Much Ado About Nothing
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: Leonato and Antonio angrily confront Claudio and Don Pedro and accuse them of killing Hero, but they refuse to be drawn, and are much surprised when Benedick enters and challenges Claudio to a duel. They are even more shocked when Dogberry and Verges reveal the actual truth about Don John’s plan. Appalled, Don Pedro and Claudio beg for Leonato’s forgiveness, and he instructs them to write an epitaph that would clear his daughter’s name, and tells Claudio that he must marry Antonio’s daughter. Claudio agrees. Benedick, in the meanwhile, has been struggling to write love poems for his beloved Beatrice. Next morning, as Claudio is about to marry Antonio’s daughter, she lifts her veil and reveals herself to be none other than Hero. Beatrice and Benedick realize that they have been tricked soon afterwards, but when his poems and her love letters are reveals, they bow to the inevitable and admit their love. All are reconciled – with the obvious exception of the captured Don John, whose punishment is postponed for another day.
Relief is the mood of the day in the last scenes of Much Ado, as truths are finally revealed, although the conclusion is in no way facile. Persuaded that Hero was actually innocent, the guilt-stricken Claudio agrees to Leonato’s offer to marry his niece instead. But even Leonato’s assurance that she is “almost a copy of my child that’s dead” does not prepare Claudio for her unveiling at the ceremony:
Claudio: Another Hero!
Hero: Nothing certainer
Our Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.
“She died, my lord, but whiles her slander lived,” echoes Leonato, pointing the way to the kind of mythic rebirth that will so inspire Shakespeare in his last days. For the moment, though, the comic community of Messina is allows to heal its wounds and gather once more (as the script puts it) in a “Dance.”
“How then does one answer the question: What is the definition of love in Much Ado About Nothing? The prime answer is there in the title: Love is much ado about nothing. What binds and will hold Beatrice and Benedick together is their mutual knowledge and acceptance of this benign nihilism. Doubtless the title has some reference also to the vexed transition of Hero and Claudio from noncourtship to a pragmatic marriage of mutual advantage. Tiresome and empty as Claudio is, he has a certain aplomb to his cheerful approach to his second betrothal to the supposedly dead Hero: ‘I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope’ and ‘Which is the lady I must seize upon?’ This splendid unconcern is the prelude to the highest comedy in the play:
Benedick: Soft and fair, friar. Which is Beatrice?
Beatrice: [Unmasking] I answer to that name. What is your will?
Benedick: Do not you love me?
Beatrice: Why, no, no more than reason.
Benedick: Why then, your uncle, and the Prince, and Claudio
Have been deceived – they swore you did.
Beatrice: Do not you love me?
Benedick: Troth, no, no more than reason.
Beatrice: Why then, my cousin, Margaret, and Ursula
Are much deceiv’d, for they did swear you did.
Benedick: They swore that you were almost sick for me.
Beatrice: They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.
Benedick: ‘Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?
Beatrice: No, truly, but in friendly recompense.
This has gone beyond fencing into a wary exchange of tactics, brilliantly phrased, and climaxing in one of Shakespeare’s finest comic epiphanies:
Benedick: A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee, but by this light I take thee for pity.
Beatrice: I would not deny you, but, by this good day I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.
Benedick: Peace! I will stop your mouth.
Protesting even while kissing, Beatrice will not speak again in Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare must have felt that, for now, she and the audience were at one. Benedick is allowed a spirited defense of his new status as ‘the married man,’ one that culminates in obsessive Shakespearean mode of advice: get married and expect to be cuckolded.
Benedick: First, of my word! Therefore, play music, Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife! There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn.
Neither the prince’s staff of authorization nor the staff of honored old age is more antique in vintage than the horned staff of the cuckold. Benedick jests in what is for us a light bad taste, but properly realistic for Shakespeare. Perhaps there is just a hint that like most Shakespeare marriages, the union of Beatrice and Benedick may not be a bower of bliss. In this comedy, more than ever, that does not matter. Two of the most intelligent and energetic of Shakespeare’s nihilists, neither of them likely to be outraged or defeated, will take their chances together.”
