Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pursuits of Happiness: Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford

Stanley Cavell, writing about “The Lady Eve,” ends his essay by talking about Mugsy, played by William Demarest, the companion of the Henry Fonda character who slinks out of Fonda’s stateroom at the end of the movie, and declares the last line: “Positively the same dame!” His provenance is clear enough. He is the melancholy […]

Stanley Cavell, writing about “The Lady Eve,” ends his essay by talking about Mugsy, played by William Demarest, the companion of the Henry Fonda character who slinks out of Fonda’s stateroom at the end of the movie, and declares the last line: “Positively the same dame!”

His provenance is clear enough. He is the melancholy that comedy is meant to overcome, the mood Frye notes as forming the opening of at least five of Shakespeare’s comedies. . . . I think of him privately as a certain kind of philosophical critic, almost the thing Iago describes himself to be – “nothing if not critical.”

Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Jacques in As You Like It (actually, a blend of Duke Frederick and Jacques – the latter sends himself into exile to seek the former), Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – there is indeed a pattern.

The least-regarded of these figures is probably Don John, the brother of the prince, Don Pedro, in Much Ado About Nothing. Don John is almost completely reticent in explaining his malevolence. So far as we can tell, he hates his brother out of pure spite. Coleridge talks about Iago’s “motiveless malignity” but what he means is that none of Iago’s motives – because he provides many – seem adequate, and some of them seem outrageously fanciful (he is convinced, for example, that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, a conviction which he holds entirely against evidence, and in the face of any plausible reading of Othello’s character). We sense, therefore, that the professed motives don’t really matter; Iago is doing what he does for internal reasons of his own, not out of a rational jealousy. In Don John’s case, we simply aren’t given any substantial motives, any injury that would justify his violent hatred.

Here’s the relevant dialogue:

What the good-year, my lord! why are you thus out of measure sad?

There is no measure in the occasion that breeds; therefore the sadness is without limit.

You should hear reason.

And when I have heard it, what blessing brings it?

If not a present remedy, at least a patient sufferance.

I wonder that thou, being, as thou sayest thou art, born under Saturn, goest about to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief. I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour.

Yea, but you must not make the full show of this till you may do it without controlment. You have of late stood out against your brother, and he hath ta’en you newly into his grace; where it is impossible you should take true root but by the fair weather that you make yourself: it is needful that you frame the season for your own harvest.

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: in this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.

In other words: I’m sad because I am sad, and there isn’t anything to make me happy so I’m staying sad. And I hate my brother because, when we fought, he won and I lost; but why the brothers fought is not explained, so this explains nothing, as the hate, surely, preceded the conflict. When Edmund attributes his villainy to nature, he ties it, specifically, to his bastardy; when Richard Gloucester decides to be a villain, he explains, self-loathingly, that he can’t be anything else because he is so ugly and deformed; and even Orlando’s nasty elder brother, Oliver, explains that he hates his brother because his brother is so well-liked by the people, so much more naturally the favorite. (I’ve long assumed this favoritism began with Sir Ronald himself, and an actor playing Orlando suggested to me an additional wrinkle: as Orlando is the youngest, the brothers’ common mother may have died in giving birth to him. Which strikes me as a very good way in to that particular hate.) But Don John does not justify himself. He’s a villain because that is what he is – he has a will to peevishness.

Don John springs the Claudio-Hero plot in Much Ado, but precisely because he has so little reason for what he does, I don’t usually focus on him, but on Claudio and the prince and their gullibility. We are warned, at the start, that Claudio is profoundly insecure and not the sharpest tack on the bulletin board either, as he falls immediately for Don John’s suggestion – against all plausibility – that his patron, the prince, is wooing his beloved Hero for himself rather than in Claudio’s name. And then, when Don Pedro puts this suspicion decisively to rest – and what was Don John thinking in playing this trick, knowing how pathetically easily it would be discovered? – Claudio’s attitude toward Don John changes . . . not at all. He’s perfectly ready to accept his next slander as true, and Don John’s motives as pure in trying to ruin Hero’s reputation.

