The more I experience Much Ado About Nothing – at one time my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, although it has since been superseded, I think, by As You Like It – the more I am convinced of two things:
- Claudio sucks.
- Beatrice and Benedick were “together” before the men went off to war, and it did not end well. I am not sure yet how they broke up, but that’s where the root of their bickering comes from.
This is also a play absolutely filled with references and wordplay that doesn’t exist anymore. I want to do a bit more research about some of them, which may help me figure out a bit more about point 2.
Let’s look briefly at Claudio. He is one of the most shallow creatures in literature. He falls in love with Hero because she is pretty. There’s virtually no indication that he’s even talked to her before the play starts (even though most interpretations do play it as if Hero at least had a crush on Claudio pre-play). He is also far too easily convinced by rumour, insinuation, and flat-out lying that he is being betrayed. It happens at the party, when the most disreputable characters in the play tell him absolute lies that the Prince is wooing Hero for himself, and it happens again the night before the wedding when he is led to believe that Hero is not a virgin. In both of these cases, he takes the word of people that should not be trusted – Don John and his men – and you would think he would know that they cannot be trusted, since Don John has only recently been reconciled with the Prince! He does not seek out any further proof in either case; he is so non-confrontational that he is more willing to believe ill of his friend and his love than to do anything in his own behalf! He does not deserve Hero, at all, and it’s so frustrating to watch, read, or hear.
Now on to Beatrice and Benedick. They clearly know each other before the play starts, in a way deeper than Hero and Claudio – Beatrice “promised to eat all of his killing”, there “is a kind of merry war” between them, and the best quotation: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.”
Their breakup I get from things like their mutual protestations of never marrying, especially to each other. It’s definitely a form of protesting too much, like they’re trying to convince each other and themselves. They’re also very willing to believe that the other loves them based on overheard lies and rumours, as if they had already had these suspicions themselves – but they, unlike Claudio, ultimately confront the other with this information and get confirmation. The quotation above also gives clues to it – false dice, as if there was some sort of misunderstanding, the idea that Beatrice has lost Benedick’s heart and the implication that it is a more distant losing than simply their conversation at the party.
There are a few lines that I do not have cultural context for yet, to know if they support or alter my argument: “Signor Mountanto” – is there any symbolic significance to the name “Mountanto”? There’s also a line that’s cut out of most performances that I’ve seen/heard: Beatrice says “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.” I….have no idea what that means. What is a “jade’s trick”, that Beatrice accused Benedick of using? Why does Benedick refer to Hero as “Leonato’s short daughter”? There are others, I am sure…..I will need to do a closer rereading and some research.