Shakespeare in the Sun

Much Ado About Nothing

a film by Kenneth Branagh

Much Ado About Nothing the Movie by

by William Shakespeare, Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of Kenneth Branagh, photographs by Clive Coote
Norton, 131 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh; drawing by David Levine

Much Ado About Nothing (1598) is one of the most resolutely urban of Shakespeare’s comedies. The house of Leonato, Governor of Messina, stands in a Sicilian city of churches, law courts, and jails, where crowded streets as well as private dwellings need to be patrolled and kept quiet at night—however inefficiently—by Constable Dogberry and his shambling subordinates. Although Leonato’s town house, like that of his brother Antonio, is grand enough to boast a spacious garden, in which some of the action takes place, no one in this play ever escapes to the equivalent of As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, the wood near Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even Petruchio’s country estate in The Taming of the Shrew. Outside the tightly knit family world of Leonato’s Messina, but never visited in the play, there seem to be only that unidentified battlefield on which Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has just defeated his bastard brother, the vicious and disaffected Don John, and those Italian cities in which Leonato’s other aristocratic guests were born: Florence in the case of Count Claudio, Don Pedro’s youthful favorite, Padua in that of Benedick, the prince’s older and comically misogynistic companion.

In the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, adapted as well as directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also plays Benedick), Messina has disappeared. Shakespeare’s main plot, about Leonato’s daughter, Hero, the young girl falsely accused of unchastity and cast off by her fiancé, Claudio, on their wedding day, and the subsidiary action involving Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, arch-enemies maneuvered by their friends into love, both unfold at or near a ravishing rose-red villa in Italy’s Chianti country: “Vignamaggio,” once the home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Gherardini.

From the very beginning—a picnic in an olive grove—Branagh’s version of Much Ado is boldly rural and openair. “Church” weddings happen out of doors, and even the few scenes set “inside” tend to place characters in interior courtyards open to the sky, or on balconies and upper loggias framing a panorama of the Tuscan hills. There are losses involved in Branagh’s decision here—not least a virtual obliteration, beneath the generalized bucolic bonhomie, of Shakespeare’s carefully structured social hierarchy—but there are gains as well.

The movie is visually stunning. The other advantages are largely those stressed by Branagh himself in his Much Ado About Nothing: Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie, the book released simultaneously with the film. Branagh reports that in 1988, when he toured the United Kingdom as Benedick in a stage version directed by Judi Dench for his own Renaissance Theatre Company, he was struck during one performance by how much “the play seemed to beg to live outside, in a vivid, lush countryside.” In publicity for the film, he has elaborated on this feeling:

I wanted to come to Italy for its sensual quality. To feature…

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