In Rome, Iachimo—a Roman nobleman whose father was Duke of Siena, and a friend of Philario—describes Posthumus to Philario. According to Iachimo, people in Britain expected Posthumus to grow up to be virtuous, but Posthumus never impressed Iachimo. Philario insists that Iachimo is only considering what Posthumus was like in the past, and not what he’s like now. However, another friend of theirs present at the gathering—the Frenchman—says that he once saw Posthumus, and that he was an ordinary person.
Though Cloten has denounced Posthumus’ character, this is the first time the audience hears other characters disparaging Imogen’s husband. While the two gentlemen at court sang Posthumus’ praises, Iachimo and the Frenchman remain unconvinced. Perhaps this indicates how mutable the definition of virtue and nobility can be among different people.
Iachimo thinks that because Posthumus has married the princess Imogen, he will seem more worthy than he actually is; people will now judge him to be more noble because of his wife’s rank. The Frenchman reminds Iachimo that despite his new social status, Posthumus has still been exiled. But Iachimo counters that the people who support Imogen are upset about the forced separation, and they do nothing but praise Posthumus. This praise in turn makes Imogen seem all the wiser: it would be easy to criticize her husband if he were a beggar with a bad reputation.
Again, Iachimo believes nobility isn’t innate: Posthumus’ nobility is a reflection of his wife’s. However, he concedes that popular opinion can strengthen a person’s position. Meanwhile, the Frenchman shows that noble social status doesn’t make a person above the law of a King. These characters also demonstrate that while Imogen and Posthumus have lost the King’s favor, they aren’t without supporters.
Iachimo asks Philario why he’s planning to host Posthumus. Philario explains that he fought alongside Posthumus’ father Sicilius Leonatus, and that Sicilius saved his life several times. Philario sees Posthumus coming and he asks his companions to make an effort to get to know Posthumus. He says that Posthumus is noble and a friend, and that they shouldn’t mention his character in front of him. Philario promises that Posthumus’ good character will become clear with time.
By taking in Posthumus—the son of the soldier who saved his life on multiple occasions—Philario indicates that the honorable thing to do in Ancient Rome is to pay back one’s debts. Since Sicilius Leonatus showed Philario kindness, Philario pays that kindness forward to Sicilius’ son. That Philario claims Posthumus will reveal his true character in time is telling, given that this play deals with truth and honor overcoming disguise and treachery.
The Frenchman welcomes Posthumus, mentioning that they met previously in Orleans. Posthumus says that he owes the Frenchman a lot for his courtesy, insinuating that the Frenchman had once stopped him from engaging in a foolish fight. Posthumus alleges that he is less stubborn and contrarian now than he was in his younger years, but even so he doesn’t think that the near-fight was about an unimportant matter. The Frenchman believes that, though the argument was important, it didn’t need to be settled with a fight, which could’ve led to injury or death.
The Frenchman’s revelation of Posthumus’ pugnacious past casts new light on his encounter with Cloten. It shows that Posthumus has grown more virtuous with time, while Cloten is as foolhardy as Posthumus was in his younger years. The Frenchman’s claims about violence raise questions about what issues are worth fighting over—questions echoed later in the war between Rome and Britain.
Curious, Iachimo asks what the fight was about, if it’s not too rude to ask. The Frenchman assures him that it’s fine, since the argument was public. The man from Orleans and Posthumus were talking about their girlfriends. Posthumus told the men that the woman he loved was better than even the best Frenchwoman, and he said he’d fight any man who disagreed. Iachimo says that this woman must be dead, or Posthumus has had a change of heart. Posthumus insists that Imogen is still the best, but Iachimo charges that Posthumus wouldn’t say that his wife was better than Italian women.
In line with the play’s patriarchal norms, Posthumus and Iachimo use women as pawns in their conflicts with other men—particularly conflicts over matters of national pride. Girlfriends and women stand in for generalized symbols of the men’s country, reducing the women to nameless, faceless representatives of national honor.
While Posthumus holds firm in his opinion, Iachimo doesn’t quite believe him, since he doesn’t think British women are all that good or beautiful. Iachimo says he might believe Posthumus if he saw Imogen with his own eyes and she proved to be as lustrous as Posthumus’ diamond ring. But Iachimo claims that, just as he himself hasn’t seen the most precious diamond that exists, Posthumus has never seen the most precious woman that exists. When Posthumus holds firm about Imogen, Iachimo asks how much his diamond is worth, and Posthumus replies that it’s priceless. This leads Iachimo to conclude that either Posthumus’ beloved is dead, or she isn’t worth a trinket.
After elevating his esteem for Italian women, Iachimo alleges that British women aren’t all that great. This comparison is another expression of the tensions between Rome (the imperial seat) and Britain (the dependent state). Further, Iachimo’s concern with the ring shows how materialistic he is. He turns what was a valuable symbol of Posthumus and Imogen’s fidelity into a mere monetary commodity. For Iachimo, material wealth means more than love, and he’ll go to great lengths to win money or expensive goods.
