Costume drama: Margaret, Innogen, and the problem of Much Ado About Nothing in modern performance

Par Michael Dobson
Publication en ligne le 20 février 2022


The article argues that despite Shakespeare’s skill at redeploying the familiar narrative materials which inform the main plot of Much Ado About Nothing, and despite its reputation as Shakespeare’s most well-made and thus perennially assimilable comedy, it presents three perhaps insoluble problems for modern producers. One is its depiction of sexual mores which no longer officially prevail among Western theatregoers, which has encouraged directors to set the play in a harmlessly picturesque past – a strategy which transforms the plot of Hero’s defamation from an edgy exposé of the perils of patriarchal marriage into a piece of harmless and perhaps even nostalgic escapism. Another is its handling of Margaret, the maid who agrees to dress in Hero’s clothes and speak with Borachio at Hero’s window the night before the wedding: only careful misdirection of the audience’s attention can allow audiences not to notice the inconsistency of her behaviour and the surprising willingness with which she is exonerated. The ghost character of Innogen, Hero’s non-speaking mother, only foregrounds these problems, and the article concludes by looking at one modern production which tried in some measure to reincorporate her.

Cet article montre que, malgré l’habileté que Shakespeare déploie à retravailler les sources narratives bien connues qui parcourent la trame principale de Much Ado about Nothing et malgré la réputation qu’a cette pièce d’être la comédie la mieux construite lui permettant d’être en phase avec toutes les époques, elle présente trois problèmes sans doute insolubles pour les metteurs en scène de notre temps. Le premier concerne les mœurs amoureuses qui n’ont plus cours parmi les spectateurs occidentaux, ce qui a conduit certains metteurs en scène à situer la pièce dans un cadre passéiste aux tonalités pittoresques et insouciantes – stratégie qui transforme l’intrigue concernant la diffamation de Hero, exposé délicat sur les périls encourus lors d’un mariage dans une société patriarcale, en une histoire inoffensive et sans doute même, nostalgique. Le problème suivant est le traitement de Margaret, la servante qui accepte de revêtir les vêtements de Hero et de se tenir avec Borachio à la fenêtre de Hero la veille de son mariage : seul un décentrement efficace de l’attention des spectateurs peut leur permettre de ne pas remarquer l’incohérence du comportement de Margaret et l’empressement surprenant avec lequel elle est acquittée. Enfin, le personnage fantôme d’Innogen, la mère de Hero à qui Shakespeare n’a pas donné de réplique, ne fait que mettre en lumière ces problèmes. En conclusion, l’article se penche sur une mise en scène moderne qui essaie, dans une certaine mesure, de la réintroduire.


Texte intégral

1While I have spent many happy hours over the last forty or so years watching Much Ado About Nothing in the theatre (not least at Kiki Lindell’s production in Lund in 2017, around which the symposium for which this essay was originally composed was organized); while I have gladly helped oversee the preparation of Anna Kamaralli’s actor-friendly edition of Much Ado About Nothing for the new Arden Performance Editions of Shakespeare series (2017); and while I can even recall with painful embarrassment that in the early 1980s I started writing an awful epistolary novel that included a fictitious avant-garde hyper-realist Edinburgh Festival production of Much Ado About Nothing, this is not a play I can claim to love. Admittedly, in performance I am usually much more touched by the transformation of Benedick and Beatrice than I expect to be, but I rarely find their mutual public rudeness in the earlier part of the play either witty or charming, and while I do not find Hero and Claudio as negligible as have many commentators since the eighteenth century,1 the events surrounding their union seem calculated to provide such a bitter exposé of patriarchal marriage that at the end of Much Ado it is hard to feel pleased that anyone gets betrothed at all. I do not think I feel thus about Much Ado solely because I am an academic, and therefore have a natural bias towards plays that look more recherché than does this one, plays that seem in need of more explanation, plays that are less popular with the middlebrow masses: though it is certainly striking that, with the notable exception of feminist critics, professional literary scholars have spent far less time writing about Much Ado than they have discussing near-contemporaries among the mature comedies such as Twelfth Night. What follows, then, ungenerously enough, is an essay not about what actors and directors have found suggestive and enabling about a favourite Shakespearean comedy, but about problems with a non-favourite Shakespearean comedy which for my money no production I have yet seen has really solved.

