Much Ado About Nothing
Act Three, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
“You may be sure that a dancing society takes care about how it is dressed, so it is hardly surprising that the word ‘fashion’ occurs far more often in this play than elsewhere (fifteen times). It comes from facere, and it has the straightforward honest meaning of ‘to make, to shape,’ as in what a craftsman does. But it soon acquired a potentially somewhat more sinister usage to indicate a more manipulative activity – to re shape or mis-shape. As when Brutus says of a possible recruit to his conspiracy – ‘Send him but hither, and I’ll fashion him.’ The Friar in this play uses it in this sense, but positively, ‘doubt not but success/Will fashion the event in better shape.’ And planning the –benign – deception of Benedick and Beatrice to bring them ‘into a mountain of affection th’one with the other,’ Don Pedro says ‘I would fain have it a match, and I doubt not but to fashion it.’ The malign plotter, Borachio, promises – ‘I will so fashion that matter that Hero shall be absent.’ Given the right, and the wrong, motive, anyone can ‘fashion’ any appearance as they choose. Craftsmanship gone wild.
As a noun, ‘fashion’ soon came to refer to custom or mode, including in matters of manners and clothing, which is, I suppose, its dominant meaning today. ‘He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block [mould for the latest shape of hat]’ – is one of Beatrice’s earliest tart, pejorative comments on Benedick. Beatrice herself perhaps goes to the other extreme:
No, not to be so odd, and from all fashions,
As Beatrice is, cannot be commendable.
This is Hero’s opinion, who, we infer, does not deviate from fashion one inch either way. A good girl. But even when Benedick sees Beatrice as goddess of discord, Ate, he adds – ‘in good apparel.’ They must all have been beautifully dressed. But the most interesting use of the word comes when Borachio is recounting to Conrade the villainy he has just perpetrated on Don John’s behalf. Instead of simply describing what he did (pretend to enter Hero’s bedroom with the somewhat unwitting aid of Margaret), Borachio – to Conrade’s understandable bemusement – embarks on a disquisition on fashion. The exchange is seldom commented on, but I think it is a key to an appreciation of the play.
Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak, is nothing to a man.
Yes, it is apparel
I mean the fashion.
Yes, the fashion is the fashion.
Tush! I may as well say the fool’s the fool. But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is?
(At this point the listening Watch pick up what they take to be a thief named ‘Deformed.’ But Mr. Deformed takes on a life of his own, and by the end has acquired a lock and key in his ear. But the admirable Watch are not all wrong; there are quite a lot of ‘Deformed’s about.)
Sees thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is? How giddily ‘a turns about all the hotbloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty?…
All this I see; and I see that the fashion wears out more apparel than the man. But art not thou thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou has shifted out of thy tale into tell me of the fashion?
Not so either. But know that I have tonight wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero’s gentlewoman, by the name of Hero.
At the end of the play, Benedick sums up – ‘for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.’ If you dance too fast, or for too long, you are likely to become ‘giddy’ (coming from a word meaning ‘possessed by a god’!); something of this seems to be happening in Messina. The point forcefully made here is that this is a society governed, for good and bad, by fashion. This is underlined by the very next scene, in which Hero and Margaret discuss dresses, ruffs, sleeves, skirts, pearls, silver lace, cloth of gold, and so on, in connection with Hero’s wedding dress – ‘your gown’s a most rare fashion, i’faith.’ A concern for fashion is good in that it makes people care about beautiful appearances and elegant manners – ‘style,’ in short. But it can be bad or dangerous in that the ‘apparel’ may be more regarded than what may, or may not, lie beneath it; as the rogue himself says, with the usual insight of the wicked, fashion, apparel – doublets, hats, cloaks – ‘is nothing to a man’ i.e. reveals nothing of the real person. Messina tends to live by fashion (perhaps this gives the slightly hard and glittering feel which Rossiter sensed), and this makes it vulnerable to ‘fashioned’ appearances – both benign and malign. ‘De-formation’ either way. (This is why Borachio precedes his description of deception with a discussion of fashion – he knows very well that they are intimately related; if not, indeed, at bottom, the same phenomenon.) Which brings us to ‘misprision’ and ‘hearsay.’
To begin to understand why this play proceeds so purringly, one must appreciate how elegantly Shakespeare has plotted the plottings ‘authored’ by his characters. Both the malign plot to deceive Claudio into poisonous jealousy, and the benign plot to trick Benedick and Beatrice into ‘a mountain of affection th’e one with the’other’, depend upon staged hoaxes, and eavesdropping by the deluded, concealed victims. Taken in by, and replying upon, varying forms of ‘hearsay,’ they fall into the ‘trap’ of ‘misprision’ (literally, mistaking), and ‘misprizing’ (estimating value wrongly); leading to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misapprehensions – things going amiss. It is a world in which appearances cannot be trusted – men are not what they seem; words are not what they say. When the Watch ask Dogberry what they should do to recalcitrant drunks, he says ‘you may say they are not the men you took them for.’ In Messina, you may say that again. The two ‘plotters’ follow hard on each other’s heels. Don Pedro exits, promising to ‘practice on Benedick,’ and claiming ‘we are the only love-gods,’ to be replaced by Borachio, explaining to Don John how he will ‘practice’ on Claudio. He will, says Borachio, ‘hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio’ (‘hearsay’ indeed), and:
I will so fashion the matter that Hero shall be absent; and there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero’s disloyalty that jealousy shall be called assurance and all the preparation overthrown.
