Tuesday, March 31, 2009

RE2: Much Ado About Nothing -- Back to Basics

Derek writes:

Well, all, I’m going to leap ahead to Act II before the time is right, perhaps. And in doing so, I’m quite likely to return to the thematic conversations we were having before – the ones about forgiveness, pardoning, and the relative success of the typically Shakespearean messy ending.

But, first, to anchor the whole thing in Act I. I’m struck by the intimation – never fully clarified and rarely referenced beyond the second act – of a prior love affair between Beatrice and Benedick. While Leanato has to inform the messenger in the very first scene that “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Bendick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them,” which sets the audience up to anticipate a kind of clowning, the actual tenor of their “skirmish” is decidedly more acerbic. I think it’s quite a stretch to consider it “merry.”

Look at how it starts. Leonato and Don Pedro (Henceforth, “DP”) are greeting each other in formal, albeit friendly, terms. The nature of Benedick’s previous relationship with Leonato is unclear, but I doubt it’s familiar enough to render his repeated commentaries on Hero’s potential illegitimacy totally blameless. Benedick is at least mildly out of line, here. And the comment that Beatrice seizes upon is one in which Benedick mocks Leonato’s looks. Leonato reacts charitably to Benedick, of course, but Benedick is certainly pushing boundaries.

I’ve seen this scene played a couple of different ways in order to articulate the relationships between the characters that the director perceives – in the Branagh film version, Benedick is calling out his last insult toward the retreating backs of his comrades, rendering Beatrice’s observation that “nobody marks [him]” simply accurate. But in other versions, Beatrice is creating fact rather than reflecting it, firing her comment at Benedick as he stands within the circle of men. Either way, though, she takes occasion to exploit a weakness of Benedick’s, a weakness to which she’ll return in Act II. Even if the other characters on the stage don’t like what Benedick’s doing, they have the good form to engage Benedick on his own witty terms – as Leonato does when he responds that “her mother hath many times told me” that Hero’s actually his daughter. Beatrice, though, very straightforwardly accuses Benedick of irrelevancy. (In Act II, what sets him off, what really makes him angry, is her terming of him a “jester.” He then calls her words “poniards. Every word stabs.” More on that later.) It’s uncalled for, out of character with the scene. In fact, the entire exchange that follows (in Act I) has a gravity to it that all of the other general jesting lacks. They’re speaking prettily, but there’s really something to be won or lost in their argument. It matters. The fact that all the other characters are on stage watching merely emphasizes the gravity of the situation. There’s nothing “merry” about it.

But here’s the point. Beatrice’s final rebuttal – “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old” – is simultaneously perfectly in keeping with the conversation (they’ve been punning about horses) and revelatory of new information. Beatrice hints that they’ve been old acquaintances, at least as long, it sounds like, as the standing relationship between DP and Leonato. I mean, Claudio’s not new to DP’s service – he’s DP’s “right hand,” as Conrad or Borrachio later says – so how is it that he doesn’t know Hero? He’s younger than Benedick by implication, and Hero’s likely younger than Beatrice – it’s possible, obviously, that Claudio and Hero had not really “seen” each other before, coming of age before our eyes and falling instantly in love. But Benedick and Beatrice are different. That’s neither here nor there, I guess. For some reason, they have known each other, but Hero and Claudio have not.

But in Act II, both Beatrice and Benedick betray something of their pasts, however elliptically. In the first half of Act II, scene 1, as I’ve already hinted, Beatrice really angers Benedick by calling him a jester when he doesn’t know that she knows it’s really him. Stupid masques. Anyway, he complains in shrill tones to DP: “Oh, she has misused me past the endurance of a block!… I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all Adam had left him before he transgressed.”

Whoa, Benedick! Who said anything – anything – about the possibility of you marrying Beatrice? I guess it could be all the talk about marriage and marrying that pervades the play up to this point – Benedick’s vow to remain a bachelor and his harping against marriage, Claudio’s elaborate engagement plan, and so on – but I don’t think that’s enough to explain away this train of thought. I think there’s something else going on here.

A little later on, Beatrice sheds some further light on the situation. In the latter half of Act II, scene i (my version lacks line numbers), Don Pedro, trying to smooth things over, says to Beatrice, “You have lost the heart of Signor Benedick,” to which she replies:

"Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; 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."

This is the one and only hint throughout the play that the two of them have a history, a romantic history. When DP and Co. hatch the plan that will bring them together, no one speaks of this history; when the two of them eventually begin courting, professing love in soliloquy or aside, neither alludes to whatever past they share. So what do we make of these lines of Beatrice’s? They seem to imply not only that Beatrice and Benedick have engaged in some kind of courtship in the past, but that Benedick was somehow duplicitous – he won her heart “with false dice,” which might imply any number of transgressions (a word, by the way, that comes up three times in the space of a few lines in Act II) on his part. False dice are weighted or otherwise tampered with so that the gambler’s win is assured – did Benedick arrange things in an effort to predestine the outcome he desired? Or did he play false with Beatrice as so often happens in the young loves of Shakespeare’s plays – winning her with untenable oaths? He must have broken faith with someone, and Beatrice still feels it strongly.

I think all of the above points to the following: Beatrice and Benedick have been lovers at some point in the past. Something went disastrously wrong, though, leading to this standing feud in which they’re now engaged. Each of them reacts to the other more powerfully than the situation calls for – Beatrice leaps on every opening Benedick provides her, and Benedick is clearly discomfited when Beatrice rubs salt in his proverbial wound. He would like to be a counselor, I think, and is a “valiant” soldier, and her implication that he’s simply DP’s fool really stings. He has hurt her before, and she obviously knows where to hit him to achieve maximum effect. So where’s this going?

Well, three directions, but I’ll have to develop them later, as this is getting long-winded. But I hope to get them done today.

Direction 1: Benedick and Beatrice’s reincarnated romance reveals the true opposite of punishment or blame – which is not forgiveness, but forgetfulness (cf. Nietzsche: “On the Genealogy of Morals”), and in this light the ending of the play and some of the final lines in which Hero is almost literally restored to her pre-slandered state makes much more sense.

