Posthumus is locked up in his cell. The jailers invite him to eat whatever he can scavenge within the prison walls. They leave, and Posthumus rejoices that he is in bondage: paradoxically, it will give him his freedom. He thinks that he is in a better situation than a sick man who fears death. Posthumus, on the other hand, longs for death as pay-back for his crime against Imogen. He feels that his guilty conscience locks him up more than his chains, and asks the gods to free him of his misery forever by striking him dead.
From Cymbeline’s court to exile in Italy to a jail cell, Posthumus’ fall from grace is made complete. However, he feels at peace in captivity—Posthumus sees it as the retribution he deserves for ordering his wife’s death. Posthumus accepts full responsibility for his actions and he channels his piety to ask for the ultimate reckoning from the gods: death.
Posthumus wonders if simply feeling sorry for his misdeed is enough to gain forgiveness. He explains how much he wants to repent, and asks the gods to take everything he has away from him. The gods, he believes, are merciful because they take everything; humans, however, only take a part of what a debtor owes so the debtor can go on and earn money again. Posthumus doesn’t want that sort of opportunity. He wants a fair exchange: his own life for Imogen’s. Posthumus thinks that her life was more precious than his, but his is still a life—the gods should accept it as it is, just like human beings accept forged coins. Once again, Posthumus urges the gods to bring death upon him, and he falls asleep.
Posthumus has shown a more nuanced, complex thought process about topics like loyalty and justice within his recent discussion of Pisanio’s actions. Here, though, he approaches death and reconciliation as black-and-white: his life in exchange for Imogen’s life. He relies fully on the gods, asking for their divine intervention in striking him dead. Such retribution would be in keeping with tragedy: however, moving towards a comic resolution means moving towards a life-affirming ending, which the gods will deliver.
In a dream, Posthumus has a vision. Accompanied by a sad song, the ghost of Posthumus’ father, Sicilius Leonatus, enters onstage in his warrior’s attire. He leads the ghost of Posthumus’ mother by the hand. The music changes and the ghosts of Posthumus’ brothers enter, still bearing the wounds from when they died in battle. They surround the sleeping Posthumus.
Posthumus—whose existence as an orphan has been described with sadness from the play’s beginning—finds himself surrounded by the supportive ghosts of his family. This vision suggests a sort of reconciliation or mending; a comfort to a man who has lost everything, including the will to live.
Sicilius Leonatus calls on Jupiter. He asks the god to stop punishing lowly mortals, and instead focus on conflicts in the heavens. Sicilius implores Jupiter to consider his role as father to the orphaned, and says that he should have looked after Posthumus and protected him from harm as only a father can.
Sicilius lays the blame for Posthumus’ wayward behavior at the chief god Jupiter’s feet—a bold claim that no mortal could make without retribution.
Next, the ghost of Posthumus’ mother explains that she died in childbirth after having a caesarean section to save Posthumus’ life. Posthumus was born into a hostile world: vulnerable to enemies, crying, and pitiful. Despite the boy’s precarious beginning, Sicilius declares that nature molded Posthumus into a handsome man, like his ancestors, so much so that he’s worthy of the world’s admiration as Sicilius’ heir.
The ghost of Posthumus’ mother echoes Sicilius’ claim about Posthumus’ vulnerability as an orphan in an appeal to the god’s sense of mercy. It’s noteworthy that Sicilius has a high degree of pride in his son—this contrasts with Cymbeline’s anger with Imogen over her marriage to Posthumus.
Because Posthumus is without equal, the First Brother asks who else could have caught Imogen’s eye—especially since she knew his worth better than anyone. On the subject of his and Imogen’s love, Posthumus’ mother asks why he should be punished with exile for marrying Imogen, losing his family home and facing separation from his beloved wife.
The First Brother repeats claims from mortals about Posthumus’ worth—even though his status wasn’t as noble as Cloten’s, Posthumus is a noble man of good quality. Posthumus’ mother appeals to a divine sense of justice, rather than misguided mortal acts of punishment like Cymbeline’s.
Sicilius turns the criticism from others to Posthumus himself. He asks Posthumus why he would allow Iachimo to spoil his noble heart and mind with “needless jealousy,” only to be a foolish pawn in Iachimo’s trick?
Sicilius asks the question that’s been on the audience’s mind: how could Posthumus let jealousy take such a strong hold on him? The power of imagination is one answer, as the audience has seen throughout the course of the play. The question seems to be more important to Sicilius than the answer: his son’s noble sense of self and virtue should have prevented him from entertaining the thought of Imogen’s disloyalty.
The Second Brother shifts gears to explain his success in battle. He says that he and the First Brother grew up in a peaceful place. They died fighting bravely for the sake of Tenantius, Cymbeline’s father, showing loyalty and honor. The First Brother comments that Posthumus has been just as loyal and helpful to Cymbeline, and asks Jupiter why the god hasn’t rewarded Posthumus with what he deserves for his service—especially now, when he’s in such pain.
The Second Brother shifts the conversation about Posthumus’ nobility to another one of his virtues: soldiering. He also shifts the weight of the quid pro quo argument Posthumus used: Posthumus thought he owed his life for Imogen’s. Imogen is alive, and in fact, it appears that Cymbeline owes Posthumus his life because Posthumus saved the King’s life.
