Of all Shakespeare plays, this one has perhaps the most intricate plot. It balances three separate stories, all intertwined and eventually resolved together. It combines qualities of tragedy, comedy, history, and pastoral with episodes of fantasy and other incidents that defy probability. Yet we never feel the playwright out of control. The dramatic technique is that of a virtuoso, and the unity of the work is never in doubt.
Holinshed's Chronicles was probably Shakespeare source for the background material on Cymbeline, who supposedly became King in 33 B.C., when Britain was occupied by the Romans. The playwright may also have used Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. The wager story was most likely adapted from the ninth novel of the second day of Boccaccio's Decameron. And the third plot line, that of Belarius and his sons, was probably taken from an anonymous romantic play called The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, first presented in 1582 and printed in 1589.
Certain elements of characterization and plot here are similar to those of other romances. Characters are separated, then reunited after extended journeys and suffering. Few of the characters are developed thoroughly, and several are little more than stereotypes. The good survive happily, and the evil are punished, so that a certain purification takes place. Nonetheless, the sequences of events implies a mystery to the workings of the world, if ultimately its beneficence.
Complications begin in the opening scene, as one gentleman outlines the situation for another and for us. The time period is that of King Lear, and in this play as well a father misjudges the quality of his children. Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline by a former wife, has disobeyed her father by marrying his foster-son Posthumus rather than her stepbrother, Cloten:
Her husband banish'd, she imprison'd: all
Is outward sorrow, though I think the King
Be touch'd at very heart.
(I, i, 7-10)