Over the course of Shakespeare’s lifetime, questions abounded in England over the definition of nobility and the legitimacy of monarchical power. With the rise of the middle class, common people began to own land and goods, including garments which would have been unattainable in feudal times. In response, sumptuary laws enacted in Shakespeare’s day tried to delineate between who was noble and who was not—for instance, by limiting silks to the nobility and relegating wool to the poorer masses. Similarly, Kings James I and Charles I, who found their power under threat, propped up the monarchy by clinging to the theory of the divine right of kings, the idea that monarchs represent God on earth. As a playwright living at a time when social order was changing rapidly, Shakespeare used Cymbeline to ask questions about the nature of nobility, ultimately proposing that a noble title alone doesn’t guarantee noble behavior, but that nobility is most innate in those who are noble by blood.
In discussing nobility, it’s important to recognize the duality of the term in the context of Cymbeline. “Noble” can describe both a person with a high social rank and the innate quality of being honorable or virtuous. Shakespeare subverts expectations of nobility by showing that Cloten and the Queen—two characters with high social rank—behave dishonorably. Cloten constantly picks fights, insults Imogen, and plots harm to her and Posthumus. Similarly, the Queen manipulates Imogen and plans to poison Pisanio and Cymbeline, whom she loathes, in order to gain power. Though the Queen and Cloten’s duplicitous, dishonorable behavior contrasts with their honorable position at court, it’s worth noting that these characters have status largely through the Queen’s marriage to Cymbeline. Their nobility—in the sense of status—is therefore somewhat tenuous, which may account for their bad behavior.
In contrast to Cloten and the Queen, some of the characters without noble or royal status nevertheless show inherent nobility, in the sense of good and brave behavior. For example, Posthumus grew up in Cymbeline’s care but does not, by blood, have royal or noble status. Even though he may not have been born a noble, he is valiant in battle, and repentant when he realizes he has done wrong. Pisanio, as a servant, is even lower down on the social scale, but his relentless fidelity shows him to have good character. Both Posthumus and Pisanio, though “base,” are more noble than Cloten in terms of virtue and honor.
While Posthumus and Pisanio are generally good, Imogen—who has royal blood—is the play’s most noble character. She retains her dignity and integrity in the face of her father’s anger, she is unimpressed by Cloten’s maneuvering (despite his status), and she is entirely loyal to her husband, even under the threat of death. Likewise, Guiderius and Arviragus (Imogen’s brothers who were raised under pseudonyms in the Welsh wilderness) are unwaveringly noble, even though they have no idea that they have royal blood. Belarius notes time and again that the brothers’ noble qualities cannot be hidden. They are eager to defend their honor, valiant in battle, and good to a fault.
Thus, Imogen and her brothers—the three blood heirs to the British King—are shown to be unwaveringly noble, even though the brothers were raised outside of the influence of the court. Further suggesting that blood plays a part in nobility, Posthumus—who was raised by the British King—shows less loyalty and nobility than Imogen and her brothers, though more nobility than many other characters. In this way, Shakespeare seems to favor the divine right of kings, suggesting that nobility flows from the throne to those with royal blood, and next to those who are associated closely with the crown. It’s impossible to know Shakespeare’s personal perspective on the subject of nobility, but his take on nobility in Cymbeline reflects the play’s general trend towards monarchical—and, ultimately imperial, order.
Nobility Quotes in Cymbeline
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!
…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.
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.
…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 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.
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.
No more, you petty spirits of region low,
Offend our hearing; hush! How dare you ghosts
Accuse the thunderer, whose bolt, you know,
Sky-planted batters all rebelling coasts?
Poor shadows of Elysium, hence, and rest
Upon your never-withering banks of flowers:
Be not with mortal accidents opprest;
No care of yours it is; you know ‘tis ours.
Whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,
The more delay’d, delighted. Be content;
Your low-laid son our godhead will uplift:
His comforts thrive, his trials well are spent.
Our Jovial star reign’d at his birth, and in
Our temple was he married. Rise, and fade.
He shall be lord of lady Imogen,
And happier much by his affliction made.
This tablet lay upon his breast, wherein
Our pleasure his full fortune doth confine:
and so, away: no further with your din
Express impatience, lest you stir up mine.
Mount, eagle, to my palace crystalline.