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 vowed revenge, and when Iphitus, the eldest son of Eurytus, requested Hercules' aid in searching for the king's missing horses, Hercules killed again. He flung Eurytus' son off the walls of Tiryns. As punishment, the gods inflicted Hercules with a disease, and so a second time he sought the Pythia's advice. She told Hercules that he could cure his malady and receive absolution if he were sold as a slave to Omphale, Queen of Lydia. According to some Roman authors, Hercules had to dress in women's clothes while in Omphale's service and tend to domestic chores, such as providing music and spinning yarn.
In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick allies himself with Hercules by comparing Beatrice to Omphale. She is so unreasonable, he quips, that "She would have made Hercules have turned the spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too" (II.i.236-8). Initially he suggests a series of Herculean labors to escape Beatrice: when she enters with...
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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). The word "use" can mean interest (as in usury), but it also denotes employment or maintenance for sexual purposes (as when "using someone" means having sex). Beatrice seems to say that Benedick temporarily loved her, and she responded to his advances.
We need to doubt, of course, that Beatrice and Benedick once had a sexual relationship, but her diction momentarily teases us into questioning what previously transpired. As Sandra Cavallo and Simona Cerutti note, a man's promise to marry a woman in early modern Europe—especially if he were a man of honor—was often enough to initiate a sexual relationship: "a woman pledged her sexuality, obtaining from the man, through his promise of marriage, the guarantee of a new condition that assured her a permanent state of honor."8 The deception to which women were susceptible in this exchange "was so frequent and endemic" that it acquired a specific vocabulary in Italian: "dare la burla (to give the trick); gettare la burla (to throw the trick); or burlare (to trick or deceive in the sense of making a fool of)."9 A man had the power, in other words, to rescind a promise of marriage simply by turning it into a "trick" and thus mocking the woman and those with her who had foolishly believed him.
Balthasar alludes to this practice of false wooing when he sings about the "fraud of men" who "were deceivers ever" (II.iii.63, 72) and advises women to "sigh not so, but let them go, / And be you blithe and bonny" (II.iii.66-7). Such tricks also occur frequently in Shakespeare's other comedies. Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well breaks his promises to both Helena and Diana: he flees from Helena before consummating their marriage and abandons Diana after (apparently) seducing her. Similarly, in Measure for Measure, Claudio impregnates Juliet before their marriage, Lucio breaks his promise to marry Kate Keepdown after she becomes pregnant, and Angelo gives Mariana the trick "in chief / For that her reputation was disvalu'd" (V.i.219-20).
When Beatrice complains to Benedick that "You always end with a jade's trick, I know you of old" (I.i. 133-4), she suggests a scenario in which Benedick "gave the trick" to negate a promise of marriage. Although Much Ado about Nothing could not support an explicit reference to this kind of deception, the hint of such duplicitous behavior, common as it was, is sufficient to darken briefly the comedy's light-hearted tone. Beatrice's words "always" and "of old" suggest that Benedick characteristically retreated when he felt threatened by her, as he does during the dance when she approaches with Claudio and as he does during their badinage after volleying a last insult.
Again and again, Beatrice conflates her feelings for Benedick with sex and pregnancy. Explaining to Don Pedro that she once gave Benedick "a double heart for his single one" (II.i.261-2), she conjures a metaphor of considerable intimacy. By "double heart" she may be referring to the union of her heart with Benedick's, or to the compounded interest that she earned on his borrowed affection. The metaphor carries the added implication that in return for Benedick's "single" heart, she could have given him two, hers and a child's. The "not" that ties her and Benedick together would then signify a miscarriage or abortion—that is, an absent child who remains unspoken, but nevertheless haunts her conversation about Benedick and marriage. The play's frequent references to Hercules, who murdered his children, his nephew's children, and King Eurytus's son, subliminally evoke, at least, the idea of lost children and the need for forgiveness. Although the predominant tone of the play cannot support more than this furtive suggestion, that suggestion is enough.
Even the title of Much Ado about Nothing subtly suggests as part of the play's metaphoric structure the idea of a lost child. In the seventeenth century, "nothing" could signify a nobody as well as something or someone destroyed or non-existent; according to the editors of the OED, Shakespeare established the first usage of several meanings of this word.10 We also ought to recall that Shakespeare would have likely been thinking about...
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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...
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