William Shakespeare was, if anything, probably the greatest adapter of other works who has ever lived. Very few of Shakespeare’s plays are original plots, and his most famous pieces are all either retellings of other stories or dramatizations of history. Although many of Shakespeare’s changes are incredibly important and dramatically revised and improved upon the original, his plays are not important because of their plots. Shakespeare’s characters and dialogue are the most gripping aspects of his plays, and these help us to ignore the sometimes-ridiculous devices that he uses in even his greatest pieces. Hamlet is arguably the greatest play ever written, and features an off-stage scene where the titular character escapes certain death by jumping onto a pirate ship.
No Johnny Depp, this is not an excuse for a tie-in movie… Go home.
It should come as no surprise then that my favorite Shakespeare play and, in my opinion, his greatest comedy, is a play where almost nothing actually happens. If you were to boil down the events of this play it would slide easily into the mold of any romantic comedy. It’s a will-they won’t-they story about two couples who fall in love through a series of whacky misunderstandings. At the end of the play the good guys win and the bad guys lose and everybody goes home with a pretty lady. Of course this ignores the botched wedding, the numerous threatened duels to the death, and the assumed death of one character. I suppose it’s not fair to say that nothing happens in Much Ado About Nothing, but it’s also not exactly Macbeth.
In the interest of moving forward, I will attempt to sum up the play briefly: The prince of Aragon Don Pedro has won a war against his brother Don Jon and goes to the nobleman Leonato’s villa to relax and feast with his treacherous brother and his close retinue of friends. One of these men, a young soldier and count named Claudio, falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero. They become engaged and on a lark, Don Pedro concocts a scheme to make his other friend Benedick and Leonato’s neice Beatrice, who hate each other, fall in love. Unsurprisingly, he succeeds. However, Claudio is tricked by Don Pedro’s evil brother and believes that Hero has been unfaithful. He rejects her during their wedding and everyone is sad. Hero fakes her own death, making Claudio regret his decisions, and eventually her name is cleared. Everyone gets married at the end. Because it’s a comedy, so everyone has to get married at the end.
Based upon this synopsis you might assume that Claudio and Hero are our main characters, the dashing young captain and the virginal maid, but you would be wrong. This play is famous because of its other couple, the quarrelsome, irate, snarky, brilliant, Benedick and Beatrice. The two are engaged in “a merry war,” wherein they trade endless barbs and insults to the amusement of others. They cannot be in the same room with each other without lashing out at each other. They spar back and forth for scene upon scene, and one gets the impression that they genuinely cannot stand each other. Yet they also cannot help but talk to each other when they are in a room together.
Each of them professes their passionate distaste for the other sex and for marriage, and yet each of them also reveals that there is something more to their tempestuous relationship. Benedick claims he is a “professed tyrant to their sex,” when discussing women and two lines later admits that he finds Beatrice to be more beautiful than Hero. Meanwhile Beatrice is happy to say that she never wants to marry, yet in the same scene provides a lengthy description of what her perfect man would be and remarks that he would be not dissimilar to Benedick. If he could manage to talk less that is. Although they are outwardly funny, engaging characters, able to wax rhapsodic about any given subject, as the audience we receive hints that their humor is disguising larger issues.
Benedick’s unhappiness is only hinted at, but it manifests as a profound distrust for women and an intense fear of cuckoldry. Although he says that he is, “beloved of all ladies,” he clearly prefers the company of his fellow soldiers and appears to believe that any woman will only cheat on him. Whether this is the result of some betrayal of trust or simply his own insecurity is unclear, but it pervades his character. Using the imagery of “giving a man horns,” he says that if he marries they may, “pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead… ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.’” He is afraid to commit to any one woman and only mentions them to say, “That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks.” I’m no Freudian, but there seem to be some mother issues there.
Beatrice on the other hand, openly acknowledges her melancholy in one of the finest scenes in the play. When Claudio and Hero get engaged, she finally acknowledges her own desire to marry and says that she may, “sit in a corner and cry heigh-ho for a husband.” The prince, Don Pedro, offers to find her one and she responds flirtatiously saying that only if he has a brother, “Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.” To her surprise, Don Pedro asks her if she would have him as a husband, to which she replies:
“No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days; your grace is too costly to wear every day. But I beseech your grace, pardon me: I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.”
This scene is often played for laughs, but although there is a hint of humor in their interaction, the exchange is genuine. Beatrice turns down the prince’s proposal and the offer of status and power as the future Queen of Aragon. Something holds her back and she quickly attempts to make light of the situation. Like Benedick she seems to have a deep distrust of the other sex, and likewise tries to cover this up using humor. Her uncle, Leonato, even observes at this time that she “hath often dreamed of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.” I like to think that it is this moment that inspires Don Pedro to put Benedick and Beatrice together because he sees their similarities.
In true sitcom fashion, the prince’s plan unfolds with each of the two lovers “accidentally,” overhearing that the other one loves them. Upon hearing this news, both Benedick and Beatrice almost immediately fall in love with the other. Benedick tries to obscure it in a lengthy speech rationalizing his decision to be “horribly in love with her.” Beatrice, on the other hand, is so bewitched by the idea that Benedick could love her that she falls rapidly into rhyming verse. In Shakespeare the easiest way to demonstrate that you are feeling intense emotion is to start busting out some couplets. It might seem a bit too neat that these characters to fall in love so quickly, but the two already have an intense connection when the story begins. They are arguably the only two characters in the play that really listen to each other.
