Much Ado About Nothing
2012 – US
Joss Whedon, Dir.
Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps my favorite Shakespearean play of those I’ve met so far. I’d previously seen it–at least the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version; I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it live, although the lack of definite memory here suggests not–and so when I read that a new version was coming out, as well as the many positive early reviews, I knew I’d have to see it. And that perhaps it was time for a read (it’s on my Classics Club list, after all). However, there was just one little problem–despite a general release in June, it wasn’t until the last week of August that the film made it into my neck of the woods. Thank goodness for independent theaters!
I am very happy that I read the play over the two weeks prior to seeing the film. I don’t believe I’ve ever so close together read a Shakespeare play and then watched it. Such a method strikes me as perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate his work–although I’m not sure the order matters. (Or perhaps it should be read-watch-read or watch-read-watch?) Although I have been reading Shakespeare long enough–and the near-contemporaneous King James (Authorized) translation of the Bible–that Elizabethan language is no longer as difficult as it once was (sometimes I find I don’t need all the footnotes), there are still so many references which are now-obscure that even in the watching the meaning may be lost. Although, of course, the acting and directing may go a long way towards conveying meaning. So in this manner, the reading is helpful. But at the same time, Shakespeare is so sparse in his stage notes, and the action is at times so fast-paced, that to merely read the plays can feel like a short-change. At least for me. Perhaps others have better imaginations for such things.
Now, the play itself. Oddly (maybe not so oddly?), I find I have little to say, even after both reading and watching. Perhaps this is why we so rarely study the comedies in school; it is easier to find topics of conversation in the tragedies (or perhaps we have that much bloodlust, that the tragedies slake our thirst?) and more difficult to discuss that which is already entertaining–with or without thoughtful investigation.
The plot revolves primarily around two pairings: Hero and Claudio, the acknowledged couple, and Beatrice and Benedick, who spend a fair portion of the play in a “merry war” of words and wit. Were this all we could not have a play, so no, their friends must plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together and their enemies to keep Hero and Claudio apart–viciously, in a means that could destroy Hero’s virtue, a truly devastating outcome in the Shakespearian era. (But don’t worry–this one’s a comedy!)
One thing I did find of note was how contemporary, in a way, this play feels. Human nature is much the same now as then, sentiments are much the same, even if Shakespeare uses fine, flowing words to convey them:
…for it so fall out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.
… For, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passions, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.
No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.
(Interestingly, much of the play is in prose, but these passages from towards the end are in verse.)
Then also, while in much of Western culture female virginity is no longer such a prize as to the Elizabethans, cheating is still frowned upon and an acceptable reason for separation, whether a couple is dating or already married. And of course, it will be a never-ending truth of humanity that there will always be couples in love and those plotting to bring other couples together.
This timelessness of the play helped as I watched it–although at times the archaic language coming from people dressed in 21st century outfits and wielding smartphones seemed out-of-place, the story fit so well that at other times the language seemed perfectly natural. It was helped, too, I think, that the director offered the interpretation that for both sets of characters the relationships were pre-existing, taking away the rushed feeling of ‘love-at-first-sight-now-to-the-alter’ of so many of Shakespeare’s plays. (I’ve actually wondered if the plays are more apt to feel rushed when read as compared to watched–that the conventions of the stage make the time frames seem reasonable?)
There are two things I am curious about. The first is how obsessed the male characters seemed with the idea of wives being faithless–almost assumed as a given. Was adultery indeed so very common in the late 1500s? Was there some new societal upheaval that magnified men’s fears? Or is it merely a plot device, provided early to foreshadow the complication of the play? My second curiosity is that Benedick, of no connection to Hero or her father, but friend to Claudio’s mentor Leonato, is the first primary character (saving Beatrice) to readily believe in Hero’s innocence. Even her father believes the slander. Is this because of Benedick’s connection to Beatrice, that he feels the need to be loyal to her cause? Or does his distance from the romance of Claudio and Hero allow him, as with the priest, to see more clearly what is happening? (And more clearly the true nature of Don John.)
I feel somehow, again, a poor reader, that I cannot begin to form a definite opinion of what is going on. I can readily say that I like the play, and the film version, but I almost feel as if I need a better knowledge of Shakespeare’s world before I can better understand the motivations of the characters. Perhaps another topic for investigation…