Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

SHAKESPEARE: Much Ado About Nothing

Consider the world’s great romances. Romeo and Juliet. Antony and Cleopatra. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Adam and Eve. Popeye and Olive Oyl. Now let’s take a short survey. Consider two theories of love. The first theory is love at first sight. Romeo sees Juliet at a party and that’s it. It’s all over. He falls head over heels in love and forgets any other woman. Romeo: Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night. From now on Juliet is the only one for him. And a famous love story begins. The second theory of love is this: opposites attract. Beatrice sees Benedick at a gathering and that’s it. But it’s far different from the scene with Romeo and Juliet. Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you. Nobody’s listening Benedick, so why do you keep jabbering away? Beatrice is obviously not another Juliet and Benedick is no Romeo, so he fires back. Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living? Why Beatrice, we all thought you’d be dead by now.

Here’s the survey question. Which of these couples do you think will live happily ever after: Romeo and Juliet or Benedick and Beatrice? Hint: surveys about love are worthless. There’s no correct answer. What would happen if Romeo fell head over heels in love with Juliet but she didn’t love him back? Or what if she smiled and was missing a couple of teeth? These are questions for philosophers. But for Shakespeare it wasn’t a question of whether the correct answer is (A) love at first sight, or (B) opposites attract. The correct answer is (C) all of the above. Some of Shakespeare’s plays about love are comic and others are tragic. Romeo and Juliet did not turn out well. Neither did Othello. But Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. Plays never end the same way. Neither does love.

Some observers have viewed love as a sort of temporary insanity. This was Benedick’s attitude at the start of the play. For example, Claudio is in love with Hero. He dotes on her as much as Romeo doted on Juliet. Claudio asks Benedick: Can the world buy such a jewel? The jewel of course is Hero. She’s the whole world to Claudio but to Benedick she’s just another attractive woman. There are lots of them in Messina where the play takes place. So Benedick’s response is meant to burst Claudio’s love bubble: : Claudio: Can the world buy such a jewel? Benedick: Yea, and a case to put it into. This doesn’t discourage Claudio one bit. Hero’s perfect for Claudio. But Hero would be a dull partner for Benedick. Juliet would have been a dull partner for Benedick. He’s all full of energy and wit. Women like Hero and Juliet are delicate flowers that need wooing. What Benedick needs is a woman just as full of energy and wit as himself. One who can give as good as she takes. It’s hard to imagine Juliet responding well to an insult: my dear Lady Juliet! are you yet living? And it’s hard to imagine Romeo falling for Beatrice if she told him I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Romeo: nobody marks you. Romeo would have wilted. And in return how would Beatrice react if Romeo had responded Did my heart love till now? This would not have been a healthy relationship.

For one thing Beatrice is an experienced woman and Romeo isn’t much more than a boy. It’s appropriate for him to be attracted to an impressionable girl like Juliet but not to a feisty woman like Beatrice. He would have been out of his league. It would have been just as awkward for a grizzled old warrior like Othello to come on to Juliet. She would have been scared out of her wits. But in Othello Desdemona is attracted to his tough guy image. In Much Ado Beatrice needs Benedick and he needs her. Sometimes opposites do attract. Just not at first sight.

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