David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 4

— 3.4 —

Pisanio and Imogen talked together in the country near Milford Haven.

Imogen said, “You told me, when we dismounted from our horses, that the place where I would meet my husband was near at hand. When I was born, my mother never longed to see me for the first time as much as I long now to see my husband. Pisanio! Man! Where is Posthumus? What is in your mind that makes you stare at me like that? Why do you sigh so deeply? A figure in a painting who looked as you do now would be thought to be a thing perplexed beyond self-explication. Wear a less fear-inspiring face before mental wildness conquers my staider and calmer senses. What’s the matter?”

Pisanio gave her Posthumus’ letter to him — the one in which Posthumus had told him to murder Imogen.

Imogen asked, “Why tender you that paper to me, with a look that is so untender? If it is summer — good — news, smile. If the news is winterly, and bad, you should keep the countenance you have now.”

Pisanio did not smile.

Imogen looked at the letter and said, “My husband’s handwriting! That drug-damned Italy has been too crafty for him, and he’s in some tough spot!”

She said to Pisanio, “Speak, man! Your tongue may take away some of the shock of reading the letter, which otherwise might kill me!”

“Please, read the letter,” Pisanio said, “and you shall find that I am a wretched man, a thing that is the most disdained by Lady Fortune.”

Imogen read the letter out loud: “Pisanio, Imogen has played the strumpet in my bed; the testimonies that this is true lie bleeding in me. I speak not out of weak surmises, but from proof as strong as my grief and as certain as I expect to get my revenge. That part you, Pisanio, must act for me, if your faith is not tainted by the breach of her faith. Let your own hands take away her life. I shall give you the opportunity to kill her at Milford Haven. She has my letter, which will lead her there. If you fear to strike her dead at Milford Haven and to make me certain that the murder has been done, then you are the pander to her dishonor and equally disloyal to me.”

Pisanio said to himself, “What need do I have to draw my sword? The letter has cut her throat already. No, it is slander, whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue is more poisonous than all the serpents of the Nile, whose breath rides on the swift winds and spreads lies over all the corners of the world. This viperous slander enters the lives of Kings, Queens, and lords, maidens, and matrons, and even creeps into the secrets of the grave.”

He said out loud, “How are you, madam?”

Ignoring him, Imogen said, “False to his bed! What is it to be false and cheat on him? To lie awake in bed and to think about him? To weep from hour to hour because he is not there? If sleep restores our natural powers, does being false to his bed mean to wake up because of having a dream about danger to him? Does it mean to cry myself awake? Is that what it means to be false to his bed?”

“I am sorry, good lady!” Pisanio said.

Still ignoring Pisanio, but addressing people who were not present, Imogen said, “I false! I unfaithful to you? I cheat on you!

“Posthumus, your conscience should be a witness that I am true to you!

“Iachimo, you accused Posthumus of being unfaithful to me. You then looked like a villain, but now I think that your appearance is good enough.

“Some jay — some gaudy whore — of Italy whose mother was painting — makeup, not nature — has betrayed my husband. Poor me! I am stale, a garment out of fashion, but because I am richer than to hang on the walls, I must be ripped.”

Imogen was comparing herself to a garment that was made of rich cloth but was out of fashion. Some old clothing was simply hung up on a wall of an old wardrobe and ignored (many of us have clothing hanging in our closets that we never wear), but unfashionable clothing made of a rich fabric would be disassembled so that the fabric could be reused.

Imogen said, “To pieces with me! Tear me to pieces! Oh, men’s vows are traitors to women! Because of your turning away from me, husband, all men who put on a good appearance — say, of fidelity — shall be thought to be putting on a good appearance only so they can commit villainy. Their good appearance shall not be born — that is, come from their nature — but it will be worn as a bait for ladies.”

“Good madam, listen to me,” Pisanio said.

Ignoring him, Imogen continued, “Aeneas was false to Dido, Queen of Carthage. He seduced and then abandoned her. Because of him, the true and honest men of his time were thought to be false.

“The treacherous Greek named Sinon wept in order to convince the Trojans to take the Trojan Horse into Troy. Because of him, holy tears were mistrusted. Because of him, pity was diverted from those who very truly deserved pity.

