04 March 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is one of the more popular comedies in the Shakespearean canon. It revolves around two love stories. The first is the conventional story of Claudio and Hero, a couple who like each other fairly well and who are marrying because Hero's father is happy to wed his daughter to Claudio, a favourite of the Duke. The second story involves the lovers Beatrice and Benedick--two characters with witty tongues who tease each other constantly, and, when set up by their friends, reluctantly admit to being in love with each other.

This, like Measure for Measure, is one of the thoughtful comedies. While it is a comedy, and has many moments of absurdity, it also has moments which provoke deep thought. The one that always confronts me is the difference between Beatrice and Hero, who are cousins. Hero's value, both to her family and to her lover, is essentially that of a commodity. She is valued because she is beautiful, lady-like, and virginal, and because she is her wealthy father's sole heir. The moment her chastity is so much as questioned, her value vanishes. Even her doting father briefly turns on her until he is convinced that the accusation is a lie. Her own protestations of innocence serve no purpose until the men who were hired to slander her are found and forced to confess. Her value is then returned, and she weds the lover who had earlier spurned her at the altar because he believed her unchaste.

Beatrice, on the other hand, is valued as a person. She has no parents visible in the story, so she is presumably an orphan. No mention is made of her dowry, and her guardians are her uncles, who would like her to wed, but make little effort to push her in that direction. Her value is found in her character. No one ever dares hint that Beatrice might be unchaste, but her behaviour is far more forward than that of her cousin's. She has nothing to hide, and therefore, everyone admires her. Her wit makes the people around her laugh, and wins her a proposal from the Duke himself, which she kindly refuses. When Benedick is forced to come to terms with his feelings for Beatrice, with whom it has been implied he has already had a relationship, he praises her mind as well as her beauty. When her cousin is slandered by his best friend, he accepts Beatrice's challenge and schedules a duel with Claudio, trusting her judgement more than his. When they decide to wed, it is a mutal agreement and no mention is made of money.

Much Ado serves to illustrate two different views of love and marriage, both of which would have existed in Shakespeare's time. The thought of marrying for love certainly existed, and was idealized, but marriage (particularly among those with property, whose marriages were dictated more by their parents than themselves) was often little more than a business contract. If love came out of it, well and good. If not, well, that was life. One had to have a way to live and a secure position for raising children. Marrying for love is a frequent theme in Shakespeare's work, and indeed, Claudio claims to love Hero when he proposes and in the days that follow. But the moment someone tries to convince him that she's not a virgin, he goes ballistic and publicly shames his bride. He values what she can bring to him, not her as a person. As soon as he is confronted with the truth, he is stricken with remorse and grief, and he makes his apologies, but the fact remains that he was all too willing to turn on the woman he supposedly loved when she appeared less than perfect. Benedict has no such illusions about Beatrice. He knows his own imperfections and hers, and yet loves her all the same, and she feels the same way about him.

I've seen multiple productions of Much Ado: Branagh's film version, a very traditional interpretation from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, and a delightful production set in post-WWII Texas performed by a Portland theatre company. My favourite one, for setting and characterization, was the Texan-style production. The comic sheriff, Dogberry, is perfect as a Texan sheriff. I am, I admit, also very fond of Branagh's Much Ado. Most of the actors in it are quite good, although I could have done without Keanu Reeves attempting to recite Shakespeare, or Michael Keaton's bizarre interpretation of Dogberry.

Up next: Love's Labour's Lost

Favourite Quotes

"Thou wilt be like a lover presently,
And tire the hearer with a book of words." Don Pedro, Much Ado About Nothing, I.1.316-317

"I was born to speak all mirth and no matter." Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, II.1.346

"Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?  
No; the world must be peopled." Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, II.3.262-263

"A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts." Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing, V.4.91-92 

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