William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline: Act 3, Scene 2 Summary & Analysis

Read our modern English translation of this scene.
Reading a letter from his master, Pisanio feels dismayed by its contents. Posthumus has asserted that Imogen was unfaithful to him, and has ordered Pisanio to kill Imogen for her transgression. But Pisanio is convinced someone in Italy must have played a trick on Posthumus. Pisanio knows that Imogen is chaste, and believes that Imogen is being unfairly punished for remaining loyal to her husband. According to Pisanio, Posthumus’ opinion of his wife has sunk as low as his fortunes before their marriage.
Pisanio sees through Iachimo’s tricks better than Posthumus—he knows Imogen to be chaste and honorable, and so the thought that she would cheat on her husband is ludicrous in Pisanio’s eyes. Iachimo’s tricks have produced dire, lethal consequences. Posthumus prizes loyalty so highly that infidelity warrants death.
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Pisanio can hardly believe that Posthumus is ordering him to kill Imogen, which leaves Pisanio is in a quandary: should he remain loyal to his master, or go against Posthumus’ wishes to save innocent Imogen? Pisanio doesn’t want to follow the command. He reads Posthumus’ letter aloud: Posthumus instructs Pisanio to give a separate letter to Imogen. The instructions contained therein will give Pisanio an opportunity to kill her. Pisanio condemns his own letter for looking so innocent on the outside but containing such a foul order. He sees Imogen coming towards him, and tells the audience he won’t let on about the letter’s contents.
Whereas Posthumus’ views on loyalty seem to be black-and-white, Pisanio’s understanding of loyalty is more complex—made so by the fact that he serves a couple, rather than a single individual. Posthumus asked Pisanio to serve Imogen faithfully—but should he remain loyal to Posthumus, his master, by killing the woman he was asked to be faithful to? That Pisanio doesn’t act right away—but will keep the letter secret to gain time—shows that he is a deliberative, discerning character.
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Pisanio hands Posthumus’ second letter to Imogen. She recognizes the handwriting, and asks the gods for her husband to write that he’s well and happy about everything besides their separation. Unsealing the letter, Imogen reads it aloud. Posthumus writes that he’ll risk Cymbeline’s wrath and justice just to see Imogen. He instructs her to meet him in Wales, at Milford Haven. Overjoyed, Imogen wishes she could speed off to meet her husband on a winged horse. She asks Pisanio how far the journey is, and he estimates she can ride twenty miles a day.
The dramatic irony in this exchange is intense. Imogen unwittingly opens a letter designed to lead to her death, and she prays for the good health and happiness of her husband, who has just ordered her to be killed. Shakespeare uses this device to increase the tension onstage and to cause the audience to feel the pain of Posthumus’ betrayal.
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Imogen finds this a slow speed, and feels impatient to go. She bids Pisanio to have her serving-woman obtain a disguise for her: a riding habit that a simple housewife might wear. Pisanio urges Imogen to think her decision through, but she is single-minded. Imogen vows to find her husband.
Pisanio’s attempts to remain composed and cool-headed in the face of Imogen’s enthusiasm further prove his careful discernment. Imogen’s steadfast loyalty stands in stark contrast to Posthumus’ deception.
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