[In an excerpt from a general essay on Much Ado, Everett illustrates the development by Shakespeare, in his comedies, of certain feelings and attitudes which are a constituent part of his entire dramatic canon, and which tend to be most clearly expressed by the female characters. From Shakespeare's women, the critic argues, come the clearest expressions of humane principle, generous nature, and constancy.]
Much Ado About Nothing is not, I think, among Shakespeare's most popular comedies. It lacks many of those perpetuating devices that we look for to give us a sense of timeless pleasure, of a "holiday" that is at once a sportive release and also, through lyricism, gives the faintest air of holiday blessedness and calm. It contains no sunlit or moonlit wood where every Jack finds his Jill. No heroine leaps happily into hose to find the sexless and timeless liberty of intellectual sport. There is no "play within a play" to strengthen the artifices that surround it with the solidity of comparative reality, and so to give their happy ending the stamp of truth. If "we did keep time, sir, in our snatches," it is not a snatch of perpetuity that is given in the songs of the play—no Journeys end in lovers meeting, nor It was a lover and his lass, nor When daisies pied and violets blue—hut an omen of change: Men were deceivers ever. The play appears to present, by contrast, a world rather for "working-days" than for "Sundays"; a world that is as formal, and potentially as harsh, as the comic world that probably preceded it, that of The Merchant of Venice. But the moneyed, legalistic, and formal world of Venice resolves at last into moonlit Belmont, from which one can see
the floor of Heaven
Thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
The equally and beautifully formal Portia, in whom "The will of a living daughter is curbed by the will of a dead father" ceases to be a "Daniel come to judgment" and becomes a Diana in love, her homecoming heralded by Lorenzo and Jessica with lyrical myths and fables, and herself drawn into a dream from which she "would not be awaked."
Much Ado About Nothing is a play cut off from such pleasant natural resources. It is essentially "inland bred," and relies only on the natural forms of a great house where
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn.
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
"Nature lovers" are offered only the flowers of rhetoric, the pleached arbour of wit, and the "dancing star" of human individuality. Not only the courteous, but the customary, matters in this play: not only the urbane, but the mundane: in fact, it is the unusual fusing of these into one world that is one of the individual characteristics of the play. The chief fact that makes this play unusual and individual (though there are other characteristics, which I shall discuss later, that develop straight out of earlier comedies) is the manner in which "time and place" do not "cease to matter," but matter very greatly.
It is not merely that the props of an urban or domestic existence—the window, the arras of a musty room, the church, the tomb, the wedding dress, the night-watchmen's staves, even the barber's shop—are important "props" in the world of this play. Nor is it merely that "time and place" have a crucial importance in the action:
What man was he talked with you yesternight
Out at your window betwixt twelve and one?
Now if you are a maid, answer to this.
It is rather that the play concerns itself with what can only be called the most mundane or "local" fact in that world of love, in all its forms, that the comedies create: that is, that men and women have a notably different character, different mode of thinking, different system of loyalities, and, particularly, different social place and function. Not only this; but this is the first play, I think, in which the clash of these two worlds is treated with a degree of seriouseness, and in which the woman's world dominates.
This is a rash generalisation and objections spring to mind. . . .
Since The Merchant of Venice is the first play in which there appears a comic heroine who is also a great lady, one watches with interest to see what part the dominating Portia will play, how she will handle her subjection to the "will of a dead father," and whether she will prove to "fit her fancies to her fathers will" better than does Hermia. She and Bassanio equally "give and hazard all they have"; but it is, at least nominally, a man's world that they give themselves up to:
her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine to your and yours
Is now directed.
Portia is the salvation of the play; her wealth, her wits, and her pleading of a feminine quality of mercy—deeply Christian in its language and connotation, but allied too to that quality of compassion that is reserved for the women in the comedies—defeat the harshly logical and loveless intellectualism of Shylock. But they do so in masculine disguise, in a masculine court of law, and at the service of a chivalric friendship between men whose values Portia and Nerissa gaily, but seriously, at the end of the play. They lose, as women, the rings they have gained as men; the loyal and unhappily solitary friend Antonio is the peacemaker, being "bound again, His soul upon the forfeit" for the marriage, and is still in some sense master of the play.
