The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Much Ado About Nothing

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article CLAUDIO: O, what men dare do! what men may do! what men daily do, not knowing what they do (Much Ado IV.i.17-18)

In my short review I alluded to the sexual politics of Much Ado About Nothing. Here, with the help of a pretty comprehensive set of spoilers (for this four-hundred-and-ten-plus-years-old text!), I can go into more detail.

The first scene of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing sees the arrival of Don Pedro (a prince) and his company of soldiers at the house of Leonato, governor of Messina. Among Don Pedro’s company is Claudio, a young lord whom we hear has distinguished himself on the battlefield, and "borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion" (I.i.13-15). Claudio takes a liking to Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and soon it is agreed that the two shall be married. However, before this comes to pass, Don John, the "bastard brother" of Don Pedro, fools Claudio and Don Pedro into believing that Hero is no virgin, but rather a wanton. This false revelation becomes public during the first scene of the play’s fourth act, in front of the congregation gathered to see Claudio and Hero be married. Hero is denounced first by Claudio and Don Pedro, and then by her own father. Harold Hobson, in a Sunday Times review of a production of the play in 1968, describes the scene as "one of the most disgusting in Shakespeare," and Richard Levin, in his Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy (1985), claims that "Leonato’s words are among the harshest any father in Shakespeare speaks to his child, and the harshest in all the comedies."

The misogyny and patriarchal displays of wounded honour do not end there. Levin presents a damning catalogue of further actions and words, principally by Claudio and Don Pedro. For example, even when they believe that Hero has died of shock and shame, they are not contrite. The text, Levin suggests, can even support a reading of "residual levity" in their conduct at this point.

The texts of Shakespeare’s plays offer those who would adapt them a set of ingredients rather than a precise recipe. The flavour of the realised productions is very much in the hands of its realiser. So what does one do with troubling material such as that just outlined? Does one seek to downplay and soften it, thus retaining sympathy for the characters, or does one retain the material and find some way of demonstrating an attitude towards it? The real question for this piece, of course, is "what did Joss Whedon do with this material?" To answer that question, I will divide what remains of this Alternate Take into three sections. First, characters; secondly, moods and worlds; and finally, endings.


Characters

"Like many great temptations in Renaissance literature," Levin argues, "the success of [that in Much Ado] depends on the predispositions of those tempted." Penny Gay, in her As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (1994), summarises many of the key features of the dynamic of Claudio and Hero’s relationship (such as it is) thus: "Claudio’s immature behaviour is grounded in his dependence on the hierarchical brotherhood of the military and its ideology of male honour; Hero’s helplessness arises from her being the protected daughter of a still-living father, bound to consult and obey him in all matters." Claudio, like his tragic cousin Othello, may be a lion on the battlefield, but he is no such animal in the sphere of courtship and love. This aspect of Claudio’s character is foregrounded by Fran Kranz in his performance for Whedon. He is very much the wide-eyed youth, unsure of himself, quick to idolise his love, and just as quick to suspect that he is deceived (understandable, if not excusable, given his inexperience in reading the relevant signals). The more odious aspects of Claudio’s attitude and conduct in the play are consistently downplayed in this adaptation. In the play, Claudio’s rank and his sense of honour come across more emphatically. There are also lines in the play which reveal some interest on Claudio’s part in Leonato’s fortune, and whether Hero is the sole heir to it (she is). In the world Whedon creates, we have a much weaker sense of the world beyond the confines of Leonato’s estate. Claudio’s rejection of Hero when he thinks she will stain his honour remains part of this version, but the principal thing that is put across is Kranz’s Claudio’s woundedness when his love ideal falls from grace in his eyes. Similarly, afterwards, there is bitterness rather than residual levity, and Claudio’s subsequent contrition is sincerely felt. (Leonato also says many horrible things to Hero, as the script requires, but they are again, pushed more towards sorrow than anger.)

A further point that ought to be borne in mind is that Shakespeare and his audiences did not think of characters and their individuality in quite the same way that we do now. The rich inner lives of novelistic characters of the kind which emerges fully around two centuries after Shakespeare, most notably in the work of Jane Austen, are present in prototypical form in Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, Karen Newman, in her Shakespeare’s Rhetoric of Comic Characters (1985), suggests that one thing that makes Claudio’s character troubling is that he is a mixture of a "type common to Shakespeare’s comedy, the courtly lover," and a realistic character "endow[ed] with an inner life" (emphasis added).


We know less than we might now wish and expect to about Beatrice and Benedick’s pasts, and most pressingly, their past together. In Much Ado’s second act Beatrice alludes somewhat cryptically to her history with Benedick: "he lent it [his heart] me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it" (II.i.248-51). As Beatrice speaks these words, Whedon, in his adaptation, flashes back to Beatrice and Benedick’s lovemaking in her room (and in fact, the film begins with Benedick getting dressed and stealing away from Beatrice’s room, whilst she pretends to be asleep). Thus are we given more specificity than in the play, but questions still remain unanswered. (Why did Benedick leave without saying anything? Why did Beatrice avoid a conversation? How long were they together in this way?…)

We might also note that by making definite a prior (sexual) union, Whedon strengthens the already-present, and well-commented-upon, links between Shakespearean romantic comedy and the Hollywood "comedy of remarriage", which had its heyday in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I find the comparisons of Denisof to male screwball leads (in, for example, Philip French’s review) somewhat forced, but Acker certainly, to my mind, has several Hepburnesque qualities (the photograph of Beatrice that Don Pedro and Claudio find Benedick gazing at looks very like Katharine Hepburn). Even within the original play, Beatrice and Benedick, the moral and emotional centre of the piece, appear to represent "the future": eccentric, individualist antidotes to the piety and propriety of Claudio and Hero.

Moods and worlds

Newman’s reading of Claudio’s character, referred to above, perceives a broader tension in Much Ado between "the conventions of comic plotting and those of lifelike characterization." The particular poise of Much Ado has been noted in many ways by many critics. From certain perspectives, the play fits in well with the comedies that surround it in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. In other ways, however, it has significant affinities with Shakespeare’s tragedies, perhaps most obviously Othello. Joseph Westlund, in his Shakespeare’s Reparative Comedies (1984), observes that:

"It is unusual for a Shakespearean comedy that so much anger pervades the play; Don John’s rage seems surprisingly large because of its unvarying intensity. Pedro, Claudio, Leonato and Antonio lapse into moments of fury; even Beatrice and Benedick seal their bond of affection with a pact to kill Claudio."

Westlund’s description matches the text of the play, but not the experience of Whedon’s film. Writing about issues of mood and world in film early on in her essential book Beyond Genre (2000), Deborah Thomas writes:

"When I approach films (from a variety of genres) in which it is clear that the main characters will be dogged by an unforgiving fate and that they will almost certainly be caught and punished in some way, I often have to steel myself to watch them. In contrast, my body relaxes when I’m about to look at other films whose tone is very different."


Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing offers, I would suggest, an experience characterised much more by relaxation than by steeling oneself. This is not to say that Sean Maher’s Don John is not an effective or convincing villain. And Amy Acker’s performance in the scene where she rails against the injustices heaped upon her sex - "O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake […] I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving" (IV.ii.313-19) - also possesses great authenticity and depth. However, these moments remain relatively self-contained (just as, as suggested above, Claudio and Don John’s conduct is pushed quite a way towards the good sides of despicability and excusability). Bad feelings are contained, whilst good feeling, much of it generated by beauty, grace, comedy, and, at a metatextual level, the sheer joy of collaboration and performance on display, spills over to colour the movie as a whole.

Endings

Several voices in contemporary narrative theory have eloquently demonstrated, in different ways, that narrative closure is a process that is achieved by the text as a whole, not just its final few minutes. For an ending to feel satisfactory, rather than "tacked on," it must satisfactorily resolve the issues raised in that which precedes it. Is this the case in Shakespeare’s play? I would suggest not. I will permit myself one reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to make my point. At the end of ‘Once More, With Feeling’, the musical episode of the series, the demon, "Sweet", applauds the Scooby gang for having "beat[en] the bad guy," but does so sarcastically. The villain may be vanquished, Sweet is saying (as Don John is at the end of Much Ado), but the bad attitudes and feelings that have been revealed and unleashed rather than authored by this malevolent intervention are a problem that remain. ("Sing you’re happy now/Once more with feeling…")

"There is no sense of rebirth" when Claudio and Hero are reunited, suggests Carol Thomas Neely in Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare’s Plays (1985). We might hope that the young couple’s experiences have inoculated them against further failures of comprehension and communication, but it is a hope rather than a belief. This surely detracts from any sense of happiness and rightness we feel when the couple embark on their lives together at the end of the story. What do we do with this? What the play does, and the film too, is to deploy some effective sleight of hand, and move swiftly on to the couple that most (though not all) viewers and critics will wish to grant an earned happy ending: Beatrice and Benedick. It is Benedick, not Claudio, who, having stopped Beatrice’s mouth, gets the final words: "Strike up, pipers."

Conclusion


To return to my initial question: Whedon’s approach to troubling material in Shakespeare’s text is, on the whole, to soften and contain it, rather than confront it. There are some exceptions. Claudio’s egregious line "I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope" (V.iv.38) is retained, and is met with an audible groan from a black female member of the congregation in the background of the shot. Whedon is also surely hinting at and gently prompting feminist reflexivity and perspective by having a female character - who never speaks - photograph both wedding ceremonies (and at one point, turn her lens directly upon us, and click her shutter).

Do I wish Whedon had struck a different balance? Yes and no. I admire the bright tone and the realisation of pleasing detail in the film as it stands. It would not be problem-free to pursue a stronger sense of confrontation with and condemnation of the actions of the play’s characters (actions which we should certainly not assume would have been simply endorsed by Shakespeare or his audience; the overall structure of the drama in fact points in the other direction, though it remains problematic that Claudio and Hero’s reunion, after what passes and fails to pass between them, appears to be presented as a happy ending); most obviously, the easy superiority of four hundred years of hindsight, but also the danger of creating an overly alienating experience. Much Ado gives us a strong Beatrice who does not need to be and is not tamed or shamed, a dignified Hero, a redeemable Claudio, and an endearing Benedick (about whom I have not said nearly enough), and it endorses nothing that is truly pernicious. Could we ask for more? Of course. But, to evoke in conclusion a great line from another appropriate film, "Don't let’s ask for the moon… we have the stars."

-- -- --

James has written a further short piece on Much Ado about Nothing, plus several other posts about Joss Whedon (and other topics!), on his blog, Between Sympathy and Detachment

This Alternate Take was published on July 19, 2013.

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