Throughout Cymbeline, characters make bold decisions that are not easily undone or forgiven, such as Cymbeline’s banishment of his son-in-law, his punishment of his daughter, and his refusal to pay tribute to Rome. Despite many characters’ seemingly irrevocable actions, moments of forgiveness and reconciliation guide the play to its happy conclusion. Identified alternately as tragicomedy or romance, Cymbeline operates within these genres’ demands. Tragicomedies and romances tends towards the comic, and end in moments of regeneration or rebirth. Not unlike the “problem plays” All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, or The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline contains moments of violence and hopelessness, but ends in repair. Through this artistic choice, Shakespeare makes a bold claim that when all is lost, reconciliation proves to be, quite literally, the only way forward.
Shakespeare portrays so many irrevocable and unforgivable actions that it seems impossible that Cymbeline won’t end in utter despair. Posthumus, for example, takes a bet that will end in violence regardless of the outcome: he promises to fight Iachimo if Iachimo fails to seduce Imogen, yet, if Iachimo succeeds in seducing Imogen, Posthumus will punish her. Furthermore, when Posthumus takes Iachimo’s “proof” of Imogen’s infidelity as true, he calls for Imogen’s death, which appears to be an irrevocable choice.
However, even after acts that seem final and unpardonable, the characters manage to overcome the choices they’ve made and move towards repairing the breach. Through tragic personal moments—such as the loss of a loved one’s life, impending death, or a loss in status—characters experience a despair that leads them to repent and forgive. For example, once Posthumus believes that Imogen has been killed at his request, he regrets his brash punishment, even to the point that he yearns for death in battle. Even the Queen—the play’s most evil character—ultimately repents and confesses her treacheries once she is mad from despair at the loss of her son. Furthermore, after Cymbeline nearly loses his royal status and kingdom, he regains a sense of gratitude and adopts a position of forgiveness when all is recovered—he resumes the tribute payments to Rome and pardons several characters who have crossed him. Personal losses, therefore, open the characters up to reconciliation of broken relationships, both interpersonal and political, and those who have been wronged (Rome, Imogen, etc.) are generous with forgiveness and love.
When considering the leaps the characters take in their journeys from revenge to reconciliation, it’s important to recall the role of source material, both historical and fictional, in this play. Shakespeare’s sources document a real King Cymbeline, who did keep peace with Rome, which shows that the play’s resolution is historically determined. What’s more, Cymebline’s sons Guiderius and Arviragus (who were stolen from their nursery in the play and then returned as adults by play’s end) survived him as heirs in real life, again showing the play’s happy ending to be historically accurate. As for the fictional characters of Posthumus and Iachimo, Shakespeare lifts their storyline from a tale in Bocaccio’s Decameron, which ends in the reconciliation of two friends after their wager over women’s chastity. Thus, Shakespeare’s fictional and historical sources account, in part, for the play’s happy ending. By using extreme examples of actions that seem irrevocable—and tempering these into moments of forgiveness through the vehicle of loss or impending loss—Shakespeare dazzles the audience with highs and lows before giving the soothing reconciliation that the audience (based on history and Bocaccio) might expect.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation ThemeTracker
Forgiveness and Reconciliation Quotes in Cymbeline
His daughter, and the heir of’s kingdom, whom
He purposed to his wife’s sole son—a widow
That late he married—hath referr’d herself
Unto a poor but worthy gentleman: she’s wedded;
Her husband banish’d; she imprison’d: all
Is outward sorrow; though I think the king
Be touch’d at very heart.
Yea, bloody cloth, I’ll keep thee, for I wish’d
Thou shouldst be colour’d thus. You married ones,
If each of you should take this course, how many
Must murder wives much better than themselves
For wrying but a little! O Pisanio!
Every good servant does not all commands:
No bond but to do just ones. Gods! If you
Should have ta’en vengeance on my faults, I never
Had lived to put on this: so had you saved
The noble Imogen to repent, and struck
Me, wretch more worth your vengeance. But, alack,
You snatch some hence for little faults; that’s love,
To have them fall no more: you some permit
To second ills with ills, each elder worse,
And make them dread it, to the doers’ thrift.
But Imogen is your own: do your best wills,
And make me blest to obey!
…She did confess she had
For you a mortal mineral; which, being took,
Should by the minute feed on life and lingering
By inches waste you: in which time she purposed,
By watching, weeping, tendance, kissing, to
O’ercome you with her show, and in time,
When she had fitted you with her craft, to work
Her son into the adoption of the crown:
But, failing of her end by his strange absence,
Grew shameless-desperate; open’d, in despite
Of heaven and men, her purposes; repented
The evils she hatch’d were not effected; so
Were not in fault, for she was beautiful;
Mine ears, that heard her flattery; nor my heart,
That thought her like her seeming; it had
To have mistrusted her: yet, O my daughter!
That it was folly in me, thou mayst say,
And prove it in thy feeling. Heaven mend all!
[Kneeling] I am down again:
But now my heavy conscience sinks my knee,
As then your force did. Take that life, beseech you,
Which I so often owe: but your ring first;
And here the bracelet of the truest princess
That ever swore her faith.
Kneel not to me:
The power that I have on you is, to spare you;
The malice towards you to forgive you: live,
And deal with others better.
We’ll learn our freeness of a son-in-law;
Pardon’s the word to all.
The fingers of the powers above do tune
The harmony of this peace. The vision
Which I made known to Lucius, ere the stroke
Of this yet scarce-cold battle, at this instant
Is full acomplish’d; for the Roman eagle,
From south to west on wing soaring aloft,
Lessen’d herself, and in the beams o’ the sun
So vanish’d: which foreshow’d our princely eagle,
The imperial Caesar, should again unite
His favour with the radiant Cymbeline,
Which shines here in the west.