Monday 15 July 2013

Much Ado and the Missing Duel

I went to see Joss Whedon’s (excellent) film of Much Ado about Nothing recently, and when we left the cinema everybody starting making the same comments everybody makes after seeing Much Ado: Benedick and Beatrice are great, Dogberry’s funny, Hero and Claudio are really dull and should probably be cut.

The second complaint (always voiced by girls) is that Claudio doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. General female opinion seems to be that if a chap promises to marry you and then gets to the altar, calls you a whore and storms out, he has to do rather more to be forgiven than sing a bloody song. I have a theory that explains all this.

My theory is that Much Ado is an artistic failure. I mean, I love the play. I adore it but… let me explain.

First, you’ve got to understand the basic structure of Much Ado. The plot is about Hero and Claudio. They meet. They fall in love. He thinks she’s betrayed him. They split up. He finds he’s wrong. They get back together. That is the fundamental story of the play.

There is a sub-plot about Benedick and Beatrice. But it is only a sub-plot. You could take both characters out and the play would still be complete. By which I mean it would have a beginning, a middle and an end, and make sense. Of course, any director who did cut them would be crazy, as they have all the best lines. But from a narrative point of view you could. The sub-plot doesn’t even feed into the main Claudio-Hero story.

There is Dogberry. From a narrative point of view he’s almost irrelevant. Two lines would suffice. “You’re under arrest” and “My Lord, this man traduced you daughter. He can explain how.” In fact, he doesn’t even need those two. You could do a performance where the watch simply leapt out and grabbed the baddies. Then later they could lead Borachio in in silence, point a sword at him and let him explain. You could cut all Dogberry’s lines. Of course, any director who did cut them would be crazy, they’re comedy gold. But from a narrative point of view Dogberry is a near-irrelevance.

Now, Shakespeare knew about plots and story-telling. Shakespeare knew that Hero and Claudio were the main story, but he got so interested in Beatrice and Benedick that he lost interest in his main characters. They get good lines. Hero and Claudio get passed over. You can even see this happening plotwise. The whole he-wooed-her-in-his-name-not-mine story is set up very carefully and then… just kind of forgotten about and tied up in a couple of lines of “No I didn’t. She’s yours.” Shakespeare had something more planned there. He just couldn’t be bothered to write it. He was having much too much fun with Beatrice and Benedick.

And then comes Dogberry. The second Dogberry appears two thirds of the way through the play, Beatrice and Benedick don’t get any more good lines. Shakespeare lost interest in them. Suddenly you get (wonderful) extended comic scenes of Dogberry’s foolishness.

Getting so interested in subplots and minor characters that you forget about your main plot and main characters is an artistic mistake. But that’s what Shakespeare did. He wrote for B&B and then for Dogberry and forgot about everything else. Indeed, I think he forgot to write the main scene of the play.

Remember the duel that Benedick and Claudio were going to fight? It doesn’t happen. It’s carefully set up. Right from the beginning. We establish that Benedick and Claudio are both soldiers. We establish that they’re best friends. Then the two friends fall in love with two girls. All is good until one of them falls out with his girl. The friends are now turned to enemies. Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel. And…

In the climactic scene of the play they meet and fight the duel. Beatrice watches with heart in mouth. Hero watches secretly from a window. Benedick does well at first but then Claudio beats him, knocks away his sword and is about to kill his best friend. But he can’t do it.

Or maybe Beatrice shouts stop. Or a messenger runs in with the news about Borachio. I’m a bit sketchy here. Claudio is redeemed. The marriages are back on. And the Benedick-Beatrice plot actually gets connected to, and becomes a vital part of, the whole story. Either way, Claudio suffers and is redeemed and Benedick fights and is connected to the story.

There was even a duel in the source material. In Orlando Furioso Canto V, from which Shakespeare nabbed most of the plot, they pull out their swords and have a fight. I’m utterly convinced that that was where Shakespeare was going. Everything leads up to it. All the ground has been prepared. But then poor Will got so distracted writing great lines for Dogberry that he couldn’t be bothered anymore and decided to clear it all up with a song and a second wedding.

The result is a play that is great fun to watch because Dogberry and B&B have such good lines. But it’s an artistic mess and a structural failure.

I still love it, of course, and would thoroughly recommend Mr Whedon’s film*.

The Inky Fool still didn't tip the waiter.
Odd thing I discovered: Joss Whedon went to Winchester College. To be precise he was in Trants (boarding house). That's the same house as Lord Alfred Douglas, Oswald Mosely, Hugh Gaitskell, and me.


  1. There's also the comment about why on earth Hero would speak to her father ever again, let alone let him give her away. Again.

    Having seen Much Ado quite literally scores of times, I had a revelation in this film: Claudio's promise to take the second Hero, come what may, is perhaps supposed to be his redemption (possibly in lieu of fight scene etc). Mr Whedon lampshaded 'though she be an Ethiope' rather well, but it made me realise that Claudio is taking, sight unseen, a woman who could well be just as rotten as he supposed Hero to be. Of course, he is redeeming himself with Hero's *father* by trusting his word and / or accepting whatever "rotten orange" he receives, but then it is Leonato who gets the best betrayal speech - Grieved I I had but one? etc.

    1. I agree, but like the other things it's not developed. The whole thing is dealt with in a couple of lines. If you had a scene where they told him that they were going down to the red light district to find the ugliest old hag, that would make it something. But no, Shakespeare just doesn't care about that main plot. Too busy with Dogberry.