Shakespeare's Cymbeline Characters

Shakespeare's Cymbeline: 

Main Characters

Posthumus

As his name suggests, Posthumus’s identity is post in ways that look to both the past and the future. It is belated in the sense that tragic events at the beginning of his life have placed a question mark over his future. As the play opens we learn that Posthumus was orphaned by the deaths of his father before he was born and his mother in childbirth (hence post = after + humus = burial, earth). As in many romance narratives (see Stories and Genres), he is a hero-to-be who lacks a biological family and is raised by a surrogate parent -- in this case King Cymbeline. Thus, one of Posthumus’s life-quests is to forge an independent identity for himself and establish a new family which renews the honour of his lost one. When in Act 5 he is despairing over Innogen’s death and hoping to die, Jupiter’s spectacular dream-vision clarifies those goals and motivates Posthumus to endure further to reach them. In theatrical terms, his life-quest challenges a performer to embody its psychology and emotions in ways that move us.

The post in Posthumus also implies a delayed achieved identity because the opportunity for self-determination created by the erasures at his birth has yet to be realized. Fulfilling that potential is Posthumus’s second life-quest. Like a fairytale princess (think Leah in Star Wars), Innogen has chosen him to be her husband even though he is a commoner without money or status of his own. She has valued him for the person he is and the husband and father she hopes he will grow into.

That hope is put in doubt because the couple are betrothed but have not apparently consummated their marriage before Posthumus is exiled by Cymbeline, who wants Innogen to marry the Queen’s son Cloten by a previous marriage. Although Posthumus and Innogen have grown up together in the court, they have not had time to know each other as lovers or partners. Even at the end of the play when they are joyfully reunited, their marital happiness remains a work in progress.

Posthumus is therefore pulled by events beyond his control, and pushed to merit Innogen’s esteem. As a romance hero, his task is to bring together his uncertain past and his wife’s trust in a fully achieved present.

His journey starts promisingly. As the play opens, several Gentlemen praise Posthumus’s quickness to pick up the education and social graces the court has given him. These are qualities confirmed by Innogen’s preference for him over Cloten (not that that’s a difficult choice given Cloten is so obnoxious). Unfortunately, Posthumus’s reputation takes a self-inflicted hit after he is banished. In Rome he reveals his insecurity by bragging about Innogen’s virtues. He compounds this immaturity with poor judgement by rising hot-headedly to Giacomo’s devious goading. And Posthumus accepts his crass wager on Innogen’s honesty. This makes him complicit in diminishing her to the price of Giacomo’s estates and his own ring. He ignores Philario’s advice to avoid this unseemly bargain.

Although Posthumus is initially sceptical when Giacomo relates his “proofs” of Innogen’s infidelity, his resistance collapses when he sees the bracelet he gave her and jealously believes Giacomo has slept with her before he has. Having ranted against her wickedness and that of all women, he forces Pisanio into a plan to murder her. Otherwise he disappears into lonely misery for most of Acts 3 and 4.

When he reappears in Act 5, Posthumus’s proper remorse for Innogen’s apparent death is depreciated by also regretting it as a lost opportunity for her to repent. He continues to be alienated from himself, now seeking death in battle disguised as a Roman soldier. Recalling the rendezvous with Innogen he was to have had in Milford Haven, however, he temporarily switches back to his native British identity, before later switching back once again to being to being a Roman. But the work of rescuing Cymbeline during the fighting, negotiating British cowardice and Roman disorder in battle, and lending (inferred) aid to Belarius and the brothers in reversing British fortunes, keep death elusive, although his chivalry and bravery earn him the victory-name of his father, “Leonatus” (“lion-born”).

Decisive self-knowledge begins to arrive only after Posthumus dreams in prison of his lost family, and Jupiter explains that the trials of his life are beneficial and will eventually lead to his reunion with Innogen. By reflecting his own birth-origins back at him, the dream encourages to keep going, “If but for sympathy,” and to correct his shortcomings.

