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!


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