Direction 2: Beatrice provides us with an early version of “As You Like It’s” Rosalind, someone who is simultaneously in love and outside of love enough to provide her with perspective (cf. Bloom: “Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human”). There’s no play-within-a-play for one of the characters to direct in this comedy, unless one takes the very action on the stage for that thespian endeavor. (I’m looking specifically at the part where DP reveals that he has wooed Hero on Claudio’s behalf in earnest and both Hero and Claudio seem too happy to speak. The way that Beatrice directs that action, and in the same terms as those in which it will return to her, remind me of Rosalind teaching Orlando how to love her.)

I’m getting ahead of myself, I know, but I’m on a roll here. In Act II, scene 1, she says, “Speak, count, ‘tis your cue,” when Claudio cannot find his own words. That theatrical language seems significant to me. Then, when Hero likewise can’t think of any way to express her joy (she and Claudio are so BORING. Can you imagine the dinner parties they’d host?), Beatrice once again offers up some directions: “Speak, cousin; or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither.” I mean, perhaps Benedick takes special note of this advice. He’s there, after all, standing on the stage. And so it seems too coincidental that, at the very end of the play and to seal his love for Beatrice, he says, “Peace! I will stop your mouth” as he leans in to kiss her. He ends up embodying the lover that Beatrice was casting way back in Act II.

Direction 3: It’s actually not at all interesting, so I won’t actually get into it, but as long as I was thinking about the true opposites of things occasionally varying from the standard opposites that we hold up for them – like forgiveness and punishment, for example – the standard love/hate dichotomy is also a false one. I recall this scene from some recent movie in which some young man is pursuing some young woman who is totally uninterested in his advances. He says at one point, “Why do you hate me so much?” She responds, “I don’t hate you. I nothing you.” Damn.

And I don’t think I really need to develop direction 2 in any greater detail. So what I’ll do, then, is get back into that forgiveness thing later on and wait for AYLI before developing the romantic heroine-as-director bit.

All for now. Later, skaters.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

RE: Much Ado About Nothing - Back to Basics

Randall writes:

Ernst has given us a semester's worth of thoughtful prompts. I'll dig into Number 7 ― in the hopes that it'll bring me luck ― where he prods us to "notice how Don Pedro represents a kind of advance over Theseus in that he is basically in control throughout the scene. He has seen this world and is a thoughtful ruler. And his cautions ('I shall see thee ere I die, look pale with love') to Benedick, and 'what need the bridge much broader than the flood' to Claudio’s romantic shallowness … come true."

Derek and I were discussing what final questions we might throw at seniors in our Shakespeare class next month, and one came up about advisers, how certain characters operate within Shakespeare's plays as truthsayers. Friar Laurence, for example, warning Romeo "these violent delights have violent ends" and "they stumble that run fast," both of which come true.

Don Pedro's words would put him in this role, a wise, but restrained, adviser. In addition to his appraisals of Benedick, he is also the voice of proverb, but to be honest I have not done an extensive review to see what sort of characters in Shakespeare tend to mouth the abundant proverbial allusions that turn up in his plays. Here, in lines like "In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke," Don Pedro seems to amplify the wisdom we find a few lines earlier in "I shall see there, ere I die, look pale with love."

[A digression: I find myself very confused about Don Pedro's proposal to woo Hero for Claudio. This seems unprecedented. Later we'll have Cyrano wooing , but where in Shakespeare does a friend/advisor/father-figure do something like this? And does this particular action come from some source text? And what cultural custom accounts for it? My Folger neatly glosses Don Pedro's line ― "If thou dost love fair Hero, cherish it,/ And I will break with her and with her father,/ And thou shalt have her" (1.1.303-305) ― as meaning that he will reveal that matter to Hero and Leonato. We've seen this phrase "break with" in Two Gentlemen of Verona, when the Duke tells Valentine "Stay with me awhile;/ I am to break with thee of some affairs/ That touch me near, wherein thou must be secret" (3.1.58-60) and in 1 Henry IV, when Glendower suggests Mortimer, Worcester, and Hotspur "Break with your wives of your departure hence" (3.1.143). In each case it means to inform or to explain, but the modern reader is going to wonder if Don Pedro was betrothed to Hero prior to handing her over to Claudio. Is there any possibility that the Elizabethan audience would've heard the same? Would that have made Don Pedro's wooing her for Claudio make sense? I note that this latter sense occurs in Merry Wives of Windsor, when Slender tells Ford that he and Shallow "have appointed to dine with Mistress Anne, and I would not break with her for more money than I'll speak of" (3.2.50-52). So how would a groundling have taken Don Pedro's plan? End of digression.]

Returning to Ernst's comment that Don Pedro seems an "advance" over Theseus, I wonder if the two don't simply embody different character types. Looking back at Midsummer Night's Dream, I don't think we'd find Theseus in the same kind of role. He is more law-giver. And the law in Shakespeare often exists to be thwarted, as opposed to acting as wise guide. In Bill Matchett's endlessly rewarding essay "Shakespeare and Forgiveness" (2002), he reminds us that the younger generation "foils" the elder as a component of comedy. Thus Theseus lays down the law on Egeus's behalf ("For you, fair Hermia, look you to arm yourself/ To fit your fancies to your father's will;/ Or else the law of Athens yields you up.") at the beginning of the play but reneges at the end ("Egeus, I will overbear your will."). Similarly, Matchett points out, at the beginning of Comedy of Errors Egeon is condemned to die by the Duke ("we may pity, though not pardon thee") then released without payment of his penalty even though it is offered at the end of the play by Antipholus ("It shall not need; thy father hath his life"). So, law-givers, whose formal rules are thwarted by youth and comedy, are not advisers who see through comic foolishness (like that of Benedick and Romeo).

To extend, law-givers are made foolish because their rules are undermined. They have no wisdom in the face of greater forces, like Fortune or love. But when Romeo cries out "I am Fortune's fool," he is confirming the wisdom of his adviser, Friar Laurence. I'm not arguing what Ernst suggests, that such advisers have control. Certainly, Friar Laurence is caught up in the same star-crossed grinder that condemns Romeo and Juliet, although that may be the Fate of the adviser in a tragedy as opposed to a comedy, something else I'd need to look into deeper to establish consistently. But Don Pedro and his wisdom also lack complete control, or he wouldn't fall victim to the same trick that snags Claudio.

