Tracing Cymbeline’s un-named queen

Par Samantha Frénée
Publication en ligne le 15 mars 2016


What’s in a name ? Or rather, what’s in a no-name ? Such is one of the enigmas raised by Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline, in which the queen is never named. As a consequence of this we do not know who she is ; we do not know her lineage, her nationality or her ethnic origins. She has no individual identity and instead plays a number of stereotypical roles ; that of wicked queen, wicked step-mother, ambitious mother and scheming witch. However, to this we can add that Cymbeline’s queen may have been inspired by one of a number of historical figures from British and Roman history. These include Boudica, Cartimandua, Livia and Agrippina.
Furthermore, placing Shakespeare’s play within the historical context of the Jacobean court, Cymbeline’s queen plays the foil onto which the political debate to unite England, Wales and Scotland into Great Britain can be projected. She represents the political opposition to James’s project and as such she is seen as the enemy, the outsider to Britain, the ‘Italian’ within, and the foreign savage whose education under the civilising influence of the Roman coloniser has clearly been a failure. What is more, with no name she has no place in history and shows the nation’s future path to historical anonymity if its island members do not accept the ‘progress’ and empire promised by union.

Que recouvre un nom ? Ou plutôt que représente l’absence de nom ? Telle est une des énigmes mises en lumière par la pièce de Shakespeare, Cymbeline, dans laquelle la reine n’est jamais nommée. Nous ne savons donc pas qui elle est ; nous ne connaissons pas son lignage, sa nationalité ni ses origines ethniques. Elle n’a aucune identité individuelle, et, à la place, joue une variété de rôles stéréotypés : reine ou méchante belle-mère, mère ambitieuse ou sorcière intrigante. Cependant, on peut supposer que dans Cymbeline le rôle de la reine s’inspire d’un certain nombre de personnages tirés de l’histoire britannique et romaine : Boudica, Cartimandua, Livia et Agrippine.
En outre, en replaçant la pièce de Shakespeare dans le contexte historique de la cour jacobéenne, la reine de Cymbeline fait ressortir le débat politique sur l’unification de l’Angleterre, du pays de Galles et de l’Écosse pour constituer la Grande Bretagne. Elle représente l’opposition politique au projet de James I et, en tant que telle, elle est perçue comme l’ennemie, l’étrangère, « l’Italienne » et la sauvage pour laquelle l’influence civilisatrice du colonisateur romain a été clairement un échec. De plus, en l’absence de nom, elle n’a pas de place dans l’histoire, montrant ainsi la voie vers l’anonymat historique de la nation si les membres de son île n’acceptent pas le « progrès » promis par l’union.


Texte intégral

1What’s in a name ? Your identity, your origins, your religious and ideological affiliations ? Names also hold performative powers, so what does it mean if a character has no name ? In some of Shakespeare’s plays we find a number of characters with no name but these are either minor characters (servants, musicians, lords, spirits) or titled characters, such as the Duke of Milan in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. However, it is very rare to find a central character with no name. We find it in two of Shakespeare’s plays ; that of Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth is only given her husband’s name, and in The Tragedie of Cymbeline in which the Briton queen is never named. In the list of dramatis personae she is simply called « Queen, wife to Cymbeline », and yet she is one of the main protagonists, she is the central villain, and consequently holds a number of meanings.

2The Tragedie of Cymbeline is an experimental play, first performed around 1610, seven years into James I’s reign. It is a play which provides a political platform for early modern debates about national self-definition, British union and English colonial ambitions. The plot is visibly framed by King James I’s project to unite his kingdoms of Wales, England and Scotland into the geo-political entity of Great Britain and shows his concerns to develop closer relations with continental Europe. In this play Cymbeline’s queen is the main antagonist who is invested with a multiplicity of identities ; she is given a number of stereotypical roles ; that of wicked queen and evil step-mother to the King’s daughter, Innogen. She is a scheming, ambitious mother plotting to put the British crown on her son’s head. Furthermore, she is also represented as the fairy-tale figure of the wicked witch who dabbles in poisons and Machiavellian plots to overthrow the king. But, as a romantic drama this play also throws up English anxieties about the Catholic threat from abroad, and from within England, along with anxieties about gender roles at home and corruption at court. Cymbeline’s queen provides the foil onto which all such fears are projected, and ultimately her death and that of her son provide the only tragedies to the story, for the reconciliations between Cymbeline and his daughter, his son-in-law, sons, friends and Roman enemies provide a happy ending.

3What is more, with no name the queen has no place in our hearts. She is simply introduced to the spectator as « a widow/ That late he (Cymbeline) married » (I.1.5-6)1. It is difficult to identify with someone who has no name, especially since a name includes a variety of meanings. Take for example, the Queen’s binary opposite, Innogen, whose name signifies innocence. Innogen was also the name of the historical wife to Brute. Brute divided the island of Britain whilst his wife became a focus for British unity. And when Innogen is disguised as a boy in Wales she gives herself the name of Fidele. As Innogen/Fidele she represents British unity and loyalty.

4I have chosen to call Cymbeline’s queen a Briton but even this is questionable since her ethnic origins are not known and she is represented as an outsider to Britain with an unclear place in the nation. As she has no name we do not know where she comes from or her family lineage. She is the Queen of Britain through her second marriage to the King after the death of her first husband. Within the play we know that Cymbeline’s queen is of high birth, though we know her only as the king’s second wife, as mother to Cloten and as step-mother to Innogen. Yet, family heritage is an important theme of the play since the name and origins of Posthumous, foster-son to the king, are discussed in the opening scene of the play by two gentlemen. One gentleman asks : « What’s his name and birth ? » And the other gentlemen replies : « I cannot delve him to the root » (I.1.28-29). Posthumus’s unknown lineage is an allegory for Britain’s mixed pedigree and it seems that the unknown name of the queen excludes her from any place in the new Britain.

5Similarly, the confusion over the geographic boundaries of James I’s new union is reflected in the outline of Cymbeline’s Britain. For example, if we focus on the place of Wales in Cymbeline we find it’s not there. Most of the scenes take place in Wales but there are no Welshmen in the play and no clearly defined political borders apart from Cymbeline’s injunction to give a military escort to the Roman ambassador from Lud’s town (London) as far as the River Severn (III.5.16-17), which is the geographical frontier between England and Wales. Some critics see the integration of Wales into Britain in this play as precursor to the integration of Scotland into Britain, and we thus have an elision between Britain and England. This is clearly a play concerned with Britain’s self-definition. In Cymbeline’s reign Britain’s place in history is held in the balance ; any refusal to join the Roman Empire would only lead to historical anonymity. If its island members do not accept the ‘progress’ promised by union with Rome, then Britain, heir to Rome’s empire, would will never be born.

6The queen's patriotic speech is of great interest here for its reference to Britain's noble past, its evocation of the island’s natural strength and its isolation from the outside world when she appeals to Cymbeline to resist Roman rule :

Remember, sir, my liege,
The kings your ancestors, together with
The natural bravery of your isle, which stands
As Neptune’s park, ribbed and paled in
With rocks unscalable, and roaring waters ;
With sands that will not bear your enemies’ boats,
But suck them up to the topmast.

7The point concerning Britain’s independent insularity is opened by Cloten’s declaration that « Britain’s a world/ by itself » (III.1.13-14), and although harbours such as Milford Haven are represented as open doors for enemy attack, the island’s physical topoi seems to exclude it from the civilised world of Rome. However, despite the queen’s articulation of patriotism in the play, or rather « the Queen’s radical Britocentrism2» as Jodi Mikalachki terms it, it is seen as too extreme. Cymbeline’s queen is not a national heroine but a dangerous isolationist who refuses to be integrated into the more civilised empire of Rome. This is seen in the continuation of her patriotic speech :

   A kind of conquest
Caesar made here ; but made not here his brag
Of 'came, and saw, and overcame'. With shame
(The first that ever touch’d him) he was carried
From off our coast, twice beaten ; and his shipping
(Poor ignorant baubles !) on our terrible seas,
Like egg-shells mov’d upon their surges, crack’d
As easily ‘gainst our rocks : for joy whereof,
The fam’d Cassibelan, who was once at point
(O giglot fortune !) to master Caesar’s sword,
Made Lud’s town with rejoicing fires bright,
And Britons strut with courage.

8In this speech the queen evokes Britain’s noble, but mythological, past, its natural island strengths and its isolation from the outside world. « The island-empire of England », as Willy Maley terms it3, was to become « the first ‘British’ Empire, what has been called ‘the Atlantic Archipelago’, [which] was fundamentally an anti-European phenomenon4 ».

9In this speech the queen appeals to Cymbeline’s ancestors, the line of kings recounted in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history and repeats Monmouth’s fiction that the Britons twice repelled Julius Caesar’s forces, a fiction which is also repeated in Gent’s A Valiant Welshman when Octavian, the king of North Wales, says : « Great Julius Cesar, fortunate in armes, /suffred three base repulses from the Cliffes /of chalky Dover » (II.1.84-86)5. Now the speech does recall moments of British glory ; some Englishmen could still remember the defeat of the Spanish Armada, whose ships had been broken up by the terrible seas around Britain just « like egg-shells mov’d upon their surges, crack’d /As easily ‘gainst our rocks. » However, Shakespeare’s use of the Galfridian fiction, and his use of the queen’s references to the Roman god of water when she compares Britain to « Neptune’s park » are possibly meant to reflect an absurd attachment to the Galfridian legend which had invested the Britons with « a self-serving, long and glorious history6 », John Curran writes. The irony here is that the queen has appropriated the Roman god of Neptune and has incorporated the Roman founding of « Lud’s town7 » into British history whilst rejecting any Roman identity for Britain. In placing the nation’s identity on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s line of mythological British kings, Curran asserts that the queen’s speech also reflects her « inordinate love of title and lineage - a love which represents an inappropriate adherence to an old fashioned Galfridian historical paradigm8», a paradigm which is further reflected in the mythological names Shakespeare has chosen for his protagonists and in the chronological confusion of the sources he exploits.

10In order to demonstrate this, Curran compares Shakespeare’s treatment of the two historical methods of analysing the past ; he compares the queen’s speech to that of the Roman general, Lucius9. When Lucius arrives at Cymbeline’s court with an ultimatum from the Roman emperor, he refers to Julius Caesar's landing in Britain, but instead of using Monmouth as a source he cites the Roman texts of Julius Caesar and Tacitus, declaring :

When Julius Caesar – whose remembrance yet
Lives in men’s eyes, and will to ears and tongues
Be theme and hearing ever – was in this Britain
And conquered it, Cassibelan, thine uncle -
Famous in Caesar’s praises no whit less
Than in his feats deserving it – for him
And his succession granted Rome a tribute,

11Here then, Lucius follows the humanist line of investigation, one that bases its conclusions on the use of primary sources and respects a more balanced and objective view of the past. What is more, Lucius’s diplomatic reference to the first historically named British king does not denigrate the Britons but on the contrary finds positive aspects about their prehistoric past. Once more this is the message of the Innogen and Posthumus plot which « teach[es] us how to be readers10 », a message Floyd-Wilson would agree with :

If we look to Holinshed’s description of Cymbeline’s reign to find the plot of Shakespeare’s play, it's not there ; what we do find, however, is evidence of the play’s historiography. In the span of three paragraphs, Holinshed reveals that there are conflicting narratives about this period in Britain’s history, and that those disagreements pertain to the historian’s nationality - Roman versus Briton11.

12In the play, the opposite position to the queen’s is held by Innogen who argues for a British rapprochement with the Roman world and that of continental Europe :

Hath Britain all the sun that shines ? Day, night,
Are they not but in Britain ? In the world’s volume,
Our Britain seems as of it but not in it,
In a great pool a swan’s nest. Prithee think
There’s livers [people who live] out of Britain.

13Developing the queen’s opposite role to that of Innogen’s, we see that she represents the savage element of Britain, perhaps from the fringes of the nation, whose education under the civilising influence of the Roman coloniser has been a failure. The play expresses the double anxieties of barbaric excess and the fear of going native. Wild and untamed, Cymbeline’s queen can no longer control her true nature and she is eliminated off-scene when she commits suicide, which is expressed by Innogen as something unruly : « Against self-slaughter/ There is a prohibition so divine » (III.4.76-77), and it shows the madness of the queen. Thus, the failure to successfully integrate the queen into the civilised Roman world marks an early modern anxiety regarding the fragility of colonial control and colonial identity. Furthermore, it is significant that the queen and her son, Cloten, do not bear classical names and they are both eliminated from the play, a warning that not all elements of the British Isles could be quietly subdued and successfully integrated into the unionist project of Great Britain.

14Their elimination also marks a rejection of England’s insularity and a plea for a more open European policy. An analogy can be seen between a rejection of Elizabeth I’s insular policy and a move towards James’s more open policy of commercial competition and cooperation with Europe.

15In Cymbeline Shakespeare develops two levels of Roman influence on Britain ; one of ennobling honour and peaceful friendship between the two nations, which we associate with the ideals of James I and which concludes the play, and a second level of influence which reflects the degeneracy and scheming politics of Renaissance Italy. The character of the queen shows how any alliance with Rome could leave Britain susceptible to Italian vices and they these are used to activate English fears that union with Scotland would threaten England’s moral high-ground. In the playthe queen can also be seen as the « Italianate queen herself who brings poison to the very heart of the British court12 », because of her court intrigues and Machiavellian plots. She studies medicine under the court doctor and has been his pupil for some time. Fortunately, she is mistrusted by the doctor, Cornelius. Cornelius gives her a false poison when she asks him for one with which she secretly hopes to kill either Posthumous or Innogen :

I do not like her. She doth think she has
Strange ling’ring poisons. I do know her spirit,
And will not trust one of her malice with
A drug of such damned nature.

16The queen has a number of different faces which are only transparent to the doctor and to Innogen.

17Of course, it is highly intriguing that the queen, who bases her prestige and title on royal lineage and dynastic rule, is the only character in the play to have no name and no past. Here, perhaps we can incite the traditional fairy tale sources for the representation of Cymbeline’s queen as the wicked stepmother, the ambitious queen and sorceress who is intelligent and beautiful. In some theatre productions of Cymbeline the queen is represented as a black-clad enchantress13. Within Cymbeline itself there are references to the queen as « crafty devil » (II.1.49) and a « delicate fiend » (V.1.49). Roger Warren speculates that the personage of Cymbeline’s wife may have been taken from the fairy tale of Snow White despite the refusal of other critics to accept this possibility because « no written version survives from Shakespeare’s day ; but it may have been in oral currency14. » This is possible and in order to support his argument Warren continues :

A story in which the heroine, fleeing from a wicked stepmother, finds the cave of seven dwarfs, eats their food, is given sanctuary, apparently dies and is ritually mourned but then revives, seems too close to the action of Cymbeline for coincidence, especially when the birds gather to mourn Snow-White15.

18Let us withdraw from the realm of fantasy and look at the historical sources for Cymbeline’s queen. She is not to be found in the chronicle accounts of Kymbaline’s reign such as Holinshed’s Scottish account of Kymbaline’s reign or in Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England. Yet in reality she does have one, or even several historical counterparts, including Boudica, whose story Shakespeare found in Holinshed’s Chronicles of England and in his Chronicles of Scotland, alongside the story of Cartimandua16. Elements such as Voadicia’s/Voada’s17 nationalistic speech, her opposition to the Roman conquerors, and her suicide may have been suggested to Shakespeare by the English and Scottish chronicles, though Mikalachki only refers to Holinshed’s English chronicles as a source18. Floyd-Wilson notes that Mikalachki « overlooks the Scottish Chronicles in her discussion19 » but by citing Boece’s Chronicles of Scotland20 and also Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland21 as rival sources for the historiographical and ethnological tensions in the play, she does develop Mikalachki’s « attention to Cymbeline’s historiographical sophistication22 », adding that « no one has seriously entertained the possibility that Cymbeline’s central plot may be an amalgamation of Scottish, English, and Roman histories. Or more accurately, that the play may be staging competing and irreconcilable perspectives on Britain’s early history23. » This line of research might illustrate the discrepancies in representations of Cymbeline’s queen.

19A number of critics think that Cymbeline’s queen was inspired by the historical figure of Boudica, Britain’s ancient historical queen whose forces had risen up against Roman occupation in AD 60-6124. Although Voada (Boudica) is not mentioned in the English accounts of Arviragus’s reign, Floyd-Wilson proffers this as evidence of Voada’s importance as a source for Cymbeline : « It is, I contend, Voada’s erasure from the English Chronicles that attests to her importance25 ». And her importance, according to Floyd-Wilson, is that « Voada represents a history of mingled ethnic identities26 ». This is certainly the case in The Valiant Welshman in which Gent appropriates the character of Voada from the Scottish chronicles and re-presents her as the gentle and obedient Welsh sister of Caradoc who is later married to the King of Britain’s brother27.

20Elements of Boudica’s story, such as her patriotic speech to the Britons, her opposition to the Roman conquerors and her suicide, may have been suggested to Shakespeare by the English and Scottish chronicles written by Raphael Holinshed and Hector Boece. And, of course, Boudica’s story may have vocalized national identity for England/Britain.


Raphael Holinshed, « The Historie of England », Holinshed’s Chronicles (London : John Harrison, 1577).

21In Roger Warren’s edition of Cymbeline he includes this picture from Holinshed’s Chronicles in which he adds that « [Boudica’s] appearance may give some idea of how the Queen in Cymbeline was originally presented28. » But, in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline’s queen is not a national heroine. She is rather a radical patriot and a dangerous isolationist who refuses to be integrated into the more civilized empire of Rome and Europe. From this it is surprising that Shakespeare used Boudica as the only historical source for Cymbeline’s wicked queen and, what is more, there is actually no historical source for the queen in Holinshed’s account of Kymbeline’s reign in Britain. Jodi Mikalachki thinks the queen resembles Holinshed’s Voadicia/Boudica who led the British rebellion against the Roman Occupation of Britain but I think the character may have been inspired by a combination of three historical figures in the first century AD ; Boudica, Cartimandua, (queen of the Brigante tribe in Yorkshire), and Agrippina, wife to the Roman emperor, Claudius, since there are a number of ambiguities and contradictions in the depiction of this character.