From Tanner, from where I last left off:
“The benign deception of Benedick and Beatrice is a different sort of affair, although we notice that the credulousness of the ‘overhearers’ is once more immediate. Plato recognizes different forms of deceit – the manifestly wicked kind; the legitimate deceits of warfare (ambushes); and the good, or useful, or ‘medicinal’ lie, which you might tell a friend for his own good (when he is about to do himself some harm). We should place ‘the false sweet bait’ and ‘honest slanders’ with which Benedick and Beatrice are baited, hooked and landed (hunting and angling images dominate these scenes), in this last category of Plato’s. If there can be such a thing as ‘the lie beneficent’ (and Plato’s authority is hardly negligible), then this is what the ‘plotters’ use on Benedick and Beatrice. And, of course, there is another possible twist. Without knowing or intending it, they may actually be telling the (hidden) truth about Beatrice’s and Benedick’s feelings – in which case, their inventions serve the honorable role of revelations.
The apparent paradox of ‘honest slanders’ may serve as a reminder that the word ‘slander’ (and ‘slanderous,’ ‘slandered’) occurs far more often in this play than elsewhere. And while we may say that Beatrice and Benedick are ‘slandered’ into love, Hero is, officially at least, ‘slandered to death by villains,’ ‘Done to death by slanderous tongues.’ Shakespeare had an acute sense of (and revulsion for) the gratuitous, irreparable damage that can be done by malicious slander (what Spenser, with a comparable loathing, allegorized as the Blatant Beast). There is an enormous delight in word-play throughout, but there is a concurrent suspicion of the wayward power of tongues, and of the man who is, as it were, all tongue. ‘But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too.’ The tongue set free may ‘transshape’ virtues into vices, evil into good, and anything into anything. The word ‘transshape’ only appears in this play, like ‘hearsay,’ and it is clearly all part of Shakespeare’s particular interest here in ‘misprision’ (that Shakespeare himself ‘transshapes’ life into art, is only another aspect of this endlessly complex matter). When Constable Dogberry brings Conrade and Borachio before the Prince, for once, in his muddled way, he puts his wobbling lexical finger on the central matter – his rambling redundancies are spot on.
Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths, secondarily, they are slanders, sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.
I don’t see how Solomon himself could have said it much better than that! And it is because so many people in this Messina are given to ‘committing false report’ (of very varying degrees of seriousness), that when Beatrice comes forward, after ‘overhearing’ accounts of Benedick’s love for her, and says – to herself and us – ‘and I believe it better than reportingly’, we thrill to feel that she has stepped beyond the tangled world of hearsay and misprision, into the more serious, more risky world of ‘trust’ (it doesn’t matter if we think she is – the more, or less – deceived). Shakespeare uses the word ‘report’ hundreds of times, but the curious very ‘reportingly’ just this once. It is, perhaps, that people in this Messina tend to live too reportingly (which is why ‘slander’ thrives), and Shakespeare is intimating that there must be a better way than that.
The drama of The Merchant of Venice gathers to a head and finally breaks in Act IV in the courtroom. Something very similar happens in the fourth Act of Much Ado though this time the scene is a chapel. In both cases, a key civic ritual is interrupted, disrupted, turned askew – first a trial; now a wedding. And in both scenes, there is an identical moment which turns out to be the turning point of the play. I will come to this. The outburst which profanes and violates the holy orderliness of the chapel ceremony is precipitated by ‘misprision’ leading to ‘misprising’ – the two errors being often, of course, closely inter-involved. That second word is, in fact, only used of Beatrice in this play:
Disdain and Scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprizing what they look on.
But Beatrice’s disvaluing, or devaluing, remarks are a form of non-lethal mockery; at bottom, a sometimes astringent merriment. A ‘sparkling.’ But there is nothing merry or sparkling about Claudio’s public ‘misprizing’ of Hero in church. He has already promised to ‘shame her…in the congregation’ if Don John ‘proves’ her infidelity, which leads to these comments:
Don Pedro: O day untowardly turned!
Claudio: O mischief strangely thwarting!
Don John is the embodiment of the will to ‘thwart.’ It is one his favoured words, and, seemingly, ‘thwarting’ is the only activity which gives him a perverse sort of pleasure. (As a word, it draws together crooked, crossed, transverse; to twist, oppose, frustrate – the quintessential drive to block and spoil.) Don John thus ‘turns’ the play away from its planned felicitous route to marriage and happiness – he derails the comedy. It will take another ‘turn’ to regain that route, set things to right, and repair the damage.
And shame Hero ‘in the congregation,’ Claudio duly does – with words of extraordinary virulence and loathing:
There, Leonato, take her back again
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.
She’s but the sign and semblance of her honor.
Would you not swear,
All you that see her, but 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.
And to Hero directly:
Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it.
