I came to Much Ado About Nothing (Ado) relatively late in my Shakespeare reading: that is, I considered myself seasoned in Shakespeare before coming to this play. At that point I knew many who were in love with Ado. I have read it a few times now, and seen a few productions: unlike most Shakespeare plays in which the more I read it the more I discover and thereby the more a like it, with Ado I find I like it less and less each time I read it. Beatrice – the reason why people love this play – is a great character, but unlike Rosalind, whose wit and charm grows with rereading, or Viola/Cesario, who herself grows the more you read into her, Beatrice seems to tire herself (and us) out the more time we spend with her. But still she and Dogberry (yes, Dogberry) are the best parts of Ado, and worth the most consideration in what will prove to be a short exploration of this tedious play.
Tedious, what Dogberry ironically considers himself too poor to possess, is the trope of Ado. Dogberry says to Leonato, when the later calls him tedious:
It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the
poor duke’s officers; but truly, for mine own part,
if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in
my heart to bestow it all of your worship. (III.v)
The play itself wears tediousness as great an honour as Dogberry himself. Tediousness, the repetition of a single point until it wears us thin. Tediousness, the hammering of a joke until the humour is as flat as the metaphorical nail. Tediousness….
But what do I mean by it? Take this drawn out conversation between the two bros – Claudio and Don Pedro – and their mutual target of amusement – Benedick.
BENEDICK: Gallants, I am not as I have been.
LEONATO: So say I methinks you are sadder.
CLAUDIO: I hope he be in love.
DON PEDRO: Hang him, truant! there’s no true drop of blood in
him, to be truly touched with love: if he be sad,
he wants money.
BENEDICK: I have the toothache.
DON PEDRO: Draw it.
BENEDICK: Hang it!
CLAUDIO: You must hang it first, and draw it afterwards.
DON PEDRO: What! sigh for the toothache?
LEONATO: Where is but a humour or a worm.
BENEDICK: Well, every one can master a grief but he that has
CLAUDIO: Yet say I, he is in love.
DON PEDRO: There is no appearance of fancy in him, unless it be
a fancy that he hath to strange disguises; as, to be
a Dutchman today, a Frenchman to-morrow, or in the
shape of two countries at once, as, a German from
the waist downward, all slops, and a Spaniard from
the hip upward, no doublet. Unless he have a fancy
to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no
fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is.
CLAUDIO: If he be not in love with some woman, there is no
believing old signs: a’ brushes his hat o’
mornings; what should that bode?
DON PEDRO: Hath any man seen him at the barber’s?
CLAUDIO: No, but the barber’s man hath been seen with him,
and the old ornament of his cheek hath already
LEONATO: Indeed, he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard.
DON PEDRO: Nay, a’ rubs himself with civet: can you smell him
out by that?
CLAUDIO: That’s as much as to say, the sweet youth’s in love.
DON PEDRO: The greatest note of it is his melancholy.
CLAUDIO: And when was he wont to wash his face?
DON PEDRO: Yea, or to paint himself? for the which, I hear
what they say of him.
CLAUDIO: Nay, but his jesting spirit; which is now crept into
a lute-string and now governed by stops.
DON PEDRO: Indeed, that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude,
conclude he is in love.
CLAUDIO: Nay, but I know who loves him.
DON PEDRO: That would I know too: I warrant, one that knows him not.
CLAUDIO: Yes, and his ill conditions; and, in despite of
all, dies for him.
DON PEDRO: She shall be buried with her face upwards.
BENEDICK: Yet is this no charm for the toothache. (III.ii)
I have decided to copy this out in full to stress the point. What starts off as a charming attack on the headstrong and cocksure (or is it the other way around?) Benedick overstays its welcome and becomes annoying and tedious. Claudio and Don Pedro have no understanding of when to wrap up a joke and amuse each other because they are both horribly unfunny. In Act V, scene I, Benedick says to Claudio (but implying both Claudio and Don Predro): “you break jests
as braggarts do their blades.” This is perhaps the greatest truth stated in this play. It also sets up an interesting question: is the tediousness caused largely by Claudio and Don Pedro a lapse on Shakespeare’s part or is it intentional? Of course the question of intention is a dangerous one, but in this case it is just bothersome. If Shakespeare did intend for Claudio and Don Pedro to serve as foils for the two wits (Beatrice and Benedick) I think he missed his mark. Rather than heightening the two wits, they suck the humour out of the play so thoroughly.
Add to the tedium the abundance of plots in this play. A good comedy (Shakespeare or otherwise) has its plots. The ring trick is a classic plot that we see in Shakespeare (most notably in Merchant of Venice) and the bed trick another (as seen in Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well). We love to be in on the joke and laugh at the character’s expense. Or, as in the case of Ado, be present to a “tragedy” that we know is a trick. The Friar’s plot to convince Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero is “dead” only to reveal her living at the end (also used in All’s Well that Ends Well) is a good one – one that creates a sense of tragedy without any fear for the audience, who knows full well that a comic ending will occur. However, this is not the only plot in Ado. There is Don John’s failed plot to break up Claudio and Hero, Borachio’s successful plot to break up Claudio and Hero, the plot to snare Beatrice, the plot to snare Benedick, the Friar’s plot (described above), and Leonato’s plot to marry Claudio and Hero. Add to this that the plots to snare Benedick and Beatrice are mirrors of each other and occur one after the other, and the result is tiresome. We have no time to discover the characters in this play because we are caught up in the plethora of zany plots. Yes, everyone is always trying to outwit everyone else, and this is the underlying theme of the play, but it is done as the sacrifice of what makes Shakespeare plays what they are – works with exquisite characters and relationships. Aside from the allowances I will make for Beatrice and Dogberry, the most human character in this play is wit, but without a Falstaff, Rosalind, or Hamlet to give it corporeal form, we cannot identify with Wit in this play as much as we should.
Now that that is out of the way I must speak to this play’s merits, for it does have merits. Ado in my opinion stands towards the bottom of the High Comedies, but certainly rises above the travesty that is Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as the earlier comedies Two Gentlemen of Verona and Taming of the Shrew. Beatrice is the primary reason for this. She does succeed to an extent at containing Wit, her fault is that she is not as present as Falstaff, Rosalind, or Hamlet are to their respective plays. Beatrice is more than the token of wit; she has a coldness in her which foreshadows Hamlet. It is not until the last scene that we can begin to puzzle out the oddity that is Beatrice. When Benedick asks her if she loves him her response, most often played playfully, is: “Why, no; no more than reason” (V.iv). Beatrice is a woman who loves reason more than she loves people in general. For all her command of wit, she is governed by logic as opposed to her cousin who is governed by her heart, so much so that she faints because of the false accusation made against her. Beatrice is cold, she is the lady of disdain as Benedick greets her: “What my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living” (I.i). Beatrice parries his blow with her wit:
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
But she is still disdain. Benedick is not intelligent enough to invent such a character for Beatrice if it were not as plain as the nose on her face. Thus we may see Beatrice’s jab in the same way we see Hamlet’s “I am too much in the sun,” wit as a mask for the cold bitterness within. We are well aware of Hamlet’s bitterness – the death of his father and hasty marriage that followed – but what about Beatrice? Where does her “disdain” stem from?
To answer this I think we must turn to Don John, the purported dark character of this play. But as Benedick cannot hold a candle to Beatrice’s wit, so Don John cannot hold a candle to Beatrice’s bitterness. The extent of Don John’s villainy is at the start of Act II when he tries to convince Claudio that Don Pedro is stealing Hero for himself. The rest of his malicious activities are of Boarchio’s making, even though he takes the credit for them and then flees. But Beatrice is manipulative enough to bring about potential death (if a comic ending did not thwart her attempt):
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. (IV.i)
Benedick refuses at first, but the cold-hearted Beatrice disarms him to the point where she does not allow him to speak, and Benedick, so changed by his love of Beatrice – or just as helpless as any man is against Beatrice – eventually consents to kill his friend. Don John could not have orchestrated such an event.
