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.

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