It is here that the world of Much Ado About Nothing begins. There is no symbolic Antonio to keep the balance; the situation works itself out on its own resources. It does this by the characteristic of the play which has been sometimes regarded as a most happy accident of careless genius—the displacement of Claudio and Hero by Benedick and Beatrice as the play's dominating figures, in the course of what is "logical and necessary" in its action. This is brought about by allowing, more distinctively and fully than in any earlier comedy, a dance and battle—(a "merry war" in which not every "achiever brings home full numbers") of two worlds, which it is a gross, but serviceable, generalisation to call the "masculine" and the "feminine" worlds. And this in itself is achieved by the creation of a peculiarly social and domestic context—rarified, formal, and elegant, but still suggesting a social reality that makes the character of the sexes distinct. The sense of place, in its importance to the play, I have mentioned earlier; the sense of time has also an unusual function. One need only reflect on the obvious difference of age between Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice—who play lightly with the idea of an obstinate, and therefore time-tried, celibacy; and ask oneself in what earlier comedy there is any differentiation other than that of Youth and Age. One can contrast, also, the references to past and future time that occur in earlier comedies with those in Much Ado About Nothing. "'A killed your sister," in Love's Labour's Lost, or Helena's memory of "schooldays' friendship, childhood innocence", or Titania's memories of the sport on the Indian shore— all quoted above—have all, to varying degrees, an exquisite stylisation, an emblematic quality, that prevents their giving another temporal dimension to the play; they are an inset, not a perspective; an intensification of or contrast with the present, not an evocation of the past. But the causal, continual and colloquial harking-back in Much Ado About Nothing has a quite different effect.
O, he's returned, and as pleasant as ever he was . . .
He set up his bills here In Messina, and challenged Cupid at the fight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscrib'd for Cupid, and challenged him at the birdbolt . . .
They never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them . . .
In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off ...
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one...
I have heard my daughter say she hath often dreamt of unhappiness, and waked herself with laughing . . .
One can, if one likes, play the same game with references to the future, contrasting Love's Labour's Lost's
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches . . .
with Much Ado About Nothing's
O Lord, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad. . . .
I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes; and, moreover, I will go with thee to thy uncle's. . .
This easy, humorous, and conversational manner, that refers to a past and future governed by customary event and behaviour, and that carries a sense of habitual reality in a familiar social group, gives the play the quality that it would be certainly unwise to call "realism"; it is an atmosphere easier to feel than to define. It is one of ennobled domesticity, aware of, touched by, and reflecting events in the outside world, but finally providing its own rules and customs: it is, in fact, a world largely feminine in character.
Into this world, at the beginning of the play, come the warriors, covered with masculine honours, cheerful with victory, and heralded importantly by a messenger. They even bring their own style of figured public rhetoric with them:
He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion. . . .
The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it. . . .
I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace; and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. . . .
The "most exquisite Claudio," the "proper squire," is the flower of such a world; the plot that concerns him, and that seems at first to dominate the play, can be seen as the survival of all that is most formal, and least flexible, in the earlier comedies: a masculine game of romantic love with a firm—and sensible—business basis, the whole governed by an admirable sense of priorities in duty:
I look'd upon her with a soldier's eye . . .
But now I am return'd, and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I lik'd her ere I went to wars. . . .
If modern sentimentalism makes one dislike the foundation to Claudio's case—female good looks plus paternal income—it is as well to remember that it is an attitude embedded in all the comedies to date, whenever they touch on realism, and shared not only by Bassanio but—even though half-mockingly—by Benedick: "Rich she shall be, that's certain . . . fair, or I'll never look on her."
