Cymbeline IV: The Head

George Dawe, early 19th century.

George Dawe, early 19th century.

Now we’re cooking with gas, as they say. To shift metaphors, the tangle of plot threads is starting to form a coherent pattern.

Act IV is packed with action: Imogen — still with Belarius, Guiderius and Arbiragus; still disguised as a boy — falls ill. The others go out hunting, she takes the potion Pisanio has assured her will speed her recovery, and we know how that will turn out.

Cloten, dressed as Posthumus and searching for him and Imogen, comes upon Guiderius. Insults fly, swords are drawn, and they exit fighting. Guiderius returns, Cloten’s head under his arm, still flinging insults at the dead man: “Not Hercules/Could have knocked out his brains, for he had none.” He later tosses “Cloten’s clotpoll down the stream/In embassy to his mother”. (Clotpoll is an excellent Shakespearean insult. Variations include clod-poll/clod-pole and clod-pate, all basically meaning thick-headed. Feel free to use any of these when addressing people with whom you disagree.)

After Guiderius dumps the clotpoll, Arviragus carries in the body of Imogen (don’t forget — they still think she’s a boy, despite her great skill at cooking): “The bird is dead/That we have made so much on. I had rather/Have skipped from sixteen years of age to sixty,/To have turned my leaping time into a crutch,/Than have seen this.”

They decide to bury her, and Belarius, in a fit of pity, argues that Cloten’s head-less body must be laid with hers in the grave: “Our foe was princely,/And though you took his life as being our foe,/Yet bury him as a prince.” Then over the double grave, the three men sing one of the more beautiful songs from the Shakespearean canon. Here is Gerald Finzi’s setting*:

Don’t forget: Cloten was dressed in Posthumus’s clothing when he was beheaded. You can guess what happens next.

Imogen comes to, at first confusedly thinking she is yet to reach Wales. Then her memory restores itself, she glances around, sees the body next to her, and then looks at it again: “O Posthumus, alas,/Where is thy head? Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?” She’s certain that Pisanio and Cloten have conspired to kill her husband, and she collapses in tears on the body.

The Roman General, Lucius, arrived in Wales with his soldiers, comes across Imogen (still disguised as a boy). She lies about who she is and whose body she’s mourning. Lucius asks her to join him, and she agrees. Back at Cymbeline’s court, the queen is ill with worry about her missing son, Cymbeline anxious for news of his daughter, and Pisanio suspected by everyone of knowing where the missing royals are to be found.

Act IV ends with Belarius being convinced by his two sons to join the fight against the Roman invaders.

BTW: Iachimo is one of the Roman officers arriving in Wales — as long as no one kills him in battle, perhaps he’ll be useful in reuniting Imogen with Posthumus (whose name is now more than apt).

*Finzi, a 20th Century British composer, died in 1956, age 55. This song, the third in a Shakespearean song cycle (Let Us Garlands Bring, Opus 18), was completed in 1942. Visit his official website here.

Next up: the final act, which somehow has to reunite Imogen and Posthumus. And if you haven’t done so already, check out what Calmgrove has been blogging about this play.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
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4 Responses to Cymbeline IV: The Head

  1. calmgrove says:

    Excellent summary of another act with a complex plotline: I’m afraid mine, to appear immanently, is infinitely more rambling and almost certainly incoherent.

    I hope to post a brief discussion of the geography of the play, but don’t hold your breath: daughter and family arriving for a few days…

    Clotpoll: do you think Will chose this name from Geoffrey of Monmouth via Holinshed so he could pun on it? Clotpoll, ‘meanest’ cloth and who knows what else?


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks for the compliment. Deciding which details to include in the summary feels at times like a Sisyphean task.
      Re clotpoll: I thought from the beginning that Cloten’s name was a pun on his idiotic character. It was inevitable that Shakespeare would use this somehow, but to behead him — now that’s a punning hat trick.


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