Much Ado About Nothing: The Unsociable Comedy
Barbara Everett, Somerville College, Oxford
Social workers sometimes speak of people 'falling through the net'. That's what it can seem that Much Ado About Nothing has done, critically speaking. Audiences and readers rarely like it quite as much as the two comedies by Shakespeare which follow it, As You Like It and Twelfth Night: they feel that by comparison it lacks some sort of magic. Professional critics can take this vague disappointment much further, almost echoing the nineteenth-century charge that the heroine Beatrice is an 'odious woman'. In case it appears that we have changed all that, it may be worth mentioning that what is probably still the only full-length handbook on the play describes Beatrice (at least in her earlier unreformed phase) as 'self-centred', 'the embodiment of pride', a person who 'cannot love', 'a crippled personality, the very antithesis of the outgoing, self-giving character [Shakespeare] values most highly'. Nor is this study by J. R. Mulryne exceptional. A leading paperback edition cites it approvingly and itself describes both Benedick and Beatrice as 'posing', 'showing themselves off as a preparation for mating'; and it regrets that this pair of lovers fails to 'arouse in an audience the warmth of feeling' evoked by a Portia or a Rosalind. The writer of this Introduction, R. A. Foakes, can only conclude that 'The contrast between [Claudio and Hero] and Beatrice and Benedick was surely designed in part to expose the limitations of both couples.'
'This lookes not like a nuptiall', Benedick murmurs helpfully as the catastrophic Wedding Scene of Much Ado gets under way: and the reader of the play's criticism can often feel the same. Particularly given that we are considering a love-comedy by Shakespeare, the remarks I have quoted all seem to me to be startling judgements. For opinions to differ so much can provoke useful thought. Perhaps Shakespeare's mature comedies, once recommended literary fodder for school-children on the grounds of their charming pure-minded simplicity, are—whatever their other characteristics—not so simple after all. When Shakespeare first staged Much Ado, fairly certainly in 1598 or '99, he was coming to the end of a decade of extraordinary achievement and invention. The first Tragedies, the earlier Histories and Comedies lay behind him, The Merchant of Venice immediately preceded Much Ado, and Shakespeare had probably written most of both parts of Henry IV. The dramatist of The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV was in no way unsophisticated or unambitious. If he gave the three comedies we now choose to call 'mature' his most throwaway titles, they aren't throwaway plays. Possessed as they are of a profound sense and vitality which suggest the popular audience they were written for, their lightness nonetheless recalls that 'negligent grace' (sprezzatura) which the aristocratic culture of the Renaissance aspired to. The very unpretension of Much Ado About Nothing, its affectionate straightforward transparency have been invented to deal with human experience dense enough and real enough to produce notably different reactions from given human beings.
These comedies have become so familiar that it can be hard to think of them freshly. I want therefore to begin by approaching Much Ado from a slightly unexpected angle—because sometimes, when we are surprised, we see things more clearly. I'm going to start by thinking about one of the comedy's textual cruces, involving a few words spoken by Leonato in the first scene of Act 5. An interestingly shaped play, whose structural rhythm the dramatist was to use again in Othello (a fact which alone may say something about the work's seriousness), Much Ado has its main plot's climax , which turns out to be a pseudo- or anti-climax, in Act 4: in the big, bustling, peopled and very social Wedding Scene, which sees the gentle Hero, unjustly shamed by the machinations of the villains, publicly humiliated and jilted by her courtly fiancé Claudio—though the fidelity to...
(The entire section is 7,142 words.)