This summer, I have had the great good fortune to contribute to Ian Doescher’s community reading initiative, the Shakespeare 2020 Project. A website and Facebook group support members of the public with free editions and resources as they read through the complete works over the course of the year. In July, I offered the first of two informal video introductions for Much Ado About Nothing, available via YouTube. Read the full transcript below.
Hi y’all! My name is Elizabeth Tavares, assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama, and I am so pleased to be introducing Much Ado About Nothing for the Shakespeare 2020 Project.
Featuring one of the more coveted female roles in the quick-witted Beatrice, Much Ado is a staple of community theatre and Shakespeare in the Park, as well as benefits from several high-profile film versions and adaptations such as those directed by Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon. It’s the source material for many operas, young adult novels, and even gives a moon of Uranus its name. If you haven’t read the play before, it’s probably crossed your path in some way or other.
In this romantic comedy I sometimes refer to as Two Weddings and a Funeral, a troupe of an Italian duke’s soldiers are passing through Messina, a town they had stopped in on their way out to the front. Their return comes on the heels of victory, so the men can now enjoy a celebration. The duke, Don Pedro, and his closest comrades, including Benedick and Claudio, are welcomed to the estate of a Lord Leonato.
From here the plot doubles, not unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with two pairs of lovers undergoing parallel conflict so that the play is often staged as a “battle of the sexes.” With this newfound freedom, Claudio now feels able to sue for the hand of Leonato’s only daughter, Hero. In order to distract themselves until their nuptial hour, Don Pedro proposes they play a trick on their friend Benedict, a consummate bachelor. In league with women of the house, they convince both Beatrice and Benedict that they, despite all appearances to the contrary, are in love with one another. Such merry-making—and nation-building—is nearly dashed to ruin, however, by Don John, Don Pedro’s dissolute half-brother, who convinces the household that Hero has been unfaithful. It will take the help of a tongue-tied community watch in order to set the record straight.
With the plot now in hand, what I’d like to do is provide a few techniques of verse and staging to listen for, as well as pose a few questions that might help invigorate your reading.
Verse does a lot of dramaturgical (which is to say, storytelling) work in this play to develop relationships between characters. It has some of the most delicious examples of stichomythia, a technique in verse drama in which sequences of single lines, half-lines (sometimes called a hemistitch), or two-line speeches (called distich) alternate between characters. Typically one character uses a single image to build a metaphor, that then another character takes hold to create a new metaphor from the same image—like playing hot-potato. It typically features repetition and antithesis, which is when two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to achieve a contrasting effect. The repetition and rhyme built into the iambic pentameter structure also facilitates a sense of speed. For early moderns, the combination of speed and creativity produced the virtue of “wit,” or evidence of an agile mind.
So keep your eyes peeled for a battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedict in the very first scene, where they exchanges metaphors of appetite as war, trading back and forth the words “disdain,” “courtesy,” “scratch,” parroting, as well as contrasting “hard hearts” with “cold blood.” Keep in mind it is a highly performative moment, as the battle is had in front of the household and community of soldiers. Such equally matched wits provides a vision of procreative suitability based on intelligence and personality, which stands in stark contrast to the coupling of Hero and Claudio based on status and bodies.
Another rhetorical tactic in this skirmish to listen for are pronouns. While contemporary English uses only one second person pronoun, you, we used to have more than one. Old English uses thou for second person singular, and you for second person plural, such as in “y’all.” If you are a French speaker, it would have mirrored tu and vous, or in Spanish tu and usted, where the one is familiar and the other formal. By the thirteenth century in England, you started to be used to indicate formality or deference. By the sixteenth century, thou and you could indicate acknowledgement of status or familiarity. This is why God is addressed as thou in English translations of the Bible, as it signals a deep spiritual intimacy rather than a detached authority. [(See this excellent handout by Dr. Mark Womack.)]
Attending to thou and you is particularly useful at the top of act four as Beatrice and Benedict consider what to do about the defamation of Hero – and each other. Consider underlining all of the uses of thee/thy/thine and circling all the uses of you/your/yours in their private exchange. At what points in the conversation do the use of intimate and formal address shift? To what extent do they suggest affirmation or rejection of a beloved’s request? Note too how the address shifts after Beatrice’s request to “kill Claudio.” Also consider how you would envision the two characters moving around one another in this scene. What are their bodies doing, and in relation to each other?
Now that you have some cues to listen for, I would also invite you to turn the TV on inside of your brain while you read. Stage directions are particularly evocative in this play, so don’t pass them by. In fact, when reading a play we often group stage directions in as part of the text we are reading so as to erase the amount of time the performance of a song or a sword fight might take. In Much Ado, stage directions are particularly helpful in figuring out the lines between public and private speech – or who can hear what when.
The masked ball at the top of act two is particularly enlivened by attending to the ways in which stage directions cordon-off private conversations. Think of this as a busy, noisy costume party with multiple groups of characters interacting simultaneously at different locations: maybe Beatrice and Benedict by the punch bowl, Don Pedro and Hero too close to the DJ, and Don John and his retinue underneath the nearest exit. What effect does conceiving of this masque as a set of simultaneous conversations have? Where does it place your focus? How would you imagine the movement of party-goers? What patterns emerge when groups are placed side-by-side in dialogue? And most importantly, what do the masks look like in your minds-eye? How much of one’s face do they cover? And whose?
If you attend to explicit stage directions, such as “Enter Balthasar with music,” then you will be especially rewarded for catching implicit stage directions: those moments when a character’s dialogue indicates what they or another character are doing. There are two arbor scenes (act two, scene three; and act three, scene one) that rely on your inner stage director attending to what Benedict and then Beatrice observe as they try to avoid being spotted by their friends. Little do they know that both groups of friends are counting on them overhearing the white lies they have worked up to convince them their mortal enemy is in fact deeply in love with them. As Benedict takes the bait that Beatrice is desperate for him, he uses asides (bits of dialogue to which only the audience is privy) to indicate a change of heart: for example, in an aside to himself Benedict says, “I should think this a gull (trick) but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it. Knavery cannot, sure, hide himself in such reverence.” That Lord Leonato, who is described as marked with the wisdom of experience by his white beard (a synecdoche), is the one describing Beatrice’s desire, means it must be true. Such a proper and experienced man would not trick Benedict as his fellow soldiers might. Right?
With an ear and eye trained to some of these techniques uniquely on display in Much Ado About Nothing, I hope the play will surface unexpected questions for you. If you had a vote, who wins in this skirmish of the sexes? What models of love does the play make available, and not? Like Romeo and Juliet, the world of the play we enter is one shortly following war, and so this community is eager to re-make and expand itself when that opportunity did not seem guaranteed in recent memory. In what ways might we see a failure of the female community to validate the wit of Beatrice and the virtue of Hero? Where do the military values of loyalty stand at odds with personal duty for Claudio and Benedict? No doubt such questions—of personal desire in opposition to public good—will ring anew while reading during the moment of global quarantine.
Many thanks, happy reading, and stay safe everyone!