Cymbeline is a moral play that prizes good intentions and punishes cruelty: the evil Queen fails in her plots and then dies, while the loyal and moral princess is allowed to marry her true love. However, despite the play’s resounding moral message, Shakespeare complicates traditional notions of morality and loyalty by showing that the value of both traits lies in intention alone: sometimes loyalty is immoral, while sometimes deception—when used with proper intentions—is necessary and good.
In Cymbeline, the nameless Queen is the embodiment of evil. She lies, schemes, and even attempts murder. The Queen’s major deception is feigned loyalty: she attempts to uplift her blundering son Cloten by pretending to be loyal to many characters, including Cymbeline, Imogen, Posthumus, and Pisanio. For example, the Queen wants Imogen to marry Cloten, but she tries to manipulate Imogen by pretending to support Imogen’s marriage to Posthumus. It makes sense that the Queen is so cynical about marriage: her own marriage to Cymbeline is, in itself, a deception—she never loved the King, she only wanted Cloten to be in line to succeed him.
Though the Queen does show tremendous loyalty to her son, Shakespeare presents this loyalty as morally wrong, since it comes at the expense of the loyalty that the Queen is expected to show to her husband, stepdaughter, and kingdom. By contrast, Imogen and Pisanio (Posthumus’s servant) are unwaveringly loyal to Posthumus, which Shakespeare presents as appropriate loyalty. Indeed, a wife’s devotion to her husband and a servant’s devotion to his master were, according to the cultural norms of Shakespeare’s day, expected and proper, which makes Imogen and Pisanio the most moral characters of the play. Their morality is particularly notable since their loyalty is thoroughly tested by the deceptions of other characters and neither shows any disloyalty in response.
While the Queen is the play’s embodiment of immorality and Pisanio and Imogen are the moral center, it’s notable that almost all of the characters—including the moral ones—engage in deception. This suggests that deception, like loyalty, is neither categorically good nor bad. Instead, the value of deception lies in its intention. Pisanio, for example, lies to Posthumus that Imogen is dead in order to make Posthumus remember his love for her. Importantly, Pisanio’s deception is in service of bringing a marriage back together. By contrast, Posthumus’s friend Iachimo deceives Imogen and Posthumus to win a bet with Posthumous over whether Imogen would be a faithful wife. Iachimo’s deception is purely evil in intent: it does nothing but make the couple suffer.
In addition to suggesting that even good people must sometimes deceive, the play’s outcome suggests that good deception will always win over bad deception. Iachimo’s trick is ultimately revealed, while Pisanio’s ruse succeeds in bringing the lovers back together. Even the Queen’s crafty, evil deceptions are overcome by better intentioned lies. For example, she attempts to poison Pisanio (thereby lessening Posthumus’s influence over Imogen), but the doctor preparing the poison, who doesn’t trust her intentions, thwarts her plan by substitution a sleeping potion. In one sense, then, Cymbeline is a morally rigid play—since good always wins over evil—but the play is also a morally complex portrait of loyalty and deception. Sometimes, Shakespeare suggests, a person must deceive others in order to show true loyalty.
Morality and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Morality and Loyalty 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.
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.
…This diamond was my mother’s: take it, heart;
But keep it till you woo another wife,
When Imogen is dead.
How, how! another?
You gentle gods, give me but this I have,
And sear up my embracements from a next
With bonds of death!
…for my sake wear this;
It is a manacle of love; I’ll place it
Upon this fairest prisoner.
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.
[Aside] I do not like her. She doth think she has
Strange lingering poisons: I do know her spirit,
And will not trust one of her malice with
A drug of such damn’d nature. Those she has
Will stupefy and dull the sense awhile;
Which first, perchance, she’ll prove on cats and dogs,
Then afterward up higher: but there is
No danger in what show of death it makes,
More than the locking-up the spirits a time,
To be more fresh, reviving. She is fool’d
With a most false effect; and I the truer,
So to be false with her.
