Sunday, September 25, 2016

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

For the last three years, my wife has attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City with a friend. (Since the festival lasts all summer and part of the fall, she times it during one of the camping trips the kids and I take.) This year, however, she also decided that it would be nice to plan a trip with the kids and me so that we could see some of the fall plays together. We timed it to see the last of the summer plays and the openings of the fall plays. That way we could see Much Ado About Nothing together.

Early in our marriage, we saw this play together at the local community college, and found that we were the only people under the age of 60 who laughed at the naughty jokes. Apparently, the art of the Elizabethan double entendre doesn’t come easy to the young folks. Or something like that. Anyway, we enjoyed it, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of seeing a truly professional company perform this, one of my favorite plays. I was not disappointed. And the kids loved it, even my youngest. (Special points to the staff for letting us slip her in even though she is technically below the age limit.)

The very title is a pun. In Shakespeare’s day, “Nothing” and “Noting” were pronounced the same way, and throughout, there is great importance to the matter of noting what is going on. It is the failure to take note which leads to disaster, and the noticing of that which was there all along that leads to happiness. “Nothing” is actually a triple entendre as well: in Shakespeare’s time, it was also used as slang for a woman’s nether regions. As in they form an “O” and there is nothing else between the legs. Thus, throughout the play, there will be puns on all three meanings. Nothing, taking note, and sex. Also note that it is “Benedick,” not “Benedict.” He isn’t a benevolent sort, he’s, um, been a dick in the past. Isn’t Shakespeare fun?

Much Ado About Nothing has two main plots, one comic, and one serious. On the serious side, Claudio falls in love with the beautiful young woman, Hero, but disgraces her at the altar after the villainous Don John and his henchman Borachio trick him into believing Hero has been unfaithful.

The comic plot involves two of Shakespeare’s best characters, Beatrice and Benedick. He is a worldly wise old soldier, determined never to be caught in the coils of matrimony. He is openly disdainful of the trickery and falseness of women. Beatrice is the old maid equally determined never to become the property of a man, convinced that no male is worth surrendering her freedom and self.

And, of course, Beatrice and Benedick are old frenemies, dating back to their youth. As soon as Benedick comes with Don Pedro’s troop to stay with Leonato, Beatrice’s uncle, the two are caught up in a war of words, each seeing who can come out on top in the sparring match. Leonato has to explain to those unfamiliar with the two that they actually don’t hate each other. This is just what they do.

Don Pedro and Claudio decide to prank Benedick by arranging for him to overhear their conversation in which they assert that Beatrice is secretly in love with him, but is afraid to say so.

At the same time, Hero and her maid Ursula arrange the same thing for Beatrice. Unsurprisingly, they both fall for the trick. Actually, it is no real secret that they are meant for each other anyway, and the “trick” serves more to reveal the truth about their feelings than to create them.

After Hero is disgraced, Leonato is convinced by the priest to fake Hero’s death, as he believes there is some treachery going on. Since this is a comedy, there is a successful resolution, and happiness abounds to all except the evil Don John.

The treachery is revealed - accidentally almost - through and despite the hilarious bungling of the constable, Dogberry, and his equally moronic town watch. This part was particularly fun for my younger son (age 8) who laughed uproariously throughout the whole scene.

Dogberry is an early example of the Malaprop - a person who uses the wrong word. Richard Sheridan would create the best known version, Mrs. Malaprop, in The Rivals, but Shakespeare was there first.

After Conrade (another of Don John’s minions) calls him an ass, he makes sure it is written down, and later reminds Leonato of this:

[A]nd, masters, do not forget to specify, when time
and place shall serve, that I am an ass.

Yes, good times all around.

While in this case the humor is in the words, the real strength of this particular production was in the wordless acting. Much of the humor took place between lines. Benedick (Ben Livingston) was marvelous, hilarious to watch at all times. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He would have killed this part even without saying a word. The others too - Claudio, Don Pedro, Beatrice, and others - did a fantastic job at this as well. The choreography was well thought out, adding greatly to the effect.

Another facet of the production that I really appreciated was the choice in casting for Beatrice and Benedick. Both of them were (relatively) old, and neither was what one would call a traditional romantic lead. Benedick was grey, slight, and not terribly tall compared to the other soldiers. Beatrice was tallish (for a woman), with a deep and powerful voice. One suspected she could break him in half if she tried. At least in the figurative sense. And the two had great chemistry. 

