Monday, August 6, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing - Is This Love?

 Is This Love?
Much Ado About Nothing

“Is this love, is this love, is this love, is this love that I'm feelin'? I wanna know, wanna know, wanna know now...”

Bob Marley croons what four hundred years earlier Beatrice and Benedick could well have crooned with him. Romantics have said, and still do, “Well, yeah. Duh.” In other words, “Obviously it's love!”

But let's not be hasty. This is a play full of deceptions. It really ought to be called “Quite a Lot of Deceptions About a Lot of Rather Big Things.” But Shakespeare is sneaky. The “nothing” in his title is easy to discern – Hero's non-infidelity. Or? Could he possibly mean that the “nothing” is actually the love between Beatrice and Benedick because it doesn't really exist, they've only been manipulated into believing it does?
In his introduction Stephen Greenblatt expresses the very plausible view that such is the case. He asks, “But what if we do not dismiss their own words” (page 1412) of hostility and insult? He goes on, “ Benedick and Beatrice have rational arguments, grounded in the gender politics of their world, for remaining single” (ibid) but they both consent to be persuaded by their friends, not for love but because “it is better to live in illusion than in social isolation” (page 1413).

But, but...I mean, I've seen Ken and Emma! Of course they're really in love!

Hmmm. I have to confess. Even before reading Greenblatt's intro I had a lurking doubt. Is this love? Or isn't it? I wanna know!

It won't really help to use our magnifying glass on every insult they exchange. They both make it clear from the start. Not only are they not interested in each other, neither of them are interested in marriage, period. Their active dislike for each other at the beginning may, as Beatrice hints, be based on a previous failed romance between the two but in the first act they are clearly not in love, or even in like. They are witty, but hateful.

Enter manipulative friends. They insult Benedick in his hearing after claiming that Beatrice “loves him with an enraged affection, it is past the infinite of thought...”, that “she falls, weeps, sobs, beats her heart, tears her hair, curses 'O sweet Benedick, God give me patience'”, that there is danger that “she will do a desperate outrage to herself...” and that “she says she will die if he love her not and she will die ere she make her love known and she will die if he woo her, rather than she will bate one breath of her accustomed crossness” (Act 2.3).

Sneaky Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato! Everything they say is blatantly and outrageously out of character for the Beatrice we and Benedick have seen so far – except the last line. That makes it just about believable for Benedick. And for us? Well, not really but love is strange, a fine madness and all that.

Benedick's first reaction is of course, “Is it possible?” But he quickly gives himself reason to believe: respectable Leonato wouldn't lie! He shouldn't be proud. People can and do change. OK. “I will be horribly in love with her... if I do not take pity of her I am a villain. If I do not love her I am a Jew” (explained in the Norton note as an anti-Semitic stereotype of the un-Christian, the uncharitable) (Act 2.3).

How romantic is this? Not very. “Horribly in love” is...well, a horrible way to put it. “Pity”? Uncharitable? Yes, it is very possible that he is explaining away his sudden surge of wild love for Beatrice in this way. And it is possible to take his words at face value.

Beatrice then? Her friends treat her about the same, insults interspersed with praise for Benedick's many virtues. Beatrice is called proud, disdainful, wild, scornful, full of herself.

Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endearéd (Act 3.1).

Hearing herself described in such nasty terms it's amazing poor Beatrice even notices the two quick mentions that “Benedick loves Beatrice...entirely” and that the friends think he should “fight against his passions”.
And sure enough her first reaction is to the insults:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?

Not, to be sure, that she is as proud and scornful as they say, only that she is condemned by them as such. A small detail perhaps because, in fact, she immediately thereafter turns to thoughts of Benedick:

And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band.
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly (Act 3.1).

If Benedick uses the word love sparingly to describe his own feelings, Beatrice uses it not at all for hers. She speaks only of his love for her, which she will “requite”. They will turn their love into marriage because he deserves it.

Based on these two scenes then, are they suddenly madly in love? If we pick out the words “love”, “in love”, “requite”, “loving hand”, “our loves”, yes, it's possible to make just that interpretation. As Branagh and Thompson do in the movie. Only a robot with a heart of stone could resist falling for the magnificent love scene in which Benedick splashes dizzyingly around the fountain while Beatrice soars into the sky on her swing. Ken and Emma can be forgiven – they were newlyweds themselves at the time. They make the love interpretation seems exactly right.

But back to the text. What happens after these two upsetting, essentially hurtful and overwhelming scenes? Benedick claims to have a toothache (explained in a Norton note as symbolizing being in love, page 1441) and Beatrice has a bad cold, or something. They are, in other words, flummoxed by the new situation and they do not even meet to try out their new feelings of confused love on each other until after the disastrous non-wedding of Claudio and Hero. They meet in the chapel and here they do passionately declare their love for one another:

Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you...
I do protest I love thee.
Beatrice: I was about to protest that I loved you...I love you with so much of my heart that there is none
left to protest (Act 4.1)

That seem pretty unambiguous. Or? Beatrice is confused. “Believe me not, and yet I lie not. I confess nothing nor deny nothing.” And most importantly they, especially Beatrice, are in shock over Claudio's cruel and outrageous treatment of Hero. All of their emotions are in a turmoil and the situation is far from conducive to happily exploring their mutual love. In fact, Beatrice's emotions are in violent turbulence and when Benedick at first protests that he cannot, will not, “kill Claudio” Beatrice accuses, “there is no love in you.” She is terribly upset over not being able to avenge Hero because she is not a man, and Benedick, after insisting that he loves her and being told firmly that words are not enough - “use it for my love some other way than swearing by it” - realizes that his friend Claudio is in the wrong and agrees to confront him.