2There is much that I admire about Much Ado About Nothing, I should stress: I particularly admire, for instance, the way in which Shakespeare first prepares us for the defamation-by-simulacrum plot at its centre and then leads us out of it by means of two added sequences of his own which offer different variations on the interchangeability of women, namely the masked ball in act II and the presentation of the veiled women at the end of act V. I also admire Shakespeare’s rigour in pointing out in advance that the suspicion that Hero might not be the ideal obedient bride but might instead be any man’s Hero is in fact rooted in the role of ideal obedient bride itself, when he quietly shows us, at the masked ball, that as the perfect modest daughter Hero would have been just as willing to follow her father’s guidance in accepting a proposal from Don Pedro himself as to accept a proposal made by Don Pedro on behalf of another paternally-approved eligible bachelor, perhaps on behalf of any other paternally-approved eligible bachelor. (See I.2, II.1.59-61).2 What I mainly want to do in this essay, though, is look at the price Much Ado pays for its conspicuous and foregrounded realistic narrative ingenuity, and some of the consequences of that price for its fortunes in live performance. To give a semblance of order, and because this publication is French, this paper is divided into three sections: 1. Realism, 2. Realism and its discontents – Margaret, and 3. Realism and its even more discontents ̶ Innogen.

I. Realism

3Let me begin by stating the obvious: one of the reasons why Much Ado might seem a smaller play than, for example, As You Like It is that it chooses to remain much closer to the canons of what we would now call realism than do most of Shakespeare’s other comedies. (Lacking fairies, gods, or a green world, for instance; it actually has a single closely observed time scheme). As a result, this play has been assimilated much more comfortably into the mental landscape of post-Renaissance comic writing than have its more Lylyan peers, and it has even retrospectively come to look normal, almost to the point of becoming invisible and unworthy of comment. As I have pointed out before,3 alone among Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado has had recognisable descendants in mainstream showbusiness from his time to ours. Sparring couples, their witticisms at each other’s expense at first appearing to reveal mutual dislike but in time betraying themselves as symptoms of mutual attraction, became one of the clichés of comic scriptwriting after William Davenant transposed Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick into his pioneering Restoration comedy The Law Against Lovers in 1662. Such apparently mismatched, wrangling pairs have remained a staple, from 18th-century drawing-room comedy (and its descendants in prose fiction, among them Pride and Prejudice), through comic opera (not least Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, 1860-1862), and thence, after the arrival of the cinema, to screwball comedy (compare Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night). Nobody since Shakespeare has written anything resembling As You Like It or Twelfth Night, plays whose events take place in poetic never-never worlds at no particular time and sometimes in no particular order. But Much Ado About Nothing looks at first glance like a tightly plotted rom-com, closer to the work of Richard Curtis than to anything by the author of The Tempest. Tellingly, this is the only Shakespearean comedy ever to have been successfully hybridized with a Molière play, in James Miller’s adaptation The Universal Passion (1736).

4In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare chose to accommodate himself more closely to laws of narrative consistency, social plausibility, and strict and specific temporal sequence than he had at any time since composing another work involving the detailed representation of a household preparing for a wedding, Romeo and Juliet, three years earlier. Both of these plays, as a result, can readily be made in modern performance to look like straightforward dramatizations of ordinary secular narratives, but because both have plots which depend on social and sexual mores which no longer officially prevail among the majority of theatregoers in the liberal West – arranged marriages, pre-marital chastity, extended families including live-in servants, zealously-defended family honour, and so on – they are both likely to be staged as if they were dramatizations of secular narratives set in the picturesquely obsolete past. In the 1740s David Garrick could still play Much Ado in modern dress, but, as in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation, on the present-day stage Much Ado About Nothing is liable to look like a piece of orthodox period-dressed escapism, a supremely competent Merchant Ivory account of problems which are no longer ours. Just as we can safely enjoy the pathos of Romeo and Juliet in the knowledge that nowadays nobody could have stopped Juliet from going cheerfully off with Romeo half-way through their sonnet at the ball, and that the young couple would probably never have bothered to marry, never mind in secret, so there can be something definitely smug about watching a modern production of Much Ado About Nothing. If it is to be set in a vaguely English-looking sort of Messina (and the watch scenes at least generally ask for it), it can readily be staged in the clothes of any period from the Renaissance through the 1920s, but it is very unlikely to be played in modern dress. Even Josie Rourke’s second production of the play, at Wyndham’s in 2007, was set no more recently than in that lost archaeological era just after the extinction of the dinosaurs, from which anything which survives can only be kitsch: the early 1980s. Over the last forty years this play’s main plot, in the Anglophone theatre, has regularly become a story about how misogynistic young soldiers used to be, and how suspicious and over-protective the fathers of naïve young brides used to be, in the bad, strait-laced, repressed old days of, variously, the vaguely seventeenth century (as in Michael Boyd’s RSC production of 1996, and Nicholas Hytner’s at the National in 2002); the British Raj (John Barton, RSC, 1976, and Declan Donellan, Cheek by Jowl, 1998); or the Edwardian country house, whether that house appears to be in Italy but is full of British officers (Josie Rourke, Sheffield Crucible, 2005), or is conveniently close to Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1918 (Christopher Luscombe, RSC, Stratford, and then Chichester and then the Haymarket, 2014-2017). Productions nominally set in more recent times have instead displaced the action to foreign parts: whether fascist Italy (as in the case of Greg Doran’s fine RSC production of 2002, which took the play home to Sicily but only to the Sicily of 1938), or pre-revolutionary Cuba (Marianne Elliott, RSC, 2006), or present-day India (Iqbal Khan, RSC, 2012).4 In any event, audiences can comfortably settle into admiring how convincingly and ingeniously the play arranges first the defamation and then the vindication of Hero, while always knowing that this story, familiar as its awful logic may remain, belongs to long ago or to far away or both.

