Cymbeline

Cymbeline Study Guide

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Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's father was a glove-maker, and Shakespeare received no more than a grammar school education. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582, but left his family behind around 1590 and moved to London, where he became an actor and playwright. He was an immediate success: Shakespeare soon became the most popular playwright of the day, as well as a part-owner of the Globe Theater. His theater troupe was adopted by King James as the King's Men in 1603. Shakespeare retired as a rich and prominent man to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1613, and died three years later.
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Historical Context of Cymbeline

While not remaining entirely faithful to actual events, Cymbeline does portray the historical King Cymbeline, whose reign in Britain began in 33 BCE. The Romans incorporated Britain into their ever-growing empire ten years prior, in 43 BCE. Cymbeline’s rule was distinguished as a period of friendly relations between the Roman Empire and Britain. Given discrepancies between different historical sources, it remains unclear whether or not an actual conflict ever arose over the payment of tribute to the Roman Emperor, which is a central piece of the drama of Cymbeline. First performed as early as 1611, Cymbeline followed on the heels of early English colonialism. English colonists had established the first permanent settlement in the Americas at Jamestown, Virginia only a few years prior, in 1607. The Roman Empire, which quashes Britain’s attempt at independence in Cymbeline, reflects England’s burgeoning imperial interests.

Other Books Related to Cymbeline

Shakespeare makes use of Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles as an inspiration for some of the names of historical British characters, and the issue of tribute money paid to Rome. He also adapts a story from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century work The Decameron (a collection of tales set in Italy during the time of the Black Death) in the subplot of Posthumus and Iachimo’s bet over Imogen’s chastity. Editors have suggested that Shakespeare takes the characters of the Queen and Cloten—along with Cloten’s grisly death—from two late 16th-century plays called The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune and Sir Clyomon and Clamydes, respectively. The play’s treatment of jealousy in marriage in the face of innocence links it to other Shakespearean works, chiefly Othello and The Winter's Tale. Like this latter play and The Tempest, Cymbeline displays a reversal of fortune through supernatural intervention, at the hands of the god Jupiter.
Key Facts about Cymbeline
  • Full Title: Cymbeline, King of Britain
  • When Written: c. 1610
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1623
  • Literary Period: The Renaissance
  • Genre: Romance; Tragicomedy
  • Setting: Ancient Britain
  • Climax: After King Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Roman Emperor, British forces under Cymbeline and Roman troops under Lucius prepare for war. Amid the chaos, Imogen, disguised as a serving-man named Fidele, looks for her husband Posthumus.
  • Antagonist: The Queen, Cloten, Iachimo, the Roman invaders

Extra Credit for Cymbeline

The Astrological Connection In ancient Rome (and even in Shakespeare’s day), people looked to the stars and planets for answers to all of life’s questions. Fittingly—since Cymbeline features a Soothsayer and even the god Jupiter, accompanied by thunder and lightning—a real-life astrologer, Simon Forman, provided the first written record of the play’s performance in a 1611 diary entry.

The Indoor Theater The Globe Theatre and Shakespeare are bound together in cultural memory. While Shakespeare was part-owner of this outdoor theater, and had the majority of his plays staged there, Cymbeline was most likely performed at the Blackfriars Theatre. The Blackfriars was an indoor playhouse where Shakespeare’s troupe also acted starting in 1609. The intimate space was illuminated by candlelight, and allowed for interesting special effects via trap doors and wires.