22First, Boudica was a wife and widow who opposed the Romans and committed suicide. Boudica’s opposition to the Roman conquerors, found in both Dio and Tacitus, were was reproduced in Hector Boece’s Scottish Chronicles and Raphael Holinshed’s English and Scottish Chronicles, and reproduced in the Queen’s famous, patriotic speech cited earlier. Yet if Holinshed’s and Boece’s heroic Boudica was the historical inspiration for Cymbeline’s queen, why is the play’s character such a villain ?

23The second candidate for Cymbeline’s queen is that of the historical Cartimandua, a mid-first century Celtic queen. Her story, as seen in Boece’s Scottish chronicles, represents her as a treacherous wife to the King of Scotland and she is explicitly referred to as a wicked-stepmother to the King’s son who betrays him to the Roman authorities. She is also seen as an outsider to England and is seduced by Roman civilisation and implicated in court scandals and corruption. Cartimandua, like Cymbeline’s queen, might well represent an example of a colonised native, inculcated and seduced by the superficial civility of a foreign power, who, in a position of political power, returns to her primitive, and uneducated, nature. When writing of Cartimandua’s reign, Tacitus clearly draws a moral lesson from her earlier success and eventual demise. When Cartimandua eventually loses her kingdom, Tacitus says that this was the direct result of the loss of her reputation following her adultery with her husband’s armour-bearer :

She grew to despise her husband Venutius, and took as her consort his squire, Vellocatus, whom she admitted to share the throne with her. Her house was at once shaken by this scandalous act. Her husband was favoured by the sentiments of all the citizens ; the adulterer was supported by the queen’s passion for him and by her savage spirit. So Venutius, calling in aid from outside and at the same time assisted by a revolt of the Brigantes themselves, put Cartimandua into an extremely dangerous position29.

24As we can see in this example, sexuality was a central issue in representations of powerful women and the message was clear ; place a woman in a position of power and the result is savage and sexual excess, self-destruction and the loss of the nation.

25Yet, historically Cartimandua was loyal to Rome. She did not join Boudica’s rebellion and was even rescued by the Romans when her husband’s forces took over the Brigantian confederacy in 69 AD30. Arguably then, Cymbeline’s queen is a compound figure of both Boudica and Cartimandua since she carries more of Cartimandua’s moral make-up but she is motivated by Boudica’s radical patriotism and isolationism. Other differences need to be made between Cartimandua, Boudica and Cymbeline’s queen ; Cartimandua was never described in the history texts as a widow or a mother. What is more, her allegiance with Rome was never broken. Despite Tacitus’s representation of her as a disloyal wife she remained a loyal ally of Rome, even handing over Britain’s freedom fighter, Caratacus, to the Romans. Of this Boece writes : « Caratak fled to his gud mother Cartumandua quene of Scottish, quhilk eftir deceis of his fader Cadallane wes maryit apon ane valyeant knycht namit Uenisius. Curtumandia seyng Caratak distitute of all consolatioun deliuerit hym to Ostorius31. » What is intriguing with the Scottish chronicles are the references to Cartimandua as a Scottish queen and as Caratak’s stepmother who betrayed him to the Roman authorities. This same Cartimandua later imprisoned her second husband, Venutius, and his friends, but after their liberation by Corbreid, the King of Scotland, and the brother of the now dead Caratak, Corbreid had her executed and referred to her as a « we[k]it woman32 » (wicked woman). This is the same story told by Holinshed in his « Historie of Scotland » and is simply taken from Boece. Holinshed writes : « He [Caratak] fled for succor vnto his stepmother Cartimandua : but as aduersitie findeth few friends, she caused him to be taken and deliuered vnto Ostorius33. » Later he refers to her as « that vnkind stepmother of Caratake34. »

26In Cymbeline the queen is Innogen’s wicked stepmother but whether she is the embodiment of Boudica or Cartimandua, or an amalgamation of both, she still represents a rejection of Britain’s primitive female past in favour of submission to the intoxicating effects of Roman conquest. On the anachronistic level of the play Cartimandua also stands as a better candidate for Peter Parolin’s « Italian within » than Boudica. The corrupt influence of Roman/Italian vices was feared in England as demonstrated in Cymbeline wherein the queen and her son dominate the British court, transforming it into « a place of machiavellian scheming receptive to Iachimo’s deceitfulness », as Parolin notes35. Certainly, the conflict between Rome and Britain in Cymbeline is shaped through the Italian vices of court intrigues.

