Much Ado About Nothing
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Don Pedro’s plan continues to work when Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula describing Benedick’s secret passion for her. At this point, Don John arrived announces that Hero has been unfaithful. Claudio and Don Pedro refuse to believe him, but Don John claims to have evidence: that night they will see her with another man. Sure enough, when they spy on Margaret and Borachio (Don John’s confederates in the plot), Claudio is convinced that the woman is Hero. By a freak chance, though, the dim-witted watch (newly recruited by Dogberry and Verges) catch Borachio bragging about his success to Conrad soon afterwards, and arrest them both. They inform Leonato, but he is preoccupied with the impending marriage.
From Harold Bloom:
“The fascinating of Beatrice is founded upon her extraordinary blend of merriment and bitterness, in contrast to the simpler Kate the Shrew. Beatrice has more affinity to the dark Rosaline of Love’s Labour’s Lost, though Rosaline’s merriment is not very innocent. Shakespearean foregrounding rather subtly allows for some clues for Beatrice’s nature, and perhaps for her negative obsession with Benedick, who is at once the only threat to her freedom and the inevitable path out of her incessant toughness of spirit. Beatrice’s most essential foreground is that she is an orphan/ her uncle Leonato was her guardian, but clearly no foster father:
Well then, go you into hell?
No, but to the gate, and there will the Devil meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his head and say, ‘Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven, here’s no place for you maids.’ So deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter, for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.
Ant. (to Hero)
Well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father.
Yes, faith, it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it pleas you’: but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please me.’
Benedick’s version of this paradise of bachelors (and maids) is less sublime:
That a woman conceived me, I thank her: that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks: but that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none: and the fine is, for the which I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor.
Whether or not Beatrice indeed is, as Benedick remarks, ‘possessed with a fury,’ a permanent zeal for being on the attack, is not altogether clear. The earlier jilting by Benedick, ‘a double heart for his single one,’ provides her starting point but does not explain her vitalizing firepower, her continuous verve and drive, the ‘merriment’ that at once dazzles and wears out her world, though not her audience. We learn to listen to her very carefully, as here when she responds to Claudio’s having just called Hero his betrothed ‘cousin’ under the rights of alliance.
Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry ‘Heigh-ho for a husband!’
Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
I would rather have one of your father’s getting. Hath your grace ne’er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
Will you have me, lady?
No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day. But I beseech your Grace pardon me, I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.
Going to the world is one of Beatrice’s metaphors for marriage, while ‘sunburnt’ women attracted few suitors for marriage in Renaissance England. Don Pedro, a puzzling fellow, may mean his light proposal, and Beatrice’s rejection carefully keeps to a line between compliment and the full implications of ‘costly.’ Plainly, she perpetually intends to take Benedick, and yet is sincerely reluctant to accept anyone, even the wittiest available to her. Don Pedro’s self-mockery seasons his self-love; her occasional gestures at parodying herself are Beatrice’s least persuasive moments. Her warranted regard for herself is partly why the audience delights in her; it echoes Falstaff’s magnificent appreciation of his own comic intelligence. [MY NOTE: Imagine a drinking game – every time Bloom mentions Falstaff…] We are happy to see Sir John with Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet; clearly there has not been and cannot be a Lady Falstaff! Only Chaucer’s Wife of Bath might have been up to the task of being wife to Sir John, and there is some question as to which of the two would murder the other first, whether with language or sexual exercise. We have to conclude that Beatrice and Benedick already might have been lovers, and that her vitality, however expressed, has frightened him into flight. It is shrewd of Shakespeare to have Benedick react to his friends’ gulling in prose – ‘Love? Why, it must be requited’ – while Beatrice, at the same provocation, breaks into lyrical verse:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condem’d 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 requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For other say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
Hero has told Ursula that Beatrice’s spirits are as contemptuous (coy) as wild hawks (‘haggards of the rock.’) When Beatrice chants of ‘Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand,’ she does not imply that she will accept domestication. Her wildness is her freedom, and that sense of liberty, more even than her wit, captures her audience. The rather disappointing Branagh movie of Much Ado About Nothing was in part redeemed by Emma Thompson’s Beatrice, with its nuances of a Bronte-like independence conveyed mostly through tone and facial expression. There is something in Beatrice’s temperament that must always evade domestication. Her fury that she cannot be a man in order to avenge Claudio’s slander upon Hero goes well beyond gender politics in authentic savagery:
Is a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour – O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.
For Bloom, the “best” of Emma Thompson in Much Ado:
From Goddard, continuing his look at “nothing.”
“The main plot of Much Ado is founded on two deceptions. Don John and his fellow-conspirators spread the lie that Hero is false to Claudio, when she is really true to him. Friar Francis gives it out that Hero is dead, when she is still alive. The first deception is false in fact and false in purpose and intention. It is a lie in the fullest sense. The second deception is false in fact, but is imaginatively and symbolically true. The Hero whom Claudio maligned is dead, never to revive. Out of the illusion of her death a new Hero emerges not only in herself but in Claudio’s heart and imagination. And so the illusion turns into the fact, and looking retrospectively we see there was no deception. If I begin saying, ‘Now the eclipse is total!’ a moment before it is total only to find it total before I have finished my sentence, I have spoken the truth more nearly than I would if I had tried to keep strictly to the evidence of the moment. The same principle holds when the interval is longer. Imagination simply anticipates the fact, with the difference that it not merely foresees (as in the case of the eclipse) but actually helps to bring the fact to birth, as we might conceive the sun saying to the seed: ‘You are not a seed; you are a flower,’ and then setting about to transform it into a flower. Literally the sun’s statement would be false; but prospectively and creatively it would be true. This is the pivot on which turns the much-maligned doctrine of the will to believe of William James. ‘This world is good, we must say, since it is what we make it – and we shall make it good,’ says James.
Much Ado About Nothing is saturated with this idea of the power of Nothing (of the creative ingredient of the imagination, that is) to alter the nature of things for good or ill, for, as Shakespeare’s History Plays so abundantly show, fear and hate, as well as faith and love, have the capacity to attract facts to them and so, temporarily at least, to confirm their own hypotheses. But the changes fear and hate effect are destructive and pointed in the direction of chaos, whereas imagination integrates, makes for synthesis and reconciliation of clashing interests. The play is full of phrases that imply this fluidity of facts, their willingness to flow for good or evil the human mind makes for their reception. Antonio brings news to Leonato, ‘Are they good?’ asks the latter. ‘As the event stamps them,’ the former replies. ‘You have of late stood out against your brother,’ says Conrad to Don John, ‘and he hath ta’en you newly into his grace; where it is impossible you should take true root but by the fair weather that you make yourself: it is needful that you frame the season for your own harvest.’ The children of this world, as Jesus divined, are often wiser in these matters than the children of light. But not so in the case of Friar Francis. ‘Die to live,’ is his advice to Hero, which is only a more succinct summary of his prophecy of the effect on Claudio of the ‘nothing’ of Hero’s death:
for it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
While we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours. So will it fare with Claudio:
When he shall hear she died upon his words,
The idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell’d in more precious habit,
More moving-delicate, and full of life
Into the eye and prospect of his soul,
Than when she liv’d indeed.
Between Don John’s lying plot and the Friar’s imaginative experiment, the black and white respectively of the play’s pragmatic theme, are incidents of various shades of gray, tamperings with the facts of different degrees of justification or its opposite. Of these the masked wooings of Hero by Don Pedro in behalf of Claudio, with the distorted reports of it that come through eavesdropping to Leonato and Don John – leading to the loss of faith in Don Pedro by Claudio himself – is the most complicated version.
But it is the underplot, or, as we might call it, the second main plot, that confirms the theme and proves we are not reading things into Shakespeare’s play in making it center about Nothing.
Beatrice and Benedick are in love with each other without knowing it. Their friends contrive to have them overhear conversations in which Benedick listens in one scene to reports of Beatrice’s hopeless passion for him and she listens in the next to similar accounts of his for her and, in addition, to condemnations of her pride and scorn. The effect in both cases is instantaneous. ‘When I said I would die a bachelor,’ cries Benedick, ‘I did not think I should live till I were married.’ ‘Can this be true!’ asks Beatrice,
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Where faith in the fact can help create the fact, says William James, it would be an insane logic that would deny our right to put our trust in it. If the friends of Beatrice and Benedick had concocted their whole plot out of nothing, as Don John did his against Hero, their means of bringing the two together would not have been ‘justified.’ But sensing the existence of the seed they brought just enough ‘nothing’ to bear on it in the form of imaginative sunshine to bring it to the flower of actuality, to give to that ‘airy nothing’ a local habitation and a name. They merely gave nature a nudge, as it were. The love thus elicited justified the faith. But if this was enough to make the two lovers confess their love to themselves, it took the wrong done to Hero to get them to confess it to each other. ‘Kill Claudio,’ cries Beatrice, shaken into sincerity. She doesn’t mean it. [MY NOTE: I think Bloom would disagree…] Yet is the truest thing she has ever said up to that moment. So far can truth be from the merely literal meaning of the words that try to convey it.
