MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Scroll down to read two director's notes for Much Ado About Nothing — one for Great Lakes Theater in 2002 and the other for Idaho Shakespeare Festival in 2001.
I. Much Ado About Nothing (2001)
Much Ado About Nothing has been enormously popular with audiences since its first appearance on the Elizabethan stage, generally considered to be the winter of 1598-1599. Since that time, theatergoers have delighted in the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick, garnering the play royal approval during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It formed part of the celebrations for the marriage of James I’s daughter and was much liked by Charles I, who noted the title as “Benedicte and Bettris” in his copy of Shakespeare’s plays. Positive public reception has greeted performances of variations based on the play from the late seventeenth century, when Davenant’s company combined Much Ado with Measure for Measure in a hybridized version called The Law Against Lovers, through our own time with Kenneth Branagh’s crowd-pleasing film adaptation. Popular culture continues to mine the witty battle of the sexes depicted in Much Ado, embodied elsewhere in Shakespeare by Katherine and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, as well as Rosaline and Berowne in Love’s Labor’s Lost. The wittily antagonistic conversation begun by Beatrice and Benedict can be heard still in the fast-flying dialogue of Hollywood’s screwball comedies and in the sexually-charged partnering on television shows such as Moonlighting and even Will & Grace.
Though Beatrice and Benedict have captivated our imaginations and inspired great artists of the stage for centuries, Much Ado About Nothing is as much the story of a society as a whole as it is the story of any couple’s love. Three plot lines — headed by the couples Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick, Dogberry and Verges — neatly intertwine to create a tight social fabric. Against this backdrop, Shakespeare gently pokes fun at the people of Messina and their attempts to control events in their lives generated by the arrival of soldiers after a war.
The characters of Much Ado About Nothing — proud, self-centered, self-admiring creatures — go to great lengths to maintain what F.S. Boas calls “an atmosphere of perpetual holiday.” But as conflicts prompted by rumors, misapprehensions and suspicions accumulate throughout the play, we may wonder if the exchange of banter and witty jests is in fact a desperate cover for an underlying social anxiety. It seems that “fitting in” is what really matters in Messina, and marriage becomes the ultimate symbol of social acceptance. Even characters as defiantly individualistic as Beatrice and Benedick secretly yearn for the safety and security of married life. “Good Lord, for alliance,” Beatrice exclaims as she witnesses the betrothal of Hero to Claudio. Though Beatrice and Benedick proudly assert their incompatibility , their public personas cannot entirely conceal the fear of ostracism that lurks in their hearts. Only Don John, a self-avowed villain, is fully prepared to forgo human society. His “evil” manifests itself in the dissemination of a lie which threatens to disrupt the union of Hero and Claudio and transform Messina into a world of insecurity and mistrust.
In much the same way, the spirit of optimism and celebration that began as Americans returned home after the Second World War would become a cloak for the paranoia and conformity which gripped America in the developing Cold War. What appeared as a golden age of innocence and simplicity was in reality more an era of fear than fun. As Americans rejoiced in the same false sense of omnipotence which prevails in Messina, they were drawn into an environment of deep suspicion, where one expected to be manipulated and learned to behave accordingly.
Much has been written about the play’s title. Is it, as Dover Wilson suggests, a cocky disclaimer for a light-hearted entertainment by a playwright who was “very sure of his public”? Is it a witty thematic pun based on the similarity of the Elizabethan pronunciation of the words “nothing” and “noting”? Or, is the title more knowingly full of meaning — an existential riddle? Is Shakespeare showing us these human follies to demonstrate what Ulrici describes as the “internal contradiction into which all human existence falls…when man, treating important things with playful levity, recklessly follows his momentary impulses, feelings, and caprices”?
In all likelihood, Shakespeare’s title refers to all these things and more. His dramatic language uniquely capitalizes on the mercurial nature of meaning to reveal the deepest and most delightful truths about the human experience. As always, he asks only that we try to see something of ourselves in the foibles of Beatrice, Benedick and the rest. As we laugh at the people of Messina, we must of course laugh at ourselves and the potential in each of us to make much ado about nothing.
II. Much Ado About Nothing (2002)
Though most often celebrated for Beatrice and Benedick’s witty sparring, Much Ado About Nothing is as much the story of an entire society as the tale of one contentious love. The people of Messina proudly extend their hospitality to a battalion of soldiers returning from war. They go to great lengths to maintain their victorious spirit. But as conflicts accumulate — prompted by rumors, misapprehensions, and suspicions — witty banter and mischievous jests become their only defense against a mounting anxiety. Security gives way to uncertainty as the characters of Much Ado must struggle through the unexpected results of their good intention.
A similar spirit of optimism and celebration greeted the return of soldiers from the Second World War. That spirit would become a cloak for the increasing paranoia and nervous conformity of Eisenhower’s America. As the Cold War began to brew, what appeared to be a golden age of innocence was revealed to be an era fueled more by fear than by fun. Americans rejoiced in the same false sense of omnipotence that prevails in Messina, while forces beyond their control fostered an environment of deep suspicion, where one expected to be manipulated and learned to behave accordingly.
Much has been written about the play’s title. Is it a cocky disclaimer for a light-heated entertainment by a playwright who was very sure of his public? Is it a witty pun on the similarity between the Elizabethan pronunciations of the words “nothing” and “noting”? Or, is the title more knowingly full of meaning — an existential riddle? In all likelihood, Shakespeare’s title merits all of these reading and more. His dramatic language uniquely capitalizes on the mercurial nature of meaning to reveal the deepest and most delightful truths about the human experience. As always, he asks only that we try to see something of ourselves in the experiences of Beatrice, Benedick and the rest.
After the events of the past year, it seems possible to identify on an even deeper level with the characters in Much Ado About Nothing — to recognize in them a society that has experienced the shock, the anger, and the sadness of war. A major battle has ended, and a city’s inhabitants band together to pick up the pieces. An uncertainty about the future persists. Unknown dangers most certainly lurk in the shadows, but people find a way to carry on. They allow themselves to laugh again — at themselves and at each other. They eat and drink. They dance and sing. And, oh yes, they fall in love.