17. Much Ado About Nothing
Having struggled the past couple of weeks to make my way through the Henry IV plays, it was an absolute joy to read Much Ado About Nothing again. This really is a brilliant play that does surprisingly well to stand the test of time.
As with much of Shakespeare’s comedy, the real challenge is negotiating the change in comedy styles over the intervening centuries. A twenty-first century audience just isn’t as adept at picking up word play, puns and double-entendres as that of the late sixteenth century. Having said that, the repartee and banter in Much Ado stands up really rather well – especially that between Benedick and Beatrice. The odd joke could merit being cut or trimmed because it doesn’t land anymore, but on the whole it is still very funny. Even the clownish buffoon Dogberry manages to stay fairly amusing, since his main comic trope is getting words wrong (eg. saying ‘comprehend’ instead of ‘apprehend’).
Plus, Shakespeare throws in quite a bit of physical comedy. Most famously, in the two scenes where Benedick and Beatrice are each tricked into falling in love with each other. In both scenes, either Benedick or Beatrice is hiding and trying to overhear their friends in conversation, whilst their friends are trying to not make it obvious that they know Benedick/Beatrice are there. It’s a very simple comic set-up but very effective and is sure to grab a few laughs.
The real bit of genius in this play I think, is the positioning of the scene where Benedick and Beatrice declare (or rather admit) their love for each other. Rather than turning this into a grand comic wit-fest, Shakespeare has a beautifully sincere and moving scene immediately after Claudio has publicly denounced Hero and refused to marry her at the altar. The image of Benedick and Beatrice, shocked and upset, alone in a church or chapel, surrounded by the trappings of a marriage that never took place is so powerful and moving. In classic Shakespeare style, this is completely the wrong moment for romance and yet that is where it flourishes.
The only main area of the play that I find problematic to a modern audience is the presentation of Hero as a character. She hardly speaks at all in the first half of the play. She is simply seen by Claudio, wooed by Don Pedro in Claudio’s name, then betrothed to Claudio with her father’s consent. Although she does seem pretty pleased with the match, her silence is quite disconcerting. In sixteenth-century terms, I imagine she would be seen as a model of maidenly virtue and humility. But to the modern audience, it feels uncomfortably like servitude and submission to her male ‘superiors’. This is all countered to some extent by Beatrice’s punchiness and willingness to stand up for her fellow women - she urges Hero to only accept of a husband who she likes, as well as being a personal advocate for the carefree single woman (though this is slightly undermined by her marriage to Benedick at the end!). Nevertheless, Hero is undoubtedly underwritten and poses a bit of a challenge for both the actor playing the role and the director.
Having said that, this is one of the few plays I have read on my Shakespeare challenge so far that I would hardly change at all. There would definitely be the odd trim and cut here and there but the play really stands up remarkably well and is most certainly one that I would love to direct.