This was of course a digression to show how even in villainy, Beatrice surpasses the villain. Don John is a “villain” for the same reason that Edmund is: he is a Bastard. Don John has no claim to the titles that Don Pedro had, so he rebelled. We are never given the specific nature of his transgression, but by the start of the play Don Pedro has welcomed his brother back into his grace. This does not satisfy Don John, who feels trapped by his position. In his only good speech in the play he says:
I cannot hide
what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile
at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait
for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and
tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and
claw no man in his humour. (I.iii)
He, like Edmund, longs for chaos because he cannot achieve any power through order. Beatrice does not desire chaos: she thrives on reason. However, like Don John, she is in an inferior position. She lives under the protection of her uncle Leonato, and has been the bedfellow of Hero since they were girls. It is, however, Hero that will inherit everything – all titles and fortunes Leonato leaves. It is Hero who is seen as the better prospect for marriage; despite her apparently small stature, according to Benedick. Beatrice has no fortunes and no means of gaining power.
More interesting is Beatrice’s parentage. The play introduces one brother to Leonato, Antonio, and yet Antonio is not Beatrice’s father. In Act V, while putting his plan in motion, Leonato says to Claudio:
My brother hath a daughter,
Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,
And she alone is heir to both of us:
Give her the right you should have given her cousin,
And so dies my revenge. (V.i)
The brother here is Antonio, and the daughter is the fake Hero. Antonio is not Beatrice’s father, so who is? An absent figure who we must assume, along with her mother, to be dead: such is why she is under the care of Leonato. And suddenly the Hamlet comparisons come rushing back: is Beatrice Lady Disdain for the same reason Hamlet is Sir Melancholy? Did she love her parents and was affected so much by their death? Perhaps, but such information has no place in a comedy. So why introduce the question at all. Would the play in of itself be any different if Beatrice was a younger sister? For me, this is what gives Beatrice enough of a “character” to salvage this play: she is a mystery to us as much as she is to those around her.
Finally, I wish to touch on Dogberry. Harold Bloom, whose opinion of Shakespeare’s works I hold with the highest esteem, derides Dogberry for his tedium. He is, as Bloom notes, a one-note character whose reliance on malapropisms for humour grows old quickly and does not cease. I cannot argue with this: it is true. More than any Fool, (except maybe the gravediggers in Hamlet, but they have such a short appearance) Dogberry’s speech is riddled with malapropisms that must have been funnier in 1598 than they are today. And this might have been a deciding fault for me if it was not in line with the other tedious parts that score this play. But let’s look past this flaw and see Dogberry’s sentimentalism. Dogberry, as fool, comes from the same tradition as Launce, who transformed into Dromio, Bottom, Launcelot, and even to an extent, Falstaff. They all have about them a certain sentimentalism to them that allows them to be the light in a dark world. Dogberry, and to a lesser extent his shadow Verges, are the only characters who are not self-centred. Every character has his or her own motives and seems to be focused solely on his or her own particular plot, but Dogberry genuinely cares about his fellow human beings. His logic may be muddled and comical, but it is honest and caring.
DOGBERRY: you are to call at all the
ale-houses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed.
Watchman: How if they will not?
DOGBERRY: Why, then, let them alone till they are sober: if
they make you not then the better answer, you may
say they are not the men you took them for.
Watchman: Well, sir.
DOGBERRY: If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue
of your office, to be no true man; and, for such
kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them,
why the more is for your honesty.
Watchman: If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay
hands on him?
DOGBERRY: Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they
that touch pitch will be defiled: the most peaceable
way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him
show himself what he is and steal out of your company. (III.iii)
The world would be kinder if it was run by Dogberry: not better, but kinder. He attempts to bring
the news of Borachio’s plot to Leonato, but the old man doesn’t have time for a tottering
sentimentalist like Dogberry. If he had, then Claudio would have never accused Hero and we
would not have an act IV or V of this play.
Dogberry becomes buried in the game of wits for he is certainly a weak player in the game and
thus the play has no time or patience for him. He is simply meant to provide some comic relief
and accidentally bring about the comic resolution. Certainly, Beatrice and Benedick command
the show, and this is why they are awarded the honour of final marriage. Like final death, final
marriage is a mark of the true Heroes (no pun intended.) Such is why Berlioz, when creating an
operatic adaption of his play, named it Beatrice et Benedict: even though, oddly enough, the
parts of the opera belong to Hero, such as: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtZleGpT9Gk