II. Realism and its discontents: Margaret

5Quite apart from the risk that nowadays the central traumatic events of Much Ado About Nothing may be staged as if they were mere symptoms of what four centuries on has accidentally become the play’s period charm, there were perils involved in telling this story in a socially realistic mode from the outset. In 1598, Shakespeare not only set himself the task of designing a conventional well-made play before such things were even conventional, but he set himself the task of designing one out of material which was dauntingly familiar to his contemporaries, some of whom would thus be in a position to watch his every narrative move like hawks. As every scholarly edition of Much Ado points out, the story of the innocent bride repudiated after pre-marital infidelity has been simulated using another woman dressed in her clothes was one of the most often retold of the entire early modern period. Earlier versions, some with happy endings, some without, include the story of Ginevora in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), and the tale of Fenicia in Bandello’s Novelle (1554), also known to Shakespeare in French translation in Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques (1559). In English the story had been told by George Whetstone in The Rock of Regard (1576) and by Edmund Spenser in book II of The Faerie Queene (1590), and it had already been dramatized at least twice, as Ariodante and Genevra (at court in 1583) and in one incident in Fedele and Fortunio (probably by Anthony Munday, 1585).

6In any of its variants, this story requires at least four key players: the innocent bride (in Shakespeare, Hero), the deceived bridegroom (Claudio), the slandering villain (Don John), and the maid who dresses in the bride’s clothes and lets a lover in at the bride’s window while the deceived bridegroom looks on (in Shakespeare, Margaret). Of these, if you are going to tell the tale with any level of psychological plausibility, it is the latter two who need the most work. Ariosto, sensibly, solves the problem of the maid’s motivation by allowing her to do most of the storytelling. When we stumble upon this entire story, in Scotland, at the end of the fourth canto of Orlando Furioso, the bride Ginevora has already been defamed, the deceived bridegroom, Ariodante, appears to have committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea, and Ginevora is to be executed for her supposed infidelity unless the questing knight Rinaldo can prove her innocence. Rinaldo has the good fortune to find the missing maid, Dalinda, and she explains at length how she was seduced by the slandering villain, Polynex, who turned out to have seduced her solely in order to obtain her help in wooing her mistress, Ginevora (who as heiress to the throne of Scotland is well worth this level of ingenuity and effort). When Ginevora then became engaged to Ariodante nonetheless, it was Polynex’s jealousy which led him to devise the scenario of having Dalinda dress as Ginevora and receive him at the window while a horrified Ariodante looked on. So, it was Dalinda’s abject obedience to Polynex’s every whim, we gather, which led her, little realizing they were being watched, to go along with him ̶ that, and a definite interest in her mistress’s superior clothes. “I was wearing a white dress trimmed with thread of gold, and on my head a gilded veil spangled with red,” she recalls, “a costume which Ginevora alone, and no one else, was wont to wear.”5 Rinaldo duly explains to the bride’s father, the King of Scotland, how he has solved the case, and he then promptly kills the wicked Polynex in the trial by combat over Ginevora’s innocence. Ginevora is even reunited with an apologetic Ariodante, who turns out to have changed his mind about suicide on discovering how cold and uncomfortable it is in the sea. Shakespeare brings the bride back to life instead of the bridegroom, and he employs a rather less efficient detective than Rinaldo in the person of Dogberry, but we know from details of As You Like It that he was reading John Harington’s 1591 translation of Orlando Furioso in the late 1590s, and his version of the plot is recognisably akin to this one.