Posthumus tells Iachimo that he is mistaken in the way he looks at the diamond ring through a materialistic lens, rather than understanding its symbolic meaning. The diamond can be sold if anyone has enough money to buy it, or is worthy enough for him to give it away as a gift. His love, on the other hand, is not for sale, but rather a gift from the gods. With their grace, he will hold onto his love.
Just as Iachimo has shown that he prizes material wealth, Posthumus demonstrates what matters most to him: love, a virtuous thing to value. He recognizes how precious love is, so much so that it’s a gift from the gods. Demonstrating piety by invoking the gods, Posthumus puts his trust in them.
Iachimo says that Posthumus may have his wife’s love now, but he warns Posthumus that while he is away, another man may tempt Imogen. Just as a thief could steal Posthumus’ ring, an “accomplished courtier” could steal his lover away from him. The ring is a temporary, material thing, Iachimo warns, and the woman Posthumus loves is weak.
Again, Iachimo makes a generalization about women—particularly Imogen. He subscribes to the old-fashioned stereotype that women are weak and give into sexual temptation. Clearly, he has not met the staunchly loyal Imogen.
Balking at Iachimo’s suggestion, Posthumus says that Italy has no such suitor to tempt his wife, and while he is sure that there are plenty of thieves, he isn’t worried about his ring. Philario suggests that the men stop talking about this subject. Posthumus is happy to oblige, but Iachimo claims that he could even win over Imogen, if only he had the opportunity to woo her in person.
Posthumus expresses his strong trust in Imogen—he doesn’t doubt in her promises of fidelity at all (though Imogen has expressed some doubt that Posthumus may be tempted in Italy). Iachimo shows his true colors: he takes things too far, and is competitive.
Iachimo says he’ll bet half of his belongings against Posthumus’ ring that he can woo any woman in the world. According to Iachimo, it’s Posthumus’ confidence in his wife’s fidelity—as opposed to her reputation—that eggs him on. Posthumus tells Iachimo that he’s overconfident, and that when the woman he attempts to seduce refuses him, Iachimo will get what’s coming to him.
Posthumus’ assuredness in his wife’s loyalty launches Iachimo into the bet. Again, this reflects Iachimo’s chauvinist assertion that women are too weak-willed to be faithful. That he’s willing to stake so many of his possessions shows how seriously he takes the wager, because to Iachimo, material wealth means the world.
Philario begs the gentlemen to cease their discussion of a wager, but this only emboldens Iachimo, who wishes he’d bet more. Posthumus asks him to specify which woman he wants to attempt to seduce; Iachimo says he will try to win Posthumus’ wife. Iachimo requests that Posthumus send him to the British court with letters of recommendation that enable him to speak with Imogen. Iachimo bets ten thousand ducats against Posthumus’ ring that he will win Imogen’s honor.
By escalating his bet, Iachimo shows that he just doesn’t know when to stop. What’s more, he treats women as objects—Imogen is nothing more than a pawn to him to prove his own virility. He contrasts with Philario, who displays the virtues of moderation and caution when trying to discourage the bet.
Posthumus says he would rather bet gold than his ring, since the ring is as precious to him as his own finger. Iachimo takes this as a sign of Posthumus’ fear, and mocks Posthumus being afraid of his wife as though she were a god. Posthumus hopes Iachimo is not being serious, but Iachimo promises that he’s not joking and is willing to go ahead with the bet.
Posthumus shows how much the ring means to him: it’s his last attachment to Imogen and their love. Though he’s reluctant to part with the ring, Posthumus isn’t above Iachimo’s call to gamble.
Provoked, Posthumus says that he’ll lend Iachimo his ring until Iachimo returns from Britain. He says they should draw up a contract with the terms of the bet, and that his wife is better than Iachimo’s “unworthy thinking” can comprehend. Posthumus gives the ring over to Iachimo and dares him to make an attempt on Imogen.
Posthumus continues to assert Imogen’s worth and fidelity, even as he gives into Iachimo’s wager. This complicates the loyalty the audience has seen thus far in the play. Could it be that Posthumus is participating in the bet and giving over the ring in the ultimate act of fidelity: putting total trust in Imogen? At the same time, his use of her as a pawn without her consent demeans Imogen’s agency.
Philario says that he won’t allow the bet to happen, but it’s too late. Iachimo swears to the gods that it’s a bet, and that if he doesn’t bring evidence that he’s seduced Posthumus’ beloved, then he will owe Posthumus ten thousand ducats and his ring back. If Iachimo does succeed, then Imogen, the ring, and the gold will all be his. Iachimo and Posthumus shake hands to formalize the wager, and the pair leave to get a lawyer to write down the terms. Incredulous, the Frenchman asks if the pair will actually go through with the bet, and Philario maintains that Iachimo won’t back down.
By invoking the gods, Iachimo demonstrates how seriously he takes the bet, since the deities are central to Roman life. Philario confirms what Iachimo has already shown about his character: Iachimo is nothing if not determined.