The Plot

Cymbeline: Plot Summary

Cymbeline interweaves story-lines of personal loss and grief that converge in a final scene of forgiveness and hope.

Princess Innogen has defied her father, Cymbeline, King of Britain, by marrying the commoner and orphan Posthumus rather than the Queen’s doltish son Cloten from her previous marriage. Determined to control his daughter, Cymbeline exiles Posthumus, who travels to Rome. There the villainous Giacomo scorns Posthumus’s confidence in his wife’s virtue, boasting that he could seduce her. Irritated by his arrogance, Posthumus wagers his ring on Innogen’s faithfulness. In Britain, Giacomo hides himself in her bedroom and emerges at night to observe intimate details of her body and to steal her bracelet. These seeming proofs of infidelity send Posthumus into a jealous rage, and he orders his servant Pisanio to kill Innogen.

The Queen has persuaded Cymbeline to stop paying a negotiated tribute to Augustus Caesar in Rome. She has also been experimenting with poisons, and gives one to Pisanio, lying to him that it is health-giving. But a suspicious Doctor has replaced it with a sleeping potion, and Pisanio gives it to Innogen as a restorative if she ever needs it. Disguised as a young man named Fidel, and hearing that Posthumus is arriving at Milford Haven, Innogen flees to rural Wales. There she hopes to serve the invading Roman general Lucius and learn more about Posthumus.

She is given refuge by her two unrecognized brothers, Arviragus and Guiderius, who were taken in infancy from the corrupt court by a kind lord, Belarius, who becomes their surrogate father. In a heart-sick moment, Innogen takes Pisanio’s drug. The brothers find her seemingly dead and mourn for her. They lay her body beside the headless corpse of Cloten, who had changed into Posthumus’s clothes and travelled to Wales to kill him and rape her, but has been slain by Guiderius after insulting him. Innogen wakes next to the body she takes to be her husband’s and is devastated by grief. Still disguised as Fidel, she is found by Lucius, who kindly adopts her as his page.

Meanwhile Posthumus has returned to Britain as a Roman soldier, hoping to die in battle because he regrets his jealousy. But he switches loyalties and fights with the brothers and Belarius to support a British victory over the Romans. Still feeling guilty for his wife’s presumed death, Posthumus switches back to being a Roman and is captured. In prison he receives a vision of his lost family, who call on Jupiter to end his sufferings. The god descends to assure them Posthumus’s afflictions will ultimately restore him to Innogen. In the final scene, following the Queen’s death, Giacomo confesses his crime, true identities are revealed, and Cymbeline emulates Posthumus’s self-accusing forgiveness of Giacomo by pardoning everyone and restoring Britain’s tribute to Rome in a spirit of reconciliation and peace.