This usually makes me think very ill of Claudio, and that’s certainly how Beatrice reacts. And, as a consequence, I’m always a bit queasy about the happy reconciliation with Hero at the end. It doesn’t feel earned, the way, say, Posthumous in some measure earns the restoration of Innogen’s love. And we have no reason to believe Claudio won’t fall prey to false suspicion again. After all, he didn’t learn anything from his first encounter with Don John.

But Shakespeare is cleverer than I am. If I’m queasy, he either intends me to be queasy, or I’ve missed something. The popularity of the play derives from the Beatrice-Benedick thread, not the Claudio-Hero thread of the plot. Why should the latter thread have this curdled feeling to it? Why make Claudio so shallow? Why is Don John himself so quickly sketched? Why are his snares so easily laid? And why is it only his henchmen who are apprehended, while he simply vanishes? What is Shakespeare on about? Why is this plot in the play at all?

*     *     *

I ask these questions because I was both moved and delighted by Stratford’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing. This production takes its primary cue from what is usually treated as secondary: the Claudio-Hero plot. And while the resulting comedy is less-funny than Much Ado usually is, its laughs echo deeper in the belly.

Christopher Newton has set the play in late-19th-century Brazil, a good setting to combine a stern sense of both male and female honor with an ambient funk of sex. When the men first file in, home from the war, Don John (a trim cask of tightly packed rage played by Gareth Potter) is already set apart: where the others are in tan uniforms, he’s clad all in silver-trimmed black. What does the different uniform mean – that he lead an armed rebellion against his brother, the prince? We don’t know – but the implication is planted that the breach between the brothers was not a mere private conflict. This suggestion is underlined by the line reading Potter gives to Don John’s first line: “I thank you: I am not of many words, but I thank you.” His Don John would have said more, but is warned by the prince’s eyes.

Juan Chioran, as the prince, gets to show off just how natural a Latin aristocrat he makes, elegant and ramrod straight, passionate and reserved at the same time. His proposal to Beatrice was a whole play, in and of itself – the hesitancy, not from embarrassment but from fear of embarrassing her, or perhaps from having only just realized: why couldn’t I be happy with this one? I would be happy with her, to have this mind to dance with for the rest of my days, wouldn’t I? She has a lot of love in her, after all, now that I am paying attention. And she thinks he’s kidding, and he just waits, and she realizes, and feels terrible, and he, saying nothing, reassures her: it’s okay. I’m a prince; I’m not so easily wounded as that. Magnificent.

And then there’s Benedick. Ben Carlson plays him with the same sharp delivery, the same dispeptic wit covering a deep . . . disappointment, with life, with love, with himself, that we’ve come to know so well at Stratford the past few years. Beatrice tells us the backstory: she knows him of old, and once he broke her heart, and now it’s not available for him or any other man. But I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that backstory clearly from watching Benedick before. He’s not so different from Claudio – something made him back away from the connection with Beatrice, not that he believed she was untrue but something that made him doubt truth as such, or doubt his own ability to believe in truth. Shakespeare’s men are always talking about wearing horns (being cuckolded) but when Carlson’s Benedick does so he sounds not so much worried about being betrayed as unwilling to put himself in a position where he needs to believe that he has not been. I heard a bit of his Alceste in his Benedick, a bit of that old distrust in anything that is not an open book.

But the biggest chunk of the credit for the success of this production I have to give to Tyrone Savage, who may be the only actor I’ve ever seen to play Claudio such that I don’t have contempt for him. When he asks whether Hero’s father has any sons, we know he’s asking whether she stands to inherit – and it’s a gross moment, usually handled with apparent embarrassment by Claudio, which only makes it worse, honestly. But Savage somehow communicated, without obviously doing anything in particular, that this was just one of those things he couldn’t afford not to think about. He may be a count, but I didn’t feel he was wealthy, and rather than sizing her up, he was trying to see what he was getting into. He’d fallen in love, at first sight. If he’d fallen in love with someone who would not add to his meager fortunes, well, he’d need to know that.

It’s still appalling how he treats Hero, don’t get me wrong – but for once I didn’t think: why does Benedick resist Beatrice’s demand that he kill his friend? Why is Don Pedro so eager to do him the service of wedding him so richly? What do they see in him? What they see, in Tyrone Savage, is the kind of man you’d rely on in a foxhole, and to lead the charge over the top, one who loves not to wisely but too well. He plays Claudio the way the young Sean Penn might have, deep emotions roiling a shallow pool.

I don’t mean to slight the Beatrice-Benedick plot, nor to slight the women. Deborah Hay makes a hugely winning Beatrice, and once again, it’s because we sense her underlying vulnerability, and see how her rapier wit is deployed so furiously precisely because the last time she let a man inside her guard, he wounded her where she was most vulnerable. She is made up particularly dowdily, in marked contrast to the other women, but she has too much spirit to be a mere prude; rather, she’s clearly become convinced that she is unappealing to men, and has decided to dress so as not to try the question further. Bethany Jillard is a luscious and lively Hero, and if her reaction to being attacked by her betrothed at the altar falls somewhat short of devastation, this, perhaps, makes it easier to accept her so-easy return to him at the end – and Hay’s Beatrice more than compensates with her own fury. She, honestly, is hurt more deeply than Hero is, because she has been hurt before, and knows how long such a wound can fester.

Indeed it’s overall a very strong cast, with even small parts like Conrad and Margaret played with vibrantly (probably because such accomplished actors as Victor Ertmanis and Claire Lautier got cast in the parts). About the only weak link in the whole play is the Dogberry plot; I’m not really sure what Richard Binsley was up to, but he’s not alone – the watch as a whole never takes coherent shape.

But I still give the credit to Savage, because the play ultimately wouldn’t work if I agreed with Beatrice that he, Claudio, deserves to be killed. What I came to conclude about the play, and the importance of the Claudio-Hero plot, is that the contrast is precisely between the easily-reconciled youngsters and the hard-to-hitch older couple. Claudio hurt Hero about as badly as a man can hurt a woman. He abandons her at the altar and calls her a whore in front of her father – and, indeed, convinces her father that she is a whore. And yet . . . when he’s sorry, she takes him back. What could Benedick have possibly done to Beatrice, I wondered, to compare with this? And if it isn’t much, then why is she so reluctant to risk making herself vulnerable to him again?

Claudio isn’t the one who needs to change. Beatrice and, even more so, Benedick are. At the start of this essay, I pointed out that the cynical character who doesn’t believe in life and joy needs to be banished for love to thrive. Well, who’s the cynical character at the start of this play? Who most closely resembles Mugsy – Don John? At the outset, the character who looks likely to have to play that role is Benedick. He’s the one who is the confirmed bachelor; he’s the one who intimates that all women are inevitably unfaithful, and renounces love for that reason. But change he does, and it is Don John who is exiled. Why?

Don John drops out of the play precisely because he is the spirit of mistrust, and mistrust has played his hand, and lost. Not because he is found out – Claudio does everything Don John hoped he would, after all. But Hero doesn’t die. Rosalind, with a melancholy smile, teaches Orlando in As You Like It that “men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” Well, apparently the same is true for women. This is what Beatrice and Benedick – and we – need to learn from the Claudio-Hero plot. Yes, we careless lovers like Claudio will hurt each other, and badly. But you who love us will not, when it comes to the fact, die of your wounds. Not unless you nurse them at your love’s expense.

If we basically like Claudio, even if we think he’s behaved horribly, then we might think – as I think Shakespeare intended – what’s wrong with these two that they can’t just get together the way Claudio and Hero did? Whereas if we think Claudio is simply shallow and heartless, then we will be queasy about the happy ending, convinced that Benedick and Beatrice were right at the start, and are just luckily to have realized before it was too late that they, precisely because of their mutual wariness, are the only good match in this world.

And that’s not where Benedick ends. We may not be convinced that Claudio has changed – I’m not – but there’s no question about Benedick. He’s tough on Claudio – one of Carlson’s best moments is his challenge to Claudio, which is furiously heartfelt – but once reconciliation is achieved his aim is to spread the good cheer. Listen to him:

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 afterward.

First, of my word; therefore play, music. Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife: there is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn.

Enter a Messenger

My lord, your brother John is ta’en in flight,
And brought with armed men back to Messina.

Think not on him till to-morrow:
I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him.
Strike up, pipers.




The American Conservative Memberships
Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here