7In a context of chivalric romance, in which customs may be strange and archaic and time-schemes vague and elastic, this story works perfectly well, largely because we are shown in great detail how the maid is gradually, over a considerable space of time, led into her curious and transgressive behaviour by the slandering villain. Another re-telling well-known to Shakespeare, Spenser’s, in some ways anticipates Much Ado by wanting to compress the story and speed it up, but even so it pays much closer psychological attention to the maid’s interest in her mistress’s outfits. This much nastier version, which occupies only a few stanzas of canto IV of The Faerie Queene book II, is instead narrated by the deceived bridegroom, Phedon, who has killed the defamed bride, Claribell. Having now learned the truth from the maid Pryene (who was, as in Ariosto, seduced by the slandering villain, here called Philemon), he has killed Philemon and is pursuing the maid with the intention of killing her too. Despite the brevity of his rendition of the story, Spenser takes pains over the maid’s motivation, devoting two whole stanzas to a retelling of how the wicked Philemon appealed not only to her devotion to him but to her envy and, especially, her vanity. According to Phedon’s account,

This gracelesse man for furtherance of his guile,
Did court the handmayd of my Lady deare,
Who glad t’embosome his affection vile,
Did all she might, more pleasing to appeare.
One day to worke her to his will more neare,
He woo’d her thus:
Pryene (so she hight)
What great despight doth fortune to thee beare,
Thus lowly to abase thy beautie bright,
That it should not deface all others lesser light?
But if she had her least helpe to thee lent,
T'adorne thy forme according thy desart,
Their blazing pride thou wouldest soone haue blent,
And staynd their prayses with thy least good part;
Ne should faire
Claribell with all her art,
Though she thy Lady be, approch thee neare;
For proofe thereof, this euening, as thou art,
Aray thy selfe in her
most gorgeous geare,
That I may more delight in thy embracement deare.
The Faerie Queene, II, IV, xxv-xxvi)6

8This is the sort of passage in Spenser which makes one regret all the more that the plays he is said to have composed do not survive: the way in which the last lascivious alexandrine betrays to the reader that Philemon, alongside his pleasure in deceiving Phedon, is here excited by the idea of using Pryene as a sex-doll proxy for Claribell even while persuading Pryene that his erotic interest is in her, is particularly impressive. Despite the dramatic possibilities of this section of the plot, though, this is exactly the key piece of dialogue which Shakespeare conspicuously chooses not to write, recognizing that in a version of this plot which has to take place in a real-looking society over the space of seven days his best hope is to distract us from the maid’s perspective and intentions altogether. Instead, Shakespeare shows us Margaret’s critical actions only through the words of the slandering villain’s accomplice, Borachio, with whom we never actually see her: and even in Borachio’s account her behaviour seems oddly inconsistent. In II.2, when he proposes the plan to Don John, Borachio assures his master that, having been deeply in Margaret’s favour for a year, he can “at any unseasonable instant of the night appoint her to look out at her lady’s chamber window,” and that the night before the wedding he can arrange that Claudio will “hear me call Margaret Hero.” (II.2.15-16, 38-39). Despite this latter detail, which it is surely hard to imagine a non-complicit Margaret agreeing to, when the penitent Borachio is subsequently brought before Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato, he assures them that Margaret was not a full participant in the scheme, “Nor knew not what she did when she spoke to me, / But always hath been just and virtuous / In anything that I do know by her.” (V.1.293-5). This further begs the question as to why this just and virtuous woman has not immediately come forward on hearing about the false charges against her mistress which her conduct has made possible.