27What is more, the queen’s manipulation of « Strange ling’ring poisons » (I.4.34) positions her as someone who traffics in Italian vices, bringing them to the heart of Britain and exposing the English to the alien influences of another culture. The queen’s and her son’s resistance to the civilising effects of the Roman Empire and their consequent relapse in allegiance is possibly linked to flaws in their natures and serves as a warning that any civility gained by submission could, over time, lead to atavism. Their cultural assimilation is considered a failure for it has not prevented their disloyalty to the superior power of Rome.

28In other literary texts of the period Cartimandua is certainly present as the calculating and disloyal female. In Gent’s Valiant Welshman she is represented as the treacherous wife of Venusius, the Duke of York, so London audiences were familiar with this personage. In this playCaradoc again seeks refuge and when Cartimandua shows Caradoc to his rooms she says : « Welcome, great Prince. Here thinke your selfe secure,/ As in a Sanctuary, from your foes » (IV.7.105-106), a point which recalls Innogen’s reference to her step-mother’s « dissembling courtesy » (I.1.85) when imprisoned in her rooms at the beginning of Cymbeline.

29 Another historical candidate for Cymbeline’s queen, according to David Bergeron, is that of Livia, wife to the Roman Emperor, Augustus, and mother to the second emperor, Tiberius, who inherited the throne from his step-father36. Livia was also step-mother to Augustus’s daughter, Julia, just as Cymbeline’s queen is to Innogen, and she, too, had a reputation for being well-versed in the use of drugs, along with being a calculating, ambitious wife and mother37. Whilst making an analogy in Shakespeare’s play between Cymbeline, the Emperor Augustus and King James I38, Bergeron assumes that there must be an analogy between Cymbeline’s wife and Augustus’s wife39. Bergeron bases his interpretation on Shakespeare’s knowledge of such Roman sources as Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus and Suetonius writing that « Shakespeare’s probable knowledge of ancient Roman history shapes several events and influences his conception of a number of his British characters in Cymbeline, especially Cloten and the Queen40 ». However, I believe it would have been politically clumsy to make any overt parallels between such a villain as Cymbeline’s queen and James I’s wife, Anne of Denmark. To avoid any confusion between the Roman empress, Livia/ Cymbeline’s wife and James’s wife, Emrys Jones surmises that Cymbeline’s « Queen is made conventionally grotesque after a fairy-tale fashion in order to counteract the temptation to find a real-life analogue41 ».

30However, there is a second Roman candidate to that of Livia, one that was the great-granddaughter to Augustus : Agrippina the Younger42. She may be a better candidate than Livia since she was the fourth wife to the Roman Emperor, Claudius, in the 50s AD and so a contemporary of both Boudica and Cartimandua, and arguably fits in better with the compound figure of Cymbeline’s queen. Described by both the ancient and modern sources as ambitious, pitiless, and tyrannical, she was apparently a beautiful and calculating woman, just as Cymbeline’s wife is. Agrippina arranged the marriage between her own son, Nero, and Claudius’s daughter. She also persuaded Claudius to adopt her son and name him successor to the throne to the detriment of Claudius’s own son, Britannicus. Many ancient historians accuse Agrippina of poisoning the Emperor Claudius in order to place her son, Nero, on the throne43, which is the same plan that Cymbeline’s wife had for her own son. We learn this from the doctor, Cornelius, who heard the queen’s final confession before dying, off-stage :

She did confess she had
For you a mortal mineral, which being took,
Should by the minute feed on life, and, ling’ring,
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 th’ adoption of the crown ;

31Before finishing this paper I would like to look at the significance of the queen’s bad conduct and its implications for gender roles. It is actually the queen’s political intervention which is seen as the mark of her wickedness in the play since it is not the role of a woman to interfere in public affairs. The final words of Cymbeline regarding his now dead queen are :

Although the victor, we submit to Caesar
And to the Roman empire, promising
To pay our wonted tribute, from the which
We were dissuaded by our wicked queen,
Whom heavens in justice both on her and hers
Have laid most heavy hand.

32The queen’s female role of motherhood is also evoked through her political ambitions for her son, which explains her meddling in public affairs. But her maternal role is revoked through the spectre of infanticide. As both mother and stepmother, the queen’s devotion to her son is shaped in terms of « savage maternity44 » and calculated ambition, whilst her support of her stepdaughter is feigned and unnatural. In both cases the notion of infanticide is touched upon since the queen’s plot to kill Innogen leads to the death of her own son. The maternal role is then appropriated by Cymbeline when he is re-united with his sons and daughter at the end of the play and cries :

O what am I,
A mother to the birth of three ? Ne’er mother
Rejoiced deliverance more.

33Here, the maternal metaphor of giving birth is appropriated by the father, which effectively subordinates childbirth and maternal care to the paternal control of the new Jacobean regime.

