Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

"In its basic outline," says Anne Barton in her introduction to this play (Riverside edition, 1997), the Hero and Claudio plot is of great age, tracing its ancestry back to the romance literature of ancient Greece. It seems, however, to have acquired an especial popularity during the Renaissance . . . .  Usually, although by no means always, the villain of the piece is the lover's friend: a man treacherously in love with the lady himself [as in Two Gentlemen of Verona] who slanders her in order to break off the match. . . .

"In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare transferred the rivalry between love and friendship to a position slightly outside the main imbroglio. Don John, the source of a misunderstanding that comes close to being fatal, has no interest in Hero herself. A man incapable of any genuine human relationship, he is not even Claudio's friend let alone his rival in love. Don John is a malcontent pure and simple, a man who might say with the cold Duke in Thurber's story The Thirteen Clocks: "We all have faults, and mine is doing wickedness." Certainly, Shakespeare makes no attempt  to provide him with even the kind of fairy-tale motivation that Oliver has for practicing against the life of his younger brother in As You Like It. The fact that Don John was born a bastard [like Edmund in King Lear]  becomes an all-sufficient explanation of why it is that he is treacherous, scheming, savage, and morose. A thing of darkness, out of step with his society, he hates the children of light simply because they generate radiance in a world he prefers to see dark. This is why he plans to wreck the intended marriage of Claudio and Hero. He has nothing to gain personally from such a tactic, except the pleasure of annoying his brother, grieving Claudio, turning laughter to tears, and reducing everyone around him to the state of misery and gloom in which he languishes himself. A plot mechanism more than a complex character in his own right, Don John appears in the play as a kind of anti-comic force [like Malvolio in Twelfth Night], the official enemy of all happy endings.

"Much Ado About Nothing represents a variant on the more usual Shakespearean comic pattern of a journey from an urban to a rural, an ordinary to a heightened world, and back again. All the action of the play takes place in Messina, but it is a town temporarily lifted out of its ordinary habits and atmosphere by the fact that it happens to be filled with glamorous strangers . . . .  In the Messina of the comedy, masked faces, revels and dances are the order of the day. Apart from Dogberry and his associates, this is a courtly world enjoying a period of carnival. Some of the deceits, like the one that
brings Beatrice and Benedict together are harmless and even beneficent. Others are not. The general atmosphere, however, is conducive to eavesdropping, mistaken identity, game-playing, and conversations reported wrongly, even as it is to music, feasting, and marriage. Claudio's wooing of Hero seems almost like an expected and conventional response to the times: an acknowledgement that, when wars are over it is advisable to start replenishing a population diminished by bullets and swords. Certainly, Claudio's courtship of Hero is of the most formal and socially proper kind. He takes her wealth and position as Leonato's only child into careful account, seeks the advice and approbation of his prince before embarking on the match, and behaves in every way like a sober and prudent man contracting a dynastic alliance in which the charms of the lady matter, of course, but scarcely inspire in him the recklessness of a Romeo.  A man does not allow his prince, however respected, to propose marriage for him in disguise unless he sees that marriage in social more than personal terms. This, however, is what Claudio does. Only when Don Pedro has secured the consent of both the lady and her father does the prospective bridegroom speak to Hero herself. With the war happily ended, Claudio feels that the time is right for matrimony and for begetting an heir. His practicality in this respect is not exactly held against him, but it does explain the ease with which he believes Don John's slanders, and the unconsidered violence with which he shames Hero and casts her off. Claudio is a man who thinks he has been duped in a bargain, not a Troilus whose whole world shatters around him because he has to recognize that the  goddess of his idolatry is false.

"Hero too is docile and passive. She welcomes the alliance with Claudio, but there is no suggestion that she has been pining with love for the young Florentine while he has been away at the war. . . Elizabethans must have detected a certain irony in the name Shakespeare bestowed upon this singularly dutiful daughter. In Greek mythology, Hero was the lady beloved of Leander, who broke her religious vows in oder to enjoy a clandestine love affair with him. When, through the enmity of the gods, Leander was drowned while swimming the Hellespont one night to a secret meeting with her, Hero killed herself. Shakespeare knew Marlowe's great narrative poem on the subject and, in As You Like It, quoted a line from it: "Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight." [This is the only line from a contemporary poet that Shakespeare ever quoted or even referred to. Marlowe, the dead shepherd referred to as the writer of that line, had been a friend of his.] It would be hard to imagine an attitude further away from the caution and circumspection of Claudio's Hero.

