Cymbeline appears as the last play in the First Folio where it first appears, listed as tragedy oddly (Garber 804). Someone saw a performance in 1611, so the traditional lunkhead assertion is that it was written shortly before that. Supposed sources and influences are misaligned accordingly.
The play is part loose history from Holinshed's Chronicles (1577/78) about the legendary King Cunobelinus (Wells 350), combined with a tale from Boccaccio regarding conspiracy against a husband (Clark 79). Holinshed's "scrappy information on Cymbeline," historically places him in the period between 33 BCE and 2 AD, but probably 5 AD to 40 is more likely (Asimov 53). "By the time of Cymbeline Wales could serve as a romantic backdrop, with suitably masquelike topographical features (caves and mountains), for a story of adventure, loss, and rebirth" (Garber 817). The family drama may partly have been inspired by the historical situation involving Augustus Caesar, treated here as a contemporary of Cymbeline, and Julia, Livia, et al. (Asimov 55). Additional possible influences include Thomas Underdowne's English translation, An Aethiopian History, published in 1569 (Wells 358) with a Dedication to the 19-year-old Edward de Vere (Anderson 143; Farina 95); the anonymous play The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, acted in 1582, which supplies a daughter Innogen (Wells 350) -- with "Imogen" perhaps being a Folio misprint (Wells 371) -- and an old play Sir Clyomon and Clamydes printed in 1599 which supplies the discovery of a headless body (Wells 350). Yet another influence was a portion of Boccaccio not translated until long after Shakespeare's time (Farina 94).
Coleridge believed this to be an early play (Ogburn and Ogburn 157). E.T. Clark connects the play as "gossip of the day" concerning international events Clark 86) with "An history of the crueltie of A Stepmother" shown December 1578 and referring to Catherine de Medici (Clark 79; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 142): "One can imagine de Vere taking perverse pleasure skewering de Medici and her doltish son [Alençon], that rival for Elizabeth's affections" (Anderson 144; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 151). "Francis Duke of Alençon ... was, upon the whole, the most despicable personage who had ever entered the Netherlands ... ferocious without courage, ambitious without talent, and bigoted without opinion" (Motley, qtd. in Clark 86). Clark also insists on the importance of 1578 court events involving Leicester. "By 1578 Leicester had given up hope of the marriage [to Elizabeth] and had secretly wedded the widowed Countess of Essex" (Clark 82). His enmity with Sussex lasted to the end of the latter in 1583. The Queen lit into Sussex in front of French diplomats, and immediately afterwards Oxford refused to dance when called (Clark 84). Indications are thus that Oxford was not for the French marriage in 1578. "Following up his refusal to dance, he wrote a new drama in which, disguised as a play of early Britain, he told the story of the French Queen's efforts to get her son married to the English Queen, the disfavour in which the latter's Lord Chamberlain found himself, the friendship of the latter with one of the French Ambassadors, the arrival of the Spanish Ambassador, and the danger of war with Spain and France over the Low Countries" (Clark 84). So Oxford "himself is Posthumus and Elizabeth partially Imogen.... England (Cymbeline) and Catherine de' Medici (the Queen) wish to marry her to Alençon (Cloten)" (Ogburn and Ogburn 152).
But Ogburn is also correct in including Imogen among Shakespeare's heroines who represent at least in one respect Oxford's maligned wife Anne (cf. Anderson 144). This might make the stepmother Lady Burghley, who wanted the Anne/Philip Sidney match (Anderson 144), and perhaps the de Medici political layer was designed to hide the closer-to-home personal Burghley matters. Others emphasize Imogen as a composite of Elizabeth and Anne Cecil (Clark 85). Even Bloom acknowledges, "Posthumus reads to me as something bordering upon Shakespearean self-punishment" (Bloom 622) -- Oxfordian self-punishment, we might say.
"If, instead of seeking the play's meaning from the plot, one seeks it instead in a logic of repetition, layering, and dream, there is a surprising unity in the persistence of the image of boxes and trunks; the question of sacrifice; the loss, and later recovery, of children by parents; and the adoption, and later loss, of children by parents" (Garber 821).
One gentleman reports to another about the moodiness of the king, Cymbeline, noting that courtiers' faces reflect the king's misery but that this is feigned. Cymbeline's daughter, Imogen, has gotten married, and not to his new wife's son who is now heir to the kingdom (ancient Britain). Instead, she has wed "a poor but worthy gentleman" (I.i.7), Posthumus Leonatus, the king's ward who was taken in as an orphaned baby after his two brothers died in the wars, his father in despair of this, and his mother in childbirth. Thus, Posthumus was raised under the same roof as his wife -- like de Vere and Anne Cecil (Anderson 144). Posthumus has been sentenced to banishment. Imogen is Cymbeline's only child since two sons were kidnapped over twenty years ago and disappeared without a trace. "This is a pretext on the part of the dramatist to do away with the actual sons of the historic Cymbeline, and give to him a daughter who can be his heir, though history mentions no such daughter" (Clark 87). "'Some twenty years' before was the time when Imogen became heir to her father's throne, upon the disappearance of his two sons. As a parallel to this it is significant that, upon the death of her father's two other children, who had succeeded each other on the throne for short periods, Elizabeth became the heir and was crowned Queen of England" in 1558 -- some twenty years before play (Clark 87-88).
