Much Ado About Nothing
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: At the ball, Don Pedro successfully wins Hero for Claudio, but the latter is persuaded by Don John that he has actually done so for himself. After Don Pedro convinces Claudio of the truth and that the marriage is agreed on, he outlines a further plan, er, plot: the sparring Beatrice and Benedick will be tricked into falling in love. To achieve this, Don Pedro arranges for Benedick to overhear a staged conversation in which he and Leonato discuss Beatrice’s supposed love for him. Benedick is taken in and resolves to respond. Elsewhere, Don John continues to scheme: his man Borachio will court Margaret (Hero’s gentlewoman), who will disguise herself as Hero, thus suggesting to Claudio that Hero is, in fact, damaged goods.
The play itself, at least so far, seems to be as witty as its title, and most of the impressive verbal fireworks are courtesy of Beatrice and Benedick, Shakespeare’s infamously talkative couple (and his sole addition to a story otherwise sourced from several Renaissance romances). Though in some ways they do resemble the Shrew’s Katherine and Petruchio, who likewise spend much of their time fighting (albeit with the additional threat of physical violence on either side). Beatrice and Benedick prefer to wage what Leonato calls their “merry war” with words alone. But…what words they are. Though Don Pedro and his gentlemanly retinue have only just arrived in Messina, it is not long before Beatrice and Benedick renew their acquaintance. (The question of course, is how did they know each other? What was their relationship? Is Beatrice’s line in Act Two, I, 263-266 the answer? “Indeed, my lord, he lent it [his heart] 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.”) And they renew their relationship by being – verbally speaking – at one another’s throats:
I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain if you come in her presence.
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted. And I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love mine.
A dear happiness to women. They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I think God and my cold blood I am of your humour for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
God keep your ladyship still in that mind. So some gentleman or other shall escape a predestinate scratched face.
Scratching could not make it worse an ‘twere such a face as yours were.
Well you are a rare parrot-teacher.
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue…
And so it continues. And continues. It’s almost impossible to quote Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal fencing in short; they often sound as they could simply go on and on for ever, thrusting and parrying relentlessly, each one trying to dispatch the other with yet more spectacular verbal flourishes. Even the masked ball, set up once Don Pedro and his lord arrive in town and providing a perfectly suggestive opportunity for the lovers to woo in disguise, gives Beatrice the chance to insult her counterpart. Encountering the masked Benedick, she announces that the very same man is “the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool.”
Despite Leonato’s warning to his niece that “thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue,” Beatrice has, obviously, already met her match – in every possible sense of the world. Or at least that’s what the other characters think (as do readers and playgoers), plotting to bring them to get them together by a stratagem even more complicated than a masked ball. Promising to “undertake one of Hercules” labours, which is to bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection the’one with th’other,” Don Pedro first stage-manages a meeting with Claudio and Leonato in which they are to discuss – within earshot of Benedick – the news that Beatrice has been pining for him all this time. Immediately convinced (because he wants to be convinced?), Benedick decides that “this can be no trick,” and resolves at once to be “horribly in love with her” in response. Beatrice is “limed” soon afterwards – this time by Ursula and Hero, who pretend to have discovered that Benedick is “wast[ing] inwardly] for her and make sure to say so while she is within eavesdropping range. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away by revealing this.) The effect is more sudden than anyone could have possibly hoped for:
Beatrice (coming forward):
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell; and maiden pride, adieu.
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And Benedick, love on. I will require thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
Beatrice is so taken in that she promises to “tame” herself – the Shrew’s Katherine makes no such promises – and even forsakes her usual prose to launch into an abbreviated sonnet saying as much.
“Was there a quarrel between Don Pedro and Don John beyond the usual sibling (or legitimate/illegitimate) rivalry? And what did take place between Beatrice and Benedick before the play began/? Beatrice herself explains lightly to Don Pedro that Benedick ‘lent’ her his heart for awhile, and that she ‘gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one,’ his having ‘won it of [her], with false dice.’ But, tantalizingly, their shared prehistory is never explained. Another question: Is Don Pedro actually proposing to Beatrice when, in a bantering moment, he offers her his hand in marriage (‘Will you have me, lady?’)? Her response is both typical and indicative, tapping into the holiday/working-day dichotomy that underpins so much of Shakespearean comedy, and also into this play’s own period consciousness of rank and status: ‘No my lord, unless I might have another for working days. Your grace is too costly to wear every day.’ Questions like these have no answers – they are puzzles and trailing plot threads, embedded by the playwright, whether deliberately or inadvertently, into the text of the play. They hit at emotions and actions underneath the surface, and indeed this play, with its casual allusions to heartbreak, perpetual spinsterhood, fraternal rivalry, and unrequited love, partners the threatening plot elements (Hero’s ‘death”; Benedick’s duel) with a constant subtext of unarticulated pain and loss.
