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.”
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.
Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era in Twenty Objects (Viking, 2013). ↩
The remark does not date from Shakespeare’s time, but was reported in 1672 by John Dryden. ↩
University of Chicago Press, 2013. ↩
All citations of Shakespeare are from The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean Howard, and Katharine Maus, second edition (Norton, 2008). ↩
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. ↩