In a humorous post from 2017, web comic creator Mya Gosling mused about the absence of mothers in Shakespeare’s plays. Employing her signature stick-figure style, she presented a series of single-panel comics that put these absent maternal figures back in the picture, showing them as calming, sensible, or protective forces whose intervention may have drastically altered the tragic (or near-tragic) events of the plays. Ophelia moves on to better romantic pursuits, Edmund’s trick letter is recognized, and Hero is defended at the altar. Mothers—they fix everything!
What many people don’t know is that we came tantalizingly close to testing one of these hypotheticals. In the quarto of Much Ado About Nothing (1600), the play opens with the following stage direction: Enter Leonato govenour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his niece with a messenger (emphasis mine).
Opening page of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, 1600. Folger call number: STC 22304
She then reappears in the stage direction beginning Act 2, scene 1: Enter Leonato, his brother, his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his niece and a kinsmen.
Act 2, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, 1600. Folger call number: STC 22304
These same directions are repeated in the First Folio of 1623. Two different references to a character—and, one would think, an important one in the story of a young woman’s betrothal, rejection, and redemption—who neither speaks nor is spoken to during the course of the play. Her silent non-presence has led to centuries of editorial erasure and her absence in performance. She has all but disappeared into obscurity, relegated to a particularly tricky Jeopardy question.
This is a shame because the problem of Innogen serves two vital purposes: to remind us of the plays as living works and to offer us an opportunity to consider new stories.
Cedric Watts believes Innogen was a conscious character choice by Shakespeare. In discussing his decision to include her in the Wordsworth edition, he writes:
In an ironic master-stroke, Shakespeare has, from the very start of the play, established that in this male-dominated world, a wife and mother may be a mute witness of events; a person ignored, not consulted; a person whose later absence from the action expresses eloquently the ways in which some women may be utterly marginalised.(sic)
However, I am more inclined to agree with Claire McEachern, who sees Innogen as “an instance of Shakespeare’s working method of conjuring up a raft of personnel, and then streamlining as he goes along . . .sorting out the action and necessary bodies as the plot thickens and occasion requires.”1 The fact is, Innogen is not unique but one of a handful of ghost characters peppered through Shakespeare’s works, including Beaumont in Henry V and Violenta in All’s Well That Ends Well. Joseph A. Porter also considers Mercutio’s brother, Valentine, in this category due to his strong familial relationship with a major character, despite not appearing in any of Romeo and Juliet’s stage directions.
Taken together, these ghost characters offer a glimpse of works in progress, rough, changeable, and so very relatable. Who among us hasn’t re-read a term paper only to groan aloud at the typo in the second paragraph, or found themselves with a finished project utterly unlike the one outlined in their original proposal? Too often we are given the image of Shakespeare in his study or romantic garrett, isolated in his genius, finely crafting whole, finished products destined to endure the centuries unaltered. These textual ghosts undermine that argument. They could have been Shakespeare’s false starts or earlier drafts (evidence of which we can also find in the evolution of Falstaff). They could be changes made while staging the play, the result of actor availability, or the practical choreography of exits and entrances. And they could be as Watts hypothesizes, conscious artistic choices who open up new ways of reading and performing the text.
What’s wonderful is how we see people responding to that opportunity. A 2011 production of Much Ado in the West End restored Innogen and gave her Antonio’s lines, which The Guardian found to be a “a deft touch since it makes Hero’s disgrace even more disruptive to the family.” In 2017, Yale Repertory Theatre debuted Imogen Says Nothing: The Annotated Life of Imogen of Messina, last sighted in the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, a new play by Aditi Brennan Kapil. Called “a profound meditation on women in society, gender roles in general, persecution, creativity, posterity and the nature of theater itself” and an “imaginative, exotic and frightfully pertinent play,” it is but one example of how these compelling echoes of Shakespeare’s creative process can spark new ideas and conversations today.
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