Nottingham Shakespeare Society
February 4th 2020
‘Two Potential Marriages and What Might be a Funeral’. A talk on ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ by Anthony Rice
Review by Julia Pirie
Anthony began by considering the kind of titles Shakespeare gave the plays written between 1598-1600. He was well-established by this time and there is no falling off of quality of drama. However, Anthony suggested that ‘Much Ado about Nothing’, ‘As You Like it’, ‘Twelfth Night; or What you will’ all share the ‘deceptive casualness’ and ‘easy confidence’ of an artist in his prime. So, he asked, is this comedy about nothing? Or is there something there?
He began with a brief revisiting of the plot (always handy for those of us who haven’t quite managed to find the time to do this for ourselves before the meeting). He showed how the play opens with an ending, a happy ending as peace breaks out and the men are back from war. He referenced the latest RSC’s productions which used ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ as the prequel to ‘Much Ado’ and renamed the latter ‘Love’s Labours Won’. He, and many of us who had seen these productions, agreed that the coupling worked very well. He also mentioned Branagh’s 1993 film set in luxuriant Tuscany and another 1990’s production he’d seen which was set in a Spanish holiday resort and started in the Departures Lounge of the airport. The play, opening in metaphorical (and, in production, possibly literal) sunshine calls for some sort of Edenic state. However, as in Eden, the characters bring the seeds of their own unhappiness.
After some discussion about the characters’ respective ages, Anthony focussed on Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro. He used Bacon’s epithet ‘envious’ to describe this group of people, thought of - by their conception on the ‘wrong side of the blanket’ - as living, walking examples of the cuckoldry – so feared by both Benedick and Claudius (though laughed off by a more confident Leonato with reference to Hero). Anthony suggested he was jealous of Claudius’s new-found position in Don Pedro’s esteem and planned to punish Claudio by his plan for deception. Looked at this way, he has motive as well as predisposition to do evil.
Deception, disguise, rumour, gossip, whispering “all swirl around the play”. Anthony pointed out that the twin plot strands - one resulting in bad, the slandering and ‘death of Hero’ and the other good, the bringing together of Beatrice and Benedick – work together to push forward both plots. While Beatrice and Benedick have ‘internal problems’ (their mutual unwillingness to examine and accept their own true feelings) Claudio and Hero’s problems are caused by an outside agency. The ‘unjustly slandered woman’ was a trope popular in Renaissance literature and stems back as far as 5th century Greece. Anthony queried the speed with which, in both cases, the ‘deceived’ accept and act on what they think they see and over-hear.
For his part in the plan which thwarts Don John, the Friar is a sketchier version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’s’ Friar Lawrence. But he has better luck: no outside agency spoils the plan so Hero can ultimately be ‘reborn’. Humans perpetrate their own good and evil; there’s nothing ‘star cross’d’ about the relationships in this play.
However, there are plenty of Biblical refences as, for a while, Hero and Claudio are pushed out of sunny Eden into a darkness created by the serpentine Don John. Both the tempter and the tempted are punished, Anthony observed. Don John will die (albeit ‘tomorrow’) but Claudio is given the chance to repent, do penance and gain atonement by marrying Leonato’s niece.
We learn therefore that ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ is, in fact, not about nothing in that sense, but about the serious issue of man’s inhumanity to man and the possibility of atonement and redemption In some respects, like the play it foreshadows, it is a very wintery tale. The other two meanings of the word ‘nothing’ also come into play – the first as ‘noting’. This is a play about people being aware or not being aware, of looking without actually seeing. It offers not merely a ‘merry war’ between lovers but potentially real bloodshed (especially when Beatrice tells Benedick to ‘Kill Claudio’.)
Anthony concluded his talk with a nod to the BBC adaptation of ‘Much Ado’ which starred Billie Piper as Hero, a TV weather girl. He forecast that “The play opens with a bright spell and the promise of further sunshine but with clouds approaching from the direction of Don Pedro, later bringing a storm which will bring a lot of darkness before being finally being resolved.” A perceptively witty ending to a very well-informed, thought-provoking talk.
The latter was borne out by a lively discussion time. David Dunford told us about a Prospect Theatre production in which Don Pedro shot his brother at the end of the play making the closing lines very sombre indeed. David also raised the third meaning of ‘nothing’ referring to female genitalia.
Among other points raised, we touched on gender and the nature of female modesty, the Watch, Margaret’s involvement in the plot, Beatrice as a ‘strong female character’.
As always, it will be good to have all these issues raised once more in our reading of the play on Tuesday 18th February 2020.