Sicilius echoes his son, asking Jupiter not to punish the brave Britons. Posthumus’ mother implores the god to take away Posthumus’ pain, since he is a good person. Sicilius threatens that if Jupiter doesn’t comply with their wishes, he and the other ghosts will complain to the other gods about Jupiter. The Second Brother insists that if push comes to shove, they will give up on Jupiter’s justice, and ask the other gods for help.
Sicilius’ threat to Jupiter reflects how the Romans portrayed their gods—almost like humans, subject to the throes of petty jealousy, conflict, and resentment. Such a portrayal is certainly in keeping with classical legends about the Olympian gods.
Suddenly, Jupiter himself descends amid thunder and lighting. He sits on top of an eagle and throws a thunderbolt down. The ghosts all fall on their knees, and Jupiter commands them to stop their chatter. He asks how the ghosts can accuse him of causing trouble when he sends his thunder to any country that rebels.
The special effects of Jupiter’s descent would have been marvelous in the Blackfriars Theatre, where Cymbeline premiered. But Jupiter’s descent also demonstrates his omnipotence. If Sicilius highlighted Jupiter’s almost human characteristics, Jupiter’s appearance demonstrates his absolute divine power. The gods are in charge in this play.
Jupiter asks the ghosts to rest in peace and not to worry about what happens on earth, since that’s his business. He explains that he causes difficulty for the people he loves the most, so that they appreciate his favor all the more once it comes. Jupiter assures the ghosts that he will save Posthumus, explaining that the trials he is enduring are good for him.
Jupiter’s comment about throwing obstacles in the paths of those he loves most is the defining statement about the role of gods and fate in Cymbeline. All of the good, pious characters encounter difficulties—but with the impending comic ending, these troubles will soon end with the grace of the gods.
Jupiter has always had a special connection to Posthumus. Posthumus was born under Jupiter’s star and he married Imogen in Jupiter’s temple. Promising that Posthumus will be better off having suffered now, and that he and Imogen will reunite, Jupiter tells the spirits to go away. But before they go anywhere, he asks them to set down a tablet on Posthumus’ chest: it contains a prophecy about Posthumus’ fortune. Jupiter then ascends to his crystal palace in heaven.
As in Shakespeare’s own time, people in the ancient world aligned the planets with divine influence, which ruled over human life. Jupiter explains to the ghosts how he will spare Posthumus—by reuniting him with his wife—and why. Because Posthumus has shown him piety, Jupiter will show him favor. The prophecy adds another layer of ancient religious belief to the play: like omens, prophecies had an important role in determining the future.
Sicilius marvels at Jupiter’s ascent on an eagle that almost threatened to kick them. He interprets that the god was pleased, because the eagle was cleaning its feathers and kept its beak shut—behaviors that mean Jupiter is satisfied. The ghosts all thank Jupiter, and Sicilius insists that they should go back to Elysium after putting the tablet on Posthumus’ chest.
Once again, the behavior of an eagle acts as a way to interpret the gods’ will. The eagle seems docile and not aggressive—hinting towards the peace that will return thanks to Jupiter.
With the ghosts gone, Posthumus wakes up and exclaims that he saw his father, mother, and two brothers. He laments that they are gone and that sleep has played a cruel trick on him, but Posthumus knows he was lucky to see his long-dead family in the dream: he says he doesn’t deserve such a wonderful vision.
Though Posthumus has put his fate in the gods’ hands, he doesn’t believe that he’s had direct communication from Jupiter—he thinks that his dream was just a dream, and not a message about his future.
Posthumus discovers the tablet and remarks how beautiful it is. He hopes that its content is as lovely as its cover, unlike dissembling courtiers whose nice looks contradict their inner evil. Posthumus reads the prophecy, finding it difficult to understand. However, since his life is also difficult, he decides to keep the tablet.
The prophetic contents of the tablet read almost like a riddle—the gods communicate in a way that may seem at first confusing. Prophecy formed an important part of ancient Roman religious life, and it warranted the interpretation of oracles (individuals who could communicate with the divine) or soothsayers.
The First Jailer returns and asks if Posthumus is ready for death. Posthumus answers that he has long awaited it. The First Jailer explains that he will be hanged, and Posthumus hopes that at least the spectators will feast on the scene. The First Jailer highlights the benefits of death—like not having to pay bills or worry about paying at the tavern. He also says that death isn’t necessarily an end to pain, because it can lead to hell. Posthumus implies that he is hell-bound.
More than any other scene in this play, this scene tackles questions of mortality and the afterlife, implying that there is a spiritual world beyond the earthly plane. The First Jailer tries to look on the bright side of an impossibly grim situation, but Posthumus is singularly focused on his own damnation. That singularity goes to show his total remorse for what he thinks he has done to Imogen, and how he doesn’t shy away from the upcoming reckoning.
Just then, a messenger enters, telling the First Jailer to remove Posthumus’ shackles and bring him to Cymbeline. Posthumus says that this is good news and that he’ll gain his freedom, but the Jailer worries about his own future for having imprisoned someone to whom the King now shows favor. After the messenger and Posthumus leave, the First Jailer remarks on how ready Posthumus seemed to be hanged, when the Jailer’s seen worse criminals wanting to live.
Posthumus’ reversal of opinion on gaining his freedom comes as a bit of a surprise. Like the First Jailer says, he seemed committed to death just moments before. Perhaps Posthumus’ gratitude shows the comfort he’s taken from the dream vision, or his hopes to reconcile with the King. Either way, such a sudden change in fortune is indicative of divine aid at work.