“And so you, Posthumus, will lay the leaven on all proper men. You shall be the sour dough that spoils the good dough. Because of your great fall, the good and gallant shall be thought to be false and perjured.”

Imogen then said to Pisanio, “Come, fellow, be honest. Do what your master ordered you to do: Kill me. When you see him, testify a little that I am obedient to him. Look! I draw the sword myself. Take it, and hit the innocent mansion of my love — my heart. Don’t be afraid. It is empty of everything except grief. Your master, Posthumus, is not there. He indeed was once the riches stored in my heart. Do what he ordered you to do. Strike me with your sword. You may be valiant in a better cause, but now you seem to be a coward.”

Pisanio threw away from him the sword that Imogen had placed in his hand and said, “Hence, vile instrument! You shall not damn my hand.”

Imogen said to him, “Why, I must die; and if I do not die by your hand, you are no servant of your master’s. Against self-slaughter — suicide — there is a prohibition so divine that it makes my weak hand cowardly. Come, here’s my heart. Something is in front of it. Wait! Wait! We’ll have no defense. My breast is as obedient as the scabbard; both are ready to admit the sword. What is here?”

She took some letters out of her bodice and said, “The scriptures of the ‘loyal’ Posthumus Leonatus, all turned to heresy!”

She threw Posthumus’ letters to her on the ground and said, “Away, away, corrupters of my faith! You shall no more be a decorative cover over my heart. Thus may poor fools believe false teachers; although those who are betrayed feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe.

“And you, Posthumus, who encouraged my disobedience against my father the King and who made me reject with contempt the suits of Princely fellows who wanted to marry me, shall hereafter find that it is no act of common occurrence, but a strain of rareness, for a Princess to marry a commoner, and I grieve myself to think that you shall grow sated with the harlot whom you now feed greedily on, and then you will be pained by remembering me.”

She said to Pisanio, “Please, do your job. The lamb entreats the butcher to kill it. Where’s your knife? You are too slow to do your master’s bidding, when I desire it, too.”

“Oh, gracious lady,” Pisanio said, “since I received the command to do this business — to murder you — I have not slept one wink.”

“Murder me, and then go to bed and sleep,” Imogen replied.

“I’ll stay awake until my eyeballs fall out before I kill you.”

“Why then did you undertake to kill me?” Imogen asked. “Why have you traveled so many miles under a pretense? Why travel to this place? Why cause my journey and your own journey? Why cause our horses’ labor? Why make me spend time persuading you to undertake this journey? Why help me to leave the court and be absent from and perturb it — the court where I never intend to return? Why have you gone so far, only to unbend your bow with its arrow after you have gone to your hunting place and see the deer, which you have chosen to kill, in front of you?”

“I did those things only to win time and find a way to not engage in such bad employment,” Pisanio said. “It worked. While doing those things, I have thought of a course of action that we can take. Good lady, hear me patiently.”

“Talk until your tongue is weary,” Imogen replied. “Speak. I have heard that I am a strumpet; and my ear, wrongly struck and injured by that word, can take no greater wound because no wound is deeper. But speak.”

“Then, madam, I have thought you would not go back to the court again.”

“That is very likely,” Imogen replied, “because you brought me here to kill me.”

“That is not true,” Pisanio said. “But if I am now being as wise as I am being honest, then my plan will prove to be a good one. It cannot be otherwise than that my master is being abused by being fed false information about you. Some villain, who is without equal in his art, has done this cursed injury to both you and your husband.”

“Some Roman prostitute has done this,” Imogen said.

“No, on my life,” Pisanio said. “Your husband is not involved with an Italian prostitute. I’ll tell your husband that you are dead, and I will send him some bloody sign of your death because he commanded that I should do so. You shall be missed at court, and that will well confirm that you are dead.”

“Why, good fellow, what shall I do in the meantime? Where shall I stay? How shall I live? What pleasure can I have in my life, when I am dead to my husband?”

“If you’ll go back to the court —” Pisanio began.

Imogen interrupted, “— no court, no father, and no more trouble with that harsh, high-ranking, simple nothing, that Cloten, whose lovesuit has been to me as fearful as a siege.”

“If you will not live at court, then you cannot live in Britain.”