Speaking of which, we're often impressed by Shakespeare's doubling of things: twins, murdered fathers, lovers, etc. Here's another neat parallel. Jonathan Bate, in The Genius of Shakespeare, discussing Love's Labor's Lost, states that Shakespeare's use of "the device of overhearing is a stroke of comic genius because it dramatizes one of the chief processes through which comic satisfaction is constituted: dramatic irony, whereby we in the audience know more than the character on stage" (139). Notice how in Much Ado Shakespeare uses the the overheard conversation both in comic and tragic situations. Benedick (Act 2, scene 3) and Beatrice (Act 3, scene 1) are duped into overhearing conversations that lead them to believe the other in love with her/him. Don Pedro and Claudio are duped into overhearing Borachio call his girlfriend Margaret "Hero" to lead them to believe that Hero is unfaithful. The latter reminds us that dramatic irony is more than a simple comic device, as any viewer of Oedipus Rex will remind us, and Don John and Borachio's malfeasance anticipates Iago's manipulations of Desdemona's handkerchief more than any comic scenario.

I'm up for Act II, Ernst. To paraphrase a former president, Bring it on!


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Shakespeare - Trivia

Ernst writes:

Trivia 1: There has been a certain amount of ado lately about a portrait that might be of Shakespeare, the so-called "Cobbe Portrait." It is an amazingly well-haired picture for a man who must have been going bald. At first it was thought to be from the first decade of the 1600s, which led me to write the following silly letter to the Times (not published, of course):

To the Editor:

Around 1601, the dramatist Thomas Dekker wrote a play called "Satiromastix," which was designed to make fun of the rather self-important Ben Jonson. Its plot contains a likable but silly young suitor for the Widow Minever, a suitor named Sir Adam Prickshaft. Sir Adam, whose last name clearly references "shake spear," is bald. His competition with another fully-haired suitor boils down to a contest between two sonnets—one in praise of baldness, one in praise of full-headedness.

Not only is the bald Sir Adam a friendly reference to the Shakespeare, the playwright/actor himself might well have acted the role in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men production of the play.

Clearly Shakespeare was bald at an early age. If he managed to re-hair himself in time for the Cobbe portrait, he was a scientific genius as well as a poetic one.

Trivia 2: I mentioned that I have been helping a friend with a play he has written about Giordano Bruno (who followed Copernicus and asserted the vast size of the universe--no concentric spheres centered on the earth and holding sun, moon, and "fixed stars"). In the play, Bruno, in England in 1593, meets with Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney (a stretch, but remotely possible and dramatically useful). He recites for them a sonnet, but the only version of it my friend or I could find was a prose translation. The play’s dialogue has to do some brief contorting to account for this fact. So I took the prose, which is quite complicated, and turned it into a sonnet, hoping that would make it clearer—to the extent that both the actors and the audience could grasp it more easily. I’d value your opinions as to whether I’ve come close to achieving that.

Original (free-verse) form:

Thou art my delight and the warmth of my heart.
Thou makest me without fear of fate or of death.
Thou brakest the chains and bars
Whence few come forth free.
Seasons, years, months, days, and hours,
The children and weapons of time and that court
Where neither steel nor treasures avail
Have secured me from the fury of the foe.
Henceforth I spread confident wings to space.
I fear no barrier of crystal or of glass,
I cleave the heavens and soar to the infinite.
And while I rise from my own globe to others
And penetrate ever further through the eternal field,
That which others saw from afar, I leave behind me.

ESR Version (Italian Sonnet, more easily understood):

Thou art my full delight, warmth of my heart
Thou mak’st me fear nor fate nor grisly death
Thou break’st the chains and bars that stifle breath,
The prisons from which few men e’er depart:
The years, months, days, the seasons’ tedious hours,
Time’s progeny and weapons, and that Court
Where neither steel nor gold give true support
Or save me from the grim foe’s cruel powers.

Henceforth, I spread my wings and fly toward space,
I fear no crystal dome to stop my flight;
I cleave the heav’ns to view th’infinite’s face
And, as I rise above our sphere, delight
To pierce yet further realms of God’s good grace
And see earth’s earth-bound bounds from greater height.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Back to Basics

Ernst writes:

Moving on from the larger, profounder thematic concerns that have been discussed up to now, I took a closer look at Act I.

1. Notice how Beatrice dominates the beginning of Scene 1—with puns, smart-ass remarks—all the way up to line 91, when the guys come back from the war. That’s a good way to establish her as a presence to reckon with, and she continues in power until she leaves the stage at 140. And even Leonato and Don Pedro take her side againt Benedick at lines 104-7.

2. Notice the playful alliteration in lines 116-19.

3. Notice some of the early "notings": lines 156, 157, 181, 183, 238, 243, 245, 257, 296, 303.

4. Note that Benedick gives away his true evaluation of Beatrice’s beauty in lines 184-86.

5. Notice that Hero is "short" (line 206). This likens her to Hermia in Midsummer Night's Dream and thus, I would suppose, sets up Beatrice to be the tall, blond Elizabeth-like woman—like, I think, Helena.

6. Note the similarity between the "realist" Benedick at lines 238-241 ("look pale with love" … "With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord, but not with love") to Rosalinds’ similar decrying of romantic love in As You Like It. Even the cadences are alike.

7. Notice how Don Pedro represents a kind of advance over (?) Theseus in that he is basically in control throughout the scene. He has seen this world and is a thoughtful ruler. And his cautions ("I shall see thee ere I die, look pale with love" to Benedick, and "what need the bridge much broader than the flood" to Claudio’s romantic shallowness [I am stretching here] come true.

8. Confusion: In ii, to whom is Leonato speaking when he says, "O, I cry you mercy, friend. Go with me…"?

9. Scene 3. As I’ve been looking back into the worlds of my dissertation, it occurs to me that Don John may be—historically—a more significant creation than is often recognized. Apparently Shakespeare wrote Much Ado toward the end of 1598. A number of significant things were occurring in the "intellectual" community of the 1590s. In the middle 1570s, Robert Greene took a break from Cambridge and went to Italy (the home of Machiavellianism). In an autobiographical piece written shortly before he died in 1582, he writes that when he returned, he "ruffled out in my silks, in the habit of malcontent, and seemed so discontent that no place would please me to abide in, nor no vocation cause me to stay myself in."

