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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing–Strong Women, Weak Men, and Men Behaving Badly

Harold Bloom states that “Much Ado About Nothing” is the most amiably nihilistic play ever written and is most appositely titled.” (Invention of the Human).  I am convinced of this, for although both Benedick and Beatrice overtly claim diffidence if not indifference to love, marriage, and the opposite sex, it is only Beatrice who sticks to this claim.  Throughout the play she plays with Benedick like a cat with a mouse, then finally dispatches him with jabs that hit close to the bone.  She is tired of him, is in total control of his conflicted emotions (he, unlike her, really wants love), and knows how to manipulate him.  Later in the play when he has been duped by his friends into believing that Beatrice loves him, Benedick offers to do anything for her.  “Kill Claudio”, she says, and sets him off on an honorable duty.  She marries him in the end because he is handsome, wealthy, and from a good family, not for love.  Benedick, on the other hand, marries for love and is not nihilistic, but a believer.

Beatrice is the main character in the play.  She has the wit and intelligence of Rosalind, some of the meanness of Maria (Olivia’s woman in Twelfth Night), and the cattiness of Cleopatra (her emasculation of Antony when she is with her retainers).  I was won over when I read these lines:

Leonato: There’s little of the melancholy element in [Beatrice], my lord.  She is never sad but when she sleeps, and not even then; for I have heard my daughter say she hath often dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.

Both women, Rosalind and Beatrice, are often cited together as strong women (Nuttall includes criticism of both plays under the heading Strong Women and Weak Men (Shakespeare the Thinker).  Rosalind may be more interesting because while Beatrice is depicted as a one-note Charlie, reserving her vitriol for Benedick alone, Rosalind takes on all men– Orlando, Jaques, Touchstone, and Silvius.  She jabs and wounds like Beatrice but a wider range, and has plenty in reserve for women who behave badly (Phebe) or are too taken in by men (Audrey). 

Yet Beatrice may be more attractive because of her singularity, a feature which is prominent in the most alluring of Shakespeare’s women – Cleopatra; in the most insidious - Goneril and Regan; and in  the most aggressive and protective – the women of the Histories; and because of her cynicism.  She truly believes what she says about love and marriage, and, as above, her marriage of convenience to Benedick proves that she is true to her beliefs and is practical enough to marry up.  Beatrice and Benedick are often linked like Romeo and Juliet – if they are not star-crossed, fated lovers, they are, so say the critics, made for each other.  

I do not agree at all.  While it is true that their seeming misanthropy, sharp wit, and love of the jab and parry, make them weirdly compatible, they are completely unmatched.  As above, Beatrice is the smarter, the more cunning, and more determined.  She can toy with, wound, manipulate Benedick to her ends; and she is principled in her defense of her cousin, Hero, and in defending the family honor.

Benedick just thinks he is a nihilist and cynic.  He is obviously not.  A simple ruse changes his opinions and beliefs overnight; or as some critics have said that he has loved Beatrice all along and that they even were lovers before the play started (Bloom).  In any case his fawning puppy-love for Beatrice once he thinks she loves him is ridiculous – just as ridiculous as the stupid Aguecheek and Malvolio in Twelfth Night.  We cannot take him seriously.

But he is a good man, say the critics, in a play where few men are.  Yes, but when does that matter in love?  Women are always falling for bad men.  Many critics have speculated that in all these comedies – Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It as well as the ‘Late Romance’, The Tempest, the marriages so happily made at the end of the plays probably fell apart.  Orlando was certainly no match for Rosalind, and Benedick is way, way behind Beatrice.  Few understand why Hero, after she discovers Claudio’s perfidy and total lack of trust and loyalty, actually marries him; so that marriage surely will have its difficulties.  She married for social mobility, of course, but that guarantees discord rather than deflects it.  Hero is not a very interesting character especially compared to Beatrice, but Claudio, despite his misplaced honor and breeding, is a dope. Only Viola who is the weakest woman of the three plays, might have led a quiet, subservient married life with Orsino. 

Leonato, Pedro, and Claudio all behave very badly towards Hero.  While we can understand the prevailing Elizabethan norms which valued chastity apparently above all else (in a rigid social class system where family, descendancy, and lineage were supremely important to determine inheritance and succession), there is no legitimate reason why these men jumped to the wrong conclusion so quickly and easily.  Not a one said, “Show me the proof”; and all took Hero’s reaction at the news of her supposed liaison as guilt, not innocence.   It even took Othello a while to be turned by Iago, while Claudio determined that Hero’s transgression was true in a minute.   Leonato was her uncle, and should have shown some sympathy for her and give some credence to her story pending the facts, but was so caught up in his social standing that he gave her up to the wolves.  Yes, he recanted as did everyone, but too little too late.   Only Beatrice was immediate, steadfast, and principled in defense of her cousin.

Don John, The Bastard, is the villain, and a good one at that, for he has no good reason for doing what he does – trying to ruin his legitimate brother and his (Pedro’s) friend Claudio.  Iago’s motives for destroying Othello are not clear; and Edmund’s (King Lear) are not much better-founded.  It seems that in all three cases, there is something malicious and perverted in their personalities set off by jealousy.  Edmund probably has the most legitimate case, because of his father’s preference for and bequest to his legitimate brother; but here, John the Bastard has no such issue – or at least it is not brought out in the play.  Which is why I like John – crimes with no purpose display the amoral world as it is.

John, however, is not a very attractive villain.  He does not have the ruthlessness of Richard III, the quiet manipulation of Edmund, the insidiousness of Iago, or the bloodthirstiness of Aaron.  He plays tricks on very, very gullible people. While Othello is perhaps more responsible for his own descent into jealousy and murder than Iago, he is not as dumb as Claudio (or Benedick), nor as blind as Leonato and Pedro.  

I liked the play, although I found the language rough sledding.  Most of the comedies are harder to read than the tragedies or histories because of the wordplay; and in Much Ado the wit, rejoinder, verbal jab and parry are complex – rooted in Elizabethan language, culture, and history.  Patience pays off, however, and the characters emerge because of or in spite of language.  Some critics have observed that this is the most ‘talky’ of Shakespeare’s comedies.  Words matter more than in most other plays.  I am not so sure about that.   Touchstone and Jaques in As You Like It rely on puns for their communication.   Rosalind says much, but without the complexity of the jesters.  She is talkative, but never prolix.

In any case, Beatrice is one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare; and I am continually amazed at his interest in and ability in creating such vital, exuberant, and strong women.  I have a close friend who comes from a Post-Modernist tradition – i.e. the only literary criticism which is valid is that which explains or deconstructs the ‘texts’ from a social, economic, cultural, gender perspective.  It is less interesting, he says, to try to understand Beatrice from a purely theatrical, creative analysis than to figure out why, given the existing Elizabethan norms, mores, and culture, Shakespeare created her.  In other words, she is no more than an expression of the times, and we as critics need to understand how and why. 

I of course do not agree, and in fact disagree vehemently.  A reduction of literature to ‘texts’ and their historical meaning degrades and devalues the individual artistic impulse, ability, and action….which is why I am a fan of Nietzsche.  Beatrice and Shakespeare’s other women are his creations; and while of course they as well as every other character, plot, and outcome were conditioned to a degree by the times, they exist above, beyond, and apart from them.

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