The Shakespeare Project: Much Ado About Nothing

For it so falls out That what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d and lost, why, then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession would not show us whiles it was ours.

Much Ado is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and would fight it out with Midsummer Night’s Dream for the title of favorite comedy (Puck has a good right hook). Everything works. The drama is strong, the characters vivid. The dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice sizzles on the page and explodes in performance. They even made a good movie out of it, Keanu Reeves not withstanding.

One element that jumped out at me on a second reading was the critical scene after the failed wedding. Leonato immediately denounces his own daughter, then turns 180 degrees and promises to kill those who slandered her. He is so mortally obsessed with his honor, he almost single-handedly changes this comedy into a tragedy. One could easily see it careening off to having all the leads dead by their own or others’ hands. All because Leonato’s outrage sways with every wind that blows.

What saves the action is the Friar, a part not commented on very much. It is he who suggests delaying rash action until the truth is known. It is he who comes up with the plan to provoke Claudio’s remorse by faking Hero’s death. He literally saves everyone. It’s been pointed out that the only men who survive Hamlet are a student and a soldier. Interesting that the only man in Much Ado who retains hold of his senses is a man of God.

One much-commented upon aspect of the play is the War between the Sexes, as best embodied by Balthazar’s song about the nature of men (which Branagh notably selected as the first words of his marvelous film adaptation). I’ve been recently following the debate between Dan Savage and others about the feasibility of monogamy. Savage has been advocating that people unsuited to it would be better off if they tolerated relationships that are, in his words, “monogamish”: where the occasional infidelity is tolerated so long as the primary relationship is respected and maintained (this being common for much of history). Shakespeare, being an Elizabethan, embraces the idea that men should abandon the “masculine” temperament for sleeping around for the “feminine” temperate of settling down (I’ve described Hollywood versions of this as the Male Maturity Movie). He also embraces the madonna/whore duality and tight control of female sexuality that was so prevalent in his day and has been so damaging to Western thought.

I’m not game to impose modern attitudes on him and pretend that he’s mocking these attitudes: he clearly isn’t. The thread runs through all of his plays. But Much Ado is a great play built on this essential conflict in the natures of men and women and the incompatibility of those natures with societal strictures.

Somewhere, my old English teacher just had an orgasm.

Next Up: Love’s Labours Lost