A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Much Ado About Nothing:
Critics don’t argue whether Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy.
Compared to Comedy of Errors, and even more compared to As You Like It, Much Ado shares a great deal of what we think of as modern comedic style. Like virtually all modern comedies, it is almost entirely in prose. It is a comedy whose symbolism centers on ultimate marriage, and particularly one which explores the interconnections of personal psychology and romantic attraction. And perhaps most importantly, though unnoticed, Much Ado about Nothing lends itself to modern conceptions of comedy as one person’s or one couple’s story.
Audiences in the 21st century look on theatre through eyes accustomed to relative darkness for secondary characters. We are heirs of limelight staging. In the 19th century, The introduction of the limelight pushed secondary actors into the shadows and engendered a choreographic style of direction and acting which kept main figures in almost blinding light while secondary figures struggled to make their presence felt in the surrounding shadows. This was the birth of the “Star System,” a system which was modified and in many ways exaggerated by Hollywood, close-up photography, headliners’ rights, star-focused sensationalist journalism, and the like.
Within this tradition, Much Ado seems easily to lend itself to the construct of a story about a girl named Blesser and a boy named Blessed. Charles I of England was so struck by this notion that in his personal copy he renamed the play Beatrice and Benedick. So did Berlioz for his 19th century opera. Charles, as King, had other pressing issues to think about, of course, and he didn’t have Berlioz’ aesthetic experience, the experience of finding that a play named Beatrice and Benedick and leaving out or minimizing characters like Dogberry and Verges ends up as much less interesting drama.
But even Charles might have done well to study this list:
The Comedy of Errors
As You Like It
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Taming of the Shrew
Beatrice and Benedick.
There’s something amiss here, and adding to the list The Merchant of Venice doesn’t really solve the problem. The problem is not that Shakespeare consistently misnamed his comedies away from the names of the “central characters.” (One should note the vastly different Shakespearean practice for naming tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra.) The problem is rather audience insistence on a play revolving around one man or one couple rather than the multiply-plotted patterned comedies Shakespeare wrote.
And thus, while there is easy assent to the idea of Much Ado about Nothing as comedy, there is not too much critical light shed by such agreement. Everyone can agree that a play with Beatrice and Benedick, much more with Dogberry and the Night Watch, is comedy. Could it be anything else?
The answer is, unfortunately, yes. If Much Ado had ended with Hero truly dead, the Night Watch too stupid to clear her name or to apprehend the criminals, the play wouldn’t be comedy, and one can imagine it being confidently called a tragedy.
Sadly, this is only an example of light-headed, facile conclusions that calling a play a comedy can lead to. And that propensity toward conclusions which are at best unenlightening and more often disastrously misdirecting is one of the best reasons why critics have tended not to center their criticism of great comedies on the fact that they are comedies.
Calling Much Ado about Nothing a comedy can easily seem only to lead to critical difficulties. All of the easy, stock answers based on stereotypical traits of comedy lead quickly into critical quagmires. For example, probably the easiest response to the question “Why is Much Ado about Nothing a comedy?” is that we know Much Ado is a comedy because it ends happily ever after. This is facile thinking on a par with listening to the play solely for sexual jokes based on a Renaissance secondary meaning of die as “experiencing sexual climax.”
It does not take critical acumen to notice that there are, at minimum, grave question marks on a happy ending, much less a happy-ever-after ending. What is so happy in the marriage prospects of Hero and Claudio, Claudio having already once concluded that his bride would rather be someone else’s and that she has carried out her druthers on numerous occasions? Will Hero forgive Claudio? She says she has. Will Claudio forgive Claudio? That’s left rather open. Will Claudio later return to his accusation of Hero because there is a huge propensity for humanity to want to have been justified even after having been proved wrong? The play gives no clue to a reasonable answer.
Similarly, will Beatrice and Benedick live happily with each other? Up to the final curtain, both need friends to force them to admit what they have already admitted to themselves and to each other, that they love one another. Is this the last such occurrence of retreat from love for them?
Throughout the play, Benedick has protested under the slings and arrows launched by Beatrice. Isn’t she still letting loose in the last scene? Has she taken a vow ever to let up? Hasn’t Benedick already rightly concluded, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” (V.ii.72)?
Consistent with a star-system approach, we have begun our investigation of future happiness with the two pairs of lovers. But what of the future happiness of the lesser characters, those more in the shadows? The Prince ends Much Ado “sad.” Is there reason for him to move beyond that sadness in some indefinite future? And what possible dramatic purpose is there for his sadness except to challenge an easy happy-future assumption?
