Cymbeline, King of Britain when Augustus Caesar was Emperor of Rome, has a daughter, Innogen, and two sons who were stolen in infancy. The queen, his second wife, has a son, Cloten, whom Cymbeline wishes Innogen to marry; but she has secretly married a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus. Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to Rome, where he meets Iachimo, who wagers with him that he can seduce Innogen. Arriving in Britain, Iachimo realizes that she is incorruptible, but, hiding in her bedroom, obtains evidence which convinces Posthumus that he has won the wager. Posthumus orders his servant Pisanio to kill Innogen at Milford Haven, but instead Pisanio advises her to disguise herself as Fidele, a page; in Wales, she meets her brothers, who were stolen twenty years before by the banished nobleman Belarius. Cloten pursues Innogen to Wales in Posthumus' clothes, determined to rape her and kill Posthumus. Instead, he is killed by one of her brothers, and his decapitated body laid beside Innogen, who has taken a potion that makes her appear dead. When she revives, Innogen/ Fidele joins the Roman army, which is invading Britain as a result of Cymbeline's failure to pay tribute to Rome. Posthumus and the stolen princes are instrumental in defeating the Roman army. A final scene of explanations leads to private and public reconciliation.
The play is about the wicked stepmother par excellence. The Queen (stepmother) attempts to marry Imogen off to a vainglorious dolt called Cloten. Imogen chooses instead to marry Posthumus, a heroic young nobleman. The nobleman is irrationally jealous of his wife - a jealousy driven by Posthumus' colleague Iachimo.
Imogen fakes her death to bring Posthumus - her husband - to his senses. Iachimo - Posthumus's servant - turns Posthumus's rage and jealousy against a chaste and wrongly accused wife Imogen.
At the personal level, the play is about de Vere's relationship with his wife - Anne Cecil. De Vere is Posthumus. Anne Cecil is Imogen. Iachimo - the servant who turns Posthumus against his wife - is Rowland Yorke. The wicked stepmother is Lady Burghley.
In 1569, Yorke had fought with the Catholic rebels in the Northern Uprising. By 1572, he was fighting for the Protestant forces in the Dutch wars of independence. He was characterized as "a man of loose and dissolute behaviour and desperately audacious". Yorke had banned de Vere's wife - Anne Cecil - from de Vere's private chamber in 1573. In 1576, when de Vere returned from his foreign travels in a range over the alleged infidelity of his wife, he stayed with Rowland and Edward Yorke. Edward Yorke was a servant of the Earl of Leicester - a rival of both the Cecil family and de Vere. By 1584, the libeler Charles Arundell accused the Earl of Leicester of various crimes, including attempting to disrupt the marriage of de Vere and Anne Cecil. If this accusation is true, Leicester was certainly successful. By 1584, in the Lowlands Yorke attempted to betray allied positions to the Spanish, and two years later, he did so again for silver. He died in 1588 reportedly from poisoning.
There are a number of direct similarities between Posthumus and de Vere. Both were orphans, raised in the same households as their wives, recipients of first rate educations. An incidental character in the play says: "Posthumus [gleaned] all the learnings that his time could make him the receiver of, which he took as we do air, fast as 'twas minister'd." This was undoubtedly true of de Vere's life in the Cecil household. Perhaps echoing Anne Cecil, Imogen tells her father: "It is your fault that I have lov'd Posthumus. You bred him as my playfellow."
Lady Burghley disliked de Vere and wanted Anne to marry Philip Sydney, whom de Vere disliked and perhaps characterized as the In the play, de Vere's views of his stepmother were articulated by the court physician, who says of the Queen:
I do not like her. She doth think she has
Strange ling'ring poisons. I do know her spirit
And will not rust one of her malice …
She is fool'd
With a most false effect. And I the truer
So to be false with her.
While the play at the personal level is about characters in de Vere's life, most play goers at the time would have seen the play as being about political events of the time. The wicked stepmother is Catherine de Medici, who would have become stepmother to England if Elizabeth had married Alençon The play summarizes de Vere's view of the potential marriage:
That such a crafty devil as his mother
Should yield the world this ass? A woman that
Bears all down with her brain; and this her son
Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart,
And leave eighteen.
The banished courtier undoubtedly echoes de Vere's feelings toward court life when he says: "The art o' the court as hard to leave as keep, whose top to climb is certain falling, or so slippery that the fear's as bad as falling."