But Posthumus’s rashness and capacity for violence against women return explosively in the final scene when he inadvertently strikes Innogen while she is still disguised as Fidele. Yet this shocking impulse, and the stunning revelation that Fidele is Innogen, spurs Posthumus to see himself in Giacomo, and motivates him to forgive his enemy. Innogen’s fervent embrace and Posthumus’s moving words of spousal mutualism (“Hang there like fruit, my soul, / Till the tree die) celebrate their long-desired reconciliation. But it is also up to the body language and facial emotions of the actors in performance to make spectators feel that Posthumus has genuinely deserved Innogen’s self-sacrificing love, and finally managed to fulfil his post potentials as a romantic hero.

Innogen

Innogen’s name means maiden or daughter in Gaelic, suggesting virtue and fertility, the dual strengths of a romance heroine. On a personal level, these qualities imply natural growth sustained by personal integrity. Like her husband Posthumus, Innogen can be seen as a coming-of-age character. Yet she is far more imaginative, adaptable, and empathetic. And unlike traditional heroines, her speaking role is the largest in the play. The fact that she is the king’s daughter and (supposed) sole heir gives all her varied actions political significance. This includes rebelling against her father’s tyranny and the Queen’s hatred. Her affinities with the nature world stand in contrast to her parents’ unnatural exploitation of the country’s people and animals for personal profit. From a 21st-century viewpoint, Innogen can be seen as an ecofeminist emblem of resistance, resilience, and hope. Hers are indispensable qualities for confronting the existential stresses and tragedies of today’s Anthropocene.

There is an aura of historical prophecy about Innogen. She bears the name of the founding queen of ancient Britain and the matriarch who engendered the line of kings reaching down to Innogen’s father. Implicitly, Innogen’s own royal heirs will continue that reign of British monarchs. Since Innogen apparently does not consummate her marriage to Posthumus before he is banished, the virginity she preserves through various assaults ensures her future children and Britain’s monarchs will be legally and politically legitimate.

What little we know about Innogen’s mother is associated with generational lineage. She bequeathed Innogen the diamond ring she exchanges with Posthumus for his bracelet during their marriage handfasting. And she made the “curious mantle” (i.e. exquisitely wrought infant’s blanket) which wrapped one of her two sons, Arviragus. When this object is revealed in the final scene, it confirms his and brothers’ identity as their mother’s sons and Innogen’s brothers, and helps to materially ratify their family’s reunion.

On a personal level, Innogen’s initial passion for Posthumus sounds similar to the unbounded devotion of Juliet to Romeo. It could be taken as girlish naivety. But as is the case for Juliet, adversity reveals Innogen’s love to be a source of deep independence and resourcefulness. She cleverly escapes her father’s confinement and Cloten’s repulsive wooing. She sees through Giacomo’s sly attempt to make her mistrust her husband. She acts swiftly on Pisanio’s advice to travel to Milford Haven for a hopeful reconciliation with her husband. Her “resolution” remains undaunted even after she learns of Posthumus’s plans to kill her. This unswerving constancy is typical of romance heroines and is reflected in the symbolic name she adopts when risking further travel, cross-dressed as a boy: Fidele (= faithful).

Events to this point are familiar romance-plot elements. When Innogen journeys into the Welsh wilderness, her embrace of gender difference, and her courage in braving the isolation and vulnerability of solo migration, take on broader significance, including Anthropocene resonances. Weak and starving, Innogen takes refuge in a cave. When the sympathetic Cadwal, Polydore, and Morgan (a.k.a. Arviragus, Guiderius, and Belarius in Wales) offer her welcome hospitality, Innogen critiques the prejudices she heard at court that the region’s native people were “savages.” Although Belarius and the brothers are not from Wales, the takeaway for Innogen’s character is that she can learn respect from the experience of otherness (unlike Cloten, whose arrogance towards “villain mountaineers” gets him unregrettably killed).

Innogen’s adaptability is further shaped environmentally. Shakespeare associates her throughout the play her with classical and British birds (e.g. phoenix, ruddock (regional name for robin), wren, swan). Her bedside reading of Philomel’s rape reminds us of the latter’s metamorphosis into a nightingale. In Ovid’s story this is the crystallization of Philomel’s life-journey. But Innogen’s multiple avian associations are not endpoints but a continuing process of cross-species integration and co-evolution. Her life can be read as an eco-allegory of animal-human kinship. It implies a biocentric value system, and thus an alternative to the human exceptionalism which is a root cause of our current environmental crises and injustices.