That such a crafty devil as is his mother
Should yield the world this ass! a woman that
Bears all down with her brain; and this her son
Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart
And leave eighteen. Alas, poor princess,
Thou divine Imogen, what thou endurest,
Betwixt a father by thy step-dame govern’d,
A mother hourly coining plots, a wooer
More hateful than the foul expulsion is
Of thy dear husband, than that horrid act
Of the divorce he’ld make! The heavens hold firm
The walls of thy dear honour, keep unshaked
That temple, thy fair mind, that thou mayst stand,
To enjoy thy banish’d lord and this great land!
As slippery as the Gordian knot was hard!
'Tis mine; and this will witness outwardly,
As strongly as the conscience does within,
To the madding of her lord. On her left
A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops
I' the bottom of a cowslip: here's a voucher,
Stronger than ever law could make: this secret
Will force him think I have pick'd the lock and ta'en
The treasure of her honour. No more. To what end?
Why should I write this down, that's riveted,
Screw'd to my memory? She hath been reading late
The tale of Tereus; here the leaf's turn'd down
Where Philomel gave up. I have enough:
To the trunk again, and shut the spring of it.
Swift, swift, you dragons of the night, that dawning
May bare the raven's eye! I lodge in fear;
Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here.
…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.
How? of adultery? Wherefore write you not
What monster’s her accuser? Leonatus,
O master! what a strange infection
Is fall’n into thy ear! What false Italian,
As poisonous-tongued as handed, hath prevail’d
On thy too ready hearing? Disloyal! No:
She’s punish’d for her truth, and undergoes,
More goddess-like than wife-like, such assaults
As would take in some virtue. O my master!
Thy mind to her is now as low as were
Thy fortunes. How! that I should murder her?
Upon the love and truth and vows which I
Have made to thy command? I, her? her blood?
If it be so to do good service, never
Let me be counted serviceable.
How hard it is to hide the sparks of nature!
These boys know little they are sons to the king;
Nor Cymbeline dreams that they are alive.
They think they are mine; and though train’d
up thus meanly
I’ the cave wherein they bow, their thoughts do hit
The roofs of palaces, and nature prompts them
In simple and low things to prince it much
Beyond the trick of others.
Why, I must die;
And if I do not by thy hand, thou art
No servant of thy master’s…
Thus may poor fools
Believe false teachers: though those that
Do feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor
Stands in worse case of woe.
And thou, Posthumus, thou that didst set up
My disobedience ‘gainst the king my father
And make me put into contempt the suits
Of princely fellows, shalt hereafter find
It is no act of common passage, but
A strain of rareness: and I grieve myself
To think, when thou shalt be disedged by her
That now thou tirest on, how thy memory
Will then be pang’d by me. Prithee, dispatch:
The lamb entreats the butcher: where’s thy knife?
Thou art too slow to do thy master’s bidding,
When I desire it too.
…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…
I heard no letter from my master since
I wrote him Imogen was slain: ‘tis strange:
Nor hear I from my mistress who did promise
To yield me often tidings: neither know I
What is betid to Cloten; but remain
Perplex’d in all. The heavens still must work.
Wherein I am false I am honest; not true, to be true.
These present wars shall find I love my country,
Even to the note o’ the king, or I’ll fall in them.
All other doubts, by time let them be clear’d:
Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer’d.
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!
The heaviness and guilt within my bosom
Takes off my manhood: I have belied a lady,
The princess of this country, and the air on’t
Revengingly enfeebles me; or could this carl,
A very drudge of nature’s, have subdued me
In my profession? Knighthoods and honours, borne
As I wear mine, are titles but of scorn.
If that thy gentry, Britain, go before
This lout as he exceeds our lords, the odds
Is that we scarce are men and you are gods.
…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!
Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?
Think that you are upon a rock; and now
Throw me again.
Hang there like a fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die!
[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.