Shakespearing #19 by David Foley
Much Ado About Nothing
Why are Beatrice and Benedick so funny? Maybe you can’t appreciate the force of the question unless you’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare lately, unless you’ve struggled through the sometimes dusty corridors of his humor, laboriously reconstructing jokes and trying to imagine how they landed four hundred years ago. So why is it so easy to laugh with Beatrice and Benedick?
I find among some old notes the following thoughts on The Importance of Being Earnest:
What survives in Shakespeare, as in Wilde, is wit (Beatrice and Benedick, e.g.). This seems counterintuitive. You’d expect the low humor to survive. What’s more universal than a fart joke? What’s easier to get than a pratfall? This ignores the extent to which wit is an action, an action of the mind. “Play of mind” is one way we describe it to our students, and both terms—play and mind—seem important. Earnest proceeds by paradox. A paradox, if we’re to believe Wilde, is the basis of the play. Its theme, he said, is “that we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.” The action of that paradox—the way that play of mind plays in your mind—is the work of the play. The reason we need wit is that it remakes the world for us, reorganizes it, reimagines its constraints. “Heartless,” Shaw called the play, but can any gift be more generous than a remade world? Or to be more precise, the gift is not the remade world—since why should we care if late Victorian England gets remade?—but the act of remaking it.
This puts the relationship between the parallel plots of Much Ado in a new light. Riverside says that Beatrice and Benedick are the “subplot” that provides a “vital interest” to the main plot of Hero and Claudio. But if that’s true, why do we leave the play convinced that they’re our leads?
My guess is it’s because they manage the meaning of the play for us; they tell us how to read its putative main plot. Most art, it seems to me, even before the open rebellion of the Romantics and the Modernists, registers an uneasiness about existing forms; and Hero and Claudio represent the existing forms. Claudio’s love for Hero is entangled in advantage. Even in its first throes, he asks for assurances that she’s her father’s heir. He throws her off as tainted goods only to be persuaded to marry another (albeit fictional) heiress of Leontes’ family. This idea of love as acquisition and woman as commodity, subject to inspection and repudiation, gives poignancy to Beatrice’s repeated cry: “O that I were a man!” As if that would give her power to remake the world.
Instead Beatrice and Benedick remake the world through wit. Like Wilde, they look at the “serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.” Their last exchange in which Benedick takes Beatrice “only for pity” and she takes him “partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption” is a liberating critique of the sturm und drang of the other plot, whose seriousness seems strangely trivial.
The forms are sturdy: the audience of 1598 was not likely to question the happy ending of Claudio and Hero. But Beatrice and Benedick allow us to reimagine it. Like Elizabeth and Darcy, in another work where the forms are sturdy, they allow us to breathe the bracing air above the constraints while remaining firmly anchored to them.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.