Ah, friends, this post is a bit late. Why, you ask? Because my mother decided to be the life of the party yesterday and broke her shoulder. I didn’t even know one could break one’s shoulder. So, life’s been a bit exciting and my writing/posting schedule has been thrown off. Ah, well.
As a consolation, I love this play. I mean, it offends my modern sensibilities (I’m sensing a theme with this, especially with the comedies), but I love the play regardless. I think Benedick and Beatrice are the bees knees and I think Hero should have kicked Claudio to the curb. (I’d tell you what I really think about him, but I’m trying to keep this family-friendly.)
And are you ready for some craziness? As of this post, we’re more than half-way through Shakespeare’s corpus! It seems like only yesterday I was sitting down to write up about Richard II and wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I still feel the same way, but at least now I have a bunch of plays under my belt. Progress!
So, with no more further ado (see what I did there?), onto the play!
Leonato is the governor of Messina who lives with his daughter Hero and niece Beatrice. A messenger brings word that Don Pedro, a prince of Aragon, will be arriving at Leonato’s house following a success in battle with his retinue, including Claudio, Don John (Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother), and Benedick. When the crew arrives Leonato invites them to stay for a month. Beatrice has a long antagonistic relationship with Benedick and they verbally spar. Claudio falls in love upon seeing Hero again and he tells Benedick of this. Benedick disdains marriage and does his best to convince his friend similarly. Don Pedro, upon finding out about Claudio’s feelings, supports the marriage. Benedick swears he’ll never get married and Don Pedro laughingly tells him that he’ll change his tune when he meets the right woman.
That evening Leonato holds a masquerade ball. Benedick dances with Beatrice and pretends to be someone else. Beatrice (who may or may not know she’s dancing with Benedick) insults him, calling him “the prince’s jester, a very dull fool”, which of course upsets Benedick. Don Pedro courts Hero on Claudio’s behalf but Don John decides to use the situation to get revenge on his brother for casting him aside by telling Claudio that Don Pedro is himself in love with Hero and that he’s wooing Hero for himself, not for Claudio. Claudio gets petulant about the situation but is quickly mollified when Don Pedro announces that he’s set everything up for Claudio to marry Hero.
To while away the time until Claudio and Hero’s wedding Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio decide to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with one another. The next day Benedick “overhears” a conversation between the men about how much Beatrice loves Benedick but how she knows she’ll be spurned if he ever finds out. They also disparage Benedick’s nature and discuss how he would be an absolute cur if he found out about her feelings and then insulted her for them. The men then depart and have Beatrice call Benedick into dinner and it appears Benedick’s feelings towards her have changed.
Hero and her maid Ursula set a similar trap. They have Hero’s chambermaid Margaret tell Beatrice that Ursula and Hero are having a conversation about her. Beatrice hides to eavesdrop and overhears a familiar tale: Benedick loves Beatrice but Beatrice is too full of pride and scorn. It’s exactly what Don Pedro and company let Benedick overhear. After Hero and Ursula leave Beatrice emerges from her hiding place and vows to return Benedick’s affections.
Meanwhile, Don John approaches Don Pedro and Claudio. He says that he has proof that Hero is disloyal and offers to prove it to them that night. Then, he says, they’ll see a man (Borachio, one of Don John’s men) enter Hero’s chamber and be greeted by her (actually Hero’s chambermaid, Margaret). Don Pedro and Claudio vow that if the tale is true they’ll wait until the marriage ceremony to shame Hero. (Because they’re selfish jerks who apparently need to shame someone in a public spectacle.)
And so it happens, but we don’t see it. Instead, we hear the tale from Borachio when he tells his friend Conrade. The two are then arrested by the night’s watch. Dogberry and Verges, the constable of the night watch and his partner, go to Leonato before Hero’s wedding to ask if they could question the men the watch captured the night before (Borachio and Conrade) with Leonato present. Leonato needs to get to the wedding and asks that they question the men themselves and inform him of the proceedings.
At the wedding, Claudio accuses Hero of sleeping with other men. Hero denies this vehemently and both Don Pedro and Don John join in on the accusations. Hero faints and the three men leave her for dead; Beatrice, Leonato, and Benedick remain with Hero and the friar. Leonato rails and states that he would rather Hero die than bring him such shame. Hero comes to and continues to profess her innocence. The friar believes she’s innocent and suggests that Leonato and Hero fake her death. That way, Claudio will come to regret his actions and they can uncover the truth behind the accusations. Then everyone leaves but Beatrice and Benedick. They both confess their feelings for each other and Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio. Benedick refuses and Beatrice rails on him, saying that he doesn’t truly love her and that all men are cowards. Benedick later swears he’ll challenge Claudio.
Dogberry, for his part, questions Borachio and Conrad and discovers what Don John paid Borachio to do. He brings them to Leonato but before he arrives Leonato and his brother Anthony happen upon Don Pedro and Claudio. Leonato and Antonio curse them and accuse them of falsely tarnishing Hero’s reputation and causing her death. Both men challenge Claudio to a duel, but he refuses. When Leonato and Antonio leave Benedick approaches Don Pedro and Claudio. They ask Benedick to make them merry again, but instead Benedick informs them that Don John has fled and soberly accuses Claudio of killing innocent Hero and challenges him before leaving himself. Just then Dogberry arrives with Borachio and Conrade. Don Pedro questions Dogberry about why the men are bound (which gets him nowhere since Dogberry makes no sense with his misappropriation of words). Borachio then tells his tale and informs Don Pedro and Claudio of what Don John paid him to do.
Don Pedro and Claudio realize what they’ve done (though they aren’t nearly remorseful enough for my tastes). When Leonato returns with the sexton, who’s explained the situation to him, they apologize. (Hey! Sorry we decided to purposelessly publicly shame your daughter, thus causing her death. Our bad.) Leonato states that he’ll forgive them if they make certain everyone knows of Hero’s innocence and if Claudio will agree to marry Antonio’s daughter, Hero’s cousin, who is like Hero’s twin. Claudio agrees.
Claudio goes to Hero’s tomb and stands vigil for a while and the next day he arrives to marry Hero’s “cousin”. She is presented to him in a mask and then removes it, revealing herself to be Hero. Claudio is ecstatic. Beatrice and Benedick both refuse to admit that they’re in love and are disproved by their friends baring poetry written in honor of each other. They finally confess their feelings in truth and are married. A messenger then arrives and informs everyone that Don John was captured, but Don Pedro decides to deal with it tomorrow.
First note: this play is written predominantly in prose; the sections of verse either convey courtliness or emotion.
Now, let’s get into the meat and discuss gender. While the play concentrates on the relationship between Hero and Claudio nowadays we focus on Benedick and Beatrice. And indeed, this isn’t a new thing: Charles II of England wrote “Benedick and Beatrice” next to the title in his copy of the Second Folio.
But why is this couple so interesting?
Well, for one thing there’s the issue of gender. Benedick constantly laments the state of women: they’re inconstant, they’re bound to make their husbands cuckolds (i.e., they’ll cheat on them), and they’re generally inferior to men. This explains why Claudio and Don Pedro were so quick to believe Don John’s accusations of Hero’s impurity; indeed, almost everyone readily believed the accusations against Hero at the wedding, including her own father. Balthesar’s song in Act II Scene III says exactly the opposite: it’s men who are inconstant and inferior. Beatrice, for her part, is no shrinking violet and doesn’t try to emulate societal views on correct feminine deportment. When she asks Benedick to kill Claudio in Act IV Scene I she laments the state of men, basically saying that men aren’t men anymore and she wishes she were born male so she could do what a man should do. So here we have the female taking on the male role, and it spurs Benedick into action.
There’s also a lot of deceiving going on in the play: through pretty much everyone working to deceive both Beatrice and Benedick of their supposed feelings for one another, to Don John’s plot with Borachio, to Leonato and co. making everyone believe that Hero was dead. There’s also the masked ball (with masks being a form a deception) and the false identification of Margaret as Hero in Don John’s plot, and Hero herself disguised as her supposed cousin. Not all of the deceit in the play is meant for negative reasons; some of it is to help characters (Don Pedro wooing Hero in Claudio’s place) or for the greater good (pretending Hero is dead to repair her good name).
A bit on the crass side, a good portion of this play was one big Shakespearean sexual innuendo. The words “nothing” and “noting” appear a great deal throughout the play, and even in the title: Much Ado About NOTHING. Apparently “noting” and “nothing” were homophones in Elizabethan England and sounded a great deal like “O-thing”, which was slang for vagina. I’m not certain which I like more: this fact or Aaron’s “your mom” joke in Titus Andronicus:
Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.
Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.