The beginning of the play, then, presents, in a social context, a company of young bloods, headed by the noble Don Pedro, who all hold together with a cheerful masculine solidarity. The "sworn brothers" are companions-in-arms, and if one deserts, there is cause for lamentation: "I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armour, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet." If Claudio dramatically distrusts Don Pedro at first-
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood. . . .
then the discovery of his mistake only strengthens his later trust in, and solidarity with, Don Pedro; and this trust is implicit even in the terms of his first doubt, which still postulates a male world of "negotiation" and "agents," against the hypnotic and possibly devilish enemy, Woman. Claudio's world, and Claudio's plot, are never "reformed"—in a dramatic, or moral sense—because they neither can nor need be changed; the simple course of loving, mistaking, and winning again, written from a specifically masculine point of view (again using the word masculine in its idiosyncratic sense here) that is half romance and half business, is a necessary backbone to the play, and holds the comedy together:
Look, what will serve is fit: 'tis once, thou lovest;
And I will fit thee with the remedy.
And though Hero is in the course of it "killed, in some senses," as Dogberry might have said, she also gets her place in the world, and all is well. A comedy of romance needs something stable, limited, and circular, in which ends match beginnings, and in Claudio it gets this:
Sweet Hero, now thy image does appear
In the rare semblance that I loved it first . . .
Nothing certainer. . . .
But, if this world is not "reformed," it is to a large extent displaced; and the moment of that displacement is not hard to find:
Don Pedro: Myself, my brother, and this grieved Count
Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night
Talk with a ruffian at her chamber window . . .
Exeunt Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio.
Benedick: How doth the lady?
Left on stage we have a fainting and dishonoured girl; her wholly doubting and wretched old father, held to her only by paternal obligation; a wise and detached old Friar; and the dishonoured girl's cousin, in a rage of loyal devotion that is familial, sexual, and instinctual. One cannot help asking what the young, witty and independent soldier Benedick is doing in that gallery. He has broken the rules of the game, and entered upon a desertion far more serious than Claudio's ever appeared: he is crossing the boundaries of a world of masculine domination. How serious the desertion is, is indicated by his comic—but only partly comic—exchange with Beatrice, at the centre of their professions of love, that follow immediately on the church scene:
Benedick: Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Beatrice: Kill Claudio.
Benedick: Ha! Not for the wide world.
Beatrice: You kill me to deny it. Farewell.
"Kill Claudio" has become such a famous line that perhaps something of its importance, underlying its comic gesture of an unfeasible rage, has been lost. A pacific, sensible and level-headed bachelor is being forced toward a decision of alarming significance; and he accepts it. Beatrice's taunt "You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy" colours the whole of the end of the play, and produces the peculiar dramatic and psychological complexity of the sense of the challenge. In it, three characters, once a joint group of young men exchanging cheerful and witty backchat, begin to speak and think in two different worlds. Don Pedro's and Claudio's return to the old game between themselves—perfectly in place an hour earlier—becomes curiously embarrassing by the degree to which it can take no account of the dramatic change in Beatrice and Benedick's status, their siding with what the audience knows to be truth, or rather, a truer game than Don Pedro's and Claudio's:
Don Pedro: But when shall we set the savage bull's horns on the sensible Benedick's head?
Claudio: Yea, and text underneath, there dwells Benedick the married man?
Benedick: Fare you well, boy: you know my mind. I will leave you now to your gossip-like humour; you break jests as braggarts do their blades, which God be thanked, hurt not. My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet; and till then, peace be with him. (Exit).
Don Pedro: He is in earnest . . . What a pretty thing man is when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit!
It is not sufficient to say simply that this effect is gained by some "change" in Benedick's—the witty Benedick's—character. It is rather that our own attitude has changed in the course of the play, so that something developing under the agency of the "important" characters has relieved them of their importance. Certain qualities, certain attitudes that have been found, in the earlier comedies, mainly confined to the women's and fools' parts, have here come into their own.
The plays have such artistic continuity that it is almost impossibly difficult to distinguish certain attitudes and feelings, and call this a specifically "feminine" attitude, or that, one belonging to a "fool" or "clown"; and the more mature the play, the more danger of falsifying there is. Perhaps it is merely possible to indicate certain speeches of Beatrice which do cohere into an attitude that utilises a "fool's" uncommitted wit and detached play of mind, together with a clown's grasp of earthy reality, yet committed in such a new way that they are given the effect of a female veracity against a masculine romanticism or formality.
