The Tragedy of Cymbeline, King of Britain is a play by William Shakespeare. Critics often put it in a grouping called Shakespeare's Late Romances along with Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale. Although it was grouped with the tragedies in the First Folio, it is almost universally accorded a place in the comedies today. It is believed to have been written around 1609. The King, Cymbeline himself, is based on a British chieftain, Cunobelinus, who reigned before the time of the Roman invasion. Though once held in very high regard, Cymbeline has lost popularity over the past century. Some have held that, written late in Shakespeare's career, the play was a personal joke of Shakespeare's, parodying his earlier works. Both William Hazlitt and John Keats numbered it among their favorite plays.
Posthumous, a man of low birth but exceeding personal merit, has secretly married Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline. Cymbeline, angered at this subversion of his will, banishes Posthumous from the kingdom. His faithful servant Pisanio remains.
Iachimo (or "Little Iago"), a soldier in the Roman army, makes a bet with Posthumous that he can tempt Imogen to commit adultery. The falsely besmirched Imogen, warned by Posthumus' faithful servant Pisanio, fakes her death to weather the reverberations of this trick (as Hero does in Much Ado About Nothing), and makes her way to Milford Haven on the West Coast of Britain. There she befriends "Polydore" and "Cadwell," who, unbeknownst to her, are really Guiderrius and Arviragus, her own brothers. Two British noblemen swore false oaths charging that Belarius had conspired with the ancient Romans, which led Cymbeline to banish him twenty years before the action of the play. Belarius kidnapped Cymbeline's young sons in retaliation, to hinder him from having heirs to the throne. The sons were raised by the nurse Euriphile, whom they called mother and took her for such. Some have taken the convoluted plot as evidence of the play's parodic origins. In Act V Scene IV "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt," then commands an untangled plot and goes back up. At the play's resolution, virtually the entire cast comes forth one at a time to add a piece to the puzzle. Cornelius, the court doctor, arrives to dazzle everyone with news that the Queen, Imogen's stepmother, is dead, reporting that with her last breath she confessed her wicked deeds: she never loved old Cymbeline, she had Imogen poisoned by Pisanio (without Pisanio's knowledge), and she was ambitious to poison Cymbeline so Cloten, her own son, could assume the throne. Cymbeline concludes with an oration to the gods, declares peace and friendship betwixt Britain and Rome, and great feasting in Lud's Town (London), concluding "Never was a war did cease, / Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace."
Imogen is one of the relatively small number of great female roles in Shakespeare. The editors of the Oxford and Norton Shakespeare believe Imogen is a typo for Innogen, and draws several comparisons between this play and Much Ado About Nothing in which a ghost character named Innogen was supposed to be Leonato's wife (of course, Posthumous is also known by the epithet, "Leonatus", the Latin form of the Italian name in the other play). The Yale Shakespeare edition suggests the presence of a collaborator during the writing of this play, and certainly some scenes (Act III scene 7 and Act V scene 2) may strike the reader as less characteristic of Shakespeare than the rest of the play.
Probably the most famous verses in the play come from the funeral song of Act IV, Scene 2, which begins:
These last two lines appear to have inspired T. S. Eliot; in Lines to a Yorkshire Terrier (in Five-Finger Exercises), he writes:
The first two lines of the song appear in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. The lines are at once an elegiac dirge and a profoundly dignified declaration of endurance. They provide a major organizational motif for the novel.