The pamphleteer and sometime playwright, Thomas Nashe carried himself as a bit of a malcontent throughout the ‘90s. John Lyly had joked about malcontentedness in the early eighties (first use of the word in English drama), having one character say to another something like, "If you are a male-content, I am a female-content." Marston’s satires published in 1588 included satires against the malcontent-poseur Bruto, who made much of his melancholia and dressed in dark clothes. The first "comedy of humours" (An Humourous Day’s Mirth) had been written by George Chapman in 1597, and was followed in 1598 by Jonson’s Everyman in his Humour. Chapman’s An Humourous Day’s Mirth had contained a melancholy scholar named Dowsecer, who was clearly an intellectual "malcontent," but not an active politician/Machiavellian (a character named Lemot is that).

I think Shakespeare, who rubbed shoulders with these guys and their ideas, was interested in what we might today call Psychology, dealt with in the nineties through "Humours" theories. But what I hadn’t fully realized when writing my dissertation is that Don John is really the first psychologically melancholic Machiavellian revenger in the history of Elizabethan drama. Score one more for Shakespeare! It was an interest he would pursue on into Jacques, Malvolio/Fool [to an extent] and, of course, Hamlet (no one in the house would miss what the latter did when he "encumbered" (crossed) his arms and unlaced the top of his shirt and continued wearing his black. In 15 years, Don John would be (in a slightly dated conception) Webster’s Bosola.

(Incidentally, Hieronymo, in Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy (1587) was not really a melancholic revenger until Jonson changed his lines around the turn of the century and turned him into one.)

So there. Anyone up for Act II?


Monday, March 16, 2009

RE: Much Ado About Nothing - Performance Log (February 1984)

A few comments on the previous performance log:

First, superlatives these days make me uncomfortable, especially when they call attention to the writer's lack of experience rather than his authority in judgment. At the time I wrote about Much Ado in 1984, I had seen only 62 theatrical productions (my previous Much Ado, for example, had been performed by the Foothills Civic Theatre in Fort Collins, Colorado), and by the end of my London experience not only had I seen better performances by an actor on stage than Jacobi's Benedick, I had seen Jacobi himself in better performances, specifically as Cyrano in the RSC's production just four days later. So take the "best this" and "best that" with a grain of salt.

Second, I notice that the three small paragraphs on Jacobi, Cusack, and Carlisle beg for supporting detail. I wish I had it or had included it. This is what I think I'm getting at when I suggest that passing judgment short-circuits discourse. Either that or I simply lack(ed) the Renaissance abilities for copiousness.

Third, the line about Carlisle's "dramatic philosophies" begs the question. Here, from the previous day's journal entry, an approximate transcription of the conversation with Carlisle, is what that referred to and some interesting insight into the RSC's process in the early 1980s:

[John Carlisle] is a tall, thin man with thin, black, wild hair that comes down below his ears. His face is somewhat haggard and thin at the bottom, coming almost to a point at the bottom of his chin. He has that "lean and hungry look" and has indeed played Cassius. He wears wire-rimmed glasses which he puts on by taking hold of the backs of the stems and drawing them over his ears in a single backward motion, rather than stuffing them on from the front the way most of us do.

[Question:] How much do you, as an actor, develop your own part?
[Carlisle:] Well on the first day of rehearsal we come in and we're presented with the set and costumes. The designer and director have worked together for weeks deciding the direction and intent of the play. So when I read Much Ado I thought, here's a character who's just lost a battle, who hates his brother, who's been taken prisoner. So I'll probably be wearing torn clothes. Maybe I'll be in chains. And I came in and the designer presented me with this fancy costume. So I can ask, how do I reconcile having just lost a battle and being a prisoner with being at this party in fancy dress? And the director says, well you probably sat out most of the battle, giving directions on your horse from the rear. You lost, but he's still your brother, and so he invites you to the party to have some champagne. And I say, "right." So the character is pretty much developed for you when you enter into the play. What the actor has to work on is the little things.

Carlisle said that even with a character like Don John he meticulously works out what makes the character tick. He considered especially what makes him malevolent. Only once in the text is it mentioned that he is a bastard son. So Carlisle even went to the length to decide that [Don John] and his brother had the same mother rather than the same father.
Finally, the actual last lines of the play, Benedick's, are:

Think not on him till tomorrow.
I'll devise thee brave punishments for him.
Strike up, pipers! (5.4.131-133)

I'm uncertain who spoke them in the RSC's production. What interests me about this final scene in the production is that it creates the same dumb-show quality that I've mentioned finding at the beginning of so many excellent Shakespeare productions. Perhaps there is a useful, fuller essay to be written on these sorts of set pieces.


Much Ado About Nothing - Performance Log (February 1984)

As we take a bit of a break from our Much Ado discussion, I have transcribed a few portions of my February 29, 1984 London journal entry, from when I saw the play performed with Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack in the principal roles, one of many outings to the theater as part of Carleton's London program. The writing's a bit declamatory. But I was 21.

Much Ado About Nothing
directed by Terry Hands
Royal Shakespeare Company
London, England
February 29, 1984

I arrived back at the Avalon [Hotel] late in the afternoon, and after doing a bit of reading dressed for tonight's play at the Barbican: Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

The whole class was excited to see this play because we had talked to [actor] John Carlisle yesterday, and now we could see him exercising his dramatic philosophies on the stage. He was excited for us to see it, claiming that it was not over-produced as some Barbican productions are, that it relied solely on Shakespeare's material.

Seldom have I been so enraptured by a play, so caught up in its magical world, so completely satisfied by a single production. This trip has supplied some paramount productions, almost equally as satisfying, like Stoppard's The Real Thing and [the RSC's] Comedy of Errors, but this production of Much Ado was excellent.

The set was a floor of mirrors with a wall of Plexiglass as a backdrop. Imprinted on this latter were trees and behind it was a sort of garden, more trees, and drifting figures who occasionally danced, played, or just strolled by. It gave a sense that court life was going on during the play, that we were seeing a society in motion. On the front stage the play took place, Benedick's childish arrogance rebuffed by Beatrice's equally arrogant self-will, Claudio's wooing of Hero, and Don John's villainy. Shakespeare's Much Ado is a superb comedy, whose gaiety does not forget that a slight turn of events can change its smiling face quickly to a tragic mask. Claudio's renunciation of Hero, her purity defiled by his honorable oath against her supposed infidelity, brings the play very close to Romeo and Juliet.

