Why This Play?:
Time and again, this play makes an appearance when I need to shake up my life. Seriously, it magically worms its way onto my path, gives me a kick in the ass, and points me onto the proper bend in the road I didn’t previously notice. Much Ado’s characters, its humor and love, its theme of redemption/forgiveness in the face of darkness always manages to pull me out of a funk; to kick my ass into gear again.
This is easily one of my absolute favorite plays ever, for so many reasons. Yet I have found this the hardest blog post to write thus far. I normally crank out reading/writing/posting in a week’s time, but I’m clocking two full weeks on this one. I keep procrastinating; using allotted writing time to listen to Benjamin Booker (AMAZING) while staring at a blank screen, or to re-watch that stupendous video of the guy bothering his girlfriend with IKEA puns. Why is it that the things dearest to our hearts are sometimes the hardest to put into words? I had to chew on this one for a while, and I still can’t do it justice. Let’s discuss the play itself, then I’ll dive into a couple of my personal stories further below.
In Messina, governor Leonato readies his home to host the returning prince, Don Pedro, after a vague war of some sort. Don Pedro has defeated his illegitimate brother, Don John, and is bringing his buddies to Messina to celebrate. Leonato’s sweet daughter, Hero, and feisty niece, Beatrice, are around to welcome the soldiers. Don Pedro arrives with his bitter, defeated half-bro in tow, as well as young, valiant Claudio and witty sworn-bachelor Benedick. Turns out that Benedick and Beatrice have known each other for awhile, and they bicker mercilessly once reunited. Claudio instantly falls hard for Hero. He’s teased a ton by his buddies but Don Pedro offers to help him woo Hero and gain her father’s approval. Don John learns of Claudio’s love from his own followers, and swears to ruin everything since Claudio helped defeat him.
There’s a masked ball! Disguised Don Pedro puts the sweet moves on Hero in Claudio’s name. Beatrice unknowingly speaks all sorts of slander about Benedick to a disguised Benedick. He’s not pleased. Despite meddling from Don John, Don Pedro successfully woos Hero for Claudio and the two are happily engaged. Don John doesn’t sweat it, though – his pal Borachio has a swell plan to seduce Hero’s servant Margaret in front of Claudio and the prince, while making them think she’s actually Hero. Witnessing B & B’s war of words, Don Pedro decides to play matchmaker again and enlists Claudio, Hero, and Leonato to trick Beatrice and Benedick into loving each other. While Benedick mopes over his buddy’s engagement, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio stage a conversation (knowing full well Benedick’s eavesdropping) to discuss how Beatrice is pining away for love of him. Dude buys it hook, line, and sinker; alone, he comes out of hiding, fully on board to get with Beatrice.
Hero enlists Margaret and Ursula to hold a similar gulling of Beatrice. They talk about how Beatrice is too proud to ever love anyone and that Benedick adores her despite her scorn. Beatrice is amazed, and tells herself she is ready to love him in return. Don John corners Claudio and the prince and says Hero is disloyal – what’s more, he’ll prove it that night. Bumbling constable Dogberry sets the local watch out to guard Leonato’s place. Later, Borachio relays the story of how he tricked Claudio et al into thinking he was with a disloyal Hero. The watch stumbles upon him and Conrade and takes them into custody. The next morning, Hero and the ladies ready for the wedding and tease Beatrice about Benedick. Dogberry tells Leonato that he has some varlets in custody, and Leonato asks him to take their examination.
Hero and Claudio’s wedding begins. Claudio publicly denounces Hero as a whore, supported by Don Pedro. He’s torn up about it, but he’s also pretty cruel. Hero faints and Claudio/Pedro/John peace out. Leonato believes the men and starts to chastise his daughter, but the Friar who was to marry them stops him. Benedick and Beatrice both believe Hero’s innocence, as does the Friar. The Friar concocts a plan to fake Hero’s death to make Claudio miss her, at least until her name is cleared or he feels remorse. Beatrice and Benedick are left on their own, and they haltingly profess their mutual love. Beatrice, distraught over the accusations against Hero, convinces Benedick to challenge Claudio to a fight. Dogberry and his crew get full confessions from a contrite Borachio as to his part in the slander against Hero when he hears word that she is dead.
