Ancient civilizations like Rome interpreted life’s events, both big and small, as the will of the gods. From household gods called lares (who looked over quotidian matters) to the Olympian deities (who determined the course of history), the Romans believed that the gods directed all aspects of human life. In Shakespeare’s time—when medicine was not advanced and government was dominated by the powerful few—life’s chances and mischances, from birth to death, rested in the Judeo-Christian God’s hands. Within the religious framework of Shakespeare’s day, unrepentant sinners could expect to go to Hell, whereas the good would enjoy their afterlives in Heaven. With this perspective, it’s easy to see how the gods play a central role in Cymbeline, mirroring their primacy in ancient as well as Elizabethan cultures, and providing a moral center to human life.
In the play, the characters who are pious and good—or at the least, misguided but repentant—are rewarded, and those who are evil and unrepentant are punished. Pious Imogen embodies goodness and loyalty, qualities which the gods reward by sustaining her through her journey to find Posthumus, despite the difficulties she encounters. Evil characters like Cloten, by contrast, meet brutal, unpleasant deaths. The fate of Posthumus, who is generally good but who errs grievously by mistrusting Imogen, shows the complexity of divine intervention. After doubting Imogen, ordering her death, and believing he has gotten her killed, Posthumus is deeply remorseful and he places his trust in divine will, particularly after his reassuring dream of his deceased family and the god Jupiter. Jupite reminds the ghosts of Posthumus’ family that “whom best I love I cross; to make my gift,/ The more delay’d, delighted.” Thus, Posthumus’ misfortunes may have been as much a result of his poor morals as they were the gods toying with him, making him suffer so he would one day more fully appreciate their favor. In Cymbeline, then, the gods are ultimately in charge of human actions—even bad decisions—but those who are generally good tend to enjoy more benevolent fates.
Jupiter’s reminder to Posthumus that the deities retain ultimate power over human lives echoes throughout the play, as a chaotic group of mistakes, deceptions, and betrayals come together to an elegant conclusion. For instance, Pisanio betrays his master’s orders by sparing Imogen because he believes it is the right thing to do. Further, he gives Imogen what he believes to be the Queen’s restorative medicine, which the Queen believes to be poison. In fact, the doctor Cornelius has given her a sleeping drug because he doesn’t trust her. All of this mischance and human error can be dizzying to the audience or reader, but it’s worth keeping in mind Jupiter’s maxim about the gods “crossing,” or throwing obstacles into, the paths of humans whom they best love. Imogen survives the medicine, which shows that she was protected all along. What seem like the complicated machinations of human free will are complications thrown in by the likes of Jupiter, according to a divine plan to benefit the worthy.
What applies to individual humans also applies to entire groups of people. For example, the Soothsayer—who is in touch with the gods—predicts victory for the Romans as a group. The Romans don’t win in battle, but they do ultimately win a tribute. It may be tempting to interpret the loss of the battle as a decisive blow, but this, too, is one of Jupiter’s “crosses.” The greater reward is the tribute money and the continued assurance of a cohesive Roman Empire. It’s worth remembering that Jupiter was the chief Roman god—his support will be with the Roman people. Despite their defeat at the hands of the Britons, Jupiter’s beloved Romans find that everything goes their way according to a divine plan. Once again, though human action seems contradictory to the gods’ will, everything eventually works out the way the gods desire. The gods reward prayer and repentance, punish evil, and bestow favors on their preferred groups, mirroring ancient Roman and Elizabethan theological standards.
The Gods and Fate ThemeTracker
The Gods and Fate Quotes in Cymbeline
…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.
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!
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!
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!
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.