Essentially Much Ado About Nothing boils down to a battle of the sexes, and the scenes resemble those from an eighth grade dance: the boys talk to the boys and the girls talk to the girls. The brief interactions between the two groups are riddled with misunderstandings and hurt feelings, with jealousy and betrayal. Even the courtship of Hero results in this, with Don Pedro putting on Claudio’s mask so that he can romance her in his name… for some reason. Naturally Claudio gets upset, and tries to storm out before he is stopped and the misunderstanding is resolved. The aforementioned wedding scene is the ultimate misunderstanding.
Deceived by Don Pedro’s brother, Claudio flies into a jealous rage and calls Hero a whore. He does this on their wedding day, in front of everyone she knows. He and the prince refuse to listen to her and storm out of the festivities, leaving only Benedick, the priest, Leonato, and the female characters. Even Leonato refuses to hear what they have to say, and tells repeatedly her that he wishes she were dead. Now that is slut shaming. All of the male characters seem to be unable to listen to anything that the female characters say, except for Benedick.
Benedick, the proud misogynist, is the only character in this play who is willing to listen to what Hero and Beatrice have to say. This is not only because he is in love with Beatrice but also because he has shown, oddly enough, to have more respect for her than any of the other men do. It is rare that women in Shakespearean couples, particularly in his comedic plays, are on even footing with the men in their lives. Most of the time they win the respect of their husbands by dressing up like men to prove their virtue and strength. Benedick is unique as a Shakespearean lead because from the beginning of the play he has cares about what Beatrice has to say.
The reason that these two characters have such an intense relationship is that they are genuinely concerned what the other person thinks about them. Each of them is always the smartest person in the room, until the other one walks in. They can’t stand each other because they know that that do not respect each other, and they so desperately crave the other person’s respect.
When Benedick, in disguise, tells Beatrice that someone has been slandering her, she follows him around incessantly attempting to find out whether it or not it was Benedick. She meanwhile claims that he is, “the prince’s jester: a very dull fool,” and causes him to go into fits. Benedick spends the rest of the act baffled and infuriated that, “my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me!” In a play that is filled with filled with misunderstandings and with characters that don’t ever seem to really hear each other, Benedick and Beatrice are the only two people that seem to be paying attention.
Benedick and Beatrice’s rhetorical jousting matches are the heart of Much Ado About Nothing, and it is the foundation for their relationship. The two listen carefully to each other to build off of each other’s angry diatribes and trick each other into sounding foolish. They know each other inside and out, to the point that Beatrice snarls in the first scene that, “You always end with a jade’s trick.” These exchanges are passionate, and filled with sexual tension, and they define how the two understand and communicate with each other.
This banter gets even better once they admit their love for each other, and provides some insight into what these two are like when they are with each other. It is worth providing a sampling of the dialogue that I’ve been rambling on about:
And, I pray thee now, tell me for
which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?
For them all together; which maintained so politic
a state of evil that they will not admit any good
part to intermingle with them. But for which of my
good parts did you first suffer love for me?
Suffer love! a good epithet! I do suffer love
indeed, for I love thee against my will.
In spite of your heart, I think; alas, poor heart!
If you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for
yours; for I will never love that which my friend hates.
Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.
Unsurprisingly, Benedick and Beatrice’s story ends happily. When finally forced to expose their affections to the rest of the characters they vehemently deny it. True to form, they must be tricked into admitting how they feel. We are left with a snapshot of their relationship, playfully bantering until the very end until Benedick utters one of my favorite lines in the play, “Peace! I will stop your mouth.”
The reason that I love this play, and this couple in particular, is because I think that it is the only Shakespearean relationship that feels genuine and lived in. So often romances are supposed to happen overnight or “at first sight,” but Benedick and Beatrice stumble into each other almost painfully. Their relationship has tension and conflict, but it’s also perhaps the only Shakespearean romance where the two characters seem to respect and admire each other equally. Because they listen to each other, and because they care about what the other person thinks, we get the impression that theirs will be a very happy, if very chatty, marriage. They say that communication is the cornerstone of any good relationship, and perhaps that’s true for fictional characters as well.
I want to leave you with a theory that I have, that I know is absolutely not true, but that I like to entertain anyway. It cannot possibly be confirmed, and is based upon no actual evidence whatsoever. This is simply something I like to imagine because I have, apparently, far too much time on my hands. My theory is that Much Ado About Nothing was not meant to be about Benedick and Beatrice at all, and that they were barely in the play originally.
I imagine that this play was conceived as a straightforward comedy with our prototypical romantic leads Claudio and Hero. They were to fall in love, be tragically separated by a misunderstanding, and ultimately brought back together in comedic fashion. But looking at that story, I can see Shakespeare scratched his head and thought, “Well this is awfully dark,” and decided to write in some quirky best friends.
Often I find myself watching a movie and thinking how much I would like to see some particular character’s story more than the main character, and I like to think that Shakespeare felt the same way. Much Ado is like making a whole movie about Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally.
They are the protagonists’ best friends, and yet they have better dialogue and chemistry than other of the leads. Their story is infinitely more interesting and yet seems to be mostly unrelated to the actual plot. If we lifted Benedick and Beatrice out of the play, it would proceed in more or less the same fashion albeit with less scenes and humor. So perhaps Shakespeare conceived of these characters and, bored to death with writing yet another comedy about dashing young men and virginal young women, chose to do something a bit more unique.
It’s just a theory, but I enjoy it. My apologies for the aside but as Benedick observed:
“Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”