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Introduction & Overview of Cymbeline

This Study Guide consists of approximately 29 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Cymbeline.
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Cymbeline Summary & Study Guide Description

Cymbeline Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Further Study on Cymbeline by William Shakespeare.

Cymbeline deals with a concept as familiar to modern audiences as it was to Shakespeare's audiences: nationalism. The play is set in the ancient, pre- Christian past, a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing and England, or Britain, was an island country comprised of numerous feudal territories with distinctly tribal loyalties. During the reign of Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers occupied England but eventually withdrew when England's isolation and the constant vigilance necessary to contain Celtic barbarities became too much of a drain on Roman resources. Rome still considered England a colony and demanded tribute, a kind of monetary tax, and King Cymbeline's refusal to pay that tribute is the central issue of Shakespeare's play. Shakespeare, though, wrote Cymbeline in the early seventeenth century, a time when England was beginning to emerge as an empire in its own right, an empire rivaling that of Rome. It was an era that saw the beginning of English colonization and the flourishing of English arts and literature; these developments contributed to feelings of pride in the English, pride in their nation (nationalism). Shakespeare's play gives the impression that Cymbeline rules a united nation, a political reality that did not come into existence until the late fifteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, England greatly respected the legacy of Roman civilization and saw itself as the next great empire, an attitude Shakespeare reflects in his depiction of not only Cymbeline's refusal to pay tribute but also the superior nobility of the English characters over the Roman ones in the play.

Although Cymbeline says, at the end of the play, that he has earlier been dissuaded from paying tribute to Rome by the influence of the queen, the play seems to indicate that there is widespread support for his refusal to do so. When Philario, Posthumus's Italian host, says that he thinks England will pay the tribute, Posthumus objects that England will fight before it grovels to Rome, a fight in which England will show a military strength and united resolve that has been, so far, underestimated. When Caius Lucius departs from Cymbeline's palace to report Cymbeline's refusal of Augustus's demand, Cymbeline himself says, "Our subjects, sir, / Will not endure [Augustus's] yoke" (III.v.4- 5). And when the queen remarks that it is too bad Caius Lucius has left frowning, Cloten says, '"Tis all the better, / Your valiant Britains have their wishes in it" (III.v.19-20). After the English soldiers have defeated the Romans, proving themselves equal or superior, Cymbeline can graciously agree to pay the tribute. It was never a question of money; it was a question of English pride. Even Jupiter, the Romans' supreme god, reluctantly endorses the fact that England is equal to Rome. In the tablet that he leaves with Posthumus, Jupiter reveals that, only when the English royal family is reunited, will "Britain be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty" (V.v.441-42). Philarmonus, the Roman soothsayer, interprets the prediction of England's flourishing as the union of "Th' imperial Caesar" and "the radiant Cymbeline, / Which shines here in the west" (V.v.474-76). The message is clear: England has proved its worthiness to be Rome's successor.

In comparison to the Roman characters in the play, the English characters are depicted as being more noble. Jachimo is a swaggering braggart, the kind of Italian courtier Shakespeare and his Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries so loved to ridicule and stereotype for their decadence and arrogance. He thinks he can get any woman that he wants, even Imogen, who Posthumus describes as unquestionably chaste. But Jachimo cannot assail Imogen's chastity and innocence, because she is, as her name suggests, the ideal "image" of womanhood, against which the women of all other nations pale in comparison. Jachimo admits as much when, in his long-winded confession of villainy made to Cymbeline in the last scene, he refers to Imogen as "That paragon, thy daughter" (V.v.147). Although Jachimo gets the upper hand over Posthumus by tricking him, Posthumus proves superior in the end. In the battle, the disguised Posthumus easily bests Jachimo and disarms him, leaving the Italian courtier to wonder aloud about the strength of England's aristocrats, its peasants proving so strong. In the last scene of the play, Posthumus forgives Jachimo and tells him, "Live, / And deal with others better" (V.v.418-19). Like Cymbeline, Posthumus can be generous and gracious from a position of d e m o n - s t r a The play's best argument for the superior nobility of its English characters comes in the depiction of Cymbeline's two sons, Guiderius .and Arviragus. Belarius never ceases to be amazed at the inherent nobility they display, as we discover in our first encounter with him in front of the cave in which he has raised them. He says that the boys have no idea they are the sons of a king

... and though train'd up thus meanly
I' th' cave [wherein they] bow, their thoughts do
The roofs of palaces, and nature prompts them
In simple and low things to prince it much
Beyond the trick of others.

Their great eagerness to join the battle and their display of courage in the fighting attest to an inborn virtue. And when Guiderius kills and beheads Cloten, he is performing yet another noble deed by preventing the evil blood of the queen and the ignorant blood of Cloten from polluting the truly royal blood of Cymbeline and his children.

For modern audiences, this idea of nationalism pride in ones nation   is a familiar one. National pride, for example, fuels the competitive atmosphere of world-wide sporting events, such as the Olympics. Sometimes, however, feelings of nationalism become transformed into a destructive force. Ethnocentrism occurs when feelings of pride become an attitude of cultural or national superiority. When groups of people feel that their nation or their culture is superior to another nation or culture, the result can be violence. We can see this in gang warfare, and in wars between countries, or groups of people within countries. What twentieth century wars may have been fueled by feelings of ethnocentrism? Does nationalism always lead to ethnocentrism? Or can people be proud of their country or culture without feeling that other countries or cultures are inferior? How are nationalism, ethnocentrism, and racism related?

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