Shakespeare Unbard, Episode 18: Benedict and Beatrice Steal the Show in Much Ado About Nothing


The prototype for every warring would-be lovers who have ever followed, Beatrice and Benedict tower over Much Ado About Nothing; just as Falstaff stole Hal's thunder, so too do Beatrice and Benedict steal the show from everyone else. In this episode of Shakespeare Unbard, Joel Fishbane discusses this classic comedy. Also, the show is summarized and both the 1993 and 2012 film are discussed.

In this episode you'll hear clips and excerpts from:

  • Brill, Clive. dir. Much Ado About Nothing. Arkangel Shakespeare.

  • Shakespeare, William.  Much Ado About Nothing. (The Riverside Shakespeare). Houghton and Mifflin, 1974.

Other Productions / Adaptations:





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All is not-so rotten in the state of Messina. The soldiers are coming home, among which are the young Claudio, the cynical Benedict, and Don Pedro, the Prince. Their arrival is greeted by Leonato, the governor, his daughter Hero, and his niece Beatrice. Claudio loves Hero and plots to marry her at the masked celebration, a plot which is overheard by Don John, the bastard brother to the Prince. Don John plots to ruin Claudio's happiness. Meanwhile, a merry war is going on between Benedict and Beatrice, who love to hate each other, and hate to love anyone at all. Leonato, the Prince, and Claudio conscript everyone to trick Beatrice and Benedict into thinking each is in love with the other. The game works and soon Beatrice and Benedict are pining for love. Claudio woos Hero, their wedding is planned, but on the night before Don John and his confederates trick Claudio into thinking Hero is cheating on him. At the wedding, Claudio humiliates her and calls the marriage off. Don John disappears, his confederates are caught, the ruse is exposed, and Claudio and Hero are wed. As for Beatrice and Benedict, they find themselves loving to love - and loving to love each other more than anyone in the world.




In the nineteenth century, Thomas Bowlder released the Family Shakespeare, a collection of edited versions of Shakespeare's plays - Bowlder is the source of the word bowlderize, which means to take out all the good parts. I'm not sure exactly how much Bowlder took out of Much Ado About Nothing, but I wouldn't be surprised if he left it intact. Aside from the frequent use of the word God - one of Thomas Bowlder's bugaboos - the play's plot is a house built on a foundation of conventional morals. The ultimate message is that marriage is the best thing that ever could happen: thou looks sad, Benedict tells the Prince. Get thee a wife! The villain is a bastard, the product of an adulterous union - like Edmund, in King Lear, Don John is a piece of bad fruit that sprang from a poisoned tree. Don John could have come up with any ruse to separate Claudio and Hero - say having Claudio arrested for a crime - yet he naturally concocts a plan that revolves around illicit sex. Hero's unfaithfulness is only half as important to Claudio, who seems equally offended by the notion that she is no longer pure.


Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She's but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.  (IV.i)


In short, the underlying message of Much Ado About Nothing is that premarital sex is bad, adultery produces bad children, and marriage is solution to all of life's ills. This sort of morality is widely appealing and requires few dramatic gymnastics. The heroes of Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and A Midsummer Night's Dream don't always fit nicely into our modern perceptions of how men and women should behave, but the characters of Much Ado About Nothing have withstood the test of time. In 2012, director Joss Whedon produced a film adaptation of the play set in modern times and what was notable was how easily the story slipped into today's world; Whedon may have edited the text, but he had to do very little to the plot. The characters are as recognizable today as they were four hundred and fifty years ago.

The play is another ensemble comedy, though you wouldn't know it from the popularity of Beatrice and Benedict, who have, in Falstaffian style, overshadowed everyone else. The prototype for every warring would-be lovers who have ever followed, Beatrice and Benedict tower over Much Ado About Nothing. Hero and Claudio's rocky road to a storybook marriage is meant to be the focus of our attention, but just as Falstaff stole Hal's thunder, so too do Beatrice and Benedict steal the spotlight from everyone else. Henry IV Part One succeeds despite Falstaff's attempts to wrestle the play away from everyone else, but the same cannot be said here. This is both the strength of Much Ado and its eternal weakness. The subplot is more interesting that the plot itself. There are scenes that don't involve either Beatrice or Benedict, but who can remember them? And why would you bother?



These days, it is par for the narrative course for writers to have two people go from detesting each other to falling in love; in Shakespeare's day, the idea was still fairly new. The conflict in most of Shakespeare's comedies stem from circumstance - Rosalind's a princess but Orlando's the equivalent of a scullery maid - or farce - Viola loves the Duke, but she's currently disguised as a man. Shakespeare attempted to create love out of hate in The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream with mixed results. Beatrice, however, has her perfect match in Signor Benedict:


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 scratched face. (I.i)


Beatrice and Benedict were made for each other; they come across as two sides of the same coin. Almost all of Shakespeare's other lovers fall in love - or rather lust - at first sight. Even As You Like It's Rosalind, who is Shakespeare's greatest feminine creation, cannot escape this fate, though she is wise enough to proceed with caution. Perhaps Beatrice and Benedict did fall in love the first time they saw each other, but that's left to conjecture to decide; when we meet them, they are ex-lovers, though the nature of their affair is vague and it is up to us (or rather the actors playing them) to decide how far their courtship progressed.


Perhaps Beatrice loved him and Benedict wouldn't give her the time of day; or perhaps they courted for a while and then it all fell apart. Shakespeare was wise not to tell us, though given the speed in which they fall in love with each other, I'm tempted to think they were former lovers who broke up after one of them said something that was too clever for their own good. In any case, by the time we catch up with them, they are sworn enemies who delight in tormenting one another, the Elizabethan equivalent of a divorced couple who have to continue meeting because of the kids. The situation is replete with both comedy and tension - the comedy comes from their wit and the tension from the very real emotion that swells beneath it. The formula is a perfect one which is why it has been repeated countless times in books, movies, and plays - anytime you see a story in which the hero is forced to spend time with some former flame, you're on a path blazed by Beatrice and Benedict four hundred and fifty years ago.


Most of Shakespeare's lovers are young and their passion stems from a young person's belief in the mythology of love. Romeo, Lysander, Berowne, and even those two gentlemen of Verona all believe that love is an eternal, life-altering thing. This is certainly what Claudio believes; no sooner does he see Hero, than he decides to marry her. Benedict tries to dissuade him because he, like Beatrice, is an older and wiser thing. Beatrice accuses Benedict of always ending their verbal battles with a jade's trick; there's a double meaning in this, for Benedict is a jaded cynic who no longer believes that the power of love is a curious thing. Beatrice is much the same.

He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him. (II.i)


Both of them have given up on love; and yet, the moment they are fooled into believing that each loves the other, they become exactly like the young lovers they so heartedly disdained. Benedict's decision to love Beatrice is but the work of a moment and Beatrice is no different:


What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand:
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly. (III.i)

In 2013, James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave - two actors in their twilight years - played Beatrice and Benedict in the West End. The production wasn't liked by critics, but in theory this is sublime casting for it highlights the idea that Beatrice and Benedict are the polar opposites of the young lovers. The great joy of the play comes from watching Beatrice and Benedict shed their cynicism and conceit. Their transformation invites us to do the same. The young lovers of Shakespeare's canon all believe in the transformative powers of love and their beliefs are almost always borne out; but Beatrice and Benedict do not believe in love when their story begins, and so, in falling in love with one another - or returning to love, as the case may be - they have one of the most satisfying character arcs of all of Shakespeare's plays. Can we blame Beriolz for doing away with all the other plots in his operatic adaptation?




The rest of the play, sadly, is not the equal of Beatrice and Benedict. Don Jon is a sad excuse for a villain, so much so that he vanishes halfway through the play. Shakespeare forgets about him so completely that he almost gets away scot-free; it's only in the last moment of the play that we are told he was caught trying to escape Messina. Don John's henchmen are no better, which is all the more disappointing, given the foolishness of Dogberry and his minions. If Don John, Conrade, and Berachio were more sinister villains, there would be some pleasure in watching them be undone by a confederacy of dunces - or, more important, more dramatic tension when they encounter the fools in the dead of night. But Shakespeare has no time to dwell on the scene and the clowns catch the villains with disappointing ease. 


The rest of the ensemble have all the functionality of cogs in a machine: they fill their roles without ever transcending them. If we care more about Claudio and Hero, we might be more bereft when people plot against their happiness. Notably, their story revolves around the same plot point we saw in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Both plays feature a woman who is perceived to be unfaithful and a man who doesn't appreciate being a cuckold. Shakespeare wouldn't write Othello for another five years, but he was clearly interested in its themes - infidelity and sexual morality will show up again in Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure, all of which Shakespeare would write in the years between Much Ado and that play about the jealous Moor of Venice. Practice would make him perfect, for by the time Shakespeare gets to Othello, he takes his time to make us care about the Moor of Venice and Desdemona, so that it is wrenching to see them driven apart. He shows no such patience for Hero and Claudio, who are never seen alone or alone together, thus denying us the chance to ever care about them at all.


Despite this, the ensemble of Much Ado About Nothing is a vast improvement over all the comedies that came before it - even The Comedy of Errors, glorious as it is, moves so fast that it rarely has time to pause for something like character development. Much Ado About Nothing is more leisurely paced, allowing Shakespeare a chance to let minor characters like Leonato, Margaret, and even the Friar all have their moments to shine. Claudio's public humiliation of Hero is painful to watch, such that we can hardly blame Beatrice for asking Benedict to kill him in revenge. Much Ado has its shortcomings, but they are far more forgivable than those in some of his other plays. The play stands as another marker in Shakespeare's march towards As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the two plays which mark the zenith of his comedy writing career. In fact, Much Ado marks the beginning of a literary rally for Shakespeare, who would spend the next seven years writing almost all of his major triumphs: it's between 1599 and 1606 that Shakespeare gave us Julius Caesar, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and a little play called Hamlet. Looking at his career from this perspective, Much Ado About Nothing feels like a pretty good warm up act: you can almost seem him stretching his legs as he prepares us for all that is to come.