Don Leonato has been slandered by his Prince and by his son-in-law, whom he has also challenged to a duel despite disparity of age. Leonato is the most gracious of men. Does this history, however, suggest that there won’t be some in-law problems that most of us are glad not to face?
Dogberry is a man who has “had losses” (IV.ii.84). But he has recovered, is currently a householder and moreover one “that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him” (85-86). And he has been rewarded by the governor. What more could a man ask? What more, that is, besides brains, besides an ability to communicate at sentence length, besides an ability to overlook being named an ass.
Margaret will have to live with having been deceived and duped. Don Antonio will have a nephew he has had reason to despise. Benedick and Claudio will have brothers who so insulted them as to amply justify duels.
We could go on but need not. The recitation this far should suggest not that Much Ado is obviously a comedy but that if it can possibly be a comedy, it is then certainly a dark comedy. It is dark not just because of real injuries witnessed on stage but dark because there is an indefinite bill of reckoning to be paid throughout the future after the final curtain. In fact, Much Ado, Merchant of Venice, and Taming of the Shrew all prove Shakespeare to be the great predecessor for modern dark comedic writers in exactly this sense.
So much for happy ever after. A second justification for Much Ado as comedy is that clearly it has the boy sees girl, boy seems to be winning girl, boy loses girl, boy finally wins girl structure of romantic comedy. Moreover, Shakespeare seems to be the progenitor in Much Ado of sprightly-wit-and-merry-war romantic comedy stretching down from Restoration Comedy through “screwball comedy” like The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib to modern cinematic productions like Ten Things I Hate about You and Alex and Emma.
Does Much Ado about Nothing qualify as a boy-wins-girl comedy? At a minimum, we should notice that Shakespeare goes to quite poetic extremes to enforce the point that Claudio does not win the Hero he wooed. The Hero Claudio wooed is dead. And quite arguably Claudio killed her—a severe twist to typical romantic comedy.
And Shakespeare works even harder to deny that Benedick wins Beatrice. It would be far more just to say that in the last scene and totally deus ex machina, Claudio and Hero win the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick by filching love poems from both of them. Benedick himself, far from claiming to have romantically won his bride, asks Friar Francis to perform his marriage “To bind me, or undo me—one of them” (V.iv.20).
If this be romance and upon me proved . . . !
It’s hard to deny that the romantic comedy model of successful conquest for Much Ado leaves a great deal out—maybe even most of the play. Let’s try another stock comedic tack. If Comedy of Errors is comedy, Much Ado is just as much a comedy of errors, isn’t it?
Actually, no, not even close, unless we count each of Dogberry’s insults to the English language as a separate error. Don Pedro and Claudio are gulled into seeing Margaret as Hero. A case of bad eyesight perhaps, but certainly a case of conscious villainous intent, and probably also a case of deep-seated prejudicial distrust, not a wandering of any sort.
Benedick and Beatrice are attracted to each other despite their verbal warfare, but none of their verbal warfare is mistaken. They mean it all too fervently.
The Night Watch smell a rat as soon as Borachio enters with Conrade; Don John is right to flee given that the constabulary certainly is on to him. Margaret trusts too much in Borachio, but in some ways her trust is partially justified in Borachio’s gentlemanly defense of Margaret before Leonato in V.i., more a matter of questionable judgment than error. None of this is wandering.
If romantic comedy and comedy of errors seem lamely misdirected in consideration of Much Ado, perhaps we should try heroic comedy, so many of the characters being proclaimed heroes from the outset. Perhaps Much Ado is heroic comedy, modifying Superman’s “triumph of truth, justice, and the American way” to the triumph of “truth, justice, and the English way.” If the English way, romantically, means wife as chum, as it has sometimes been characterized, we may need to rethink almost before starting.
But how about truth and justice? The truth of Hero’s chastity is established. The justice of apprehended villainy is accomplished. And the truth that Beatrice and Benedick are attracted to each other is enforced. Compared to other explanations considered above, this seems to be quite a critical accomplishment. It should be noted, however, that the justice done to Don John, to Borachio, and to Conrade is left quite incomplete, and in Conrade’s case, his crime itself (unless it is the crime of apprehending Dogberry to be an ass) is vague and confused with Borachio’s. Whether justice can ever be achieved in Hero’s relationship with Claudio, in subordinate relationships between Claudio and those attached to Hero, or in Hero’s and Claudio’s history as innocent victims of Don John are entirely beyond answers attempted by Shakespeare in the play.
Moreover, even a preemptory consideration of modern critical approaches to the play suggests that truth in relationship has not been achieved to critical satisfaction. There are more than enough critics who refuse to take Claudio as much more than a cad, buying a wife for a marriage of convenience and advantage and entirely under the guidance of his liege’s will. Hero’s name labels her either a heroine or an illicit lover á là Hero and Leander, and we know so little about how she really thinks that the most we can say is that she easily falls into considering her cousin a fool for having a different opinion of wedding gear and has proved treacherous to her cousin’s intents throughout.
Seeking truth for himself, Benedick has not, as already indicated, been able to settle whether marriage will bind his love to him or undo him. And on the level of the individual word of the text, critics may agree that Dogberry mangles the language without agreeing just what mangling is involved. (See Riverside Shakespeare IV.ii.36 footnote, for example.)
It should be obvious that answers such as these to the question of how we know that Much Ado is a comedy are facile attempts to avoid thoughtful literary analysis, attempts that end up raising many more questions that the play doesn’t answer than answering questions with solid analysis. And repeatedly, and perhaps most importantly, it seems that Shakespeare himself has been at pains to give the lie, with specific inclusions in the text, for all such simple answers.
Our ideal of generic criticism is at the opposite extreme. The establishment of genre identification should be an aid to studying the deeper questions of the text because generic identification should establish generic import which is supported by evidence throughout the text. Generic identification should sweep away problems of facile criticism and focus understanding on the greater realities of structure throughout the play. And generic criticism should give depth of meaning to particular turns of phrase as indicative of authorial purpose within the play.
Rather than move toward increasingly far-fetched but conventional ideas of comedic justification for Much Ado, we then move on to the much more solid answers that can be given by beginning with the idea that comedy is a patterned action demonstrating a faith in human survival. And as we have earlier noted, the simple form of comedic patterning is the repeated use of the same ability in diverse situations to ensure survival. If, for example, a comedic hero first outwits a rival suitor, then outwits a potential mother-in-law, and finally outwits his beloved into accepting him as husband, then it becomes psychologically (though not logically) evident that it is wit which ensures survival.
One of the surest generalizations about Shakespeare, however, is that he characteristically sets himself much higher artistic challenges than exist for other artists. We have already seen that propensity in perhaps his earliest comedy, Comedy of Errors. Whereas Plautus cast two sets of twins in his advanced comedy, Amphitruo, Shakespeare starts with two sets of lost twins and adds two lost parents as well as a romantic sub-plot involving a before-unimagined sister for the wronged wife.
In Much Ado about Nothing, then, we should not be surprised that Shakespeare does not accept the simple sense of patterning as merely responding to repeated threats successfully with the same ability. Notably, he doubles the patterning by weaving in patterned threat as well as patterned response.
The patterned threat of Much Ado about Nothing is the threat of fundamental human inadequacy. This theme will be highlighted by Don Pedro when he says, “What a pretty thing man is when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit!” (V.i.199-200), and again when Benedick says, “for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion” (V.iv.108-109).
If both Don Pedro and Benedick highlight the judgmental conclusion of fundamental human inadequacy, let us consider the dramatic patterning that supports these assessments. At the extreme, we have the inadequacy of Don John who is totally aware of his inadequacy as a social human being, and whose depravity therein is so obvious that he becomes a devil-figure villain whose closest analog is Iago in Othello. With Leonato’s gracious and graceful welcome, Don John is first introduced to us with the disclaimer, “I thank you. I am not of many words, but I thank you” (I.i.157-158). Later in I.iii when Don John is asked why he is “out of measure sad,” his response is, “There is no measure in the occasion that breeds, therefore the sadness is without limit” (3-4). Don John consistently explains himself as without explanation and without excuse.
At the opposite extreme, we have Dogberry, whose inadequacy in his native tongue is enough to leave his betters speechless and his inferiors at a loss for both thought and word. Don John’s inadequacy is entirely serious and reprehensible. Dogberry’s is consistently hilarious. Humanity confronted with these extremes of inadequacy, however, is in real trouble.
Would that were the half of the inadequacy Shakespeare describes! Claudio (whose name means “limping”) is evidently maimed from birth in matters of the heart. Not trusting his own judgment, he must constantly check it with his military comrades who themselves don’t seem to have any particular standing in matters of the heart. Moreover, he is congenitally intemperate and inconstant. He can depend on the Prince to do his wooing for him and then convince himself that his prince is stealing his love. He can vow eternal fidelity and immediately jump to hasty and unwarranted conclusions about lack of fidelity.
