1. Much Ado About Nothing is one of those comedies that seem to have a nonsense title, like As You Like It. Actually, the title contains a pun on which the action and themes depend. "th" was pronounced like a hard "t" in Shakespeare's day. and so "nothing" also means "noting," as in paying close attention. Indeed, another level of pun is introduced in this passage, with musical "notes" which Balthasar is about to sing:
Note this before my notes:
There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting.
Don Pedro. Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks!
Note, notes, forsooth, and nothing! (2.3.13-16)
2. The play is set in a festive green world interrupted only by the conniving of the villain, Don John, ilegitimate brother to Don Perdo and one of the soldiers returning from war. But Messina has a particular characteristic which gives rise to both the conflict and the happy resolution. Nothing is as it seems here, from masked balls to underhanded plots to the creative pairing of reluctant lovers. Failure to make careful note of the deceptions and illusions that are a way of life in Messina can have disastrous as well as rewarding effects.
Interpretation: performance and the text.
3. The first scene defines the spirit of holiday as Messina prepares to welcome the returning soldiers. Their unnamed war is over, and the time is ripe for Claudio to woo Hero amd even for literature's mose famous warring lovers, Benedick and Beatrice, to renew their acquaintance.
Benedick uses the key word in the play title to tell us that he is wary of the appearances of love:
Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?
Benedick. I noted her not, but I looked on her...
In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.
Benedick. I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter. There's her cousin,
and she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty
as the first of May doth the last of December. (58-60, 83-88)
Claudio has the most superficial idea of love, but Don Perdo will be his proxy wooer:
O my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
I looked upon her with a soldier's eye,
That liked, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am returned and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying, I liked her ere I went to wars.
Don Pedro. Thou wilt be like a lover presently
And tire the hearer with a book of words.
If thou dost love fair Hero, cherish it,
And I will break with her and with her father,
And thou shalt have her. (289-303)
Thus begins the intrigue that Messina delights in.
4. The conflict in the play comes from Don John, a villain who can be played quite differently. Here are three versions. The first features Keanu Reeves in Branagh's popular film, clearly a box office attraction:
More menacing is the BBC version, a more mature politician:
And closest to my reading of this romantic melodrama, the camp villain from the New York Shakespeare Festival production (1972). In fact, this is an opportunity to convey the spirit of that light-hearted version by following Don John and the local constabulary in a montage of scenes right out of small town America, circa 1900:
5. In the Branagh version of 2.1, the masked ball celebrates the match of Hero and Claudio and prepares the way for Beatrice and Benedick to reconcile. Don John's plot is quickly dissolved, but Claudio's credulity is a foreshadowing of the success of his second attempt, which will be the occasion for a painfully interrupted wedding . For now, however, feasting and laughter reign in the green world:
Sometimes Messina's fascination with intrigue can yield wholesome fruit, and this montage shows the blossoming of love in Benedick and Beatrice in 2.3 and 3.1, aided by the theatrics of their friends:
6, Branagh's version of the Keystone Kops is Michael Keaton's Dogberry. The main irony of the plot is that only his fumbling can uncover Don Jon's trick, yet his comic incoherence prevents the delivery of the news that would save the wedding.
Dogberry is a role that would have been played by Will Kempe in Shakespeare's company, perhaps the last Shakespearian role of that chief clown before he departed to become a solo artist, succeeded by Robert Armin to play Touchstone and Feste. His tortured progress to the truth and the undoing of Don John is chronicled by Branagh:
7. Whatever farce and general hilarity is occasioned by Dogberry and by the friendly plot to lure Benedick and Beatrice together is shattered by the momentary success of Don John's plot. The wedding is destroyed by bitter accusation, with Hero spurned by Claudio and brutally rejected by her father. Branagh puts the scene outside in brialliant sunshine to leaven the script a little, but he cannot hide the emotional violence:
This scene tilts the play away from bright comedy towards tragic melodrama. It is consistent with the theme of false appearances which is central to the play, but Shakespeare creates a challenge for himself. Can he bring the tone back to comedy in Act 5? A similar challenge in The Merchant of Venice yielded less than satisfactory results. Here we see another version of a Friar's intervention to produce a deus ex machina ending, more successful that the Friar of Romeo and Juliet.
8. Shakespeare balances the painful confrontations and disclosures with lighter moments between Benedick and Beatrice, but even there the painful tone enters:
I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make
him eat it that says I love not you.
Beatrice. Will you not eat your word?
Benedick. With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.
Beatrice. Why, then, God forgive me!
Benedick. What offence, sweet Beatrice?
Beatrice. You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to
protest I loved you.
Benedick. And do it with all thy heart.
Beatrice. I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.
Benedick. Come, bid me do any thing for thee.
Beatrice. Kill Claudio.
Benedick. Ha! not for the wide world!
Beatrice. You kill me to deny it. Farewell. (4.1.275-291)
Benedick agrees to challenge Claudio. Their conflict is interrupted by news of the arrest and confession of Borachio. The following clip melds 5.1 and 5.3, ending with the public repentence of Claudio and Don Pedro:
9. The comic tone is partly restored by a light scene between Benedick and Beatrice (5.2), which ends with the happy news that Don John's villainy has been uncovered.
sequence of scenes, however, 5.3 follows to prepare us to accept (as much as
we can) the rehabilitation of Claudio. Closure in Much Ado About Nothing
depends of our acceptance of this rather callow young man. Branagh's approach
is to play out the idea of the final dance in perhaps the longest festive celebration
ever to end a comedy. The komos
ended Greek comedy traditionally, as described by Sallie R. Goetsch:
"Greek Old Comedy is named for the komos , the festival procession from which it sprang and with which it so often ends. After showing us what a mess the city is in and lampooning the politicians and public figures, sometimes quite viciously, comedy brings all the good guys together for a party which sweeps satire aside in favor of celebration. The komos is a grand finale of a sort which has survived to provide a satisfying, definite closure to musical comedies throughout the ages. It serves, among its other functions, to distract the audience from the implausibility of the solutions Aristophanes offers for the city's problems so that they could go home happy."
Shakespeare faced a similar problem in this play, and adopted a similar solution:
Come, come, we are friends. Let's have a dance ere we are married, that we may
lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels.
Leonato. We'll have dancing afterward.
Benedick. First, of my word; therefore play, music. Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife! There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with
Messenger. My lord, your brother John is ta'en in flight,
And brought with armèd men back to Messina.
Benedick. Think not on him till to-morrow: I'll devise thee brave punishments for him.
Strike up, pipers!
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