Much Ado: The Real McCoy
It’s hard to remember that the plot in Much Ado About Nothing is an original. The hundred or thousand after it are the cheap imitations. Basically, the plot is one of romantic jollity for royalty. Claudio, a young lord in Don Pedro’s court, falls in love with Hero, Governor Leonato’s daughter. As it happens the whole royal entourage is conveniently staying at the Governor’s mansion, so many hijinx can ensue. Another lord, Benedick, frowns on marriage. His snide bantering with Beatrice, the Governor’s niece, prompts both Benedick and Beatrice to vow never to marry. However, various parties in the royals conspire to cause the two B’s (Benedick and Beatrice) to admit they love each other.
Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s BB (“Bastard Brother”) Don John (interesting that he alone gets an anglicized name) is displeased because he dislikes the sight of happy people becoming happier. So he conspires with his footmen, Borachio and Conrade to break up Hero and Claudio. His first scheme fails because Claudio, a good soul, wants to trust Hero. But his second plot is so dastardly that even Claudio is persuaded that his betrothed has been unfaithful. In Don John’s evil plot, Claudio is brought under Hero’s window the night before the wedding. Where Claudio thinks he sees Hero’s dark hair tumbling out the window, unbeknownst to him, he sees the lady-in-waiting, Margaret’s dark hair – as she is in flagrante delicto with Borachio. We are not supposed to care whether or not Margaret wanted to have sex or actually liked it with Borachio—or even whether she had to get Borachio (which is pretty close to the Spanish word for drunk) to stomach it with him. Claudio, convinced his bride has betrayed him (since she is no longer a “maid”) appears at the wedding the next morning but slaps Hero’s face, throwing her to the ground and accusing her in public of being a whore. Thus, the prince and his party must sever ties with the Governor—and thus the big “ado” of the title.
After the party leaves, Leonato, Hero’s father, first threatens to kill her (if this is set in sixteenth century Messina, that possibility is by no means improbably—we must remember that Italy is not far from the Mideast, where men to this day kill their daughters for losing their virginity before marriage). Luckily, the friar asks Leonato to reconsider, saying that the truth about Hero will come out and she will be “lamented, pitied and excus’d” (IV.i.215). However until then he advises the family to act as though Hero died from the shock and to hide her until Claudio and Don Pedro beg for forgiveness.
Ultimately, of course, the truth comes out. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice have been set up and once so, they do confess their love for each other. They find themselves in alliance, and Beatrice tells Benedick that he must inform the prince and Claudio how wrong they are. This he does, and when he does, it is the first inkling to both that they’ve made a mistake. When Dogberry the constable catches Borachio and finds out the truth, Don Pedro and Claudio realize they must apologize to Leonato and do.
Since Claudio still thinks Hero is dead because of his mistake, Leonato makes Claudio agree to marry his niece unseen—he does so, not knowing that the niece will be Hero. The wedding is double—Beatrice marries Benedick as well. So it’s a big surprise when Hero pulls up her veil and Claudio finds his real love. There’s even—almost—a reversal where Beatrice and Benedick return to fighting and seem as though they won’t marry at the very end. But they do, and all live happily ever after.
Shakespeare’s plot certainly conforms to the structure of the classical romantic comedy that we talked about with Menander. Within the play itself, Shakespeare uses a number of comic devices—like sly risqué allusions we see early in the play, such as when Don Pedro and Benedick first greet Leonato and Beatrice:
Don Pedro: …I think this is your daughter.
Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.
Benedick: Were you in doubt, sire, that you asked her?
Leonato: Signior Benedick, no; for then you were a child. (I.i.92-94)
Even sillier than this is the humor that comes from the sections with Dogberry and his men. Dogberry, a constable who speaks in malapropisms and nonsense sentences, is a source of easy, often slapstick humor. For example, Dogberry’s malapropisms might take the form of a bit of advice like, “Adieu, be vigitant” (III.iii.88). Dogberry’s advice on apprehending a criminal is “if you do take a thief, [...] let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company” (III.iii.54-55). In addition to these silly lines, the action of Dogberry’s scenes in play is often portrayed in a slapstick manner.
The slapstick was evident in Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation in which Michael Keaton played Dogberry as a drunken, over-the-top slapstick character (to not altogether favorable reviews—which often compared him to Beetlejuice, unfairly in my view). Frankly, I liked Keaton’s performance and found it fit the over-the-top nature of the character. I also liked Branagh’s interpretation of Benedick, who undergoes a decided transformation in the course of the play.
Probably the most common humorous device in Much Ado is irony. One instance occurs when Benedick promises that he will “live a bachelor,” (I.i.219) and speaks the most strongly against marriage, yet when confronted with evidence that Beatrice may perhaps love him, he speaks most ardently about love. The irony—the not getting what we expect in the play is delightful and interesting. I don’t remember where I read it now that Much Ado isn’t often included in the list of Will S.’s major plays but that it should be. I agree. I think I like it almost as much as The Tempest. Hmmm…talk amongst yourselves about this one. Next, friends, we’ll be discussing LLL (Love’s Lobour’s Lost).