“Where then can I live? Has Britain all the Sun that shines? Day, night, aren’t they only in Britain? Our Britain seems to be a part of the world, but not in it. It seems to be a swan’s nest in a great pool of water. Please think and tell me that people live outside of Britain.”

“I am very glad that you are thinking of places other than Britain,” Pisanio said. “The Roman ambassador, Caius Lucius, will come to Milford Haven tomorrow. Now, if you could wear a mind as dark as your fortune is, and if you could disguise that femininity that, if it were to appear as itself, as it should not because of danger to yourself, you should tread a course that is pretty and full of view — pleasing and full of good prospects. Yes, perhaps you could be near the residence of Posthumus — at least as near that although you may not see his actions, yet you could hear from other people truly what he is doing each hour.”

Imogen, who understood that she must disguise that she is a woman and pretend to be a man in order to avoid the danger of rape, said, “Oh, for the means to do that! Although it would put my modesty in danger, it would not be the death of my modesty, and so I would undertake it.”

“Well, then, here’s the point,” Pisanio said. “You must forget to be a woman. Change your noble right to command into a commoner’s obedience. Change fear and fastidiousness — the handmaids of all women, or, more truly, the essence of woman, its pretty self — into a playful courage. Be ready to make joking insults, to make sharp answers, and to be as saucy and as quarrelsome as a weasel. Indeed, you must forget that rarest treasure of your cheek and darken its complexion by exposing it — this is hard for a woman who takes pride in her light complexion to do, but make your heart hard because you must do this! — to the greedy touch of the Sun, which kisses everyone, and you must neglect your laborious and dainty adornments that make you pretty, thereby making great Juno, the jealous wife of Jupiter, angry because she envies your beauty.”

Imogen would have to wear men’s clothing that would expose her face to the Sun and darken it through tanning. In her society, light complexions were valued, and upper-class women avoided exposing their faces to the Sun.

“Be brief in your speech,” Imogen said. “I understand your plan, and I am already almost a man.”

“First, make yourself look like one,” Pisanio said. “I planned ahead, and I previously packed men’s clothing for you in my cloak-bag — jacket, hat, breeches, all that is needed. With this clothing’s assistance, and with your imitation of young men who are your age, you shall present yourself before noble Caius Lucius and ask to be employed by him. Tell him your skills and use your musical voice to persuade him to hire you — if he has an ear for music, he will without doubt welcome you because he’s honorable and — better — he’s very holy. As for your means abroad, you have me, rich, and I will never fail you either now or later.”

Pisanio was not rich in money, but he was rich in qualities such as loyalty. As far as providing Imogen with food, subsequent events would show that he could not do that; for one thing, he needed to return to the court. Nevertheless, he remained loyal to her later, just as he was now. In addition, part of the job of certain servants is to hold the boss’ bag of money. As Imogen’s servant, he was holding on to Imogen’s money for the time being. To a servant such as Pisanio, that amount of money would seem to be riches, indeed. When he left to return to the court, he would hand over to Imogen her money. In addition, he was planning, when needed, to visit her and take to her money from the court.

“You are all the comfort the gods will diet me with,” Imogen said.

Imogen meant that she would have to rely on Pisanio; her words also subtly acknowledged that Pisanio might not be able to provide her with all the help she needed.

The gods do not always provide comfort and good diets. Imogen would not starve, but she would be hungry. But sometimes the gods allow bad things to happen before good things happen, just as a physician of the past could prescribe a course of fasting in an attempt to return a body to health and good appetite.

Fortunately, Imogen would receive help from people other than Pisanio.

She added, “Please, let’s go. There’s more to be planned and considered, but we’ll sort all that out in the good time available to us. I have the courage to do what we have planned, and I will face it with the courage of a Prince. Let’s go, please.”

“Well, madam, we must make only a brief farewell, lest, once you are missed, I am suspected of conveying you away from the court. My noble mistress, here is a box of medicine. The Queen gave it to me. What’s in it is precious: If you are sick at sea, or if you have an upset stomach on land, a little of this medicine will drive away your illness. Go into some thicket, and dress yourself like a man. May the gods take the best care of you!”

“Amen to that!” Imogen said. “I thank you.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: