In: Criticism

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

I finished William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing almost a week ago, and now with a brutal election season finally over, I’m going through campaign withdrawl. I’m almost wishing I’d read one of Shakespeare’s political plays–Richard III, for example, or Julius Caesar. (Come to think of it, aren’t most of Shakespeare’s plays political to some degree?)

Don’t get me wrong, I loved Much Ado About Nothing–I walked around the office, smirking and resisting the urge to quote some of the play’s witty anti-marriage lines ("Go to, i’ faith, and thou wilt needs thrust thy head into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays")–but now I wonder if a play about deposing a king would’ve been a more appropriate celebration for Barack Obama’s landslide victory.

Just as world leaders would do well to read some of Shakespeare’s history plays, I think anyone considering marriage should read Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a sharp play, filled with dirty jokes and character-assassinating insults. To read Much Ado About Nothing is to realize how black Shakespeare’s comedy really is. Of course, this is the man who wrote Hamlet and Macbeth, so we shouldn’t expect Much Ado About Nothing to be a literary ray of sunshine. It ends happily, just as you would expect, but there’s a cynical underbelly to the proceedings. Shakespeare knows what his characters are getting into, even if they don’t; he seems to be implying, with a twinkle in his eye, that marriage is often fraught with disappointment, that it requires far more effort than most newlyweds bargain for.

Jane Austen fans, take note: with Much Ado About Nothing, you’ll find the inspiration for Pride and Prejudice, although Shakespeare’s mismatched lovers are wittier and meaner than Darcy and Elizabeth. Beatrice’s numerous attacks on Benedick’s manhood, as well as her implication that he and Claudio are lovers, made me think, God, what a bitch. That’s a good thing, though. Had she not been such a bitch, I don’t think she would’ve been nearly as compelling, or the play as popular as it is. (Of course, Benedick should get equal credit for much of the play’s charm. He’s just as witty and cynical as she is.) Much Ado About Nothing is a battle of the sexes, but here we have strong characters in the gender roles–men will root for Benedick, while women will root for Beatrice. But the real power, I think, comes from the way in which Shakespeare depicts men’s and women’s mutual distrust of one another. No man will ever please Beatrice–her personality, as well as her derision towards men in general, hints at a woman scorned. Benedick, similarly, has a love-hate relationship with women: he often talks about his sexual exploits while denigrating women to various stereotypes.

A serious reading of Much Ado About Nothing would probably infuriate the most hardened feminist, and for all the wrong reasons. Yes, Beatrice "settles" for Benedick. Yes, Benedick is a misogynist, and John the Bastard’s efforts at portraying Hero (who is about to marry Claudio) as a slut are disastrously successful. But Much Ado About Nothing is very much a play of its time. The Elizabethans were just beginning to marry for love, but marriage was still an institution in which class status mattered most when considering a suitor, but the play is also startlingly modern. Beatrice’s refusal to be controlled by men and, by extension, her insistence upon female independence, carries echoes of modern-day feminism. (However, since the reigning monarch of the time was the never-married Queen Elizabeth I, maybe Shakespeare’s strong female characters–Cleopatra, Desdemona, and Lady Macbeth, among many others–shouldn’t surprise us.) But such deeper feminist readings, while certainly debateable, might only detract from the play’s light, dry tone. Shakespeare is making fun of marriage–at times outright attacking it–but it’s done in a way that’s quite humorous. Much Ado About Nothing is irreverent (as implied by the title), with Shakespeare taking jabs at men and women equally, but it’s the "skirmish of wit" between Benedick and Beatrice that makes it so enjoyable. It’s also one of the greatest odes to single life ever written.

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