At the beginning of Act One, two gentlemen fill the audience in on the play's back-story. It seems that there has been a falling-out between the King of England, Cymbeline, and his daughter, Imogen, who has married Posthumus Leonatus without the King's consent. Indeed, Cymbeline had intended Imogen, who is his only remaining child by a previous marriage, to wed Cloten, who is his new queen's only son by a previous marriage of her own. (As the First Gentleman discusses, Cymbeline had two twin sons, Imogen's brothers, who mysteriously disappeared during their infancy.) However, Cloten is a stupid and unworthy suitor and Posthumus, Imogen's new husband, is an excellent and valiant man, though not wealthy. The gentleman reports that the courtiers universally recognize Posthumus to be a perfect match for the virtuous and intelligent Imogen-only the Queen, Cymbeline and Cloten feel otherwise. But due to the power of these three royals the courtiers must keep their opinion to themselves, pretending to be sad that Imogen defied her father when in fact they are pleased.
Posthumus, Imogen and the Queen enter the scene and indicate that Posthumus has been banished. The Queen pretends to be chagrined at this development, though both Posthumus and Imogen know that she is a duplicitous person, glad that this marriage has been apparently foiled and that her son will take Imogen as his own. The Queen pretends to attempt to delay Cymbeline, who has ordered Imogen and Posthumus not to see each other, but this is mere hypocrisy-she exits to hurry Cymbeline to the scene. Before the King arrives, Posthumus and Imogen swear fidelity to one another no matter what. They signify this oath with two bands: Imogen gives Posthumus a ring, and he gives her a bracelet. The King then barrels into the scene and orders Posthumus to leave Britain immediately, which Posthumus does after reluctantly parting from Imogen with Rome as his destination. Before leaving, Posthumus commands his servant, Pisanio, who has been faithful to him, to remain in Britain and serve Imogen.
After a brief scene in which we are introduced to the clueless Cloten, and another that describes in very moving poetry Imogen's thoughts about Posthumus's departure, we find ourselves in a tavern in Rome. Some time has passed, and Posthumus is about to arrive. His reputation precedes him, as two Italians-Iachimo and Philario-a Frenchman, a Dutchman and a Spaniard discuss his imminent arrival. The Frenchman and the two Italians have all already met Posthumus several years before, and all but Philario are cynical about the youth's supposed virtue. When Posthumus arrives, he and the Frenchman renew an old quarrel: Posthumus once insisted, and still does, that his beloved Imogen would never commit infidelity, whereas the rest of the tavern-goers are sure that all wives and sweethearts are untrue. The deeply cynical Iachimo bets Posthumus that he himself could sleep with Imogen, wagering half of his estate against Posthumus' precious ring, which Imogen had given him. Posthumus accepts this wager, and gives Iachimo his ring as a testimonial. He tells Iachimo that he will gladly part with the ring, no hard feelings, if he succeeds in bedding Imogen, because Imogen would then not be worthy of his care, but warns Iachimo that if he fails to bed Imogen they will settle his insult to so virtuous a lady with their swords.
Meanwhile, back in England, the Queen has solicited a deadly potion from Cornelius, the court physician. Cornelius, realizing the Queen's wicked nature, instead gives her a tonic that causes the mere appearance of death, a long and deep sleep, in whomever takes it. The Queen comes across Pisanio and tells him that she wants to talk to Imogen, meanwhile giving the servant the potion that she thinks is poison and telling him that it's a powerful restorative that has helped Cymbeline many times.
Iachimo soon arrives from Rome and introduces himself as a friend of Posthumus. Immediately upon being introduced to Imogen he realizes that Posthumus has exaggerated neither her beauty nor her virtue. However, he still makes a desperate and artful effort to seduce her, insinuating that Posthumus is being unfaithful to her in Italy and suggesting that she ought to seek revenge against Posthumus by sleeping with him. Imogen, though initially concerned that Iachimo is telling the truth about Posthumus's infidelity, sees through his lies when Iachimo propositions her. Iachimo swears that he was merely testing her virtue on Posthumus's behalf, a test that he says she has passed perfectly. Imogen accepts this explanation, whereupon Iachimo informs her that he must embark for Italy the following morning. He asks her before leaving if, as a favor, she would keep a chest full of valuables safe for him. She says, yes, she'll keep the chest overnight in her bedroom.
