Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Posthumus roams about with a bloody handkerchief, given to him as proof that Imogen is dead. He laments his command to Pisanio to kill Imogen, and he half-blames Pisanio for being such a good servant as to obey the order. He now has a death-wish which motivates his entering into the war.
Iachimo also feels guilty about Imogen when we encounter him involved in the war. During the battle, Cymbeline is captured by the Romans, but Belarius, the boys, and Posthumus rescue him. Lucius tells Imogen, still disguised, to flee and save herself as things are going so badly.
Posthumus discusses the war with a lord of Britain, eventually announcing that he came with the Romans and welcomes capture, which does transpire. Two captains enter and report that Lucius is captured; an old man and his sons, and “a fourth man, in a silly habit” (V.iii.86), are heroes. Posthumus is handed over to Cymbeline, and then to a jailer.
As prisoner, Posthumus rejoices at the idea of death because of his guilt over Imogen. When he sleeps, he has a vision of his family, whose long-dead members appeal to Jupiter to show mercy on Posthumus, considering his bravery and remorse. The vision may have come from de Vere’s interest in occult and his having been “reported to have had nightmare visions of dead mother, who prophesied the future to him” (Farina 96). Jupiter assures Posthumus’ family that some must suffer to make their rewards sweeter. When Posthumus wakes up, there is a booklet near him containing an enigmatic prophecy:
When as a lion’s whelp shall, to himself unknown, without seeking find, and be embrac’d by a piece of tender air; and when from a stately cedar shall be lopp’d branches, which, being dead many years, shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock, and freshly grow; then shall Posthumus end his miseries, Britain being fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty. (V.iv.138-144)
“Posthumus cannot find himself as a husband until he gets back to himself as a son, in relation to his lost family, available to him only in a dream-vision” (Bloom 620). But Posthumus can’t make anything of this prophecy madness. He banters with the jailer over his impending death. Then a messenger delivers word that Posthumus must appear before the King.
Cymbeline, who has been “a cipher throughout the drama” (Bloom 617), wonders who it was who helped Belarius and the others rescue him, and he knights the two boys. Cornelius brings news of the Queen’s suicide and her confessions before her death: she never loved Cymbeline but only his wealth and power; she intended to poison Cymbeline slowly but her attempts failed and she grew more crazed. Roman prisoners are presented and Caius Lucius asks for mercy only for Fidele. Cymbeline thinks Fidele reminds him of someone and grants a request. Fidele wants to ask Iachimo some questions, such as where he found that diamond ring he’s got on his finger. Posthumus is present and wonders why this would be of interest. Iachimo confesses his crimes against Imogen and Posthumus; in fact, he “confesses and repents so profusely that we badly miss the true Iago” (Bloom 636). Posthumus comes forward and wants to murder Iachimo for tricking him into having his wife killed. Fidele intervenes and Posthumus strikes “him.” “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” (Bloom 637). When Pisanio rushes to Fidele’s aid, everyone finally recognizes Imogen. “Imogen has little in common with Marina, Perdita, and Miranda, beyond her restoration (with two brothers to boot) to her father at play’s end” (Bloom 616). She embraces Posthumus and asks Cymbeline’s blessing. “The villain is not taken out to be tortured, as his poetical father Iago was, but is pardoned by the man he had injured” (Goddard, II 258). Cymbeline announces his wife’s death and the uncertainly about Cloten’s whereabouts. Pisanio and Guiderius fill him in regarding that story. Guiderius now must perish for killing his social superior, but Belarius reveals the identities of the boys as Cymbeline’s own sons. Guiderius has a tell-tale mole too. “Wonder is dominant as revelation follows upon revelation, and the play’s reveling in its own implausibility may well arouse laughter” (Wells 358). “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” (Bloom 634).
The family is reestablished and the prisoners are to be treated well. Iachimo gives the bracelet and ring to Posthumus and expects death, but Posthumus offers forgiveness instead, a feature not in the Boccaccio story (Farina 96). Posthumus calls forth the soothsayer for an interpretation of that prophecy in his book. The soothsayer reads the current revelations and restorations into the message. A second interpretation of the dream emerges; “This quite confirms the suspicion that the Soothsayer was a diplomatist and not a diviner, a gross licker of the royal boots. (Caesar would not have relished being only an eagle while Cymbeline was the sun!)” (Goddard, II 258). Cymbeline is victorious in the war, but he will make a generous peace with Rome: “the call to sacrifice and the promise of ‘peace / To all our subjects’ suggests that the end of Cymbeline is millennial and transcendent” (Garber 826). If allegorical (V.v.459f), it may be relevant that “in 1578, the Queen was trying to make Mendoza believe she was turning toward Philip and away from the French” (Ogburn and Ogburn 156). Cymbeline, “instead of exacting tribute from the defeated Romans, agrees to give freely what he had refused to have exacted of him under compulsion. It is one of Shakespeare’s last words on that spirit of magnanimity in which he held that victory should be taken” (Goddard, II 258-259).
The resolution of discord into harmony, of enmity into reconciliation through penitence and forgiveness, is more dominant here than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays; it may well, as has been suggested, have reminded Shakespeare’s original audiences both that the reign of King Cymbeline spanned the time of universal peace — the pax Romana — during which Jesus Christ was born. (Wells 359)
Many readers “sense that something is wayward about this drama” (Bloom 616). “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” (Bloom 638), in which Shakespeare “draws attention to the play’s artifice” (Wells 351). An “unsavoriness hovers on the margins of the romances, though it rarely dominates. Something, though, is askew in Cymbeline” (Bloom 615). “The artificial mode and incantatory verbal style of this episode, with its archaic diction and its old-fashioned verse forms, sets it off even from the rest of a play that never lacks artifice” (Wells 357). Some have been “inclined to dismiss the play as the work of a has-been, a washed-up playwright with nothing left to say, a Shakespeare so tired of the theater that he was, as Lytton Strachey famously remarked, ‘half bored to death'” (Garber 804). Or, “Shakespeare is his own worst enemy in Cymbeline: he is weary of making plays” (Bloom 621). “The two prime Shakespearean values are personality and love, both equivocal at the best, and here, with all else, they come to dust” (Bloom 631).
“But to believe that the myriad-minded Shakespeare should have tried dramatic allegory — even assuming that he had not flirted with it in certain of his earlier Comedies — is surely doing him far less disrespect than to hold that he fell to composing in his last days such improbable and really inconsequential stuff as Cymbeline is if taken merely as a story” (Goddard, II 257).
“But even if we assume that his powers diminished after the immense expense of spirit that produced the Tragedies, it is unthinkable that, short of a kind / of senility, he could have gone back on the practice of a lifetime as to begin writing plays with a main eye to the plot, spinning yarns, so to speak, for their own sake” (Goddard, II 244-245).
Is the play “a kind of zany romance” (Bloom 618)? An odd “juxtaposition of aesthetic dignity with the absurd” (Bloom 618)? Or, “this is a play that tackles, and to a large extent solves, an intriguing set of problems about the relationship between political stories and psychological stories, between the state or polity and the subject, and between the political fiction and the dream” (Garber 804).
“Good blood, unconscious of its goodness, close to nature, watched over and loved by civilized experience and wisdom: it is just the combination essential to the best results, and the fact that Shakespeare repeats it, with only minor variations, in the cases of Perdita and Miranda shows that it is not just the chance of the lot but something approaching a considered prescription for the education of youth and the production of the noblest type of man and woman” (Goddard, II 254).