The RSC played it immaculately, speaking lines in ways that never would have occurred to me when I read the text; yet each interpretation seems to be as Shakespeare would've wanted it. As I watched, I kept having the feeling "this is the way the play should be done."

[Derek] Jacobi was brilliant. His performance as Benedick was one of the best performances I have ever seen on the stage. Delightfully adolescent. And Sinead Cusack was fantastic as Beatrice. The two of them stole the show ... As a production, Much Ado would have stood as excellent without Jacobi and Cusack; they are like icing on the sugar cake.

[John] Carlisle had a rather small part, unfortunately, but his description of his attempts with the character of Don John, to try to transmit the bitterness he feels as a bastard child, to give just a "hint of the homosexual," made him very interesting to watch.

The most laudable aspect of this production was the RSC's incredible imagination, or insight rather, pertaining to "the little things." The play's last line, spoken to Don Pedro about the captured Don John is something like "Think not on him 'til tomorrow. / For now let us dance and be merry." A fairly typical ending to many of Shakespeare's comedies. But the RSC continued to play for another five minutes, couples encircling Beatrice and Benedick, Beatrice holding a pirouetting Benedick, Benedick failing to lift (the heavy?) Beatrice, the couples leaving, Benedick and Beatrice falling into an argument oblivious to the departure of the others, their realization, their kiss. Curtain.

Logged by Randall

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Usages

Randall writes:


Fascinating distinction, this "pardon" vs. "forgive" thread. This may be picking nits ― looking closely at "pardon," one sees the French pardonner or par-donner, which my French dictionary reminds me is "for"-"to give." Or for-giving.

In terms of subtle connotative distinctions, I've always thought of pardoning as a public act whereas forgiveness is more of a private one. A governor does not forgive a felon; he/she pardons him. If I steal your wallet, get caught, and am forced to return it, I don't ask you to pardon me, I ask for your forgiveness. And while an individual can beg someone's pardon (a kind indulgence), pardoning seems more official than the personal nature of forgiving. Are these distinctions modern? Given Shakespeare's closeness to the French and Latin roots of English, do we play a semantic game here? We might look to John here for expansion on contemporary usages or distinctions.

Shakespeare uses "pardon" five times in Much Ado About Nothing, tellingly in the masque scene where Don Pedro is proposing to Beatrice. She puts him off, begging his pardon ("But, I beseech your grace, pardon me: I was born to speak all mirth and no matter."), and then takes her leave of him to do some tasks for her uncle ("By your grace's pardon."). These strike me as necessary formality. Beatrice is trying to maintain the distance between herself (woman, daughter of landowner) and Don Pedro (male, Prince) without offending him. There is a clear sense of the imbalance of power here. The word "pardon" supports this sense, at least in my reading, because pardons as I understand them come from the powerful toward the (temporarily) powerless.

Benedick also uses the term:

"That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she has brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks. But that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me" (1.1.234-238).

But this is ironic; Benedick uses the term with sarcasm and disdain, coupled as it is with the suggestion that women are untrustworthy. In fact, his use of the term implies that women have power, while his resolution indicates that they have none. Later he will prove himself more malleable, but if we just focus on the term, "pardon" here provides a comment about power more than absolution.

A substantial usage comes from Claudio, in his ode to the dead Hero:

Now music, sound, and sing your solemn hymn.
Pardon, goddess of the night,
Those that slew your virgin knight;
For the which, with songs of woe,
Round about her tomb they go.

In Claudio's song, the goddess refers to Diana. And Claudio's plea for pardon again puts it on a path from powerful (goddess) to less powerful (mortal).

And "forgive"? It turns up only once ("forgiving" and "forgiveness" not at all), when Beatrice says, "Why, then, God forgive me" to Benedick's "I love thee" in Act 4. There's probably a lengthy argument to made about an attempt to establish the personal nature of the Christian God by aligning Him with forgiveness, but I'm not making it here. Beatrice's tone is enough to run her request to the blasphemous and undermine any conclusion I might want to draw about the usage of "forgive" and its personal/public nature. What's significant is that when it comes to pardoning or forgiveness, none comes from Hero. Instead we get only, as has been pointed out:

And when I lived, I was your other wife;
And when you loved, you were my other husband.
Another Hero!
Nothing certainer:
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid. (5.4.61-66)

If either forgiveness or pardon inhabit these lines, they are only implied in Hero's acceptance of the marriage. One might wonder if she ever had any choice; she's blatantly silent on the matter. (Does someone want to account for Shakespeare's giving a major character involved in principal action so few lines??) Rather, her final lines turn not to absolution of Claudio but to self-restoration of virtue. If there's an edge here, it is her reminding Claudio of her virgin status, which he had doubted, but that's neither forgiveness nor pardon. It feels like rebuke, but the kind one might get away with.

Given her lack of self-determination regarding her union with Claudio (Ernst reminds us that this is about class), I wonder if she's capable of offering pardon. Claudio can ask it, but Hero cannot give it unless he does. Perhaps Claudio will ask her forgiveness in a more private setting.

Forgive me for making this lengthier than it needed to be,

Monday, March 9, 2009

RE3: Much Ado About Nothing - Forgiveness

Mike writes:

Painting in Broad Strokes,

I think the distinction between pardoning and forgiving is a good one, given that Hero's pardon is simply the erasure of the necessary plot device that generates our conflict. Claudio and Hero's courtship, love, break-up, and reunification are all about as binary as the typical ninth grade passion -- it's on or off -- and the pathos of the cruelty runs the same arc:

1.Something terrible happens or is said.
2.Just kidding!

It's a blunt set-up to be sure, (a light switch comes to mind), but there's not enough difficulty for any of it to be truly distressing or satisfying. That's why Beatrice and Benedict are in the play -- Shakespeare's two prickly halves of witty interplay, so deft with language they're capable of believing the sound of their own voice and then actualizing it in reality. They're there to be difficult with each other and themselves.