34A parallel can be drawn here between Cymbeline’s « maternal » authority and that of his queen’s. If we look at the reflection of Cymbeline’s queen as a wicked stepmother and disobedient wife, her character is being held up as the counter-example of Innogen’s perfect womanhood ; not only is the queen exposed at the end of the play as a liar and poisonous, would-be-killer, but she is also shown as politically incompetent and emotionally unstable for she goes mad and dies, presumably at her own hand :

Cornelius : The Queen is dead.
Cymbeline : How ended she ?
Cornelius : With horror, madly dying, like her life,
Which being cruel to the world, concluded
Most cruel to herself.

35We find the idea that a woman’s identity is only an extension to that of a man’s. When Innogen finds the headless corpse of Cloten, she thinks it is that of her dead husband and cries : « I am nothing ; or if not, /Nothing to be were better » (IV.2.368-369). Without a man to guide her she is lost and has no individual identity. She only considers herself as a wife, a daughter or as a servant to Lucius.

36The play is further seen as a masculine romance because it excludes all the women from the public stage as England’s national identity becomes one based on male civilisation and brotherhood. Women are pushed into the domestic field of the home but the independent, powerful and disobedient women are pushed to the margins of nature, into the wilderness. The removal of the queen represents the successful exorcism of Britain’s savage female resistance to the Romano-British alliance, and opens the door to Britain’s entry onto the world stage of written history.

37We may compare the character of Cymbeline to James I, the pacifist, the unionist and civilised nobleman of Renaissance Europe but within the play Cymbeline is deterred from such virtues due to the influence of « our wicked queen » (V.4.464), the Celtic outsider or the savage within. The final message of the play seems to promote the nation’s assumption of Rome’s legacy to England ; England is identified as Rome’s imperial heir to the British Empire, a legacy which is fully assumed by Cymbeline and by James I whilst the figure of Cymbeline’s queen is consigned to the forgotten ashes of the anonymous past.


BERGERON, David M, « Cymbeline : Shakespeare’s Last Roman Play», Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 31, N° 1, Spring 1980, p. 31-41.

BOECE, Hector, The Croniklis of Scotland, Edinburgh : Thomas Davidson, 1540. 

CURRAN, John E, « Royalty Unlearned, Honor Untaught : British Savages and Historiographical Change in Cymbeline », Comparative Drama, vol. 31, N° 2, summer 1997, p. 277-303.

FLOYD-WILSON, Mary, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003.

FLOYD-WILSON, Mary, « Delving to the root : Cymbeline, Scotland, and the English race », in Baker, David and Willy Maley (eds.), British Identities and English Renaissance Literature : Literary CriticismCambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 101-115.

FRÉNÉE, Samantha, Boudica’s Odyssey in Early Modern England, Farnham : Ashgate, 2014.

GENT, R.A.(Variant name forms : Armin, Robert), The Valiant Welshman, or, The true chronicle history of the life and valiant deeds of Caradoc, fol. 1610, London : Printed for William Gilbertson, 1663.

HOLINSHED, Raphael, The Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande,London : Henry Bynneman, 1577.

HOLINSHED, Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 2nd edition, London, 1587, Reprinted 1808, 1965 and 1976.

JONES, Emrys, « Stuart Cymbeline », Essays in Criticism, vol. 11, N° 1, 1961.

MALEY, Willy, « ‘This Sceptered Isle’ : Shakespeare and the British Problem » in J.J. Joughin, (ed.), Shakespeare and National Culture, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 83–108.

MIKALACHKI, Jodi, The Legacy of Boadicea : Gender and Nation, London : Routledge, 1998.

PAROLIN, Peter, « Anachronistic Italy : Cultural Alliances and National Identity in Cymbeline », Shakespeare Studies, vol. 30, January, 2002, p. 188–218.

SHAKESPEARE, William, Cymbeline, Roger Warren (ed.), Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1998.

TACITUS, Histories, London : Harvard University Press, 1968.


1  William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, ed. Roger Warren, Oxford, Clarendon Press,1998.

2  Jodi Mikalachki, The Legacy of Boadicea: Gender and Nation, London, Routledge, 1998, p. 108.

3  Henry VIII’s appropriation of the title « King of Ireland » in 1541 and England’s Act of Restraint of Appeals in 1533 declared England an « empire » and a sovereign state independent of the Pope.

4  Willy Maley, « ‘This Sceptered Isle’: Shakespeare and the British Problem » in Joughin, J. J. (ed.), Shakespeare and National Culture, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 95.

5  Gent, R.A.(Variant name forms: Armin, Robert), The Valiant Welshman, or, The true chronicle history of the life and valiant deeds of Caradoc, fol. 1610, London, Printed for William Gilbertson, 1663.