Here we have, in embryonic form, what will be the whole plot of Othello; and, to the extent that Don Pedro plays a ‘love-god,’ we may say that Borachio takes the role of an Iago – devil, manipulating appearances for diabolical ends. And problems concerning ‘seeming truth’ pervade Shakespeare from first to last.
But if, in some ways, the plots run in parallel, in other ways they are antithetical, as Bullough pointed out. Hero and Claudio, following romantic conventions almost mindlessly, are effortlessly brought together with the help of experienced mediators. They are then jarringly separated by ‘hearsay’ and false report. It is exactly the other way round with Beatrice and Benedick. Resisting all conventions of courtship, they seem entirely at their ease in unwedded singleness. It would seem an almost impossible task to bring them into union – though, here again, deft mediators and a judicious use of ‘hearsay’ and false report accomplish what Don Pedro specifically likens to ‘one of Hercules’ labors’ – (shades of the Ur-Tamer, Petruchio!). The two plots become inter-involved, thus providing dramatic momentum coming to a peak, perhaps, with Beatrice’s arresting, and testing, order to her new-found lover – ‘kill Claudio.’ One can profitably take the point made by Carol Neely:
“Together the two plots maintain equilibrium between male control and female initiative, between male reform and female submission, which is characteristic of the romantic comedies. In this play, wit clarifies the vulnerability of romantic idealization while romance alters the static, self-defensive gestures of wit.”
The very different wooings, and eventual matings, of these two interlocking couples, enable Shakespeare to probe and explore myriad aspects of possible relations between the sexes – in the real world – more brilliantly and searchingly than in any previous play.
The play effectively begins with a ‘hearing,’ Claudio announcing his love for Hero (‘If my passion change not shortly,’ he adds, ominously, as it turns out) – followed by an ‘overhearing.’ ‘The Prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached alley in mine orchard, were thus much overheard by a man of mine.’ The ‘man’ gets it wrong, of course, as will all the other differing overhearers to follow (with widely varying results) – overhearing is invariably mishearing. The man thinks that the Prince is avowing his love for Hero, whereas, in fact, he is promising to woo her on Claudio’s behalf. The error is quick to circulate, as errors are; and, during the masked dance, Don John, pretending that he thinks he is talking to Benedick, is happy to stab Claudio with the information that Don Pedro is ‘enamored on Hero.’ The main point here is that Claudio instantly takes this as ascertained truth. ‘Tis certain so. The Prince woos for himself.’ People are not to be trusted. ‘Let every eye negotiate for itself/And trust no agent.’ This is just a preliminary version of the main plot. Don John promises to demonstrate Hero’s infidelity on the eve of the wedding. Don’t trust me, intimates Don John, trust what you will see. ‘If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know. If you will follow me, I will show you enough.’ It doesn’t take much – just a few clothes, and a misleading dialogue. Iago, who also leads while pretending only to ‘show,’ can do it with a single handkerchief. What Claudio is too culpably gullible to realize is that, while he thinks his eye is ‘negotiating’ for itself, he is in fact ‘trusting’ another ‘agent’ – but this time, not one who helps to make his marriage, but one who seeks to work his ruin. We, the audience, do not see the ‘scene’ put on for Claudio’s benefit – a shrewd decision on Shakespeare’s part since it keeps us, too, in a world of ‘hearsay’ and report – but we gather that Claudio was, again, instantly convinced of Hero’s infamy by what he saw and heard. And even Don Pedro, who accompanied him, was taken in – later insisting that Hero was ‘charged with nothing/But what was true, and very full of proof.’ This is what Othello will call ‘ocular proof’ and to ‘trust’ and ‘follow’ it can have disastrous, tragic results. This is part of Shakespeare’s growing concern about what sort of evidence can be relied on; indeed; what ‘evidence’ really was. In the realm of human feeling and action, can you ever, finally, prove anything?”
More to come. But I have to say that Tanner’s observation of Claudio’s earlier gullibility as well as his early statement “If my passion change not shortly” seems so obvious…yet I missed it. We have to remember that Shakespeare, if we read wisely, tells us what we need to know, most of the time. Your thoughts?
Our next reading: Much Ado About Nothing, Act Four
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning