Sunday, April 12, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - A Triumph of Common Sense

Gil writes:


I’ve been really bogged down on Much Ado About Nothing: brother-in-law really sick; me sick — not debilitating but distracting ― twice; my computer quite sick three times. It all seems a long time since I read the play for the start of our discussion. These are my thoughts around putting Much Ado in some context.

Comedy is the social genre, entanglements of people, usually taking place in this time and this place, trading in human foibles, self-deceptions, weaknesses, and miscommunications based on limited perception (think of mistakes of identity). The Plot of comedy, for two thousand years, from Menander to I Love Lucy is variation on ‘boy sees and woos girl; obstacles arise (often parents but it may be the girl’s resistance until the boy proves himself worthy); then boy gets girl. [I’ll explain the end of comedy with Lucy on request.] Also, comedy is about us, though the textures of society, the conventions, and fashions change. Comedy is not necessarily a laughing matter, though one of the alazonic types, the agelast, one who is against laughter as is Don John or Malvolio, deserves ridicule. The direction of comedy is from disharmony toward harmony (thus, a dance or a marriage at the end, and don’t dare try to add a sixth act after the marriage), and the outcome of comedy is change, typically generational change, when the young couple replaces the older generation. Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare's first play that imposes common sense to resolve the disorderly landscape of comedy.

In Much Ado, the primary Plot would be Claudio and Hero. Claudio falls in love-at-first-sight, smitten by her physical beauty without any introduction other than her acceptable pedigree. Derek accounts for this abruptness with a reasonable speculation that these two young people have not heretofore been “adults.” Juliet, for instance, seems to have spent her fourteen years entirely in her nursery and at church, so Capulet’s feast is her very first excursion into society. Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it. No wonder Juliet falls in love at first sight, certainly a great comic plot until she is cast out by her father.

Claudio’s passion is entirely superficial: “In mine eye she is the sweetest lady I ever looked on,” and he plays a version of the chivalric unrequited lover, negotiating for Don Pedro to woo for him. This is surely parallel to the medieval lover playing plaintive melodie beneath his distant lady’s window. Romeo would be nailing sonnets to Rosalind on trees, but Claudio does not show enough intelligence to write or even to count to fourteen. Leonato, Hero’s father, approves of the match, so when it is time in The Plot for obstacles to arise (the test), they must be imposed artificially by the Don John/ Borachio/ Margaret intrigue, with Don Pedro and Claudio positioned to perceive ocular proof. They respond without common sense because they belong to the class governed by the conventions of chivalry. Both Don Pedro and Claudio are full of their self-aggrandizing sense of superior honor. Their righteousness seems equivalent of Hotspur’s impetuousness. It is brutally comic that Hotspur’s “die all, die merrily” applies only to their treatment of Hero.

The more true comic Plot is Beatrice and Benedick. Derek has explored their prior relationship ― some schism or betrayal has already raised the obstacle ― and he notes (smile) how the complexity of Beatrice’s relationship to Benedick is discovered. Thus Beatrice first describes Benedick: “In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed by the one” (I..i.61-3). The five wits are catalogued as common sense, imagination, fancy, estimation, and memory. In the Restoration the sixth sense is wit, intelligence, and it governs the traditional five senses. Here, my guess is that Beatrice credits Benedick only with fancy, but by the end of the play it must be the reassertion of common sense that restores order. Beatrice continues her commentary, this time to the masked Benedick himself: “Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders” (II.i.136-8). She is being witty about wit, yet if genius is said to be close to madness, here she sneers at wit in a way that perfectly anticipates Don John’s epitome of malice, the impossible slander of Hero.

Gossip is rife, based on overhearing plus intrigue (intentional deception). Thus, watching (“noting”) and making judgments that may well be false is a theme. The aristocrats contrive just such intrigue to delude or dupe both the B’s into being open to words of love from the other. But first, Beatrice exercises common sense in reading the integrity of Hero’s character, a matter of reason not of faith. Benedick accepts Beatrice’s judgment, in accepting, though delaying, her “Kill Claudio” command. And the Friar may supply the most common sense of all in assessing the denunciation of Hero as too irrational and counseling patience to see how events may evolve, how the practice of common sense allows truth to prevail.

Against common sense are tendencies toward farce: Claudio too easily accepts the Borachio deception; Don John’s congenital malevolent mischief making is merely a catalyst yet so uncentral to the denouement that Shakespeare abandons him after the deception dumbshow — nothing more than: ‘oh, by the way, Your brother John is ta’en in flight — Never mind, strike up the pipe”; and the linguistic muddling of Dogberry and Verges, uncomprehending witnesses to the truth.

Shakespeare, nonetheless, often will frame his comedies with a potentially tragic threat ― Egeon condemned to die by sunset in Comedy of Errors; Hermia condemned to die or be immured in a nunnery for disobedience in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Antonio’s death sentence in Twelfth Night ― to ground the comic in a “real” world. In Much Ado, the disinheritance and ‘death’ of Hero do not frame the comic action. They are the fulcrum, comparable to Capulet at the turning point of Romeo and Juliet, whom Leonato’s condemnation of his own daughter ― a father dishonored? ― echoes. The placement of the tragic moment raises Northrop Frye-like myth, death and resurrection, and you all have cited Hero’s “One Hero died defil’d, but I do live/ And surely as I live, I am a maid.”

(Lord, there’s the old schoolboy joke: Hero has lost her honor, so how can I get her honor back?—pause—rim shot).

But the central comic plot is the movement from disharmony ― Benedick’s “I will live a bachelor” (I.i.236) and Beatrice’s "[I will not be fitted to a husband] 'tiil God make men of some other metal than earth” (II.i.59-60) ― to harmony: Benedick, publicly ― “In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it. … Come come, we are friends. Let’s have a dance ere we are married” (V.iv.104-6, 117-18). Wit and common sense triumph over the foibles (and vices) of society. And then, as my mentor Roger Sale once said, one reads Much Ado About Nothing in order to learn to read Twelfth Night. But first a detour through the Forest of Arden.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - If I Were Stu, Part Two

Randall and Gil write:

Would-be Stus,

Another issue. After Much Ado’s dose of Dogberry, we miss Bottom. We miss Costard, Silvius and Nym. Hell, we even miss Launce.

These rustic characters can be the most, as Leonato might say and as he does of Dogberry, tedious in all of Shakespeare's works. Really, Dogberry only has one good line ("Oh, that he were here to write me down an ass"), and he repeats it three times. When we think of these rustics, it is not their wit that we enjoy, but their lack of it. So, it's not helpful to rely on Shakespeare to pull some of their more difficult scenes through for an audience. Instead, the success of a Dogberry or Silvius or Launce or Nym or Launcelot Gobbo relies heavily on the comic talent of the actor portraying him.

Bad actors, for example, tend to run to thudding farce, which is anti-wit. Farce, as we know, is best when it is understated. Even then the best rustics we’ve seen have been given a little something extra to work with by the director. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Launce’s dog, Crab, is often a toy attached to a stiff leash as opposed to a live dog, and so becomes a comic device. In Joe Dowling’s production at the Guthrie, Jim Lichtscheidl played Launce as a Rodney Dangerfield-like character, and the “I don’t get no respect” attitude was wonderful, bringing out the qualities of his set pieces like the one about the catalog of his girlfriend’s attributes. Gil saw a production of Two Gentlemen at the Boulder Shakespeare Festival in which, when the audience was restive during Launce’s misogynistic screed, the actor turned on them and said “I didn’t write this stuff.” Lichtscheidl did the same thing at the Guthrie, turning to the audience after a confused noise had interrupted him and explaining, “Hey, it’s Shakespeare.” Is it a surprise that actors given rustic roles seem to feel freer to drop character and ad-lib?

But Dogberry is a challenge. When Michael Keaton played him in Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, he tried to invigorate the character by reprising his Beetlejuice slovenliness. It made him more tedious.

What to do with Dogberry? Really, tediousness is not funny, but Dogberry’s, his over-estimation of himself, is crucial to the delay of exploding the Boracchio plot, because he lacks sufficient common sense to perform his office effectively. So he needs a naïve dignity, more innocence than bluster. His dim intelligence is not the contrast to Beatrice and Benedick’s wit in this carefully structured comedy. That is found in the shallow, conventional Claudio and the dignified, yet nearly silent Hero. Dogberry offers a different comic texture, separate from the social wit of the other characters. It’s like having both Kevin Kline and the comic who yells “Git ‘er done” (Larry the Cable Guy) in the same film.

