Much Ado About Nothing
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: As the wedding ceremony begins, Claudio savagely denounces Hero, backed up by Don Pedro and Don John. Hero faints away, convincing her father of her guilt. Friar Francis stands by her, however, and advises that her death be announced while she hides away until such time as her innocence can be proven. Benedick tells Beatrice that he does not believe the accusations; when he then admits that he loves her, she reciprocates while urging him to kill Claudio. The Watch, meanwhile, has taken their prisoners to the Sexton, who realizes that Hero has been framed.
Obviously, before everybody can make it to the altar, they must be kept away from the altar, as malign, deceptive forces make themselves known in Messina. Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John realizes that Hero and Claudio, with just a little bit of effort, can be forced apart. And again, visual and audio deceptions are the key. Arranging for Borachio to woo Hero’s gentlewoman Margaret, Don John escorts Claudio and Don Pedro to a dark place from where they can “see” Borachio conversing with her. Persuaded that the woman they see is Hero, Claudio immediately swears (as Borachio cacklingly tells it) to “meet her as he was appointed next morning at the temple, and there, before the whole congregation, shame her with what he saw.” Instead of formalizing the marriage in front of all of Messinan society, Claudio turns the ceremony into an act of ritual humiliation.
And as soon as Leonato gives her away, Claudio does just that. “Give not this rotten orange to your friend,” he furiously cries:
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none.
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
In his obsession with female hypocrisy, Claudio seems to echo Master Ford, but in Merry Wives, no one doubts for even a moment that Ford’s jealousy exists solely in his mind. Here, even Leonato, Hero’s seemingly good-natured father, is immediately convinced of her guilt, crying, “O she is fallen/Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea/hath drops too few to wash her clean again.”
This is the very darkest moment of the play, and it should be noted, I think, that the only evidence behind Claudio’s wild accusations is that, as Don Pedro explains, she talked “with a ruffian at her chamber window” – an act they witnessed at night and with only Borachio’s word to confirm it. This bond of trust between men, which is able to erase at a stroke an entire heterosexual relationship, seems to confirm what some commentators have claimed, that Messina is a much less tolerant society than it might at first appear. In this respect, it seems to look forward to the anguished world of Troilus and Cressida (soon to come!), whose heroine becomes guilty (if guilty is indeed the right word) of what Hero is not when she is observed flirting with a rival wooer. In both plays, it is, of course, women who bear the brunt of restrictive social codes that delineated behavior between the sexes in the Renaissance, and in presenting Hero’s suffering so powerfully Much Ado seems to strongly suggest that it doesn’t really matter much whether a woman deserves “dishonor” or not – it’s what society thinks that matters. When Hero is condemned not merely by her suitor and his comrades but by her own father, a rigid culture of shame and honor turns against her in full force, a catastrophe caused by the flimsiest of fabrications.
(“It is here [in the church scene] that the social abnormality of aristocratic society in Messina is exposed once and for all for what it is – a shallow and perverse application of a standard of behaviour that is both automatic and uncharitable.” Walter N. King, “Much Ado About Something” 1964)
It is the ferocity of this culture that most appalls in Much Ado: stung by Hero’s stunned inability to reply (she has in fact fainted), Leonato is shockingly quick to believe his daughter’s accusers rather than Hero herself, and so frantic with rage that he several times threatens to “tear her” with his own bare hands. Shakespeare does indeed make her die as a result of her shame, but fortunately not as literally as Leonato demands – the resourceful Friar suggests that Hero should fake her own decease (once again, deception), arguing that “the supposition of the lady’s death/Will quench the wonder of her infamy,’ in effect saying that everyone (especially Claudio), will be so overcome by grief that they will forget all about the scandal. It is a desperate measure, but Hero’s plight is extreme – so extreme, it seems, that social reputation outweighs life itself. It is left to Beatrice to voice the corollary, that Claudio should not be able to escape the consequences of his actions either. She demands from an unsuspecting Benedick a real sign of love:
Beatrice: I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.
Benedick: Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Beatrice: Kill Claudio.
Called upon to act as a revenger, Benedick is confronted by a situation which demands that he place his affection for Beatrice above loyalty to his closest friend. The comic world of Much Ado seems a very long away at this emotion-filled crux, not least because, having been pushed finally to fall in love, (or, perhaps, to realize that they’ve always been in love), it now seems possible that circumstances will drive Benedick and Beatrice apart.
Fortunately, the play does not allow that to happen. Claudio and Don Pedro are not the only characters to have been eavesdropping. The conversation between Borachio and Conrad, in which Borachio boasted about his “villainy,” has been overheard by Messina’s comically useless Watch, led by constable Dogberry and his sidekick Verges. By rights the Watch should be too hopeless to achieve anything at all, but somehow a couple of its members succeed in arresting Borachio and Conrad, thereby setting in motion events that will expose Don John’s malicious hoax. The well-meaning Verges attempts to inform Leonato about their recent coup, but Dogberry – doing his level best to impress – wants to have the governor all to himself. Urging Verges to stop waffling, he takes it upon himself to criticize his companion’s way with words:
Verges: Yes, I think God, I am as honest as any man living that is an old man and no honester than I.
