The pun in the title is, I’ll admit, pretty obvious. But as my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies, I think it’s deserving of attention and re-analysis.
The Plot: Messina, Italy. Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his compatriots visit Leonato, the governor of Messina’s, house. The two most notable of Don Pedro’s companions are Claudio, a young nobleman, and Benedick, a clever young man whose witticisms are among the best that Shakespeare has to offer. The two fall in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero and niece Beatrice respectively. Beatrice’s wit matches Benedick’s, and the two duke it out as to who is less in love with the other (hint: they’re both in denial), while Claudio and Hero plan a wedding. A bastard prince, his cohorts, and a moronic constable named Dogberry cause some shenanigans.
My favorite incarnation of Much Ado About Nothing is probably the one featuring David Tennant as Benedick and Catherine Tate as Beatrice. The centerpiece of any good adaptation of Much Ado is the contentious relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, and these two actors pull it off in amazing form (though their chemistry is long-established since their stints on Doctor Who).
Much Ado is not just hilarious–it has some poignancy that creates depth in the characters, instead of leaving them to be comedic caricatures. The scene in Act IV in which Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful is painful to watch, since we are assured, as audience and reader alike, that there is no character in the play more innocent than Hero. Beatrice’s dismay at this turn of events is palpable even through the page, and we share in her pain and heartbreak as if we knew Hero personally. In fact, it almost seems as if we do know all of these characters like old friends.
That, I think, is the genius of Shakespeare at his best. We listen to the dialogue, and feel as if we’ve heard it before. That’s not to say that it’s overdone or contrite–rather, it means that we’ve heard it before in our daily lives, but somehow,on the stage, with Shakespeare’s words, and with the right people handling them, it seems elevated to something that we’ve never seen before.
I think my only gripe with the play is with Claudio. It’s pretty clear after he disgraces Hero in front of all her friends and family, instead of, oh, I don’t know, talking about the issue of her potential adultery in private like normal people, that he is undeserving of Hero. Not only this, but he agrees to marry another woman without meeting her first, as if he’s forgotten all about Hero. That, to me, seems to highlight the essence of how many noblemen at the time of Shakespeare were. Shakespeare’s women were relatively strong for the time period, but for the most part, in life outside of the Globe Theatre, they were seen as goods to be bought, sold, and tossed away.
This is where I am conflicted. As a reader and audience member, I despise Claudio. As a writer, I appreciate and respect his character as a reflection of the flaws of Elizabethan society.
All in all, it’s a close call as to which of Shakespeare’s comedies is the best, or even my favorite. However, if I had to name one to read or see over again, I would elect to come back to Messina and watch the story of Beatrice and Benedick unfold again.
Next Week: part 2 of the Shakespeare series, in which I talk about my favorite tragedy.
See you then!