Back in Italy, Posthumus feels sure that the King will come around to him, just as he feels sure of Imogen’s staunch fidelity. Philario asks Posthumus how he will repair his relationship with Cymbeline, and Posthumus says that he plans to let time pass, and that Cymbeline will eventually change his mind. If not, then he’ll die in debt to Philario’s hospitality. Philario says that he’s happy to have Posthumus’ company.
Posthumus here subscribes to the age-old adage “time heals all wounds.” Posthumus hopes for forgiveness over time, though he recognizes there’s a chance that Cymbeline—who’s been harsh thus far in the play—won’t reconcile with him. Philario’s kindness to Posthumus contrasts with Cymbeline’s severe punishment.
Philario thinks that Lucius must have reached Cymbeline by now, and that Cymbeline will prove faithful to the Roman Empire and pay the tribute. Otherwise, the Romans will invade again, and Cymbeline will regret it. Posthumus, on the other hand, thinks that the Britons will rebel against Roman rule, since they are more prepared for war than they were when Julius Caesar first invaded years before.
Philario and Posthumus add further context to the tensions between Britain and Rome. The historical Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and in 54 BCE, installing a king whose rival (Cassibelan) was Cymbeline’s uncle. Ever since, the British king paid a tribute (money to guarantee peace) to the Roman Emperor. Philario and Posthumus express that tensions are bubbling up between Britain and Rome.
Philario spots Iachimo entering and welcomes him. Posthumus marvels at the speed with which Iachimo returned, and hopes that he came back so quickly because Imogen refused him swiftly. Iachimo claims that Imogen is one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen. Posthumus then lauds her character and fidelity. Iachimo hands over letters to Posthumus, and he hopes they contain good news.
For the time being, Posthumus’ trust in Imogen’s loyalty remains absolute. Iachimo enjoys stringing Posthumus along, not saying anything about the alleged “proof” that he has of an affair with Imogen. That he takes his time in revealing his proof demonstrates how Iachimo takes pleasure in the art of deception.
Philario asks Iachimo if Lucius arrived at the British court. Iachimo informs Philario that Cymbeline was still waiting for Lucius. Posthumus says that there can’t be trouble, in that case.
Philario expects that once Cymbeline and Lucius have their meeting, a conflict will result. This is the calm before the storm of the diplomatic meeting.
Posthumus asks Iachimo where the ring is. Iachimo replies that he would travel a long way to enjoy another night with Imogen. Posthumus is incredulous: it would be too hard to win the ring he wagered, since Imogen wouldn’t be unfaithful to her husband. Iachimo insists that Imogen was easy, and Posthumus asks Iachimo not to tease him like that. Yet Iachimo stresses that they must keep their promises: they entered into the bet willingly, and since he won Imogen and the ring, Posthumus has to be friendly with him. (Posthumus had promised to fight Iachimo if his attempts on Imogen were unsuccessful.)
Iachimo continues to bluster and boast—he showed off his verbal dexterity in conversation with Imogen, and now he’s up to the same tricks with Posthumus. Just as Imogen resisted Iachimo’s lies, Posthumus isn’t convinced by them either—for now, at least. Once again, Iachimo’s mode of deception rests on sowing seeds of doubt and continually insisting that his lies are true.
Posthumus needs proof before he concedes defeat. If he doesn’t get that proof, then he’ll fight Iachimo to the death. Iachimo says that his story will confirm the truth of his report.
Posthumus wants to hold fast to Imogen’s fidelity, to the point that he threatens Iachimo.
First, Iachimo details Imogen’s bedchamber. He describes the tapestries which illustrate Cleopatra meeting her Roman lover Antony. Posthumus allows that the description is true, but Iachimo could have just heard about it. Iachimo includes further details: where the chimney stood, and the fireplace carving of a nude Diana bathing. Again, Posthumus is unconvinced. So Iachimo describes the ceiling, decorated with angels, and andirons in the fireplace, with a design featuring Cupid. Posthumus doesn’t think these details are convincing.
Iachimo sets up his argument by laying out his weakest evidence first and saving the most important pieces of proof—the bracelet and the description of Imogen’s mole—for later. Thus, he manipulates the effect of his words, causing them to have maximum impact on Posthumus. He shows himself as a master manipulator. It’s worth noting, too, how sensuous the décor of Imogen’s bedroom is. Even if the “proof” doesn’t convince Posthumus, it gets him thinking about romance and physical love.
Again, Iachimo shows Posthumus the bracelet, and asks him to go pale with shock. Posthumus asks if that is the bracelet he left with Imogen, and Iachimo confirms it, saying that Imogen gave it to him freely—which made it all the more valuable. Posthumus guesses that maybe she gave it to Iachimo to give to Posthumus, but when Iachimo asks if she wrote that in her letter, Posthumus concedes she didn’t. He hands Iachimo the ring.
Posthumus is really straining here to give Imogen the benefit of the doubt in the face of Iachimo’s increasingly damning “proof.” This shows how much stock he puts in Imogen’s promise of fidelity. (Interestingly, he holds her to a different standard than he holds himself—Posthumus gave Iachimo Imogen’s ring, but he considers it much worse for Imogen to give up her bracelet.)
Posthumus looks at the ring and meditates that beauty and honor don’t go together, nor do truth and outward appearances. He says women’s vows can’t be trusted, as their virtue means nothing. But Philario still clings to hope: he tells Posthumus to take the ring back. Imogen probably lost her bracelet, or maybe one of her women stole it. Posthumus thinks that’s sound reasoning, and asks for the ring back. He wants proof of some mark on Imogen’s body as a sign of infidelity.
Here, Posthumus leans on patriarchal, stereotypical views of women as manipulators and liars who are not to be trusted. Ironically, the person he shouldn’t trust—Iachimo—is a man. Noticeably, Philario has greater faith in Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus than even Posthumus has.
Iachimo swears he got the bracelet from Imogen, which makes Posthumus believe that his story is true. Imogen wouldn’t have lost the bracelet that he thought meant so much to her. Philario tells Posthumus to be cautious, that the evidence isn’t good enough, but Posthumus seems convinced. The nail in the coffin is Iachimo’s physical evidence: he describes the mole under Imogen’s breast, and describes how he kissed it, which inflamed his desire.
It’s almost as if Philario and Iachimo personify Posthumus’ interior debate about his wife’s honor. Will Posthumus give into jealous thoughts, represented by Iachimo, or maintain faith in his wife’s loyalty, as Philario embodies? The “evidence” about the mole tips the scales in Iachimo’s favor.
Posthumus takes this as final confirmation that Iachimo has stained Imogen’s honor, and exclaims that Imogen’s sins are as big as any hell could contain. Iachimo asks if Posthumus wants to hear more, but Posthumus says it’s enough. Posthumus says he’ll kill Iachimo if he denies sleeping with Imogen, because Posthumus feels just that convinced that Iachimo slept with her. Iachimo says he won’t deny anything. Posthumus wishes Imogen were here so he could tear her to shreds. He swears to go to Britain to kill her in front of Cymbeline, and he exits. Philario marvels at Posthumus’ anger, and suggests that he and Iachimo follow Posthumus so he won’t harm himself.
Posthumus fails to recognize that behind Iachimo’s boastful talk about sleeping with Imogen, Imogen could have been raped or her person otherwise violated. Posthumus is quick to blame his wife. Iachimo has Posthumus right where he wants him—wholly believing in the lie. Posthumus’ deep anger and violent threats are in keeping with the Roman patriarchal role—husbands, like fathers, had the power of life and death over wives and other women family members, particularly over crimes like adultery.