Much Ado About Nothing
By Dennis Abrams
Set in the Sicilian town of Messina, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing positively sizzles with holiday spirit. Its rich humor was, in fact, singled out early by his contemporaries: in 1598, Frances Meres included it in a 1598 list of plays demonstrating that Shakespeare was “most excellent” in comedy, and it is every bit as concerned with (and rich with) verbal wit as an earlier work also mentioned by Meres, Love’s Labour’s Lost. The lead couple in that play, Biron and Rosaline, may well have inspired Shakespeare to create the even feistier Beatrice and Benedick, whose battle to out-talk each other dominated much of Much Ado – at least until they’re tricked into falling in tongue-tied love, raising suspicions that their verbal jousting more than a kind of repressed flirtation. Technically though, although they do dominate the play, their romance is really the comedy’s subplot, grafted onto an Italian tale concerning another pair lovers (in Much Ado they’re named Hero and Claudio) who fall prey to a sinister scheme to separate them. In connecting the two stories of deception, Shakespeare forces both sets of lovers to rethink their understandings of both love and each other; and for all of them, painful loss precedes resolution. For what may seem to be an uncomfortable amount of time in Much Ado, genuine tragedy clouds the scene and (ironically enough), the device by which comedy is ultimately restored puts the sunny atmosphere of the play under greatest strain of all.
From Marjorie Garber:
“This play, with its gaily self-deprecating title, seems virtually to inaugurate a genre. It is the forerunner of Restoration stage comedy, of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ‘comedy of manners,’ and of what has come to be called ‘screwball comedy,’ the bantering, witty, sophisticated romantic plots that emerged in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, which philosopher and critic Stanley Cavell has termed ‘comedies of remarriage’ – comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Adam’s Rib (1949). Its urbane pair of lovers, Beatrice and Benedick (note that her name means ‘one who blesses,’ and his name means ‘one who is blessed’), anticipate the glib and genteel barbs of the disillusioned pairs who populate stage and screen, waiting, like their Shakespearean forerunners, to be offered a chance to be, for once, unashamedly romantic. But as the play begins, both Beatrice and Benedick hold themselves aloof, apparently, from love, keeping their distance from emotion and from each other, even as they observe, with mingled indulgence and affectionate disdain, the nascent courtship between their closest friends, Claudio, a young soldier, and Hero, Beatrice’s cousin.
The interest of Much Ado lies as much in its ebullient characters as it does in its plot, but the basic design of the play is worth recounting: Soldiers returning from the wars are greeted by those who have stayed at home, waiting to hear about their exploits, and their safety. The soldiers arrive at the house of Leonato, the governor of Messina, where Leonato resides with his elderly brother Antonio, his daughter Hero, and his niece Beatrice, and are invited to stay for a month as Leonato’s guests. The ranking officer of the group, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, has a bastard brother, Don John, from who he has been estranged for reasons the play never specifies, and with whom he has just been reconciled. Don John is a classic malcontent, jealous of Pedro and of those he prefers, especially his protégé Claudio, a young Florentine. Among the returning soldiers is Benedick of Padua, a witty and worldly sophisticate, who appears to have had some previous relationship with Beatrice. Beatrice and Benedick are tense, touchy, and witty with each other, in marked contrast to the conventional romantic pair, the naïve and trusting Hero and the equally naïve Claudio, who is young enough to be described later by Benedick as ‘my lord Lackbeard.’ This is part of a common mode of ‘flyting,’ or exchange of insults, in the play: Beatrice calls Benedick ‘Signor Montanto’ (i.e., Mr. Thrust-and-parry,’ or ‘Duel-man’) and ‘the Prince’s jester,’ while Benedick in turn dubs her ‘my dear lady Disdain’ and ‘my lady Tongue.’ With the real wars over, or in abeyance, with few casualties and ‘none of name,’ or title, the ‘kind of merry war’ that is described as already in existence between Beatrice and Benedick takes over center stage (and is not concluded until play’s end, when Benedick will declare, ‘Peace! I will stop your mouth’ – with a kiss.”
There is some strange misprision in the princes.
(IV, i, 184)
Of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by heresay.
