“Hang there like fruit, my soul/Till the tree die.”


Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


cymbeline023Act Five:  Deep breath:  Convinced that Imogen is dead, Posthumus repents and joins the British side: disguised as a peasant, he saves Iachimo (who doesn’t recognize him).  Belarius and his “sons” rescue Cymbeline and reverse what seems to be an inevitable British defeat. But Posthumus wants to die, and dresses as a Roman before being captured. While in prison he has a vision of his dead family, and of the god Jupiter, who leaves him with a mysterious message.  Meanwhile, with the British victory, Belarius and others are rewarded for their efforts by the King. After news arrives that the Queen is dead and her evil exposed, Lucius, Imogen/Fidele, Iachimo and Posthumus are all brought in as prisoners. Seeing Iachimo, Imogen asks about his ring and he reveals that he cheated Posthumus out of it. Pisanio then recognizes Imogen, before Belarius reveals his own identity and those of Cymbeline’s sons. Embracing them all, Cymbeline decides to resume the payment of Roman tribute as Jupiter’s word, which prophesized peace, are decoded.


As is so often the case in these late romances, recognition is invariably allowed to work itself out, even with more jack-knifing of the plot. Having been discovered by Roman soldiers led by Lucius, Imogen invents a story that Cloten’s body is her master’s “A very valiant Briton” (4.2.371) and begs to be taking into Roman service. Posthumus, meanwhile, has discovered Iachimo’s treachery and announces his intention to be killed in battle. “I’ll die/For thee, O Imogen,” he swears, in an unknowing echo of her earlier suicide attempt,

     even for whom my life

Is every breath a death; and, thus unknown,

Pitied nor hated, to the face of peril

Myself I’ll dedicate.


In an apt image of Cymbeline itself, that ‘peril’ brings Posthumus close to death but also, ultimately, to happiness. Captured by the British forces, he falls asleep in prison, and with what can only be called breathtaking bravura Shakespeare dramatizes the vision that appears in his hero’s sleep. As “solemn music” plays, the stage directions instruct,

Enter, as in an apparition, Sicilius Leonatus (father to Posthumus, an old man), attired like a warrior, leading in his hand an ancient matron, his wife, and mother to Posthumus, with music before them.

Then, after other music, follows the two young Leonati, brothers to Posthumus, with wounds as they died in the wars. They circle Posthumus round as he lies sleeping

(5.5.123 SD)

These instructions – taken verbatim from the Folio text and before that from Shakespeare’s manuscript – have given directors pretty much unlimited flexibility to come up with some impressive theatrics, and from Cymbeline’s first days in the theater the apparition will most likely have been spectacular.  (Unless, of course, you’re the Fiasco Theatre company – see my previous post here.) As Posthumus sleeps on, it becomes even more so: after his dead family completes their round of song, they then call on the god Jupiter to reverse Posthumus’s “miseries.” And when Jupiter himself appears, he announced that “Your low-laid son our godhead will uplift,/His comforts thrive, his trials well are spent” (5.5.197-8)

Jupiter’s words indicate that (as if we didn’t already know) Cymbeline will end in joy rather than pain. Even so, at times it seems that it will fail in its attempts to get there. Posthumus is right at the brink of being executed by the Britons when news arrives that he is to freed and taken to Cymbeline’s court instead. Imogen, meanwhile, is still in disguised, and when she too finds herself there it seems that the lovers will quickly be reunited. But…the grief-stricken Posthumus, thinking that Fidele scorns his sorrow, lashes out – and it is only when Pisanio shouts, “O my lord Posthumus,/You ne’er killed Imogen till now” that anyone realizes what exactly is going on. “Does the world go round?” exclaims Cymbeline, dumbstruck:

If this be so, the gods to mean to strike me

To death with mortal joy.


Fortunately the gods intend no such thing and, as Cymbeline comes to a close, death works finally in the service of good. The wicked Queen has died, Cloten is gone, and as Imogen comes round in her father’s arms (a reunion cruelly denied Lear), we only wait for her brother’s to be revealed before the story is complete.


