Friday, January 27, 2006

Drama Notes: "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare

"Much Ado About Nothing" is a rather appropriate title. Some people have said that the title is the best part of the play. I kind of think it's Shakespeare's coy admission that there's just not much going on here.

Much Ado lacks the storytelling complexity and dramatic nuance that is found in his other works. As a comedy it is occasionally funny but it has a habit of allowing its characters to fly off the handle into rather immature rants and rages. That's not funny as much as it is sad for humanity. Judging by the behavior in this play, we're a sad lot indeed.

Brave Claudio, just returned from a war, has his eyes on a noble's daughter, whose telegraphed name is Hero. Claudio confesses his intentions to the prince he serves, Don Pedro. Don Pedro - for reasons unknown to me - tells Claudio he will woo Hero on Claudio's behalf (why not let Claudio do it himself?) and then convince her father to accept the match.

A minor bit of mischief arises when Don Pedro's evil bastard half-brother, Don John, conspires to foul up the works. With a quick whisper he tells Claudio that Don Pedro confessed to him his love for Hero and that he woos her for himself. Claudio, forgetting his years of service with the good Don Pedro, immediately believes the deceiver and flies into a rage. Don Pedro quickly quells his brother's attempts at deception and delivers Hero unto him. And instantly Claudio is all smiles.

Fast forward to another, more successful plot by Don John. He contrives to make Claudio and Don Pedro think Hero an unchaste woman. Upon seeing "proof" Claudio denounces Hero at the altar. He doesn't think to question the proof offered by Don John nor reflect upon Hero's previously perfectly maiden nature (which is what he supposedly fell in love with in the first place).

Her own father immediately denounces her upon hearing Claudio and Don Pedro's accusations. He wishes her dead as she struggles in vain to defend herself. Fatherly love was ever so fickle, it would seem.

More wackiness ensues (none of which is funny - such vile anger and slander can never be funny) and Hero is exonerated post-humously (she allegedly dies of shame). Claudio is full of remorse and tries to make amends, but really, he can't ever make up for what his quick judgment has wrought. Then it's revealed that Hero's not dead, all is forgiven, and they promptly return to the altar.

All is forgiven? He viciously slanders the woman he supposedly loves and she lovingly re-embraces him after she's exonerated? Her father turns on her and wishes her dead rather than believe the daughter he's loved for years upon years and she forgives him without even an apology?

The problem is that justice has not been served. The crimes outweigh the punishment here. In Romeo and Juliet the punishment is severe (the dual suicides as payment for their family's feud) but well-justified. Justice, no matter how painful, is served. But in Much Ado justice is left on the back burner while these merry fools forgive and forget with reckless abandon.

The play is summed up by a speech at the end that goes, "man is a giddy thing," as if to explain away the gross behavior we'd just witnessed. I'm sorry, but that is insufficient.

The only strength of the play is in two supporting characters and their "B" storyline. Benedick and Beatrice spar with each other at every opportunity, lashing wit against wit. Their wit is so sharp that were they not at least somewhat polite, it would be an all out war between them. And yet, of course, they are destined to become lovers. Their repartee is quite amusing, especially their final jabs at one another at the altar that go along the lines of, "very well, I shall marry you out of pity" and "I shall marry you to save your life, I heard you were quite sickly."

A modest change in storytelling structure would have made the play much more compelling for me. The audience is shown the plan that Hero is to play dead while remorse and grief work their way towards exonerating her name. It would have been much more compelling to let the audience also believe that she were dead. Then we would be invested in her father's change of heart and anger at Claudio and Don Pedro. Then we would be invested in poor Claudio's remorse and grief. Then we would feel Claudio's joy at discovering Hero alive.

Beatrice, her cousin, can be wise of the plan without tipping off the audience. It fits her demeanor to know Hero is not dead and yet still rage in fury at her slander. Benedick need not know of Hero's longevity as his arc would remain the same. The father's rants would seem more genuine if he thought Hero dead. He and his old brother even challenge young Claudio to a duel - this would have more force if everyone believed her to be dead.

I suppose it might make this comedy too serious and sober and sad. But as it is Shakespeare is trying to have it both ways and he can't. His characters go to cruel and nasty places with her slander anyway - sorry buddy, that's not comedy. So if you're going to stray from comedy, at least get more mileage out of your drama.

The ending too would feel more complete and satisfying if we're shocked and delighted to discover that Hero yet lives. As it is in the play, the ending is unsatisfying because this great injustice has only been partially righted. Someone in my class asked, "have Claudio and Don Pedro really learned anything from this experience?" And the answer, I think, is: "not really."

By knowing that Claudio's grief is unnecessary (we know she's not dead), we do not invest our emotional energy into his suffering. Therefore we do not feel that he has earned his second chance with her. He has not exonerated himself. Had Shakespeare made us grieve through Claudio's eyes, we would have felt the anguish in Claudio's soul and relished the release upon seeing fair Hero alive.

But throughout there is this undercurrent of "man is a giddy thing." Perhaps dramatic excellence was pushed down Shakespeare's list of priorities in favor of undercutting man's nobility and reasoning. Claudio and the others are fools - giddy fools - for accusing Hero. Claudio can be mocked as a fool for mourning a woman who is not dead. And Claudio is played for a fool when Hero is revealed to be alive. And the sharp, witty Beatrice and Benedick are fools for each other, fools in love.

"Man is a giddy thing" and I suppose the message is that all of our follies and passions are based on "Nothing". Our lives, our dramas are simply Much Ado About Nothing.

I for one disagree, and so does Shakespeare as his other works will prove. Much Ado About Nothing sums up the play's philosophy but also coyly dimisses all such criticism. "Don't get your panties all in a bunch! This play was about nothing anyway!"

Cheap dismissal, Mr. Shakespeare. Insufficient.


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