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On the Edge of Slander

Beatrice and Benedick are right on the edge of slander for much of the play. Beatrice, says Benedick, is a kind of evil spirit who needs to be exorcised from polite company, “for certainly, while she is here a man may live as quiet in hell as in a sanctuary, and people sin upon purpose because they would go thither, so indeed all disquiet, horror, and perturbation follows her.”4 If Benedick’s rage takes him to the edge of incoherence—it is difficult to figure out exactly what he is saying here, except that he hates this woman—Beatrice’s hits are more deft and more painful.

Benedick, she says, “wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat, it ever changes with the next block.” He hangs on his companions “like a disease. He is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad.” In his chatter, he is “too like my lady’s eldest son, evermore tattling.” “He is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit but in his villainy, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him, and beat him.”

It is important to take in how nasty this banter is, for if we do not see how much blood is being drawn—how close they both are to saying things that can never be unsaid—we cannot grasp the peculiar, bittersweet pleasure of the trick that is played on them. That trick, cunningly managed by a conspiracy of their friends, is to make them declare their love for each other and to act upon these declarations by getting married. (It helps to remember that Shakespeare wrote in a high-stakes world where there were no “starter marriages” and no divorce.) If the trick does not feel unbearably cruel, it is because there are enough farcical pratfalls to distract us.

Still more, it is because there are just enough clues—and Amy Acker is brilliant at conveying them—to persuade us that there actually is a current of love that flows beneath and perhaps through her gall. There are similar clues in Benedick’s lines as well, as a spectacular stage performance years ago by Sam Waterston first persuaded me, but Alexis Denisof is less successful at mining them for our consolation. At the end, though he has passed the test set by Beatrice and has challenged his stupid, shallow friend Claudio, he still manages to seem a bit defensive and misogynistic.

But is this slightly sour note a sign of failure on Joss Whedon’s part? Should he have aimed for a warm effect closer to that achieved, say, in the film version by Kenneth Branagh? The answer is no, and for a simple reason: in Much Ado About Nothing, as in virtually all of his comedies, Shakespeare finds the central woman character far more sympathetic and appealing than the man. Portia, Rosalind, Viola, Helena (in All’s Well That Ends Well), Innogen (in Cymbeline), Hermione (in The Winter’s Tale), and even Adriana (in The Comedy of Errors) are incalculably superior to the men with whom they are mated. They are more sensitive, intelligent, and thoughtful, and also tougher and more resilient. For the most part, they are forced to make their way in the world with little help or guidance.5

Much Ado About Nothing is unusual in giving its heroine—who is conspicuously without parents or siblings—a sympathetic uncle. “Well, niece,” Leonato says to Beatrice, “I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.” Beatrice replies with words that seem to extend in protest to all of Shakespeare’s heroines:

Not till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?—to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none.

The play gets the better of her, of course, and the successful conspiracy of her friends leads her to quiet her protest, bending to Benedick, or, as she puts it in a beautiful image drawn from falconry, “taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.” She is not completely tamed, but the audience applauds when in the end her husband-to-be stops her mouth with a kiss. Even if their mutual professions of love have been elicited by something perilously close to a practical joke, they have shown enough interest in each other to warrant hopes for their happiness.

The audience thus becomes cheerfully complicit in the immense social pressure, playfully figured in the comic plot, that brings young men and women to the altar. At least Benedick—who has succumbed to a comparable conspiracy of his friends—is closer to being worthy of his match than a clod of wayward marl like Hero’s emotionally obtuse Claudio, let alone the likes of Bassiano and Bertram. And after all, as Benedick says, “the world must be peopled.” Part of the cunning of the play is to enable us to see that beneath the formal codes of manners that come and go, beneath the national customs and the historical contingencies and the individual psychological variations, are social and biological pressures that drive people, even people who fiercely resist, toward mating. But the genius of Shakespeare allows us to feel a touch of disappointment that it should be so.

  1. 4

    All citations of Shakespeare are from The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katharine Maus, second edition (Norton, 2008). 

  2. 5

    In a striking sign of Shakespeare’s conscious shaping of this isolation, the cast of characters of the first printing of Much Ado About Nothing included someone called “Innogen, wife to Leonato.” Evidently, Shakespeare began with the intention of following Bandello and giving Hero a mother and Beatrice an aunt. But at some point in the writing process, he must have decided to eliminate the character. 

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