At the beginning of the play, Britain owes Rome a tribute (money due to the Emperor to maintain peace). However, trouble is brewing—Posthumus notes that the Britons have a rebellious spirit, and they are better organized as fighters than when they first promised the annual tribute to Julius Caesar years before. Urged by the Queen and Cloten, Cymbeline announces to Augustus’ ambassador Lucius that he will refuse to pay the tribute. In response, Roman troops gather and prepare to invade Britain. Through this conflict over the tribute, Shakespeare offers up the play’s central political question: is it better to maintain peace by remaining a part of an empire, or is it better to assert independence, even if that means war?
The Queen and Cloten agitate for an independent Britain. They cite the isolating natural geography of the British Isles, as well as the nation’s valorous history, as reasons to become an independent state. After the Queen mentions Cymbeline’s forebears—his uncle Cassibelan and his forebear Mumultius, the first British king—Cymbeline begins to reflect on his legacy, prompting him to support British independence. As a result, the Roman troops invade, bringing war. However, even after the Britons triumph in battle, Cymbeline relents and agrees to pay Augustus the tribute money. Any burgeoning nationalism—inspired by the Queen and Cloten’s pleas for independence—is quashed by the play’s end. Those who once pled for independence are killed, and Cymbeline reconciles with Rome. Shakespeare has plenty of plays which glorify English patriotism (like Henry V), but the patriotism in Cymbeline is more complicated, since the evil characters are the ones who are most loyal to an independent Britain.
Shakespeare, in fact, seems committed to illustrating how Britain and Rome enjoy a level of mutual dependence, which implies that British independence is not the country’s natural state. Cymbeline himself was raised in Caesar’s court, and the Empire made possible the union between the Roman Posthumus and the British-born Imogen. Indeed, Posthumus himself embodies the complex relationship between Britain and Rome. During the battle, Posthumus exchanges the uniform of the Roman legion for that of a British peasant and then changes back to a Roman uniform again. The way Posthumus swaps war uniforms demonstrates that his allegiances are tied to both the Roman Empire and the British Isles.
To add historical context to the play’s conclusion, it’s worth remembering that, according to Shakespeare’s source material, peace defined the historical Cymbeline’s rule and his ties to the Roman Empire were strong. Shakespeare dramatizes an imagined conflict between the Britons and the Romans, but relies on the historical evidence that Britain remained a part of the Roman Empire during and after Cymbeline’s reign. Shakespeare’s contemporary circumstances reflect back on the play’s culmination in imperial peace. In 1607, English colonists established first permanent settlement in the Americas at Jamestown, Virginia. Cymbeline premiered onstage just four years later. Throughout the course of the seventeenth century and beyond, the British Empire would expand across the world. With Cymebline’s pro-Roman conclusion, Shakespeare appears to align his play with an imperialist, rather than a nationalist, agenda. With the hindsight of history, readers of the play today can see how the British Empire left a complex, problematic, and fraught legacy, one which was only just beginning as a venture in Shakespeare’s day.
Imperialism vs. Independence ThemeTracker
Imperialism vs. Independence Quotes in Cymbeline
There be many Caesars,
Ere such another Julius. Britain is
A world by itself; and we will nothing pay
For wearing our own noses.
…Remember, sir, my liege,
The kings your ancestors, together with
The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
As Neptune’s park, ribbed and paled in
With rocks unscalable and roaring waters,
With sands that will not bear your enemies’ boats,
But suck them up to the topmast. A kind of conquest
Caesar made here; but made not here his brag
Of ‘Came’ and ‘saw’ and ‘overcame:’ with shame—
That first that ever touch’d him—he was carried
From off our coast, twice beaten; and his shipping—
Poor ignorant baubles!—upon our terrible seas,
Like egg-shells moved upon their surges, crack’d
As easily ‘gainst our rocks: for joy wherof
The famed Cassibelan, who was once at point—
O giglot fortune!—to master Caesar’s sword,
Made Lud’s town with rejoicing fires bright
And Britons strut with courage.
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.