The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act III in seven scenes
The story so far
Imogen’s story is that of the Calumniated or Slandered Wife, whereby she is wrongly accused of being unfaithful to her husband. This results from Shakespeare’s use of the folktale motif of the Wager on the Wife’s Chastity, linked to the theme of the supposed lover — here played by Iachimo — hidden in a chest in the heroine’s bedchamber. The tale Imogen was reading before retiring to bed was from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and concerned the Thracian tyrant Tereus. His Athenian wife Procne asks Tereus to allow her to see her own sister Philomela. Tereus, seized with lust, rapes Philomela, and cuts out her tongue to stop her reporting his violence. However, Philomela weaves a tapestry which reveals the rape and sends it to her sister. Procne metes out a bloody revenge on her unfaithful husband before she and Philomel turn into birds, Procne becoming a swallow and Philomel a nightingale. Tereus also transforms into a bird, the hoopoe, which laments with a distinctive cry while wearing a distinctive crest to mark it out.
The significance of this tale is that it supposedly prefigures what Iachimo claims he has done — the seduction of Imogen — thereby effectively silencing her with slander and ‘proofs’ of his deed. Imogen’s husband, Pothumus Leonatus, has, roaring like the lion he has been named after, in turn slandered all womankind for their imagined inconstancy.
As Act III opens, external events threaten the island of Britain. Caesar Augustus demands the tribute that is owed to Rome since the time of Julius Caesar’s stalled invasion. The Roman ambassador, Caius Lucius, for long a friend to the British court, is charged with conveying the demands but is met with polite but firm rebuffs, paving the way for war preparations.
Meanwhile, Pisanio is unhappy at his master Posthumus’ letter to him (I wonder from the talk of bees whether we are to understand this is a wax tablet). We will later find out this commands him to act like the huntsman to Snow White. Reluctantly he gives Imogen another letter, which Posthumus has written to his wife, asking her to secretly meet him at the port of Milford Haven in the far west of Wales. Imogen and Pisanio cross the Severn and travel west over the Welsh mountains, Pisanio meanwhile privately concocting a plan to help avoid tragedy.
Scene iii introduces us to a thematic strand which has so far only been hinted at: the lost princes. Belarius (his name perhaps being suggested by the great Byzantine general Count Belisarius) is a former British general who, after being falsely accused of treachery, has been exiled to Wales. Here he has secretly taken Cymbeline’s two infant sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, and brought them up in a cave where, despite living the simple life, their genetic inheritance is displayed in their nobility of manners. While the two princes (now in their early twenties) naturally want to spread their wings (they mournfully proclaim “our cage | We make a quire, as doth the prison’d bird, | And sing our bondage freely”) Belisarius warns them against the dangers of life at court.
The next scene takes place somewhere near the exiles’ cave. Since Milford Haven is visible from this vantage point, the setting may well be the Preseli Hills, dominating the skyline from my window as I write; however, bearing in mind the short time frame and the maximum of twenty miles Imogen and Pisanio can travel in a day, I have to remind myself that this is a fantasy landscape Shakespeare is portraying. Imogen, spotting Pisanio’s troubled manner, worms out of his servant her husband’s secret instructions to murder her. She immediately condemns the letter’s details as “viperous slander” (she recognises that “some jay of Italy … hath betray’d him”) but, in despair at Posthumus’s rejection of her, begs Pisanio to do the deadly deed. Pisanio suggests instead that Imogen dresses in male attire, her bloodied female clothing used as ‘proof’ that she has been killed; Imogen is then to make her own way to Milford in disguise, to which she somehow agrees. Before Pisanio returns to court he offers Imogen the drugs that the Queen had fobbed off on him as remedial; we as audience of course know that the Queen believes them to be deadly, just as we also know that her physician has in turn fobbed off coma-inducing drugs on the Queen instead of the poisons she has asked for. It only remains for us to wonder quite how these stratagems cancel each other out.
Back in Cymbeline’s court Imogen is discovered to have fled. Cloten confronts Pisanio, who is forced to surrender Posthumus’ dissembling letter to Imogen telling her to meet him at Milford. Cloten’s dim-wittedness is revealed in his morally contradictory orders to Pisanio: “If thou wouldst not be a villain, … undergo those employments[,] what villainy soe’er I bid thee do [and] I would think thee an honest man…” Posthumus’ clothes are to be worn by Cloten, a man himself cut from dishonest cloth, as revenge for Imogen describing him as being as unworthy as Posthumus’ undergarments. Then, in an aside, he reveals to us his true intentions: in an unconscious remodelling of the legend of Philomel and Tereus he proposes in Imogen’s presence to kill Posthumus dressed in the latter’s clothes, throw her insults back at her, rape her in front of the corpse and drag her back to court to wed her against her will. Thus, in one soliloquy, he undoes any sympathy we might have had for him as a foolish but loveable rogue while revealing himself as a complete fantasist.
And what of Imogen herself? As we might guess, Imogen in disguise (her alter ego is Fidele, a name that Leonora was to assume in Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio) encounters Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus by their mountain cave, where she is held in admiration as a comely youth and the young men as noble in bearing. As they offer her food and shelter she ironically muses “Would it had been so, that they | Had been my father’s sons!” as compensation for her husband’s falseness.
The Act ends as it had begun, with news of Roman preparations for the conquest of Britain for lack of tribute. That nice man, ambassador Caius Lucius, is made proconsul and general of the forces to invade the island from Gallia. The stage is set for all the pieces on the board to make their moves before the final denouement.
Do also take a look at Lizzie Ross’ posts as we parallel critiques of Cymbeline, act by act