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On the Edge of Slander

Much Ado About Nothing

a film directed by Joss Whedon
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Elsa Guillet-Chapuis/Roadside Attractions
Amy Acker, right, as Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

In a curious way the central figure in the splendid new film of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers), is the house in which the events unfold. Not that the house—Whedon’s own—is particularly remarkable. It is a comfortable, sprawling Santa Monica McMansion, no doubt very expensive, with more than a touch of a suburb about it. But that is the point: we are not in faraway Sicily, where Shakespeare set the story, or in glorious, technicolor Tuscany, where Kenneth Branagh set his admirable film adaptation twenty years ago. We are rather on familiar ground, and, as if to conjure up the ordinary accoutrements of modern American upper-middle-class life, the camera dwells lovingly on the kitchen counter and the wine glasses and the piles of dishes and the stairs that lead up to the pleasant patio and, discreetly hidden, the video screens scanned by the bumbling employees of a security company—Whedon’s clever incarnation of Messina’s night watchmen.

All of this familiarity makes the circumstances that set the story in motion in Shakespeare and in his sources seem particularly discordant and weird. They were strange enough to begin with. Shakespeare followed his principal source, a story by the Italian monk Matteo Bandello, in having a Spanish army commander, Prince Don Pedro of Aragon, and several of his officers arrive in Messina, in the wake of a successful military campaign, for a month’s stay as the guests of the town’s governor, Leonato. The awkwardness such a stay would inevitably entail is heightened by the fact that Don Pedro brings with him his disgraced bastard brother, Don John, who is under a kind of uneasy house arrest. The situation calls for an elaborate exercise of courtesy: everyone knows that there is no choice about the visit, but everyone has to behave as if they were witnessing an act of unconstrained hospitality.

Here the resolute conventionality of Whedon’s setting—all those furnishings that seem straight out of the Crate and Barrel and Restoration Hardware catalogs—is oddly effective, constantly playing off against the underlying uneasiness and ambiguity of the occasion. In a recent book, Shakespeare’s Restless World,1 Neil MacGregor, who earlier wrote the best-selling History of the World in 100 Objects, chooses twenty objects with which to convey the ideas and assumptions that Londoners in the 1590s and 1600s brought with them when they went to see Shakespeare’s plays. Many of MacGregor’s objects are highly class-specific—a slender brass-handled fork that a gentleman (with the initials “A.N.”) carelessly dropped at the Rose Theatre some four hundred years ago, an extremely fancy Venetian drinking goblet, an apprentice’s flat cap, and so forth. There is little room for confusion. An aristocrat wouldn’t have been caught dead in the apprentice’s cap, and the apprentice wouldn’t have known what to do with A.N.’s fork. By contrast, though the house may have cost a fortune, the objects in Whedon’s film are relatively democratic: anyone could drink out of those wine glasses or eat off those plates.

This catholic taste, which Americans have helped to popularize, works surprisingly well with the social ambiguities of Much Ado About Nothing. The Spanish and the Italians look the same, as do the civilians and the military. Within the male elite there are significant differences of wealth, power, and rank, but the dark suits that everyone favors mask the differences. This is a world of servants and employers, but the servants seem to be on surprisingly intimate terms with their mistresses and may on occasion look indistinguishable from them. There is a masked ball early in Shakespeare’s comedy in which identities are concealed, but Whedon makes this device seem almost superfluous: identities are always concealed.

The film goes out of its way to make it difficult to determine who is the host and who the guest, who the native and who the foreigner, who the lady and who the maid, who the friend and who the enemy. We are somewhere between an official visit and a house party, and the guests alternate between being on their best behavior in polite conversation over hors d’oeuvres and roughhousing with their friends in a bedroom replete with stuffed animals and a wind-up ballerina on the night table.

This confusion is an effective way of bringing up to date all that no longer quite works in the story that Shakespeare adapted: the earnest, slightly dim-witted Claudio (played by Fran Kranz), who asks his commanding officer to woo Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) on his behalf and then fears he has been betrayed; the villain Don John (Sean Maher), who slanders the innocent young lady for the sheer pleasure of causing trouble; the accusation of sexual misconduct brought at the wedding altar; the lady’s collapse and apparent death; the exposure of the villainy by the idiotic constable Dogberry (a very brilliant Nathan Fillion); the young man’s remorse when he learns that the lady was innocent; etc. Through deep cuts, fast-paced timing, and an emphasis on ambiguity, Whedon manages to plow through this musty plot quickly enough to prevent the audience from wondering what sense any of it could possibly make.

The truth is that this strategy is not a betrayal of Shakespeare because Shakespeare himself clearly had his doubts about the story he had chosen to adapt for the stage. That story, in varying forms, was hugely popular in the sixteenth century: in addition to Bandello’s narrative, which was translated into French and elaborated by Belleforest, the poet Ariosto has a version in Orlando Furioso, as do Spenser, George Whetstone, Anthony Munday, and others. In the Renaissance the slandered lady was a plot line, equivalent to those that recur in innumerable Hollywood blockbusters, that automatically clicked for audiences. A few years later, Shakespeare found a way to give such a plot perfect form—and raise it to an entirely new level—in one of the greatest tragedies he ever wrote, Othello.

But in Much Ado About Nothing, though he dutifully pursued the story of the callow young man and the innocent lady to its promised end, Shakespeare allowed himself to be distracted. It was not the only time in his career that he succumbed in this way: in The Merchant of Venice, he permitted the Jewish moneylender to take over the play; in both Henry IV plays he transformed the conventional figure of the parasite into the titanic Falstaff; and in Romeo and Juliet he gave the tragic hero’s witty, cynical foil Mercutio so much brilliant airtime that Shakespeare himself reputedly said that he had to kill Mercutio in the third act “to prevent being killed by him.”2 Never was Shakespeare’s distraction—his trust in following his imagination wherever it took him—happier than in Much Ado. Out of two negligible figures in Bandello’s story—the inevitable minor companions of the heroine and hero—he created Beatrice and Benedick.

These two characters—Hero’s sharp-tongued, defensive, vulnerable cousin (Amy Acker) and Claudio’s wry, wise-cracking, misogynistic friend (Alexis Denisof)—dominate the film, as they seem almost immediately to have dominated the play. (Already in 1613 the Lord Treasurer’s accounts refer to a performance of Benedicte and Betteris, and King Charles I added that title to the play in his personal copy of the Folio.) Whedon begins the film with a bit of backstory: Benedick slips quietly from Beatrice’s bed and, after a moment’s hesitation, dresses and leaves the room, while Beatrice, pretending to be asleep, silently registers his departure. In Shakespeare’s text there is nothing so explicit—and indeed the sexual frankness of the scene makes the male hysteria over Hero’s alleged unchastity even weirder than it already is—but the play gives ample grounds for imagining that a history of hurt and bad faith lies behind the “merry war” of words between the squabbling pair. In poignant lines, spoken with movingly restrained sensitivity by Acker, Beatrice remarks that she and Benedick had once exchanged hearts but that he reclaimed his “with false dice.”

The squabbling between them takes place in public, under everyone’s watchful eyes. This is a world in which everyone is constantly observing everyone else—“nothing” in Elizabethan English was pronounced “noting,” and this is indeed a play of much ado about noting. To understand the culture out of which Shakespeare is writing, it helps to read Renaissance courtesy manuals like Baldassare Castiglione’s famous Book of the Courtier (1528) or, still better, Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo or, The Rules of Polite Behavior (1558, available in a delightful new translation by M.F. Rusnak).3 It is fine for gentlemen and ladies to make jokes, della Casa writes, for we all like people who are funny, and a genuine witticism produces “joy, laughter, and a kind of astonishment.” But mockery has its risks. It is perilously easy to cross a social and moral line of no return. Whatever quality or error is being mocked “must be such that no noticeable shame or serious harm could arise from it; otherwise it would be hard to distinguish quips from slander.”

  1. 1

    Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects (Viking, 2013). 

  2. 2

    The remark does not date from Shakespeare’s time, but was reported in 1672 by John Dryden. 

  3. 3

    University of Chicago Press, 2013. 

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