’Nature never framed a woman’s heart of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.” Shakespeare’s (anti-)romantic lead in Much Ado About Nothing is so “self-endeared,” she “turns every man wrong side out.” Not only that, she “hath often dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.”
This is not Dante’s angelic Beatrice (if you don’t count when she castigates him for getting married after she died). Shakespeare’s has a mind aflame with apparent bitterness for men, especially Signor Benedick.
“A gentleman from Padua and “the only man in Italy,” Benedick can be heroic in battle — he’s just come to Messina after a successful skirmish. But he’s lily-livered around women. Not only that, though he’s reticent to admit it, he’s a “self-proclaimed tyrant to their sex.”
On the surface, Beatrice and Benedick share few things in common, other than a bleak view of the universe and an epic loathing for each other. They hurl words like spears, their wits waging war by other means. When Benedick returns from battle, Beatrice asks: “How many hath he killed and eaten in these wars?...For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.”
One of the intriguing questions in a comedy based on intrigue: why do Beatrice and Benedick detest each other so much? Answers abound. One that makes the most sense: they were in love once. She says he changes his “faith” as often as hats change fashion. Did he suddenly bolt and flee? Why? When she compares him to the speed of a “jade’s trick” (the way a horse suddenly halts) it seems so. And her line, “I would rather hear a dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me,” cinches the notion.
And misogynistic Benedick, “loved of all ladies” except Beatrice? Her full-bore, adult love may have horrified the young lad. Since then, he won’t give women the chance to earn his disfavor: “I will do myself the right to trust none. And…I will live a bachelor.”
Throughout Much Ado, Beatrice and Benedick wage verbal jousts, but only from the neck up. It’s as if each is just a mind inflamed, bent on dueling eye to eye. Add bodies and lusty “wiving,” and you verge on Taming of the Shrew.
Shakespeare in Love was a good movie. Shakespeare on love is a genius. His plays constitute a zodiac of love’s ways from the star-crossed innocence of Romeo and Juliet, to the anguished betrayal in Troilus and Cressida, and the Murder Inc. of the Macbeths. Much Ado looks at two extremes: Beatrice and Benedick may have fallen in and out love long ago. There’s no way they’ll get back together. At the other extreme, Claudio, a young Florentine lord yet to shave, can become enamored at the drop of a damsel’s eyelash. He falls for Hero, “Leonato’s short daughter,” but worries he’s too inexperienced — the reason young Benedick fled from Beatrice? Claudio accepts a ruse that Hero’s an “approved wanton” (unfaithful), which results in her demise. As a penance, he agrees to marry another woman named Hero, sight unseen. When several candidates appear, Claudio, rabid as ever, shouts “which is the lady I must seize upon?”
Oddsmakers would rank Beatrice and Benedick’s chance of getting back together at “infinity-to-one." Claudio fell in and out and back in love with a hair-trigger. The comedy concludes with marriages: Beatrice and Benedick; Claudio and Hero (even the lonely Prince of Aragon wins a wife, though not his intended). Comedies have happy endings, sealed with marriages. For those less wide-eyed than Claudio, the question arises, which marriage, if any, will last? All of the above? None? Or, as Benedick says when the “petty villain” Don John’s brought a bunch of armed men to Messina, “think not of [the question] till tomorrow.”
Without Beatrice and Benedick shooting salvos, Much Ado’s a by-the-numbers comedy with little else to recommend it. Legend has it that the Bard wrote it in a hurry, while his company dismantled the old theatre in Halliwell and used the wood to build the Globe. One staged trick (duping of Benedick, duping of Beatrice) leads to another in a calculated order. The comic scenes sometimes qualify as such. Even the villain’s one-note Don John raises, at best, a squelchable fuss. Take away the leads and Shakespeare’s language and it’s pretty much a competent, journeyman piece.
For the Old Globe, skilled director Kathleen Marshall relocates the play to the Italian Riviera, early 1930s. The outdoor production has eye-appealing visuals, as expected: John Lee Beatty’s set includes the two-story, cotton candy-pink façade of a villa, flanked by rows of stately Junipers; Michael Krass’ costumes are variations on the theme of elegance; and background music comes from the period (“Let’s Do It,” for example).
As Beatrice and Benedick, Sara Tophan and Michael Hayden do ire well. But there’s no suggestion that a part of them never stopped loving the other. The rest of the cast — especially Rene Thornton, Jr. (Leonato), Michael Boatman (Don Pedro), Fred Applegate (Dogberry), and Carlos Angel Barajas (Claudio) — is well-spoken and energetic in this competent-plus production of, at best, a semi-competent comedy.