9At least Shakespeare, back-tracking on Borachio’s statement that Claudio will shame Hero “before the whole congregation” (III.3.154), realizes that he needs to keep the wedding so private that even the bride’s chief domestic attendant will not be there, since otherwise she would surely reveal on the spot the truth behind Claudio’s false accusation. Instead, Shakespeare specifies in the aborted wedding scene’s opening stage direction the presence of only Don Pedro, Don John, Leonato, Friar Francis, Claudio, Benedick, Hero and Beatrice (IV.1: directors who seek to increase the drama of this scene by bringing all the potentially available characters onto the stage, including a presumably amnesiac Margaret, do so at enormous risk). But Margaret remains strangely silent on the subject of what she knows about the night before the wedding even as late as V.2, when we find her joking saucily and irrelevantly with Benedick, before the news of Hero’s vindication has yet arrived, as if nothing has happened. Nobody, however, ever comments on this silence, instead going out of their way to exonerate her. “But Margaret was in some fault for this,” Leonato later says in V.4, “Although against her will as it appears…” (V.4.4-5). (This line seems particularly absurd, by the way, in Branagh’s film, in which we and Claudio do not just see Imelda Staunton’s Margaret speaking at Hero’s window but see her having sex with Borachio on the windowsill). Strangely, by mid-way through V.4 Margaret has evidently been wholly forgiven for endangering her mistress’s life through misbehaving herself with a criminal lover on her employer’s premises, and she even serves as one of the four (or sometimes five) veiled women with whom Claudio will shortly be presented during his staged betrothal to the fictitious cousin who is really Hero.

10The trouble with realist plots, it always seems to me, is that there is often a piece of thread by which they will unravel by their own logic if anyone is allowed to pull on it. It hardly matters in As You Like It that Orlando is weirdly unable to recognize Ganymede as Rosalind dressed up, since in an Anglo-French forest that includes palm trees, lionesses, deer, snakes and the god Hymen the normal rules of plausibility clearly do not apply. Plays which ask us to pretend that we are eavesdropping on real behaviour, on the other hand – and Much Ado is nothing if not a play powered by eavesdropping7 – have to be carefully defended from accusations that their plots do not work on the most banal, everyday, literal-minded terms. In Romeo and Juliet, as I have argued elsewhere,8 Shakespeare has to take elaborate pains to distract us from asking the fatal question as to why should Juliet stay behind in Verona when Romeo sneaks off to Mantua the morning after their clandestine marriage. In Much Ado he has instead to keep our attention away from the question of Margaret’s motivation for agreeing to do anything as peculiar and self-evidently dodgy as appearing at Hero’s window at midnight dressed in her clothes, an incriminating detail of the plot of which, if we are not watching Branagh’s film at least, we are carefully kept in ignorance until the whole crime has already been discovered, as late as V.1.230. (Strikingly, that is the first time the script of Much Ado specifies that Margaret was dressed as Hero during this offstage tableau: this incriminating aspect of her behaviour, though needed to exonerate Claudio and Don Pedro of excessive credulity, is withheld until after that behaviour has already been forgiven). Previous versions of the Margaret figure, as I have shown, plausibly wound up wandering heartbroken in a Scottish wilderness or getting killed: it is only Shakespeare whose overriding determination to conclude on a note of comic inclusivity obliges him to retain the maid’s misconduct but somehow preserve her job.

11The sole moment at which Margaret threatens to come into sharper focus arrives in one of only two scenes exclusively featuring female characters, III.4 (the other being the gulling of Beatrice). Here, only seconds after we have heard Borachio telling the tale of the previous night’s deception, vilely, to Conrad in the hearing of the Watch, we find Margaret blithely helping Hero into what may be the clothes she was illicitly borrowing herself a matter of hours previously.

MARGARET: Troth, I think your other rebato were better… I like the new tire within excellently, if the hair were a thought browner; and your gown’s a most rare fashion, i;’ faith. I saw the Duchess of Milan's gown that they praise so…[b]y my troth, ’s but a night-gown in respect of yours: cloth o’ gold, and cuts, and laced with silver, set with pearls, down sleeves, side sleeves, and skirts, round underborne with a bluish tinsel: but for a fine, quaint, graceful and excellent fashion, yours is worth ten on ’t. (III.4.6-22)

12I do not know of any other passage in Shakespeare quite like this one: to modern English ears, it sounds like a pastiche of the reports of weddings printed in provincial newspapers.9 I think it is supposed to function purely as a reality effect, as though we are expected to be so beguiled by this minutely-observed specimen of the technical jargon which women may come out with when left to themselves just before a wedding that we should for the time being forget that Margaret has any other role in the play than to utter it. But beneath the elaborate surface of all this luxury haberdashery, it seems to me, we get a fleeting glimpse of Dalinda and Pryene and their fatal interest in their mistresses’ golden threads: a hint of the much more developed and central character Margaret ought to be but is not. As written, she is, from a Stanislavskyan point of view at least, unplayable, a figure required by Shakespeare’s plotting to be at once innocent and guilty, knowing and oblivious. In performance, I have seen Margarets who were too conspicuous and Margarets who were too inconspicuous, and some who seemed to alternate between the blamelessly cardboard and the untrustworthily over-familiar: and it has seemed a problem whether I have noticed them or not.10