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamp’red animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
‘Seeming’ is, indeed, one of Shakespeare’s great themes, and he wrote against or about it continually. The irony here, of course, is precisely that Claudio has been taken in by signs, semblances, and seeming. But, hearing Claudio’s amazingly immoderate, intemperate language, one feels that something else is going on as well. Benedick’s comment, ‘This looks not like a nuptial’ must rank as the understatement of the play.
But what does it look like? Let’s start with that orange, since, oddly, it is the only orange in Shakespeare (there is an ‘orange-tawny beard’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and an ‘orange-wife’ in Coriolanus). To refer to a woman as a ‘rotten orange’ is to allude disgustedly to her private parts, suggesting not only promiscuity but venereal disease (the relatively recent rampant spread of syphilis was a major worry in Shakespeare’s London). Shakespeare has prepared for this startlingly unpleasant image, by having Beatrice, earlier, describe Claudio as ‘civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion.’ The pun is on civil/Seville (Seville oranges, as far as I can find out, were the only oranges known in Shakespeare’s London – presumably for jam-making). Hero, it need hardly be said, is nothing of a ‘rotten orange’ – no woman less so. The oranges are in Claudio’s head – the very colour and contents of his sexually unbalanced (immature? prurient? lubricious? frightened?), distinctly male, imagination. I make that stress because, in his nauseated, nauseous outburst against female sexuality, Claudio is only the first of a number of men in Shakespeare who indulge in similar inflamed and disgusted tirades – they include Angelo, Troilus, Hamlet, Othello, Posthumus, Leontes. Whether these speeches reveal something about Shakespeare’s own ambivalent feelings and fears concerning female sexuality may be left to the individual to decide, since it is a manifestly imponderable question. I would only point out that, in every case, the fears and suspicions are groundless, the accusations utterly wild, the revulsion totally unjustified by anything that is discoverably the case – all misprision and misprizing. (I have left out Lear’s famous denunciation since, considering the antics of Goneril and Regan, it might be felt that he had a point). For what it is worth, I think Shakespeare is saying, showing, something about the nature of male sexual imaginings.
None of this is of any help to Hero who, confronted with such incomprehensible and insane accusations, can only respond by swooning. Her shame, defamation, and rejection reach apparent completeness when her own father cries out – ‘Let her die.’ At which point the Friar steps forward – ‘Hear me a little.’ He then advances the defining wisdom of the play: ‘There is some strange misprision in the princes,’ a consideration which seems to occur to no one else except Beatrice (followed, quickly enough, by Benedick). When all seems lost, irremediable, unredeemable, the Friar stops all the hopelessness with – ‘Pause awhile.’ This echoes Portia’s ‘Tarry a little,’ and has exactly the same effect and function. Here the play begins to ‘turn’ again; turn back, this time, to the right track, though it will involve quite a detour. I have written elsewhere of the importance of the ‘pause’ (during which things may be ‘scanned’), and ‘the pauser, reason,’ in the tragedies. ‘Tarry a little’ and ‘Pause awhile’ are adumbrations of this crucial moment (Hamlet tarries and pauses, arguably for too long; Macbeth doesn’t want to tarry and pause at all). The ‘pause’ is what arrests an apparently headlong and unstoppable rush of the dramatic action to disaster. The interposed gap of reflection opens up the possibility of another way…it allows the action to be pulled back from veering off into tragedy. And here, the Friar is crucial.
This Friar has a more important, more creative, role than the well-wishing, would-be helper of Romeo and Juliet. The latter suggested the ‘feigned death’ of Juliet stratagem as simply a trick, a tactic, for gaining time. This Friar sees the same device as having far greater potential:
And publish it that she is dead indeed;
Marry, this well carried shall on her behalf
Change slander to remorse; that is some good.
But not for that dream I on this strange course,
But on this travail look for greater birth.
Greater birth – he has in mind a process involving remorse, repentance, and regeneration. This theme of (apparent) death, followed by (greater) rebirth, will be most fully worked out in the last plays. Success, says the Friar, ‘Will fashion the event in better shape’ – this is the most positive use of ‘fashion’ in the play, suggesting an almost god-like activity or magic. Thus, his last advice to Hero sounds the note – a note of ‘strangeness’ – which will dominate the rest of the play; and which will be heard again hereafter.
For to strange sores strangely they strain the cure.
Come, lady, die to live. This wedding day
Perhaps is but prolonged. Have patience and endure.
