The play opens at the court of King Cymbeline, who rules over Britain—a dependent state within the Roman Empire. Two gentlemen discuss recent events at the court. Not long ago, the King married a second wife, some time after the death of his first. This new Queen had a son of her own, named Cloten, whom Cymbeline planned to marry to his own daughter Imogen. However, Imogen secretly married Posthumus, a “poor but worthy gentleman.” Enraged at this disobedience, Cymbeline has just ordered that Posthumus be banished and Imogen imprisoned.
The play opens by stressing the complexity of Cymbeline’s situation. Cymbeline wants to consolidate political power by marrying Imogen to Cloten, but Imogen has a mind of her own—she prefers to marry a man for his innate virtue rather than his social status. Thus, she tries to break out of a royal woman’s prescribed role as a political tool who must forge political allegiances through marriage.
The First Gentleman adds, though, that everyone else around the court is secretly happy about the marriage because Cloten is so awful while Posthumus is incomparably virtuous. The gentlemen then discuss Posthumus’s past: he is the son of a valiant soldier named Sicilius Leonatus, but was orphaned when both of his older brothers died in war, his father subsequently died of grief, and his mother died giving birth to him. Cymbeline took the orphaned Posthumus as his ward, and Posthumus grew up to be one of the King’s closest attendants. The Second Gentleman asks if the King had any other children, to which the First Gentleman replies that the King had two infant sons, but they were stolen from their nursery twenty years ago.
The contrast between the noble Posthumus and the awful Cloten demonstrates how desperate Cymbeline is to solidify his power. Cymbeline is willing to marry his beloved daughter to Cloten solely because Cloten, as his stepson, is closer to the throne than Posthumus, even though Cymbeline raised Posthumus, too. Further, the revelation that the two princes were stolen as infants is yet another reason for Cymbeline’s insecurity about his heirs and legacy.
The gentlemen exit when they notice the Queen, Posthumus, and Imogen approaching. As the Queen enters, she assures Imogen that she will take care of her. Though she has been tasked with imprisoning Imogen, the Queen promises to treat her well, and also to speak favorably of Posthumus to Cymbeline after he has calmed down about Imogen and Posthumus’s secret marriage. Posthumus says he will leave Britain that day in compliance with Cymbeline’s banishment, and the Queen replies that she will allow him to say goodbye to Imogen in private—even though the King commanded that the couple not be allowed to see each other.
The two-faced Queen presents herself as a loving, merciful stepmother—promising to take care of Imogen, and allowing her stepdaughter one final farewell with her husband. Even though Posthumus and Imogen defied the King’s wishes by marrying, Posthumus does not try to fight the punishment Cymbeline gave him. In that sense, Posthumus demonstrates his deference to his father figure, a quality that was important in ancient Rome, where Posthumus grew up.
Once the Queen has left, Imogen exclaims that her stepmother’s promises are nothing more than “dissembling courtesy.” She then tells Posthumus that she will endure her father’s wrath, but only in the hope that she might one day see Posthumus again. She bursts into tears, and Posthumus begs her to stop, or else he will act in an unmanly way and start crying, too. He promises to be faithful to her while in exile, and begs her to write to him in Rome, where he will be staying with his father’s friend, Philario.
Imogen has a hunch that her stepmother is deceitful—a suspicion that proves to be true over the course of the play. This scene also suggests that Imogen and Posthumus’ love is sincere and will endure. Posthumus’ reluctance to cry “unmanly” tears demonstrates that men of his society were expected to be strong and hide emotion.
The Queen rushes in to tell the lovers to hurry up, because if Cymbeline finds them talking he will be furious at her. As the Queen hurries away, though, she comments to herself that she’ll get the King to walk this way and find the couple talking. She notes that she’s the one who causes all the problems that Cymbeline then asks her to solve.
This is the first instance of many throughout the play in which the Queen reveals her treachery to the audience. Because her power is limited as a woman and a consort (rather than a ruler), she uses duplicity to maneuver in court and control her husband.
Alone once again, Posthumus and Imogen can’t make themselves say goodbye. Imogen gives Posthumus her mother’s diamond ring to pledge her loyalty. In return, Posthumus gives Imogen a bracelet to symbolize their bond of love, and he begs to be burned to death if he ever kisses another woman.
Posthumus and Imogen exchange tokens of their love—valued pieces of jewelry—as tangible signs of their fidelity to each other. Even though they’ll be apart, they pledge to remain true. Posthumus says he would want a painful death if he strays, showing how deeply he values loyalty and foreshadowing the death he orders for Imogen when he believes she has strayed.
Just as Imogen wonders aloud when they will meet again, Cymbeline enters in a rage, attended by several lords. Cymbeline insults Posthumus and commands him to leave at once. Posthumus wishes Cymbeline well, blesses everyone in the court, and exits.
Here, Cymbeline maintains his tough stance on Posthumus’ exile, declining to show mercy to his son-in-law. In the face of that rage, Posthumus takes the high road, wishing the court well. He won’t always take the high road during the play, however.
Imogen exclaims that death must hurt less than this forced separation. This only enrages Cymbeline more, and he lashes out at her for being disloyal and troubling him. Imogen responds that her father’s anger can’t hurt her because her pain at Posthumus’ absence drowns out any other feeling. When Cymbeline laments that Imogen could have married Cloten instead of the “base” Posthumus, Imogen counters that Cloten is worthless next to Posthumus—a “puttock” next to an “eagle.” She reminds Cymbeline that he himself raised Posthumus and Imogen together, and she weeps when she says she would rather be a poor farmer’s daughter and marry for love than be a princess and have to marry for political reasons.
By confronting Cymbeline about Posthumus, Imogen shows that she’s not afraid to speak her mind. While Imogen may not show loyalty to her father, she shows loyalty to her exiled husband, which will be true for the remainder of the play. This shows Shakespeare’s complex treatment of loyalty—Imogen is virtuous by allying with her husband over her father, as traditional morality would have expected her to do in such a thorny situation. Her invocation of the eagle—a traditional symbol of Rome—reflects Posthumus’ worth and nobility. Wishing that she were not royal, Imogen also defies her father’s political machinations.
The Queen returns, and Cymbeline scolds her for allowing Imogen and Posthumus to be alone together. The Queen pleads for Cymbeline to leave her alone with Imogen and go calm down. He leaves, but not before stating his hope that Imogen suffer every day for her foolishness until she grows old and dies.
Cymbeline’s interactions with the Queen and Imogen show how unrelenting he is. He chastises his wife for an act of mercy, and ends his interaction with Imogen on a note of harshness—even wishing her pain. He establishes himself as an unforgiving, absolute ruler.
Posthumus’ servant Pisanio enters. He reports that Cloten drew his sword on Posthumus, but that no one was hurt because Posthumus merely played with Cloten rather than fighting back. Imogen mocks Cloten, then asks Pisanio why he didn’t leave with Posthumus. Pisanio responds that Posthumus asked him to stay behind to serve Imogen; the Queen admires his loyalty. Before going on a walk with the Queen, Imogen asks Pisanio to come and speak with her later.
Imogen ridicules Cloten for picking a half-hearted fight with Posthumus, a man about to leave the country for good (thus making the fight inconsequential). To the same degree that Imogen scorns Cloten, the Queen praises Pisanio—he faithfully executes his master’s orders, remaining loyal to Posthumus’ wife. It’s remarkable that the Queen—one of the more disloyal characters—so readily recognizes the virtue of loyalty.