Claudio and Benedick both have severe insecurities, senses of inadequacy, with respect to the opposite sex. Claudio is afraid to woo, quick to doubt. Benedick’s failure in romance quickly turns to an embittered rebellion against the entire institution of marriage. Claudio and Benedick together represent an extraordinary threat to human survival simply in their inability to have faith in—or a modicum of careful judgment about—the gentler sex.
This poor judgment of women by men is repeated in disguised patterning. Prince Pedro professes at a minimum great admiration for Beatrice and for Hero. Yet, he is entirely ready to accept very scanty proof of Hero’s inconstancy. Leonato is the soul of grace—normally—but he quickly accepts Don Pedro’s and Benedick’s report against the daughter he has reared himself. It seems that once men have dispensed obligatory courtesies to women, they are incapable of judging women as anything but harlots.
So much for the men. Recognizing that the women of Much Ado are far from all harlots, Don Pedro’s estimate of Beatrice—“She’s an excellent sweet lady. . .” (II.iii.159)—seems coming it a bit high. And Leonato’s evenhanded characterization of Beatrice and Benedick’s repartee as a “merry war,” a “skirmish of wit” (I.i.62-63) hardly does justice to what we witness: Beatrice begins skewering Benedick in her first line, before the returning war hero has stepped onstage. With his entrance, she continues with relentless attacks while he makes some effort to dodge. And then she attacks even his dodging. With every barb, Beatrice betrays a great deal of insecurity, a deep sense of inadequacy.
In the society of Much Ado, the road to marriage is pocked with craters of insecurities, lacks, and failings. David Bevington, in his Complete Works of Shakespeare ends his introductory comments to Much Ado by saying, “Benedick and Beatrice are not wholly unlike Claudio and Hero after all. Both pairs of lovers are saved from their worst selves. . . . “(218). Anne Barton in The Riverside Shakespeare ends her discussion with the idea that both Benedick and Beatrice use words for “keeping people at a distance of protecting and isolating a vulnerable inner self” (365).
Fundamental inadequacy in dealing with the world, especially the social world made up of two mutually distrusting genders, plays as a constant theme throughout the comedic structure of Much Ado about Nothing. Given man’s lunatic tendencies, even when he thinks he is being most sensible, how can anyone believe in human survival? Human inadequacy guarantees that there will be much ado about nothing. The comedic question is whether humanity can survive that meaningless ado?
At this point, we should pause to consider the challenge that we too as critics have made much ado about nothing. Isn’t all drama and all literature a matter of human inadequacy?
Certainly a literature of self-sufficient angels would only bore human audiences. That does not mean, however, that the comedic threat is always the threat of fundamental human insufficiency. If we review what has already been said about Comedy of Errors, that play is not premised on human inadequacy. All of the characters are easily rational within 16th century norms. The threat to human survival is not that humans are fundamentally inadequate but that they may be faced with an incomprehensible universe.
Or coming somewhat closer, for As You Like It, we easily recognize superficial inadequacies in various characters: Orlando recognizes in himself lacks from neglected education and inability to articulate. Celia, LeBeau, and the court society in general are easily accused of letting their tongues outrun sense. Rosalind seems inordinately fond of ordering other people’s lives according to her whims. But compared to the fundamental human inadequacies in Much Ado, all of these and even Duke Frederick’s inadequacies added thereto, seem scattered and mainly whimsical. In fact, there is a strong case for whim as the uniting threat of As You Like It, especially given Jacques and Touchstone as prominent in any remembrance of performance. There is no sense that the plot generally or the denouement in particular is the result of human inadequacy.
If human inadequacy—deep human inadequacy not found in every run-of-the-mill comedy—runs as a patterned threat throughout Much Ado about Nothing, what is the patterned response to that threat which assures success or survival?
The first answer, and Shakespeare’s inevitable first answer for comedic import, is that comedic survival is social survival, a conviction that Shakespeare carried over from the universal consensus of medieval Christian Europe. The fundamental reason why Charles and Berlioz had the wrong idea of Much Ado is precisely that in making it into a couple’s drama, or a couple’s comedy if you will, they missed Shakespeare’s insistence on social survival. Charles and Berlioz were both moving toward star-system oversimplifications of dramatic form and import, failing to recognize the importance for comedic design of the full society around pyrotechnically brilliant romantic foils.
Social comedy virtually necessitates multiple plotting, a convention Shakespeare found ready-to-hand in English theatre. Multiple plotting can be seen as intrinsic to the entire conception of the York and Coventry Cycles, the English folk understanding of the grand panorama of biblical history. In Shakespearean comedy, there always seem to be people going about their own independent affairs, whether the Merchant, the Courtesan, and Dr. Pinch in Comedy of Errors or Jacques, Phebe, and William in As You Like It. And yet they are not simply convenient extras to move the plot forward. They typically develop personalities, and their lives ultimately are bound up in the general comedic resolution.
If there is a particular facet of social comedy that is emphasized in Much Ado, it is that “minor” characters are routinely the motivating force of action. The major figures in the major plots seem incapable of independent action without this motivation.
Thus, it is Borachio, not Don John, who is the architect, instigator, and activator of the plot against Claudio and Hero. Don John is an enthusiastic and grateful beneficiary.
Similarly, though Don John and his henchmen have worked assiduously to gull Claudio at the masque, and though Claudio’s altered behavior is entirely due to their intervention, neither Claudio nor Don Pedro bother to look into the circumstances that came near dividing them and spoiling an already-successful suit of marriage.
It is only the Night Watch, settling down to sit until 2:00 a.m. when they can go to bed, who are on-task enough—mirabile dictu—to apprehend Borachio and Conrade and to undermine Don John in the process. As Borachio is given to say, confronted by his Prince, “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light, who in the night overheard me confessing to this man how Don John your brother incens’d me to slander the Lady Hero . . .” (V.i. 232-236).
In this same pattern, it is Friar Francis who keeps the play from becoming a tragedy. After Claudio’s spurning slander of Hero, who is now in a swoon, Leonato, Antonio, Beatrice, and Benedick are left on stage speechless and directionless. Leonato uncharacteristically works himself up to an ill-reasoned condemnation of his daughter: “Hence from her! Let her die” (154).
And it is at this moment (IV.i.155), that the “minor character” on stage, Friar Francis takes entire charge of the action and direction of the play based on his detached, carefully rational observation!
A hundred lines later, Leonato, returning from his desertion of kindness, grace, and reason, but still entropic in being, can finally answer,
Being that I flow in grief,
The smallest twine may lead me. (IV.i.249-250)
Equally notable for outside intervention reorienting a relationship gone sour is the gulling of Beatrice and Benedick. These two were sailing into oblivion, bitterly firing broadsides at one another and at marriage generally. It is only the intervention of squadrons of disinterested characters that tricks them into letting down their defenses enough to recognize their attraction for one another. And at the last moment, it requires well-meaning thefts by both Claudio and Hero to save a disintegrating budding romance.
It truly “takes a village” to get positive action under way and accomplished throughout Much Ado. Social survival in Much Ado is not patterned on individual talent or individual effort. Social survival is an often mysterious outworking of being—willy-nilly—part of a fundamentally well-intentioned society.
Recalling Anne Barton’s description of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s vulnerable inner selves, we should notice that such perceptive criticism is responding to comedic structure. If, in fact, positive action is not a matter of individual talent and effort, then the much ado about nothing that constantly swirls around Beatrice and Benedick reinforces vulnerability and particularly reinforces vulnerable dependence on others’ good will. Benedick and Beatrice are both over-achievers working assiduously and accomplishing nothing more than the superior amusement of those around them. Their vulnerable inner selves are consonant with a close-to-irreparable objective vulnerability.
Much Ado about Nothing proposes social insurance of human survival. It proposes social survival through the intervention of disinterested but fundamentally well-intentioned society. Typically, social comedy through the centuries has been a good backdrop for romantic comedy.
However, despite the fact that romantic comedy from Etherege on has been deeply indebted to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Much Ado itself is not romantic comedy. It is rather romance-manqué comedy. A play like As You Like It is romantic comedy. The comedic import and action revolve around people falling in love—Orlando, Rosalind, Celia, Oliver, Touchstone, Audrey, even Duke Frederick falling in love with God. Midsummer Night’s Dream is similarly romantic comedy, though admittedly the pairings get mixed up a tad. This is not the pattern of Much Ado.
All the criticism that focuses on Claudio as cad denies that he is marrying for love. He barely knows the girl, he lets someone else do his wooing for him, he accepts a second bride as a “disposal” (V.i.294) of his poor self, buying a bride as the price of his guilt offering.
It can easily be argued that Hero is a paragon of love, but the love we are talking about is agape love, not the eros love of romance.
Benedick has been converted to marriage. He finds that his taste in meat has changed. He refuses to argue beyond a change in tastes. Tasteless romance then, at best.
And Beatrice almost at the close of the last scene of the play is back to claiming that she loves Benedick no more than “in friendly recompense” (V.iv.83). Perhaps Benedick is even slightly relieved at what must seem a very lukewarm philos love.
Without belaboring proofs, from the perspectives of Margaret, Ursula, Hero, or Beatrice, romantic love is no more than a tattered and stamped on thing throughout Much Ado. Moreover, there are “adumbrations” of anti-romance beyond the women. The Leonato we meet is not married, nor is his brother Antonio. Romantic coupling is entirely done away with in the older generation. And the Prince himself remains unattached, perhaps sad, but entirely unmoved toward romantic attachment. Don John and Conrade might just as well be eunuchs—happily for women—and nothing of Dogberry and the Watch is suggestive of romantic bliss.
Such thorough patterning carries import. The social comedy portrayed needs social insurance, yes, and, moreover, needs intervention of well-intended outsiders. And the entire action of the play focuses on the intense need for marriage, summed up by Benedick: “Prince, thou art sad, get thee a wife, get thee a wife”(V.iv.122). Wives are important to comedic resolution; romantic attachment isn’t. At least not in Much Ado about Nothing.
Shakespeare’s comedies generally are so fixed on marriage for love that elsewhere we have written on “Shakespeare the American,” and others have written copiously on Shakespeare the 19th century Romantic. But we won’t find marriage for love in Much Ado about Nothing, certainly not if we read carefully and attend to questions of Much Ado’s comedic import.
This is so much the case that it is tempting to consider the possibility that Shakespeare drew Beatrice and Benedick from the real-life Anne Hathaway and Will Shakespeare. Our positive knowledge about Shakespeare’s personal affairs is quite minimal, not at all surprising for a 16th century London dramatist. But from what we know, it would be easy to imagine Anne Hathaway to be quite mature compared to Will, perhaps cynical about love even before meeting Will, dutiful to an extreme and virtuous certainly, even as the Prince claims for Beatrice, a steady mind and hard worker, a woman of decided and strong opinion. And one that Will spent a great deal of time away from, even though he seems to have been compulsive in returning to her periodically and ultimately.
Will’s life bespeaks the need for a wife. It bespeaks him a man of eminent wit, and from his widow’s concern to preserve his work, we might conclude that she must also have been a woman of eminent wit. But romance is made of other stuff.
Thus far we have examined four major aspects of Much Ado’s comedic pattern. First, the threat to survival considered in Much Ado is centrally the threat of fundamental human inadequacy, seen perhaps most strongly in an exceptionally talented couple, Beatrice and Benedick. Second, social, not personal, strengths are necessary for individual survival. Third, the intervention of well-intentioned outside social forces, typically the devious but well-intentioned intervention of “minor,” disinterested characters, are essential to the outworking of a social survival. And fourth, that social survival is based not in boy loves girl but on boy marries girl, who becomes his wife, not his romantic significant other. If this were the full comedic pattern, it would certainly be a complicated and sophisticated artistic design. It is also a dark comedic design.
Yet Much Ado is not a hopeless play. And the element that allows us to hope that the virtual future of Much Ado is not quite bleak, the element thus far missing from our comedic articulation, is grace. Grace lightens the shades of human inadequacy. And if that grace turns out to be Grace Abounding, then there may not be all that much darkness in the comedy of Much Ado about Nothing.
We might begin finding the pattern of grace with Leonato’s welcome to soldiers likely to eat him out of house and home along with who knows what other of lecherous intent during their proposed month’s stay (I.i.96 ff.). The scene should be judged with the reality of Elizabeth’s court progresses in mind. Elizabeth’s sojourns among her greater subjects’ domains typically created enormous challenges for maintaining provisions--and sanitation. In the reigns of both Elizabeth and James, the monarch could push the most plutocratic peers near or over the edge of insolvency simply by bountifully enjoying their hospitality. In that light, the very suggestion that Prince Pedro’s entourage will be resident for a month is an extraordinary threat, and Leonato’s heart-felt hospitality is an act of extraordinary grace.
More memorable because more comic is the grace exhibited by Dogberry in his instructions to the Watch in III.iii. By the Dogberry book, vagrants are to be challenged in the Prince’s name. But if one refuses to stand, “Why then take no note of him, but let him go . . . and thank God you are rid of a knave” (III.iii.28-30).
If the Watch is caught asleep while on duty, Dogberry “cannot see how sleeping should offend: only have a care that your bills be not stol’n” (40-42). Similarly, if drunks in alehouses won’t obey an order home to bed, “Why let them alone till they are sober” (45-46). And if the Watch apprehends a thief, “The most peaceable way for you . . . is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company” (57-60).
To all of which Verges aptly replies, “You have been always call’d a merciful man, partner” (61-62). Hardly surprising. It is, though, somewhat shocking that Dogberry has ever been accounted a constable. “Truly I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man who hath any honesty in him” (62-63.) And later, “the watch ought to offend no man, and it is an offense to stay a man against his will” (81-82).
Dogberry habitually destroys the English language. The consistency of his reasoning, however, shows that such verbal destruction is not at work here. And precisely because these are Dogberry’s real, grace-filled, if semi-lunatic, opinions, we have to wonder if he is murdering the Queen’s English or perhaps only showing his truest self when later he comments at the criminal examination, “O villain! Thou wilt be condemn’d into everlasting redemption for this” (IV.ii.56-57). Borachio’s honest conduct in laying the criminal realities out to the Prince in V.i.230 ff perhaps indicates that Dogberry’s grace is taking hold already into eternal redemption.
“Grace” and its derivatives are central theological, ideological, religious, and social concepts for Shakespeare’s English. Grace is free giftiness. Gracious is resilient, tested, long-suffering grace. Graceful is filled with gifts to the point of overflowing into all outward appearance. Shakespeare exhibits all three in Leonato.
Leonato is graceful in welcoming Don Pedro to his home. Leonato is gracious in III.v. in listening with consideration to Dogberry as he tortures language into incomprehensibility. And having collected himself after the spurning of his daughter at the altar and having vented his feeling in confronting Don Pedro and Claudio as gentlemen, Leonato returns to gracefulness itself in Act V, scene i, in again confronting Don Pedro and Claudio, now self-condemned failures as gentlemen but more importantly as men and as Christians.
As is true for Shakespeare generally, Leonato’s returned gracefulness is not a whitewashing of sin and error. It is starkly frank about the guilt, and even ironic and poetic in rhetorical force: “Twas bravely done, if you bethink of it” (270). But even as Leonato is rhetorically poetic and ironic, he moves, through truth to the grace of proposing partial amends:
I cannot bid you bid my daughter live—
That were impossible—but I pray you both,
Possess the people in Messina here
How innocent she died. (279-282)
And Claudio responds directly to the grace thus offered:
O noble sir!
Your overkindness doth wring tears from me. (292-293)
Leonato’s final speech sums up the miraculous effect of a grace which confederates him with Friar Francis and with Hero: “She died, my lord, but whiles her slander liv’d” (V.iv.66). Grace allows forgiveness. Grace reconciles and restores relationship. And in the main line of Much Ado’s action, it brings not just rebirth but anastasia, resurrection.
Thus, the world of Much Ado is permeated both by the ridiculous grace of Dogberry and the Watch on the one hand and by the tried and tested grace of Leonato, supported at key moments by Don Pedro in graciously sponsoring Claudio’s suit and by Friar Francis in proposing Hero’s tactful retreat from the world.
Into that world, Shakespeare introduces the silent curse of want of grace in Don John, Borachio, and Conrade.
And it is inherent to the pattern of the play that grace is easily rampant over such malice. Conrade, whose criminality is much more tenuous than that of Borachio or Don John, is graciously ignored, other than his ungentlemanly and oft-quoted epithet of “ass” for Dogberry. Borachio, whose name means “drunkard,” is sobered and, as already argued, shows marked signs of repentance, redemption, and returning honor. And Don John, who began the play pardoned and reconciled to his brother, is returned in chains, speechless, but at least for the moment unsentenced.
Yet these are not the pressing challenges to grace. No, the great challenge to grace in the play rests primarily in Benedick and Beatrice whose opinions of each other and of marriage are ungracious—witty and humorous but not graceful. That lack of grace is apparent to those around them, a lack of grace that refuses to recognize that they should be grace for each other, the blessing and the blessed.
Berlioz and Charles may both have been wrong to think good Shakespearean drama could be made from these two alone. Charles and Berlioz were not wrong in recognizing that the Beatrice and Benedick plot, with its host of grace-bearing notings orchestrated by gracious friends is the abiding center of the play. The overall pattern of the play—a grace-filled world from beginning to end, grace flowing from those above and from those below to make up for the extreme inadequacies of youth conspired against by forces of unmitigated evil and malice— is centered on graceless combat of Beatrice and Benedick turned to love by gracious friends who can laugh at human folly while simultaneously bending every effort of gracious deceit to an ingratiating conclusion.
Thus, with the inclusion of the great necessity for grace, we find at least five elements in the comedic import in Much Ado about Nothing. The great challenge to human survival to which Shakespeare turns his attention is fundamental human inadequacy, including the inadequacy of total lack of grace and its impetus to inexplicable villainy.
