It’s not often you get something for nothing, but here is an example of exactly that: a free lecture on comedy at the Museum of London in a couple of weeks. Why not go along? It’s exactly the kind of thing you should be doing to supplement your studies. And think how many interesting things you’ll learn. I might even come along myself….
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.
The following (with the exception of my ‘hilarious’ additions) is taken from David Galbraith’s Theories of Comedy, which forms the first chapter of Alexander Leggatt’s The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy (Cambridge University Press, 2002). They should be helpful when considering different views of comedy in your coursework essay on Much Ado About Nothing, and should be referenced using footnotes, as well as in a bibliography.
Would Shakespeare have known / cared about classical and Renaissance theories of comedy?
Shakespeare’s comedies in particular resist theoretic and generic pigeonholing. In fact, Shakespeare seems to take up the language of Renaissance genre theory only to parody it. Polonius catalogues the range of dramatic players […] Bottom is equally confident of his ability to make generic distinctions: “What is Pyramus?” He asks Peter Quince, “a lover or a tyant?” echoing the distinction between comic and tragic protagonists which the classical tradition had put into place and which is parodied in the generic confusion of Quince’s title, “The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” (1.2.11-22)… Shakespeare’s parodies would make no sense if these ideas of the genre were not firmly in place. (pp. 3-4)
Classical Theories of Comedy: Aristotle, Plato and Euanthius
The most famous classical commonplace on the topic of laughter was Aristotle‘s claim, in The Parts of Animals, that ‘no animal but man ever laughs’ […] Not all later commentators, however, accepted the potential implication of this assertion, that laughter might even be constitutive of humanity. Many viewed laughter and the comic as potentially dangerous.’ (p. 5)
So laughing is what makes us human, but it’s also really dangerous. What? Why?
In Book III of The Republic, Plato advised that the guardians of the people “must not be prone to laughter. For ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter his condition provokes a violent reaction.” Plato goes on to suggest that “if anyone represents men of worth as overpowered by laughter we must not accept it.” (p. 6)
Plato doesn’t sound much fun!
In Book X of The Republic, Plato worried that comedy led its spectators to accept what they would otherwise repudiate, arguing that “in comic representations, or for that matter in private talk, you take intense pleasure in buffooneries that you would blush to practise yourself, and do not detest them as base.” (The Republic, 831) (p. 6)
Can we get back to Aristotle please? He sounds a bit less uptight about it all.
In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to posit a “middle state” between the buffoon and the “ready-witted man.” The former “is the slave of his sense of humour, and spares neither himself or others if he can raise a laugh”; the latter displays the sense of tact and “jokes well by his saying what is not unbecoming to a well-bred man…” (Nichomachean Ethics, II, 1780).
That sounds a bit more reasonable.
Aristotle […] suggests a progression from the Old Comedy of Aristophanes to the New Comedy of which Menander would become the most important practitioner: “to the authors of the former, indecency of language was amusing, to those of the latter innuendo is more so” (On Drama, 42) (pp. 6, 9)
So Aristotle saw comedy as becoming increasingly sophisticated. And what about the Euanthius guy?
The classical grammarian Euanthius locates the origins of both tragedy and comedy “in religious ceremonies which the ancients held to give thanks for the good harvest” (On Drama, 41). The name comedy (comoedia in Latin) is derived, he suggests, from the Greek term “villages” (komai) and “song” (oide), and refers to the songs sung to Apollo, “the guardian of shepherds and villages” (On Drama, 41).
Fascinating. So comedy isn’t just ‘the opposite of tragedy’, then?
Of the many differences between tragedy and comedy, the foremost are these: in comedy the fortunes of men are middle-class, the dangers are slight and the ends of the action are happy; but in tragedy, everything is the opposite – the characters are great men, the fears are intense, and the ends disastrous. In comedy the beginning is troubled, the end tranquil; in tragedy events follow the reverse order. And in tragedy the kind of life is shown that is to be shunned; while in comedy the kind is shown that is to be sought after. Finally in comedy, the story is always fictitious; while tragedy often has a basis in historical truth. (Euanthius, On Drama, 45) (pp. 10-11)
Oh. So would Shakespeare have known about all these classical theories?
Renaissance Theories of Comedy: Erasmus, Robortello and Castelvetro
For Erasmus, comedy was particularly valuable for its techniques of characerisation. […] Although comedy tends to rely on comic types and conventional plots, the successful comic poet ought nonetheless to aim to impart “individual characteristics even within these general types.” (p. 11)
To make them more realistic, presumably. What about Robortello?
Drawing on Aristotle’s account of the components of tragedy, Francesco Robortello attempts to formulate an analagous model of the parts of comedy in his essay on the genre: Since the imitation of Comedy is not only of low and trifling affairs, such as take place in the private actions of people, but also of disturbances, there should also be present that which is taken from the nature and custom of human actions, which always have in them something troublesome or distressing. (Of Comedy, 232) (p. 12)
Cool. And Castelvetro?
Lodovico Castelvetro brings back whole classes of material which had been excluded from the stage in earlier accounts of comedy. […] There are, he argues, four classes of phenomena which provoke laughter:
- “everything that becomes ours after we have desired it long or ardently”;
- “deceptions, as when a person is made to say, do, or suffer what he would not say, do or suffer unless he were deceived”;
- “wickedness of the soul and physical deformities”;
- “all the things to do with carnal pleasure, like the privy parts, sexual intercourse, and the memories and representations of both”
(Castelvetro, On the Art of Poetry, 214-18) (p. 13)
Well Shakespeare uses all of those in Much Ado About Nothing! Are you saying that he was just following a standard set of generic rules for comedy-writing?
Shakespeare and Early Theories of Comedy
Dramatic practice in public theatres offered a very different viewpoint on comedy. In Every Man out of his Humour, [Ben] Jonson has Cordatus summarise the evolution of the genre in his argument that: “we should enjoy the same license, or free power, to illustrate or heighten our inuention, as they did; and not bee tyed to those strict and regular formes, which the nicenesse of a few (who are nothing but forme) would thrust vpon us.” (Ben Jonson, Every Man out of his Humour, I.i.266-70)
Oh. So they were free to break the rules…
Shakespeare’s comic practice provides a compelling illustration of this license. “[The mingling of kings and clowns” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the deux ex machina of Hymen at the end of As You Like It; the real threat of violent death in The Merchant of Venice […] each seems inconsistent with much of the comic theory I have described. […]
So Shakespeare couldn’t have cared less about all the theories of comedy?
[S]imply to dismiss the relevance of this theoretical tradition would be too hasty […] That we laugh “when a person is made to say, do or suffer what he would not say, do or suffer unless he were deceived” throws light on the gulling of Malvolio in Twelfth Night; that we are amused by “all the things to do with carnal pleasure” the bawdy repartee of Love’s Labour’s Lost Or Much Ado About Nothing.
Hmmm… So he was influenced by them, but not so much that he felt he had to stick to all the rules.
Shakespeare’s art is at the same time embedded in the traditions of the comic stage and engaged in a continual transformation and renewal of its sources. Any assessment of his relationship to early theories of comedy must come to terms with both aspects of this relationship. pp. 14-15)
In many ways, the ending of Much Ado may well feel rather rushed, and hence unsatisfactory. There are a number of reasons for the this:
* the conflict between Claudio and Benedick comes to an abrupt end when Benedick claims that he was going to punch Claudio’s lights out, but thought better of it when he realised that they were going to be relatives. Claudio’s response to this is hardly contrite. He replies that Beatrice will have to watch Benedick like a hawk if she wants him to remain faithful. This is his response to Benedick’s command: ‘Love my cousin.’
* the resolution of the relationship between Claudio and Hero may feel equally unsatisfactory: the verse that describes her as ‘dying defiled’ does very little (i.e. nothing) to vindicate her as blameless from the start, and even less to bring justice to Claudio, who ‘loved’, and whose ‘slander’ of her is detached from its origin: him. (You would do well to compare the reunion of Claudio and Hero with that of Leones and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale; he is made to do penance for a whole 16 years, which makes Claudio’s 16 hours seem pretty pathetic.)
* the audience are denied a denouement when Friar Francis postpones ‘testify[ing] to the ‘amazement’ until after the wedding. In the mentime, he claims, ‘Let wonder seem familiar’. He seems to suggest that they hould suspend their disbelief until the ‘holy rites are ended’. Thus the wedding itself seems part if the play’s illusion, not its reality.
* we may well look to Beatrice and Benedick for a dose of reality (and the return to their plain-spoken banter is indeed welcome) but even Benedick concludes that ‘man is a giddy thing’, and not to be ‘beaten with brains’. Intellect is disregarded in favour of ‘humour’.
