This week I touch on one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies and arguably one of his most loved plays. Much Ado About Nothing is the wonderful tale of love, gossip and happy endings as we follow two two couples: Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero and Claudio. The latter couple starts off the play instantly falling for one another, but the famous enemies in the play are Beatrice and Benedick, who bicker viciously with one another. As the rest of their company look on in amusement they come up with a plan to bring the two enemies together, whilst in the shadows the villainous Don John schemes to take break up Hero and Claudio. As this all ticks away nicely, there’s yet another little story surrounding beloved Dogberry and the Watch, who are hilariously inept despite their good intentions.
Given that this is a comedy, we can be sure for a happy ending, but the play is loved for its portrayal of Beatrice and her ability to wittily hold her own against not just Benedick but the other men in her company. For all of the potentially serious situations that might occur (I’ll hold back on the spoilers) Shakespeare continues throughout with sunny and beautiful prose which helps lift the play into more humorous realms. Don John is no Iago, but instead a bitter man with an easy to understand motive. He plays on Claudio’s emotions but there’s not nearly the same extent of psychological manipulation as we see in Shakespeare’s darker plays. The main issues which surround the men’s doubts are the risks of women – will we be cuckholded, are their sharp tongues characteristic of a bad personality, are women what they seem?
The deception and dubious characters of men are not verbally brought to the fore to the same effect but we can see through the actions of the men (and a great song by Dogberry) we can see how the men can be just as crafty and misguided.
Dost thou not suspect my place? dost thou not
suspect my years? 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. No, thou villain, thou art full of
piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness.
I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer,
and, which is more, a householder, and, which is
more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in
Messina, and one that knows the law, go to; and a
rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath
had losses, and one that hath two gowns and every
thing handsome about him. Bring him away. O that
I had been writ down an ass!
Dogberry’s honesty and silliness is akin to Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it makes him my favourite character in the play. Another reason why the play is so loved is because of its ability to be so well translated in many different historical and social situations. The play is a study of character, interpretation and motive. In the right hands this can be set even in our modern day, as a lighthearted comedy which still manages to be thought provoking and not frivolous.
The most recent adaptation which displays this is Joss Whedon’s 2013 adaptation with Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick. It’s a stylish and slick production which manages to brings the important factors of the play out whilst being hilarious. As gender issues are more prominent an issue that ever I think Much Ado About Nothing is an interesting play to demonstrate gender and possibly more relevant than many modern stories. Whilst it’s not my favourite Shakespeare comedy, I do think it’s an important and enjoyable play to be read.
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.