Sunday, September 21, 2008

Courseblogging: Much Ado About Nothing

So this was my third time teaching Much Ado in slightly less than a year. The second time is pretty much engraved permanently on my memory, since we were covering Acts 3 and 4 on the day of my teaching demo for the tenure-track job at New SLAC, and there was thus no way to avoid talking about sex in front of the Dean. Well, I'm told it was a good teaching demo, even though I didn't get the job. The day after that, I had a campus interview at another school that turned into a nightmare of inclement weather, cancelled flights, and hastily rescheduled interview appointments; I didn't get home for five days, so we never did have a class on Act 5. Pity, that. (I didn't get the other job, either, possibly because it was all too obvious that I was bad luck.)

So anyway, it was nice to have a bit of leisure time to talk about the end of the play and, of course, to watch Kenneth Branagh and his lawn chair. I think this is my favorite of the comedies, with the possible exception of Merry Wives. It's just fun.

I worry about spoiling that fun with too much analysis, but there's so much to chew on, most of it having to do with sex. This is a play whose title means, after all, "much ado about women's sexuality," among other things. So we spent about a day talking about the prevailing assumptions about female chastity in Messina, and whether there is, after all, any serious challenge to the idea that unchaste women are "rotten oranges"? I mean, the whole point of the Claudio-Hero plot is that Hero is innocent, so she really can't embody a challenge to that particular set of assumptions, although she can serve as a warning against leaping to conclusions.

Maybe Margaret challenges some of those ideas on a more fundamental level? Margaret is, at the very least, a flirt, but nobody seems to hold it against her. I'm not sure what to make of her, mostly because she's so silent during the last third of the play about everything that happens at the wedding (at which she may or may not be present), and when we last see her, she's cheerfully flirting with Benedick. Shakespeare would have had a model for a more heroic Margaret figure in at least one of his sources: Ariosto's Dalinda comes forward and confesses, at the risk of her own life. Shakespeare may not have given Margaret the opportunity; Branagh's film gives us a Margaret who definitely does put the pieces together at the wedding but chooses to keep silent.

Don John. What's up with him, anyway? The one thing we know about him is that he's "John the bastard": his mother is one of those loose women everyone thinks are so terrible. So what's he attacking? Women? The institution of marriage? The social structures that define certain sexual acts, and certain people, as illegitimate? Or is he just lashing out at everyone within reach, indiscriminately? I don't know, although my money's on Door 2 or 3. Anyway, nobody's rebellion against marriage lasts very long in Messina -- although at least one, and possibly both, of the young couples manage to renegotiate marriage on their own terms.

None of my students seemed very convinced by the Claudio-Hero match. Personally, I like to think that Hero's "And when I lived, I was your other wife / And when you loved, you were my other husband" line hints at a transformation of sorts in both characters, but I don't know exactly what that transformation looks like. I'm not sure Hero really does either, but I want to trust her and I want her and Claudio to be able to trust each other, because in so many ways this is a play about trust. Although trust, as Benedick and Beatrice remind us, also entails holding on to certain illusions ("A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts").

I still have the same giddy crush on Benedick that I had when I was eighteen, making him one of the very few wholesome characters in Renaissance drama that I find sexy. Usually, I have an unholy attraction to the Edmunds and Bosolas and Richard IIIs. (I didn't share any of this with the students.)

Next up: Titus Andronicus. This will be a different world.


Flavia said...

I just taught this last week, too--last fall was the first time I'd taught it since grad school, so it's a less familiar pedagogical experience for me--and it went brilliantly (though I suspect the pleasingly rearranged desks went some distance toward that). Really, that play has everything.

I do think that Beatrice embodies a kind of critique of Hero--not of chastity, but of the ideal of women as silent and submissive. Hero and Ursula try to shame Beatrice into this version of femininity in the gulling scene (as Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato try to shame Benedick into being more of a "gentleman")--but B & B seem to be better exemplars of their respective genders than either Claudio or Hero. Claudio's masculinity (like Leonato's) is bullshit--and Hero's femininity does nothing to prevent her public humiliation.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Oh, Benedick is definitely sexy. But I agree, Flavia about Hero and Claudio about the traditional 'ideal', which of course is important in a stage performance. When you're writing for as broad an audience as Shakespeare was, you can't just go entirely for artistic vision - you also have to give the audience, to a certain extent, what they want.

I confess that, though I enjoy the play, I can't love it. The only way I can reconcile myself to it is to see H/L as a critique of precisely that conforming, shut-in-a-box pair of lovers, the bland soprano and tenor roles, as it were. By comparing them to B/B he shows up both that blandness and the fragile foundation on which that sort of relationship is built. B/B negotiate their relationship as adults and on an equal footing - and plus, they're just so much more interesting that Shakespeare actually made them an interesting new type that came to be accepted as the central lovers. Not least in Berlioz' operatic version of the play, in which he didn't even pretend to be interested in H/L - he named it "Beatrice et Benedict"!

Bardiac said...

Kill Claudio!

Best line ever!

Wait... what do you mean there's sex in Shakespeare? You probably just have a dirty mind!


Unknown said...

You know, I feel much the same way about Hero's "And when I lived" line--it seems so poignant, and seems to hint at a real change, but at the same time it's so hard to make sense of. If "lived" and "loved" are both past tense, what's left, or even possible, in the present?

Also, I will never be able to have a truly bad thought about Kenneth Branagh, even when his films get crazy. In large part because of the lawn chair. :)