“… On her left breast
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I’ the bottom of a cowslip …”
— Cymbeline II ii
Most of the principal characters having been introduced in Act I, Act II settles down to working out some of the scenarios that have been triggered: so the mystery of the chest supposedly filled with treasures for the Roman emperor is now revealed, and Iachimo’s trap is sprung. The Queen’s son, Cloten, who has been revealed as a strutting coxcomb in Act I, continues to display what a complete clot he is: having heard that an ‘Italian’ (Iachimo from Rome) is newly arrived, he expresses his intentions to beat him, perhaps cheat him, in some game or other. Though he never gets to meet Iachimo, we don’t doubt the outcome of that match. It is in the next scene, in Imogen’s bedchamber that the apparent ‘tragedie’ of the drama is played out.
When Imogen retires to sleep after reading, out of the chest she has been given to safeguard creeps Iachimo. He notes Imogen’s beauty, the disposition of the room, the bracelet — token of her love for her husband — on her arm and finally the mole on her left breast which he likens to the fivepointed star-shape in a cowslip’s bell. A glance at any cowslip, much in evidence in the springtime of the year, reveals a beautiful pentacle, as beguiling and enchanting as Imogen’s mole to Iachimo. To vouch for his forbidden foray Iachimo draws away the bracelet from her arm and steals away — out of the window? back into the trunk? — as dawn breaks.
Just in time. Cloten has heard somewhere (a stage play perhaps?) that music is “the food of love” and gets some musicians to perform the appropriate aubade ‘Hark, hark, the lark’. Sadly for him, his wooing is ineffectual as Imogen in no uncertain terms informs him: he is more unworthy than her husband’s “meanest garment”. He is stunned and appalled, mindlessly repeating the insult. Imogen in the meantime has missed her bracelet and institutes a search.
Back in Rome, Iachimo has returned to submit the ‘evidence’ that Imogen has yielded to him: the lay-out of her bedchamber, the bracelet, the tell-tale mole… Posthumus (or is it Leonatus, as some refer to him?) accepts defeat for the wager and in the final scene of the Act indulges in an intemperate misogynist rant against women in general. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” could equally have emerged from his mouth as Hamlet’s. Our estimation of this supposed paragon of virtue, already lowered by his foolish acceptance of the bet, now plumbs new depths. As things stand it’s all looking fairly bleak.
But we have forgot the fake death potion. And the two missing princes in the tower in Cymbeline’s palace. All’s well that ends well, but the fat lady hasn’t sung yet.