The most poignant moment of Innogen’s relations with the non-human world seems, on the surface, counterintuitive. It takes place over her apparently dead body (Innogen having taken a sleeping potion which imitates death). Arviragus and Guiderius perform an elegy for Fidele. Laying him/her to earth, they cover the body with herbs and flowers, mimicking the robin making a nest, with “furred moss besides,” to “winter-ground” the body (i.e. overwinter it like a plant until spring). Their poetic signs of instinctive domesticity, seasonal protection, common physical agency, and organic regeneration suggest the deep kinship of animal, human, and plant life, or metabiosis. Arviragus and his brother culminate their ritual care and heart-felt expressions with a famous lyrical farewell, “Fear no more the heat o’th’sun.” Their “burial” becomes a celebration of life through biomorphic dramatic art. On stage, this arc is visualized theatrically when the sleeping Fidele revives as Innogen.

Suddenly she has to overcome the greatest crisis of her life, since she wakes up beside the headless body of Cloten dressed in Posthumus’s clothes. For a performer, this is one of the most difficult moments in Shakespeare to pull off. Taking the body to be that of her husband, Innogen dares to address the unspeakable in a nightmarish vertigo of shock, disbelief, heroical blazon, vengeful anger, and almost annihilating grief. She stains her face with blood as she cradles and collapses over the corpse.

Again suddenly, the scene’s focus widens as Lucius marches in with his invading Roman army. He magnanimously offers Innogen, once more Fidele, sympathy, the office of a page, and paternal care. Before leaving the scene, Innogen uncannily reciprocates Guiderius and Arviragus’s green burial for her “master’s” body by strewing it with “wildwood leaves and weeds” she forages locally. Lucius collaborates interculturally (and ironically) by giving the British jingoist Cloten a Roman military funeral.

Military service is the one life-experience that does not significantly shape Innogen’s character. Her marital fidelity could be seen as a cross-gender extension of its masculine loyalties, however. Symbiosis with natural environments as well as personal constancy connect Innogen to Jupiter’s riddling prophecy to Posthumus. It declares that Britain will flourish when its “lion’s whelp” (or cub) is “embraced by a piece of tender air.” When the Roman Soothsayer expounds this message in the final scene, he easily identifies Posthumus, newly renamed Leonatus, as the whelped lion. The “tender air” is Innogen because the Latin word “mulier,” or wife, was a cognate pun on mollis aer,” or soft, pliant air.

Taking a cue from the Soothsayer in the light of Innogen’s ecological relations, we could also say “tender air” suggests a heathy and sustaining climate for natural and national ecosystems. Since it “clips about” Posthumus in the way we have just watched Innogen embrace him, “tender air” suggests a physically affectionate agency and mutually life-giving identity. Likewise, Innogen’s stage action of greeting and thanking her real and surrogate family – the King and her brothers, Belarius, and Lucius – suggests the global space and ecological reach of “tender air.” The culminating peace between Britain and Rome represents a scaled geopolitical vision of Innogen’s personal eco-reciprocities.

Cymbeline and the Queen: from traditional generic to Anthropocene characters 

Cymbeline and the Queen begin as familiar figures from romance narratives and folk-tales (see Stories and Genres). The king is a tyrant, and the Queen a wicked step-mother. But as the play’s stories unfold, both figures develop more varied personal traits and contemporary associations. These broaden their characterization beyond stereotypes and offer a range of performance opportunities for actors, as Roger Warren shows in his survey of twentieth-century productions of Cymbeline. From today’s perspective, such nuances come to suggest attitudes and problems of the evolving Anthropocene.   

Cymbeline enters the first scene of the play nearly unhinged with rage, yet also self-pitying, because of Innogen’s secret marriage to the commoner Posthumus (“O thou vile one!”). He is also furious that she has thwarted his plans for her to marry the Queen’s son Cloten. The frowns on the faces of his courtiers (mentioned in the play’s opening line) reflect their unhappiness with Posthumus’s banishment. Yet they fear opposing the king’s wrath directly. There is no figure like Kent in King Lear or Paulina in The Winter’s Tale to speak up and point out the king’s errors. In defying her father, Innogen implicitly takes on this role herself (“It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus”).

The Queen in Cymbeline recalls Snow White’s Queen, who envies her step-daughter’s beauty and tries unsuccessfully to poison her. Her hatred is personal, like Dionyza’s dislike of Marina in Pericles. In Cymbeline, however, the Queen’s hatreds are politically motivated, and her interest in poisons suggests a more socially complex form of evil. The court’s doctor, Cornelius, has taught her about herbal and mineral drugs, and she intends to use them not only on Innogen but also Cymbeline, as we learn in the final scene when Cornelius reports the Queen’s death-bed confessions. Her motives are dynastic. She wants Cymbeline to adopt Cloten as his royal heir, so she plans to sicken him with non-fatal drugs to the point where she can manipulate him into changing his will. She also confesses she married the king only to gain power, but loathed him personally. 

Cymbeline’s character also moves beyond stereotype because his feelings are conflicted and his behaviour changes. Like many dramatic tyrants, he is outwardly powerful yet inwardly weak. He has surrendered to the Queen’s plans for Innogen and Cloten even though they would be politically disastrous, given the latter’s stupidity. Cymbeline later admits he was seduced by the Queen’s looks and unable to recognize her sinister ambitions. (Those looks may be more artificial than natural, since the mineral poisons the Queen dabbles in, such as lead and arsenic, were also main ingredients of early modern cosmetics. This historical background opens possible performance choices.)

The Queen’s ambitions include persuading Cymbeline to stop paying the negotiated tribute to Rome, which has brought peace and prosperity to Britain, because the Queen secretly hopes to establish her own family dynasty. Although Cymbeline makes a historical-sounding argument for moving past colonial dependency on Rome, he does not aggressively puff up British nationalism like the Queen and Cloten. Nor is he personally insulting towards the Roman ambassador Lucius. Quite the opposite: he welcomes Lucius warmly and sends him off courteously while recalling their shared experiences as Roman soldiers. In these moments Cymbeline sounds almost like a traitor to his own side. Implicitly he would hang on to his personal and diplomatic relationships with Rome if he were free to do so. Once the Queen is dead, he treats the conquered Lucius magnanimously and restores these bonds.  

Enforced marriage and environmental exploitation

For audiences in Shakespeare’s time, Cymbeline and the Queen would have also suggested two topical news-genres. They touch on gender and social controversies which anticipate today’s ecological crises. 

One news-genre was the scenario of a family’s only daughter and heir being forced to marry for wealth or class mobility rather than love. The king’s angry “pen[ning] up” of Innogen for disobeying his will would have reminded early modern spectators of sensational news-stories of women violently resisting their parents’ choice of husbands. The most famous of these cases was that of Eulalia Page. In 1591 she and her lover were hanged for trying to kill the detestable but rich husband imposed on her by her father. Mistress Page’s story was widely retold in popular printed news and became shorthand for the dangers of enforced marriage. 

Shakespeare alluded to this trope lightly in Anne Page’s and Fenton’s comic outwitting of her parents’ preferred suitors in The Merry Wives of Windsor.[1] Innogen and Posthumus’s covert marriage and Cymbeline’s wrath again recall the trope, with their near-tragic journeys adding emotional counterweight to its comedic outcome. Innogen does not threaten her father and stepmother with violence. But she does oppose them and Cloten forcefully, and her escape from court with Pisanio raises the theoretical prospect of rallying national opposition to its unpopular regime.      

The enforced marriage genre now has ecofeminist resonances in so far as Innogen is the play’s leading symbol for the natural world, which Cymbeline wants to exploit without regard for her (or its) independent value or integrity (see “Innogen” above). The king’s patriarchal dysfunctions are an underlying cause of Britain’s ecological as well as its political crises. The former are invoked by the agriculture metaphors associated with Posthumus’s education (“And in’s spring became a harvest”). Cymbeline initially invested in this socially beneficial cultivation, but has now abandoned it for irresponsible private profit, just as the Queen has supplanted public-health knowledge of herbal medicine for a lethal “education” in chemical poisons. When Innogen accuses her father of “Shak[ing] all our buds from growing” like the “tyrannous breathing of the north,” she also makes Cymbeline’s myopic policies sound like the cause of the country’s climate volatility and environmental destruction.    

