Sunday, March 5, 2017

With friends like these... cruelty in Much Ado about Nothing

With friends like these…
The cruelty of friends in
Much Ado About Nothing

     That Don John is cruel is a given. That sweet Hero, valiant Claudio, noble Don Pedro and loving Leonato are also cruel is obvious, as well, isn’t it? But for some reason ignored.
     This time I can’t ignore it.
     Sweet Hero, knowing her cousin and dearest friend Beatrice is listening, she says the most hurtful things about her. Sweet Hero says:

Disdain and scorn tide sparkling in her eyes,
…her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak; she cannot love…
She is so self-endeared (Act III.1).

     Sweet Hero says, when Ursula comments that such carping is not commendable:

But who dare tell her so? If I should speak,
She would mock me into air. O, she would laugh me
Out of myself, press me to death with wit (Act III.1).

     Sweet Hero proposes:

I’ll device some honest slanders
To stain my cousin with (Act III.1).

     Disdain, Scorn. Self-endeared. Mocking. Thus sweet Hero describes her kinswoman and promises to spread damning lies about her. Is this not cruelty?
     Valiant Claudio, we see at the revels, is very quick to think the worst of his friends when he suspects Don Pedro of stealing Hero’s love though Don Pedro had explained what he was going to do, woo Hero for Claudio. When then Don John manipulates Claudio into believing Hero is unfaithful, Claudio is not only very quick to believe in Hero’s supposed infidelity before seeing any evidence whatsoever but almost immediately promises the cruellest of actions: ‘If I see anything why I should not marry her tomorrow in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her’ (Act III.3). and then he does it, our valiant Claudio:

There, Leonato, take her back again.
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed:
Her blush is guiltiness…
[I will not] be married …
…to an approvèd wanton.
…you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus or those pampered animals
That rage in savage sensuality…
…fare thee well most foul… (Act IV.1).

     Oh, valiant Claudio! Rotten? Wanton? Savage? Foul? To the woman you profess to have loved? At the altar in front of family and friends? Is this not cruelty?
     The noble Don Pedro, who was so quick to help Claudio woo Hero, is just as quick to join him in condemning her. Immediately after Claudio announces, ‘I will shame her,’ noble Don Pedro declares, ‘And as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join thee to disgrace her’ (Act III.2). And he does. When Claudio has rejected Hero at the church and Leonato says, ‘Sweet prince, why speak not you?’ Don Pedro says:

What should I speak?
I stand dishonoured, that have gone about
To link my dear friend to a common stale (Act IV.1).

     He stoutly claims to have seen Hero with another man and that’s that. The gentlemen stick together and grievously regard themselves as the dishonoured ones. Not only cruel but stupid.
     Dear old dad, then? The loving Leonato?
     After Claudio’s accusation Leonato turns, not to his daughter, but to Don Pedro, then on Claudio’s challenge to ‘bid her answer truly’ does Leonato say, ‘I charge thee do so, as thou art my child’ (Act IV.1). He ignores her answer and cries, ‘Hath no man’s dagger here a point for me?’ When Hero then faints from the shock Leonato says:

Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wished for (Act IV.1).

     When Hero revives he continues:

…doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her?...
Do not live, Hero…
Why ever was thou lovely in my eyes…?
…foul-tainted flesh!
…Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie,
Who loved her so that, speaking of her foulness,
Washed it with tears? Hence from her, let her die. (Act IV.1).

     Well, enough said. Not only a pact amongst the men against this young woman but unspeakably cruel words heard from a once loving father.
     This is a comedy, one of Shakespeare’s funniest and most beloved. Beatrice and Benedick are brilliant, and the only ones of Hero’s circle to believe her and defend her. Dogberry is wise and amusing and insistent that the wrong against Hero be righted in some of Shakespeare’s most entertaining scenes. For these reasons the play is also amongst the most often performed. As it should be. But the dark side should never be toned down and it almost always is.
     Beatrice forgives Hero her cruelty. Hero forgives less than valiant Claudio, ignoble Don Pedro and unloving Leonato their cruelty.
     I do not.

Films seen this time:
  • 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.
    • An 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.
  • 2011. The Globe. Director: Jeremy Herrin. Cast: Benedick - Charles Edwards; Beatrice - Eve Best; Claudio - Philip Cumbus; Hero - Ony Uhiara; Leonato - Joseph Marcell; Don Pedro -Ewan Stewart; Don John - Matthew Pidgeon; Dogberry – Paul Hunter; Margaret – Lisa McGrillis.
    • A mixed production. Edwards is good as Benedick. Best is, as usual, excellent in her contact with the groundlings but has an irritating habit of speaking almost all her lines to the upper gallery. Their interplay, though, is very entertaining. The rest of the cast are quite anonymous. Enjoyable but not a masterpiece. As so often, the Globe itself plays the best part.
  • 2012. Director: Joss Whedon. 
    • We were fortunate to see this film in London, at the Barbican, on its premiere in 2013. I gave it 5* of 5. I wouldn’t be quite so generous this time, but then we weren’t in London, in the Barbican, this time. The impressive and beautiful black and white cinematography can’t quite hide the flaws of some mediocre character interpretations and the altogether too jolly ending. Still, a wonderful film.   

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