The contrast between two pairs of lovers, one unconventional, resistant, and highly skilled at verbal sparring, the other apparently compliant, conventional, and reticent, had been used with great success by Shakespeare in an earlier play, The Taming of the Shrew. In other romantic comedies, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, the two ‘high,’ or aristocratic, pairs are more like than unlike, despite some minor differences (Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano; Rosalind and Orlando, Celia and Oliver). But in Much Ado the initial emphasis is on dissimilarity. Beatrice and Benedick are perhaps a little older, and in any case more worldly – and more wordy – than the tongue-tied Hero and Claudio.
Benedick, unlike Claudio, is socially sophisticated and sexually experienced, prejudiced not against flirtation and lovemaking but against marriage. The first time the audience encounters him, he takes part in a ribald exchange with Don Pedro and old Leonato, Hero’s father, that seems meant to establish his identity as a man attractive to women. Using a conventional form of address, Don Pedro says to Leonato ‘I think this is your daughter,’ to which Leonato playfully replies, ‘Her mother hath many times told me so.’ The anxiety of paternity often surfaces in Shakespearean banter, and will often – as in The Winter’s Tale – resurface as a serious matter. But here, in the opening lines of a witty romantic comedy, the emphasis is on a backslapping boys-will-boys spirit, as Benedick quips boldly, ‘Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?’ and Leonato, in replay gives as good as he gets: ‘Signor Benedick, no; for then were you a child.’ Don Pedro then intervenes to make sure the audience understands what is being told: ‘You have it full, Benedick. We may guess by this what you are, being a man.’
Beatrice has a trace of lover’s melancholy, and indeed there is a hint that she has been led on, in the past, to think that Benedick had some feelings for her. that the pair have met before is established early. Again, this is a kind of Shakespearean commonplace, seeming to underscore their rightness for each other even as the play begins. Berowne, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, like Benedick, is very ready to mock the spectacle of others in love, only to be caught, himself, composing and reading a love sonnet. But in the case of Beatrice and Benedick there has clearly been a sundering or a falling-away, one that has left both players tentative, proud, and perhaps also bruised. They will therefore affect an attitude more like Puck’s ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ then make any true demonstration of their feelings – at least until hoodwinked by their friends, who lure each with the tantalizing notion that the other is, in fact, head over heels in love.
Much Ado About Nothing is indeed in many ways Shakespeare’s great play about gossip. Everything is overheard, misheard, or constructed on purpose for eavesdropping. If Taming is one comparison for this play, another, less benign, is Othello, and in fact the three Shakespearean ‘jealousy’ plays, Much Ado, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, are often, and fruitfully compared. In this play, as we will see, the ‘Iago figure’ is Don John, the malcontent bastard brother of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon. Here, as in the tragedy of Othello and the tragic-comedy of The Winter’s Tale, a jealous man thinks he sees his beloved dallying with another man. But in this case the scene has been staged in order to deceive. Claudio is the victim, and his ‘crime’ is a double one. From Don John’s point of view he has – like Cassio in Othello – stolen away the affection and regard of the military commander, in this case, Don Pedro. The rival whom Don John calls, with magnificent contempt, ‘the most exquisite Claudio’ is – again like Cassio – a Florentine, a resident of one of the most elegant and mannered cities in Italy. ‘That young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow,’ John complains to Borachio (whose name means ‘the drunken one’). ‘If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way.’
The pretended indifference of Beatrice and Benedick is juxtaposed to the all-too-susceptible naïveté of Claudio, who declares his inexperience and couples it with self-doubt. Claudio in effect asks himself, Could someone like Hero love me? Isn’t it more likely that she is in love with, or in bed with, someone else, someone more impressive, or higher ranking, or sexier? He, too, acknowledges that he had been attracted, at an earlier moment, before the play begins, to the woman who will come to preoccupy his love musings and romantic fantasies:
I looked upon her with a soldier’s eye,
That liked, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am returned, and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.
War is a key theme here, war and its aftermath. The opening scene in Messina presents a society of women and older men (Leonato, his daughter Hero – and his niece Beatrice) from which the young men had departed to fight – a world, that is, waiting for the return of youth and love. The play thus begins with the onset of peace, with the news that few gentlemen have been lost in the late military action (‘And none of name”) and that the youthful Claudio fought especially bravely, ‘beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion.’ Beatrice’s apparently offhand inquiry about the health of Benedick (‘I pray you, is Signor Montanto returned from the wars, or no?’) masks – or rather reveals – a real anxiety about Benedick’s safety and well-being. Shortly we will hear from Leonato that there is a ‘kind of merry war’ between Beatrice and Benedick, so that the shift from martial war to merry war marks an explicit turning point. As is so often the case, the skills that were so apropos in war will prove of limited value in peacetime. Benedick and Claudio are established as best friends, most in each other’s company, but the contrast between the ‘pleasant’ witty, and entertaining Benedick and the earnest and tongue-tied Claudio is soon to be made evident.
