Cymbeline demonstrates an awareness that gender roles constrict the options of male and female characters alike. Ancient Rome—and, by extension, Roman Britain—was a patriarchal society. Men had absolute authority over their female family members, even holding over them the power of life and death. In Shakespeare’s time, men still dominated the most powerful positions in society, and they were taught to be warlike, decisive, and bold. Women, on the other hand, were expected to be modest, chaste, and obedient, lacking in agency and self-determination. Shakespeare acknowledges these pervasive gender roles, but also challenges them by showing women subverting socially prescribed behavioral standards, as well as men falling short of masculine ideals.
The play’s male characters scold, manipulate, and malign women, typically cruelly and without sufficient reason. Cymbeline expects his wife and daughter to be obedient to him. He scolds the Queen for going against his orders by allowing Imogen and the banished Posthumus to meet up, and he is angry with Imogen for choosing her own husband. As the Queen and Imogen face the King’s displeasure, Imogen compares her father’s authority to a harsh north wind—“the tyrannous breathing of the north.” Though Posthumus doesn’t wield the same power over women (due to his inferior position to the King), he is quick to blame women for all human faults, explaining that “there’s no motion/ That tends to vice in man but I affirm/ It is the woman’s part.” For his part, Cloten is eager to fight, but he blames his mother’s role as queen for discouraging his fighting partners—no one wants to fight the son of a royal. Women, then, are a convenient scapegoat for a broader problem in Cloten’s life. For Iachimo, women are pawns to be won—he asserts that he could seduce any woman in the world, including Imogen. Women, then, are interchangeable to Iachimo, and he thinks that they are universally susceptible to sexual temptation, alleging that “If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting.”
Taken all together, the male characters’ perspectives on women demean their agency. Cymbeline hopes for a submissive wife and daughter; Posthumus expects loyalty from women; Cloten is frustrated by the ways he thinks women interfere with his desires; and Iachimo finds women to be instruments in his tricks. In spite of all this, it’s remarkable how much agency the Queen and Imogen manage to attain—and how they go against the stereotypical roles that society dictates for them.
The Queen’s behind-the-scenes manipulation—from the way she deceives Imogen to her insistence that her husband rebel against Rome—shows that she is anything but a meek, modest, obedient wife. She uses her son as a means to obtain power, and maneuvers within a system whose odds are stacked against her. Further, Imogen’s punishment at the beginning of the play for making her own choice in marriage shows that she isn’t confined to the role of faithful daughter. Though the scene in the bed chamber where Iachimo violates the sleeping Imogen’s privacy shows how a man can prey on a vulnerable woman, Imogen is unafraid to speak her mind and take action to repair a situation that others might find hopeless. She openly rejects Cloten, disguises herself as a man to save her life, and tracks down her husband, all of which challenge the sorts of behavior expected of women of her time.
While Shakespeare pushes the boundaries of gender roles for women, he also asks the question of what it means to be a man. Traditional masculine values are upheld throughout a good portion of the play, yet the male characters often fall short of these ideals. When bidding farewell to Imogen, Posthumus chides himself for being on the brink of tears, claiming that crying will make him unmanly. Cloten stakes his manly honor on his ability to fight, obtain power, and secure Imogen’s hand in marriage—but he fails in each task. A repentant Iachimo exclaims that after slandering Imogen’s reputation, he feels a guilt which “takes off my manhood.” None of these men can, according to his own standard, be considered properly masculine. Further, it can be argued that each man fails because of masculine gender standards: Cloten is awful because he seeks the wealth and power that will make him seem a true man, Posthumus falls for Iachimo’s tricks because he is so paranoid about Imogen’s fidelity, and Iachimo pulls his tricks in order to seem more successful at seducing women than he is. So the play not only shows the men as failing to live up to impossible standards of manliness, but seems to suggest that the standards themselves are problematic and destructive.
It’s notable, too, that these men seem to strive above all for strength and honor, though it is the women who most exemplify these traits. The Queen, for example, is quite powerful in the kingdom and her manipulations (both successful and unsuccessful) show that she understands her strength. Imogen—who is faithful and brave—is the play’s most honorable character, despite Shakespeare painting honor as a “male” virtue and Posthumus’ rant about how women are the source of all vice. In fact, when Imogen masquerades as Fidele, Lucius applauds her for her manly virtue, claiming that Fidele has demonstrated loyalty that should teach the Roman troops their “manly duties.” Perhaps, then, since a woman in men’s clothes can obtain masculine ideals, Shakespeare questions the notion of gender roles entirely. As the women characters chafe against society’s restrictions and defy the stereotypical roles available to them, and the men fall away from and scramble back towards masculine ideals, Cymbeline complicates the audience’s understanding of the expectations for “feminine” and “masculine” behavior.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Cymbeline
No, be assured you shall not find me, daughter,
After the slander of most stepmothers,
Evil-eyed unto you: you’re my prisoner, but
Your gaoler shall deliver you the keys
That lock up your restraint.
I did not take my leave of him, but had
Most pretty things to say: ere I could tell him
How I would think on him at certain hours
Such thoughts and such, o I could make him swear
The shes of Italy should not betray
Mine interest and his honour…
What lady would you choose to assail?
Yours; whom in constancy you think stands so safe.
I will lay you ten thousand ducats to your ring,
that, commend me to the court where your lady is,
with no more advantage than the opportunity of a
second conference, and I will bring from thence
that honour of hers which you imagine so reserved.
…I am much sorry, sir,
You put me to forget a lady’s manners,
By being so verbal: and learn now, for all,
That I, which know my heart, do here pronounce,
By the very truth of it, I care not for you,
And am so near the lack of charity—
To accuse myself—I hate you; which I had rather
You felt than make’t my boast.
…Let there be no honour
Where there is beauty; truth, where semblance; love
Where there’s another man: the vows of women
Of no more bondage be, to where they are made,
Than they are to their virtues; which is nothing.
O, above measure false!
…For there’s no motion
That tends to vice in man, but I affirm
It is the woman’s part: be it lying, note it,
The woman’s; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenge, hers;
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows,
Why, hers, in part or all; but rather, all;
For even to vice
They are not constant but are changing still
One vice, but of a minute old, for one
Not half so old as that.
You must forget to be a woman; change
Command into obedience: fear and niceness—
The handmaids of all women, or, more truly,
Woman its pretty self—into a waggish courage:
Ready in gibes, quick-answer’d, saucy and
As quarrelous as the weasel; nay, you must
Forget that rarest treasure of your cheek,
Exposing it—but, O, the harder heart!
Alack, no remedy!—to the greedy touch
Of common-kissing Titan, and forget
Your laboursome and dainty trims, wherein
You made great Juno angry.
…How fit his garments
serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by
him that made the tailor, not be fit too? the
rather—saving reverence of the word—for ‘tis said
a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must
play the workman. I dare speak it to myself—for it
is not vain-glory for a man and his glass to confer
in his own chamber—I mean, the lines of my body are
as well drawn as his; no less young, more strong,
not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the
advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike
conversant in general services, and more remarkable
in single oppositions: yet this imperceiverant
thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is!
Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy
shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy
mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before
thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her
father; who may haply be a little angry for my so
rough usage; but my mother, having power of his
testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.
I’ll follow, sir. But first, an’t please the gods,
I’ll hide my master from the flies, as deep
As these poor pickaxes can dig; and when
With wild wood-leaves and weeds I ha’ strew’d his
And on it said a century of prayers,
Such as I can, twice o’er, I’ll weep and sigh;
And leaving so his service, follow you,
So please you entertain me.
Ay, good youth!
And rather father thee than master thee.
The boy hath taught us manly duties…
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!