Was Cymbeline a real person in history? Here's what we know about the legend of this British king

In our current production of Cymbeline, the title role refers the Queen of Britain, played by Gillian Bevan. In Shakespeare’s original version, however, Cymbeline is a male monarch.

If Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is a little known play, the historical figure is even more of an unknown monarch. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are based on existing sources or history, and Cymbeline, too, is loosely based on Cunobeline, a Celtic King. 

Celtic King Cunobeline

Cunobeline (approximately AD 10 to 42), lived in a period before the Roman conquest and ruled part of Essex and later Kent. He was called the King of the Britons (Britannorum rex) by Roman biographer Suetonius.

Cunobeline ruled over a prosperous kingdom. During his reign, there was an increase in luxury imports, such as wine, olive oil and jewellery. Historians discovered many coins minted during this time. The coins told us about the king’s power, the regions he took control of and his good relations with the Roman Empire.   

Iachimo kneels before Cymbeline and Imogen, confessing his crime. All characters are in period costumes.
Iachimo (Geoffrey Keen) kneels before Cymbeline (Robert Harris) in the 1957 production of Cymbeline, directed by Peter Hall
Angus McBean © RSC – Image Licensing

The story of Cymbeline has very little to do with what we know about Cunobeline. The plot line involving Cymbeline, Guiderius, Arviragus and the Romans in Britain is based on a tale in the Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles. Holinshed briefly describes the life of 'Kymbelinus', an impressive soldier and a powerful king, whose friendship with the Romans was so great that he paid them tribute willingly when he could have refused to. His elder son Guiderius, however, refused to pay tribute to the Romans. This angered Emperor Claudius, who invaded Britain. 


Black and white drawings of four Cunobeline coins
Drawing of 4 Cunobeline coins from William Camden's Britannia (1607)
Drawing by William Camden © Public domain – Image Licensing

Cunobeline vs Cymbeline

In the end, King Cunobeline bears little resemblance to King Cymbeline. They share similar names, and Shakespeare borrowed the names of his sons from Holinshed. But it is Cymbeline’s refusal to pay tribute that leads to the Roman invasion in the play, while the Chronicles records Kymbelinus’ son Guiderius making the decision.

It's rare to see Shakespeare, who loves reworking older stories, create a world that is so much of his own. Cymbeline gives us an opportunity to look deeper into Shakespeare’s imagination through a complex, psychological and unpredictable work.

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