Cymbeline, Act IV

Rocky tor on Preseli Hills skyline  (author’s photo)

William Shakespeare
The Tragedie of Cymbeline
Act IV in four scenes

I’ll say this for Will: he knows how to lead you to sometimes expect the expected but then takes an unexpected turn which, in retrospect, you could also have expected. For example, in Act IV a certain villain gets their hoped-for come-uppance, but not in the manner that we might have imagined — and while that comes as a bit of a shock it is entirely appropriate.

The action is still switching between Cymbeline’s court (in London, one assumes, as Lud’s-town gets a couple of mentions) and the cave where Belarius and his two young wards, Guiderius and Arviragus, reside under assumed names — on a mountain near Milford Haven, which I’ve suggested could be the Preseli Hills (highest point: 1760 feet). Cloten has arrived hotfoot on the trail of Imogen, following directions reluctantly given by Pisanio, and while in Posthumus’ garb is still fixated on her insult comparing him to underpants, working himself up mightily to fulfil his bloodthirsty boasts.

Scene ii opens. At the nearby cave Imogen remains in disguise as Fidele, but isn’t feeling 100%, declaring herself not well, indeed rather ill, but not sick as such. As expected she takes the drugs supplied by Pisanio (who thinks they’re medicines), who got them from Imogen’s wicked stepmother the Queen (who thought they were poisons), who in turn got them from the Queen’s canny physician (who knew they were only potions to induce the temporary appearance of death). After a spate of mutual admiration the two brothers and their “father” Belarius leave Fidele in the cave to go hunting when who should appear but Cloten. Belarius, recognising him despite his long absence from court, goes off with Arviragus to check whether Cloten has come with a retinue, leaving the villain with Guiderius. These two begin to trade insults (Cloten, needless to say, began it) with terms like “Toad, or Adder, Spider” from one and “rustic mountaineer” from the other. A fight offstage results in the shocking revelation that Guiderius has thrown Cloten’s severed head into a creek to make its way down to the sea, where it can “tell the fishes he’s the queen’s son”.

Arviragus, Belarius and Guiderius mourn over the apparent corpse of Fidele
Arviragus, Belarius and Guiderius mourn over the apparent corpse of Fidele

Belarius is understandably concerned about Guiderius’ killing of Cloten, even though done is self-defence, but Arviragus then emerges from the cave with what seems to be Imogen’s corpse. The brothers sing the unbearably beautiful duet ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ and then cover both bodies — Cloten’s headless torso as well as Imogen —  with greenery before departing.

We are not surprised that Imogen then comes to, in some confusion, only to discover a decapitated body dressed in Posthumus’ clothes. Distraught, having make the obvious — but incorrect — deduction, she roundly blames Pisanio in his absence for betraying them all. Then Caius Lucius, the recently promoted proconsul and general, arrives with some soldiers: they are due to meet the Roman fleet newly arrived at Milford Haven, with more noble volunteers under the trickster Iachimo immanently due. They see Fidele/Imogen mourning over the body of Posthumus/Cloten — keep up, do, it’s not that complicated! — only to be told that he/she is the loyal servant of one Richard du Champ. (This is Imogen trying to avoid complications, obviously. As if there weren’t enough.) Impressed by this example of fidelity, Lucius arranges for the body to be properly buried and invites the ‘servant’ to serve him. Thus ends the longest scene so far in the play, and just to read about it is exhausting.

Back in Cymbeline’s palace all is at sixes and sevens with Imogen gone, Cloten mysteriously absent, the Queen indisposed from anxiety about her missing son and the Roman legions landed in Wales. Pisanio seems to hold the key to all, but luckily one of the lords vouches for his innocence before Pisanio is put to torture. The poor servant is also confused: he’s had no message from his master Posthumus in Italy in response to his false report that Imogen is ‘slain’; nor has he news from either Imogen or Cloten, both of whom he left en route for Wales.

The final scene reveals Guiderius and Arviragus unknowingly revealing their nobility by wanting to join the Britons in their conflict with the invaders, but Belarius is at first, very naturally, reluctant to reveal himself as the exiled courtier who has up to now successfully concealed himself — and the two abducted princes — in Wales as Morgan, Polydore and Cadwal.

The final Act, when all complexities will hopefully be resolved, beckons. In the meantime, expect the unexpected — and maybe the expected may happen! In the meantime the next post will try to elucidate a little bit of the geography of Cymbeline, if that is at all possible.

11 thoughts on “Cymbeline, Act IV

  1. well just wanted to come back and say this was really cool when you wrote this:

    “he knows how to lead you to sometimes expect the expected but then takes an unexpected turn which, in retrospect, you could also have expected.” so good! 🙂


    1. Thanks! His plays are very different from, say, conventional romcoms where you can almost predict how and when it all comes good. Or even many traditional symphonies which employed a limited range of structures. I’m not of course talking about content here, a very different matter.

      Oh dear, all a bit serious first thing in the morning…


          1. thanks! and it is actually late here – and I am going to bed in a few- but that has been my schedule lately… so while you have your morning Jo (or tea) – ’tis sleep for me:

            “O sleep! O gentle sleep!
            Nature’s soft nurse….”


            1. “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…” Oh perhaps not that one.
              Actually, two or three cups of strong percolated coffee perk me up in the morning — tea only after midday!


          2. that is awesome – and well – I got sidetracked and now I am winding down – and well, this delightful email came in –
            “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…”
            wonderful – and it made my morning – thanks dear Calmgrove!!! 🙂
            and did you say percolated coffee – well have not had a cup of that yummy stile java brew in many, many years – enjoy yours! and thx again…..


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