The following notes are adapted from Alexander Leggatt’s chapter on Comedy and Sex, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Alexander Leggatt, Cambridge University Press, 2002. Any reference you make to them should be footnoted, and the above text listed in your bibliography.
Comedy and Sex
‘Sex brings out the animal in humanity.’ It has a:
‘tendency to deflate our pretensions by bringing us down to the low physical realities that demand our attention when we would rather be declaring love or expounding philosophy: the need to scratch, the need to urinate, the need for food and sex
Sex is also reductive; it reduces humanity to something very basic, primal – the opposite, perhaps, of the civilised, social selves we present to the world. It’s about the relationship between the biological and the social, the animal and the human. If comedy exposes our real, hidden, subconscious selves – the Freudian ‘id’, then sex is just about as near-perfect a topic as there is, and a prime source of comedy.
Much Ado About Vagina
The play’s title is oft-interpreted as meaning a lot of fuss over nothing. Or over what was believed to be something, but was, in reality, nothing – no thing – no true, or real thing. Much Ado About an Illusion. Much Ado About a Lie. Much Ado About a Made-up Thing. However, in Shakespeare’s lexicon, the word ‘nothing’ didn’t just denote nothing. It had a secondary meaning: vagina. Much Ado About Vagina. Much Ado About What You’ve Done With It. Much Ado About Sex. And if you think about it, that is what the play is really about. The ‘Much Ado’ in Act 4 scene 1 isn’t about nothing. It’s about sex. Or, to use Claudio’s words, ‘savage sensuality’.
Sex Makes Fools of us All
For all their protestations of antipathy and avowals to remain single forever and eternity, there is a sexual attraction between Beatrice and Benedick that is evident from the get-go. When you look at the intercourse (excuse the pun) between them, you find that it is littered with sexual innuendo. Beatrice’s first words in the play: ‘Signior Montanto’ refer to an ‘upward thrust’ in fencing. Benedick will not ‘hang his bugle in an invisible baldrick’ (1.1.231) and Beatrice protests that she does not want him to ‘put her down’ 2.1.271). Their language is sexual at the very moments when they are attempting to persuade their listeners (or more pertinently, themselves) that they are not. Whilst seeking to establish decorum, to assert their independence and freedom, they are, ironically, slaves to their own words, which belie the truth and reveal the very opposite. The irony of this is a chief source of comedy; it is rather like my saying that I am speechless, and proceeding to talk about why – the very words I utter are proof that the opposite is in fact the case. When Beatrice claims that she does not want Benedick to ‘put her down’, the joke is on her, for it is clear to characters and audience alike that what she really feels is the exact opposite. In attempting to appear one thing, she is in actual fact its very antithesis. (A similar thing happens in A Midsummer Nitgt’s Dream with the chink in the wall – kissing its holes and stones…)
Moreover, their banter can itself be perceived as a form of intercourse in itself. Leonato raises this idea when he puns on Beatrice’s ‘love letter’ to Benedick in 2.3.135: ‘O when she had writ it, and was reading it over, she found “Benedick” and “Beatrice” between the sheet’. The image captures the inter-relativity of sex and language. Try as we might, whenever we communicate, we are liable to exposure. Our words betray us. They expose the subconscious, hidden selves we would rather keep hidden. Against our fervent wishes to the contrary, (and, often, our belief that such is the case), they reveal our humanity.
Tragedy and Sex
What all of this means is that there is much potential for tragedy when it comes to sex. If it is the seat of our hidden, suppressed selves, it is by its very nature where we are most vulnerable. The potential for disaster – for hurt, pain, exposure, suffering, guilt, shame, etc. is huge. Othello is a tragedy motivated by the hero’s belief that his wife is ‘slippery’. The tragic events of The Winter’s Tale are prompted by Leontes’ obsession with the idea that his ‘pond’ has been ‘fished in’ by his best friend, Polixenes. Hamlet becomes increasingly disgusted by what he perceives to be the rampant sexual desires of his own mother. In Much Ado, Claudio accuses Hero of being ‘more intemperate in [her] blood / Than Venus, or those pamper’d animals / That rage in savage sensuality’ (4.1.59-61). Sex is at the heart of the matter.
Let’s Talk About Sex: Much Ado About Words
However, whilst Much Ado has sex as its chief catalyst for action, it does not present us with the disastrous and tragic endings of the plays mentioned above. Unlike Othello, Claudio does not murder Hero and then himself. Her ‘death’ (rather like that of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, is an illusion. Indeed, Claudio’s poetic, rhetorical outbursts in 4.1 border on the ridiculous; there is certainly not much of the tragic about them. They are just words, and rather empty ones at that, not unlike those spoken perhaps, by Margaret and Borachio on Hero’s balcony. As comedy, the diffusal of the tragic potential of sex lies in the fact that, despite all the talk about it, no-one in the play actually has it. Margaret, the most ‘sexually active’ character, is so only in word, not in deed. She jokes about sex on Hero’s wedding morning, when she says that Hero’s heart will soon be made ‘heavier by the weight of a man’ (3.4.25) and again when she puns on Beatrice’s being ‘stuffed’: ‘A maid, and stuffed!’ (line 60). Her dialogue with Benedick at the start of 5.2 is absolutely filthy. But it is just that: dialogue. Hero is made ‘wanton’ though words alone. At the end of the play, Borachio insists upon Margaret’s innocence. It is only ever the words of Don John, and then Claudio, that constitute the ‘sex’ between ‘Hero’ and Borachio. ‘What man talked with you, yesternight?’ Claudio asks Hero (4.1.83). Margaret is sexually active in words alone, and unwittingly so. Thus the ‘Nothing’ of the title is perhaps more accurately interpreted as ‘No Sex’, or: ‘Much Ado About No Vagina’. If the ending were tragic, the very opposite would have been the case.