Cymbeline Summary and Analysis of Act Five


After two Acts where he has been absent, Posthumus finally reappears. He is thoroughly repentant of his decision to order Imogen to be killed, though he still believes her to be guilty, and is determined to atone for his murder by fighting on the side of the British in the coming conflict. He abandons his Italian garb, dresses as a British peasant, and jumps into the raging battle. He engages Iachimo, who is fighting on the Roman side, and takes him prisoner. Nevertheless, the battle goes the Romans' way-that is, until Guiderius, Arvigarus, and Belarius rally the British troops and lead them back against the Romans. Inspired by the rustics, the British win the day. Posthumus and a British Lord discuss the victory, the British Lord departs, and Posthumus, still heavy with guilt over Imogen's death, again dons his Italian dress. Now taken for a Roman gentleman, he is captured by British soldiers and presented to a "gaoler" (jailer).

While in jail, Posthumus dreams that his famous ancestors intercede on his part with Jupiter in an eerie play-within-a-play. Jupiter, reluctantly won over by their pleas, writes Posthumus's fortune on a tablet and lays it in the jail. Posthumus awakens, thinking that this has all been a dream, only to discover the tablet. Two clownish jailers re-enter his cell and speak with him about his imminent death by hanging. Posthumus accepts his fate, but then a messenger with word that Cymbeline wants to see the prisoner interrupts this conversation with the jailers.

The scene then shifts to Cymbeline's tent, where the King is knighting Belarius, Guiderius, and Arvigarus for their decisive role in turning the battle against the Romans. He remarks that the fourth conspicuous soldier, the British peasant who defeated Iachimo, is nowhere to be found. Cornelius then interrupts the King with the announcement that the Queen has died. He further remarks that before dying the Queen fully confessed her wickedness, saying that she never loved Cymbeline, that she hated Imogen, and that she had planned to murder both the King and his daughter-whom she thought she had killed with her poison-in order that her son might rule Britain. Cymbeline is flabbergasted at the news.

The Roman prisoners, including Iachimo, Lucius, Philarmonus, and Imogen (disguised as Fidele) then enter the tent. Lucius attempts to dissuade the King from killing them all, and especially entreats him not to kill Fidele. Seeing his disguised daughter, though not yet recognizing her, Cymbeline declares that he loves "Fidele" without knowing why, and says that not only will the page be spared, he will also be granted a wish. Lucius assumes that Fidele will ask the King to spare her master, but "he" doesn't, instead insisting that Iachimo reveal to her where he got the ring on his finger, which she recognizes as Posthumus's. The guilt-ridden Iachimo, only too eager to unburden himself of his crime, tells of his wager with Posthumus and of how he cheated the ring away. This confession inspires the disguised Posthumus to reveal himself. He rages against Iachimo for his duplicity, and against himself for having ordered Imogen's murder as a result. Imogen herself tries to interrupt him, but Posthumus, misinterpreting the interruption, knocks her to the floor. Then Pisanio, who has recognized Fidele to be Imogen, reveals her true identity to Posthumus. Cymbeline is blind with joy, and Imogen and Posthumus are tearfully reunited. Imogen, meanwhile, thinking that Pisanio poisoned her, rails against him. Cornelius interrupts, saying that the Queen also confessed that she had given Pisanio a bottle of poison, telling him it was medicinal, but that he himself had made the drug only appear poisonous, and that it was in fact benign. This inspires Belarius and Guiderius to recognize their error in supposing that Fidele ever died.

In this spirit of confession, Pisanio reveals that he knows Cloten's whereabouts-Cloten, he says, went to Wales in search of Posthumus and Imogen. Guiderius then admits that he met the prince there, and beheaded him. Cymbeline, although terribly disappointed that a war hero must die for the crime of having killed a prince, nevertheless orders his death. Belarius interjects, saying that Guiderius is better than the man he killed, and equal to the King. Cymbeline, enraged, orders that Belarius too be killed for such presumptuousness. Belarius holds off this sentence, however, by revealing his own tale, saying that he is the supposed traitor who was banished so many years before, and that before he left he conspired with the King's sons' nurse to kidnap the infant twins. He then presents Guiderius and Arvigarus using their real names: Polydore and Cadwal. The King's sons tell their father that when they met Imogen in Wales, they instinctually recognized the royal bond between them.

Next, Posthumus reveals that he was the British peasant who did so well in battle, and appeals to Iachimo to testify on his behalf. Iachimo does so, entreating Posthumus to kill him as punishment for his deceit. Posthumus asserts his power over Iachimo by pardoning him, and in that spirit Cymbeline pardons all the Romans, announcing that he had only begun the war with Rome at his dead Queen's insistence. Cymbeline adds that even though Britain has won the battle, they will still pay tribute to Rome. As a final harmonious gesture, Posthumus calls upon Philarmonus to interpret the tablet that Jupiter left in his jail cell. Philarmonus does so, reading the symbols as portents of the reconciliation of Posthumus and Imogen, as well as the reunion of Cymbeline with his sons. Finally, Philarmonus notes that his original prediction that the Romans would prevail has proven true. On that note, Cymbeline orders a march of peace through the city, signifying the union of Britain and the Roman Empire.


One of the features that define Shakespeare's later plays is the prevalence of special effects. Richard Hosley, discussing the staging of Cymbeline, suggests that the introduction of the indoor theater known as the Blackfriar's, where Shakespeare's company, The King's Men, most likely staged his later plays, provided the playwright with numerous opportunities to introduce effects that would have been impossible at the Globe, such as the storm that opens The Tempest. Act Five, scene four seems to contain another such effect: the mini-drama that occurs while Posthumus sleeps between his ancestors and Jupiter would have been far less effective if the play were produced at an inferior locale. Cymbeline is the first of Shakespeare's plays to depict a deity descending from above, and although this trick is as old as the deus ex machina of Ancient Greece, perhaps the presence of a ceiling in the Blackfriar's theater (as opposed to the open-air Globe) made this effect at least somewhat realistic.

At any rate, this scene is one of the strangest in Cymbeline, which is saying quite a lot. It does nothing to move the plot forward, and is thus not strictly necessary; its main function seems to be to place the often inscrutable action of Cymbeline within a greater explanatory framework. Jupiter addresses the incredible pressure he has put on Posthumus in the play by declaring, "Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift, / The more delayed, delighted." By Aristotle's definition, a tragicomedy is a play that brings its characters near to death without actually killing them. Here, Shakespeare lets us know that he is aware of the rules of his genre: Posthumus will not die, though he is very close to death. Moreover, Jupiter appears to be speaking for the playwright himself. Cymbeline is a play that "crosses" its characters repeatedly-it cross-dresses Imogen, it double-crosses both Posthumus and Belarius, it creates problems for just about anyone we might "love", and kills off those we shouldn't. Jupiter's speech thus alludes to the fatal force driving Cymbeline, which is, on one level, the poet's delight in complicating his characters' lives, getting us to care about them, and then delaying gratification until the last possible second.

On another level, Jupiter's "cross" has religious implications. The historical King Cymbeline was understood, in English mythology, to have reigned during the life of Jesus Christ. The play's redemptive trajectory-in which several characters, including Posthumus and Imogen, are effectively "raised from the grave," in which both Posthumus and Cymbeline are redeemed for their errors in trusting deceivers, and in which forgiveness is afforded universally-certainly maps onto a loosely Christian allegorical reading of the work. Whether we want to go this far or not, scene four shows us without a doubt that divine forces have had a vested interest in the unfolding of the events on stage, and provides at least some explanation for the arguably foolish courage displayed by Guiderius and Arvigarus, who are guided into near-certain death by the force of their royal blood.

Just as Jupiter reveals all to the spiritual participants in scene four, so all is revealed to the human participants in scene five. The final scene of Cymbeline has long been recognized, even by the play's detractors, as a tour de force. Frank Kermode, for instance, writes, "The clearing up of the political crisis and the reunions of Cymbeline and his sons and daughter, of his daughter and her husband, are rattled off as if in a demonstration of dramaturgical virtuosity." Kermode finds this virtuosity more than a little insincere; and indeed an uncharitable soul might read Cymbeline as having three or four plots too many, and thus read the final Act, which resolves all of the plots in an elaborately self-conscious way, as the successful execution of a self-imposed wager of sorts, as though Shakespeare himself is chuckling that he pulled it off after all.

Yet it is worth mentioning that the last scene represents perhaps the most elaborate and wrenching instance of one of Shakespeare's favorite plot devices, the multiple-recognition. Although the scene begins with a bevy of disguised secrets, by scene's end the characters have revealed everything to each other in a burst of exhilarated honesty. Wherever misunderstanding arises once again, it is quickly and ruthlessly stamped out: for example, Posthumus dramatically strikes the disguised Imogen for objecting to his grief, only to be interrupted by Pisanio; moments later, Pisanio is interrupted by Imogen, who thinks Pisanio has poisoned her, but Imogen is interrupted by Cornelius, who explains that it wasn't poison at all. In the end, the dust settles, and the community is restored. This scene clearly conveys the poet's joy in playing with his audience, and inspires the audience's joy in having arrived at a happy ending.

The confirmation of the two prophesies in the play ties up this happy ending with a neat little bow. Philarmonus, whose very name evokes love ("phil", of harmony, "armonus", of "amor"), interprets the images of a lion embraced by tender air, a cedar's lopped branches restored, and an eagle flying into the sun. Images of vegetation and birds are found throughout the play, and we realize with this final interpretation that, as Philarmonus puts it, "The fingers of the powers above do tune / The harmony of this peace." The words that the characters have used throughout to describe their confusing ordeal have in fact all the while conformed to the great scheme of it all. Posthumus has been compared to an eagle from the start, and Imogen to that even rarer bird, the Phoenix, and so on. The final harmonious beauty of Cymbeline, if we accept it, is that its members have been divinely inspired even in the absurdity of their situations. Like Guiderius and Arvigarus, who have ignorantly represented royalty far better than the ostensibly royal Queen and her son, so Shakespeare's divine fingers have guided his ignorant characters all along. And at the play's end, it seems, Shakespeare wants them-as well as us-to revel in his skill.