Emerson, in his essay on Self-Reliance, has a famous paragraph on consistency beginning: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ Look at it later in life, he remarked that he might better have substituted for the whole passage simply: ‘Damn Consistency.’ It would be hard to find two words that come closer to summing up a Shakespearean character than those two do Benedick when he bids good-by to wit-cracking and opens his arms to Beatrice. If this Emersonian distillation of Benedick be joined to Beatrice’s own ‘Contempt, farewell!’ we have four words that not only characterize the transformation which take place in these two for whom the play has come to stand in most minds but that show also what the drama stands for in Shakespeare’s development. It is his own as well as Benedick’s repudiation of ‘wit,’ his own as well as Beatrice’s farewell to contempt, his own as well as their declaration of independence of the past. He still had to write two more comedies, to be sure, in a not wholly different vein (As You Like It and Twelfth Night), in which to develop and consolidate that declaration of independence and step further in the direction in which his genius was leading him. More than that. He had to write three dark and in some respects perplexing plays (All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure and one tragedy centered around a figure of measureless contempt (Hamlet), before the dragon of satire was slain and he could emerge on the mountain peaks of pure tragedy. That Shakespeare’s supreme accomplishment took place on those heights the world has come pretty nearly to agree. The story of Benedick and Beatrice, who loved each other from the first but came to recognize it only after a long ‘comic’ detour, is a kind of partial allegory of the progress of Shakespeare’s own soul. At the risk of being far-fetched we might even detect a vague repetition of the same theme in Claudio’s vicarious wooing of Hero and his repudiation of her, followed at the end by their reunion. Even apart from possible unconscious spiritual autobiography, the more we stress this parabolic aspect of their love the less unacceptable the otherwise somewhat unpalatable denouement of the Claudio-Hero story becomes.”
And finally, this anecdote from Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare:
“Ovid would have us believe that one of the functions of love poetry is to persuade people to jump into bed with you. We have one tantalizing piece of evidence that Shakespeare’s quickness of wit – manifested nowhere more richly than in the lovers’ wit-combats of Biron and Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Beatrice and Benedickin Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It — served him well in this regard. The story comes to us from two different sources, one of them a diary entry made on 13 March 1602 by a law student and playgoer called John Manningham. Since the existence of this diary was not known until the nineteenth century, the version of the story which circulated in the theatrical tradition in earlier centuries provides independent corroboration of the incident’s underlying truth.
The story first reached print in Thomas Wilkes’ General View of the Stage, published in 1759:
“One evening when Richard III was to be performed, Shakespeare observed a young woman delivering a message to Burbage in so caution a manner as excited his curiosity to listen to. It is imported, that her master was gone out of town that morning, and her mistress would be glad of his company after Play; and to know what single he would appoint for admittance. Burbage replied, ‘Three taps at the door, and ‘It is I, Richard the Third.’” She immediately withdrew, and Shakespeare followed till he observed her to go into a house in the city; and enquiring in the neighborhood, he was informed that a young lady lived there, the favorite of an old rich merchant. Near the appointed time of meeting, Shakespeare thought proper to anticipate Mr. Burbage, and was introduced by the concerted signal. The lady was very much surprised at Shakespeare’s presuming to act Mr. Burbage’s part; but as he (who had wrote Romeo and Juliet), we may be certain, did not want wit or eloquence to apologize for the intrusion, she was soon pacified, and they were mutually happy till Burbage came to the door, and repeated the same signal; but Shakespeare popping his head out of the window, bid him be gone; for that William the Conqueror had reigned before Richard III.”
There may be a little embroidery here (the cuckolding of a rich old merchant is a classic folk-tale motif), but the version of the story in Mannigham’s diary is identical in substance, save that in his account the citizen herself attends the play and is so impressed by Burbage’s performance that before leaving the theater she finds him backstage and makes the assignation. Manningham is also crisper on the substance of the matter: Shakespeare was ‘at his game’ with the woman when Burbage knocked on the door.
There is no more vivid anecdote of the life of Shakespeare’s theater. Richard Burbage puts in such a charismatic performance as Richard III that the female theatergoer responds by offering him her body, every bit in the manner of a modern pop star’s groupie. Shakespeare, with his usual eye for the main chance, pops in between the erection and Burbage’s hopes, then pops out the window with a stunningly witty punchline. Burbage has no cause to complain about Shakespeare presuming to act his part, because Shakespeare has himself written the part of Richard. Shakespeare’s art may not have advanced him among the aristocracy, but it has got him into a citizen’s bed.”
Great story – and…probably even true.
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on the first three acts.