The Curious Origins of the Girls’ Name Imogen

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle examines the supposed literary origins of a popular girls’ name

Where does the name Imogen come from? Some name origins are more interesting than others. And the origin of the girls’ name Imogen is more interesting than most.

Imogen is a character in Cymbeline, a late play by William Shakespeare. This ‘problem play’ isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays: Samuel Johnson dismissed its ‘unresisting imbecility’, while George Bernard Shaw called it ‘stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order’. The American-born novelist and short-story writer Henry James, in 1896, was kinder: ‘The thing is a florid fairy-tale, of a construction so loose and unpropped that it can scarce be said to stand upright at all, and of a psychological sketchiness that never touches firm ground, but plays, at its better times, with an indifferent shake of golden locks, in the high, sunny air of delightful poetry.’

Imogen From Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’. Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon. (1825-1876). Oil On Canvas, 1872.

And it’s in Cymbeline that we find a character named Imogen. She’s the daughter of the title character, a king of ancient Britain. But some scholars and editors of Shakespeare’s play refer to the character as Innogen rather than Imogen, because it’s believed that ‘Imogen’ arose as an error when the play was first printed. In other words, the double ‘n’ of the female given name Innogen was misread as an ‘m’ – and a brand-new girls’ name, Imogen, was born. Certainly, the name Innogen exists: it means ‘girl’ or ‘maiden’.

And this idea – that ‘Imogen’ was a simple misreading of ‘Innogen’ that became popular by accident – is supported by the fact that a character named Innogen even appears in another Shakespeare play, Much Ado about Nothing. Or rather, she does and then doesn’t appear. Innogen only appears in an early version of the play, as a ghost: she’s the wife of Leonato, and the mother of Hero, the young bride-to-be whom Claudio cruelly denounces at the altar because he’s been tricked into thinking Hero is unfaithful. (We discuss Much Ado in more detail here.)

As Cedric Watts – one of the few editors who has restored Innogen to the play – has observed, the First Quarto (Q1) printing of Much Ado about Nothing opened with the stage-direction for the opening of Act 1, scene 1: ‘Enter Leonato gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his neece, with a messenger.’ Watts’ edition of the play, Much Ado About Nothing (Wordsworth Classics), recovers Leonato’s lost wife and includes her in the stage directions.

But at least since the eighteenth century when Lewis Theobald edited Shakespeare’s plays, Innogen has been quietly removed. ‘I have ventured to expunge [her name]’, Theobald wrote; ‘there being no mention of her through the play, no one speech addressed to her, nor one syllable spoken to her.’ But the fact that there’s an Innogen in the early printings of another play lends credence to the idea that ‘Innogen’ in Cymbeline became ‘Imogen’ thanks to a printing error.

As Rowland Wymer has argued, the idea that Imogen arose as a misprint of Innogen seems highly probable. Innogen was the wife of the legendary founder of Britain, Brute the Trojan, and Innogen is the form of the name used by Raphael Holinshed, one of Shakespeare’s sources for his play. What’s more, Shakespeare’s contemporary, the astrologer Simon Forman, left an account of an original performance of Cymbeline from the early 1600s, and Forman, too, refers to Cymbeline’s daughter as Innogen.

So, ‘Imogen’ arose as a name because a seventeenth-century printer mistook ‘Innogen’ for ‘Imogen’.

Curiously enough, though, the name Imogen was not exactly invented through this fortuitous misprint … at least, not entirely. For there was at least one Imogen before Shakespeare – indeed, five centuries before Shakespeare. In the eleventh century, Imogen was the name of a sister of Rivallon I of Dol, an ally of William the Conqueror during the Breton-Norman War.

Although Shakespeare may not have been ultimately responsible for the name, and his ‘Imogen’ was not the first to bear that name, it’s certainly true that the character in Cymbeline, who has become known by that name in most editions and productions of the play, is responsible for the popularity of the name Imogen ever since, at least in the English-speaking world.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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