He does. Later he is shown frustrated in his attempts to write a love sonnet to Beatrice. She enters and once they establish that Claudio has duly been challenged and justice will somehow be attained the two allow themselves a few moments of bantering love talk in which they still do not or cannot accept a smooth and sweet romance, peppered as their exchange is with words like “foul wind”, “bad parts”, “against my will” and “hates”. Beatrice concludes by admitting that she at the moment does “very ill” and Benedick scarcely has time to imply that loving him will help her feel better before they are informed of the announcement of the falseness of Claudio's accusations against Hero.

Off they go to the odd reconciliation between Claudio and Hero and to their own public announcement of their...well, whatever it is. Benedick tries to get Beatrice to admit to loving him but she only answers, “No more than reason.” Reason? What's that supposed to mean? What do reason and love have to do with each other? That's the whole point. Nothing. Even when Claudio and Hero produce B and B's respective scribbles declaring their love for each other, they both claim to love the other out of pity. But they kiss and dance and supposedly get married.

Is this love?

Greenblatt, as we have seen, is skeptical. Harold Bloom dismisses their so-called love as “benign nihilism” (page 200) and, like Greenblatt, a “defense against meaninglessness” (page 193). Frank Kermode describes their moments of expressing love as that of “persons who have momentarily forgotten their reputations” (page 77) as hostile non-lovers. Jean E. Howard (quoted by Alison Findlay) points out that “far from discovering Benedick's and Beatrice's pre-existant love, Don Pedro works hard to create it” because the anti-love and anti-marriage attitudes and fierce independence of both of them threaten the very structure of their society and therefore they must be insulted, lied to and manipulated into... (page 396)

Yes, into...

Yes. I dare conclude that yes, Beatrice and Benedick love each other. Have I been brainwashed by the romantic image of Ken and Emma? No. If Beatrice and Benedick don't love each other they do in fact think they do. And both most decidedly believe themselves to be loved by the other, which is enough to convince them of their own reason to love. Are they going to live happily ever after? I'd say they have as good a chance as any couple, if not more. They are, after all, entering into the marriage on equal terms of love seasoned with skepticism and humor. They are equally willing to end their social isolation, to find or pretend to find meaning together.

Is that love?
It works for me.

July – August, 2012

Works cited:
  • The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1998.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction to Norton edition, see above.
  • Howard, Jean E. Quoted from The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England in Alison Findlay's essay “Much Ado About Nothing” in A Companion to Shakespeare's Works – the Comedies. Edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. Blackwell Publishing. 2006.
  • Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare's Language. Penguin Books, 2000.                                                      

Films seen:

  • BBC, 1984. Director: Stuart Burge. Cast: Benedick – Robert Lindsay; Beatrice – Cherie Lunghi; Claudio – Robert Reynolds; Hero – Katharine Levy; Leonato – Lee Montague; Don Pedro – Jon Finch; Don John – Vernon Dobtcheff; Dogberry – Michael Elphick. A very enjoyable production in which the two leads provide a strong performance. Less enjoyable is Jon Finch's campy Don Pedro; it doesn't strike the right note. A pity, after his well done Henry IV.
  • 1993. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Benedick – Kenneth Branagh; Beatrice – Emma Thompson; Claudio – Robert Sean Leonard; Hero – Kate Beckinsale; Leonato – Richard Briers; Don Pedro – Denzil Washington; Don John – Keanu Reeves; Dogberry – Michael Keaton; Margaret – Imelda Staunton. What can I say? I love this movie. Oh Sir Ken, please make more Shakespeare movies! With Emma. You're still friends, aren't you?
  • Shakespeare Retold, 2005. Director: Brian Percival. Cast: Benedick – Damian Lewis; Beatrice – Sarah Parish; Claudio – Tom Ellis; Hero – Billie Piper; Leonato – Marvin Jarvis; Don John – Derek Riddell. Fun and believably adapted. Especially Damian Lewis and Billie Piper do a good job.

Seen on stage: No.


  1. I read about Much Ado About Nothing in your newly published book and I think Branagh's and Whedon's interpretations are a bit different since Whedon's is all in black and white with a sort of upper class partying drinking bored with the world feeling that makes Beatrice's and Bendick's "love" more believable than Branagh's even if he made it more visually stunning. At first I didn't like it being black and white since I had fond memories of Branagh's version but it grows on you.
    In this version it is more believable that they find it possible to unite against the world in mutual contempt and distrust against all institutions but I don't see it as love, but totally believable.
    I've seen relationships based on less and since they have the same expectations they can unite in a semi fake marriage so as to fit in and be part of society. I'm more concerned about the man marrying Hero... Thinking she is the cousin...
    And extra bonus is Nathan Fillion as Dogberry!

    1. Dear AnneliT, Thank you for reading the book and for this interesting comment. I quite agree. Branagh's version is so dazzling that one believes it blindly at the same time as one is clearly aware of more reasonable interpretations of the play. Whedon's version offers an excellent example of how different interpretations of Shakespeare can be and still all have something to offer. I notice that we hadn't seen Whedon's version when I wrote this text so my review wasn't included. Here's the link