Research Intern Emiliana Russo and Dr. Will Tosh explore the performance history of the role of Imogen in Shakespeare's Cymbeline.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s least staged plays, but this year has already seen an unexpected renaissance of this extraordinary romance with productions at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now we’re lucky enough to see the play return to the Globe stage after productions in 2001 and 2012, in a new version directed by Matthew Dunster and re-titled Imogen. Imogen – one of the most substantial parts Shakespeare ever wrote – has always been at the core of the play, and Dunster’s production gives the heroine her due prominence. But how has Imogen (or Innogen, as she is also known) been portrayed in performance up to the present?
We don’t know how Imogen was received by the first audiences who met her, in the years around 1609 and 1611 when the play was first staged (although the physician and astrologer Simon Forman was very taken with the infamous bedroom scene when he saw the play at the Globe in 1611). The play was adapted after the Restoration in a version that held the stage for the next century. In 1761, David Garrick staged the play, taking the role of Posthumus, with the part of Imogen rather swamped by Garrick’s star power. But by 1787 Sarah Siddons’ Imogen appeared as the heart and soul of the play, probably because, contrarily to contemporary practices, the role of Posthumus was played by a much less experienced actor, John Kemble. Siddons’ performance gave voice to an articulate, multi-faceted character, a performance which set the tone for subsequent interpretations (Dorothea Jordan, a rival actress, was accused of lacking the ‘natural dignity’ to perform Imogen’s wifely side).
Imogen was at the core of productions of Cymbeline throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1817 the critic William Hazlitt identified her as the play’s main source of attraction and praised ‘her tenderness and constancy to her husband’. In the Victorian era Imogen’s devotion and faithfulness to Posthumus – which to a modern audience seems to be carried to the extreme – earned the heroine the adoration of intellectuals including Alfred Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne. But the nineteenth-century view of Imogen was also contradictory: critics claimed to admire her for her innocence and chastity, but Julia Marlowe’s upright and virtuous performance was panned, whereas Ellen Terry’s unusual, passionate Imogen (inspired by her correspondence with George Bernard Shaw) was acclaimed.
Ellen Terry’s landmark performance became a point of reference for twentieth-century Imogens including Peggy Ashcroft, who played the part in two productions directed by Peter Hall and performed at the Old Vic in London (1932) and in Stratford-upon-Avon (1957). Imogen’s richly varied character – intelligent, forceful, adventurous, loyal, sensual – continues to inspire directors and actors, and surprise audiences unfamiliar with this wonderful play and its courageous heroine.