Yes, faith; it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy, and say 'Father, as it please you.' But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please me.'
The whole game of romantic passion was never glossed more conclusively than by her foreboding "I can see a church by daylight"; nor the silliness of romantic jealousy than by her sturdy description of Claudio as "civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion"; nor the game of formal, courteous and meaningless proposals—(Don Pedro's "Will you have me, lady?") than by her: "No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day." (Certainly, Don Pedro does prove to be a costly guest, since he all but causes the death of his host's daughter.) The beautiful and formal scene that the men have arranged for the uniting of Claudio and Hero—"his Grace hath made the match, and all Grace say amen to it!" begins to be disarranged by Beatrice's detached sense ("Speak, Count, 'tis your cue") and she hastily has to give her "merry heart" the fool's harmless part in the play: "I think it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side of care." But the rising flight of her impertinence, which provokes Leonato to bustle her off the scene ("Niece, will you look to those things I told you of?") is not unacquainted with "care" Don Pedro's kindly and polite.
out of question, you were born in a merry hour
is met by her
No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then
there was a star danced, and under that was I born.
However light the reference, one goes back to the lamenting Adriana, out of place in a play of brisk farce; or the surprising seriousness of the reference in Love's Labour's Lost to Katharine's sister-
He made her melancholy, sad and heavy,
And so she died . . .
or the equally surprising seriousness of Titania's loyalty:
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die . . .
And for her sake I will not part with him. . . .
The liaison of Claudio and Hero draws the "fools" Benedick and Beatrice into the play; and it is Beatrice who first here begins to show in her apparently detached wit, only partially revealed in her sparring with Benedick, the depth that the occasion demands. Marriage is seen here not as a witty dance of "wooing, wedding and repenting," but as the joining of Beatrice's "cousins," and her remarks have greater and more dangerous point. It is not surprising that on her exit Don Pedro sets afoot his second piece of matchmaking, since Beatrice patently needs a master. "We are the only love-gods."
It is only at the crisis of the play, in the church scene, that this dogged, loyal, and irrational femininity that characterizes Beatrice comes into its own. The still hesitating and just Benedick is swept into her degree of belief simply by her obstinate passion of loyalty:
Is 'a not approved in the height a villain that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What! bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour— O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.
Certainly her storms are comic; nevertheless our own sense at the end of the play of the limitations of the romantic background, and critics' unanimous conviction that Benedick and Beatrice "take over the play," is largely summed up by her own "Talk with a man out at a window! A proper saying!" and the comparative shallowness of the romanticism of the main plot very neatly and adequately summed up in her voluble harangue:
Princes and Counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect; a sweet gallant, surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
This is simultaneously a remarkable picture of a woman in a state of outraged temper, and an excellent piece of dramatic criticism. For Benedick, this is "Enough. I am engaged." The fools of the play have become the heroes.
To use the word "fools" is perhaps incautious: since, for one thing, Benedick's and Beatrice's speeches are characterised by a degree of sophistication and self command; and for another, the play itself has an excellent collection of clowns who do, noticeably, help to bring about the denouement and save the day. But if one is attempting to explain the feeling of maturity and development that Beatrice and Benedick bring into the play, then it becomes apparent that a part of their strength comes from Shakespeare's drawing on resources or feeling expressed, in earlier comedies, as much by witty jesters and innocent clowns, as by the kind of sophisticated commentators that one finds in Berowne and Rosaline. The sense of wisdom that they give is best glossed, perhaps, by Blake's "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. . . ."
Benedick and Beatrice are a delightful lesson in how the fool can "Serve God, love me, and mend." This they do by "persisting in their folly," in order to "become wise."