From Tanner:

cymbel“Indeed it is not (the Forest of Arden); for soon the area is engulfed in the war between the newly-landed Romans and the Britons – ‘the noise is round about us’ (IV.iv.1). Characteristically, Belarius wants to hide in the mountains; but Guiderius and Arviragus want to ‘look on blood’ and try themselves in battle – for royal blood is also knightly-warrior blood – and they all make towards the war. The fog now is at its thickest, and the next person to loom out of it is Posthumus (he has come over as part of the Italian contingent). The Cloten-part of his identity has, as it were, been ritually killed off, so it is not surprising that we see and hear his better self re-emerging. He now bitterly regrets the ‘death’ of Imogen (he has a bloody handkerchief – Pisano’s ‘proof’ that he carried out his fatal instructions), shows contrition, and blames himself. Evidence of recovered sanity comes in his remark:

You married ones,

If each of you should take this course, how many

Must murder wives much better than themselves

For wrying but a little!


‘Wrying but a little’ – just deviating a little from the straight and narrow – shows he has gained a sense of proportion; you don’t kill a wife on account of a little loose sex. Note that Posthumus still believes that Iachimo did pleasure himself with Imogen. This is important, not only because it reveals that he has learned to forgive her; but also because, in the brief fragment of the war which next occurs in dumb-show, Posthumus, now dressed as a British peasant, actually encounters Iachimo (fighting for the Romans). And ‘He vaniquisheth and disarmeth Iachimo and then leaves him’ (V.ii.directions). As Hunter points out, this means that we actually see Posthumus effectively forgiving Iachimo, whom he would certainly recognize and whom war would allow him legitimately to dispatch. This briefly glimpsed moment adumbrates the mood at the end of the play when Posthumus will be able to say to an abjectly repentant Iachimo:

The pow’r I have on you is to spare you;

The malice towards you to forgive you. Live,

And deal with others better.


At the sight of which, the insanely choleric old Cymbeline, who goes on wildly trying to hand out death sentences up to the last moment, finally gets the point:

We’ll learn our freeness of a son-in-law:

Pardon’s the word to all.


These merciful gestures have been seen as constituting the specifically Christian turn to the otherwise pagan play; but while there is a deal of Christian terminology in the play (free play is made with the word ‘election’ in reference to lovers’ choices, for example), it seems to more in keeping with the mood of reconciliation, reunion, recognition (often necessitating contrition and forgiveness) which Shakespeare works to bring about at the conclusions of these last plays. And if Shakespeare has no trouble in putting Renaissance Italy and Celtic Wales in ancient Britain (or vice versa), he certainly won’t think twice about having them all in Christendom – even with Jupiter still reigning under his ‘radiant roof’ (V.iv.91). Shakespeare’s theatre is much more capacious than theology. The atmosphere or mood at the end of the play is neither firmly pagan nor distinctly Christian – it is simply Shakespearian; neither very definitely here, nor unmistakably there: rather – ‘beyond beyond.’

The last act recounts the brutal confusions of war (‘lolling the tongue with slaught’ring’ – as graphic as Guernica: V.iii.8), the heroic exploits of Posthumus and the triumphant trio of Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus. Britain and Cymbeline are saved by the virtues and efforts of those whom the King had so stupidly and blindly banished. Careless of life (still thinking he is guilty of Imogen’s death), Posthumus allows himself to be wrongfully imprisoned and sentence to death (well, ‘fear no more – tavern bills” says the rather jocular Jailer – surely, as Brockbank suggested, a lightly comic echo of the earlier dirge: V.iv.129-30), and it is in prison that his parents and Jupiter appear to him in a dream. Jupiter is given what is often taken to be a crucial speech (he is answering the family ghosts who are both reproaching him, as men have always reproached their gods, along the lines of – why do you let such atrociously unjust things happen? And asking his help – ‘Peep through thy marble mansion,’ V.iv.60):

Be not with mortal accidents opprest,

No care of yours it is; you know ‘tis ours.

Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,

The more delayed, delighted…


This is more or less how gods have always answered man, when they deign to talk to them at all. God moves in a mysterious way – and don’t ask questions. This is, as it were, the bottom line of religion. Jupiter’s announcement of himself and his ways is little more than a theological platitude, and the idea that this manifestly stagey theophany is an electrifying revelation of godhead among mortals seems to me misconceived. Jupiter then makes what must have been a tricky theatrical exit – ‘Mount, eagle, to my palace crystalline’ (V.iv.83).

Against this, we may put the relatively unillumined human perspective of Pisano: ‘Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered’ (IV.iii.46). There’s the question – is there a god, any god, overseeing, directing, ‘steering’ all?’ Is there any kind of Providence ‘shaping’ our rough-hewn manglings? Does a divinity ‘peep through’ marble mansions, blankets of dark, whatever? (‘Peep’ is the perfect, modest word – for whatever the state of our unbelief, there are times when most of us have a sense, a glimpse, that something more than us might just have an eye for what is going on down here.) Is there a Jupiter – or is there just a Shakespeare, using the god’s name to put his signature deifically on the play? Or should we defer to Fortune, more or less tidying things up? The questions manifestly cannot be resolved (unless we are sure we know the answers all along), and I’m not sure that it greatly matters when it comes to responding to the play. What Shakespeare does, having brought matters to an unholy state of utter confusion (he has thrown in an oracular text, found by Posthumus when he wakes in prison, to further confound matters and add to the growingly-felt need for explanations) is, effectively, to invite us to wonder at how quickly the fog can be burned off. As it does in the remaining scene, in an explosive series of revelations and recognitions which can hardly be kept pace with, so that the audience is dazzled while the characters stagger.  The peak, and cracking point, comes when Posthumus strikes the as-yet-unrecognized Imogen to the ground. At this, it is as if, not only we, but the play itself cannot take any more, and it rushes unpausingly to a conclusion with a torrent of clarifications and recognitions. ‘Does the world go round?’ asks the dizzied King (V.v.232). Yes it does; bringing in its changes and its restorations, time’s revenges (Cloten and the Queen are dead) and the season’s rebirths and renewals. The fruit is back on the tree, and the lovers are in one another’s arms. ‘Hang there like fruit, my soul,/Till the tree die’ (V.v.263-4) says Posthumus to Imogen as she embraces him – all error cleared – in a line that brought tears to Tennyson’s eyes. The Phoenix has risen from its ashes (Imogen, ‘th’ Arabian bird’); the Roman eagle is ‘on wing soaring aloft,’ united to the ‘radiant Cymbeline’; the ‘majestic cedar’ of Britain has been ‘revived.’ And now – ‘such a peace’ (the last words). All clear. All settled. All over.

Shakespeare has taken an assortment of the most disparate, incongruous, intractable material imaginable, all concerning important matters – sexual, familial, dynastic, political, imperial; and proceeds to show with what a light touch it can be handled. He allows it to puddle and fog together to the point of hopeless chaos, and then – whoosh! it’s all significantly related and cleared up. And suddenly the play seems to have been like Imogen’s dream:

‘Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,

Which the brain makes of fumes.


Our pleasure should be tragical-historical-comical-pastoral-romantical; and also, theatrical-magical. Cymbeline, it seems to me, is the most extraordinary play that Shakespeare ever wrote. How does he do it?  Staggering!”


So does Tanner make the case for Cymbeline’s greatness?  Or, are you with Bloom on this one…

From Bloom, after his discussion of the great lyric “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun”:

cymbeline photo booth as posthumus“It is more cheering to move on to Act IV, Scene iii, where Cymbeline is told that the Queen is dangerously ill, mourning the disappearance of Cloten, and to the scene after, where Belarius and the still unrecognized princes vow to join their fellow Britons in the battle against the Roman invaders. Posthumus cannot ever show up without making me more mournful, and he is perfectly silly in the soliloquy with which he opens Act V, as he contemplates the false ‘bloody cloth’ sent him by Pisanio as evidence of Imogen’s murder:

Yea, bloody cloth, I’ll keep thee: for I wish’d

Thou shouldst be colour’d thus. You married ones,

If each of you should take this course, how many

Must murder wives much better than themselves

For wrying but a little? O Pisanio,

Every good servant does not all commands:

No bond but to do just ones. Gods, if you

Should have ta’en vengeance on my faults, I never

Had liv’d to put on this: so had you saved

The noble Imogen, to repent, and struck

Me, wretch, more worth your vengeance. But alack,

You snatch some hence for little faults; that’s love,

To have them fall no more: you some permit

To second ills with ills, each elder worse

And make them dread it, to the doer’s thrift.