In a play that is so rife with ambiguous, fairy-tale qualities, the first factor that must be discussed is the setting. Cymbeline is set in a mythic, medieval time. Historically, Cymbeline the king reigned over England in the first century A.D., while England was still the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare constantly alludes to Ancient Rome and to England's relationship with Rome; indeed, one of the main plots of Cymbeline is the ambivalent conflict between the ancient Roman Empire and the nascent British Empire. (One should note that throughout Cymbeline Shakespeare refers to "Britain", not "England", as the setting of his play; this is because the notion of Empire, which specifies that England is only one country in Britain, informs the play at an essential level.) Some historical background is necessary to see the full import of this relationship. In the mythology of the English, the same refugees from Troy who founded Rome (as depicted in the Aeneid) also founded England. England and Rome are thus part of the same great historical movement, both having Trojan heritage. That Rome is at once Britain's ruler and its peer will prove a major ambiguity in the play.
On top of this ambiguity in the mythology of Empire, one immediately notices that although Shakespeare sets his drama in the days of the Caesars, the Rome to which Posthumus has been banished has much more in common with the Renaissance Italy of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night than it does to the ancient capital of, say, Julius Caesar or Titus Andronicus. Posthumus and Iachimo strike their bargain in a tavern, just as Shakespeare might himself, and the loose Machiavellian character of the Italian is a Renaissance, not an Ancient Roman, prejudice. Thus there is from the beginning a refusal on Shakespeare's part to write a simple history. The historical plot, which pits England against Rome, is only one among many-there is also the tragic plot that rends Imogen from Posthumus with the help of the dastardly Iachimo, the pastoral plot that depicts Belarius and his stolen sons (we'll get to that in time), and the comic resolution of all the strains of narrative.
It is tempting for a modern reader to see such a jumble of settings and genres as a shortcoming on Shakespeare's part, but to the contrary, Shakespeare is not writing a realistic play. The effect he wishes to get across is dependent upon this jumble. It is best to read Cymbeline-as well as Shakespeare's other romances: Pericles, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest-as intensely cerebral fairy tales. There is in Cymbeline a wicked stepmother with a vial of poison, an impossible-wager motif adapted from Boccaccio's Decameron, and a falsely accused princes-all motives familiar to readers of fairy tales. More generally, as in fantasy literatures, the laws of nature and realism apply only fitfully, coincidences abound, and identities are in flux.
Nowhere is this flux clearer than in the language of Cymbeline. This is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays, with passages of such obscurity that we cannot hope to parse them. This difficulty seems at times to be exercised merely for its own sake, as in the opening dialogue between the two gentlemen. As Frank Kermode notes, the First Gentleman hyperbolizes Posthumus to a ridiculous extent, and for no apparent reason. The praise goes on and on, serving merely to undermine our eventual realization that Posthumus, too, has his human weaknesses. But perhaps the extravagance of passages such as the two gentlemen's dialogue is precisely Shakespeare's point. Poetic language fails to map onto reality perfectly, and if reality fails to match up with it, can it really be blamed? The First Gentleman's speeches, as well as Posthumus's to Imogen, show us the paradoxical power of poetry-both intoxicating and ephemeral. The First Gentleman clearly thinks Posthumus to be a fine fellow, and this sends him on a flight of hyperbole that no man can live up to. Posthumus may declare Imogen to be as chaste as the goddess Diana, but that doesn't stop him from revising his opinion in Act Two when faced with Iachimo's superficial proofs and equally hyperbolic poetic allegations to the contrary. And indeed, Posthumus's harangue against women, which we'll see more of in the next section, is absurdly overstated as well. There is danger in poetry, Shakespeare suggests-very rarely does it have much to do with reality.
Except, it appears, when used by Imogen. She alone in Act One-and indeed throughout the play-stands up to the promises of her intensely poetic language. Some of the most beautiful language in the play occurs when she describes how she would have seen Posthumus's ship off. She says, "I would have broke my eye-strings, crack'd them, but / To look upon him, till the diminution / Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle: / Nay, followed him, till he had melted from / The smallness of a gnat, to air: and then / Have turned my eyes, and wept." This is poetry to bank on. As Imogen declares, her devotion to Posthumus-as represented by the avidness with which she seeks out his shrinking form-only increases with his distance from her. But Posthumus changes as he recedes, transforming from his noble self to take on the appearance of a tiny gnat, and finally turning to air. Indeed, as we shall see, Posthumus shrinks to a gnat of a man while in Italy.