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Where Did Cymbeline's Wager Story Come From?

Deanalís Arocho Resto*, Mayou Roffé, Brian Herndon*, Nathaniel Andalis* in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2023 Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Cymbeline. (*Member Actors’ Equity Association / Photo: Neal Ormond)

The Wager Story

After Posthumus is banished from Britain and away from his wife Imogen, he gets into multiple fights regarding her faithfulness. Iachimo, who is skeptical of her chastity and beauty, bets Posthumus that if he is able to seduce her, he will have his diamond ring. If Imogen rejects him, however, he would need to pay Posthumus 10,000 ducats. This is an example of a wager story, a representation of the play’s Renaissance character as opposed to its historical one. According to scholar Roberta L. Krueger, these kinds of stories “dramatize the potential abuses of patriarchal rule and convey empathy for victims”. Shakespeare’s biggest inspirations for this element of his Cymbeline are Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Fredryke of Jennen by an anonymous source. 


The Decameron

The Decameron is a collection of short stories told by 10 fictional young nobles who have fled the Black Death in Florence; in total, there are 10 days’ worth of stories. Shakespeare specifically adapted the 9th story from the 2nd day, which was told by the noblewoman Filomena to instruct her fellow ladies on how to deal with deceivers. It starts out in a Parisian tavern where some merchants are talking about their extramarital affairs and their wives’ assumed infidelity. However, one merchant, Bernabò, argues that his wife is faithful and praises her character. Another merchant, Ambrogiulio of Piacenza (fitting huh?), disputes this, calling Bernabò naive and arguing that it is in women’s nature to cheat. They then make a wager: if Ambrogiulio can seduce Bernabò’s wife, he will get 1000 florins, but if Bernabò’s wife remains true, he will need to pay 5000 florins (Bernabò had previously gone so far to stake his head as the prize). Ambrogiulio manages to sneak into the wife’s house by hiding in a chest, where he memorizes what the room looks like, spots the mole on her chest, and makes off with some souvenirs.  When he returns, Bernabò confirms that what Ambrogiulio witnessed and brought with him can all be attributed to his wife Zinevra, with the mole being the most damning evidence. Bernabò orders a servant to kill his wife on their way to their country house. After Zinevra begs for mercy, the servant takes pity on her and gives her his clothes, with the promise that she will go into exile. Zinevra then poses as a sailor named Sicurano, eventually working for the sultan of Alexandria. Later at a gathering of merchants, he spies Ambrogiulio and his stolen souvenirs and subtly gets him to reveal the entire plot. Sicurano gets the sultan to make Ambrogiulio confess what happened in public, including in front of Bernabò. Bernabò, in turn, confesses how he reacted to his wife’s supposed infidelity. Sicurano then reveals himself as Zinevra and earns the sultan’s praise, also persuading him to pardon her husband. Ambrogiulio, on the other hand, is tied to a stake out in the sun and smothered with honey, eventually being bitten to death by insects. 

Fredryke of Jennen was a well-known English translation of an 15th-century German story and has many similar elements to the one above. However, there are some elements that are unique. For example, it has an international grouping of merchants instead of an all-Italian one, which is reflected in Philario, Posthumus, the Frenchman, and Iachimo (and the Dutchman and the Spaniard, who aren’t in our version of the play). The wife in this story also brings along her pet lamb (a symbol of innocence), which the servant kills to use as evidence for having done his duty. One significant difference between Cymbeline and the two stories, though, is that Iachimo is spared, while his counterparts are tortured and executed rather brutally. 

This blog is part of a series of historically researched posts by our summer Literary Intern Jolie Ouyang.

Learn More about Cymbeline and our Free Shakespeare in the Park 2023 Venues and Times HERE