* the business of bringing Don John to justice is postponed in favour of dancing; Benedick (in outright disregard of Claudio’s wishes) declares that they will ‘think not on him till tomorrow’, and his answer to Don Pedro’s ‘sad’ state is equally trite: ‘Get thee a wife’.
BUT… of course this is exactly what the end of a Shakespearean comedy tends to be. Contrived, magical, and rather … unsatisfctory. Read this article to find out more.
Explore the relationship between order and disorder in Much Ado About Nothing
Chaos is at the heart of comedy, in fact it is at the heart of us. It is not only in dramatic comedy, but in life itself that the relentless battle between order and chaos is fought. We talk of using our ‘heads’ or our ‘hearts’, of speaking of ‘facts’ as opposed to feelings. There is a dichotomy in our language that separates the logical from the rational, the chaos of emotion from the clarity of stone-cold reason. We find ourselves in situations which give rise to either one or the other. The surgeon operating on a patient’s heart valve is not concerned with his or her feelings towards the patient, but focused only on the facts about that patient during the operation: his or her blood pressure, heart rate and so on. Feelings and emotions have little or no place in these situations.
Conversely, the opposite is also true. There are situations in which feelings and emotions are the order of the day. We might find it rather odd, for example, if a mother / father felt nothing upon holding their newborn baby for the first time, or if a friend could watch the plight of those living in extreme poverty without feeling some compassion. Standing on the top of a mountain, listening to a favourite piece of music, falling in love. (Hopefully not all at the same time.) Facts, order, logic, reason: they may well struggle to make themselves heard above the chaos of our emotions.
Much Ado About Nothing is a play about falling in love. It is a rom-com. Thus if we were forced to place it in one of the above categories, we would be right in placing it in the latter. Much of it is about emotions. It is an appeal to our own emotions. Perhaps it is, in some way, about Shakespeare’s own emotions (although let’s not worry too much about him). The characters experience extreme and heartfelt emotions. Often, chaos ensues.
And yet it would be reductive to suggest that this is all there is to it. Indeed, if it were all chaos, the play would be very difficult – impossible, perhaps – to watch. Comedy is not about the absolute absence of order – it is far more subtle than that. Order and structure are essential to its success. To understand the relationship between order and disorder is, therefore, essential to an understanding of comedy.
One of the ways in which we can observe this relationship between order and disorder is by exploring the play’s setting. In Messina, Shakespeare opts for a civilised yet rural society that has all the custom and manners of the courtly world whilst being free from its formality. In this sense, it is something of a blend between order and chaos. (Kenneth Branagh captures this so well in his film version of the play, when the sudden ceremony of Don Pedro’s arrival at I.i.20-25 seems almost farcical after antics that precede it.) Leonato’s house is one that respects the rules of the court whilst holding them rather loosely. There is some order. There is some disorder. There is both.
Furthermore, the timing of Don Pedro’s arrival is significant. These are men on their way home from battle. The serious stuff is done. It’s been intense, but it’s finished now. What’s more, they’ve been victorious. They have a reason to celebrate. Much Ado is an ‘after-party’ in a stately home: the perfect blend of formality and informality, of order and chaos.
It is no surprise, then, that one of the play’s earliest scenes is a party. In Act 1 scene i, Don Pedro sets the scene: “I know we shall have some revelling tonight” (I.i.300 – my emphasis). A revel – in this case, a masked dance – was a common form of entertainment for the Elizabethans. We see it in Romeo and Juliet, when Capulet holds a masked ball. It is no coincidence that this is the setting for the first meeting of the ‘star-cross’d lovers’, and where they fall in love. At a masked ball one is allowed a greater freedom than is usual. Juliet is free from her duty to Paris and her father; Romeo is free from his status as a Montague. Wearing masks, they are free to be whoever they want to be. Rules of everyday life are suspended; the natural order of things is put on hold for the time being; inhibitions are less acutely felt. We see this in the free and easy banter that rolls through Act II scene i, in the rapid succession of conversations, the mistaken identities and the chaos that ensues. We see the freedom in Beatrice’s uncommon views on marriage, the liberty in Benedick’s venting against Beatrice. Emotions are heightened, opinions extreme, the language itself pours forth in a torrent of energetic prose. (Shakespeare usually wrote in the more structured form of iambic pentameter, but the majority of Much Ado is written in prose.) There are moments when order makes a fleeting return – the formal and legally-binding marriage ‘pre-contract’ between Claudio and Hero, for example, or Claudio’s wilful attempt to reason with himself in lines 160-70 (one of the few speeches in iambic pentameter) but these only serve to heighten the chaos that surrounds, and the scene ends by looking forward to the chaos that is yet to ensue: Don Pedro’s plan to trick Beatrice and Benedick into believing themselves the object of the other’s affections. It is this initial revel that both establishes the disorder of Messina and sets into motion the greater disorder that is to follow.
