Benedick’s Double: Much Ado as Meta-Comedy

Hero may be the protagonist of Much Ado, but her cousin Beatrice is the funniest, the most insightful and comical character in Shakespeare’s play. The only other character who even comes close is Benedick. The series of transformations Benedick undergoes through the course of the play makes for a hilarious portrait of a jester. Through the portrait of Benedict as a comical character, Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about comedy.

Benedick begins as a mega-bro, a boy’s boy. He is a turn of the 17th century fuck boi. If he were alive today, there’s no doubt that he would be down to shotgun beers on the weekend. He’s Claudio’s homeboy, someone who helps to keep the mood light and to joke about the condition of being a man. Together they are bachelors enjoying their military tour.

It is their fateful visit to Aragon that initiates their transformation through love. It is the ways in which they change that make for such a hilarious portrayal of how people are altered by the experience of romance. Benedick is deceived into thinking that Beatrice is interested in him and that is all it takes for him to begin the process of turning into a whole other human.

Beatrice and Benedick have a famous ongoing battle of wits between them, and Beatrice always has the upper hand. It is less a battle and more of a dance, a game of cat and mouse. She toys with him and absolutely shreds his ego. The setting of the play is an island in Italy where a small militia lands to recover from their recent battles. As a part of their recreation, they have a masquerade ball. Beatrice takes advantage of this occasion to dance with Benedick and to pretend she doesn’t know it is him. She then proceeds to tell him about this fool named Benedick and negs him hard.

This begins the opening of Benedick. Truly, he has been a dick and he is finally starting to see it. Through her portrait of him as someone unworthy of respect, he begins to question himself. Because she fools him into thinking that he is receiving this description anonymously, he believes her. It hurts him even more.

The idea of Benedick and Beatrice as a couple is so ridiculous that their friends on both sides conspire to trick them into a romantic misunderstanding. As soon as they begin to believe that the other person loves them, they start to change how they feel altogether. Benedick, the lifelong bachelor, suddenly is catching all kinds of feelings. When they finally come together to confess their feelings to each other, Hero’s crisis has already gone down, and she is supposed to be dead. Beatrice is less transformed by love and in the first moment that Benedick swears he loves her and will do anything for her she asks him to kill Claudio to avenge her friend. He immediately responds that he can’t. She goads him into it, using the act as a way of verifying his love for her.

What a trick! It is another example of how shame is leveraged to manipulate action in the context of the play. She has broken him down, shown him a version of himself that is shameful. Then, when he has disintegrated to the point that he is ready to do anything, she gives him the command to murder. This is a remarkably dark moment in a comedy, but it is the counterpoint to the comic’s role. The comic kills with laughter, his double just kills.

When Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel, he takes on a ridiculously masculine role. He is transformed by his mission. He becomes militant in his devotion to Beatrice. He is ready to kill his best friend. Bros before hoes no more.

Suddenly, he is not himself, and in this process of existential opening he attempts to write a love poem to Beatrice, with hilarious results. Shakespeare’s portrait of a man inspired to write poetry without any skill for crafting lines of verse is an amazing parody. He is having a good laugh at his competition and maybe at himself. There is nothing funnier than bad poetry.

Of all the characters in the play, Benedick changes the most. He is the most dynamic because he falls in love with a woman who dominates him intellectually. His experience of love makes him believe in himself in ways he had never had the courage to before. As an image of transformation, Benedick serves as a mirror giving us the ability to see how funny it is when we fall in love.

Slut Shaming in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

If there’s any truth to the idea that Shakespeare may have had a good intuition about the English character and that this in turn is relevant for all English-speaking peoples, then it is important that we analyze his embarrassing portrait of men. This is how the brovolution works. We have to face ourselves to improve ourselves.

Important question: was Shakespeare a brother or a bro?

Jay-Z wrote a song clarifying what he considered to be the difference between a sister and a bitch. The same thing is true with brothers and bros. They are not the same. The bro is a hoe version of a brother. But let’s not slut shame. 

Slut shaming should never have been allowed to happen. If people had read Much Ado About Nothing adequately, the lesson was taught four hundred years ago. Because of a slut-shame-based society, the so-called nobles of the play (the prince himself and his right-hand man) are easily deceived and provoked into emotional tantrums. They are so triggered by what they think is a woman’s promiscuity that they all decide and say that she cannot be allowed to live. Then, they learn that she is innocent. The consequence of their ignorance comes close to murder. A young innocent woman is almost murdered because of the fatal logic of a slut-shame-based society.

It has happened too many times in reality to adequately grieve.

Slut shaming is not a joke. But, because it touches on the taboo, humor is going to be surrounding it. Anything that is repressed is fodder for comedy. 

Truly, the play is a caricature of what it means to attempt to be a man in a world with slut shaming. It makes fun of the idea of manhood through a ridiculous representation of manhood. This is expressed in the song that they sing on the island, “ladies sigh no more” the chorus teaches us that men are never constant, always deceptive with one foot on a boat and one on shore. There is an interesting remedy to the existential situation presented by gendered roles suggested in the lines that say to turn that sadness into something artistic through song and dance. It’s a trippy song to say the least. It’s a kind of therapeutic and pragmatic advice. It shows how men are easily deceived because of their fears and how they project those fears onto women. It instructs women on how to deal with the inconstant nature of men.

In this play, men police women’s sexuality, ordering Claudio’s fiancé to death because they mistakenly think that she has had sex with some random soldier. They are deceived by another man with malicious intent into believing that she has been unfaithful. In this context, sexual promiscuity is punishable by death. Her own father says that death is the only suitable cover for her shame. The urgency to police women’s sexuality leads to poor decision making and reveals a faulty belief system.

Amber Rose started an anti slut-shaming movement during the 20-teens called the Slut Walk. Cardi B made waves during the pandemic of 2020 with her pull no punches video for her song, WAP. The bold and unapologetic expression of women’s sexuality is at an all-time high, today in 2021 with OnlyFans and Instagram models. We should celebrate this movement. It is surely the antidote to the woman hating attitude expressed in Much Ado. The effect that women have on men is wild. Celebrating that power helps to keep it in a healthy balance, where repressing it causes a situation so radically imbalanced that a father could be tricked into killing his daughter.

Shakespeare was a brother, but maybe he was a bro, too. It’s not as though you can’t be both. That is one of the paradoxical outcomes of this gender configuration. It’s another layer of confusion that leads to such consequential misunderstandings. We should stop bro-shaming, too.

In a world where the expression of sexuality is more accepted, the consequences of slut or bro shaming lose a lot of their power. Slut and bro shaming is the equivalent of making drugs illegal: it only empowers the destructive side of the equation.

We need to find a healthy relationship to sexuality in our culture and we can start by letting bros be hoes and hoes be bros.

The Strange Art of Being Human: Narrative Filters in Much Ado

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. 

Much Ado About Showers: Tone in Shakespeare’s Comedy

I spent part of the weekend listening to the BBC Radio production of Much Ado About Nothing soaking up the language and catching more of the nuance to each of the various interweaving plots contained within the play. There is something seriously pleasurable about this comedy. It is funny, for one thing. It’s hard to imagine that jokes would hold up after four hundred years, but the “skirmishes of wit” between Benedick and Beatrice are truly amusing.

The more I listen to it and think about the narratives, the more I think that people have gotten it wrong. At least, this BBC production misses a few marks, in my opinion. Stating first that it is an incredible production well worth the purchase and something I will listen to again and again, it fails to achieve a sense of realism that I think is lurking in the text. The characters go too quickly back and forth between love, murderous rage and love again. Something about the tone is not quite right, and that has to be achieved by the direction and the acting.

What we need to see is how horrified Hero is to be falsely accused of sleeping around and to be sentenced to death by her own father. Surely that would be a traumatic enough moment to have affected her for the rest of eternity let alone for the duration of the play. Having narrowly escaped death, she must be feeling a whole range of things, including rage and despair. What happens to her sense of trust? What kind of value does she possess to be so easily disposed of by the men who are bound to protect her? 

Truly, the murderous rage of Beatrice is the tone that makes the most sense. Her desire for revenge is understandable in the context of her cousin having been framed and almost murdered. How could things return to normal so quickly? What kind of horrible shadow are these people living in to be so blind to their own behavior? It is a creative indictment of a shame-based culture. It is a critique of people who value honor above family and above human life. It is also a comedy, an expression of the continuity of hope and good humor despite the cruelty of a patriarchal world.

Just before going to sleep last night, I started the Kenneth Branagh production of Much Ado About Nothing and after listening to an audio production so many times, the excitement of seeing a cinematic translation was unexpected but fun. This is a great movie and I’ve only watched the first ten minutes, but oh what some ten minutes they are. 