Reference to Cassibelan (I.i.28f) denotes who Caesar called Cassivellaunus: he ruled over the area north of the Thames at the time of Caesar's second raid into Britain in 54 BC (Asimov 56).
The Queen enters with Imogen and Posthumus, insisting that she is not a stereotypical evil stepmother to Imogen and that she will serve as an advocate for Posthumus with the king. Cymbeline has forbidden the newlyweds to speak together, but the Queen gives them some time and exits. "Does not the parabolic quality of all this fairly shout aloud and demand that we think of Imogen as the True England wedded secretly to the poor but genuinely gentle Posthumus Leonatus, English Manhood and Valor?" (Goddard, II 256).
Imogen accuses the Queen of "Dissembling courtesy! How fine this tyrant /
Can tickle where she wounds!" (I.i.84-85). She says she'll hold up
despite his banishment. He leaves a forwarding address -- a friend of his
father has a place in Rome. The Queen returns and worries that she'll
bear the brunt of Cymbeline's rage if he discovers them, but she confirms
for us Imogen's opinion of her in a nasty aside, gloating about her
ability to mislead Cymbeline. Imogen gives Posthumus a diamond ring and
he gives her a bracelet, "a manacle of love" (I.i.122). Cymbeline does
enter and rages at Posthumus, who politely takes his leave. Cymbeline
highlights the woe Imogen has caused, but she says, "I chose an eagle, /
And did avoid a puttock" (I.i.139-140), and she tells her father, "Sir, /
It is your fault that I have lov╣d Posthumus: / You bred him as my
playfellow" (I.i.143-145). Cymbeline continue raging; the Queen did not
obey him -- Imogen must be locked up.
A servant of Posthumus, Pisanio, reports to the Queen that her son drew on Posthumus but the grace of the latter prevented bloodshed. Imogen notes the cowardice of the Queen's son, whom Daddy favors. Posthumus sent Pisanio back to prevent him from having to suffer the exile. Imogen wants to meet with Pisanio shortly; presumably he can serve as a go-between.
One of two lords suggests that the Queen's son, named Cloten (rhymes with 'rotten'), change his shirt since he reeks with sweat after the encounter with Posthumus. The foulness of Cloten is stressed, perhaps because "Alençon was odoriferous" (Ogburn and Ogburn 154). The "loutish" Cloten (Bloom 616) brags to the two about the fight, but he's obviously a chicken and a jackass, and everyone seems to know it, as evidenced in the asides given by the second lord. For example, Cloten says, "The villain would not stand me," and the lord whispers, "No, but he fled forward still, toward your face" (I.ii.14-16). While one lord consoles Cloten with assertions that Imogen married Posthumus because she's beautiful but not bright, the other lord thinks, primarily as regards Cloten, "Puppies!" (I.ii.21).
Oxfordians will recognize the potential significance of this insult as the one de Vere used against Sidney in the famous tennis-court incident. So we have rivalry between Cloten (Sidney) and Posthumus (Oxford) over Imogen (Anne Cecil), the latter gentleman marrying her after having grown up as a ward in the same house as her (Cecil House). The Queen (Leicester) is an enemy of Posthumus and an ally to Cloten (Sidney). Perhaps the scene was inserted because of the incident of the plate, when Sussex was insulted and Oxford refused to dance for the Queen and French visitors (Ogburn and Ogburn 154).
Somewhere along the way, we shift from Rome and early emperors to "Rome of Renaissance Italy some fourteen hundred years later" (Asimov 57). Imogen worries to Pisanio that Postuhumus may have written a letter to her that she does not have, and she is jealous of the handkerchief Posthumus kissed as he was sailing off, as witnessed by Pisanio. She would have wept inconsolably if she had been there to see him disappear on the horizon. Imogen laments that their good-bye was interrupted so that she did not have a chance to have them coordinate the times of their thinking of one another, nor to "make him swear / The shes of Italy should not betray / Mine interest [claim] and his honor" (I.iii.28-30). "The stressing of the word 'queen,' when Imogen was not a queen, is significant" (Ogburn and Ogburn 152). A lady announces that the actual Queen wishes to see Imogen.