(III, i, 21-3)
“This is a comedy built around, generated by, ‘misprision’ (to be heard again in Twelfth Night and All’s Well( and ‘hearsay’ (Shakespeare’s only use of the word). It is also perhaps Shakespeare’s most perfectly constructed play, every part in its place, and working so smoothly and easily as to make the whole work seem like a piece of effortless, seamless, spontaneity. You can’t see the joins, or hear the engine – from this point of view, it is a Rolls-Royce of a play. Swinburne was justified in his claim that ‘for absolute power of composition, for faultless balance and blameless rectitude of design, there is unquestionably no creation of his hand that will bear comparison with Much Ado About Nothing.’ He built on previous work (understandably enough – he was writing at an astonishing rate; averaging two plays a year throughout this decade). He had experimented with contrasting heroines in The Taming of the Shrew: one, docile and submissive; the other, sharp-tongued and willful. They were wooed by equally contrasting suitors; one, conventionally romantic, the other, resolutely unsentimental. Bianca and Kate will blossom into Hero and Beatrice, while Lucentio and Petruchio will mutate into Claudio and Benedick. Wooing could be this, wooing could be that, worth exploring further for comic, dramatic possibilities. And the combative relationship between Kate and Petruchio proved capable of a rich turn in the debonair dueling and sparring between Berowne and Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost – good basis here for the ‘merry war’ between Beatrice and Benedick. That play had shown that there was a lot of potential for amusing badinage and banter in concentrating on a courtly circle – particularly if the characters are engaged in wooing games. ‘Cupid’ is invoked some ten times in both Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing (much more often than elsewhere), and they could be well called Shakespeare’s Cupid plays. ‘Wit’ and ‘woo’ are words which – again – occur far more often in these two plays than in any others (except for ‘woo’ in The Taming of the Shrew); and, if I may be allowed to press a noun into service as a verb, we might say that ‘to wit’ and ‘to woo,’ ‘witting’ and ‘wooing,’ go together, flow together, as interrelated activities and drives. As the anonymous contemporary commentator said, they are both ‘borne in the sea that brought forth Venus.’
But, while Love’s Labour’s Lost was an incomparable entertainment, it was hardly a play; for the simple reason that, when all was said and done, it lacked a plot. [MY NOTE: I might disagree with that, but I’ll concede the point for now.] Couldn’t really do that again. And a good way to make sure of a plot, as Shakespeare was learning, was to have a plotter in the play. So he invented, or imported (the figure of a saturnine, Machiavellian malcontent was becoming a familiar one on familiar one on the Elizabethan stage), Don John. When Hero’s maid, Ursula, announced near the end – ‘Don John is the author of all,’ she speaks more truly than she knows; for without his malign, contriving mischief there would not be a play. And Shakespeare, the other ‘author’ had a plot to draw on – a story he knew in at least three versions (by Ariosto, Bendello, Belleforest). There are variations and differing elaborations in each version, but the basic plot involves a jealous lover engaged to be married to a pure heroine; a wicked intriguer who contrives a ‘demonstrations’ (for the lover) of the heroine’s sexual impurity by persuading a maid to impersonate her and let one of his accomplices in through her bedroom window; the shared belief in the heroine’s guilt, and her public condemnation followed by her apparent death; her concealment and the subsequent exposure of the villainy against her, her reemergence and return, leading to the appropriate happy conclusion. Shakespeare took, as usual, many details from many sources, including names and the setting in Messina, though of course making his own distinctive modifications and changes. The theme of the supposed death of the heroine prompted him to redeploy the way he had handled it in Romeo and Juliet; to give the figure of the Friar a different kind of wisdom and authority; and to begin to explore the regenerative possibilities in the feigned death motif (which would come to full fruition in the last plays). Since the romance story in his sources was entirely devoid of any comedy, he invented Dogberry and Verges and the Watch as a – literally – indispensable plebian adjunct to the rather closed and interrelated society in Messina. With all these elements to hand, all Shakespeare had to do was to interweave them, and then fill in the words. Which, of course, is when it all starts to become quite unique.”
And finally from Bloom, who while he has (naturally) a slightly different take on the play, interestingly links Much Ado to the plays the preceded it, Henry IV Parts One and Two:
“Though Much Ado About Nothing is not one of Shakespeare’s comic masterworks, it continues to manifest extraordinary vitality in performance. I have not seen a Beatrice and Benedick who rival Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud, but that was almost a half century ago, and the play survives even the Kenneth Branagh film, in which Tuscan scenery was allowed to usurp our attention and distract us from hearing some of Shakespeare’s best prose. Written just after the rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV, Par Two, and just before the rejecting Hal’s equivocal triumph in Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing retains overtones of Falstaffian intelligence and wit, though no giant form takes the stage in his absence. Beatrice is not Rosalind, and Benedick is less than Beatrice…Beatrice and Benedick are slight in this sequence, but is important to recognize that they dominate their play only because Shakespeare endows them with courtly versions of Falstaff’s primal exuberance and cognitive power. Their mastery of prose owes something to the angrier duel of wit between Hal and Falstaff (angry only on Hal’s part). Ambivalence, the peculiar mark of Hal’s psyche, means something very different in the fencing relationship of Beatrice and Benedick. They have been more or less in love for some time, and Benedick has retreated:
O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not! I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.
Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.
The jilting they are referring to here ended nothing, as both are well aware, since each is a great nihilist. Much Ado About Nothing is certainly the most amiably nihilistic play ever written and its most appositely titled. Nietzscheans long before Nietzsche, Beatrice and Benedick are also Congreveans before Congreve. With every exchange between the fencing lovers, the abyss glitters, and their mutual wit does not so much defend against other selves as it defends against meaninglessness. They make much ado about nothing because they know nothing will come of nothing, and so they speak again.”
This one is going to be fun.
Our next reading: Much Ado About Nothing, Act One
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning