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Shakespeare sets Much Ado About Nothing in Messina, a small city in Sicily under the control of the Spanish crown. For Shakespeare’s audience, the Mediterranean existed somewhere on the outer limits of European civilization, less a concrete place than an exotic symbol. A play set in Italy promised a full and entertaining afternoon, equal parts titillation and danger. Unlike the rainy, gray, Protestant city of London, Messina was sunny, colorful and Catholic, alive to sounds and rhythms only wildly imagined in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience.
This southern Mediterranean island setting may help to explain Much Ado’s hothouse climate—it is one of Shakespeare’s most playful and erotic plays. The atmosphere is frothy and insistently social, almost inebriated, drunk on wordplay. The first three acts are dominated by a house party on a lavish estate, a wild masquerade poised precipitously on the verge of spinning out of control. The action, unfolding between military expeditions, is imbued with the rambunctious feeling of soldiers who hit the town on shore leave. Shakespeare surprises us, however, with the unexpectedly sober and mature events that transpire roughly halfway through the play. The characters wake up from their lubricated nights of revelry to a new morning that shines a harsh light on their world and relations in it. In a miracle of Shakespearean characterization, the characters themselves seem surprised by their sober responsibilities, their newfound maturity and depth.
The play begins with Don Pedro, the Prince, arriving at the estate of Leonato, the Governor of Messina, after winning a nearby military campaign. Pedro is accompanied by the glowering Don John, his rebellious, illegitimate brother; Claudio, a valiant young nobleman; and Benedick, a confirmed bachelor. The play sparks to life when Benedick sees and begins arguing with Beatrice, Leonato’s resolutely single niece, with whom he is locked in an ongoing verbal feud. Instead of Shakespeare’s elevated verse, Beatrice and Benedick speak almost entirely in prose. The sound of their conversational witticisms is intensely familiar, the prototype for every romantic couple that works their way from hatred to love, from Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, to modern-day Beatrices such as Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock. (The lack of modern-day Benedicks is a subject for another time.) As W.H. Auden puts it, Beatrice and Benedick “are the most lovable, amusing and good people” that Shakespeare ever created, “the characters of Shakespeare we’d most like to sit next to at dinner.”
“Come, lady, come,” Don Pedro says to Beatrice during the play’s centerpiece, the masked ball, “you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.” “Indeed, my lord,” she replies,
[H]e lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it—a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.
(Act 2, scene 1)
Beatrice equivocates brilliantly, but it is clear that Benedick gambled Beatrice’s “double heart” with his “single one.” Whether he has gambled with her chastity or not (presumed sex is the hinge on which the other plot, between Claudio and Leonato’s daughter Hero, turns) Beatrice and Benedick have clearly had an adult relationship. It is as close as Shakespeare comes to showing modern romantic life, the rituals of courtship and dating between single people. Shockingly, Beatrice and Benedick are the only couple in all of Shakespearean comedy who have a shared history. They are his only portrait of love at third, fourth or even fifth sight. Not coincidentally, they also seem like his couple with the best chance at happiness after the play ends.
If Benedick and Beatrice embody the deep regrets and deeper pleasures of mature love, the other couple of the play, Claudio and Hero, delineate the dangerous pitfalls of youthful passion. At the same masked ball where Beatrice spars with Benedick, we see the first flares of Claudio’s irrational possessiveness toward the beautiful Hero. In fact, the two couples in the play mirror each other like comic and tragic masks. Though Benedick professes his hatred toward all womankind, he proves a gallant and selfless defender of Beatrice’s honor. Claudio, on the other hand, behaves perfectly in the manner of a courtly lover, only to become possessed by jealousy when he thinks he sees Hero having sex with another man. Similarly, the motor-mouthed Beatrice is foiled by the enigmatically terse Hero. We feel we know Beatrice all too well, and Hero not at all.
Beatrice and Benedick, two socialized clowns, are eventually revealed to be saner in conduct and wiser about love than their beautiful young aristocratic counterparts. It is Claudio and Hero whose course turns, in this sunniest of Shakespeare’s plays, toward the tragic. Perhaps not coincidentally, the significant scenes between Claudio and Hero all unfold at night, striking minor chords in this otherwise happy, major-key play.
It is almost as if Shakespeare, who was famously fond of choosing riddling titles for his comedies such as “What You Will,” or “As You Like It,” is posing the question: is this play really “Much Ado About Nothing”? Or is this play, in which a young woman is symbolically killed and resurrected, in which Benedick challenges his best friend to a fatal duel, in which lifelong friendships and political alliances are broken almost beyond repair, actually about very momentous things indeed? No comedy in the Shakespearean canon is so adult about love, and none ranges wider in tone, from the bathetic to the sarcastic. In many ways, it represents the pinnacle achievement of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, a form to which he would never completely return.
–Drew Lichtenberg, Literary Associate