13If anything allows Shakespeare to get away with this deficiency at the heart of the defamation plot, it is the brilliance with which he upstages that already-known scenario through the wholly new means he devises for postponing its exposure. Psychologically convincing or not, and kept offstage at vital moments anyway, Margaret is never likely to occupy as much of an audience’s attention as does Dogberry, whose entire persona and idiolect arise from the story’s need for Claudio to hear that Hero has been framed only after he has already made his apparently fatal accusation. As plot-stopping as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and even more tedious at passing on vital information, Dogberry is a walking piece of narrative indirection, someone who tells the tale even more vilely than does the drunken Borachio, to the extent that in III.5 Leonato gives up on him and goes to the wedding unenlightened. If anything, Dogberry overcompensates for Margaret by having too much character and too much consistency and depth for the needs of the play rather than too little.

III. Realism and its even more discontents: Innogen

14In its early editions at least, Much Ado features one character who is even less realized than is Margaret, someone who makes all sorts of sense thematically but none at all in terms of realism. In the Quarto and the Folio alike, at the very opening of this secular play we meet someone who is, in editorial terminology at least, a ghost. What are we to do with Leonato’s wife, brought into the play in the opening stage directions of acts I and II, and then never given a single line and never mentioned again? Her name is as puzzling as her mute presence, borrowed from that of the wife of Brute, the apocryphal Aeneas-like Trojan founder of Britain. It is easy to see why the heroine of Cymbeline might be given the name of the mother of the British race, or a variant spelling of it, but much less obvious why it might be given to a Sicilian – though then again, the other Innogen’s husband is also called Leonato, or at least Leonatus, and Cymbeline too concerns a slandered wife who returns from supposed death. Perhaps some secret Shakespearean in-joke is at work. In any case, while editors have worried about Much Ado’s Innogen for years, theatrical producers have started taking notice of her only quite recently, and I would like to look quickly at the question of what best to do with her, if anything, in performance.

15Most editors have simply dismissed Innogen as a bizarre scribal mistake, or perhaps as a false start. As a result she is at best relegated to a footnote in most modern copies of Much Ado, save in the 2007 Methuen Much Ado About Nothing: Shakespeare in Performance edition, in which Peter Holland and David Bevington suggest that “though the character has no lines, her visual presence may have had some significance.”11 I personally find a silent, perhaps terminally cowed bride’s mother very hard to imagine, and I certainly cannot think of many actresses who would be willing to play Innogen in scene after scene as a sort of gagged Cassandra, looking on in horror at what happens to Hero while somehow unable to speak out. But she has appeared on stage in some recent productions, and has even spoken, allocated lines more usually given to the character with whom Shakespeare perhaps decided to replace her, “Antonio, an old man, brother of Leonato” (‘The Persons of the Play’). The effect of this strategy in performance, I think, can tell us more about the underlying structure and current usefulness of Shakespeare’s script.

16Innogen materialized, for instance, in Josie Rourke’s 2005 production at the Crucible in Sheffield (as she did in Rourke’s London production two years later), a show which was ahead of the current curve in the British professional theatre in terms of employing female performers in Shakespeare in what were written as male roles.12 Apparently wanting to re-adjust the balance in the not-entirely-merry war of the sexes the play dramatizes, Rourke imported several more women into her cast, having all the watch except Hugh Oatcake played by actresses and regendering Antonio, Leonato’s brother, as “Innogen”, though the programme stated that she was his sister rather than his wife. In this version of the social set-up at Messina, it was not that Hero, Beatrice and their two waiting-gentlewomen were already vulnerably isolated in an all-male household before Don Pedro’s demobilized army even arrived. In fact, the soldiers who arrived in O’Rourke’s I.1 stood some risk of being outnumbered by women and at first even outranked by them. Laundresses had been singing while folding sheets for several minutes before the action got under way, and the first member of the army we saw arrive, before any dialogue began, was a drummer boy, embraced with joy by the laundrywoman who was clearly his mother.

