Much Ado About Nothing | From Director James Evans
Much Ado About Nothing is the original romantic comedy. But like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedy hovers dangerously close. Claudio’s appalling treatment of Hero, her supposed death, and subsequent ‘rebirth’ sit disruptively alongside the sparkling wit of Beatrice and Benedick, and the buffoonery of Dogberry and the Watch. Shakespeare was never constrained by the limitations of genre. Much Ado About Nothing is technically a comedy, insofar as in the final scene people get married instead of killed, but it is essentially a hybrid play.
The Hero/Claudio storyline is based on the work of other writers, including one of Shakespeare’s favourite sources, Matteo Bandello. Shakespeare had already had success borrowing from Bandello (see Romeo and Juliet), and the melodramatic tale of a rich nobleman who breaks off his wedding on false grounds was too juicy to resist.
As always, Shakespeare adapted his sources to heighten the drama or increase the complexity of the characters. Bandello’s equivalent of Claudio breaks off the wedding by letter, while Shakespeare has his character do it publicly. Bandello’s bad guy is motivated by his love for the Hero character, while Much Ado About Nothing’s Don John has no such interest. Unrequited love is too simple a motive for Shakespeare’s villains.
Then there’s Beatrice and Benedick. The famous sparring lovers appear to be Shakespeare’s invention, and as the original ‘from-hate-to-love’ couple there is a direct line from Beatrice and Benedick to Lizzie and Darcy to Harry and Sally and dozens of Hollywood rom-com pairs. Beatrice is an outsider – her mind is too broad for the world in which she finds herself. She loves Benedick and sees potential in him, but first she
must wake him up and help him see how damaging the status quo has been for women.
This leads to another important tweak Shakespeare makes to his source material: he expands the role of Don Pedro as Claudio’s ‘wingman’. An unfettered bro culture spawns the misogyny that permeates this play, and Don Pedro is the bro-in-chief, leader of the locker-room talk. It is Beatrice’s exhausting task to try and dismantle this toxic structure, sometimes through humour:
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow,
than a man swear he loves me.”
…and sometimes through anger:
“Manhood is melted into curtsies,
valour into compliment, and men are
only turned into tongue, and trim ones too.
He is now as valiant as Hercules
that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot
be a man with wishing, therefore I will
die a woman with grieving.”
Much Ado About Nothing is full of innovation, but it was also the end of an era for Shakespeare. Written in 1598, it was the last of his plays to employ the famous clown Will Kempe, whose performance as Dogberry doubtless inspired Hamlet’s advice to the Players a couple of years later: “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them.” It was also probably the last play Shakespeare’s company performed at their temporary premises, the Curtain, before they crossed the river, built the Globe and changed theatre forever.
In its interrogation of gender roles, Much Ado About Nothing reaches across 421 years and speaks directly to our time. And, in my opinion, it ends with hope. Not in a wide-eyed, naïve way, but with the hard-bitten weariness of experience. A hope that, despite all the ways we hurt each other, love is possible. It has to be. In fact, it may be the only thing that saves us.
…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is
Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
James Evans is Associate Director at Bell Shakespeare. He is a graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (Acting) and holds a Master of Arts (English) from the University of Sydney. For Bell Shakespeare James directed the 2018 national touring production of Julius Caesar, also directing productions of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for young audiences. He has appeared in Richard 3, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry IV and Actors At Work. His other theatre credits include Mercy for Festival of Dangerous Ideas/Bell Shakespeare; Paul and Homebody/Kabul for Belvoir; and Private Lives for Queensland Theatre. His television credits include Me and My Monsters, Underbelly: The Golden Mile, East West 101 and Young Lions. James co-wrote and presented the acclaimed iPad App Starting Shakespeare (named Best New App by Apple in 17 countries) and co-directed the ABC online series Shakespeare Unbound. He has been a visiting artist at the University of San Diego, as well as presenting a series of Shakespeare seminars in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai and Singapore. James’ work with Bell Shakespeare in juvenile detention centres is the subject of the feature film Kings of Baxter, winner of Best Australian Documentary at the 2017 Antenna Documentary Film Festival and the Supreme Jury Prize at the 2018 Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.