Dogberry: Comparisons are odorous, Palabras, neighbour Verges.
Leonato: Neighbours, you are tedious.
Dogberry: It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the poor Duke’s officers. But truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a king I could find in my heart to bestow it all on your worship.
Enumerating Dogberry’s linguistic limitations has proved an entertaining pastime for editors, but it is the spontaneous felicity of his errors that really stands out – the Duke is “poor” indeed to have such “tedious” officials (clearly, Dogberry interprets the word as a compliment) on his side.
Dogberry makes an unlikely fairy godmother, but he turns out to be the one who holds all the means for a happy ending.
“Much Ado About Nothing is a study in the egotism of youth, its sentimental and romantic egoism in Claudio, its antiromantic and intellectual egotism in Beatrice and Benedick. The two tendencies reduce to pretty much the same thing and are as natural to youth as mumps and measles, phases through which it normally passes, largely harmless if that passage is not arrested. If it is, love may grow soft or even rotten (Claudio’s ‘rotten orange’ at the alter is more nearly a description of himself at the moment than it is of Hero), or, at the other extreme, it may harden into a shell of pride. These are the respective dangers that Claudio (if we can believe in his conversion) and Beatrice and Benedick are represented as escaping. The suspense and interest of the play lie in the danger – its point in the escape. And so, oddly, whoever likes this play too unreservedly comes under its own condemnation. It has always been a favorite with actors and theatergoers. But with many twentieth-century readers it leaves the impression that its author regarded it lightly, saw it more nearly as we do than as his contemporaries did. Everything conspires to show that though he seldom used words more brilliantly than in this very play his attitude toward them was growing more and more like Hamlet’s: ‘Words, words, words.’ Words can only say a little. But they can reveal a great deal by what they conceal. This is the difference between wit and poetry. In this sense Shakespeare was getting less and less interested in wit and more and more interested in poetry.
Fencing, which Shakespeare likens to wit, may be developed for its own sake into an art, but it reveals its true nature only as we consider it a prelude to dueling or deadly combat in battle, and when that comes there are other things more important than the polish on the rapiers and the glitter they make in the sun. The same is true of words. They can be made to scintillate, but they have a more serious and fatal function as no one can better understand than he who has mastered them in this lower sense. We grow a bit contemptuous of what we can do easily or perfectly. We crave a full challenge to our capacities, something that will make us stretch ourselves to the limit, as a tennis player does not care for a match against an unworthy opponent. He would rather lose to a superior player than win against an inferior one. ‘For absolute power of composition, for faultless balance and blameless rectitude of design,’ says Swinburne, ‘there is unquestionably no creation of [Shakespeare’s] hand that will bear comparison with Much Ado About Nothing.’ It is one of Swinburne’s absurd superlatives, but there is just enough truth in it to make it illuminating. It is as if Shakespeare said to himself: ‘I’ll do I t once more, give them what they want as utterly as I can, and then be done with that sort of stuff forever.’ And he was done with it. There is plenty of wit in later plays, but never again does it occupy the central position that it does here. ‘But what about Rosalind?’ it will be asked. An objection that only serves to drive the point home. For by way of Rosalind, in whom wit begins to transcend itself, Shakespeare takes a long stride in the direction of those great tragic heroines whose central endowment is love rather than wit. Beatrice can talk, but the play is nearing its end before we have full evidence that she can act and love as well as talk. But Rosalind can act and love right from the beginning and her wit is exercised mainly in the service of love and not for its own sake. Just where between Beatrice and Desdemona Rosalind comes in it would be hard to say. But the point is that she does come between them.
And so, paradoxically, Much Ado is in the end a sort of repudiation of itself and of the very thing that has given it its immense theatrical reputation. And that, in turn, is our excuse in discussing it for stressing a single word in its title at the price of saying little about the pair who always packed the theater in Shakespeare’s own day, whom actors and actresses will long love to impersonate, and about whom so many critics have had so many witty things to say. ‘There is only one thing worse than the Elizabethan “merry gentleman,” and that is the Elizabethan “merry lady,” says Bernard Shaw just after having declared that Benedick is ‘not a wit, but a blackguard.’ And he expresses the hope that the very thought of Benedick covered Shakespeare with shame in later years. But so far from having to be contrite, my guess would be that, quite without benefit of Bernard Shaw and without going to the extreme of his dissenting opinion, the creator of this incomparable pair was perfectly aware, at the time he made them, of the superficiality of their wit and the shallowness of most of their talk, however brilliant the style in which it is dressed.
Finally, it remains for Dogberry and his fellows, who to some readers are the top of the play, to put the last seal of approval on this way of interpreting it. Dogberry likes to hear himself talk as well as Beatrice and Benedick do, and he, too, is interested in words for their own sake. The parody is apparent. [MY NOTE: Not to me!, although now…all too clear.] Verbality for verbality, loquacity for loquacity, it sets us wondering how much there is to choose between the repartee of the wits and the mental meanderings of the constable, between the polishing of the King’s English by Beatrice and Benedick and the murdering of it by Dogberry. The latter has at any rate contributed more than the former to posterity’s stock of familiar quotations.
And the realistic clowning of this part of the story ties in with the theme as well as with the plot of the rest. What culture could not compass, the dumb luck or instinct of the unlettered brings to light. Here sheer witlessness becomes the highest wit, the ridiculous almost sublime; here dullness is sublimated into philosophy. It is all a perfect commentary on the antithesis drawn by Dostoevsky between intelligence and stupidity. ‘The stupider one is,’ says Ivan Karamazov, whose prime gift was intelligence, ‘the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.’ How in keeping with this Shakespeare is in having these plain watchmen in the routine performance of their duty uncover the truth that has evaded the clever and sophisticated. Dogberry himself is loquacious and inane, anything but ‘straightforward’ it would seem. Yet he is straightforward in Dostoevsky’s sense, right on the fundamentals, that is, and when it comes to those he can hit the nail on the head. ‘Write God first,’ he commands. And to Borachio he says, ‘I do not like thy look,’ which, while it may not constitute legal evidence, does credit to his perception. His instant distrust of the man is the counterpart of Beatrice’s instant faith in her cousin. Shakespeare even imparts to some of his most muddleheaded blunders overmeanings that seem like nature uttering unconscious wisdom through his mouth. ‘Master constable,’ says the Sexton at the end of the preliminary examination, ‘let these men be bound.’ ‘Let them be opinioned,’ says Dogberry, rejecting as not dignified enough for his office the Sexton’s simpler word. ‘Opinioned’: is it a slanting glance at the main theme of the play? It might well be. To be a sophisticated man is to be opinioned, and to be opinioned it to be bound. It is the stupid and the imaginative, at the extremes, who are unopinioned and therefore free, like the Creator and like the creator of the characters in this play, to make something out of NOTHING.”
“Shakespeare’s inventive exuberance in Much Ado is lavished upon Beatrice, who is a solitary eminence in the play. Benedick, the audience sympathetically feels, does his best to keep up, while Dogberry (alas) seems to me one of Shakespeare’s few failures at comedy. The Dogberrian malapropisms constitute only one joke, which is repeated too often to be funny. I favor Beatrice enough that I want Benedick, Dogberry, and the play to be worthier of her.”
From Walter Hazlitt:
“Dogberry and Verges in this play are inimitable specimens of quaint blundering and misprisions of meaning; and are a standing record of that formal gravity of pretension and total want of common understanding, which Shakespeare no doubt copied from real life, and which in the course of two hundred years appear to have ascended from the lowest to the highest offices in the state.”
From Maurice Charney:
“Most obviously, the villainy in Much Ado is set in a comic context of the bumbling watch, incomparably played by Dogberry, Verges, and their officers. As Borachio confesses to Don Pedro, ‘What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light.’ Shakespeare takes great delight in the spoonerisms of Dogberry, who is a lower-class counterpart to the educated and allusive wit of Beatrice and Benedick. His gravely uttered malapropisms must have been the basis for Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775). Dogberry is always earnest and sincere and never overtly-comic, which is the secret of his success. As he says to his fellow constable, or headborough, Verges, ‘Comparisons are odorous,’ and he insists that the sexton ‘write me down an ass’ as if an ass were the highest term of respect: ‘But, master, remember that I am an ass.’
Although the watch immediately uncovers great villainy, Dogberry insists in his instruction that they ‘offend no man, and it is an offense to say a man against his will.’ If they meet a thief they may suspect him to be no true man, but, since pitch defileth, as Falstaff and ‘ancient writers do report’ ‘they that touch pitch will be defiled,’ and therefore, ‘The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company.’ The mere benevolent presence of Dogberry, Verges, and the Watch undercuts the comic villainy of Much Ado and renders it harmless. It is as if Don John and his malicious companions are not allowed to appear in their true colors in a comedy. They are rendered impotent by the context.”
And finally, from Mark Van Doren:
“Meanwhile, as well there have been Dogberry, Verges, and the Watch. If nothing else had directed the audience how to feel, and whether to feel deeply, the ineffable presence of these simpletons would have done so. Only a comedy could contain such harmless and irrelevant officials, such senseless and fit men for constables of a solemn watch. Their dunderheadedness remains indefinable; their nature is as resistant to analysis as the sublime Bottom; and yet their destiny on any stage would be as clear as day. Their minds are muddy but their course is charted. They will blunder about in their tedious and stubborn ‘vigitance’ till they have made all well. Fools like that cannot fail. What the wisdoms of gentlemen would never discover they bring to light, mopping about with their hiccups and their lanterns, and stumbling into the grace of our loud laughter. Benedick and Beatrice draw a clear circle of wit about the play to keep its tragedy in place. Dogberry and his fellows are a coarse tallow candle burning near the center, keeping the comic peace.”
So…what do you all think? Which critics take do you agree with the most? Disagree with the most? Or do you have one of your own? Please…make your voice heard and share with the group!
Our next reading: Much Ado About Nothing, Act Five
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy your weekend.