Imogen laments that she has a cruel father, a lying stepmother, a foolish suitor in Cloten (who wants to marry an already married woman), and a banished husband. Posthumus is the greatest reason for her sadness, whereas the others just add to her annoyance. Imogen wishes that she could have been stolen like her two brothers. Noble people who can’t get what they want are the most unfortunate, whereas others are lucky, even if they’re poor, to live as they please and gain comfort from that.
Imogen keenly feels her lack of agency. Even though she tried to make her own path, her father, stepmother, and Cloten have diminished her self-determination with their plans. Once again, Imogen expresses that having a noble status isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—she is a princess, but because of that, she has no freedom to choose.
Imogen sees Pisanio coming in with Iachimo, and asks who the stranger is. Pisanio tells her that Iachimo is a Roman gentleman with letters from Posthumus. Imogen goes pale, and Iachimo reassures her that Posthumus is safe and sends her warm greetings. Iachimo hands Imogen a letter. She thanks him and welcomes him to court.
Here, Iachimo attempts to get into Imogen’s good graces as her husband’s messenger. Not betraying any hint of the wager, Iachimo shows how deft he is in his abilities to deceive.
Iachimo says to himself that Imogen is, on the outside, quite beautiful. If her mind is as great as her beauty, then she is rarer among women than a phoenix among birds. He fears that he will lose his bet because she’s such an incredible woman. Iachimo prays for boldness, not wanting to run away altogether.
Up until this point, Iachimo has been quick to generalize about women. However, when he encounters Imogen, she challenges his expectations. She is not the frail woman he was expecting, but rather beautiful, smart, and strong. That he prays for boldness shows his fear—quite unlike his earlier displays of confidence.
Imogen reads aloud Posthumus’ letter praising Iachimo; he writes that Iachimo has a wonderful reputation, and that Posthumus owes Iachimo for his kindness, so Imogen should treat Iachimo kindly in return. Imogen tells Iachimo that she’ll only read that part aloud, but that the rest of the letter has comforted her, body and soul. She offers Iachimo another, more enthusiastic welcome, and promises that her actions will reflect that welcome.
This is the first letter in which Posthumus conceals his motives from Imogen, and certainly not the last. The fact that Imogen takes such heart from a mere letter of introduction from her husband shows how much she has pined for him. And since her husband has approved of Iachimo, her enthusiastic reception of the Italian nobleman displays her absolute loyalty to Posthumus’ stated opinion.
Offering Imogen thanks, Iachimo asks if men are crazy. He wonders if nature has given them eyes to tell the stars apart from the sands of beaches. Likewise, he asks if man can use his eyes to tell the difference between what’s beautiful and what’s ugly. Imogen asks him what causes this sense of wonder.
Iachimo begins to speak his lines as if he’s talking to himself, but he wants Imogen to overhear what he says—it’s part of his ploy to attract her attention in his attempt to woo her. His discussion of what’s beautiful and ugly is a common preoccupation for Shakespeare—he discusses how “fair and foul” mix in Macbeth. Here, he’s setting up an argument about the nature of male desire.
Iachimo says that sight can’t be faulty, because even monkeys can distinguish beauty between two women. Similarly, common sense can’t be flawed, because even idiots—who have little common sense—can still express their preference over which woman was better. And even desire distinguishes between good and bad: men are more likely to feel attracted to “neat excellence” instead of wasting their desire on sluttishness. Imogen remains confused, and asks Iachimo what he means. Iachimo says that lust can never be satisfied—it is an overflowing tub, desiring garbage after devouring the lamb. Imogen asks if something is wrong with Iachimo: is he well?
Iachimo expresses common patriarchal views of female sexuality. He claims that men desire women who are clean and excellent over dirty women—the word “sluttery” in the original text (“sluttishness” in translation) can refer to a woman who is unkempt, or has many sexual partners. His choice of words implies that for a woman to have casual sex is dirty and undesirable. But a man’s lust doesn’t distinguish between the two in Iachimo’s opinion, meaning that men will go after loose women—“garbage”—to satisfy themselves. All in all, Iachimo presents a grim portrait of sexuality.
After reassuring Imogen that he’s fine, Iachimo asks Pisanio to leave and find Iachimo’s servant. Pisanio leaves, saying he was just on his way to welcome the man, a foreigner in a new land.
Just as the Queen hopes to isolate Imogen by killing off Pisanio, Iachimo tries to isolate Imogen by sending Pisanio on a needless errand. Once he has Imogen alone, Iachimo hopes it will be easier to make his attempt on her. He deceives Pisanio in order to seduce Imogen.
Imogen asks Iachimo if Posthumus is well, and Iachimo assures her he is. She asks if he’s happy, and Iachimo tells her that he is happy and gaining a reputation for his partying. Imogen comments that when he was in Britain, Posthumus was more inclined towards sadness, though he couldn’t explain why. Iachimo says he’s never seen Posthumus acting sad. In fact, one of Posthumus’ Roman acquaintances, a Frenchman, always acts sad, longing for his lover back in France. But Iachimo reports that Posthumus just laughs at him and says that women can’t help but ensnare men. Imogen finds this hard to believe. Iachimo asserts that it’s true, and that some men do terrible things.
The contrast between Imogen’s understanding of Posthumus’ character and Iachimo’s assertions that Posthumus is partying could show the cracks in Iachimo’s deception, or could simply show Iachimo setting up his lie about Posthumus’ infidelity. Either way, there’s dissonance between Imogen’s understanding of her husband and Iachimo’s deceptive portrait of a misogynistic Posthumus whose opinions on women’s wiles more closely mirror Iachimo’s own evaluation of women.
Imogen replies that she hopes her husband isn’t one such man, but Iachimo says that Posthumus isn’t using the gifts the gods gave him well. He says he pities two people, and Imogen feels she’s one of them from the way Iachimo is looking at her. Iachimo starts to say that he pities her because other women are enjoying her husband’s company, but stops himself. It’s the gods’ job to take revenge, Iachimo says, so it’s not his job to talk about Posthumus’ indiscretions.
Again, Iachimo’s double mention of the gods inserts a degree of seriousness to the conversation—the vengeance of the gods is no laughing matter. What’s more, he injects doubt into Imogen’s mind by beginning to mention Posthumus’ infidelity, but then dropping it. This deceptive technique is similar to Iago’s in Othello, who drops untrue hints to Othello to spur on his jealousy.
Imogen believes Iachimo knows more than he lets on. She asks him to tell her plainly what he wanted to say and why he stopped himself. Iachimo says that if he had Imogen but went around telling lies and seeking other women’s company, he should be punished in hell. Imogen fears that her husband has forgotten Britain, and Iachimo adds that Posthumus has forgotten himself. But he says he must tell Imogen the truth because she is so good.
Iachimo reveals the depths of his deception: he praises Imogen and chides Posthumus for not valuing her. In such a way, he establishes himself as Imogen’s admirer and protector, and Posthumus as a cheater. Iachimo uses flattery as a tool to earn Imogen’s trust and make his seduction complete.
Imogen asks Iachimo to cut off the conversation, but Iachimo insists that he is heartbroken for her sake. He marvels that such a beautiful woman, a princess no less, should have her ungrateful husband waste the money she gave him on prostitutes and gambling. Iachimo urges Imogen to get revenge by sleeping with him. He says he’ll treat her better than her unfaithful husband.
As before, when Iachimo went too far in making the wager, Iachimo goes too far in his attempt on Imogen. He doesn’t respect the boundaries she sets on the conversation, and continues his flattery. He assigns extra vices to Posthumus, using that lie as a platform to propose adulterous revenge to Imogen.
Alarmed, Imogen calls for Pisanio. Iachimo tries to kiss Imogen, but she tells him to go away. She is angry at herself, chastising her ears for even listening to his proposition. Imogen thinks Iachimo told her his story about Posthumus just so he can have sex with her—an effort she finds “as base as strange.” She tells Iachimo that he has wronged Posthumus, and that she’ll tell Cymbeline all about Iachimo’s indecent proposal. If the King won’t take action against a foreigner who’s bargained for Imogen as if she were a Roman prostitute—and who’s made beastly accusations about Posthumus—then Cymbeline doesn’t care for his daughter or his court.
Imogen finds herself vulnerable now that her seducer, Iachimo, has isolated her from others. However, she resists his physical advances and calls him out for his untruths. Other characters have noted that Imogen is a good judge of character—she chose Posthumus over the awful Cloten. Here, she lives up to that assessment by seeing through Posthumus’ lie. By bringing her father into it, Imogen leverages the little political capital she has as a princess for her protection.
Mentioning how lucky Posthumus is to have such a wife, Iachimo swears that Imogen is trustworthy and perfectly good. He prays for blessings on Posthumus, and praises his virtue. Iachimo asks Imogen’s forgiveness: his attempted seduction was just a test of her loyalty to Posthumus. He promises that the news of her faithfulness will be welcome to Posthumus, and Imogen says that by praising her husband, Iachimo has atoned for his affront.
By claiming that his attempt to seduce Imogen was merely a “test” of her fidelity and virtue, Iachimo shows just how tricky he is. He is quick on his feet in conversation, and he tries to win Imogen’s trust with his apology. If Iachimo can’t seduce her, he can use trickery to get proof of their affair. That Imogen readily forgives Iachimo shows her inclination towards mercy, quite unlike her father at the start of the play.
Then, Iachimo asks Imogen for one small favor. He, Posthumus, and other friends brought a present of silver and jewels for the Emperor, and Iachimo asks Imogen if she can store them safely. She promises to keep them secure in her bedroom until tomorrow when he’ll sail back to France. Imogen asks him to stay longer, but Iachimo insists he must go. He begs her to write to her husband that night so he can bring the letter back tomorrow. Imogen reassures him that she’ll keep the present safe, and will write to her husband.
It’s almost as if the audience can see the wheels turning in Iachimo’s head. His attempt to seduce Imogen failed, so he must rely on a contingency plan. Since he’s back in Imogen’s good graces, Iachimo makes a request that sounds innocent to her, but prompts the audience to have doubts. Further, since he shows deference when she asks him to stay, he doesn’t behave with his usual swagger, which is suspicious in itself.