Ben Livingston and Kim Martin-Cotten in the lead roles.
Publicity photo.  
Much Ado was notable in its time for its skewering of gender roles. There are many lines alluding to the need for female purity. In the case of Hero, these are played pretty straight. It’s horrifying how all the men are quick to assume she is playing the field, but it fits with the belief held throughout most of history in the West that women had uncontrollable libidos and would cheat in a heartbeat if they weren’t kept under tight control.

The other plot, however, turns this on its head, with the jester Balthazar asserting that it is actually men who play around, and women are left with the heartache.

Beatrice is hardly a feminine character, in the traditional sense. She is closer in spirit to Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but never “reforms” in the sense that Kate does. One is left to believe that Beatrice and Benedick will continue engage in their “merry war,” and that the sparks will be verbal as well as romantic throughout their marriage. Even as they profess their love for each other, they can’t help but slip some barbs into the banter.

It’s also interesting that Hero, playing the traditionally feminine role, suffers immensely, while Beatrice remains mistress of her own fate.

Benedick gets what might be the most romantic line in all of Shakespeare. My lovely wife brought me back a shirt from the festival with this line on it, and I must say, I like it very much. It is a bit naughty, however.

I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.


This play calls for some music - and some history.

Hector Berlioz was perhaps one of the most memorable figures in classical music, with grand visions involving thousands of musicians, an innovative and imaginative - if not always the most polished - style, and a personality which was far from stable.

A touring Shakespeare company came to Paris, and he fell madly (literally) in love with Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress who played Ophelia and Juliet in their respective plays. He became obsessed with her, following her around and bombarding her hotel with letters. In our age, he would have been hit with a restraining order. She rebuffed him until years later, when she realized he had written a whole symphony about her. They eventually married, which was as disastrous as one might expect, and they separated after having a child together.

The legacy of Smithson, though, lives on in three works. Berlioz would write a choral work based on Romeo and Juliet, an opera entitled Beatrice and Benedict, based on Much Ado, and the Symphonie Fantastique.

Ah, the Symphonie Fantastique, which eventually won Smithson’s heart. What a bizarre work it is. Based on an opium dream that Berlioz had, it contains a theme that represents Harriet, as the artist follows her with an obsessive gaze. They meet at a ball, in the countryside, and he pursues. But things take a dark turn. He murders her in his obsession, and is sent to the guillotine for his crime. In hell, he meets her at a witches sabbath, where she presides. It’s trippy stuff, and the music is rather descriptive. (Who doesn’t love the moment when his severed head plops softly into the basket?)

The fact that this creepy tale told in music was attractive to her (in the romantic, rather than musical sense) indicates she may have been as crazy as Berlioz himself.

Here is the overture to Beatrice and Benedict, with the banter between the two portrayed in Berlioz’s typical sparkling fashion.

And here is the fourth movement of Symphonie Fantastique, the March to the Scaffold. The march builds as the artist is marched to the guillotine. The crowd quiets toward the end, and he briefly recalls the melody of the beloved, before the stroke of the axe falls, the head drops into the basket, and the bloodthirsty crowd roars its approval. Brilliant stuff. 


  1. Ah yes, Berlioz. I've heard the overture to Beatrice et Benedicte only once or twice, but the Symphonie Fantastique is one of my favorite compositions--and not easy to play even for a modern orchestra!

    There is a crude/charming story about Berlioz. It is said that once he walked by a house in which there was a woman practicing singing, apparently with less than optimal results. Several hours later he retraced his path, and on hearing the same woman practicing, he exploded, "My God, hasn't the baby come yet?" *lol*

    1. That's a great story. So very Berlioz.

      I agree that Berlioz is challenging even for a modern orchestra. One of the reasons (at least in my experience) is that he shows more creativity than knowledge of his instruments. The string parts don't sit well on the instrument at all, and he doesn't balance the volumes properly. So the orchestra must continually work excessively hard to play soft enough to let solo parts through and keep the sections sounding together. A truly great orchestrator (Rimsky Korsakov or Mahler or John Williams come to mind) will do that work when composing, so that if each musician plays what is written, it just sounds right automatically.

      Despite the flaws, though, Symphonie Fantastique is indeed an amazing work, and I thoroughly enjoy playing it.