Back at Cymbeline’s court, Lucius says goodbye to Cymbeline. The Emperor has ordered Lucius to leave his new enemy’s presence. Cymbeline counters that his subjects can no longer withstand Roman tyranny, and if it seemed like Cymbeline couldn’t be Britain’s sole sovereign, he fears that would make him seem “unkinglike.”
Once again, Cymbeline reveals his anxieties over his kingly authority and legacy. These fears partly motivate his attempt to gain British independence, but by expressing his desire to appear kingly to his subjects, Cymbeline shows that he is also anxious about asserting his own worth as a monarch.
Lucius asks for safe conduct to Milford Haven, and wishes the Queen well. Cymbeline orders men to accompany Lucius. The ambassador asks to shake Cloten’s hand. Cloten agrees, saying that though they part on friendly terms, they will be enemies from here on out. Lucius warns him to not speak too soon—they don’t know how the conflict will end. Cymbeline wishes Lucius happiness.
For two supposed enemies, Cymbeline and Lucius part on friendly terms. Though there are hints of tension about the coming conflict, the fact that the British royals and Lucius don’t all-out argue or fight shows again the mutual interdependence that Britain and Rome have enjoyed, even at the personal level.
The Queen notes that Lucius left frowning—she feels that making Lucius upset reflects well on their cause. Cymbeline gives an update on the looming battle: Lucius has written to the Emperor, so the Britons will need to prepare chariots and horsemen. Augustus will order Roman troops stationed in Gallia (modern-day France) to attack Britain from there. The Queen urges Cymbeline to act quickly. Cymbeline says he will, but wonders where Imogen is. She failed to fulfill her royal duties and meet with Lucius. Cymbeline asks an attendant to find Imogen.
While the Queen has argued that the island geography of Britain means that, as an isolated place, Britain is deserving of independence, Cymbeline’s analysis of the Roman troops’ movements highlights that isolation can sometimes translate into vulnerability. That the Roman Empire is so far-reaching as to control France means that Britain can face attack. Perhaps this retroactively asserts the benefits of sticking with the Roman Empire for protection and peace.
The Queen describes how Imogen has isolated herself since Posthumus left, and that she needs time to get over him. She begs Cymbeline to go easy on Imogen. The attendant returns and reveals that Imogen’s bedroom door is locked, and no one answered when he knocked. The Queen tells Cymbeline that Imogen had asked her to leave her alone earlier because she didn’t feel well, but the Queen had forgotten to tell Cymbeline until now. The King starts to worry that Imogen has fled. As he leaves with the attendant to investigate, the Queen orders Cloten to follow him. Before Cloten goes, he says that Pisanio has been missing for the past two days.
Given that the audience knows of the Queen’s dislike for Imogen—which Imogen herself even suspects—there’s a palpable irony when the Queen asks the King to treat his daughter kindly. Her feigned concern reveals yet again how two-faced the Queen really is.
Alone at last, the Queen prays that Pisanio is absent because he swallowed the poison she gave him. She wonders where Imogen went, but hopes that Imogen, in despair, has fled to find Posthumus, or to meet her death. Since Cymbeline’s sons disappeared long ago, if Imogen were out of the picture, then Cloten would become the likely heir to the King, giving the Queen a clear path to greater power. Cloten returns and asks his mother to go comfort Cymbeline because Imogen has certainly run away. In an aside that shocks the audience, the Queen hopes that Cymbeline will die that night. (She will later reveal that she’s been slowly poisoning the King.)
Juxtaposed with a moment of insincere concern for her stepdaughter, the Queen’s aside to the audience about her hopes to destroy Pisanio and Imogen is striking. Her dishonesty to her husband is remarkable. She makes clear that her ambition for the throne and her hunger for political power motivate her acts of violence and deception—not unlike other Shakespeare villains, such as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
By himself onstage, Cloten explains that he admires Imogen’s beauty, but he hates how she disdains him in favor of Posthumus. Pisanio enters, and Cloten demands to know if Imogen is with Posthumus. If Pisanio doesn’t tell him, Cloten swears he’ll kill him. Pisanio answers that Posthumus is in Rome, and thus Imogen can’t be with him, but Cloten threatens Pisanio, and he relents, handing Cloten the letter from Posthumus asking Imogen to go to Milford Haven. Pisanio comments to the audience that he had no choice but to give Cloten the letter. Besides, Imogen is far enough away from court to be out of danger. Still speaking to the audience, Pisanio says he’ll write to Posthumus that Imogen is dead according to his order.
Pisanio shows that he is just as quick on his feet as Iachimo. When Cloten threatens him suddenly, Pisanio gives up the letter—he has no choice but to react immediately in this way, yet he has laid the groundwork to keep Imogen safe by getting her far away from Cloten’s clutches. His decision to write to Posthumus that Imogen is dead protects the integrity of her male disguise. Though they might seem to the contrary, Pisanio’s actions show how dedicated he is to remaining faithful to Imogen.
Cloten asks Pisanio to serve him, saying he will reward Pisanio with status and money. Pisanio agrees, and Cloten asks him to fetch some of Posthumus’ clothes. When Pisanio leaves to retrieve the clothing, Cloten reveals his plan to the audience: disguised as Posthumus, Cloten will go to Milford Haven, rape Imogen, and kill Posthumus. He explains, “I’ll be merry in my revenge.”
Cloten proves himself to be his mother’s son when he tries to bribe Pisanio. The Queen, too, tried to win Pisanio through the promise of money and power. It appears that Pisanio is following Cloten’s program, though only under duress. When he threatens to rape Imogen and kill her husband, Cloten displays aggression and a lack of mercy, though that takes a dangerous turn here.
Once Pisanio returns with the clothes, Cloten asks him to bring the outfit to his bedroom, and to remain silent about serving him. Afterwards, Cloten leaves, and Pisanio tells the audience that he will only pretend to be loyal to Cloten, but will really stay true to Posthumus and Imogen. He explains that since Imogen will by now be under Lucius’ command, Cloten won’t be able to find her in Milford Haven. Pisanio prays that the gods protect Imogen.
Now Pisanio reveals his intentions to the audience, explaining his apparent willingness to follow Cloten’s orders. Making the distinction between deception and loyalty somewhat blurry, Pisanio must use deceit with Cloten in order to prove ultimately loyal to his master and mistress. He does the same by deceiving Posthumus in order to save Imogen’s life. While other characters’ deception is harmful, Pisanio’s is benign. Indeed, his invocation of the gods shows his piety and goodness, even if his means aren’t entirely honest.