I think the bottom line is that I just don’t like Shakespeare’s comedies very much. I do generally understand where they are coming from in a philosophical sense: all of Shakespeare’s comedies on some level are devoted to exploring the idea that laughter and other forms of spontaneous human connection (namely sex, witty banter, and practical jokes) are all we have to sustain us in the face of the great uncertain darkness that is every human being’s inevitable destiny. Fine – for the most part, I agree. But to me it seems that a second theme is always lurking underneath and sometimes even threatening to overshadow the first one: the idea that love is a fraud. Characters fall in love instantaneously, suggesting that love is something either magical or chemical (Shakespeare wouldn’t have known the words dopamine and serotonin, of course, but I don’t think he would have been one bit surprised by neurotransmitters. He was, if nothing else, profoundly ahead of his time). They fall out of love on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors and vague accusations, and then when they find out that these rumors are false, they happily reunite with their loved ones as if they hadn’t both just behaved like absolute assholes and seem totally unaware that they might need to beg their loved ones’ forgiveness for their petty, spiteful, and suspicious behavior. Familial love takes no less of a beating in this play than romantic love: one character is publicly marked as a ‘bastard,’ suggesting that he may have been loved less or treated worse than his ‘legitimate’ siblings. On the advice of a man of the cloth, a father stages his own daughter’s death as a test of her future husband’s loyalty. The marriages that conclude the play – in the tradition of all classic comedies – hardly represent mature, devoted love, not least because the brides are masked until the moment the ceremony begins. I know enough about Shakespeare’s own marriage to know that he had plenty of reasons to be cynical about love, but every time I read one of his comedies I am overtaken by the stunning misconceptions that our culture in general seems to have about love in Shakespeare’s plays. I think most average Americans, if asked, would say that romantic love is Shakespeare’s great theme. To me, though, his greatest theme is the questions of legitimate vs. illegitimate authority (which is a story for another day), and his second greatest theme is the shallowness of human love.
Much Ado about Nothing is a play about a bunch of people with too much time on their hands. Don Pedro’s army comes to town, apparently with nothing much to do (if nothing else, this play should give Americans good reason to be grateful for our Third Amendment rights forbidding forced quartering of troops in civilian homes). One of the soldiers, Claudio, falls immediately in love with the governor’s daughter, Hero, and Don Pedro decides to use his extensive leisure time now that his war is won to flirt with Hero on Claudio’s behalf. Meanwhile, another soldier – Benedick – reunites with an old verbal sparring partner – Beatrice – for some allegedly witty banter that I find frankly boring. I entertained myself during these shenanigans by imaging all of these hijinks taking place in the aftermath of, say, V-E Day. I’m picturing Eisenhower and Omar Bradley slinking around in the bushes of some bombed-out minor German city, scheming to fix Patton up with some lusty local hausfrau. Come to think of it, maybe this is why Meade so carelessly let Lee escape after Gettysburg: because he was so busy plotting to find some sweet yet quick-tongued local Pennsylvania Dutch farm girl to finally deflower that tight-assed Joshua Chamberlain.
I’m digressing, you say? Well, why not? We’re in Purgatory – we have all the time in the world.
Enter Sir John the Bastard, Don Pedro’s brother and general Asshole-in-Chief in the Aragon army. Don Pedro and his illegitimate brother are mirror images of each other: Pedro schemes and sneaks and plays tricks with the fundamentally benign purpose of prompting them to fall in love. He’s like Cupid with a broadsword and a fresh case of body lice from his last long campaign against the French. Sir John the Bastard, on the other hand, plots to end love relationships, to make lovers suspicious and jealous of one another. They’re clearly intended to be archetypes of some sort, of two different kinds of fate, of the idea on the one hand that the universe is benevolent and on the other hand and malignant on the other. Remember “Goofus and Gallant” from Highlights magazine? They’re essentially those guys.
Characters identified as ‘bastards’ in Shakespeare’s plays are always – well – bastards. When I say ‘always,’ I guess I’m referring mostly to Sir John the Bastard in this play and to Edmund in King Lear, although I think there is also a bastard in King John who generally serves as the antagonist in that play (at least insofar as King John himself does not serve in that capacity). Both Edmund and Sir John are two-faced: they smile and make nice to their ‘legitimate’ brothers, but secretly they are out to curse genuine love and compassion wherever they find it. A modern psychologist would say that children who are raised to believe that they are inferior to others through no fault of their own will tend to grow up angry and hostile, willing to ingratiate themselves to others whenever necessary to conceal their cruel intentions but otherwise determined, consciously or not, to disrupt the lives and the happiness of others who were lucky enough to be born within the bounds of wedlock. I don’t know as much about how late-medieval thinkers explained the dispositions of bastards, but I am guessing that the general sixteenth-century party line was that bastards are somehow innately inferior to ‘legitimate’ children because of some kind of weird spiritual joo-joo that happens when married people have sex but doesn’t happen when unmarried people do so. The coupling that produces a bastard isn’t blessed by God, I imagine my distant ancestors saying, so of course there will be something dark and ugly about a bastard’s soul.
I can’t get my brain around what Shakespeare believed on this issue. Many scholars have drawn attention to the way Shakespeare seemed in many ways to anticipate the twentieth-century psychological approach to understanding character, and I agree that often he seems to do so. I don’t see a lot of evidence that his characterization of Sir John is especially forward-thinking, however. He seems to take for granted that there is something missing from Sir John’s soul, and the degree to which all the characters in the play bend over backwards at the end to make sure that everything bad that has happened in the play is blamed on Sir John would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic. The very last line of the play, spoken by Benedick, is “Think not on [Sir John] till tomorrow. I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him. – Strike up, pipers!” (V.iv. 14-16). This line is followed by these stage directions: “Music plays. They dance. They exit.” Seriously? That’s how the play ends? With a bunch of selfish, egotistical idiots doing the happy dance because they’ve found a socially acceptable scapegoat to blame for their own shallowness and cruelty? To me, this ending is sadder than the endings of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Piles of dead bodied drenched in fake blood seem less tragic to me than a bunch of deluded, shallow people who will learn nothing from their own idiotic mistakes.
It’s true that romantic love in this play is closely bound up with ego. Beatrice and Benedick are in love not so much with one another but with the chance of having a permanent, in-house sparring partner with whom to trade insults. It’s true enough that many romantic relationships involve teasing and flirty banter, and I don’t find their attraction to each other especially unrealistic. Both of them are intelligent and witty, and I think that one of the reasons they both initially swear that they will never get married has to do with the fact that they worry they’ll never find partners who are their intellectual equals. There’s something a little bit Elizabeth-and-Darcy about them, (strong woman blah, blah, blah), and I do think that many people, even today, fear losing their independence and autonomy if they get married. But here’s the problem: when Don Pedro schemes to get them together (in attempt to distract Claudio from how horny he is during the one week that he is required to wait before he will be allowed to marry Hero), his strategy involves convincing Beatrice that Benedick loves her while also separately convincing Benedick that Beatrice loves him. And the thing is – it works. In other words, both of these characters are only able to fall in love when they feel they are doing the other one a favor. They can be magnanimous and even a little condescending toward each other, but neither one can access the vulnerability required to admit his or her own love for the other. Ultimately, Beatrice is shamed into loving Benedick in Act III, scene ii, and at the end both Beatrice and Benedick cite ‘pity’ as their reason for getting married. I will say, though, that Benedick redeems himself in Act V, scene iii, lines 101-3, when he announces that he will make the ultimate sacrifice for Beatrice: he promises to put up with her crazy family.
There are a lot of other things I could say about this play. I could point out the role of talkativeness and the lack thereof in the love relationships in this play. On some level, Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that the main reason Beatrice and Benedick (whose name means “good words,” yes?) should marry each other is that no one else would be able to tolerate living with such talkative spouses. Hero, on the other hand, is nearly mute. Even when she talks, she doesn’t really say anything that matters. She is like Pansy Osmond, but with more friends — and on some level I find it extremely funny that Hero spends much of the play pretending to be dead. Every time Hero speaks, I think of the stage directions Shakespeare uses whenever Hotspur’s non-English-speaking wife speaks in Henry IV, Part I: “The lady speaks again in Welsh.” In other words, who really cares what she says? She could be saying anything. I could write about the connections I kept noticing between this play and Cyrano de Bergerac. I could examine the silliness of the local sheriff, Dogberry, and the generally bumbling way law and order are portrayed in this play. I could explore the significance of the odd bovine sex metaphors in Act V, scene iv. I could compare this play to Measure for Measure (which we read just before we read Much Ado back in AP English), with its disguised duke and punishment marriages and the way in both plays human beings are constantly dropping their guard long enough to be bamboozled into falling in love. Or I could point out that Beatrice and Benedick’s names, when combined, spell BE A DICK, which I think should be the vanity plate on their Cadillac Escalade.
That’s the thing about Shakespeare. Even when his plays aren’t brilliant (and I don’t think this one is), they provide a person with endless fodder for thought and discussion. This play is at once 100% a product of its late-medieval era and 100% modern. It manages to be totally appalling and, in a strange way, kind of sweet. It is at times horribly cynical about the ways human beings treat each other, but it also (remember the happy dance at the end) reminds us that most of the time when horrible things happen to us we just keep going, plotting and colluding and eyeing each other suspiciously, finding opportunities to laugh whenever possible and blaming our own nastiness on the nearest available bastard.