6  John E. Curran, « Royalty Unlearned, Honor Untaught: British Savages and Historiographical Change in Cymbeline », Comparative Drama, vol. 31, n° 2, summer 1997, p. 10.

7  London, Lud’s town, was founded by the Romans as Londinium, following Claudius’s conquest of England. See the Museum of London’s site for the archaeological evidence of this;

8  John Curran, op. cit., p. 8.

9  Ibid., p. 9.

10  Ibid. p. 15.

11  Mary Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 174.

12  Peter Parolin, « Anachronistic Italy: Cultural Alliances and National Idenity in Cymbeline», Shakespeare Studies, vol 30, 2002, p. 200.

13  Op. cit., Roger Warren, p. 40.

14  Ibid., p. 16.

15  Ibid.p. 16.

16  Vernon Snow notes that Shakespeare was working from the 2nd edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles for Cymbeline. See Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 2nd edition, London, 1587, Reprinted 1808, 1965 and 1976, p. v.

17  Boudica is called Voadicia in the English chronicles and Voada in the Scottish chronicles.

18  Jodi Mikalachki, op. cit., p. 102.

19  Mary Floyd-Wilson, « Delving to the root: Cymbeline, Scotland, and the English race», in Baker, David and Willy Maley (eds.), British Identities and English Renaissance Literature: Literary Criticism,Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 114, note 7.

20  Ibid., p. 108.

21  Ibid., p. 103, and Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity, p. 174-179.

22  Ibid., Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity, p. 174.

23  Ibid., p. 175.

24  There are many variations on the name. Confusion arises because the ancient sources for the revolt, that of Dio Cassius (written in Greek), and that of Tacitus (written in Latin), refer to her as Buduica and Boudicca respectively. But Tacitus had a spelling mistake and the name should have been Boudica. In Welsh she is known as Buddug. In Boece she is Voada, becoming Voadicea in Holinshed. The original confusion may have stemmed from Polydore Vergil’s first account of Boudica in which a spelling distinction was made between Vodicia and Voadica, but this was probably due to a transcript error as Vergil only used the sources provided by Tacitus. Greater confusion arose when Dio’s account was added to that of Tacitus in the mid 16th century with his own variation of Boudica’s name. Owing to this confusion Petruccio Ubaldini, another Italian scholar at the English court, resolved the dilemma by splitting the character into two separate queens, Bunduica and Voadicia.

25  Ibid., p. 176.

26  Ibid., p. 176.

27  In Act IV, scene 4 she is also referred to as a « warlike Dame » which suggests Gent’s familiarity with the Scottish sources.

28  Roger Warren, op. cit., p. 41.

29  Tacitus, Histories,London, Harvard University Press, 1968, book III, xliv-xlvi.

30  Ibid.,book III, xlv.

31  Hector Boece, The Croniklis of Scotland, Edinburgh, Thomas Davidson, 1540, The thrid buke, fo.cccvii.

32  Hector Boece, op. cit., The thrid buke, fo.cccic.

33  Holinshed, op. cit., « Historie of Scotlande», p. 50. Both Boece and Holinshed followed Tacitus when referring to Cartismandua but no mention is made of any family connection between the two leaders.

34  Ibid., p. 51.

35  Parolin, P. « Anachronistic Italy: Cultural Alliances and National Idenity in Cymbeline», Shakespeare Studies, vol . 30, 2002, p. 188-218 & p. 200.

36  David M. Bergeron, « Cymbeline: Shakespeare’s Last Roman Play», Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 31, N° 1, Spring 1980, p. 31-41.

37  Ibid., p. 40.

38  Ibid., Bergeron refers the reader to other literary critics who have also found parallels between James I and Augustus, p. 33.

39  Ibid., p. 38.

40  Ibid., p. 32.

41  Emrys Jones, « Stuart Cymbeline», Essays in Criticism, vol. 11, 1961, p. 97.

42  Samantha Frénée, Boudica’s Odyssey in Early Modern England, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014, p. 118.

43  Tacitus, Annals XII.66; Dio Cassius, Roman History LXI.34, and Suetonius, The Lives of Twelve Caesars, Life of Claudius 44.

44  Jodi Mikalachki, op. cit., p. 143.

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Par Samantha Frénée, «Tracing Cymbeline’s un-named queen», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°10 - 2016, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

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Samantha Frénée est Maître de Conférences à l’Université d’Orléans et chercheuse au sein du laboratoire POLEN (Centre d'Etudes Supérieures sur la Fin du Moyen Age et la Renaissance). Elle a publié plusieurs articles et est l’auteur de Boudica’s Odyssey ; Contesting Identities in Early Modern England (Farnham : Ashgate, 2014).