Leonato now thinks his daughter is innocent. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having “killed” Hero, which shocks and saddens Claudio and Don Pedro. He also shares news that Don John has fled Messina. Dogberry presents Borachio and reveals his treachery to Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro. A devastated Claudio says Leonato can punish him for his mistake, and the old man says that Claudio has to mourn Hero and then marry her twin-ish cousin. The wedding occurs, with all ladies veiled to hide their faces. Claudio swears to marry as Leonato wishes, no matter what his bride looks like. Hero reveals herself and forgives Claudio, who is amazed at their second chance at a happy life. Benedick asks Beatrice, in front of everyone, if she loves him. They each proudly try to deny their love, until Hero and Claudio provide written proof from each of the lovers that show otherwise. Benedick and Beatrice make amends, declare their love and intent to marry to everyone, and the whole party has a big dance before the weddings. The whole shin-dig ends with Benedick telling Don Pedro to “get thee a wife.” Yay, love and forgiveness!
Check This Out:
Anyone remotely interested in this play should check out both the 1993 Kenneth Branagh movie and the 2012 Joss Whedon version – mostly because they each excel at different aspects of the play. Consider the following:
- Branagh version: Branagh is a very, very funny Benedick because he has such a great read on the language. He and (his then wife) Emma Thompson have electric chemistry. It’s set in a lusty, gorgeous Italian countryside, so very pretty to look at. Plus, the hilarious Michael Keaton steals the entire show as a super-crusty Dogberry who gallops around on an imaginary horse.
- Whedon version: Amy Acker is a beautiful, funny, and at times heartbreaking Beatrice. Whedon sets the scene by showing the audience that B & B had been romantic prior to the action of the movie, and that first false start stemmed their enmity. Sean Maher as Don John is wonderfully blasé about his villainy, and is 80x better in the role than Keanu Reeves in Branagh’s film. The jokes are smooth and well-delivered.
Thoughts and Themes:
I did a lot of acting as a teenager. I was never quite naïve (or talented) enough to pursue it as a career. For me, it was never really about being lauded or recognized. My love of theatre came from the fact that I have always adored getting out of my own head and immersing in stories. I also appreciate that any show manages to create its own little kick-ass family for a period of time. You all embark on a project together, everyone on relatively even footing – everyone starting on the same page at the same time. Even if you act with the same people again in another show, the dynamics shift and you are forced to build all over again. There is a timeline, a final product to achieve, and a community that bands together in creation. It can be magical. Post-school, adults don’t get a lot of opportunities like that in the real world.
I continued doing theatre when I went to UCLA…but after a year, I became very intimidated. In Los Angeles, everyone’s trying to some degree to get into show business, and there are many talented people around. For a girl who just wanted to act for fun, I felt like someone’s little sister tagging along, begging to be included. Classic case of big fish in a small pond that became a guppy in an ocean. I got involved in other activities and slowly bowed out of the theatre world. I spent a very happy period joining a sorority, making great friends, partying hard while studying hard, and settling in with a wonderful boyfriend. I enveloped myself in a pretty, insular little world and stopped thinking about anything outside of my bubble.
The opportunity to act in Much Ado was a total windfall. A group of students from a summer study program in Stratford decided to form a Shakespeare society at UCLA and put on their inaugural show in spring of 2003. [I wasn’t of that group. One of the very few regrets of my life is that I did not pursue study abroad! Again, I was too comfy in my bubble to dare to leave it for a couple of months. Big dummy, me.] One of my co-workers and an old friend from high school (Eddie, my former Drama Club co-president!) were both in the show, and they each informed me that an actor has dropped out after being cast. Without even auditioning, I found myself agreeing to play the Friar and a member of the watch – which means Eddie either vouched for my skills, or the troupe was just that desperate.
Suddenly, I was immersed in a group of people who didn’t all have the same friends, go to the same functions, wear the same things, or (holy hell) live in the same house. I felt that warm and familiar sense of teamwork I had been missing. I rediscovered the joy of speaking beautiful words to an audience, helping to convey meaning in language that’s not always easy to understand. I became a better actor by watching and knowing my talented cast mates. Some of them have legitimately gone on to show business, but most of them, like me, were in it for the fun and the new friendships. A welcoming group without a serious agenda.
I still loved my existing sisters and friends, and do to this day. But participating in Much Ado helped me to see how insular I had become. Having outside interests from my existing group and routine helped me to bring more to the table, to become a more interested and well-rounded person. It helped me to see that I was not as independent as I had always thought. I watched my kind, funny new friend John play Benedick, and his portrayal helped me fully realize what a transformation that character undergoes. At the start of the play, he’s a witty soldier, part of a jocular “boys club” and entirely dismissive of women. By the end of the play, we’ve seen him become a defender of women, a lover, more compassionate and open. It’s not just that he’s fallen in love and is acting on behalf of his lady. It’s that he’s finally grown up and altered his limited viewpoint enough to start acting as a man worthy of love. We should all be so willing to change for the better. I expanded my group of friends and my interests, and became much more independent as a result of this production.
