Cymbeline Summary and Analysis of Act Two


Cloten' second short scene - in which, once again, he demonstrates his buffoonery - opens Act Two, after which we are shown Imogen in her bedchamber, preparing for sleep. She says goodnight to her Lady-in-Waiting, then, after she has fallen fast asleep, Iachimo climbs out of the trunk that she agreed to keep in her room. He creeps around the room and jots down details both of the room's furnishings and of Imogen's intimate physical appearance, noting a mole on her left breast, with the intention of using these details to prove to Posthumus that he has spent the night with her. As further proof, he slips Posthumus's bracelet off of Imogen's wrist, then departs the room silently.

Scene three returns to Cloten, who in his attempt to woo Imogen has hired a eunuch to sing a love song, to no avail. Cymbeline and the Queen enter and console him, only to be interrupted by the news that Caius Lucius, a Roman ambassador, has come to meet them. The King and Queen depart, leaving Cloten to again attempt to charm Imogen. His wooing, which Imogen immediately dismisses, soon dissolves into a bitter exchange of insults, as Cloten castigates Posthumus as a poor "pantling" unworthy of Imogen's love, and Imogen retorts that Cloten is not worth as much as Posthumus's "mean'st garment." She departs in high dudgeon, and Cloten obsesses over this comparison of his royal self to Posthumus's shabbiest clothing.

In the meantime, back in Rome, Philario and Posthumus discuss the futility of the rake-like Iachimo ever winning the virtuous Imogen; that is, until Iachimo himself returns and insinuates that he has won the wager. Posthumus demands evidence, and Iachimo describes the furnishings and art in Imogen's bedroom. When these descriptions fail to satisfy him, Iachimo shows Posthumus the bracelet. This alarms Posthumus greatly, though Philario says that Iachimo might have gotten the bracelet a number of ways that didn't involve sleeping with Imogen. Finally, Iachimo pulls his trump card and describes the mole on Imogen's breast. This compelling piece of evidence convinces Posthumus of Imogen's infidelity. Enraged, he rushes off-stage with vengeance on his mind, returning to deliver a scathing, hate-filled soliloquy directed against all womankind.


One of the key questions in Imogen and Cloten's exchange in Act Two is that of the legitimacy of the marriage between Imogen and Posthumus. Marriage in Early Modern England was a very different thing than it is in present-day Western cultures. There were several ways to get married in addition to the traditional bride-down-the-aisle approach. Posthumus and Imogen have been married, obviously without Cymbeline's consent, in the manner of the lower classes, by simply pledging to one another that they are wed. Cloten says:

[T]hough it be allow'd in meaner parties / (Yet who than he more mean?) to knit their souls / (On whom there is no more dependency / But brats and beggary) in self-figured knot, / Yet you are curb'd from that enlargement, by / The consequence o' th' crown, and must not foil / The precious note of it; with a base slave, / A hilding for a livery, a squire's cloth, / A pantler; not so eminent.

Cloten interprets Imogen's choice of Posthumus as perverse not merely because Posthumus is so far below her in status-"a holding for a livery", as Cloten calls him-but also because their method of marrying was in itself lower-class. Their "self-figured knot" is not appropriate for a princess. Because she is a public figure, Cloten feels that Imogen ought to have been married in public, in a manner suiting her station.

Cloten's concern with appearances finds an analogue in the theme of clothing, which begins to play a major part in Act Two. Clothing is our public display of ourselves; if we wear rich clothes we are assumed to be rich, and if we wear shabby clothes we are assumed to be shabby. Imogen's insult to Cloten that he is not worthy of Posthumus' "meanest garment" is her way of saying that Posthumus has so much intrinsic value that his most ragged clothing is imbued with personal favor that Cloten can never match. Cloten, who as we can tell by his reaction to Imogen's method of marrying Posthumus is a man highly concerned with appearances, becomes obsessed with Imogen's insult. He cannot understand how, exactly, the clothes don't make the man in Imogen's eyes. His superficiality corresponds to a superficial interpretation of her language, with disastrous results for him, as we shall soon see.

The other major plot development in Act Two, the resolution (for now) of Posthumus and Iachimo's wager, touches on similar themes of truth and appearances. A modern reader ought to be quite concerned that Iachimo so easily convinces Posthumus of his beloved's guilt. It is commonplace to compare this sub-plot to Othello and to note that Iachimo's name recalls Iago's. Indeed, some call Iachimo "Little Iago", recognizing the diminutive in the Italian. One oughtn't go too far with this comparison, but it is interesting to read Posthumus' encroaching doubt as a burlesque of Othello. Whereas Iago requires several long conversations to even plant Othello's doubts about Desdemona, the infinitely less artful Iachimo snookers Posthumus in a relatively short scene.

The vituperative passion of Posthumus's ensuing harangue against womankind tempts us to read it as simple misogyny on Shakespeare's part, and is thus squarely ironic. When Posthumus declares, "Could I find out / The woman's part in me-for there's no motion / That tends to vice in man, but I affirm / It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it, / The woman's: flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; / Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers," we know that he is perfectly mistaken. The liar and deceiver in his case is a man, Iachimo. When he says, "They are not constant, but are changing still," Posthumus refers only to himself. Shakespeare suggests, in Posthumus' case-recalling that Posthumus is a paragon of men-that in fact the source of social confusion and strife is chiefly male. This is complicated, of course, by the Queen's mechanistic ways, but Posthumus' declaration that it's all the women's fault is completely wrong regardless of how one interprets it.