Strange name! A version of the historical name, they say, of a king of pre-Roman Britain. But what does its sound suggest?
If sound is at issue, we naturally think of cymbal, which the OED carefully defines as “One of a pair of concave plates of brass or bronze, which are struck together to produce a sharp ringing sound. Also used singly and struck with a drumstick or the like. Till late in the 18th c. apparently known only as the name of ancient and foreign instruments of the type described (esp. as mentioned in the Bible).” In obedience to this last comment, Shakespeare writes in Coriolanus, “The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries and fifes, / Tabors and cymbals [Symboles, in the First Folio] and the shouting Romans” (5.4.50). Cymbeline too is set in ancient times, although they have some modern features, and contains Roman (and Briton) clashing enough — “The noise is round about us” (4.4.1) — as well as some sweeter music. The word cymbal derives from Greek kumbē, which Liddell & Scott say is the hollow of a vessel: a drinking-cup or bowl, and also a boat. (A boat, apparently, in Sophocles, Fragment 127: “Are you voyaging to the land on horses or in boats (kumbaisi)?”) “Hollow,” by the way, is a fine hollow-sounding word which Shakespeare often uses to good effect, and it can certainly be argued that in this play seemingly solid gold reveals its hollowness.
Cymbal, especially in its Folio spelling, suggests symbol, which goes well with the image indicated by Imogen, if she was that and not Innogen. Shakespeare does use the word in the modern sense of a sign, a token, a thing (usually material or perceptible) that represents another (usually immaterial or abstract) — “to renounce his baptism, / All seals and symbols [Simbols, in the First Folio] of redeemed sin,” Othello 2.3.334 — and Cymbeline may be thought to contain representative figures, although just what they represent be uncertain. Further, the Greek plural sumbola (of sumbolon) could refer to broken halves of a bone or coin held by two people for the sake of future identification, while another form, sumbolē, was a coming together, meeting, joining; and of course many Shakespearean journeys, those in Cymbeline among them, end in sumbolai. The root sense is, things which are thrown or put together (verb sumballō, throw together). Considering how different this etymology is from that of cymbal, it is an agreeable coincidence that cymbals, like symbols and what they stand for, and like sumbolai, are matched things that are thrown together, so to speak.
These two words capture the first syllables of Cymbeline pretty well (as to consonants, at all events), but are too short. I propose another word, Sibylline. There’s no m, but that’s no great matter. Does the last syllable of this word, or of the king’s name, rhyme with seen, or sign, or sin? Could it even be that the final e was sounded in one or the other word? According to Helge Kökeritz, in Shakespeare’s Names: A Pronouncing Dictionary, seen is right for Cymbeline. But the apparently similar Collatine (in The Rape of Lucrece), which Shakespeare rhymes with line, mine, pine, and divine, in his pronunciation would have in its final syllable the vowel sound əi, i.e. a sort of (Australian?) diphthong uh-ĭ, on which sound see Kökeritz, Shakespeare’s Pronunciation, pp. 216ff. Then what about Sibylline? The word is not in Shakespeare, but for crystalline, which really seems much like it, Kökeritz favors əi, as in Collatine (p. 219). So the final e is surely not sounded in either Cymbeline or Sibylline, and the final syllables have vowels that are not very different—closer than those of seen and sign, anyway.
The resemblance of Sibylline to Cymbeline interests me, simply (symbolly?) because the former word has some connections with elements of the play; with another king especially, whose semi-legendary history informs the dramatic one. Perhaps then the very name of the poet’s complex work contributed to the assembly of its parts.
To begin with, there are the Sibylline books, which the Romans kept in the temple of Jupiter. These were acquired (they say) when the Sibyl offered Tarquin (L. Tarquinius Superbus) the set of nine at a high price. He turned her down; she burned three of the books, and offered him the remaining six at the same price. Refused again, she burned three more, and offered the three that were left at the same price. This time he made the purchase. So from Sibylline we get Romans, and Jupiter, and, most important, Tarquin—whom we might have thought of sooner in this post, because half a dozen lines before the occurrence of cymbal in Coriolanus we read, “A merrier day did never yet greet Rome, / No, not th’expulsion of the Tarquins” (5.4.43). As Shakespeare tells the story of the deed that led to their expulsion in The Rape of Lucrece, it is much like Iachimo’s in Cymbeline: hearing Collatine boast of his wife in company, and subsequently seeing her, Tarquin’s son Sextus is inflamed with passion, comes stealthily upon her in the night, and rapes her; recalling this as he approaches Imogen’s bed, Iachimo says to himself, “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” (Cymbeline 2.2.12). (Compare Macbeth 2.1.55, “Tarquin’s ravishing strides”—slaying the king is like rape.) Finally, it is told that Tarquin once replied to Sextus, who had sent a messenger to ask how to pacify a conquered town, by taking the man out to the garden and there striking the heads off the tallest poppies. In Cymbeline Iachimo, who compares himself to Sextus, by his attempt upon Imogen cuts the paragon Posthumus down to size; and the king’s ambitious son Cloten actually loses his head.
So Sibylline and cymbal lead to Tarquin, who stands as a distant sign or symbol from which Cymbeline draws authority.