Text-based character exploration

PURPOSE: Review what the main characters say about themselves and what is said of them by others.

WHEN & WHY:  This should be done early in the rehearsal process, so that people get anchored in the text before they make too many assumptions about their characters that may be off-base. I do think some familiarity with the plot is useful for the actors in advance of this exercise, although we operated without that and people still got something out of it.


  • Textual references to character pulled onto separate sheets. Exactly how to slice and dice this will be up to you, but here’s what I created for exploration of Imogen and Posthumus:
    • Overarching list of all things said about the character (at least most of them … what I got from one pass through the text). Ideally, note the citations with who says them. You may also want to make other notes (such as the things Posthumus says about Imogen when he’s under the impression she’s betrayed him), but that will depend on how you want to slice and dice.
    • What Imogen says about herself
    • Posthumus on Imogen
    • Iachimo on Imogen
    • Cymbeline on Imogen
    • Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, Lucius and Cymbeline on Fidele
    • What Posthumus says about himself
    • Imogen on Posthumus
    • Cymbeline, Cloten and the Queen on Posthumus

PROCESS (with notes from when the Shakespeare work group tried this on Jan. 17, 2015)

  • Imogen
    • Each of the actors chose a character (Imogen, Posthumus, Iachimo, Cymbeline) and received the sheet of paper related to what that character says about Imogen.
    • Each actor then spent 5-10 minutes speaking those lines out loud, embodying them a bit, playing around with them (all at the same time, with no coaching)
    • Abby (as Imogen) stood in the middle of the room, and then each of the actors stepped forward and delivered their character’s lines to her. I encouraged them to play with space … whisper in her ear if appropriate, etc.
      • Abby found it useful to listen without the pressure of having a situation to play or her own lines to cover.
      • Daniel noted how skilled Iachimo is with language
    • Abby then spoke Imogen’s lines about herself.
      • She doesn’t say much about herself and pretty much nothing until she’s down and feeling sorry for herself
      • I warned everyone away from drawing the conclusion that she has low self-esteem as a character, pointing out that most of her actions are pretty self-possessed. What is worth noting is that she doesn’t talk about herself a lot.
    • We then read the lines that everyone says about Fidele, noting that the disguise doesn’t really shift the general good impression everyone has of her … but adds a note of surprise to people’s reactions that this boy could be such a paragon.
    • We then read the full laundry list of lines about Imogen, in order, each person reading assigned characters. With a full cast in rehearsal, it would be useful to have people speak only their lines. If you want them in order, you’ll have to write the script … if the actors do the research, you’ll get the lines in haphazard order.
  • Posthumus
    • Individual preparation on lines from Imogen, Cymbeline/Queen/Cloten, and Posthumus on himself (as above for Imogen)
    • We started with lines from Cloten, the Queen and Cymbeline (all very negative and abusive).
    • Then Daniel read what Posthumus says of himself (also mostly self-loathing)
    • Then what Imogen says about him (incredibly complimentary … at least until he tries to have her killed)
      • Daniel felt very clearly why Posthumus cannot quite trust Imogen: she’s too good to be true.
      • We also covered their apparently less-than-ardent love life (her coldness, her chastity) … and also her, perhaps, over-idealized view of Posthumus; which ideas are probably related.
    • We did the Posthumus lines while space-walking, so that the exercise was active. This was better than just standing around, but Kurt pointed out that some Viewpoints-like structure to the movement might support the work. This was particularly true when we did the full laundry list of references, people dropping them on Posthumus on the fly-by. If you were doing this with a full company of actors, and people speaking their own lines (which would be helpful for relationship building), it could be useful for everyone (including the characters who say nothing about Posthumus, if there were a physical set-up for the exercise. A quick concept of how this might work: Give Posthumus a playing area in the center of the space. Have “the world” outside that space. No one is allowed into that space except Imogen (who must be Inside until rejected), perhaps Pisanio, and the dream spirits. At the end, Posthumus may step out … maybe. I think there might be an additional rule that the nice things that get said about Posthumus out in the world need to be said out of hearing of the king.


  • Note that you could have the actors pull their own references themselves, but probably not if you do it too early in the rehearsal process, or if you have less-experienced actors that have a hard time with the language. With a group of experienced actors, that I knew I could trust to do the work, I would probably assign this out … as a good way to save myself time, and a good way to make sure they’re looking at the text. I would ask them to bring their comments (if any) about themselves, and about each other character upon whom they comment. Note that honorifics (my Lord) and insults (you dog) count as comments.
  • It’s helpful to know, as a director, what point you might be trying to make before you set up the structure of the exercise for each character (especially if incorporating movement as mentioned below). We did a shorter version of this exercise with Cloten, for instance, where I separated out what people say to his face vs. what is said behind his back … useful for the actor to know the highly complementary world in which the prince lives.


  • This work is a useful and authentic way to approach the characters. It involves a lot of prep work for the director/dramaturg, but is better than building character based on the partial information of a scene (or worse, the inherited information of theatrical tradition).
  • With a less experienced cast, it also allows people to work on small snippets of text that are firmly anchored in the people with whom they’re interacting.

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