am 28. Juni 2010
And so do we, even though the prince, as comes out later, did not woo fair Hero for himself, but for his friend Count Claudio. Yet, Hero also knows the answer to that one, and as a dutiful daughter she tends to speak only when addressed to, or when she is wearing a mask.
"Much Ado About Nothing" is generally considered to rank among Shakespeare's finest comedies, and in addition to this I would see it as one of his grimmest ones, too,* as the action frequently borders on the tragic. The story is about two pairs of lovers, who, after some good-natured and some ill-natured plots, are finally united. There are, first of all, Beatrice and Benedick, who wage a "merry war" against each other, flinging smarting witticisms and provocations the one versus the other, while in reality they seem to feel quite a lot of mutual attraction. In fact, Benedick seems to have courted and jilted Beatrice some time before (cf. II,1, ll.211-13). This "merry war" affords great opportunities of admiring Bea's repartee, because her quicksilvery answers often come down on glib Benedick like so many coups d'épée. One of my favourite scenes is when Don Pedro reports to Benedick how Bea retorted each of his attempts at singing Benedick's praise by turning the prince's words into something negative: "I said thou hadst a fine wit, true said she, a fine little one: no said I, a great wit: right, says she, a great gross one: nay said I, a good wit: just said she, it hurts nobody [...] nay said I, he hath the tongues: that I believe said she, for he swore a thing to me on Monday night, which he foreswore on Tuesday morning, there's a double tongue [...]" This hell of a torrent is truly Shakespearean, forsooth.
The other couple is a more conventional one: Count Claudio, a loyal friend of the prince's, falls in love with Hero, the only daughter of the prince's follower Leonato. As I suggested in the title, Hero is an obedient daughter, who only talks when talked to and who knows her place ("So says the prince, and my newly trothèd lord."). When the prince's illegitimate brother, Don John, starts scheming against her in order to get his revenge on Claudio, Hero suddenly finds her virginity doubted, and Claudio publicly insults and renounces her in front of the nuptial altar. This is the point when the whole play seems to diverge into tragedy, but for the serendipitous blundering of the night watchmen, led by the addle-brained Dogberry.
It is this frustrated wedding that I think the strongest scene of the whole play, because it reveals the gruesome logic of a male chauvinist society: Claudio, who has repeatedly professed his love for Hero to his friends, on the grounds, mind, that she is "a modest** young lady", is so enraged when he finds himself confronted with Hero's lecherousness that he resolves to expose her in public and ruin her reputation in order to restore his honour, and also the prince follows suit. What is even more, Hero's father Leonato, at hearing Claudio's unfeeling insults against the young lady ("Give not this rotten orange to your friend"), does not think of siding with his daughter at first, but rashly joins the diatribes of his social superiors and indulges in self-pity ("Grieved I, I had but one [daughter]? Chid I for that at frugal nature's frame? Oh one too much by thee! Why had I one? Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?") It is only later, talked into reason by the clergyman, Beatrice and Benedick, that he begins to think better of his misgivings about his daughter's innocence. Can one imagine how Hero must have felt at that moment, when her own father joined the slander against her? Characteristically, Hero does not utter any word of defense or reproach, but swoons, thus proving a fine young lady again.
I would like to think that a great man such as the Bard would have wanted the audience to see these male, honour-obsessed brutes, who let no opportunity to indulge in bawdy jokes about cuckold husbands and slutty wives pass, with a critical eye, but then I am not too sure whether, quite a child of his own time, Billy Shakes would not have joined them. We should not forget that Beatrice's brilliant repartee, which probably makes her one of the most popular and interesting Shakespearean characters, is completely missing in the final act, when she has agreed to marry Benedick - of course, after extracting from him the promise to kill his friend Claudio for humiliating Hero.
Mulier taceat in ecclesia, and especially in matriminio. Maybe this was also Shakespeare's view. All in all, this grim comedy will give you quite a lot of food for thought. One does not even have to like it for that.
* Together with "The Merchant of Venice".
** Also meaning "innocent" and "virginal" here.