With the indispensable help of the Watch – ‘What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light,’ as Borachio says, a very Shakespearian note – the plot to defame Hero is revealed, and it remains for Claudio to perform rites of mourning and repentance. Hence the scene at Hero’s monument, before the final reconciliation scene, when Claudio agrees to marry, as he thinks, ‘another Hero’; who, of course, turns out to be the same Hero, to the bewilderment of the onlookers. ‘She died, my lord, but whiles her slander lived,’ explains her father. And the Friar, who has become, in effect, the director of the play, issues a last promise and instruction:
All this amazement I can qualify,
When, after the holy rites are ended,
I’ll tell you largely of fair Hero’s death.
Meantime let wonder seem familiar,
And to the chapel let us presently.
One can see the intention. This is a very important development in Shakespeare’s comedies and the slightly mysterious, benignly inventive and ministering Friar is something of an embryonic Prospero. But, arguably, the figures of Claudio and Hero (and Don John) are insufficiently developed for this part of the play to generate the sort of ‘wonder’ which will so richly and rarely suffuse the last plays. For a lot of people, the play is primarily, Beatrice and Benedick.
I have noted that Shakespeare sometimes marks the distinctive light in which his comedies conclude – the ‘glooming’ morning at the end of Romeo and Juliet; followed by the wonderful ‘glimmering’ which illuminates the finale of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the more equivocal ‘daylight sick’ in which The Merchant of Venice is concluded. Here the light, as you might expect is, finally, good enough.
Good morrow, masters; put your torches out.
The wolves have preyed, and look, the gentle day,
Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about
Dapples the drowsy east with spots of gray.
Thanks to you all, and leave us. Fare you well.
The wolves have preyed; but in Messina, clearly, the sun rises.”
And finally, from Garber:
“The revelation or resurrection scene thus unfolds with the usual element of discrepant awareness: the audience in the theater and most of those onstage are aware that Hero is alive, but her husband-to-be and his best man are not. The fiction is that Claudio will marry the daughter of Antonio. ‘My brother hath a daughter,/Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,/And she alone is heir to both of us,’ Leonato has said to him. ‘Give her the right you should have giv’n her cousin,/And so dies my revenge.’ ‘Now, on the morning of this wedding, Leonato asks, ‘Are you yet determined/Today to marry with my brother’s daughter?’ and Claudio replied, ‘I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope.’ The Friar – the same who presided at the first ceremony – will make this marriage, and Antonio is sent to bring in the bride, who enters, like her attendants, masked. Thus in visual and formal terms this third ceremonial scene will incorporate elements from the previous two, the masked ball and the aborted wedding. And yet the mask is, in this case, almost a shroud, since Hero will revive, in her lover’s eyes, from death:
Claudio: Which is the lady I must seize upon?
Antonio: This same is she, and I do give you her.
Claudio: Why then, she’s mine. Sweet, let me see your face.
Leonato: No, that you shall not till you take her hand.
Before this Friar and swear to marry her.
Claudio: [to HERO] Give me your hand before this holy friar.
I am your husband if you like of me.
Hero: [unmasking] And when I lived I was your other wife;
And when you loved, you were my other husband.
Claudio: Another Hero!
Hero: Nothing certainer.
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.
Don Pedro: The former Hero, Hero that is dead!
Leonato: She died my lord, but whiles her slander lived.
Friar: All this amazement can I qualify.
The Friar is prepared to tell the story, to ‘let wonder seem familiar.’ But this remarkable romance moment of resurrection and remarriage, a moving spectacle upon the stage, is not permitted to stand uninterrupted. Instead the play turns back toward the familiar and witty terrain of comedy, as Benedick asks ‘[W]hich is Beatrice?’ He sees her remove her mask, demands to know if she loves him as his friends had sworn, and thus begins to unravel the second, and more comic of the play’s deception:
Benedick: They swore that you were almost sick of me.
Beatrice: They swore that you were wellnigh dead for me.
Benedick: ‘Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?
Beatrice: No, truly, but in friendly recompense.
Before these proud and sensitive spirits can back away completely from their previous admissions, their friends produce the ocular proof. Claudio has taken from Benedick ‘a paper written in his hand,/A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,/Fashioned to Beatrice,’ and Hero gleefully waves ‘another,/Write in my cousin’s hand, stol’n from her pocket,/Containing her affection unto Benedick.’ The tables are now completely turned, as Claudio and Hero act (for the moment) the part of the experienced and settled lovers, and Beatrice and Benedick stand exposed in their pretense. ‘A miracle!’ crows Benedick. ‘Here’s our own hands against our hearts.’
It is not an accident that this final reversal is accomplished by means of writing, which tells the truth about their love while the witty speakers fib and spar. We have been vouchsafed a comical glimpse of Benedick trying to write his love poem: ‘I cannot show it in rhyme. I have tried. I can find no rhyme to ‘lady but ‘baby,’ an innocent rhyme; for ‘scorn,’ ‘horn,’ a hard rhyme; for ‘school,’ ‘fool,’ a babbling rhyme. Very ominous endings. No, I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor I cannot woo in festival terms.’ And yet he does. Much Ado About Nothing is one of several Shakespeare plays to juxtapose overtly the spoken and the written, and in this play the latter is often called up on to stabilize or interpret the former. The penance Leonato had imposed on Claudio, for his slander of Hero in the sacred precincts of the church, was that he should ‘labour…in sad invention’ and hang an epitaph upon Hero’s tomb. The epitaph, beginning ‘Done to death by slanderous tongues,’ ends with the conventional sentiment that poetry will make the dead live forever: ‘So the life that died with shame/Lives in death with glorious fame.’ Dogberry the constable, one of Shakespeare’s most effective clowns, the mouthpiece for some of the playwright’s best malapropisms, relies on writing to pin down elusive fact, instructing the Sexton to ‘bring his pen and inkhorn to jail’ and interjecting, throughout the important and revealing Sexton scene, instructions for translating words into text, as one by one the ‘malefactors’ are charged with their crime. ‘Pray write down “Borachio”…Write down “Master Gentleman Contrad”…Write down that they hope they serve God…Write down Prince John is a villain.’ The Sexton faithfully transcribes the testimony, or ‘examination’ given by the Watch, and takes it to show to Leonato. It is this written evidence that will convince Leonato of Hero’s innocence and John’s villainy. Dogberry, left onstage with the captured men, who vent their spleen by calling him an ass, is magnificent in his wish that the literate Sexton were still present to record this insult:
O that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass…Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!
That this is a favor the playwright has done for his character, even in the Sexton’s absence, has long been a delight to audiences and readers. The role of Dogberry was originally played by Will Kemp, the same actor who played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we might imagine that spectators would make this connection. Dogberry/Kemp had already been ‘writ down an ass,’ with equal insouciant triumph, in Shakespeare’s earlier play. [MY NOTE: Keep in mind that there was probably only a three year at the max interval between the two plays.]
In contrast to writing, speech is impossibly slippery and treacherous for Dogberry, who says ‘suspect’ for ‘respect’ (‘Does thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years?’ and ‘auspicious’ for ‘suspicious’ and who thinks it is a compliment when Leonato calls him and his partner ‘tedious’ (‘It pleases your worship to say so, but…if I were as tedious as a king I could find it in my hear to bestow it all of your worship.’ As he reports the crimes of Don John’s men, it is striking that he describes all their offenses as versions of bad speech: ‘Marry, sir, they have committed false report, moreover they have spoken untruths, secondarily they are slanders, sixth and lastly they have belied a lady, thirdly they have verified unjust things, and to conclude, they are lying knaves.’
Dogberry has had his brilliant interpreters, and his fans. And directors have done what they could to showcase the romance of Claudio and Hero. But it is Beatrice and Benedick who unquestionably steal the show, and whose love represents an achieve maturity – shot through, it is fair to say, with genial folly – that differentiates them from all the others in the play. Even their gestures – the sonnets, the new suit of clothes, the trimmed beard, Benedick’s pledge to ‘go get her picture’ – are gently self-mocking, acknowledging the folly of their earlier stubbornness, and the great fun of being in love. This is a play that several times comes dangerously close to tragedy. Beatrice’s command to her lover, ‘Kill Claudio,’ is a turning point in more ways than one, as actors and directors must struggle to retain the sincerity of the moment, at the same that this earnest entreaty breaks the tone, and the frame, of all of their previous banter. They are adults, these two. They stand apart as a whole people, timely and timeless, people we would probably like to know. We might notice that while Hero has a watchful father and uncle, and Claudio an offstage uncle (mentioned in the first scene) and the prospective Don Pedro, Beatrice and Benedick have no parents, and Leonato has no influence over his niece. Beatrice and Benedick are simply their incomparable and incomparably witty, selves, and for this generations of audiences have been grateful.”
And with that…Much Ado About Nothing is complete. What’s your take? Do you agree with Bloom that it’s really not much of a play? Do you agree with Goddard on the importance of Claudio and Hero and the use of “nothing?” Or is it really just the Beatrice and Benedick show? Share your thoughts with the group!
My next posts: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – Shakespeare Sonnet #121; Thursday evening/Friday morning, my introduction to our next play, and the last of the history plays, Henry V.