Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.
The plan for this month was to press on with Shakespeare's histories and finish the Henry VI plays, but after what happened yesterday I don't feel it's wildly appropriate to be writing about political drama and murder so I think I'll leave those for now and pick them back up in July. Instead I turn my attention to another planned read, Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy by William Shakespeare (written around 1598-99).
I decided to read this play for the Back to the Classics Challenge - 'Re-read a classic you read in school'. Well, I read this when I was 17 and I'm not only shocked at just how much I'd forgotten, but also how many inconsequential lines I seem to have committed to memory. For example, "But few of any sort, and none of name", hardly a line central to the plot or the finest line in the play, yet it jogged my memory. But enough of reminiscences, on with the play!
It is set in Messina in Sicily, and in it Shakespeare tells a complex story of love and lies. At the beginning of the play it is announced that the Prince of Aragon Don Pedro will return from battle along with Benedick and his friend Claudio. Claudio is in love with Hero whilst Benedick is in a perpetual war of words with Beatrice: Hero's father Leonato observes,
There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her:
they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.
Both pairs' relationships go awry with confusion and rumour. Claudio and Hero agree to marry after Don Pedro wooed Hero on behalf of Claudio during a masquerade ball, despite Don John (Don Pedro's brother) claiming Don Pedro was merely trying to woo her for himself. Meanwhile during the ball Beatrice tells her dance partner just how much she dislikes Benedick:
Why, he is the prince's jester: a very dull fool;
only his gift is in devising impossible slanders:
none but libertines delight in him; and the
commendation is not in his wit, but in his villany;
for he both pleases men and angers them, and then
they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in
the fleet: I would he had boarded me.
Of course her dance partner, unknown to her, is Benedick. He is furious, but nevertheless Don Pedro, for his own entertainment, decides to make a match of the two by making sure Benedick hears them talking how in love Beatrice is with him. As this goes on Hero and her maid Ursula, also wanting to unite the pair, make sure Beatrice overhears them talking of how much in love Benedick is with her.
|Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula|
by John E. Sutcliffe (1904).
However Don John still nurses the desire to make everyone around him miserable so he tells Claudio Hero has been unfaithful (Claudio, it must be noted, is rather easily tricked). To prove this he arranges for him to see Hero with her lover, however the woman is not Hero at all but Margaret, another maid, and the lover is Margaret's lover Borachio. Claudio, on witnessing this, vows to humiliate Hero on their wedding day - "there will I shame her." And this he does in a particularly painful scene in which he says,
Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She's but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
Her father is convinced too -
O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wish'd for.
Poor Hero fades away, apparently dead. Here the now united Benedick and Beatrice talk of the matter, and Benedick vows he will do anything for her. She replies quite simply "Kill Claudio." Eventually he agrees to challenge him to a duel.
This situation, we can agree, is quite a mess. Hero appears dead (a rumour which her father allows) and Claudio maintains he is the wronged lover. However two men, Dogberry and Verges, had witnessed the plot to spit Hero and Claudio and they reveal all to Leonato, who then demands that Claudio marries his brother Antonio's daughter. Though in mourning for Hero he consents, but on their wedding day this woman unmasks and it is Hero!
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.
The two marry, as do Benedick and Beatrice, but not without one last witty exchange.
Much Ado About Nothing is quite a play! It is fun, however confusing and slightly tiring, on the themes of love, deception, marriage, and honour. Benedick and Beatrice are, for me, the stars (and apparently Charles II would agree with me) with their quickfire wit and sharp repartee. Hero is lovely, though perhaps on the dull side, and Claudio rather infuriating with his willingness to believe anything bad. Overall, it's a fun play, enough to make one forget about one's troubles however momentarily.