RE2: Much Ado About Nothing - Forgiveness

Derek writes:

I probably shouldn’t be emailing everyone all at once, as I don’t have time right now to flesh out my ideas, but I wanted to kind of bookmark them for myself so I can come back to them and add the requisite flesh.

Randall notes all the problems in the courtship of Hero and Claudio, to say nothing of their problematic reconciliation. Hero doesn’t speak at all, Don Pedro woos in Claudio’s name, and so on. Randall notes that this is of a different character than the Beatrice/Benedict relationship, and he’s right. Benedict says to Beatrice in Act 5 (I don’t have the text in front of me, or I’d cite it) that they were not framed “to woo peaceably.” Peaceable wooing, the observance of an extraordinarily chaste social code, has provided the opening that undermines Claudio and Hero, and though things wrap up neatly at the end, one has a better feeling about the future of Beatrice and Benedict than the two “primary” lovers.

In fact, that’s the real distinction in this play, for me. The end requires no actual forgiveness, it seems to me – when Hero declares that she’s NEW, I take her at her word. The Hero that Claudio marries has never been slandered. Hero herself (in one of her very, very few lines) wipes out the very existence of the wrong. That’s pardoning, not forgiving.

This play is much more a play of circumstance than Two Gentlemen of Verona, to which Randall compares it. Two people love each other, though they never speak to each other, even, in Claudio’s case, to woo; problems arise; problems dissipate; marriage occurs. But neither of the two primary lovers changes at ALL in order to overcome these circumstances. The mores of the time period or Claudio’s own willingness to let the prince woo in his name, provide the external evil that is Don John access to his solemnity. Don John contrives to slander Hero, Claudio acts on the slander, Hero is shamed, and so on. But when they wed at the end of the play, it’s as completely restored characters – Claudio has LEARNED nothing from this whole affair, and Hero is reborn in the full chastity of her maidenhood. Benedict and Beatrice, meanwhile, evince decidedly more alteration of character. But now I’ve run out of time, and will have to pick up later on…


RE: Much Ado About Nothing - Forgiveness

Ernst writes:

Quick Response.

As I suggested in my list of comparisons, it may be that "class" has a role to play here. Claudio is, of course, an aristocrat and could, perhaps, be seen as a bit of an "entitled," lazy-brained snob by Leonato and Antonio (who may be predisposed to feel that way about him). He has to be brought low. His regeneration is somewhat ritualistic, which gives it less force than, let us say, than the "bringing low" of Isabella in Measure for Measure or of Lear. Isabella is forced to beg forgiveness for the man who attempted to wrong her and appears to have killed her brother; Lear is reduced to a big hollow O--nothing (the "nothing" from which SOMEthing comes).


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Forgiveness

Randall writes:


And so we come back to Shakespeare. Ernst has proposed discussing a series of structural relationships, and I've been making notes on classical and Christian imagery. Not sure how far I'll get with it, and it's currently a bit under-cooked. So I thought I'd start off with a comparative observation.

Reading Much Ado About Nothing I am struck by how many echoes reverberate from Shakespeare's past and upcoming works: Beatrice and Kate, Don John and Iago, Benedict and Berowne, Friar Francis's plot for Hero to appear dead and Friar Lawrence's plot for Juliet to appear dead, Hero and Hermione (from Winter's Tale, not Harry Potter), to name a few. A broad question is, does the nature of genre, during the Renaissance, impel different characters into like situations? Or does Shakespeare the popular entertainer recycle character traits and situations in order to please an audience? I don't really know where to start with this.

One more: Claudio and Proteus. As a modern reader, I'm appalled at Claudio's treatment of Hero. Yes, he has been given "ocular proof" of her infidelity, but her protestations mean nothing to him and his separation from her at the wedding rather than when he learns of her "transgression" seems vindictive ("this rotten orange," he calls her in the public shaming). Whether Claudio is justified or not is moot. As a viewer, I know he's wrong, that Hero is innocent and undeserving, so my sympathies lie with her (though they leave her maidenhood intact). And while Leonato has planned an elaborate revenge, telling Claudio that his calumnies have killed Hero, his forgiveness seems overly generous to me in that he builds into the vengeance the easily dupable Claudio's remarriage to Hero.

Two years back, Ernst cited David Bevington's thesis about Two Gentlemen of Verona, quoting that it "is in part a comedy of forgiveness, anticipating later plays in which the romantic protagonist is equally culpable and yet equally forgiven: Much Ado, Measure for Measure, All’s Well, Cymbeline" (WSE, Feb. 19, 2007). Gil followed up my aggravation about the abrupt late Act 5 forgivenesses, writing:

"In his short monograph, Shakespeare and Forgiveness, our friend Bill Matchett writes of Two Gentlemen of Verona: 'Forgiveness [the general subject of his essay] first becomes central to the plot with Two Gentlemen. As a convenient device for letting comedy end happily, pardon can be handled briefly; forgiveness, which necessarily involves problems of character, cannot. In Two Gentlemen, in his attempt to handle character change as briefly as he handled pardon, Shakespeare fell on his face. There is much to be said of this delightful play in other contexts, but its hasty ending is a disaster involving far-fetched ingenuity from directors attempting to save or make sense of it. …

'What Shakespeare gives us here is the outline of forgiveness: without flesh, it is ridiculous. It is not just that poor Sylvia has not been consulted nor her forgiveness asked—that 'O heaven!' (a challenge for any actress) turns out to be her final line in the play. Concern for Sylvia is a modern objection to the whole male-dominated love-and-friendship archetype. The major problem is that, even within the assumptions of the pattern, we can trust neither Proteus’ conversion nor Valentine’s forgiveness when they are presented so schematically. Both repentance and forgiveness demand more scope if they are to carry conviction'" (WSE, March 4, 2007).