"The affairs of these two lovers, often conducted through third parties, are inveterately public. The rupture between them, when it comes, is public too. Claudio denounces Hero in church, on their wedding day, before a crowd of people, and with the backing of the Prince. Even Leonato, Hero's own father, is convinced. In the bitterest speech of the comedy, he begs his own child at least to have the decency to die, and tries to prevent anyone from reviving her. The friar has some difficulty in persuading him that this condemnation may be too hasty. Apart from the friar, only Beatrice and Benedict suspect, from the first that Hero is really innocent and the prince and Claudio misled. Beatrice, in particular, reacts violently against Claudio's public denunciation of her cousin: "What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover'd slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place" (IV.1.303-7).
Her indignation is just; and it also serves to indicate the distance between her own intensely personal attachment to Benedict and the more formal outward bond which unites [eventually] Claudio and Hero. Claudio's atonement when the truth is known, even his reunion with Hero, are wholly consistent with the nature of this plot: his penitence before Hero's tomb in V.3 is again public, a ritual demonstration of sorrow, and he gets his lady back only because he agrees to ally himself, sight unseen, with another daughter of Leonato's house.

"Much Ado About Nothing is usually dated 1598. There is no specific source for the Beatrice and Benedict underplot . . . . There is a suggestion in the text that these 'two bears' were once, at some indeterminate past time, in love with each other (II.1.280-82). Shakespeare does not say why the relationship broke down but, in the comedy itself each one is obsessed with and continually talking about the other in a manner that makes it clear  from the start that their animosity is a cloak for feelings of a very different kind [which, we should add, they are not quite consciously aware of]. This is why they can be tricked with such ease. All that the conspirators have to do is suggest to each that the other has yielded first, has taken the first step towards an admission and acknowledgment of love,  and all defenses crumble. Both Beatrice and Benedict, for all their surface gaiety, their scorn of the married state, are essentially lonely people. They are older than Claudio and Hero and in danger of finding themselves imprisoned for life within a set of attitudes and social responses which, though witty and amusing, are nonetheless inhibiting and sterile. Neither can break these self-imposed fetters without help from outside. When this help arrives, they turn joyously to one another with a freedom and depth of engagement lacking in the relationship of Hero and Claudio.

". . . . . For all its surface aggression, its deflationary quality, their wit is really defensive: a way of protecting a self that they know to be vulnerable. Beatrice savages Benedict in public, and mocks him behind his back, because she cannot help thinking about him and needs to camouflage this interest [from herself as well as others]. Benedict defends the bachelor state, inveighs against women and even against the courtly art of music, affecting a spirit of bluff masculine camaraderie on all social occasions, in order to fend off alternative ways of thinking and feeling. Both use wit to distance emotions which they recognize as potentially dangerous. They cling to the society of their own sex because there they feel safe, but they cannot help launching provocative shafts of ridicule or inquiry into the enemy's  terrain.

"Although Beatrice has no evidence to advance against the damning account of how Don Pedro, Don John and Claudio actually saw Hero talk with a ruffian at her chamber window after midnight, she never for an instant believes that her cousin is guilty. Her logic here is that of the instincts and the heart, but it happens to be entirely right. Benedict, understandably, is slower to commit himself to the defense of Hero, although from the first he is puzzled by the charge against her. He makes an important decision, however, when he does not leave the church with Claudio, Don Pedro and the bastard, as might be expected. He chooses, instead, to remain behind with Hero, Leonato, the friar, and Beatrice. In doing so he breaks with the little all-male society of soldiers which has hitherto claimed his allegiance. He behaves in this seemingly uncharacteristic fashion although he and Beatrice have not yet, in fact, reached an understanding, simply because he is beginning to see the world through different eyes. Leonato, in the last scene of all will claim: 'The sight whereof I think you had from me. / From Claudio, and the Prince' (V.4.25-26). This is true, however, only in the sense that had it not been for the conspiracy, Benedict would never have been able to liberate and admit responses buried deep inside himself.

"The flight of Don John from Messina, together with Borachio's confession of the plot against Hero, relieves Benedict of the necessity of turning his sword against his former friend, but it is important that he should have accepted Beatrice's passionate and impulsive commission. We in the audience never believe that Benedict will kill Claudio. Law and justice in Messina are, to put it mildly, inefficient, but it is nonetheless evident, even in scene where the challenge is formally delivered, that Hero's innocence will shortly be vindicated without any help from Benedict. What his engagement in her cause demonstrates is the new priority in his life of love, and the extent to which this love supersedes  and cancels out older ties. As for Beatrice, the woman who pretended, early in the comedy, that she could not imagine why anyone should think her life incomplete without a man . . . finds herself in Act IV wishing no fewer than three times 'that I were a man.' Her appeal to Benedict to do what, as a woman, she herself cannot manage, and her gratitude to him, represent, on her part, as radical a transformation of attitude as does his challenge to Claudio."

The rest of Anne Barton's commentary is worth reading but I'll leave that up to you. There's something  that needs to be said about the Beatrice-Benedict story that she doesn't say: this story, of two people who are in love but don't know it and have to be pushed into each other's arms by their friends, who know them better than they know themselves, is unprecedented—and modern. It is the only story that Shakespeare entirely invented, out of whole cloth as it were, because nothing remotely like it existed in the earlier literature, Classical or Medieval. Barton calls it a subplot, but from the evidence she cites in her introduction (which I have left out), it is clear that it soon became for most audiences the main story, with the Claudio-Hero story providing a sort of melodramatic launching-pad.

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