For this last class session, I am not going to provide you with a thesis. Instead, I’m going to ask you to take on the critical work of thinking about how to teach Much Ado About Nothing. How do we gain entry to this play? How do we share it with others? How do we make it speak to different identities? How, in other words, do we capture what is central in this play?
One point of centrality would of course be the “merry war” (1.1.58) between Beatrice and Benedick. Beatrice, in my view, usually wins this battles of wit, as in the following exchange:
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
Benedick: God keep Your Ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
Benedick: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’God’s name; I have done.
Beatrice: You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old. (1.1.111-140).
Of course we can see in this exchange the appeal of the couple onstage. They make for a fascinating pair, trading insults in a rapid-fire manner that advances the anticipation of who will come out on top. And the play, as a comedy, will drive towards bringing this contentious pair together. We learn that they have had some type of relationship before, as Beatrice explains to Don Pedro:
Don Pedro: Come, lady, come, you have lost the heart of Signor Benedick.
Beatrice: 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.
Don Pedro: You have put him down, lady, you have put him down.
Beatrice: So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools. (2.1.263-272).
Beatrice and Benedick are in stark contrast to the more conventional Hero and Claudio, who seem one-dimensional because they are defined by circumstance—the popular tale of the virtuous woman who is slandered—rather than by psychology. Nothing but Beatrice and Benedick prevent them from joining hands, there is no parental or social block to their pairing. Rather, it is the play’s task to show how idiosyncrasies are just as preventative as the slander put forth by the villainous Don John.
The conventionality of Hero and Claudio’s relationship is established by the fact that it is done according to form. For Claudio, he is returning from the wars and seeks a wife who is rich, beautiful, and virtuous. Benedick notes this cliched desire by asking “Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?” (1.1.172-173). But it’s perhaps odd to us that such love is expressed through the vehicle of other men. Hero herself hardly responds to Claudio’s love, and we rarely see the two of them exchanging vows of desire. Instead, we have Don Pedro woo for Claudio, in his plan to:
Assume thy part in some disguise
And tell fair Hero I am Claudio,
And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart
And take her hearing prisoner with the force
And strong encounter of my amorous tale.
Then after to her father will I break,
And the conclusion is, she shall be thine. (1.1.309-315).
In the event of the masque, Claudio is ready to believe that Don Pedro woos for himself rather than as deputy, and indeed many critics and audiences have found so much at fault with Claudio’s naivety and his ready willingness to believe men over women. Even in his initial belief that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself, the fault is with Hero’s beauty, not with his male friend:
Thus answer I in name of Benedick,
But hear these ill news with the ears of Claudio.
’Tis certain so. The Prince woos for himself.
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love;
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues.
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.
This is an accident of hourly proof,
Which I mistrusted not. Farewell therefore Hero! (2.1.166-176).
All’s fair in love and war, and it is the bewitchment of beauty that comes in between the friendship of men. How perfect that we’ve just read The Winter’s Tale, which also focuses on the relationship between men and the intervening figure of the woman to break up male bonds.
Speaking of Don John, he is a curious villain in the Shakespearean cannon. We learn from reading the play that he is called “the bastard,” which might already predispose us to associate him with Edmund in King Lear. But he is not named as such until Act IV, so that as audiences we might be less sure of what he is about. Nonetheless, Don John himself makes this clear for us. Unlike other Shakespearean villains who delight in deception, Don John fully reveals his villainy; he is not one of those Shakespearean villains who cloaks himself in “seeming,” but rather is bold in his assertation that he cannot indeed playact. When we first meet him, he says rather woodenly “I am not of many words, but I thank you” (1.1.151-152). We learn that he and his brother Don Pedro have recently been reconciled, but that there is likely still a lot of tension between the two brothers. We then discover Don John’s refusal to be anything but a villain, one with only slim motive to bring about others’ unhappiness:
I cannot hide what I am; I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humor. (1.3.12-17).
Don John capitalizes on the nature of the masque, in which everyone is wearing disguises, though almost everyone can also tell who the others are.
For the rest of these notes, I’m just going to put the quotes that we will discuss in class or those that I feel, even if we didn’t get to them, that you should notice.
Benedick: I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love; and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife, and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armor, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier, and now is he turned orthography—his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but Love may transform me to an oyster, but I’ll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me, he shall never make me such a fool. One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God. (2.3.8-34).
Claudio: I did never think that lady would have loved any man.
Leonato: No, nor I neither, but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signor Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviors seemed ever to abhor.
Benedick [aside]: Is’t possible? Sits the wind in that corner?
Leonato: By my troth, my lord, I cannot tell what to think of it but that she loves him with an enraged affection; it is past the infinite of thought.
Don Pedro: Maybe she doth but counterfeit.
Claudio: Faith, like enough.
Leonato: Oh, God, counterfeit? There was never counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it.
Don Pedro: Why, what effects of passion shows she?
Claudio [aside to them]: Bait the hook well; this fish will bite.
Leonato: What effects, my lord? She will sit you—you heard my daughter tell you how.
Claudio: She did indeed.
Don Pedro: How, how, I pray you? You amaze me. I would have thought her spirit had been invincible against all assaults of affection.
Leonato: I would have sworn in had, my lord—especially against Benedick.
Benedick [aside]: I should think this a gull but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it. Knavery cannot, sure, hide himself in such reverence.
Claudio [aside to them]: He hath ta’en th’infection. Hold it up. (2.3.96-126).
Benedick: This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne. They have the truth of this from Hero. They seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her; they say too that she will rather die than give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud; happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair; ’tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous; ’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise but for loving me; by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me, because I have railed so long against marriage. But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married. (2.3.217-239).
Ursula [to Hero]: She’s limed, I warrant you. We have caught her, madam.
Hero [to Ursula]: If it prove so, then loving goes by haps;
Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.
[Exeunt Hero and Ursula]
Beatrice [coming forward]: What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly. (3.1.103-116).
Dogberry: Are you good men and true?
Verges: Yea, or else it were pity but they should suffer salvation, body and soul.
Dogberry: Nay, that were a punishment too good for them, if they should have any allegiance in them, being chosen for the Prince’s watch.
Verges: Well, give them their charge, neighbor Dogberry.
Dogberry: First, who think you the most desartless man to be constable?
First Watch: Hugh Oatcake, sir, or George Seacoal, for they can write and read.
Dogberry: Come hither, neighbor Seacoal. God hath blessed you with a good name. To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune, but to write and read comes by nature.
Seacoal: Both witch, Master Constable—
Dogberry: You have. I knew it would be your answer. Well, for your favor, sir, why, give God thanks, and make no boast of it; and for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity. You are thought here to be the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch; therefore bear you the lantern. This is your charge: you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the Prince’s name.
Seacoal: How if ’a will not stand?
Dogberry: Why, then, take no note of him, but let him go, and presently call the rest of the watch together and thank God you are rid of a knave. (3.3.1-26).