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Saturday, 13 February 2021

Much Ado About Nothing and parallels with other plays

1/ See the way Benedick talks about Hero, when asked by Claudio: 

“BENEDICK Why, i’ faith, methinks she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.” (Act 1 scene 1) 

That is rather mean. What does it make me think of? 

““Which do you mean?” and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me…”” (Pride and Prejudice, Ch.3)

Benedick is wittier and funnier than Darcy, but Beatrice does make me think of Elizabeth Bennet. 


2/ The fun of reading many Shakespeare plays in a row is that you notice the similarities and parallels between them and at the same time see how different they are—sometimes you may even feel that in one play, Shakespeare is doing the opposite, or taking the piss out of another (as Jane Austen later does in her novels). 

Much Ado About Nothing has a masquerade ball, like Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, it also has assumed and mistaken identity: Don Pedro (prince of Aragon) pretends to be Claudio to help him woo Hero; the princess and Rosaline switch places whilst Maria and Katharine exchange places to make fun of the men who come to woo them.

Beatrice is also witty like Rosaline, but she seems livelier, sharper, and meaner. I mean, look:  

“BEATRICE Alas, he gets nothing by that! In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one; so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse. For it is all the wealth that he hath left to be known a reasonable creature. Who is his companion now? He hath every month a new sworn brother.

MESSENGER Is’t possible?

BEATRICE Very easily possible. He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

That is brutal. Rosaline wouldn’t talk like that. 

In Act 2 scene 1, Benedick says about Beatrice “I would to God some scholar would conjure her, for certainly, while she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a sanctuary…”. That makes me think of The Taming of the Shrew because of the plot, even though I haven’t read it. 

Benedick, like the men in Love’s Labour’s Lost, naively thinks he would never fall in love. However, Berowne, Longaville, Dumaine, and the king turn to writing sonnets when they’re in love, whereas Benedick cannot rhyme. He and Beatrice cannot “woo peaceably”—they both are unsentimental. 

Much Ado About Nothing, in a sense, has 2 strands of stories:

- The battle of the sexes—between Benedick and Beatrice. 

- The relationship between Beatrice’s cousin Hero and Claudio, which is fucked up by Don John the villain. 

Don John makes me think of Iago, but of course he is nowhere near Iago. After all, this is a comedy, not a tragedy. 

This play is dated 1598 and Othello is dated around 1604, so I suppose Shakespeare reckons, after a few years, that he can do more with the theme of jealousy and insinuations, that he can push it to the extreme of malignity and evil. 


3/ I’ve noticed that the Shakespeare plays I’ve read recently all have some level of plotting and manipulating: in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Macbeth scheme to kill Duncan, frame some others, and get the throne; in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies plot to get people and the queen of fairies fall in love with someone else, using love potion; in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the men dress up as Russians to joke around and the ladies play a trick back on them by switching places; in Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence has a plot to help Romeo and Juliet be together, but everything goes kaput because of a plague (which sounds strangely familiar); in Othello, the plot is mainly driven by Iago, the master manipulator, who plays everyone and orchestrates everything. 

The interesting thing about Much Ado About Nothing is that there are 3 kinds of plotting and tricking—one to bring about a marriage, one to end a marriage, and one to save a marriage (and a lady’s honour)—all of the main characters are engaged in one plan or another. All of the main characters are playwrights and actors. 

The Friar in this play, by the way, is reminiscent of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet


4/ One of the best speeches in Much Ado About Nothing is this one by Leonato, when his brother Antonio is trying to console him:  

“LEONATO I pray thee cease thy counsel, 

Which falls into mine ears as profitless 

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel, 

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear 

But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine. 

Bring me a father that so loved his child, 

Whose joy of her is overwhelmed like mine, 

And bid him speak of patience. 

Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine, 

And let it answer every strain for strain, 

As thus for thus, and such a grief for such, 

In every lineament, branch, shape, and form. 

If such a one will smile and stroke his beard, 

And sorrow wag, cry “hem” when he should groan; 

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk 

With candle-wasters; bring him yet to me, 

And I of him will gather patience. 

But there is no such man. For, brother, men 

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief 

Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it, 

Their counsel turns to passion, 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.

ANTONIO Therein do men from children nothing differ.

LEONATO I pray thee peace. I will be flesh and blood; 

For there was never yet philosopher 

That could endure the toothache patiently, 

However they have writ the style of gods 

And made a push at chance and sufferance.” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

Ironically it comes from a man who turns against his own daughter at the wedding, and wishes her dead! 


5/ Tony Tanner writes: 

“Shakespeare had an acute sense of (and revulsion for) the gratuitous, irreparable damage that can be done by malicious slander […[ There is an enormous delight in word-play throughout, but there is a concurrent suspicion of the wayward power of tongues, and of the man who is, as it were, all tongue.” (Introduction) 

He writes at length about the theme of “misunderstandings, misinterpretations, misapprehensions” in the play—“It is a world in which appearances cannot be trusted—men are not what they seem; words are not what they say.” (ibid.)

It is all hearsay and “seeming truth”. Don John tells Claudio and Don Pedro (the king) not to trust him, but to trust what they see—but what they see is not the truth. Their eyes deceive them, the way Othello’s sight is poisoned by Iago’s lies. 

Here is something I find interesting, again Tony Tanner’s words:

“‘Seeming’ is, indeed, one of Shakespeare’s great themes, and he wrote against or about it continually.” (ibid.) 

This is one of the similarities between Shakespeare and Jane Austen: this is also one of her central themes—the difference between appearances and reality, and the way people deceive themselves. 


6/ Benedick and Beatrice are probably the most delightful couple in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Judging by a few things I’ve seen, their story seems to be often misunderstood or misrepresented—I think they’re not tricked into falling in love, but tricked into realising that they already love each other. Both are intelligent and quick-witted and they’re known for always having a go at one another that they live up to that image and don’t understand themselves, until the little trick helps them see something that has always eluded them. 

Just go to Act 1 scene 1, Beatrice’s very first line in the play is asking about Benedick. 

See Tony Tanner: 

“Even before they are tricked into love and partly (only partly) let their defences down, they are clearly obsessed with each other. From the first moment, they cannot let each other alone.” (Introduction) 

He notes the last things they say to one another in the play:

“BENEDICK Come, I will have thee; but by this light, I take thee for pity.

BEATRICE I would not deny you; but by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.

BENEDICK Peace! I will stop your mouth. [Kisses her]” 

(Act 5 scene 4) 

Tony Tanner comments: 

“Long before this, we can see that they were made for each other.” (Introduction)  

I’ve decided that they’re my favourite couple in Shakespeare, so far. 

William Hazlitt’s essay about Much Ado About Nothing is, disappointingly, not very good. But we still have Tony Tanner. 

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