But Imogen is your own, do your best wills,

And make me blest to obey. I am brought hither

Among th’ Italian gentry, and to fight

Against my lady’s kingdom: ‘tis enough

That, Britain, I have kill’d thy mistress: peace,

I’ll give no wound to thee: therefore, good heavens,

Hear patiently my purpose. I’ll disrobe me

Of these Italian weeds, and suit myself

As does a Briton peasant: so I’ll fight

Against the part I come with: so I’ll die

For thee, O Imogen, even for whom my life

Is, every breath a death, and thus, unknown,

Pitied, nor hated, to the face of peril

Myself I’ll dedicate. Let me make men know

More valour in me than my habits show.

Gods, put the strength o’ th’ Leonati in me!

To shame the guise o’ th’ world, I will begin,

The fashion less without, and more within.


I quote this partly for its peculiar badness, but also to open again the question of Posthumus’s unfinished personality. His repentance is in dubious taste, since he continues to believe that his wife betrayed him with Iachimo, but that supposed crime, once so hellish is now ‘wring but a little’ and ‘a little fault.’ [MY NOTE:  Again, compare this with Tanner’s much deeper appreciation for this speech.]  The wonder again is why Shakespeare so consistently labors to make Posthumus so dubious a protagonist, so estranged from the audience that we simply cannot welcome his final reunion with Imogen.  It grates us to hear that the gods should have saved Imogen, so that he could repent, and it bothers me even more that Posthumus becomes a parody of Edgar, to be disguised as ‘a Briton peasant.’ Cymbeline continues to be a revenge by Shakespeare against his own achievements, and Posthumus also is best understood as a prime agent of that parodistic self-vengeance.

This self-parody continues in dumb show at the start of Act V, Scene ii, where Posthumus, in peasant disguise, vanquishes and disarms Iachimo, and then abandons him, in a debasement of the Edgar-Edmund duel. Iachimo, no Edmund and no Iago, blames his slander of Imogen for his defeat by a mere peasant, and begins to repent his career. By the time Belarius, the princes, and Posthumus have rescued Cymbeline, reversed a British rout, and thoroughly crushed the Romans, we ought to be ready for anything, and yet Shakespeare sees to it that we are surprised, though his originality for just this once is an equivocal reward, aesthetically considered. Posthumus, reverting to Roman garb, is captured, and awaits execution, in the willing spirit of expiation. He falls asleep in prison, and Shakespeare grants him a double vision, first of his lost family, and then of a descent of Jupiter, sitting upon an eagle and throwing thunderbolts at the family ghosts. Only Wilson Knight, with his customary generosity, has attempted an aesthetic defense of this scene; he once told me that not to appreciate the ghosts and Jupiter was not to understand Shakespeare.  [MY NOTE:  Is anyone interested in reading Wilson Knight’s defense?] Wilson Knight was a great critic, and a religious Shakespearean, and I have reread this scene continually, trying to persuade myself that it is not bad, but it is awful, and I think deliberately so. Why Shakespeare turned to doggerel here, I do not know, but he certainly made it as bad as possible. This, for instance, is one of the ghostly brothers, praising Posthumus:

First Brother:

When once he was mature for man,

     in Britain where was he

That could stand up his parallel,

    or fruitful object be

In eye of Imogen, that best

    Could deem his dignity?


That would go very well in my favorite anthology of bad verse, The Stuffed Owl, and has to be a parody of a parody. Something buffoonish breaks loose in Shakespeare, and Jupiter descends to a verbal music that sets a new, all-time low in divine epiphanies:

No more, you petty spirits of region low,

Offend our hearing: hush! How dare you ghosts

Accuse the thunderer, whose bolt (you know)

Sky-planted, batters all rebelling coasts?

