Cymbeline tells the story of an ancient British king and his three children. The king, Cymbeline, is mentioned in chronicles in Shakespeare’s day, and may be historical or may be legendary. The chronicles say that he ruled at the time of Augustus Caesar, was brought up in Caesar’s court, and had a peaceful reign. His children—although the two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, also appear in the chronicles—are presented in the play as if they have stepped in from romance or fairy tales. And Cymbeline himself, with his marriage to a beautiful but wicked queen and his almost miraculous victory in his war against Rome, also partakes far more of romance than of history.
Much of the play focuses on the story of the king’s daughter, Imogen, whose secret marriage to a gentleman named Posthumus Leonatus triggers a great deal of the play’s action. Her father, outraged at the marriage, banishes Posthumus, who is then maneuvered into making a foolish wager on Imogen’s chastity. The story that follows of villainous slander, homicidal jealousy, cross-gender disguise, a deathlike trance, the appearance of Jupiter in a vision, and final repentance, forgiveness, and reunion is the stuff of the popular fiction of the time, as well as of popular drama of an earlier period. The trials of Imogen, however, are also larger than life, reminding one of the sufferings of mythological heroines who anger powerful gods.
The story of Cymbeline’s two sons, which intersects with that of Imogen, is even more deliberately fictional. As the play tells it, Guiderius and Arviragus were kidnapped in infancy and raised in a cave in the Welsh mountains. (The play acknowledges the incredibleness of this part of the plot by having a gentleman say to a doubter: “Howsoe’er ’tis strange, / Or that the negligence may well be laughed at, / Yet is it true, sir” [1.1.75–77]). Knowing nothing of their heritage and remembering no life beyond their mountain cave and its environs, the young men yearn for adventure. In the course of the play, they rescue a starving young man (their sister Imogen in disguise); they kill and decapitate Cymbeline’s stepson; and they go into battle against the Roman army and prove almost superhumanly valiant.
The fairy-tale-like stories of Imogen and of her brothers play against the somewhat more realistic story of King Cymbeline as he takes on a Roman invasion rather than pay the tribute agreed to by his ancestors. References to such personages as Augustus Caesar and Julius Caesar and his conquest of Britain appear to ground Cymbeline’s story in history. But Cymbeline too is a familiar romance figure—a father who loses his children and after long years miraculously finds them; a king who, through what seems supernatural intervention, defeats an invading army and then grants pardon to all.
Shakespeare uses the long-ago-and-far-away fantasy quality of the stories dramatized in Cymbeline as the ground against which he displays unusually powerful human emotions. The play tells of love and loss, of jealousy and fury, of the joy of finding and the near-delirium of reuniting after heartrending separation; and the language in which the emotions accompanying these human states are expressed has never been more potent. The audience is seldom allowed to forget that the action is fictional; at the same time, the characters’ ordeals and triumphs and their responses to those moments carry a tremendous charge. The resulting drama, while reminding us at many times of stories and situations explored in earlier Shakespearean plays, has a quality that links it to his other late work—especially The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest—as a dramatization of improbable story lifted, through its characters and its language, into a realm that is nearly mythic in scope.