I ravish her; first kill him, and in her eyes. There she will see my valor, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined – which, as I say, to vex her I will execute in the clothes that she so praised – to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in my revenge.


The brutality machine is turned up to full volume (automata which seem to be alive may look comic, but they can also be very frightening). Pisanio brings the clothes, and Cloten is off.”


And to continue with Garber:

Cymb2650“Belarius is a development of a classical pastoral type, or rather the combination of two familiar types, often linked in literature: the old man who once lived in the corrupt court and has now elected to dwell in the purity and innocence of the countryside, and the shepherd father who steals or adopts a changeling child not his own – a child who, inevitably in romance, and usually in pastoral, turns out to be of royal blood. The sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, exhibit their noble qualities despite the humble surroundings in which they live, although they are unaware of their own history, as Belarius observes, to himself and to the audience, the first time we meet them:

How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature!

These boys know little they are sons to th’ King,

Nor Cymbeline dreams that they are alive.

They think they are mine, and though trained up thus meanly

I’th’ cave wherein they bow, their thoughts to hit

The roofs of palaces, and nature prompts them

In simple and low things to prince it much

Beyond the trick of others…


When Imogen encounters them in act 4, by that time disguised as the page boy ‘Fidele,’ she shares the surprise evinced by Orlando in As You Like It when he bursts into the Forest of Arden, dagger drawn, to find a highly civilized scene. Like Orlando, Imogen is astonished to find that forest dwellers can have manners:

They are kind creatures. Gods, what lies I have heard!

Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court.


There is an embedded irony here, since the ‘kind creatures’ of the cave do originate in the court (as Orlando’s singing, table-laying savages are actually Duke Senior’s ‘co-mates and brothers in exile’). Thus the world of romance (and ‘family romance’) is able, as usual, to have things both ways, so that noble savages turn out not to be real ‘savages,’ but in fact nobly born. Earlier, when she first met the boys, Imogen had made the same point made by Belarius. Here is Imogen:

Great men

That had a court no bigger than this cave,


Could not outpeer these twain.


As is fairly common for pairs of sons in literary romance, the two boys are temperamental and emblematic opposites: Guiderius exemplifies the active ideal, and Arviragus the contemplative. The contrasting values of the active and the contemplative life had been an important subject of philosophical debate since the time of Aristotle. Commentators like Philo, Origen, Augustine, Gregory, and Thomas Aquinas all expressed views on the topic, which became a commonplace Renaissance theme. (A painting by Paolo Veronese is titled A Nobleman Between the Active and the Contemplative Life, and – like Hercules’ choice between Pleasure and Virtue, or the Neoplatonic debate between Sacred and Profane Love – this dyad was often represented in pictorial as well as literary form.) Guiderius, the elder son (and Cymbeline’s heir), is the ‘best woodman,’ the best hunter, and therefore the master of the feast. He will preside over the ritual of preparing the game, a ritual deliberately described in archaic, folkloric terms. It is Guiderius who taunts and then kills Cloten, the false, usurping heir arrayed against the true, disguised heir. His decapitation of Cloten, the removing of ‘Cloten’s clotpoll,’ is in romance terms the slaying of a monster of dragon, and at the same time that it resembles moments of resolution in the tragedies (Macduff holding up the head of Macbeth; the disguised Edgar defeating his rival Edmund). From this defined moment of achieved adulthood Guiderius will move forward, insisting upon leaving the safety of the (womblike) cave and joining, instead, the forces waging war.

The second son, Arviragus, is quieter, more inward and tenderhearted. He is especially fond of music, praising the ‘angel-like’ singing of the boy ‘Fidele.’ Arviragus performs what is perhaps the most touching domestic gesture of the entire play. Thinking that Imogen/Fidele is only asleep, he takes off his shoes so as not to make noise: ‘I thought he slept, and put/My clouted brogues from off my feet, whose rudeness/Answered my steps too loud’ (4.2.214-216). At this point neither the audience in the theater nor that on the stage knows that she is alive.

So vital and vibrant are these figures of the Welsh world that next to them the inhabitants of the court world never seem to come fully to life. Iachimo begins strongly, as an Italianate villain of the most satisfactorily corrupt and lustful kind, but he quickly disappears from the play, and when he resurfaces in the last act it is cravenly to confess his sins and beg forgiveness. As for Posthumus, he, too, is largely absent from the play’s radical actions. He is described in his absence in superlative terms, from the play’s first scene onward, in a familiar Shakespearean scenario: the comments of onlookers describe the hero before he comes on the stage, just as the Roman soldiers set the scene for Antony, or as Kent and Gloucester discuss King Lear. In this case it is gentlemen of the court who give us the general view of Posthumus. He

     is a creature such

As, to seek through the regions of the earth

For one his like there would be something failing

In him that should compare…


     lived in court –

Which rare it is to do – most praised, most loved;

A sample to the youngest…


‘Sample’ here is ‘example’: Posthumus was a model of good behavior. Notice again he ‘lived in court –/Which rare it is to do – most praised.’ In the first moments of the play the court of Cymbeline is already being exposed as a corrupting and fallen influence, and the way is being paved for the ameliorative and invigorating influence of the King’s soon-to-be-found sons.

But although the banished Posthumus is described in these elevated terms, not only by the anonymous gentlemen of the first scene but also by his wife, Imogen, and by his man Pisanio, the theater audience never really sees him in action until the deliberately schematic battle of the fifth act. He dreams, he sleeps, he ponders a riddle but ‘fails to decipher’ it. In fact, except for his martial heroism in the climactic battle, when (disguised as a British soldier) he joins forces with Belarius and the sons against the Roman army, Posthumus’s only visible action is to agree to the wager with Iachimo that tests Imogen’s chastity. It is a swaggering, boys-will-be-boys wager (based on a well-known episode in The Decameron of Boccaccio, and on a sixteenth century pamphlet called ‘Frederyke of Jennen’) that leads to separation and loss, and almost to tragedy. From an actor’s point of view, Posthumus is a fairly thankless role.

Imogen, on the other hand, is a brilliant part, and it justly became a favorite of actresses and audiences in succeeding centuries. Shakespeare’s first cross-dressed woman since viola, and the first and only woman disguised as a boy in one of his Jacobean plays, Imogen resembles both the inventive, disguised heroines of the comedies (Rosalind, Viola, Portia) and also the virtuous and muselike Marina, a quintessential figure of the romance genre. Like Marina, Imogen is described repeatedly in images of divinity. She is ‘[m]ore goddess-like than wife-like’ {3.2.8), she sings ‘angel-like,’ and Belarius says of her, when he encounters her disguised as the boy ‘Fidele,’

By Jupiter, an angel – or, if not,

An earthly paragon. Behold divineness

No elder than a boy.


Although Shakespeare never permits the comparison of a human being to a god or goddess to go unchallenged (male rulers, in particular, are cut down to size if they or their followers make this category error), the young women of the last romances come closest to this elusive state. Posthumus, though he ‘sits ‘mongst men like a descended god’ (1.6.170), is soon seen doubting his lady’s fidelity and sending off messages commanding that she be put to death. But Imogen, described as being like a goddess and an angel (with the usual Shakespearean qualification ‘or, if not,/An earthly paragon’), is, like Marina, closely associated with art and art making. She sings, and in her cookery she cuts roots into decorative characters (that is, both figures and letters of the alphabet). But where the typical romance heroine is often a fairly passive figure, who is adored (‘Admired Miranda!’) and who inspires wonder and poetry, Imogen is engagingly active, putting on a riding costume, racing on horseback to Milford Haven on the Welsh coast for her rendezvous with her Posthumus, then enlisting as a page in the Roman army once she believes she has lot both her husband her friends. Imogen, like Rosalind in As You Like It, was in Shakespeare’s time a boy actor playing a woman who disguises herself as a boy. She is ‘read’ by her Welsh rescuers (who will turn out to be her natural siblings) as somehow both male and female. In a way that is again reminiscent of Rosalind’s encounters with Orlando:


Were you a woman, youth,

I should woo hard but be your groom in honesty,

Ay, bid for you as I’d buy.


I’ll make’t my comfort

He is a man, I’ll love him as my brother.



‘Mongst friends

If brothers. [Aside] Would it had been so that they

Had been my father’s sons…


    Pardon me, gods,

I’d change my sex to be companion with them,

Since Leonatus’ false.

(3.6.66-74, 84-86)

Since Arviragus is also, in the plot, a young man, the play takes some pains to emphasize his difference from Imogen, a ‘woman’ (played by a boy) impersonating a boy. When later he speaks, in a lovely passage of verse, about the flowers he will strew on ‘Fidele’s’ grave, Guiderius interrupts him impatiently, ‘Prithee, have done,/And do not play in wench-like words with that/Which is so serious’ (4.2.230-232) The ‘wench-like words’ may have reminded a Shakespearean audience that such extended flower passages are often spoken by female characters in the tragedies and romances (Ophelia, Marina, Perdita), but the phrase also marks the difference between the ‘male’ Arviragus and the ‘female’ Imogen/Fidele, as does the immediately following mention of the changing voice of a young man (‘our voices/Have got the mannish crack’ (236-237); compare the teasing endured by the boy actor advised by Hamlet to pray that his voice, ‘like a piece of/uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring/ (Hamlet 2.2.410-411).

Another flower passage, the dirge Guiderius sings for Imogen/Fidele, ‘Rear no more the heat o’th’ sun,’ culminates in the haunting lines

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.


‘Golden lad’ and ‘chimney-sweeper’ were folk names for the dandelion, so this resonant passage, which seems to comment on early promise and loss and the hardships of the working world, is also an embedded nature fable with the implication of rebirth (the ‘dust’ of the dandelion is the seed head that scatters).  [MY NOTE:  I’ll have a lot more on this passage at the end of this post.]

Given the unfamiliarity of many modern readers and audiences with Cymbeline, it is important to emphasize the degree to which the play – and especially its heroine – was admired in past years. Imogen has been played by such stage luminaries as Sarah Siddons, Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, and Peggy Ashcroft. Nineteenth-century novelists rhapsodized about her, citing her over and over as a female paragon: Sir Walter Scott in The Heart of Midlothian, William Makepeace Thackeray in Pendennis, Anthony Trollope in Barchester Towers and The Last Chronicle of Barset, George Eliot in Middlemarch. When Oscar Wilde came to write The Picture of Dorian Gray, he had Dorian go to the theater and fall in love with an actress, Sybil Vane, whose three signature parts are Juliet, Rosalind, and Imogen. The nineteenth century’s adoration of Imogen may be summed up by Algernon Swinburne’s comments in A Study of Shakespeare (1880):

‘The very crown and flower of all her father’s daughters, — I do not speak here of her human father, but her divine, — woman above all Shakespeare’s women is Imogen. AS in Cleopatra we found the incarnate sex, the woman everlasting, so in Imogen we find half-glorified already the immortal godhead of womanhood. I would fain have some honey in my words at parting…and I am, therefore, something more than fain to close my book upon the name of the woman best beloved in all the world of song and all the tide of time: upon the name of Shakespeare’s Imogen.’

Swinburne’s final emphasis, ‘upon the name of Shakespeare’s Imogen,’ will help to explain why I do not [MY NOTE:  Nor do I] follow the Norton and Oxford editors in changing the character’s name back to the historical ‘Innogen,’ the name of the wife of Brut, or Brutus, the legendary king of Britain. Innogen is mentioned in Holinshed’s Chronicles, one of Shakespeare’s sources; in book 1 canto 10, of Spenser’s Faerie Queene; and in Drayton’s Polyolbion (1612), and the name makes a fascinating shadow appearance in the dramatis personae for Much Ado About Nothing in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. (Rowe listed ‘Innogen, Wife to Leonato,’ but no such character appears in Much Ado, and the entry was dropped by the editor Lewis Theobald in 1733.) Some editors have speculated that the first Folio’s use of ‘Imogen’ throughout may be a misprint, but the name has by now taken on a life and character of its own. I think instead of attempt to rewrite literary history (by, for example, inserting footnotes in editions of Swinburne and Middlemarch to explain the discrepancy between a restored ‘Innogen’ and a Victorian ‘Imogen’), we should consider the plays of Shakespeare to be living artifacts with their own significant pasts. Since both the Folio and the Victorians write ‘Imogen,’ ‘Innogen’ seems to me a historicist affection. (Likewise with ‘Iachimo,’ which The Norton Shakespeare modernizes to ‘Giacomo’ In act 2 an angry Posthumus rails against ‘yellow Iachimo’ (2.5.14), which is likely to be alliterative, and I am not aware of any editorial inclination to respell or repronounce the name of the better-known Iago.”


cymbeline071210_250I was going to save this until we get to Act Four, but since Garber already briefly discussed it, I’d like to finish with this from A.D. Nuttall:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages,

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

(Cymbeline, IV.ii.258-63)

I first heard these lines when I was about eight years old. They ravished me at once and have haunted me ever since. I knew nothing about Shakespeare. I suppose that if today someone were to ask me, ‘What is the finest lyric poem in the English language?’ I would point to this. And yet I do not understand the lines. Why ‘chimney-sweepers?’ It has been suggested that it is an old word for dandelions. I hope this explanation is wrong. If we think of the shock-headed golden flower the lines are at once more intelligible and more ordinary. I know that my childish mind conjured opposite images, glorious tall ‘lads and girls’ and a grimy, desperate child-worker, Blake’s ‘little black thing.’ The force of the lyric was in the vertiginous space between the golden people and the sooty figures – al alike ending in death. The violence of the difference threatens the sense of the stanza, but coherence is achieved by the latent but easy association of chimney-sweepers with dust. The association carries the mind from shining life to the dust of the grave at the end. If the sense ‘dandelion’ were proved right I would still want to fight a rearguard action, to say that calling the flower ‘chimney-sweeper,’ rather than the metrically identical ‘dandelion,’ briefly evokes counter-images of grimy darkness.

This is the dirge from Cymbeline, written soon after Pericles. It is spoken (not sung) by two brothers over someone believed to be dead but really alive, someone believed to be male but really female. This magnificent lamentation is therefore wasted, it might be thought, on a richly inappropriate object. It will by now be obvious that the old energies of earlier Shakespearean comedy are being reactivated. This in yet another form is the topos of defeated satire; that is, where we expect the incongruity of high imaginings and low, purblind human error to result in a satirical guying of those high imaginings, instead the mistakings on the part of the human agent seems to throw the exalted idea into purer relief. As the music of marriage soared above circumstance at the end of All’s Well That Ends Well, so here the elegy for all the young people who must die soars above the conditions of its singing.”


Your thoughts so far?


My next post:  More on Act Three, Sunday evening/Monday morning.


Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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