Poor shadows of Elysium, hence, and rest

Upon your never-withering banks of flowers:

Be not with mortal accidents opprest,

No care of yours it is, you know ‘tis ours

Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,

The more delay’d, delighted. Be content,

Your low-laid son our godhead will uplift:

His comforts thrive, his trials well are spent:

Our Jovial star reign’d at his birth, and in

Our temple was he married. Rise, and fade.

He shall be lord of lady Imogen,

And happier much by his affliction made.

This tablet lay upon his breast, wherein

Our pleasure his full fortune doth confine,

And so away: no farther with your din

Express impatience, lest you stir up mine.

Mount, eagle, to my palace crystalline.


There is no way that Shakespeare, keenest of ears, does not apprehend the absurdity of this. The puzzle is insoluble, if we insist on taking this seriously. But it is certainly an outrageous parody of the descent of any god from a machine, and we are expected to sustain it as travesty. Posthumus, waking up, finds a prophetic text promising good fortune, and reacts to it by a parody of Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

‘Tis still a dream: or else such stuff as madmen

Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing,

Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such

As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,

The action of my life is like it, which

I’ll keep, if but for sympathy.


Shakespeare cannot stop himself, in his run-on self-parodies; we are suddenly back in Measure for Measure with the jovial Pompey, bawd turned executioner’s assistant, exuberantly informing Barnardine that the ax is upon the block. A cheerful gaoler tells the more-than-willing Posthumus that he is about to be hanged.

A heavy reckoning for you sir: but the comfort is you shall be called to no more payments, fear no more tavern-bills; which are often the sadness of parting, as the procuring of mirth: you come in faint for want of meat, depart reeling with too much drink: sorry that you have paid too much, and sorry that you are paid too much: purse and brain, both empty: the brain the heavier for being too light; the purse too light, being drawn of heaviness. O, of this contradiction you shall now be quit. O, the charity of a penny cord! It sums up thousands in a thrice: you have no true debitor and creditor but it: of what’s past, is, and to come, the discharge: your neck, sir, is pen, book, and counters; so the acquittance follows.


Compulsive self-parody does not exist elsewhere in Shakespeare; in Cymbeline it passes all bounds. Shakespeare probably cannot stop, or if he will not stop, that hardly alters the critical question: Why is the self-travesty so unrelenting? Posthumus is quite out of character in Act V, Scene iv; he seems to become a surrogate for Shakespeare in replies to the gaoler that welcome mortality. Just before the gaolers come for him, Posthumus is given the play’s most obscure speech, which Dr. Johnson thought too thin to be understood, and yet its resonance disputes Johnson’s judgment. I quote it a second time, for its importance:

‘Tis still a dream: or else such stuff as madmen

Tongue, and brain not: either both, or nothing,

Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such

As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,

The action of my life is like it, which

I’ll keep, if but for sympathy.


Shakespeare may be going beyond even his limits of expression, and I doubt Johnson’s paraphrase, which does not confront: ‘which/I’ll keep, if but for sympathy.’ Through Posthumus, I hear Shakespeare observing that the action of our lives is lived for us, and that the desperate best we can do is to accept (‘keep’) what happens as if we performed it, if but for ironic sympathy with ourselves.  It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.

Act V, Scene I, of Cymbeline, is almost five hundred lines in length, and rivals Measure for Measure’s final scene in complexity and delayed recognitions. The rivalry may be deliberate; self-parody is again an element, and the inverted moralism of Measure for Measure’s conclusion has its echoes in Cymbeline’s ending. Shaw, Shakespeare’s jealous descendant, rewrote the final act as Cymbeline Refinished, particularly mangling the last scene. Imogen becomes a Shavian woman, unrecognizably so, and though I sometimes am baffled by the end of Cymbeline, I prefer bafflement to Shaw’s mutilation. The last scene opens cheerfully with the announcement that the queen, herself a parody of Lady Macbeth, ended ‘with honor, madly dying,’ like Queen Macbeth. Unlike that grand personage, Cymbeline’s queen dies saying she never loved her husband.