Benedick gives us a (rather unsympathetic) sense of what Claudio was like before he committed the folly of falling in love:
I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviours to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love. And such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife, and now he had rather hear the tabor and pipe. I would have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armour, and now he will lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turned orthography. His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted, and see with these eyes? I cannot tell. I think not.
‘Converted,’ to an experienced watcher of Shakespearean comedy, is a clear tip-off, since it will be used by such wholehearted lovers as Portia, speaking of herself, and Rosalind, speaking of the once-wicked, now reformed and romantic Oliver.
In Much Ado conversion becomes one of the dominant themes of the play, underscored by the refrain of Balthasar’s song ‘Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more:’ ‘Converting all your sounds of woe/Into hey nonny nonny.’ Hero will be converted into ‘another Hero,’ Margaret converted into Hero, Benedick and Beatrice into lovers, tragedy converted into romance and comedy. Benedick is wrong, of course, to think that he will not so easily ‘convert’ to the condition of a lover, and so indeed is Beatrice, who proclaims her own resistance. As Margaret the waiting-gentlewoman says to her, in a phrase quite similar to Benedick’s, ‘[H]ow you may be converted I know not, but methinks you look with your eyes, as other women do.’ Indeed, Benedick, who teases Claudio about lacking a manly beard, will soon go for a shave, the better to look like a lover. ‘[T]he barber’s man has been seen with him,’ reports Claudio, laughing to Don Pedro and Leonato, ‘and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls.’ The sudden similarity to the ‘Lackbeard’ Claudio is underscored by Leonato: ‘Indeed, he looks younger than he did by the loss of a beard.’”
And from Mark Van Doren:
“’In his comick scenes,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘he seems to produce without labour what no labour can improve…His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.’ Whatever applicability this may have to the tragedies of Shakespeare’s prime, and it appears to have none at all, its truth is perhaps self-evident with respect to the three comedies he wrote during the last year or so of the sixteenth century. And it provides a convenient starting-point for any discussion of “Much Ado About Nothing,” whose comedy of Benedick and Beatrice is so flexible, so instinctive, and whose tragedy of Claudio and Hero is so strangely stiff.
If the last epithet is deserved there would seem to have been no skill employed in the painful tale of Leonato’s daughter. Nor in its own terms can much be said for the sober plot which somewhat duskily weaves its web across the heart of an otherwise bright play. But in the strategy of the play as a whole much skill was used. A difficult problem had been posed, and it was more than satisfactorily solved. This does not mean that the Hero story would be convincing by itself or that the Beatrice story is substantial out of its context. It means that the two must be considered together; that Shakespeare did in fact consider them together, and did with ingenuity maintain them in a relation of mutual support. The problem was dual: how to prevent the main action, and indeed, the only action, from turning the play into a tragedy or a near-tragedy; and how to bestow enough body upon the comic theme to make it matter either in itself or in its function as preventive. The result of Shakespeare’s labor, most of which he concealed, is that Hero and Claudio never come close enough to us for pity or terror to be felt, and that Beatrice and Benedick, created as an insulating medium between tragedy and us, become finally so important as to bear all away upon their comic backs. But it is the seriousness of the central situation that sheds upon Benedick and Beatrice so such importance. As the play stands, neither pair of lovers can do without the other. Both skill and instinct are maneuvering every scene.
“Much Ado” begins and ends with Beatrice and Benedick, whose prose thus describes the circumference of Shakespeare’s comic circle. The first interesting thing of which we hear is the ‘merry war’ between the two; ‘they never meet,’ Leonato explains to Don Pedro’s messenger whom Beatrice has so much bewildered, ‘but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.’ Beatrice with her fine strong voice and her masculine humor has come in haste to hear the arrival of Benedick; and in advance of his arrival she has baited his name. In a few minutes he comes swinging on and they are at it:
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Even so early a tone is set for the play which the somber doings of Hero and Claudio will find it difficult to destroy. A wall of brass-bright words begins to be erected, a wall which terror perhaps will never pierce. There is to be much talk for the sake of talk, and our experience of the theater leads us to expect pure comedy. But a conflicting note is struck at once, for the villain of such tragedy as we shall have has arrived with Benedick; he is Don John, and his first speech is a cold one. ‘I am not of many words.’ Is the communication ominous? We do not know yet, for our attention is immediately turned to the wager between Benedick and his friends. Benedick is one of those spirited bachelors who ride high over love but who for that reason can fall with wonderful suddenness into its arms. Don Pedro and Claudio, predicting his fall, prod him into swearing that if it happens they can hang him in a bottle like a cat. Surely now there is nothing but comic stuff ahead; Benedick, who already has admitted that Beatrice is beautiful except for her fury, fools nobody, and least of all ourselves. We know what will happen. We settle ourselves to see whether it is to be amusingly worked out.
Our next reading: Much Ado About Nothing, Act Three
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning (since Act Three is a little long, I’ll post about it both Sunday and Tuesday, giving you plenty of time for reading.)
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.