So, does one abate the tediousness through comic device, giving Dogberry some hilarious prop? Or by adding some terrific character trait, like a stutter or an inability to find the right (or wrong) word or persistent flatulence? Or by linking his comic nature to a modern parallel, so the audience is provided with a different, accompanying kind of gag when he’s on stage? (And who are the rustics of our time? Are they Sandler, Carrey, and Ferrell? Is it George W. Bush? Was Bush channeling his inner Dogberry when he said "You're working hard to put food on your family"?) Or do you go for the surreal, outfitting Dogberry with a mountain-climber's pickaxe buried in his skull and which no one ever comments on? At least it would explain his difficulty with language.

Good luck, Stu.

Randall and Gilbert

Friday, April 10, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - If I Were Stu

Gil and Randall write:

OK, we're talking, worrying really, about Stu. He has to direct this play in a couple months. And precious little of our academic discussion is going to help him out. We see a few … issues. Here's the first:

What do you do with Don John? Current audiences lust for motivation, but Shakespeare doesn't give him much. This leaves directors to manufacture or highlight the raison d'etre of many of Shakespeare's villainous characters. Randall recently saw a production of Richard III, in which director Timothy Jopek had Anthony Sarnicki, as Richard, play the character as a straight Vice, a stock character from pre-Shakespearean morality plays. He came out delivering the "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech gleefully, plotting murder, speaking directly to the audience, and darting his tongue lasciviously in and out of his mouth, sort of like a Medieval Gene Simmons. The Vice character needs no motivation; he just is bad, but it was weird to see Richard played that way after seeing three previous Richards on stage (and others in a variety of films) who were constructed with clear motivations ― ambition, malcontentedness, deformity, or even pique. Gil saw an Othello at Ashland this summer, a very straight-forward interpretation, yet Iago almost pouted in soliloquy about how bad he felt that he was passed over for promotion by the arrogant Othello: Iago as wronged and vengeful employee.

Lately, it seems like a lot of directors are playing the sexuality card with the Machiavel or malcontent characters. Certainly McKellan's Richard in Loncraine's film has a hint of the homosexual. Peter Hall's 2005 production of Much Ado in Bath cast Charles Edwards as Don Pedro, a melancholy malcontent, who has "a homosexual fixation with Claudio, which explains why he is so keen to see his wedding ruptured" (Billington, The Guardian). Reviewer Peter Taylor added, of the Hall production, that "Hall makes [Don Pedro] out as lonely a figure at the end as Antonio in Merchant of Venice" (The Independent), which reminds us that Trevor Nunn cast David Bamber as a homosexual Antonio in the Merchant of Venice that starred Henry Goodman, providing an extra explanation for his willingness to help Bassanio and his "melancholy."

So, what to do with John in White Bear Lake (where Stu's company, Shakespeare and Company, performs)? What's his motivation? Does he need any? The risk of offering none is to leave him glowering at the edge of the stage, as did Keanu Reeves in Branagh's Much Ado, completely out of synch with the rest of the cast. But imagine a subtle gay turn to his carriage, silently devoted to his brother Pedro's favored lieutenant, Claudio. Stanley Wells, in Looking for Sex in Shakespeare, writes "Don John, in Much Ado About Nothing, ... is villainous, an outsider. He appears to resent the 'most exquisite' Claudio's impending marriage to Hero, speaks dismissively of her as 'A very forward March chick' (1.3.46, 52), and plots successfully to deceive Claudio into repudiating her at the altar. The text offers no clear explanation; more than one actor has contrived to suggest that he is motivated by repressed desire for Claudio" (83). At this point the sheer malice of destroying the bepedestaled Hero's reputation would be a practical manifestation of jealousy.

Before you offer motivation, though, you need to work around John's lines in Act I, scene 3: "I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad." And "I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any." And "I am a plain dealing villain." Yes, you may be, but why? Is it enough to rely on "Shakespeare's own habitual tough-mindedness," as Jonathan Bate puts it, "which … always recognizes that some human temperaments will never be pleased, or will take pleasure in being displeased"? (The Genius of Shakespeare 142).

Maybe this is an opportunity for one of those marvelous little dumb shows that we sometimes find at the beginnings of plays, perhaps depicting the young Pedro stealing a young John's girlfriend? Or is Don John a usurping malcontent, and we watch him plot an ambush, fail, suffer humiliation (at the hands of Claudio? in reconciliation?), before the triumphant Pedro rides into Messina?

Gilbert and Randall