Emma Thompson as Beatrice is an insanely wonderful choice. She may be the most beautiful woman ever to act in a film. Anyways, it is at that level where there are only peers, no superiors. That immediately makes the film too good to be true. As you see the soldiers arriving on horseback, though, you realize that this is going to be one helluva a movie.

You have a glorious glamorous slow motion shot of the men riding up on horseback. Keanau Reeves, Denzel Washington and Kenneth Branaugh are all looking radiant in their prime and it is like a Baywatch running on the sand kind of soft porn scene vibe. As the men approach on horseback, the women all laugh and run to the showers where an absolute orgy of cleaning begins. The men parkour leap off of the horses into the baths and before you know it we are experiencing a montage of perfect butts flashing back and forth between the women in the showers and the men in the bath all laughing and rough housing with each other.

Now that’s how you do Shakespeare. I can’t wait to see if he gets the darkness of the play right, but this version makes the fun of it just absolutely tremendous. It is truly one of the great opening scenes of 90s cinema.

Powerful Sicilian Women in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing

Women in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing are portrayed as powerful beings, equal or superior in every way to men, except in their rights. This is not exactly a hot take for me to draw this conclusion. He names the protagonist Hero. That’s pretty on the nose, isn’t it? She is a victim of a fraudulent accusation, but she survives a world where the threat of murder follows women around, a world sadly all too common still today. 

Shakespeare, we know, was from the countryside and married into a higher status than he was born into. His wife was older than him and more well connected to the powerful. During Shakespeare’s career, England was ruled by Queen Elizabeth a truly formidable monarch. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare saw women as powerful, since his personal life and the country he belonged to were both made possible by strong women.

Hero is the protagonist of Much Ado, but the most interesting character, the strongest woman in the play is Beatrice. Beatrice is one of the most famous names in literature as the inspiration and motivation for Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was for Beatrice that the poet in Dante’s Inferno travels through the depths of hell. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice is famous for her wit. She is basically a stand-up comic for her times. People recognize her ability to make fun of Benedick using her intelligence to craft jokes about him.

She is not passively waiting for a man to marry her. To the contrary, she makes fun of how little she desires to be with a man celebrating her own independence. She is undoubtedly a feminist character, an earlier version of Steinam’s “women need a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Beatrice is a strong intelligent woman who publicly ridicules anyone who tries to interfere with her independence. 

For a comedy, Much Ado is full of a lot of darkness that never quite comes to its fatal conclusion. Beatrice orchestrates one of the murder attempts in the play. Hero is framed as an adulterer and the men believe the story and are quick to anger and decide that murder is the appropriate penalty. A priest intervenes and convinces Hero’s father to fake her death for one day to make sure that the charges are true. Beatrice, for revenge, wants Benedick to kill Claudio. 

It was Helen’s face that launched a thousand ships in the Greek Epics, but it was Beatrice’s words that inspired murder in her suitor in Shakespeare’s play. She demands that he act to avenge her friend as a proof of his worth of her love. This is a darkly funny play that ridicules a system that is so easily manipulated. It starts out with a malicious act of deception by a jealous Don. In order to seek revenge, he creates the fictional narrative of Hero’s infidelity. It is far too easy for him to trick these men into wanting to murder a perfectly innocent woman.

Beatrice’s murder plot is also fueled by revenge, but it is a righteous anger focused on whom she perceives to be the cause of her friend’s troubles. She acts out of loyalty to Hero. In this play, we see a world where women are powerful but also held hostage by intellectually feeble men who could be tricked into murdering their own daughters. It is an indictment of a shame-based culture and a deconstruction of the legal process. The accused are made to prove their innocence. 

Monsters in Much Ado: Analyzing Deception in Comedy

I discovered a tremendous resource for anyone who wants to get to know the plays of Shakespeare better. The BBC produced four volumes in 2020 with great actors voicing the parts of the various plays. They divided the canon up into: Comedies, Tragedies, Histories and Roman Plays. The British have been studying and performing Shakespeare religiously for hundreds of years, and there is something oddly satisfying about this contemporary audio collection produced during a pandemic. For an important chunk of Shakespeare’s career, the theater in London had to close due to the plague. 