The Roman captives are brought in, with Lucius, his page Fidele (Imogen), Iachimo, and Posthumus among them. Since Belarius and the princes stand as honored victors among the Britons, we rightly expect a full panoply of recognitions, restorations, and explanations. Cymbeline compounds matters by taking Fidele as his own page. While Cymbeline and the disguised Fidele converse apart, Belarius and her brothers see ‘the same dead thing alive’ but do not proclaim their find. Shakespeare turns us to Iachimo, who confesses and repents so profusely that we badly miss the true Iago, who defies the coming torture and will not speak. The wordy Iachimo all but recapitulates the entire play, and declines from being Iago’s parody to being the travesty of a chorus. And yet Shakespeare’s dramatic shrewdness has not abandoned him: Iachimo’s collapse exposes how far below Iago’s negative greatness we can descend and still find ourselves embodied in a villain. Iago, like Hamlet and Macbeth, is beyond us, but we are Iachimo, Our bravado, fearfulness, confusion are all in Iachimo, who is not much worse than we are, and whom Shakespeare intends to spare. About two years before Cymbeline, Shakespeare would have attended Ben Jonson’s masterpiece Volpone, where the savagely moralistic Jonson shocks us at the end of his play (or at least me) by harshly punishing Volpone and Mosca, two marvelously likable rogues. Iachimo’s reprieve by Posthumus seems to me another of Shakespeare’s smiling rejoinders to Jonson’s ethical ferocity.

Shakespeare’s self-travesty enters again when Posthumus knocks Imogen down even as she attempts to reveal herself to him, a clear parody of Pericles’s roughly pushing Marina back when she begins to address him. Posthumus (surely Shakespeare’s most tiresome hero) finally speaks eloquently when he embraces his restored wife:

Hang there like fruit, my soul

Till the tree die.


Even Cymbeline is allowed memorable utterance, when all three of his children are given back to him at once:

O, what, am I?

A mother to the birth of three? Ne’er mother

Rejoic’d deliverance more.


The general pardon extended by Cymbeline to all his Roman captives follows fittingly upon this joy. But Shakespeare, seemingly unable to cease from travesty, here as at the close for Measure for Measure, confounds us by Cymbeline’s further gesture, which reduces much of the play to sheer idiocy, confirming Dr. Johnson’s irritation. After bloodily defeating the Roman Empire, in a war prompted by his refusal to continue paying tribute, Cymbeline suddenly declares that he will pay the tribute anyway! Shakespeare has shown us the valor and battle prowess of Posthumus, Belarius, and the princes, and now in a Falstaffian reversal he tells us again, ‘There’s honour for you!’ After that gesture, one wonders if Shakespearean irony does not also hover as Cymbeline begins the play’s final speech:

Laud we the gods,

And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils,

From our blest altars.


What do those ‘crooked smokes’ of sacrifice praise in the gods? King Lear was a pagan play for a Christian audience, and undid all consolations, pagan and Christian. Cymbeline, more a mixed travesty than a romance, tempers its final reconciliations and restorations with wariness. No other play by Shakespeare, not even Measure for Measure or Timon of Athens, shows the playwright so alienated from his own art as Cymbeline does. Troilus and Cressida may be more overtly rancid than Cymbeline, but we seem to confront the author’s sickness of spirit in Imogen’s play akin to the malaise that pervaded Hamlet. This is only another way of explaining why the context of Cymbeline is so alien to Imogen, who deserves to be in a better play. Shakespeare hardly can repress his greatness, even in Cymbeline, but for once it is a power that he scarcely can tolerate or forgive.”


Are Tanner and Bloom even reading the same play?  What do you all think?

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning — final thoughts on Cymbeline.

And next week, my Thursday evening/Friday morning post will be an introduction to our next play, an undisputed masterpiece, The Winter’s Tale.

This is fascinating:


Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “Hang there like fruit, my soul/Till the tree die.”

  1. Craig says:

    Haha, at least they both agree on “Hang there like fruit, my soul / Till the tree die” which is magnificent.

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