Their attitude at the beginning of the play is the comic stance of self-consciousness. Both gain dignity by an intellectual independence—by "sitting in a corner and crying Heigh-ho!" while they watch "everyone going to the world." This intellectual independence is largely a full and mocking knowledge—especially, at first, on Beatrice's side—of the physical realities underlying romantic aspirations. "But, for the stuffing . . . well, we are all mortal." Over and over again, "my uncle's fool" takes the place of Cupid. "Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen . . . ." Mars as well as Cupid falls: the heroic warrior, who has done good "service" is "a very valiant trencherman; he hath an excellent stomach . . . (and is) a good soldier—to a lady." Yet the very intellectual detachment that gives a jester his dignity is the power to see general truths; and what is true of "mortals" must therefore be true also of Benedick and Beatrice, who are intellectually and dramatically joined to the hero and heroine of the main plot, by being friend and cousin to them, and by understanding—therefore sharing—their folly. Benedick's ubi sunts for bachelors derive their humour from the steadily-increasing knowledge that he is, like Barkis, going out with the tide: "In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of three score again? . . . Like the old tale, my lord: It is not so, nor 'twas not so, but indeed, God forbid it should be so!" Like Falstaff, Benedick is comic by being both actor and critic, and knows which way "old tales" go; and though he may cast himself as bachelor, "he never could maintain his part but in the force of his will." Benedick and Beatrice are "fooled" and "framed" by the dramatist even before they are "fooled" by the trick played on them by Don Pedro and the others; their detached intelligence is, by definition, an understanding of the way their "foolish" desires will go. "Shall quips and sentences and the paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? No: the world must be peopled."
Thus, when Benedick and Beatrice do "run mad," they suffer—like Falstaff in love—a loss of dignity the more marked by contrast with their intellectual detachment earlier. Benedick searching for double meanings, and Beatrice nursing a sick heart, a cold in the head, and a bad temper, are as "placed" within the others' play as are the clowns in Love's Labour's Lost or A Midsummer Night's Dream, attendant on the critique of their superiors. It is, of course, the church scene, and all that follows, that changes this, and shows their double "folly" coming into its own. Beatrice is loyal to Hero simply by virtue of an acquaintance with common sense physical realities—"Talk with a man out at a window! A proper saying!"—and by a flood of intuitive, irrational, and "foolish" pity and love, that instinctively recognizes the good when it sees it—good in Benedick, or in Hero; and Benedick is drawn to her, here, through very similar feelings. "Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?" In the professions of love that follow Benedick's opening, there are touches of great humour; but the scene is a serious one, nevertheless. Both Benedick and Beatrice gain a new and much more complex equilibrium and dignity; both pledge themselves by their "soul" to Hero's cause, and hence to each other. To be intelligent is to be aware "that we are all mortal"; and to be mortal is to be a fool; and therefore intelligent men are most fools; but to be a fool, in a good cause, is to be wise. This is an old paradox that echoes through and through Shakespeare's comedies, and after.
Because Beatrice and Benedick are "too wise to woo peaceably," they continue to bicker comfortably through the rest of the play, as though enjoying the mutual death of their individuality:
Two distincts, division none.
Like Theseus' hounds, the quarrels of all the players grow, finally, into:
Such gallant chiding . . .
So musical a discord . . .
Matched in mouths like bells, each under each.
An unlyrical play grows into a new and interesting harmony, as all the forms of folly in the play find "measure in everything, and so dance out the answer":
Come, come, we are friends. Let's have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels.
We'll have dancing afterwards.
First, of my word; therefore play, music.
Though the play can be summed up by the image of the dance, it is also a battle, in which certain things are lost. Hero's "death" is an illusion, but other things do seem to die out of the comedies: part of an old romantic ideal, and a sense of easy loyalty between young men. Rosalind's "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love . . ." and Antonio's bitter, though mistaken, reflections on friendship, both represent a kind of feeling that can be seen to emerge with some clarity in Much Ado. Some more important things take the place of what is lost, all perhaps developing out of the sense of that loss; a wisdom, balance, and generosity of mind and feeling, largely expressed through the women's roles.
This paper has itself probably been unwise, unbalanced and ungenerous in all that it has omitted. I have concentrated only on certain elements in Much Ado About Nothing that interest me, and may have distorted them in the process. My intention has not been to present...
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