Back at Cymbeline’s court, the Queen sends her ladies away to gather flowers. While they’re gone, the Queen privately asks the court doctor, Cornelius, if he’s brought the drugs she requested. He gives her a box containing them, then asks why she needs such a poisonous compound, which causes a slow, languishing death.
While the audience has seen evidence of the Queen’s treachery in setting up Imogen and Posthumus to be found by Cymbeline, this is the first hint that the Queen’s schemes are physically dangerous.
Cornelius’ question surprises the Queen. She comments on how long she has studied with him, learning how to make perfumes, distilled liquids, and preserves. The Queen claims she’s so skilled that even Cymbeline has asked her for some of her compounds. As an advanced student, she thinks that she should increase her learning in other areas. She promises to only test the poison on animals. Then she can determine the poison’s strength and effects, and apply antidotes accordingly. The Doctor fears that the experiments will make her hard-hearted.
Through her eloquent defense of her request for the poison, the Queen shows herself as a master manipulator. Because Cymbeline showed his force so strongly with Imogen, it could be hard to believe that the Queen was commanding him. However, in her interaction with the Doctor here, the Queen shows how she uses her verbal dexterity to take control of events, even if her words are lies.
As the Queen assures Cornelius not to worry, she sees Pisanio entering. In an aside, she calls Pisanio a “flattering rascal” and reveals that she plans to use the poison on him because he serves Posthumus, and he is therefore an enemy to Cloten. She calls for Pisanio because she has something to tell him, and asks Cornelius to leave them alone.
Once again, the Queen makes use of an aside to the audience to reveal her treachery. That she can go so easily from lying to the doctor about her innocent plans to revealing her true, murderous intentions underscores just how startlingly duplicitous she is, and how little her conscience affects her.
Before he leaves, Cornelius reveals in an aside that he feels suspicious of the Queen’s motives and that he doesn’t like her. He fears that the Queen’s experiments on animals will lead her to harm humans, so he’s only pretended to give poison to her—it’s actually a sleeping potion. Anyone who takes the medicine may seem dead, but he asserts that the compound isn’t dangerous. He thinks that the medicine’s effect will fool the Queen, and that he will be “the truer,/ So to be false with her.”
In explaining that he will trick the Queen by giving her a strong sleeping drug instead of poison, Cornelius complicates the notion of deception that Shakespeare has established in the figure of the Queen. In this case, Cornelius uses deception not to grab power or hurt others, but to actually prevent harm. Deception isn’t necessarily a bad thing here.
Cornelius leaves on the Queen’s urging. She then asks Pisanio if Imogen is still crying over Posthumus, wondering if, in time, Imogen will get over her foolishness and pick Cloten. The Queen asks Pisanio’s help: if Pisanio can persuade Imogen to marry Cloten, she will elevate Pisanio’s status as a reward. To drive home the wisdom of this, the Queen paints Posthumus’ future as doomed by his exile.
Re-emphasizing how two-faced the Queen is, she pretends to care about Imogen’s welfare—even if only for a moment before calling Imogen a fool. By asking Pisanio to set aside his loyalties and help her in exchange for money, the Queen reveals how little trust and value she places in people’s loyalty.
The Queen drops the box containing Cornelius’ compound, and Pisanio picks it up. The Queen tells Pisanio that he doesn’t know what he’s holding, but that he should keep it in exchange for his efforts. She explains that the box contains a medicine that’s saved Cymbeline from death five times. Pisanio tries to give it back, but the Queen insists he take it. It’s just the first of many good deeds she promises to do for his sake if he helps her.
Pisanio is right to try to give the box back to the Queen. This gesture makes physical Pisanio’s innate distrust of the Queen. Yet again, through the power of her words, she pretends to be an ally to Posthumus when she’s actually plotting treachery—just as she pretended to be on Imogen’s side before setting her up.
The Queen asks Pisanio to give Imogen an accurate picture of how bad her situation is with Posthumus in exile, as though it that were Pisanio’s own opinion. She asks him to think of this opportunity as a stroke of good luck: he’ll still has an employer, and Cloten will look favorably on him in the future. The Queen promises that she’ll obtain any promotion Pisanio desires from Cymbeline, and she even says that she will personally reimburse him for his service.
The Queen tries to teach Pisanio her own tactics. She asks him to manipulate words to achieve a certain end, even if those words don’t reflect Pisanio’s own opinion. Though she thinks Pisanio will take the bait, she ends up revealing her method of lying so she can get what she wants.
Pisanio exits to fetch the Queen’s ladies, and alone onstage, the Queen remarks that Pisanio is sneaky, and his loyalty to Posthumus and Imogen is hard to shake. She thinks that Pisanio is spying for his banished master and encouraging Imogen to remain faithful to Posthumus. But the Queen feels reassured that he has the potion, which she believes is a poison that will kill him. Once Pisanio dies, Imogen will be left without allies; if she doesn’t change her mind about Cloten then, she’ll be sorry.
It’s interesting that the Queen should entrust Pisanio with the mission to convince Imogen to prefer Cloten; she notes that Pisanio’s loyalty to Imogen is staunch, and suspects that he’s a spy. Why should she trust him with the mission she outlined? It seems that the Queen feels confident in her assessment that people’s loyalty can be bought and sold. If not, she has poison to fall back on. Besides, Pisanio is only a pawn in her larger scheme to get the crown.
Pisanio returns with the Queen’s ladies. She instructs her servants to bring the flowers they’ve gathered to her room, and she asks Pisanio to carefully consider her offer. Once he’s alone, Pisanio says that he will remember what she said, but that he would choke himself if he ever betrayed his master, and that would be all he could do for the Queen.
Like Posthumus, who claims that he’d rather be burned alive than kiss a woman who is not his wife, Pisanio also wishes for death if he betrays his master and mistress. Pisanio therefore proves that he is noble, showing that some people are loyal to the death, which defies the Queen’s views of mutable fidelity.