17If Rourke’s experiment achieved nothing else, for me it highlighted how right Shakespeare was to abandon the idea of having Hero’s mother in the story. With any senior woman in the picture to fill the role of Mother of the Bride during the rapid courtship and wedding preparations to which we are made privy, whether an actual mother or just an aunt, the Claudio-Hero plot as written would stand very little chance of happening (let alone to such a mature and self-reliant Hero as was Georgina Rich in 2005). The inadequacy and inappropriateness of Antonio’s lines to the relations any such woman would have with Hero at such a time were already clear in the chapel scene, when she joined Clare Price’s Beatrice in comforting Hero despite having no lines and despite Antonio not even being officially present. Innogen’s subsequent threat to fight with Claudio and Don Pedro, in V.1, seemed incongruous and merely comic. Given how clear the play already is about the consequences of sexual stereotyping, Rourke only seemed to be muting its argument by muddying the distinction between those pushed towards being obedient brides and those pushed towards being obedient soldiers. Equally, while one could at times see the point of making the Watch predominantly female – by which Leonato’s fatal refusal to take the time to hear Dogberry out before the wedding in III.5 became another instance of men failing to listen to women, and by which the eventual rectification of this mistake became a female achievement in the face of male crime and male self-importance – their actual scenes were completely sabotaged by it. Dialogue imagined for ignorant volunteer village constables just will not work when reassigned to what here became a brisk and mainly middle-class Salvation Army band. I was at the Crucible earlier in 2017 to see another production featuring a good deal of regendering, namely Robert Hastie’s modern-dress Julius Caesar, in which Zoe Waites played Cassius, Chipo Chung doubled Portia with Octavius, Pandora Colin played Casca, Alison Halstead played Metellus, Robinah Kironde played Popilius, Lily Nichol played the Soothsayer, and Abigail Thaw played Trebonius. In this play about rivalry and carnage in the public sphere, which already boasts one woman, Portia, who boasts of being an honorary man, the cross-gendering did nothing to confuse or disrupt the argument of the drama. In Much Ado, though, a play whose entire action is premised on a rigorous distinction between male and female roles – to the extent that Shakespeare even abstains from including any cross-dressing – the introduction of Innogen as a female Antonio seemed fatal, not a solution to the play’s apparent obsolescence but an extra problem.

18Much Ado About Nothing is, centrally, a drama about a near-fatal piece of dressing up, carried out by a character who, in the interests of maintaining its comedy while still clinging to its realism, the play goes out of its way to leave half-hidden in the tiring room. With or without Innogen, in performance, in my experience to date at least, what must once have been a painfully acute and anxious examination of the ideology of marriage has too often been encouraged to dwindle into a harmless piece of costume drama. (Much Ado About Knitting?). Fortunately, there are still directors brave enough to take on the world’s most popular playwright’s most popular comedy even so.


Books and Articles

ARIOSTO, Ludovico, Orlando Furioso, 1516 transl. John Harington, 1591, transl. Guido Waldman, Oxford, OUP, 2008.

BIGLIAZZI, Silvia & CALVI, Lisanna (eds.), Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and Civil Life, London, Routledge, 2015.

DOBSON, Michael, “The Darkness at the Heart of Much Ado About Nothing”, The Guardian, June 17, 2011.

DOBSON, Michael, “Shakespeare Performances in England, 2005”, Shakespeare Survey ed. Peter Holland, 59, Cambridge, CUP, 2006.

HOLLAND, Peter & BEVINGTON, David (eds.), Much Ado About Nothing: Shakespeare in Performance, London, Methuen, 2007.

INCHBALD, Elizabeth, The British Theatre, or A Collection of plays which are acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent-Garden, and Haymarket, 25 vols., London, Longman, Hurst and Rees, 1808.

KAMARALLI, Anna (ed.), Much Ado About Nothing, Arden Performance Editions of Shakespeare, London, Bloomsbury, 2017.

SHAKESPEARE, William, Much Ado About Nothing, in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds.), Complete Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford, OUP, 1987.

SMITH, J.C. & SELINCOURT (de), Edward (eds.), The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, Oxford, OUP, 1921.

SPENSER, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, 1590, in J.C. Smith & Edward de Selincourt (eds.), The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, Oxford, OUP, 1921.

WELLS, Stanley & TAYLOR, Gary (eds.), Much Ado About Nothing, in Complete Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford, OUP, 1987.


BRANAGH, Kenneth, 1993.

Theatre Productions

BARTON, John, RSC 1976.

BOYD, Michael, RSC, 1996.

DONELLAN, Declan, Cheek by Jowl, 1998.

DORAN, Greg, RSC, 2002.

ELLIOTT, Marianne, RSC, 2006.

GARRICK, David, 1740s.

HASTIE, Robert, Julius Caesar, The Crucible, 2017.