Certainly, with Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare has put some flesh on the forgiveness. Leonato provides Claudio with a necessary comeuppance; he's told that Hero has died, and he will have to marry, sight unseen, Leonato's niece as penance for his gullibility. Compared to Valentine's "Then I am paid," the strings attached to Leonato's "And so dies my revenge" are significant. But two things disturb me here. First, I don't think Leonato's "revenge" refers to the re-marriage. Instead it is his desire to punish Don Pedro and Claudio, implicit in his statement to his brother, "My soul doth tell me Hero is belied, /And that shall Claudio know; so shall the Prince /And all of them that thus dishonor her" (5.1.44-46). Do they come to know this? Yes. Does their knowledge make them sufficiently repentant? Maybe. Leonato's anger passes easily when Claudio says rather equivocatingly, "Impose to me what penance your invention /Can lay upon my sin. Yet sinned I not /But in mistaking" (5.1.285-287).

I love line 286: "…upon my sin. Yet sinned I not." When a comedy resolves, I want more than the plot to work out. I want character to resolve too. Two Gentlemen of Verona feels distinctly unsatisfying because Proteus fails to deserve or earn the forgiveness he receives. To a lesser degree, Claudio's statement comes pretty close to "it's not really my fault." In addition, Claudio's repentance is directed exclusively to Leonato.

This brings me to my second concern. I realize my expectations may be modern (as Matchett indicates), but it seems to me that the real apology should go to Hero, and that it is her forgiveness Claudio should also seek. To return to Matchett for a minute, he points out that in Two Gentlemen of Verona Sylvia's final line precedes the forgivenesses, coming in fact as Proteus tries to rape her. Then she is silent. When Hero unmasks in Act 5, she gets the last line on the subject: "One Hero died defiled, but I do live, /And surely as I live, I am a maid" (5.4.65-66). That's as close to a rebuke as one might expect given the boy's club of the early comedies. So Hero represents a big step forward over Sylvia when it comes to resolution. Yet hers are also the last words Claudio or Hero have for each other in the play. (Each has one more speech, contributing to the unification of Beatrice and Benedick.) So there is no moment when Claudio asks Hero for forgiveness.

Perhaps if Hero were a stronger character, such a moment would materialize. I think one of the weirdest aspects of the play for me is Don Pedro's wooing Hero for Claudius. I don't understand the context for this. It seems artificial. It keeps the characters from one another, which I feel undermines their dramatic relationship (especially compared to Beatrice and Benedick). And it really marginalizes Hero, because the relationship is decided by Don Pedro and Claudio. It's too bad they didn't make their wooing agreement in the form of a sonnet. And of course trouble ensues when Don John is able to suggest that Don Pedro did the wooing for himself.

More notable is that when Claudio and Hero become betrothed in Act 2, scene 1, Hero speaks not a word. Again, the discussion is between Don Pedro and Claudio. Beatrice chimes in to tell Hero to say something, but she doesn't until the penultimate speech in the scene, at line 367. At this point, she's been on stage for 160 lines. While Beatrice and Benedick spar and woo with words, Claudio and Hero woo with silence. Maybe if they talked a bit more, Claudio would not have been as susceptible to Don John's deceptions. What a curious couple.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Further Digression - Soul Weight

Randall writes:

Well, if you're going to bring up souls. Ask any group of adolescents, America's deep and informed body of film scholars, and they will tell you that the soul weighs 21 grams. They know this because there was a movie, although it wasn't really about soul weight even though the title alluded to it, called 21 Grams.

I don't know about your German scientists, Gil, but most allusions to a measurable soul weight refer to an American doctor, Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who, in 1907, conducted experiments on six terminally ill patients, weighing them immediately before and after death on a specially constructed bed "sensitive to a weight of less than one-tenth of an ounce." (The New York Times reported on his experiments in 1907.)

MacDougall believed his six experiments yielded four measurable results, which I have converted from ounces to grams:

0.75 oz. = 21.3 g
0.5 oz. = 14.2 g (a few moments later the total loss was 1.5 oz.)
0.5 oz. = 14.2 g (a few moments later the total loss was 1.0 oz.)
0.375 oz. = 10.6 g (a moment later the weight seemed to come back and loss was measured at 0 oz.)

You'll notice that it is only the first of the six experiments that popular culture has taken to heart. And while modern scientists discredit all of the experiments due to a suspect methodology and even MacDougall himself admitted that his sample size was wanting, writing in American Medicine, "I am aware that a large number of experiments would require to be made before the matter can be proved beyond any possibility of error" (Snopes.com), so that no rational basis for soul weight came from these experiments, this is clearly one of those concepts in which faith (not religious faith, just mere faith) trumps empiricism. After all, over a hundred years have gone by and we can still talk without laughter, in our classrooms!, about the weight of a soul.

MacDougall wrapped up his soul-searching career around 1911, trying to find a way to take pictures of the soul.

I would say all this is much ado about nothing (and thereby provide a segue back to our patient text), except I happened to read a couple years ago a little known science fiction novel by Andre Maurois ― The Weigher of Souls (1931). Like many great ghost and horror stories, the tale is told by an impartial observer who interviews the eponymous protagonist, Dr. Howard Bruce James. James describes some research he has come across:
"I once read an account, in a medical paper during the War, of an experiment made by a certain Dr. Crooks. He described how he had weighed the corpses of animals, and had observed that, after a period approximately regular in a given species, there was an abrupt drop in weight. … In man, he reckoned this fall as averaging seventeen-hundredths of a milligram. From which he concluded that the soul does exist, and that it weighs seventeen-hundredths of a milligram." (71)

For those of you without calculators at home, that's 0.17 mg or 0.00017 grams. Not bad accuracy for a WWI scientific measuring device.

Crooks is fiction, but his experiments, on animals, have a significant echo of MacDougall, who tried to get more consistent measurements with dogs. Finding people willing to die on his table must have been difficult. Maurois's Dr. James is less concerned with the weight of the soul, though, than its existence and specifically what happens to it after the physical body dies. The plot of the book focuses on his successful attempt to capture a soul, the soul of a man named William Slutter, and imprison it in a glass globe. Chapter 8 concludes thus:
"For after all, James, suppose that the law of human nature really is that a vital fluid escapes from our body after death, to merge with some universal resevoir of life, why and how should we stand in its way? Your globes are not eternal, and a day will come when, despite you, William Slutter will cease to be William Slutter. And what will you then have done but vainly prolonged an existence, under conditions which perhaps are dreadful? You have made an amazing discovery, and one which will give you one kind of fame when you choose to make it public … But you must confine the risk in these experiments to the bounds of strict necessity. 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …'"
"That reminds me," he said, "that I must take you to see Hamlet one evening … Good night!" (115-116)

All things, it seems, come back to Shakespeare.


RE: Giordano Bruno Digresssion

Gil writes:

Let me add a curious aside on Bruno:

As I received Ernst's and Derek's notes, I was reading Michael Innes's mystery Hamlet, Revenge (1937) [Innes is the pen name of J.I.M. Stewart, an Oxford don], and ran across this:

Giles Gott, the Elizabethan scholar producing an amateur production of Hamlet at Scamnum, a great country estate, "himself had been to Scamnum often enough, but always before he had shed there his professional role of scholar and antiquary. Talking and contriving Elizabethan theatre in the Duchess's drawing-room was disturbing; it induced a self-consciousness such as a Fellow of the Royal Society would feel if asked down to demonstrate the peculiarities of atom and electron. Centuries ago that sort of thing would have marched: when Fulke Greville and Giordano Bruno disputed on the Copernican theory in the drawing-rooms of Elizabethan London; when the noble family of Bridgwater moved through the stately dance and rhetoric of Milton's 'Comus' at Ludlow Castle. But now show was shop; and theatricals were theatricals―and the basic attitude of a scurrying contemporary society to them was that expressed by Sir Thomas Bertram when he put a stop to such nonsense in Mansfield Park.

"Leisure had gone. Of these people gathered here the abler were absorbed in the increasingly desperate business of governing England, of balancing Europe. And the others were not so much leisured as laboriously idle: fussing over Armageddon or demonstrating against brothers in Brazil" (Penguin paperback, 40-41).

Gilbert Findlay

P.S. Derek―did you know that German scientists weighed the dying and calculated that at the moment of death the body lost 5 grams? The conclusion: that's the weight of the departing soul.

Giordano Bruno Digression

Derek writes:

Weird note on Bruno: they say, and this might be apocryphal, that from the flames in which he was burned rose a great black fly...

I thought he was also involved in something more morally dubious than chastely opposing the doctrine of the church -- something like being something of a seducer of multiple married women. Or something. That's just what I heard...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Some Starter Questions

Ernst writes:

1. The play’s title is often seen as a pun on “Much Ado About Noting”; in other words, one of its major themes has to do what people take others to be, the “fronts” or “masks” that they put on, their ways of seeing through appearances and coming to valid understandings of their own and others’ situations. Simply describing these poses and examining how they work is a good way to get into the play’s structure.

2. Much Ado About Nothing is quite thoroughly structured—so as to set itself up for comparisons:
a. The Benedick-Beatrice Relationship vs. the Claudio-Hero relationship,
b. Benedick vs. the other men,
c. differences among classes (at least three classes are represented here; note also that Leonato and Antonio probably come up from the merchant class, as opposed to Benedick and Claudio, who are noblemen),
d. Hero and Beatrice (significance of classical and Christian names? [this is true of the male lovers too]),
e. the “English” stuff and the conventional (imported from Italian tradition) stuff,
f. the various characters’ different vulnerabilities and their ways of dealing with them.
g. the differences between Benedick’s and Beatrice’s “snipes” (if you can find them)

Also: I add the exceedingly strong suggestion that anybody in this group involved in teaching see the new French film, "The Class." It is a powerful depiction of what teachers go through with the sorts of classes one finds in cities today. The teasing question to ask about it is: Do you think this teacher's school would be improved by by giving the "better" teachers merit awards?

Also: I have been involved in a play about Giordano Bruno a friend has written. There is a fair bit on the Web about Bruno's possible influence on Shakespeare's thinking—adding, I suppose, to the latter's broader perspectives in his writing and some of the complex issues discussed in his sonnets. Bruno? The Times? I'm not sure. In any case, Sid (my friend) put a somewhat prosaic version-in-English of one of Bruno's sonnets into his play (no meter or rhyme) and had his characters very impressed by it. So I have tried to make it more impressive by re-writing the words as a makeshift Italian sonnet. Bruno was, as most of you probably know, a Copernican who was at odds with the Roman Church because, among other things, he asserted that the universe was not limited to the contained crystal spheres of the sun, the moon, and the stars rotating around it. His views of God's presence in all nature and out into infinity bothered them too. He was burned in 1600. The dubious re-write (as of the present):

Thou art my full delight, warmth of my heart
Thou mak’st me fear nor fate nor grisly death
Thou break’st the chains and bars that stifle breath,
The prisons from which few men e’er depart:
The years, months, days, the seasons’ tedious hours,
The progeny of Time, the tools of court—
Where neither steel nor gold give true support
Or save men from the grim foe’s cruel powers.

Henceforth, I spread my wings and fly toward space,
I fear no crystal dome to stop my flight;
I cleave the heav’ns to view th’infinite’s face
And, while I rise above our sphere, delight
To pierce yet further realms of God’s good grace
And see earth’s earth-bound bounds from greater height.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - Experiences

Stu writes:

Here's a brief story that tells you a little about what actually goes on on stage (and where my mind is usually at):

As an opening scene to Much Ado About Nothing, the director had decided to stage a battle between Don John and Don Pedro's troops. Since I was playing Borachio, I ended up on the losing side. As I knelt on stage next to the actor playing Conrade, the guard walked past and farted. Conrade and I started to chuckle as the guard took up a position behind us. Now, I need to point out that this was out-of-doors and a pretty good breeze was blowing. But then we smelled it. I don't know what the dude had been eating, but it was something mean and Mexican. Ultimately, Conrade and I were led from stage shaking with laughter and with tears in our eyes, pretending to be shaken with sobs of remorse. Now that's acting!

I also remember a great exchange during a rehearsal of IV,ii. As most of you know, an actor will call "line" during rehearsal if he or she has forgotten their lines, and the stage manager will read off the line. Our Borachio was not the sharpest pencil in the pack...

DOGBERRY: "Yea, marry, let them come before me. What is your name, friend?"

I'll also say that Much Ado is one of my favorite shows to appear in. My favorite production had me playing Don John. Directors too often allow John to be an ineffectual (and sometimes effete) whiner. In our production, the director had me beat the crap out of Conrad in I,iii, and it made John a much more ominous presence. The audience actually booed me at curtain call!