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.


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