Cymbeline’s rash banishment of Posthumus cancels his former intersectional ethos of social and environmental justice. (Its natureculture philosophy of wise care and sustainability can be attributed partly to the king’s first good queen, and is suggested by the protective mantle, or cloak, she bequeaths to her son Guiderius.) Cymbeline has replaced this ethos with the monocultures of a back-to-the-future Britain, now fenced off from European exchanges (See “Paying Tribute” in “Why an Anthropocene Cymbeline”). The king and Queen’s promotion of the doltish and malodorous Cloten over Posthumus likewise shows them trampling long-term well-being for short-term private gain. The court knows nothing about Britain’s bioregions, as Cloten demonstrates tragi-comically when he blunders into Wales and mistakes the well-spoken Guiderius for a “villainous mountaineer” who exists only as a fantasy Indigene to domineer and colonize.  

Poisoning and human exceptionalism

The second early modern news-genre recalled by Cymbeline and suggestive of twenty-first century environmental problems is the figure of the domestic poisoner. The Queen seems to confirm cultural anxieties about early modern women practising community medicine using “secret” knowledge of plants and minerals usually reserved for men. Such drugs could cause illness or death in certain combinations or at higher doses, and were typically hidden in the food of victims prepared by women. Poisoning thus became associated with women suspected of killing people who died at home in mysterious circumstances, above all abusive husbands. 

In those cases, the woman was accused not only of homicide but also of violating the social order by turning the patriarchal household upside down and seeking unnatural power. And because of the political analogy between the head of a household and the head of the kingdom, the female husband-poisoner became a monstrous exemplar for misogynists such as Cymbeline’s would-be romance hero, Posthumus. Although he does not specifically mention poison, the irrationally expanding list of female vices he checks off after Innogen’s supposed betrayal could easily have encompassed contemporary stories about female poisoners in the minds of Jacobean spectators (“deceiving …/ Lust and rank thoughts … revenges .../Ambitions, covetings …/… slanders, mutability”).      

Moreover, the fact that the same Latin word was used for poison and witchcraft -- veneficium – meant that women accused of poisoning were also being implicitly tried as witches. Cymbeline’s Queen matches this double-dealing profile perfectly, with her “coven” of herb-gathering women, and her cull of neighbourhood cats and dogs to test the effects of her “strange ling’ring” compounds. 

The Queen’s cruelty would have offended early modern spectators, but is now even more shocking in today’s era of opposition to animal testing and growing recognition of humans as a deeply co-evolved species. Ecologically, her technical power asserts an extreme human exceptionalism over nature. Hers is the quintessential mind-set of the Anthropocene and a leading cause of our era’s seemingly unstoppable environmental calamities and extinctions. Cornelius’s plausible fears that the Queen will move on to human subjects after dogs and cats invokes chilling memories of Nazi pseudo-scientific “experiments” on dehumanized ethnicities and communities. They also invite contemporary comparisons with the violence of authoritarian and climate-denying regimes towards regional and global ecosystems.  

To sum up, Cymbeline’s nativist ideology is courting an ecocidal future because of its harsh obsessions with controlling people and animals, and its blind rejection of any form of political or environmental cooperation. Cymbeline manages to avert disaster only after the Queen dies and the scales drop from his eyes, and because he conquers his vengeful impulses after recovering his lost “brother” and sons. Unfortunately these male heirs will also displace Innogen politically.  

Yet although patriarchy is restored in Britain, it is perhaps personally chastened and ecologically smarter. Cymbeline comes to realize it’s not just all about his royal authority. He acknowledges that the social and environmental details, or “by-dependences,” behind the final scene’s rapid-fire revelations will contribute essentially to a new inclusive knowledge about his kingdom, and implicitly nurture its biodiverse resilience and equity. 

That this nascent understanding needs to be publicly voiced and accounted for also hints at a pluralizing, more-than-human ethos in an aspirational Britain. It is confirmed by the Soothsayer’s unravelling of Jupiter’s riddle, whose post-Anthropocene message is that humans living within, and not outside, nature affords the most hopeful model of sustainable international and planetary relations.     

[1] Shakespeare’s co-author of Pericles, George Wilkins, titled another play about a domestic murder story The Miseries of Enforced Marriage (1607).