I fell in love with this Shakespearean play in middle school, after having watched Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version (above photo to left). I think this version of the story displays the best of the Bard’s wit, humor, drama and romance. Not only did it have a stellar predominantly British cast which included Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Branagh as Benedick (who were married off-screen while filming the movie, which is part of the reason they work so well together), but also Brian Blessed, Phyllida Law, Imelda Staunton, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves. And to this day, I can still remember the Balthasar’s song from the play/movie. In fact, that’s what I was singing in the shower this morning after watching a little bit more of Joss Whedon’s 2013 film version. Though I love the Branagh version, I must say that I am very impressed with Whedon’s black & white interpretation. I thought most of the selections for the cast were spot-on, plus I think they did even better with the casting of Don John, the main villain of the piece, with Sean Maher in Whedon’s version as compared to Keanu Reeves in Branagh’s. Maher comes off as an underhanded despicable bastard (both literally and figuratively) meant on destroying everyone else’s happiness, whereas Reeves is more a whiny half-hearted rogue. Plus every time I see Reeves from around this period, I can’t take him seriously because I always think of him in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He thankfully has improved as an actor since then. Many other famous actors such as Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, James Earl Jones and David Tennant have played Benedick. Tamsin Greig and Catherine Tate, who are two of my favorite British comediennes, have also played Beatrice.
For those who have never read or heard of the play, I will include a brief summary. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC explained it the best: “Much Ado About Nothing includes two quite different stories of romantic love. Hero and Claudio fall in love almost at first sight, but an outsider, Don John, strikes out at their happiness. Beatrice and Benedick are kept apart by pride and mutual antagonism until others decide to play Cupid.” I like the characters of Hero and Claudio, but as I and I’m sure many others will agree, that the best part about the play is the verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick and the way Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero work together to convince the two that they are actually madly in love with each other. I love watching Benedick and Beatrice in both film versions, physically fall down and trip themselves up when their male or female associates discuss how they secretly love each other but are too proud to admit it.
Shakespeare borrowed elements from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to create the story. The actual play is set in Messina, Sicily, which makes sense as Don Pedro is actually the Prince of Aragon, which was the Spanish ruling family that controlled Sicily during Shakespeare’s time. However, Branagh’s version is set in Tuscany and Whedon’s in the director’s mansion in modern day Los Angeles. The meaning of the title of the play, which I didn’t think much of before other than it being about the whole business of Hero’s alleged unfaithfulness to Claudio before the wedding. However, Shakespeare instead decided to use a play on words, as explained in this book blurb:
“In Shakespeare’s day ‘nothing’ was pronounced the same as ‘noting’, and the play contains numerous punning references to ‘noting’, both in the sense of observation and in the sense of ‘notes’ or messages. A third meaning of ‘noting’ – musical notation – is also played upon (eg in Balthazar’s speech ‘Note this before my notes/There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.’) However it is a fourth use of the homonym – this time as ‘nothing’ – that is the most controversial element of the title. ‘Nothing’ was Elizabethan slang for the vagina (a vacancy, ‘no-thing’ or ‘O thing’). Virginity – a state of potentiality rather than actuality – is also much discussed in the play, and it is these twin absences – the vagina and virginity – that lead, in plot terms, to the ‘much ado’ of the title.”
Quarto for Much Ado About Nothing, 1600
Shakespeare’s play was probably written in 1598-99 and the first printed version of the play was in 1600. That book was called a quarto, which according to this website is:
“a sheet of printing paper folded twice to form eight separate pages for printing a book. To better visualize a quarto, hold before you a standard sheet of typing paper and fold it as you would a letter. You now have a rectangular piece of paper. Fold the paper again to form it into a square (or near square). Now unfold the paper and lay it flat before you. Notice that the sheet of.paper now has four sections on one side and four on the other. In Shakespeare’s time, printing paper was folded in this way. Each of the four sections on one side became a page, and each of the four sections on the other side became a page. Thus, there were eight pages in all. Each of these pages was about a foot high.”
These quartos were produced quickly and cheaply and 18 out of 38 plays appeared this way, and were probably produced without his permission. According to the Folger Library, “they were not much larger than modern paperbacks. About half of the early quartos list the playwright, Shakespeare; almost all give the name of the acting company that performed the play.” The much-larger Folio versions, whose pages were about 15 inches high, was first published in 1623 and included thirty-six of the author’s plays. They included eighteen plays that had never before been published.
First Folio collection of Shakespearean plays, 1623 (reader’s note facing the famous portrait is by poet/playwright Ben Johnson)
My favorite bit of dialogue from the play is when Beatrice & Benedick first meet at her uncle Leonato’s house:
I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I
am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I
would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard
heart; for, truly, I love none.
A dear happiness to women: they would else have
been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God
and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I
had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man
swear he loves me.
God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some
gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such
a face as yours were.
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and
so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s
name; I have done.
You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.
You know, I never really noticed until I started watching Joss Whedon’s film adaptation that Beatrice and Benedick were probably in love with each other before, but things did not turn out so well. This makes their love-hate relationship more meaningful, especially in that last line above mentioned by Beatrice, “I know you of old.” I guess I always just thought they casually knew each other because they were in the same social circles. If you are interested in further commentary on the play, check out this article, which I enjoyed reading while researching this post.