Cymbeline II: The Trunk

Adam Haas Hunter as Cloten, from

Adam Haas Hunter as Cloten, from

I’m starting to see the comic potential of this play. Cloten, the princely prat, has the best line so far. He’s just come in from a night of carousing and beating up his inferiors, and reviews his latest adventures with his two lordly buddies (who make it quite clear that Cloten came out worse than he claims). Suddenly one companion draws the prince’s attention to the approaching King and Queen. “I am glad I was up so late,” Cloten says, “for that’s the reason I was up so early. He cannot choose but take this service I have done fatherly.”

But I’m forgetting the trunk. In the first scene of this act, Imogen retires to her bedchamber, where she is keeping Iachimo’s trunk. Her maid leaves, the lights fall, and Imogen utters her bedtime prayer: “To your protection I commend me, gods,/From fairies and the tempters of the night/Guard me, beseech ye!”

Picture this: all is quiet as Imogen sleeps. We hear a creak and look at the door. Who’s coming in to disturb the princess? But the door remains shut. Then, from the corner of our eye, we see the trunk’s lid rise.

H A Saintsbury as Iachimo, 1906

H A Saintsbury as Iachimo, 1906

I knew it! That fiend Iachimo hops out of the trunk and prances around the room like Peter Pan chasing his shadow. If there were cell phones in Ancient Britain, he’d be Instagramming Imogen’s bedroom as evidence that he was there. Lacking technology, he must memorize the scene — the bed, the fireplace, the window, the embroidered hangings. Remorselessly he takes Posthumus’s bracelet from Imogen’s wrist, at the same time noticing a mole on her breast. The perfect detail to prove he has bedded her, without actually committing the deed. Then back into the trunk, to make his escape later.

When next we see Iachimo, he is back in Rome, regaling Posthumus with the story of Imogen’s fall. The bracelet and mention of the mole are enough to convince Posthumus that he’s been cuckolded, and Act II ends with his vitriolic soliloquy about evil women: “I’ll write against them,/Detest them, curse them. Yet ’tis greater skill/In a true hate to pray they have their will;/The very devils cannot plague them better.” Imogen may need Iachimo to back up her defense, for it doesn’t seem possible that Posthumus can ever trust her again.

I’m still waiting for those two missing sons to make their appearance, still waiting for some military action. For now, it’s only Iachimo’s machinations and Cloten’s oafish bragging and ineffectual wooing of Imogen. The Queen’s poisons are still waiting in the wings, but you can be sure they’ll show up at some point to cause confusion and dismay.

In his post on Act I, Calmgrove noted the absence so far of familiar phrases or lines. Whether this is the cause or result of the play being so rarely performed is up for debate. But one well-known song appears in Act II: Hark, hark, the lark*. Here’s Kat Carson singing Schubert’s melody.

As for Shakespeare’s language, I’ll take a moment to point out three unusual words. In Act I, “tomboy” is used to mean “whore”. According to the OED, this word dating from the mid-1500s refers to a rude boy, a “bold or immodest woman”, or an overly active girl. All three meanings were in use before 1600, so this is a word that quickly took on multiple meanings. Iachimo uses it during his first, failed attempt to seduce Imogen: “A lady/So fair, and fastened to an empery/Would make the great’st king double, to be partnered/With tomboys hired with that self exhibition/Which your own coffers yield”.

“Companion” is used as a term of insult: “It is not fit your lordship should undertake every companion that you give offense to.” (Although it must be noted here, that the insult is aimed equally at Cloten.)

“Minion” can mean anything from a prince’s favorite (as it’s used here to refer to Posthumus: “The exile of her minion is too new”), a darling, or a lover, to a fop or slave. One’s meaning must be very clear when throwing this word around.

BTW, 862 quotes from Cymbeline are used as exemplars in the OED.

Act III in 2 days.

*I will be forever the minion of the first person to identify the YA book in which one of the characters runs around crying “hark, hark, the lark”. My brain is not cooperating in helping me remember the book’s title, the character’s gender, or the scene in which it happens.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Cymbeline, Shakespeare and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cymbeline II: The Trunk

  1. calmgrove says:

    Great review, Lizzie, and thankfully making different points from the ones I’m intending to make, though I’ll have strong words to say about Posthumus’ misogynist rant.

    Don’t know about the YA book you mention. All I can come up with is H E Bates’ When the Green Woods Laugh which as far as I can work out was published in the US with the song’s opening words as its title. I’ve nearly completed Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time and as she quotes a couple of Elizabethan songs in that …


  2. Pingback: Cymbeline Act II | calmgrove

  3. Lizzie Ross says:

    I haven’t read either of those books, Chris, but I’ll watch out for them. Maybe it was one of the Pendergasts. I hate it when this happens.


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