Whilst on the subject of form, it is interesting to compare Claudio’s heartfelt complaint with Benedick’s accusations against Beatrice. Claudio’s soliloquy is leant a certain heaviness:
‘Tis certain so; the Prince woos for himself. (II.i.162)
The iambic pentameter is steady; the caesura lends the line a ponderous, reflective quality; the line is end-stopped: it feels weighty. This all serves to confirm Claudio’s certainty and enhance his sense of dejection, so that when he declares ‘Farewell, therefore, Hero!’ we feel that his sentiments are genuine. In contrast, Benedick’s denunciation of Beatrice sounds like the ravings of a fool:
She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw, huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. (II.i.226-231)
The parenthetical clause (in italics) fragments the sentence and creates a stilted effect; the repetition of ‘that I was’ (in bold) adds a rambling tone to the words which is only increased further by the onomatopoeic quality of the verb ‘huddling’ and the alliteration in ‘jest upon jest’ and ‘man at a mark’. They are wonderful lines to perform, precisely because such qualities lend them a palpable energy, a sense of escalating chaos. The final simile of Benedick’s being shot at by an ‘army’ of archers confirms his lack of control, and the effect is far from serious. In fact, it is impossible to take our hero seriously despite his own doing so with such apparent zeal and fervour, and it is, ironically, these very qualities which serve only to make him seem all the more foolish, and the scene all the more comical.
Much of the chaos that follows from the masked ball is the result of practical jokes played upon unsuspecting characters. These are formed around two narrative threads: that of Don John’s deceiving Claudio and Don Pedro into believing Hero to be unfaithful, and that of the aforementioned trick played upon Beatrice and Benedick. The parallels are obvious: in both cases a collective of individuals conspire to make reality appear other than that which it really is. Both appeal to the senses (be they vision or hearing) of their unsuspecting victims, rather like Iago in Othello, or Sir Toby and Maria in Twelfth Night. And, as these two examples may well suggest, there is the potential for this deceit to end in both comedy and tragedy. If, for example, Friar Francis’ plan to save Hero (yet again by deceit) had been unsuccessful, (rather like that of Friar Lawrence’s plan in Romeo and Juliet), then she may well have died from a broken heart. Claudio, upon finding out the truth, would most likely have murdered Don John (and Borachio, perhaps) in revenge, before turning the dagger upon himself. Witnessing such events would have resulted in Leonato’s dying of a broken heart (either literally or metaphorically) and the play would have ended a tragedy. Chaos would have had to result in death for order to be established.
We are spared the grief of a tragic ending. Both threads of the narrative end happily in the double wedding of Beatrice/Benedick and Hero/Claudio; the chaos does not result in death, but in life: ‘The world must be peopled!’ and order is restored through the institution of marriage. Yet it is difficult to forget entirely how easily events could have ended in a far sorrier state.
Perhaps the point, then, is that the dichotomy of order and chaos about which we were so confident at the start, is less distinct than we might have imagined. Life and death, comedy and tragedy, order and disorder – there is a finer line between these concepts than we like to think. Much Ado About Nothing presents us with a world that is both ordered and disordered, structured and chaotic, comic and tragic. In its setting, structure, form and in its very plot, it offers us this alarming truth: order and chaos are never that far away from each other. The dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy are interlinked and interchangeable: we may be wearing one for the time being, but it will not be long before we are forced to exchange it for its counterpart.
Re-read the following sections of Act 1 scene 2:
Lines 77 (Entrance of Don Pedro et al) to 142 “… leave them at the next turning.”
Write about the aspects of comedy in this extract. You may wish to include:
- mistaken identity as a result of masques (e.g. Beatrice and Benedick)
- flirting / banter between characters (e.g. Margaret and Balthasar)
- Exaggeration (Don Pedro’s references to Jove);
- Chaos – short conversations which quickly move on…
Due Monday 1st October