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Shakespeare's Characters: Imogen (Cymbeline)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 18. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

Please also see The Shakespeare Sisterhood: Imogen for more information.

Imogen, like Juliet, conveys to our mind the impression of extreme simplicity in the midst of the most wonderful complexity. To conceive her aright, we must take some peculiar tint from many characters, and so mingle them that, like the combination of hues in a sunbeam, the effect shall be as one to the eye. We must imagine something of the romantic enthusiasm of Juliet, of the truth and constancy of Helen, of the dignified purity of Isabel, of the tender sweetness of Viola, of the self-possession and intellect of Portia — combined together so equally and so harmoniously that we can scarcely say that one quality predominates over the other. But Imogen is less imaginative than Juliet, less spirited and intellectual than Portia, less serious than Helen and Isabel; her dignity is not so imposing as that of Hermione — it stands more on the defensive; her submission, though unbounded, is not so passive as that of Desdemona; and thus, while she resembles each of these characters individually, she stands wholly distinct from all.

It is true that the conjugal tenderness of Imogen is at once the chief subject of the drama and the pervading charm of her character; but it is not true, I think, that she is merely interesting from her tenderness and constancy to her husband. We are so completely let into the essence of Imogen's nature that we feel as if we had known and loved her before she was married to Posthumus, and that her conjugal virtues are a charm super-added, like the colour laid upon a beautiful groundwork. Neither does it appear to me that Posthumus is unworthy of Imogen, or only interesting on Imogen's account. His character, like those of all the other persons of the drama, is kept subordinate to hers; but this could not be otherwise, for she is the proper subject — the heroine of the poem. Everything is done to ennoble Posthumus and justify her love for him; and though we certainly approve him more for her sake than for his own, we are early prepared to view him with Imogen's eyes, and not only excuse, but sympathize in her admiration. . . .

One thing more must be particularly remarked, because it serves to individualize the character from the beginning to the end of the poem. We are constantly sensible that Imogen, besides being a tender and devoted woman, is a princess and a beauty, at the same time that she is ever superior to her position and her external charms. There is, for instance, a certain airy majesty of deportment — a spirit of accustomed command breaking out every now and then — the dignity, without the assumption, of rank and royal birth, which is apparent in the scene with Cloten and elsewhere; and we have not only a general impression that Imogen, like other heroines, is beautiful, but the peculiar style and character of her beauty are placed before us. We have an image of the most luxuriant loveliness, combined with exceeding delicacy, and even fragility of person; of the most refined elegance and the most exquisite modesty.
Mrs. Jameson: Characteristics of Women.


The Antecedents of Imogen.

As in Cleopatra and Cressida we had woman determined solely by her sex, so in Imogen we have an embodiment of the highest possible characteristics of womanhood — untainted health of soul, unshaken fortitude, constancy that withstands all trials, inexhaustible forbearance, unclouded intelligence, love that never wavers, and unquenchable radiance of spirit. She, like Marina, is cast into the snake-pit of the world. She is slandered, and not, like Desdemona, at second or third hand, but by the very man who boasts of her favours and supports his boast with seemingly incontrovertible proofs. Like Cordelia, she is misjudged; but whereas Cordelia is merely driven from her father's presence along with the man of her choice, Imogen is doomed to death by her cruelly-deceived husband, whom alone she adores; and through it all she preserves her love for him unweakened and unchanged.

Strange — very strange! In Imogen we find the fullest, deepest love that Shakespeare has ever placed in a woman's breast, and that although Cymbeline follows close upon plays which were filled to the brim with contempt for womankind. He believed, then, in such love, so impassioned, so immovable, so humble — believed in it now? He had, then, observed or encountered such a love — encountered it at this point of his life?

Even a poet has scant enough opportunities of observing love. Love is a rare thing, much rarer than the world pretends, and when it exists, it is apt to be sparing of words. Did he simply fall back on his own experiences, his own inward sensations, his knowledge of his own heart, and, transposing his feelings from the major to the minor key, place them on a woman's lips? Or did he love at this moment, and was he himself thus beloved at the end of the fifth decade of his life? The probability is, doubtless, that he wrote from some quite fresh experience, though it does not follow that the experience was actually his own. It is not often that women love men of his mental habit and stature with such intensity of passion. The rule will always be that a Moliere shall find himself cast aside for some Comte de Guiche, a Shakespeare for some Earl of Pembroke. Thus we cannot with any certainty conclude that he himself was the object of the passion which had revived his faith in a woman's power of complete and unconditional absorption in love for one man, and for him alone. In the first place, had the experience been his own, he would scarcely left London so soon. Yet the probability is that be must just about this time have gained some clear and personal insight into an ideal love. In the public sphere, too, it is not unlikely that Arabella Stuart's undaunted passion for Lord William Seymour, so cruelly punished by King James, may have afforded the model for Imogen's devotion to Posthumus in defiance of the will of King Cymbeline.
Brandes: William Shakespeare.


Related Articles

 Introduction to Posthumus
 Introduction to Cloten
 Introduction to Guiderius and Arviragus
 Introduction to Iachimo
 Introduction to Cymbeline and his Queen