The plays make for good listening in today’s world. Each play is only a couple of hours. Many audiobooks can be upwards of twenty hours. Being able to consume an entire play in one go works well for today’s high paced multi layered culture. You could listen to a Joe Rogan podcast or one and a half plays. I recommend both. Rogan is undoubtedly one of the great literary figures of our day. We just don’t have the language and the context of understanding to voice his importance.  I believe he is a truly important US American voice, along the lines of Emerson, Twain, Hemingway, Lenny Bruce. One thing about Rogan that you can’t deny is that he is multi-genre, multidimensional and a multimillionaire. Rogan’s work shows us a depth of character and content that we are simply not used to, so it is hard for people to accept or believe.

Listening to Shakespeare is a satisfying experience for anyone familiar with the plays. If you are new to the Bard, you might want to read some synopses online to help you to follow the story, but the best way to figure it out is by listening to the same play a few times. Even though it is English, there is a degree of challenge in understanding the language of Shakespeare’s day. Lots of the inside cultural jokes will be lost on us. Still, there are moments when the language shifts into verse and the beauty of English blooms into being in pure streams of sound like some magical fountain in the wilderness.

It’s worth listening just for those moments, alone. Shakespeare is also central to English identity, and English culture is fundamental to US culture, so by listening you are also studying something that has had a huge impact on how we live. Many of the values, including the problematic ones, we still debate about today are portrayed in a way that gives us the opportunity to analyze things about the culture. This is one of the great values of comedy especially. It provides a way of finding the flaws in our cultural logic without promoting fear and despair.

One of the smartest theories of comedy I have heard is Andrew Schulz talking about how comedy hits on this unconscious level, he calls it reptilian, that is not something that we would or should be ok with, but we are. The joke, he says, aims at something that we know is true in our gut but that is unacceptable in official culture. In his conversation with Jordan Peterson, he elaborates further suggesting that it is by attacking the institutions that are repressing those ideas that comedy shows the absurdity of most conventions and frees up that repressed unconscious energy in the form of laughter. Comedy searches for the edge and plays with the limits of the acceptable.

In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing we have a comedy that has some very serious topics. There is a common way of misunderstanding the title as meaning something similar to making mountains out of mole hills. It suggests that there has been an exaggeration, some tendency to hyperbolize the problem when in fact it is based on nothing. When you listen to the play, though, you realize that the much ado is actually very monstrous. 

It is a comedic illustration of how we rush to judgment in a culture based on shame and purity. The premise of the play is that there is to be a marriage between two respected members of society, a man and woman of value. Before the ceremony, however, someone intervenes and tricks the groom to be into believing that his fiancé has been unfaithful and has been having sex with another man. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, there are plays within the play at work.

In this case, Don Julio stages a fake scene of romance to convince the duke that he is being duped. This leads Claudio to show up to the wedding ceremony, but with the false intentions of exposing Hero, his would be bride. The fragility of a woman’s reputation is given full display in the hysterical reaction the men have to the thought that Hero has been sexually active. Their response to this false accusation of impropriety with a death sentence. She must be killed for this offense. The extreme misogyny of the response is only made more horrific by the fact that she is innocent and has been framed.

These are all of the ingredients of a tragedy. We have an Iago figure who is creating chaos by provoking jealousy with false narratives. The death sentence is given. What prevents this story from ending in a bloodbath is the intervention of a priest who suggests that they have some patience and wait to make sure that the truth is known before such a harsh sentence is executed. Instead, he suggests that they pretend that she has been killed to see how people respond.

In Hamlet, the play within the play is used by Hamlet to reveal the guilt of his uncle. In Much Ado About Nothing a kind of fictional performance is used to reveal the innocence of the accused. The direction of the play moves from corruption and dishonesty to justice and truthfulness. 

There are many more ideas to analyze and conclusions to draw about this fun and philosophical play. One of the great things that Shakespeare does is to show us how fictions can be used to get at the truth or they can be used to change reality. The tendency of the character in Shakespeare is to be deceived, to not understand something critical about reality. In the tragedies, these misconceptions fuel action that leads to violent ends. In the comedies, the characters exercise enough patience to allow the truth to eventually come to light before any irrevocable actions have been taken. 

How can we use these plays to help us to think about media in the contemporary moment? Is there some connection between how fictions are used in Shakespeare and current cultural trends, including the prevalence of editorial journalism (fake news) and the rise of stand-up comedy as defenders of the freedom of speech?