The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
January 16, 2007

A culture clash between two very different practices of female life: Much Ado About Nothing - RSC at the Novello Theatre, London

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing
directed by Marianne Elliott
Royal Shakespeare Company
Novello Theatre, The Aldwych, London
7th December 2006 - 6th January 2007

Here is the comedy in which Shakespeare invented romantic comedy, or romcom as we say these days. From Much Ado to a film such as His Girl Friday is a pretty direct line.

Further, the Beatrice and Benedick plot is apparently one that Shakespeare actually made up himself. It is so good that Berlioz, in treating the play operatically, left out the other component of the play entirely. Who would not?

The second plot that dominates the later acts of Much Ado was apparently a hoary old story known in many earlier versions and obviously appealing to something strange in the pre-modern psyche. For Shakespeare, it was a story illustrating the horrors of slander, a subject in which he seems to have taken a close interest.

In this version, the young and brave warrior Claudio from Florence claims to love Hero, but is set up to believe that she has betrayed her love for him, and indeed is a whore. He chooses the moment of their wedding to denounce her. Claudio's lack of faith in her is thus compounded by malevolence and cruelty. The story may have played well in mediaeval times, but modern audiences never have a moment's doubt that Claudio is vile. Such audiences also think that the whole story is pretty silly. Its only virtue is to allow Shakespeare to indulge in one of those three-Kleenex last acts in which everything is (implausibly) forgotten and love reigns supreme.

Claudio's disloyalty in believing the slander about the woman he is supposed to love is caused by a report that Hero has been dallying with a lover from her balcony. The "Hero" uttering the words from the balcony is actually her serving woman Margaret, who is in love with the villain Boracio and is playing her part innocently.

The force of the slander comes from its seeming to be based on the best kind of evidence: what has been seen and heard with one's own eyes. Seeing (and hearing) is commonly thought to be believing. The possibility that imposture might be involved occurs to no one, partly no doubt because there's no obvious motive. Yet the moment this charge of immorality is uttered, Hero's own father who has known her all his life is instantly persuaded that his house is dishonoured, even against the wiser hesitations of the priest presiding at the wedding, and of Hero's uncle Antonio. Only the operations of the bungling constabulary (not of course, to be confused with our own dear Met) reveal the deceit.

The RSC's production of Much Ado has a terrific Beatrice and Benedick. In directing it, Marianne Elliott has invented some marvellous business for both of them as, in their astonishment, they overhear their friends explaining that each is actually hopelessly in love with the other. Tamsin Grieg and Joseph Hillson make a lively pair of lovers, but Hero and Claudio don't really emerge with much individuality. The fault is, of course, Shakespeare's, not that of the players.

These two contrasting stories basically reflect a culture clash between two very different practices of female life. Beatrice belongs to a freewheeling English style of life going far back into the mediaeval period, a style that we may recognise from the work of Alan Macfarlane and other historians of that earlier time, and perhaps originating in Viking elements in the mix of British life.

By contrast, Hero emerges from the communal practices of southern Europe in which an heiress is less a person than a valuable property in family relations. Neither of these images relates to modern liberations, and it would be a mistake to think of Beatrice as proto-modern. She does, however, have a form of female independence with which modern audiences particularly identify.

Modern directors have an itch to get Shakespeare out of doublet and hose and into something more relevant. The wrinkle explored in this particular production is setting the events in pre-Castro Cuba. It's at least a pretty harmless conceit, and provides an excuse for some agreeable music. And it is certainly a livelier version of Much Ado than the all female production at the Globe a year or so back.

The two stories in Much Ado seem, I have argued, to belong to different worlds, but at an abstract level they can be seen as both treating the same question: illusion in human affairs. Claudio is induced to think that Hero is a whore because he misreads the signs he thinks reveal how she behaves when he is absent. And what happens to Beatrice and Benedick is little different. They hear talk, and they believe it! The basic difference is between benign and malign illusions being created.

But in both cases it may well be that the fabrications are powerful because they reveal deeper motives in those who succumb to them. Such is the general root of illusion: in some sense we want to believe it. Claudio's devotion to Hero is thus revealed as superficial, while a great hunger for love turns out to lurk beneath the hostile badinage of Beatrice and Benedick.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement