In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday today, April 23rd. It was also, incidentally, the date of his death.
I’ve written about one of his other plays, Richard II, earlier in a review of the first episode of the BBC TV series ‘The Hollow Crown’. There are some beautiful monologues in it, which you can read in the post.
One of my all-time favorite podcasts is the long-running BBC Radio 4 show, Desert Island Discs. At the end of each episode, the guests are asked what one piece of music, one book, and one luxury item they would take if they were stranded on a desert island. A volume of The Complete Works of Shakespeare is automatically given. Why? Because it has everything: drama, comedy, tragedy, history, poetry, characters that are universal archetypes. The 16th-century language is somewhat archaic to us now and yet, even today, a couple of lines from Shakespeare can say a whole lot more than an entire page from another writer. A single Shakespearean line can still inspire an entire novel today. So many of our everyday English phrases were first coined by him too.
For the last few days, I’ve been revisiting Much Ado About Nothing because a friend took one of those Facebook quizzes and it told her she was like Beatrice, who is one of my favorite Shakespeare women.
The entire play is a “skirmish of wit”, as Shakespeare himself called it, between a playboy bachelor, Benedick, and a sharp-tongued spinster, Beatrice. To read this as simply a love story would be to short-change its overall wit and insightfulness. It is also more than a light-hearted comedy because, through these two characters, Shakespeare makes many nuanced observations about men and women and how we (mis)understand and (mis)play with each other.
There are many more interesting aspects to this play but let’s look at the title for now. Apparently, in the 16th-century, the words “nothing” and “noting” were near-homophones. If we read the title as “Much Ado About Noting,” it still fits perfectly because of how, throughout the text, there are many references to how people are noting each other via critiques, messages, spying, eavesdropping, and more.
No one plays Beatrice better than Emma Thompson in that almost-perfect film adaptation by her then-husband, Kenneth Branagh. Though, I must confess that my favorite guy in this movie was not Branagh himself but Denzel Washington mostly for, um, aesthetic reasons.
Here are two of my favorite bits from Much Ado About Nothing, one in text and the other in a video clip.
Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Beatrice: 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.
Benedick: 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.
Beatrice: 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.
Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such a face as yours were.
Benedick: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Benedick: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s name; I have done.
Beatrice: You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.