Of all the things we learn to be, the most basic and central category we all belong to is one that is simply overlooked. We are too close to see it. It is the eye we see with. Seeing can’t see itself. The closest we can come to filling in this blind spot is through reflections, drawings, or photographs. These tools give us an abstract representation of how we appear to other people, but they still fail to reveal much about how we see. For that, we need language. We need stories.
The eyes are directly connected to the brain, so everything we see is already being processed automatic as breathing, but the entire organism is involved in vision. What you feel in your gut when you enter a room will influence what you look for and limit what you can see. If you are experiencing a fight or flight response to something that you perceive to be dangerous, that will direct your vision with tremendous focus. You will be looking to resolve the situation.
It is not only what we encounter when we enter a room that conditions a response that in turn affects what we see. We are preconditioned by the stories we believe. We exercise confirmation bias at every turn. So, if we are under the impression that something malicious and dangerous is happening inside a room, then we will enter with a different awareness. When we enter a room with guns drawn, we are already looking for targets.
This all too human tendency is illustrated in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It has biblical roots. The first family of the Old Testament is a story of jealousy and murder. Cain’s negative emotions overwhelm him to the point that he sees red and murders his own brother. In this comedic play, the two brothers are Don Pedro and Don John. We don’t exactly know why Don John feels so envious and melancholy, but in a culture ruled by status and shame his illegitimate status is an obvious emotional starting point. As a bastard in a patriarchal society, he is constantly provoked.
Being an outsider also gives the Don a keen understanding of how the system is unjust and can be manipulated as a weapon. Weaponizing the cultural norms can best be done by someone who has felt the pain and experienced the process of being cast out of respectable society. Born into a shameful status, the toxic effects of an honor-based society are like mother’s milk to the Don. His status is liminal. He has power and at the same time is devoid of value. It is as though he is rich with money that is only good in another country.
After enduring the long-term effects of being illegitimate, or what Foos Gone Wild call “years of abuse,” the Don has just finally had it. He snaps. In this mentality we see a precursor to the mass shooter, someone who extroverts their anguish and takes it out on innocent people. Instead of using direct action to express his violent intentions, the Don uses a psychological technique to attempt to ruin his enemies. In private, he speaks in tones that in no way attempt to hide his hatred, but he uses deception and manipulation to enact his evil plans.
Through representing the feelings of the villain, Shakespeare shows us how the way we view the world is determined by our status, by how we are regarded socially. In a patriarchal society, to have no father is an unresolvable lacuna. The Don undoubtedly is a villain and the plot he enacts would have led to the murder of an innocent woman. In his madness, he cares nothing about their lives, their innocence. His own emotional torment and his liminal status block him from being able to empathize. Instead, he uses his intelligence to create a fiction with fatal consequences.
By framing the fiancé of his enemy, Don John attempts to deceive his brother and to provoke a murderous response. This is pure and premeditated evil. We see the consequences of a society that is ruled by a kind of arbitrary status. Don John is a born reject, a charismatic outcast, a fictional character with millions of real examples. Charles Manson was a Don John of the 60s.
The way we think influences what we see, and this is given its fullest expression in the scene when Claudio is deceived. Having been told that Hero has been unfaithful and is sleeping with another man, he is then led to a view of her living quarters where he sees one of Hero’s servants getting frisky with a soldier. Because he has been fed a lie and then shown a scene that matches the lie he doesn’t investigate further. He sees a figure that fits the fear stirred up inside of him, even though it isn’t true. The story matches the image and even though both are false they convince Claudio that his worst fears are true. Don John in a contemporary setting would be manipulating media.
Why things never fully escalate into murder is due to two interesting and different influences. On the one hand you have a friar who knows Hero well and has seen her grow up from a little girl to become a young woman. His confidence in her is based on a deep understanding of her character. As a religious figure, he has power within a patriarchal society, but he is not a part of the domestic sphere. His separation, his clout, and his understanding of Hero empower him to save her life and to save her father and Claudio from committing an unimaginable crime.
The other influence that resolves the situation before violence is realized is due to the bumbling work of local law officials. It takes very little intelligence to see what is hidden to those “stuffed with all the virtues.” Much Ado About Nothing can be read and thought about from many different angles, and the way the stories we believe affects what we see which in turn determines how we act is a very important one for our contemporary context.
One thought on “The Strange Art of Being Human: Narrative Filters in Much Ado”
I love this, Jake! And I’m well aware of how much Gramps would have liked it, engaged with you about it & felt very proud of you. Looking forward to seeing you & Olivia at Nick & Nicole’s wedding. ♥️♥️