Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Classics Club: Much ado about nothing

One of his classic plays, Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare tells a tale of grand mischief, of love turned sour, of love being tricked but also of love conquering all in the end... 

Love is a favourite subject of Shakespeare's, so I was half-certain of what to expect.  Yet, I was surprised (yet again):  the play is not a lovey-dovey tale of romance, but rather a story of cynicism and irony, of confirmed bachelors and intrigues aimed at revenge... Now, this a story to keep up my interest!

It begins with a scene of grand merriment, where, among others, we are introduced to Leonato, a respectable nobleman, as well as Beatrice and Hero, two of the maidens in the idyllic town of Messina.  While Hero pleasant and lovely is, Beatrice is a confirmed bachelorette (she did remind me of Kate in the Taming of the Shrew, actually): "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow" she says, "than a man swear he loves me" (oh, so it must be a horrible bark...)

The play also introduces a word I had not read before:  Yea.  Given that it is fairly similar to the colloquial yeah, it is amusing to think that Shakespeare actually used "slang" language ahead of his time...

Leonato welcomes his friends from war:  Don Pedro, a close friend and a prince (ha!), and two soldiers:  Benedict and Claudio.  This pair is the equivalent of the maidens: Claudio is all romantic and immediately falls for Hero, even sidelining Don Pedro ("Friendship is constant in all other things save in the office and affairs of love"),  while Benedict is the ever so sarcastic bachelor:  "If I do (get married), hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me" (what kind of weird pasttimes did people have in Shakespeare's time?).

Claudio and Hero, after deciding they know each other and can thus get married (hmm...), want to play cupid for the other pair ("some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps"), to get them to stop arguing and confess their love for one another.  Of course, this is not the end of the play - Don John, Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, is the mean character and wants misery for everyone around him.  He employs his companion Borachio to serenade Hero's serving woman Margaret, while he, together with Don Pedro and Claudio are in the vicinity.  Claudio is so upset that he dumps Hero at the altar, after horribly humiliating her.

Hero's family pretend she's died of grief, while waiting for the truth to come to light - which of course it does (this is a play, after all!).  Claudio is devastated (as he should be!) and the global realisation is revealed: "what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack'd and lost, why then we rack the value".

The language used throughout the play is not the easiest one, particularly as it provides some of the weirdest lines I've read so far:  when Benedict realises he's fallen for Beatrice, he exclaims: "if I do not love her, I am a Jew" -- WHAT?  What can possibly be the rationale behind this? Then, when Benedict shaves his beard, Claudio refers to the hair "the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls" -- I just had to check this out.  Indeed, tennis balls go back as early as the 1480s....  And finally, when the constable meets with Leonato to tell him of the trick played on Hero, he describes the Headborough who actually overheard the plot as "honest as the skin between his brows" -- now, would that honesty also apply in botox-ed skin between the brows???
What the end to this tale is?  Why, all is peachy: Claudio and Hero and Benedict and Beatrice celebrate their double wedding and they all dance merrily...  I have to admit that while Much ado about Nothing a very interesting tale is and the plot quite fast-paced - it is seriously over the top, and there are no gods, nymphs, or fairies to justify all the bizarre behaviour.  On the plus side, I was amazed at the boldness with which Shakespeare criticises society that "forces" people to marry appropriately, as well as place great importance on chastity.  It's no wonder that the three main characters are either confirmed bachelors, or feel that marriage a trap is to have them controlled.  The tale may be entertaining, but it certainly includes dark moments - great example of Shakespeare's work!

For the visual interpretation of the tale, I watched the 1993 film directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring a beautiful cast of many known actors, including Branagh himself, Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington.  The acting is very interesting and, for me, it provided some nuances that I had not understood while reading the tale (oops...)


  1. Interesting that comment about being a Jew, especially considering the famous speech of A Merchant from Venice.

    I'm going to London to see Henry V at the GLobe in June :)

  2. I don't know if you'll be interested in this comment but - the title is Elizabethan slang and it translates nowadays to A Big Fuss About Vaginas as the slang word for a penis was 'thing' and therefore the 'nothing' is the opposite.

    1. ... a lot more things make sense now...




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