Thursday, April 9, 2015

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

 Well, now that the Pendragon's Heir release excitement is done, it's probably a good time to return to your regularly scheduled classic literature. Today I'd love to review everyone's favourite Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.

This is, indeed, a joyous work. Don Pedro returns to Messina in triumph, hauling his card-carrying-villain brother Don John behind him, together with a following of soldiers including the young and callow Claudio and the more cynical wit Benedick. They're greeted by Leonato, a prominent citizen, his daughter Hero, for whom Claudio immediately falls like a ton of bricks, and his niece Beatrice, a spirited young lady who professes to despise Benedick but somehow cannot seem to stop talking about him...

With Claudio and Hero's wedding safely arranged, Don Pedro concocts an even zanier plan: to trick the the twice-shy Benedick and the acid-tongued Beatrice into "a mountain of affection, the one for the other." But the lighthearted shenanigans in Leonato's gardens aren't the only plots afoot. Don John is still bent on mischief, this time with Claudio and Hero in the crosshairs.

Well, you know the story (and if you don't, what are you waiting for?--Go and read it, because spoilers follow). Much Ado About Nothing has always been one of my very favourite Shakespeare plays, and if I haven't faced up to tackling a review till now, it's because of how daunting such a prospect is. In addition to being laugh-out-loud funny, tear-jerkingly dramatic, and just plain Shakespeare, Much Ado is also complex, profound, and thought-provoking.

Wise and Foolish Lovers

Where should I start? Well, I've previously explained my own theory that Shakespeare spent a lot of time writing about Wise and Foolish Lovers. Romeo and Juliet, as well as Othello, are brilliant examples of Foolish Lovers, who fall for each other at first sight, idolise each other, and then prove unable to get through the first storms of married life without killing themselves or each other. The Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, is about Wise Lovers, whose courtship is more like a sparring match in which each of them deliberately tests the other. In no other play, however, are the two kinds of couple more clearly contrasted than in Much Ado About Nothing.

Claudio and Hero are our Foolish Lovers--or specifically Claudio. Claudio falls for Hero, not through wisdom and intentionality, but simply because he's just finished the job of war and is now on vacation, with no more immediate tasks on his mind:
O, my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
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.
In other words, he sort of slides into love. In addition, though he makes no particular attempt to get to know Hero or to test her character, there are at least a couple of passages in which it becomes clear that he has a very cold appraisal of her cash value:
Claudio: Hath Leonato any son, my lord?
Don Pedro: None but Hero; she's his only heir.
And again, lampshaded by Benedick:
Claudio: Thou thinkest I am in sport; I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her.
Benedick: Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?
Claudio: Can the world buy such a jewel?
Benedick: Yea, and a case to put it into. 
From other reading in Shakespeare--The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, in which Petruchio decides to pursue Kate on a purely financial basis--I don't believe Shakespeare thought it wrong to consider money matters in making a match. Rather, this exchange draws our attention to the fact that Claudio is failing entirely to relate to Hero as a human being. On the one hand, he has idealised her into the perfect woman; on the other hand, he has commercialised her into a financial prize; revealingly, he also seems oddly dependent upon Benedick and Don Pedro's evaluation of her, as if her desirability depends upon his friends desiring her as well. Predictably, when his estimation of Hero's worth is compromised by a laughably threadbare plot, Claudio reacts with savagery. As an idol, she has proven to have feet of clay; as a socioeconomic prize, she is now unable to make him the envy of his comrades.

Benedick and Beatrice, by contrast, declare themselves (in one of the play's most revealing lines) as "too wise to woo peaceably." Even after falling for each other--and it seems clear that their former rivalry and cynicism stemmed somehow from their breaking each other's hearts in the past--their courtship is one long sparring match. Clearly, they have no illusions about each other; for comic effect, they even seem reluctant to admit any good qualities in each other. And the heart of the play is a test posed by Beatrice to Benedick: to prove his love for her, he must kill his best friend...

Because Beatrice and Benedick know each other's faults and have tested each other's character, because they have a sense of humour and do not take either themselves or each other so seriously as to imagine the beloved can do no wrong, they clearly have a stronger foundation to build upon than do Claudio and Hero. It's further enlightening that neither Benedick nor Beatrice "fall for each other" in the usual sense: their very love is a choice. Each of them is told that the other is dying for love of them. In a hilarious monologue (including the immortal line, "The world must be peopled!"), Benedick chooses to return the love he thinks Beatrice bears for him, and in a more poignant moment, in which Beatrice is confronted with her own sins, she makes the same decision:
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 requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
For the Wise Lovers, love is a choice, an act of freewill, entered into in full awareness of the other party's faults.

Shifting Allegiances

It is Beatrice's ultimate test of Benedick's love and character that she demands him--in one of the most breathless scenes of all Shakespearean canon--to "Kill Claudio." This test reveals another noteworthy theme of the play, which has to do with the differences between a bachelor's allegiances and a married man's. As Peter Leithart points out in his absolutely splendid book Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays (I highly recommend reading his far more in-depth analysis), love is described in the play as an upheaval of a man's whole being: marvelling over Claudio's twitterpation, Benedick asks himself, "May I be so converted and see with these eyes?"

Claudio, Benedick, and Don Pedro all come to the play with a strong bond of fellowship, forged in war. It is to these friends that Claudio first confesses his feelings for Hero, and it is these friends, when Claudio is too shy to pursue his suit for himself, who pursue it for him. Despite earning the nickname of "Monsieur Love" from the disgusted Benedick, however, Claudio's change of allegiance, his switch from "the rougher task" of war to the "soft and delicate desires" of love is proved superficial by his reaction to the accusations against Hero. Instead of defending her and investigating the matter more closely, he and Don Pedro join forces to disgrace her. Their solidarity stems from notions of honour and holds firm across the male ranks. Don John appeals to it when making his accusation: "If you love her then, tomorrow wed her; but it would better fit your honour to change your mind" (emphasis mine). Later, in the church, Don Pedro delivers his own verdict:

What should I speak?
I stand dishonoured, that have gone about
To link my dear friend to a common stale.

Meanwhile, Claudio's vengeance somehow ignores the man (or men) involved, putting all the blame on Hero. Even after he hears that Hero has died of shock because of his attack, Claudio continues to hang out with Don Pedro, cracking jokes. It isn't hard to see that the "rougher task" of war isn't so far behind Claudio as he thinks. War might be over, but Claudio continues to see his fighting buddies--and all men by extension--as his friends, and women as the enemies.

(Notice how Shakespeare foreshadows this ironically in the opening scenes. Benedick, who will prove to be love's true convert later in the play, swears that he will never marry because to be married is to be cuckolded. Claudio, "Monsieur Love," begins the play mooning over Hero, but as events prove, his opinion of women is if anything even lower than Benedick's).

It takes the shock of realising that he's killed an innocent woman to wrench Claudio away from his old allegiances, and prepare him for an infinitely more risky and unreserved commitment--promising marriage to a woman he knows nothing about:
I do embrace your offer, and dispose
For henceforth of poor Claudio.
Whereas Claudio, even at his wedding, chooses the brotherhood of soldiery over a commitment to an imperfect woman, Benedick at the same moment demonstrates a shift of allegiances, even before he has spoken to Beatrice about marriage. When Claudio and Don Pedro stalk out of the church in disgust, Beatrice calls on him for help and he stays behind, eventually receiving her ultimatum. The scene is played beautifully in my favourite filmed Much Ado, with Benedick hesitating towards the door after the others leave, clearly unwilling to leave but uncertain whether he should stay, until Beatrice calls him. His commitments are already shifting as a result of his conscious decision to love Beatrice. Nevertheless, understandably, when Beatrice tells him to duel his friend, his answer is far from eager--"Not for the wide world!" And yet, there can be no two ways about it. Claudio is guilty; Hero is innocent; Benedick's commitment is now to Beatrice.

(Of course, this reasoning really only works if Hero has literally died. We know she has not. It is a fascinating aspect of the play that everyone, even those who are in the know--Benedick, Leonato, Antonio--behave as though they truly do consider her dead. Shakespeare only ever once to my knowledge actually brought a character back from literal death, in The Winter's Tale, under very similar circumstances; in both cases, a slandered wife. I assume he felt he could not pull the same trick twice. It suits the plot, however, and it seems oddly fitting, for Hero to undergo a death and resurrection which seems more than mere pretence. And this is another thing I like about my favourite Much Ado, in which Hero is led from the church by the friar, by another door than that her father takes to return home; she vanishes, not merely offscreen in Leonato's house, but out of the visual setting of the play altogether.)

Benedick's willingness to duel Claudio is thus a declaration, not just to Beatrice, but to the whole world, that he is willing to commit to her even at the price of his friendship with Don Pedro and with Claudio. Where Claudio stood with his brothers-at-arms to attack Hero, Benedick takes exactly the opposite course: he champions Hero and Beatrice against his brothers-at-arms. Where Claudio's superficial love resulted in a superficial commitment, Benedick's true conversion results in a true commitment.

Now Go and See It!

Everyone loves Much Ado About Nothing. What with the wit, the sparks flying between Benedick and Beatrice, and the way the plot careens from comedy to tragedy and then back again (forming a kind of foil to Shakespeare's other play about Foolish Lovers, Romeo and Juliet, in which the situation of classic farce veers into tragedy and never rights itself), Much Ado has everything one could desire, from wacky comedy to riveting drama. Its core scene--Benedick and Beatrice in the abandoned church--is intense even on the page, but in the hands of good actors, it's riveting.

So, which actors to watch? A number of filmed versions exist. The one most people will be familiar with is the classic Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film. Released in 1993, this is an eminently respectable rendition of the play, full of Branagh's trademark energy. It's missing a goodish bit of the text, there are at least a couple of scenes that make the movie unsuitable for family viewing (though they could be quite easily edited out), and more than one actor chews the scenery beyond bearing (Claudio, I'm looking at you). On the other hand, it's hard not to love Kenneth Branagh hamming up Benedick, and Emma Thompson hits a wonderful balance between sweetness and tartness as Beatrice.

The 2013 Joss Whedon film contains more of the actual text and features far and away the best Dogberry of all (Nathan Fillion, doing a brilliant job), but the modernisation doesn't quite work, especially with the decision to include flashbacks to indicate that Benedick and Beatrice slept together. It makes little sense for Hero to suffer for something that Beatrice is actually guilty of, and introduces a note of real bitterness into her sparring with Benedick. While there are a number of nice touches--the implication, for instance, that Borachio is jealous of Claudio's success with Hero, thereby providing a neat explanation for his oddly dignified repentance when he is told that she died--I can't recommend this version on account of even more inappropriate scenery than the Kenneth Branagh version.

My favourite Much Ado About Nothing, hands down, is the BBC television edition. Yes, yes, it's obviously filmed on a sound stage, the video quality isn't great, and Hero looks like a newt. Basically it's just actors standing around speaking their lines to a static camera. I say this not because you will actually notice this, but because you won't. It is simply Shakespeare and marvellous, marvellous acting. The director has obviously meditated deeply on the play, for he includes a whole variety of thoughtful touches that reinforce the play's deeper themes. The actors deliver perfectly balanced performances, falling prey neither to excessive ham nor to understatement. And there's little or no objectionable content on the screen. (As to the contents of the script, well, that's another matter. This is Shakespeare, after all.) With great casting, subtle direction, and brilliant acting, this is far and away my favourite version.

Which of these three films have you seen? Which is your favorite? Comment and let me know!

Find Much Ado About Nothing on Amazon, The Book Depository, Librivox, and Project Gutenberg.


Jamie W. said...

I agree, the BBC Shakespeare is an invaluable resource! I particularly enjoyed their Love's Labour's Lost, which is one there's not that many versions of.
But if Hero looks like a newt, is this a version that would appeal to Gussie Fink-Nottle? (You know, courtship is so easy for the male newt....)
Sorry for derailing your very intelligent Shakespeare post with an irrelevant Wodehouse reference, but I've nothing to add to what you said, and I have a Pavlovian association of newts with Gussie and Gussie with newts. ;-)

Suzannah said...

Oh, the BBC Shakespeare is great. I don't care for their Taming of the Shrew, but their Measure for Measure and their Comedy of Errors are both excellent, and there's not much to beat their Much Ado.

Thank you, a Gussie reference was the finishing touch this post lacked.

hopeinbrazil said...

I really enjoyed your review of this play. I've seen the Branagh version, but hope to find the BBC version now that you mentioned it.

Suzannah said...

Hope, great! I hope you like it.

Christina Baehr said...

Suzannah, have you seen any of the BBC'S new project of the histories entitled The Hollow Crown? It looks gorgeous and is chock full of fine actors, but I'm not so sure about interpretation.

Claire Banschbach said...

I haven't read much of Shakespeare but I do enjoy Much Ado. I love the Brannaugh film for his Benedic and the Whedon adaptation for Fillion (because who couldn't love Nathan Fillion?)
I wasn't aware that BBC had an adaptation, but now I have something to check into on a rainy day. :)

Suzannah said...

Christina, no, I haven't. Let me know if you see it!

Claire, if you're a Much Ado fan I do recommend checking out the BBC version! Shakespeare was meant to be watched and this is a great way to take it in!

Rachel Heffington said...

I have seen none but Kenneth Branagh's version of Much Ado but it is far and away my favorite Shakespearean comedy. Oh my STARS it makes me laugh. Last summer I was given the one-scene role of Beatrice as a staffer at a summer camp...I had to do the same scene 17 times but it was so worth it. <3


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