Shakespeare, Spectacle, and the Whedonesque; or, “Much Ado About Nothing”

“Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig,
a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot
and hasty like a Scotch jig—and full as
fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a
measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes
repentance and with his bad legs falls into the
cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.”
– Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing, II.i.60-6

Many years ago in Chicago I went to a theatre company’s trunk show, a kind of fundraiser-cum-preview of the new material they were working on that season. It took place in the foyer of one of those massive old midwestern theatres, whose two-winged grand staircases are now only rattled by tweens on their way to a concert. Over the staircase the troupe had hired a pair of acrobats to do the kind of ring and rope work that we see in the masque scene of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. I had seen such rope-dancers before, not only at theatrical events like that done by Strange Tree Group or Redmoon Theatre, but also the very occasional swank holiday party. To me they signify the kind of experimental entertainment, the “extartheatricals” Erika T. Lin calls them, that is cutting edge in that it is finding a new popular audience again (like puppetry, as I mentioned in my last post). With their inclusion in Whedon’s adaptationI found myself contemplating the sensation incurred by these kinds of theatrical feats, very much of the present and avant-garde, yet somehow essential and universal.

In her book Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Lin notes that in early modern usage, rope-dancing, those “balancing acts performed on a tight or slack rope,” was a form more common to playgoers than scripted drama (107). While “Shakespeare and his contemporaries are best known today for their scripted drama, records of payment…suggest that both representational theatre and spectacular physical displays were offered by the same performers at the same events and to the same audiences” (107). Whether or not Whedon knew this fact in particular, or has a nose for aesthetic tone, his incorporation of the rope dancers and the crooner at the piano inculcates the kind of theatre-going experience Shakespeare imagined for this play. To give these elements more weight beyond the spectacular, I think she makes two other points worth mentioning:

The pair of rope-dancers work above the mingling crowd. The attendees, performers themselves in masks, stop to appreciate the performance integrated into the party lights, even interact with the performers, and then move on.
  1. Double Space: “Spectacles of this sort existed in a kind of double space: even as they operated within a given play’s fictional narrative, they also served as legitimate entertainments in their own right. Jean Alter refers to these complementary aspects of of theatre as its ‘referential’ and ‘performant’ functions: theatre as semiotic system, employing both mimetic and non mimetic forms of representation, and theatre as spectacular show, akin to sports or the circus” (109). In short, we are asked to be simultaneously engaged in the awe of the feat as well as cogitating on the content of the play’s text.
  2. Show, Please, Delight:Delight is linked to physical nourishment and activity [in the Renaissance]: to the eating of sweetmeats, the sports of hunting and hawking. It is also connected specifically with presentational spectacles, with ‘triumphs’ and ‘shews’…Distinguishing the seeing of ‘showes’ from the hearing of verse, early modern writers underscore the notion that the popularity of displays of physical skill onstage lay in the pleasures they offered to the eye” (113). In other words, to behold with the eye engaged both the physical response of awe and the cognitive process of taking in.
Claudio gets exceedingly drunk as he watches Don Pedro court in his stead. He becomes increasingly paranoid in his stupor, and the acrobats replicate his worst fears.
There are two specific episodes in the film that I think draw out this doubled cognitive process, of being in awe and delight at a theatrical feat that then triggers more complex cognitive processes. The first is the masque, of course, both celebrating the victorious return of the soldiers and giving Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) an opportunity to court Hero (Jillian Morgese) in Claudio’s (Fran Kranz) stead. Some critics have suggested that Whedon’s pressure on alcohol as the source of much of the confusion in the film flattens the agency of the characters. (Note the now rather ubiquitous promotional image of Claudio in goggles—*cough* beer goggles *cough*—holding a martini glass in a pool.) I actually like the implication of misprision (Shakespeare’s word) being at first caused by the party atmosphere, but also that the condition of masking and male competition are equally culpable social norms that induce Claudio’s jealousy. This is conveyed not through dialogue, but editing of non-verbal cues. We listen to the song “Sigh No More” while we get a number of shots, entirely without dialogue, of Claudio anxiously watching Don Pedro between taking shots. We then see Don Pedro lean in and Hero smile and giggle: obviously he has won her, the champion and military man that he is, for Claudio. But then the film immediately cuts back to the rope-dancers executing a complex move wherein they balance one atop the other, a positioning mildly suggestive. Whedon implies here that the thought that Don Pedro has won Hero for himself is in Claudio’s mind long before the villainous Don John expresses it to him. In this way Claudio is rendered more complex, more human and susceptible to the vicissitude of emotion rather than a man merely and easily manipulated by next voice that whispers in his ear.
Even to the last, Claudio struggles to perceive beyond the mask.

The second episode is that of the funeral-wedding, where again we get a song lofting over a presentational scene that does more of the meaning-making than the text. The women are all again masked, this time in white lace funeral shrouds they will also adorn at the wedding ceremony. Hero and Beatrice (Amy Acker) watch from above as Claudio leads the funeral procession, the weight of his choices and the power of his hateful words seemingly coming to roost by his “confirm’d countenance.” Hero sadly smiles, as if in hope for her wedding day. At the wedding itself the women remain enshrouded; for, “a woman masked, like a covered dish, gives a man curiosity and appetite” (III.i, The Country Wife, William Wycherley). If we are convinced by the previous interlude scene that Claudio is repentant—as in the epigram Beatrice suggests is part of that which renders the course of love less than smooth—then we can find something satisfying and recuperative about his union to Hero. In her taking on the mask and feigning death, we can also find some agency for Hero: she has learned to accept that identity is itself inherently performative, and finally participates in the actual masking that is courtship.

I think in the playtext this is hard to see, and I often prefer adaptations like that of ShakespeaRe-Told and Funk It Up About Nothin’ that provide a Hero that rejects Claudio and resists repentance. While Claudio clearly has a character arc, in her resistance Hero can have as clear an arc, too. (I also prefer productions that stress Beatrice and Benedict (Alexis Denisof) over Hero and Claudio, but found the reversal here refreshing.) This is the only aspect of the film I would have changed, and was a change I actually expected out of Whedon. It has been nearly a year since the film began making the festival rounds and causing a stir, and I have hesitated writing about it precisely because the film portends to have everything I love: the cheek and style of Whedon, the language of Shakespeare, and the gritty piquancy you get when one makes a film in twelve days, in one’s home, using your best friends. (And what friend of Nathan Fillion wouldn’t want to seem him take on Dogberry.) Because the film encompasses the spectrum of tastes I so enjoy, I felt it would be impossible to get any kind of distance from it to say something substantive. Yet now I think it is precisely this quality, that Whedon’s work really does encapsulate an inherent sensibility of Generation X—those late-20s-/early-30s-somethings reared onThe Fresh Prince, Phish, Buffy, and Pearl Jam, who watch in horror at the political apathy of their younger Millennials—whose balance of camp, sophistication, quality, and bite make his films worth watching.

  • CITATION: Much Ado About Nothing. Film. Adapted and directed by Joss Whedon. Written by William Shakespeare. 14 June 2013. LA: Bellwether Pictures, 2012.
  • As of this posting this film is streaming both via Amazon Prime Instant and Netflix. See the US trailer below: