Too Wise to Woo Peaceably

The Much Ado about Nothing Study Guide should be ready soon (and I hope I’ll have a 10-page preview for you on Monday), and I just have to say, I’m enjoying this one more than probably ought to be allowed. I’m enjoying it so much, in fact, that I couldn’t wait until the release to tell you what a good time I’m having.

Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite play, and this has never been a secret to anyone who knows me. It was not the first Shakespeare play I read, but it was the first one I saw in performance, at the age of 12, in the little theatre in the basement of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. From that night on, it was all over for me. Much Ado had won my heart, and nothing since has had any power to tempt it away.

There’s a lot that’s good in this play — the satire of courtship between Claudio and Hero, the insidious villainy of Don John, the overconfident antics of Constable Dogberry — but for my money (and I suspect for many others’ as well), this show is all about Beatrice and Benedick. They are both the head and the heart of the story, the greatest wits and also the characters who demonstrate the most tremendous emotional depth. I think theirs is the most emotionally real of all of Shakespeare’s love stories, not least because it’s a more mature affair than many others. Benedick and Beatrice have loved and lost and hurt before; Beatrice tells us this flat-out, though Shakespeare tantalizingly never elucidates the circumstances of their shared past:

Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of

Signior Benedick.

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.

I like this glimpse of backstory not only for the magnificent potential for emotional nuance that it gives performers, but also because it provides Beatrice and Benedick with a more solid foundation on which to build a relationship. If they only fall in love with each other because their friends trick them into it, that would make them fairly shallow people, and it would not inspire a lot of hope for a successful future — but if the love is already there and just needs to be rekindled, that paints a much brighter picture.

I’ve been working on an activity that I just can’t wait to test out with the participants of our Teacher Seminar in February, examining the progression of their relationship through an analysis of how they use language. Shakespeare shows the audience, so clearly, that these two are meant for each other. No one else in the play uses language quite the way they do. For all the banter, quips, and Beatrice and Benedick are the only two who so consistently take each others‘ words, fire them back across, and set up for the next volley.

The rhetoric shows us not only how smart they are — and these two characters are some of Shakespeare’s most verbally intelligent creations — but how well they work together. At the beginning of the play, those shared words and mimicked rhetoric are part of the battle, a game of one-up-manship they play with each other. By the end of the play, however, Beatrice and Benedick are using those same figures in a completely different way; instead of combating each other, they’re working together, building off of each others’ words instead of trying to tear each other down. There’s still an element of challenge there — essential, I think, to their relationship — but it’s no longer with the end goal of destruction. Beatrice and Benedick prove themselves a delightfully matched pair. From the “gay couples” of Restoration comedy to the comedies of manners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the “screwball” comedies of the 1930s and 40s, and the sitcoms of today, their legacy is certainly a magnificent one.