HYTNER, Nicholas, National Theatre, 2002.

KHAN, Iqbal, RSC, 2012.

ROURKE, Josie, Sheffield Crucible, 2005, Wyndham, 2007.


1 See, for instance, Elizabeth Inchbald, introducing the play in 1808: “Claudio and Hero are said to be in love, but they say so little about it themselves, that no strong sympathy is created, either by their joys, or their sorrows, their expectations or disappointments …” Elizabeth Inchbald (ed.), The British Theatre, or, a collection of plays which are acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent-Garden, and Haymarket, 25 vols., London, Longman, Hurst and Rees, 1808, II, Much Ado About Nothing, B2r.

2 William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing. Line and scene references are to the Complete Oxford Shakespeare, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds.), Oxford, OUP, 1987.

3 Michael Dobson, “The darkness at the heart of Much Ado About Nothing”, The Guardian, June 17 2011; URL.

4 Accounts of these productions can be found in the relevant volumes of Shakespeare Survey: images of RSC productions can be inspected at: URL, last consulted November 30, 2017.

5 Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, canto V, stanza 47; Oxford World’s Classics edition, tr. Guido Waldman, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 44.

6 J.C. Smith & Edward de Selincourt (eds.), The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1921 In the familiar Oxford edition, this passage appears on page 88.

7 Elizabeth Inchbald is especially alert to this aspect of the play, of which she primly disapproves: “If Benedick or Beatrice had possessed perfect good manners, or just notions of honour and delicacy, so as to have refused to become eves-droppers [sic], the action of the play must have stood still, or some better method have been contrived – a worse hardly could – to have imposed on their mutual credulity.

8 In Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and Civic Life, Silvia Bigliazzi & Lisanna Calvi (eds.), London, Routledge, 2015, chapter 10.

9 Cf. e.g. Bournemouth Evening Echo, October 19 1987, p. 42 (‘Trumpet Fanfare’): “The bride wore a head-dress made from her mother’s restored head-dress and her grandmother’s Juliet Cap. The bride’s full-length ivory dress in watered taffeta had a flared skirt and v-necked bodice and was ornamented with appliqué lace, pearls, and lace flowers.”

10 Name-dropping footnote: my colleague Abigail Rokison-Woodall recalls how in the dark days before she moved to Stratford one of her more perceptive and enterprising Cambridge undergraduates, noticing this problem with Margaret, tried writing a monologue for her that would make sense of her behaviour in the play as it stands. It was a tortuous piece of work, I gather, but a good try. The undergraduate was called Ellie Nunn, the daughter of Trevor Nunn and Imogen Stubbs.

11 Peter Holland and David Bevington (eds.), Much Ado About Nothing: Shakespeare in Performance, London, Methuen, 2007, p. 40. In the introduction to the new Arden Performance Editions of Shakespeare text Anna Kamaralli suggests that for readers rather than audiences Innogen might contribute to one particular aspect of the play: There need be no purposeful explanation of why she is listed and yet has no lines; playwrights worked fast in this period, and it would be completely normal for Shakespeare to plan out a scene, note down the characters, then find one unnecessary but forget to remove her from the stage directions. Equally, however, Innogen might be seen as part of a pattern of introducing characters who are related to our major players, but who never appear. Leonato mentions Claudio’s uncle in Messina, and 1.2 begins with yet another mention of a relative who does not speak, Antonio’s son. The play does much to suggest a wider world built of a network of relationships. This helps emphasize that any decision someone makes (to marry, to break a union, to duel) they make for their family, not just for themselves.
Anna Kamaralli (ed.),
Arden Performance Editions of Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing, London, Bloomsbury, 2017, “Introduction”, p. xlii-xliii.

12 I provided an account of this production in Shakespeare Survey 59, on which this one is based: see Michael Dobson, “Shakespeare Performances in England, 2005.” Shakespeare Survey, edited by Peter Holland, vol. 59, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 298–337.

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Par Michael Dobson, «Costume drama: Margaret, Innogen, and the problem of Much Ado About Nothing in modern performance», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°13 - 2018, Shakespeare en devenir, mis à jour le : 20/02/2022, URL :

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Michael Dobson is Director of The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. He has previously held posts at Oxford, Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of London, and visiting appointments and fellowships at UCLA, Peking University, and the University of Lund. His publications include The Making of the National Poet (1992), England’s Elizabeth (with Nicola Watson, 2002), The Oxford Companion to Shakespear ...

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