Posthumus is in Rome at the home of Philario, a friend of his late father. Another Italian, Iachimo -- or Jachimo = Jacob = James (Asimov 58) -- and three others (French, Dutch, and Spanish) discuss his fine reputation and banishment. The topic of the merits of women from the various countries resumes from the previous night. Posthumus' defense of the honor of Imogen, vs. Iachimo's cynicism, escalates until the two end up in a bet regarding the fidelity of women (similar to the premise of the Lucrece poem): Iachimo will forfeit half his estate, ten thousand ducats, against Posthumus' diamond ring if he cannot seduce any woman he chooses, in this case Imogen. He must bring what he calls "sufficient testimony that I have enjoy'd the dearest bodily part of your mistress" (I.iv.149-150). Posthumus declares,
if you make your voyage upon her and give me directly to understand you have prevail'd, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate. If she remain unseduc'd, you not making it appear otherwise, for your ill opinion and th' assault you have made to her chastity, you shall answer me with your sword. (I.iv.157-163)They shake hands on this bet and Iachimo immediately sets off for Britain. Thus we have the "duplicitous servant / associate" Iachimo functioning as an Iago to Posthumus' Othello and in both plays we will see wronged wives (Anderson 116). "Indeed the play might be called a 'little' Othello with a happy ending" (Goddard, II 246).
Back in Britain, the Queen consults with Cornelius, a physician, who gives her a small box. He feels compelled to ask why she has requested these poisonous compounds. She insists that she is continuing her chemical education beyond making perfumes, and will be experimenting on cats and dogs, the bitch, "such creatures as / We count not worth the hanging" (I.v.19-20). Leicester was suspected of dabbling, and more, in the art of poisoning. But also, "Catharine de' Medici, the prototype of the Queen in the play, is known to have made a study of drugs, ostensibly in connection with astrology and other occult sciences, and gained a reputation for poisoning various people" (Clark 88; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 551). Cornelius says this brutal experimentation will harden her heart and be "Both noisome and infectious" (I.v.26).
As Pisanio enters, Cornelius leaves, suspicious of the Queen but indicating in an aside that he did not give her deadly poison after all; he gave her a sleeping potion that gives the drinker a temporarily "show of death" (I.v.40). The Queen pressures Pisanio to arrange it so Imogen stops mourning and accepts Cloten. That Oxford's "reputation had suffered" (Ogburn and Ogburn 153) may help illuminate a passage here (I.v.52ff). She drops the box, lets Pisanio pick it up, and claims it contains a medicine. She gives it to him, hoping he'll drink it some time and the last link between Imogen and Posthumus will drop dead. She also figures that if Imogen doesn't comply eventually, she'll be poisoned too. Pisanio insists he will not prove untrue to his master, Posthumus (I.v.86-87). "Cymbeline, like Pericles, presides over a wasteland. His queen reverses the pattern of healthy nature by taking flowers and turning them into poison" (Garber 817).
Imogen is bemoaning her lot when Pisanio presents Iachimo to her, saying he has letters from Rome. A reference to the phoenix (I.vi.17) aligns Imogen with Queen Elizabeth (Ogburn and Ogburn 154; cf. 1171). The would-be seducer is worried that her mind will prove as impressive as her beauty and he'll lose the wager. He prays to the gods to arm him with audacity. He starts ranting obliquely about madness and desire and foolishness, making her wonder what's up. She hopes Posthumus is well and Iachimo tells her that he is living it up in Rome: "He is call'd / The British reveller" (I.vi.60-61). As if deeply troubled by pity for her, he lets on that Posthumus is playing the cad. Eventually he suggests that she do the same in revenge -- and use him for this. Imogen is disgusted with this cheeseball acting as if the court were a Roman whorehouse to make such propositions, and she calls for Pisanio, but Iachimo says he was only testing her and that Posthumus is a swell guy. "Iachimo assails Imogen's virtue, and, having failed, restores himself to her good grace by a lightning-like shift of tactics" (Goddard, II 249). His next plan is to ask her to keep a trunk of treasure in her room for him -- tribute to the Roman emperor they in Rome all chipped in for -- and she agrees to this: "And pawn my honor for their safety" (I.vi.194). It's only for tonight since he'll return to Rome tomorrow.
Is it true then that evidences of Shakespeare's attitude towards things Italian are "violently condemnatory; they all have a social-moral bearing" (Goddard, II 247)? Is this true?: "Shakespeare was plainly impressed by the evil influence on England of the ideas, manners, and morals of the darker side of the Italian Renaissance, both as imported directly from Italy and indirectly from France" (Goddard, II 248). "But the fashions, manners, and morals of Italy are condemned quite as relentlessly as its politics in a long line of young gentlemen -- some Italian, some Italian-bred, others only 'Italianated' -- who parade through Shakespeare's plays, especially his Comedies" (Goddard, II 248).