JULY / AUG 2016: BY RACHEL SEXTON
For me, the reason William Shakespeare earns his reputation as one of the greatest writers in human history is a combination of form and function. The use of beautiful poetry as the method for crafting a fictional play is something special. The audience gets an entertaining story AND language that can often be memorable. Add to this the deft observation of the universalities of the human experience that he was able to convey and it was inevitable Shakespeare would reach a measure of immortality. This observation occurs in both tragedies and comedies, and today’s audiences can often easily spot the influences Shakespeare leaves behind in the entertainment of the present day. Much Ado About Nothing, for example, pioneered the bickering lovers archetype that continues to enchant romantic comedy lovers today.
Appearing near the middle point of Shakespeare’s career, Much Ado About Nothing probably made its debut in 1598-1599. It was printed in quarto in 1600 and is part of the First Folio published in 1623. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men originally performed it. The play has been extremely popular ever since. It would be nearly impossible to count all the adaptations over the centuries, which have included some of the best actors and garnered many awards.
Much Ado About Nothing takes place in Messina, Italy. A Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, has just defeated his illegitimate and contentious brother, Don John, in a battle and the entire entourage returns to the estate of Leonato, governor of Messina. This gives Claudio a chance to woo Leonato’s daughter Hero, and Benedick a chance to resume his witty sparring with Leonato’s niece, Beatrice. Don John tries to make trouble by getting Claudio to believe Don Pedro is gaining Hero’s favor for himself but it doesn’t work.
As the wedding preparations are made, everyone else manages to trick Benedick and Beatrice into admitting their feelings for each other. Don John arranges for Claudio and Don Pedro to witness what they think is Hero’s infidelity the night before the wedding. Claudio stops the wedding with his unknowingly false accusations, but the bumbling local constable uncovers the truth. Benedick and Beatrice publicly accept each other as well and both couples marry.
Though there are two couples at the center of the plot of this play, and though the more dramatic part of the story involves Claudio and Hero, Benedick and Beatrice are undeniably the shining focal point of the romance and comedy. Both denounce love but clearly enjoy zinging each other. The scenes where each of them “overhear” their friends talking about the other being in love with them are hilarious. Their reactions prove that attraction has been behind the way they interact with each other the whole time. Audiences must have been enamored with seeing this new kind of romantic couple on stage. It is highly entertaining because the friction created when two people behave like this toward one another is a good indicator of passion which makes a romance all the more swoon-worthy.
Now, of course, the couple who bickers to cover up their feelings for each other is a staple of romantic comedy storytelling. Classic literature gives us another example in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Old Hollywood provided Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner (remade as You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). Another recent example is Doug and Kate in The Cutting Edge. However, even in works not strictly in the romance genre, this type of relationship can pop up. Star Wars wouldn’t be the same without Han and Leia conflicting and kissing, and one of the best parts of the Harry Potter series is the tension between Ron and Hermione and seeing it finally come to fruition.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare began a type of romantic interaction in which two people fight rather than give in to their attraction. That archetype is still used today. Benedick and Beatrice are only the first in a long line of pairs whose sexual tension is expressed through back and forth banter at first before love takes over. On screen, the film version of Much Ado About Nothing adapted by, directed by, and starring Kenneth Branagh in 1993 is excellent in its presentation of his Benedick alongside Emma Thompson’s Beatrice. They make it clear why a major reason Much Ado About Nothing succeeds is in the romance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.