Flash forward 12 years (good God, has it been that long?!) to just this past winter. After college, I applied for all sorts of jobs and ended up choosing the most immediately lucrative and steady option (client management, then human resources). I moved along over the years, expanding, training, and taking new opportunities and responsibilities as they arose. I was good at what I did without ever being particularly excited by it. Over the last two years, I found my work to be less about creative solutions and more about cleaning up administrative and regulatory headaches…and the fires I worked so hard to put out kept reigniting. I reached extreme levels of career angst (not ennui or weltschmerz!).
First and foremost, I was (still am!) a mother and wife. My family is of the utmost importance to me. More and more, I had to bring work home, or I would be so wired from the workday that I couldn’t sleep at night. I was overloaded to the point where my stress levels made me physically sick; I just wasn’t taking care of myself. And somewhere in all that, I became less enthusiastic about almost everything. Any interests or hobbies had fallen by the wayside, and I felt pulled in so many directions that I could barely connect with…myself. In the midst of all this, my Facebook feed presented an ad for a free online course run by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Curious, I discovered the class was a 2-3 hour a week commitment to focus on the history, text, and most recent RSC performance of Much Ado About Nothing. I mentioned it offhand to my (studly, encouraging) husband. He urged me to set aside time to participate, hoping it would shake me from my funk. I was excited at the prospect of a project that would pull my mind away from schedules and deadlines and guilt trips. Something just for me, without cost or fuss.
In March of 2015, I delved into an engaging class with people from all over the world, interacting with strangers who were also just excited to learn and discuss. I chipped away at the online lectures and discussions when I found free time – my lunch break, early in the morning, or after the kids went to bed. We debated character motivations via the text, we learned about how troupes in the Bard’s time would have put on a show, we parsed puns, and we watched snippets of the current and past RSC productions of the show to compare interpretations. It was utterly fascinating, and I was excited each week to participate.
And just as it did in college, Much Ado forced me to look inward. Certainly the events of being in a production and studying the play both helped shake my routine. But the play itself did as well. A decade ago, Benedick and his ability to change his perspective influenced me. This time around I was drawn to Claudio and Hero – to their whirlwind courtship, the mistaken cruelty and pain inflicted, and the repentance and forgiveness that brings them together again. The very title of the play sums up what happens between the lovers: “Much Ado” (Claudio’s jealous misery and resulting rage) “About Nothing” (Hero did nothing to give him cause for jealousy). The play escalates from happy times to anger and anxiety extremely quickly, causing everyone else to be swept up in one man’s frenzy. Claudio learns of his wrongdoing, but he’s only allowed forgiveness and love when he has calmed down, repented, and regained his decency.
I want to go on record: my Hubs is a brilliant man, and the vast majority of his ideas are good ones. He knows I respond best to nudges, not pushes. I had spent two years goading myself into a frenzy, convincing myself that I was supposed to watchdog everything around me. In that frenzy I lost a bit of myself (alas, the calm and fun bits). My stress made me a bear and wasn’t good for my family. Like Claudio, my turmoil was mostly my own creation. Letting it go would be the only way to move on to a new state of mind. While I was working on this course, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted and what would work best for my family. Hubs was my counselor throughout it all, mostly listening and occasionally guiding. Before the Much Ado course was even finished, we had made plans for me to stop working to stay home with my family for the interim. I left my old career in June, and I have been a much calmer and more satisfied person since.
The RSC course was what got me thinking about Shakespeare again. It made me want to explore all of his works, not just return to my old favorites. Reading the canon, writing this blog…I’m not under any illusions that anything will ever come of it. It probably won’t set me on a new career path or teach me the meaning of life. But it’s cracking me open bit by bit. Helping me learn commitment, balance, and the importance of saving just a teeny piece of my headspace for myself. So for the two of you who are still reading at this point – thanks. We’re all a work in progress; it’s exciting to think of where we could be heading.
Time for me to take a step in more uncharted territory. I'm in the mood for action, drama, and laughs. Let's see what Falstaff is up to! Henry IV Part I next...