Children of the Mind: Miscarried Narratives in Much Ado about Nothing
Children of the Mind: Miscarried Narratives in Much
Ado about Nothing
Stephen B. Dobranski, Georgia State University
An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves 'cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.
—Woody Allen, Manhattan
When Beatrice first speaks in Much Ado about Nothing, she inquires after Benedick: "I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?" (I.i.28-9).1 That her first concern is Benedick's welfare suggests an interest in him beyond their ongoing "skirmish of wit" (I.i.58). Like Benedick's assertion that Beatrice exceeds Hero "as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December" (Li. 178-9), her question looks ahead to their open acknowledgment of love and concluding nuptials. That Beatrice refers to Benedick as "Signior Mountanto" (I.i.28)—literally, "Lord Upward Thrust"—also implies, through a bawdy innuendo, the erotic nature of their "merry war" (I.i.56).
We thus meet Beatrice and Benedick in medias res, the two having already developed an antagonistic attraction: "I know you of old," Beatrice cryptically apostrophizes (Li. 133-4). As they quarrel, compete, and court, their veiled allusions to the past do more than provide a context for their war of words. Suggesting images of sex, birthing, and loss, Beatrice's language—particularly in II.i—evokes possible causes for their mutual animosity and hints at ominous events from their past that lend depth to the play's comic tone. I want to posit a history for Beatrice and Benedick, a history to which the text alludes but always deflects. I further wish to suggest, in the second part of my reading, that such deflection is itself the subject of comedy: at the core of the play lies a haunting sense of loss that the characters, especially Beatrice, communicate obliquely.
This technique of alluding to an undeveloped, possible history represents a neglected strategy of Shakespeare's dramaturgy: he convinces us of the worlds that he creates by intimating suggestive details of his characters' past experience. I am not concerned whether Benedick and Beatrice actually lived the history that the text implies; rather, I think it important that Shakespeare contextualizes the fiction that he dramatizes by evoking another fiction that he does not.
Hinting at events that precede the play, the multiple allusions to Hercules in Much Ado about Nothing color Benedick's conversion from soldier to lover as his relationship with Beatrice progresses. To understand how these images may have been intended to influence our perception of his character, we need first to recall that Hercules was born when Zeus tricked the virgin Alcmene into sleeping with him.2 Enraged by another of her husband's infidelities, Hera tried to prevent Hercules' delivery by having the goddess of childbirth sit outside Alcmene's room with her legs and fingers crossed; when that plan failed, Hera attempted to murder the child by sending two serpents to strangle him in his crib.
The theme of infanticide recurs in the story of Hercules: struck by Hera with a fit of madness, Hercules murdered his own children, two of his nephew's children, and in some versions of the myth, his wife. He performed his twelve labors as punishment from the Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo at Delphi. To absolve himself, she stipulated that he must visit King Eurystheus and do whatever tasks the ruler demanded.
Hercules' reputation as a child killer later prevented his marriage to Iole, the daughter of another king, Eurytus. Eurytus had put up Iole as the reward in an archery contest, but after Hercules defeated the king and his sons, Eurytus reneged on his offer because of Hercules' past crimes. Hercules...
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We get perhaps our best glimpse of Benedick and Beatrice's pre-history during Beatrice's conversation with Don Pedro. She explains that she puts Benedick down "[s]o I would not he should do me, . . . lest I should prove the mother of fools" (II.i.267-8). Just as she earlier alluded to Benedick's visit as a sexual encounter—a challenge "at the bird-bolt" (I.i.38)—the verbs "do" and "put down" also suggest a sexual conquest; her concern with becoming a "mother of fools" points to a real, potential outcome of letting down her guard. More subtly, the lack of punctuation in her remark signals a complexity that Beatrice's humor masks. Without a comma, the dependent and independent clauses collide: the sentence "So I would not he should do me" suggests, on the one hand, "If I did not insult him, he would put me down" and, on the other, "I insult him, so that he should not put me down."7 Although both versions convey the same general meaning, the possibility that "not" can attach itself to the "I" clause or the "he" clause subtly obscures responsibility for putting down the other person. The negation of "not" acts as a hinge between Beatrice and Benedick, knotting them together while, as a negation, keeping them apart.
The full implications of this "not" / "knot" become clearer as Beatrice discusses "the heart of Signior Benedick": she says that Benedick "lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it" (II.i.259-62)....
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This strategy of evoking a fragmentary, undeveloped history, which enriches the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, arises repeatedly in Much Ado about Nothing. Dogberry elliptically refers to the losses he has endured (IV.ii.82), Leonato's wife, Innogen, appears in only two scene headings (I.i and II.i), and Beatrice's parents remain absent and undiscussed. Leonato inquires after Antonio's son (I.ii.l) and claims that Claudio "hath an uncle here in Messina" (I.i.17), but neither character is incorporated into the play. We do not know against whom Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick have been fighting in their recent battle, nor can we explain with certainty whether Don John is their prisoner or a disgruntled ally. More information about Margaret's former relationship with Borachio might help us comprehend how she would agree to dress in Hero's clothes, stand in Hero's window, be addressed as Hero, and bid Borachio as Claudio "a thousand times good night" (III.iii.142-3).24 In an attempt to account for such inconsistencies, John Dover Wilson and Arthur Quiller-Couch have argued that the ambiguities in the text represent vestiges of an older play that Shakespeare was hurriedly revising. According to Wilson and Quiller-Couch, Shakespeare reworked the play into its surviving state by emphasizing the plot of Beatrice and Benedick, but retaining as much of the older version as possible.25
Regardless of its...
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