Shakespeare’s answer in Much Ado about Nothing, the basis for faith in human survival despite such stupendous challenge, does not lie in one’s own defenses, or in over-achievers’ special talents, or even in irrational romantic attraction. Instead, success and survival depend on social forces, particularly social forces of a fundamentally well-intentioned acquaintance. In other words, success and survival depend on societal grace, a grace that flows notably from those socially lower to protagonists whose admittedly exemplary qualities must wait passively for the social salvation that moves inexorably to their rescue.
What a pretty, giddy thing is man, even at his most witty in the case of Beatrice and Benedick, even in his most noble in the case of Leonato and Don Pedro, especially in his most audaciously inarticulate and outrageously comic in the case of Dogberry and the Night Watch. And yet a gracious current flows from all of these into anastasia life for Hero and Claudio, and eddies of that current bring love even in the midst of contention back to Beatrice and Benedick.
If we don’t consider comedy to be an important critical term for Much Ado about Nothing, or if we trivialize the idea of comedy, which amounts to much the same thing, we will probably nevertheless sense all these thematics of Much Ado and of Shakespearean character in the play. Having an advanced conception of comedy, however, unites all of these apprehensions into a coherent pattern of comedic design.
We turn then to the humor personality of Much Ado. Perhaps our first comments should be that, unlike a great deal of Shakespearean comedy (Merchant of Venice and Winter’s Tale come notably to mind), Much Ado about Nothing is a genuinely funny play, with extended humorous scenes occurring virtually from beginning to end, with a wave of risibility which crests in the Dogberry scenes, but moves along quite humorously throughout on the tide of Beatrice”s and Benedick’s wit.
And as the mention of Dogberry in the same breath with Beatrice and Benedick highlights, the range of humor in Much Ado about Nothing is extraordinarily broad. Comedy of Errors is another of Shakespeare’s most consistently funny plays, but it should be immediately evident that Comedy of Errors is extraordinary for the way it can maintain a few types of humor—really a few jokes like the madness of mistaken identity—throughout the whole play. Dogberry by himself reveals Shakespeare as a far more versatile humorist than is evidenced in all of Comedy of Errors.
To say that Much Ado is an extremely humorous play is not to say that it is more or less a comedy than Taming of the Shrew or any other Shakespearean comedy, or for that matter, than a comedy of Congreve or Shaw. The fact of such extraordinary humorousness will, however, very strongly affect the “feel” of the play and with it the sense we have of the humorist behind the play. Generally speaking, the more humor we find in a play, the more buoyant the play will feel, the more sense of liveliness, the more sense of being intentionally entertaining. It is highly probable that intensely humorous plays will appeal to greater ranges of audiences and will be more remembered with fondness. All these generalizations seem applicable to Much Ado about Nothing and its strongly humorous construction.
The fact that Much Ado is humorous in its first scenes, in its Dogberry scenes starting in Act III, and in its final resolution does not, of course, vitiate the chilling seriousness of the Claudio-Hero-Don John-Borachio action with which the humor is interspersed. That consistent interspersion of humor within excruciatingly serious action gives Much Ado a special character, a memorability that stands out among centuries of drama. The interspersion of humor and chilling villainy is consonant with the interspersion of that villainy with an idealized, idyllic setting. Messina, at the northeast tip of Sicily is thus at the tip of the ancient world’s Edenic Sicilian garden, if you will, the east gate of Paradise.
Moreover, the humorous exchanges of Much Ado About Nothing are notably complex. J. L Styan, aptly citing from Act II scene iii Beatrice's bidding Benedick to dinner and the subsequent exchange, calls it a “duet.”
Beatrice: Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.
Benedick: Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.
Beatrice: I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pins to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have done.
Benedick: You take pleasure then in the message.
Beatrice: Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife's point, and choke daw withal. (241-9).
Styan comments of such duets:
These display special skill in verbal manipulation based upon the idiom of colloquial speech which can accommodate its own range of tone and tempo. A musical pattern is framed by the derision of Beatrice, who scarcely parries her lover's advances before she cuts them down (178).
Clearly, much can be said about Shakespeare's use of humor—its musicality, its tempo, its tone, its level of usage, its idiom—all of which add depth and richness to humor-of-the-mind texture. We will continue to focus on Humor of the Mind per se, recognizing that the widespread use of rich and complex humorous interchanges within Much Ado in some ways makes the problem of establishing a humor personality more difficult.
It is arguable that the play abounds in all four of the mental humors with which we are primarily concerned: Gotcha, Incongruity, Word Play, and Sympathetic Pain. Considering the passage above, we should first note that all of the musical components Styan refers to could well be considered aspects of Word Play, Word Play then setting up for a Gotcha. At the same time we might well laugh at the Incongruity of such a venomous invitation and laugh as well in Sympathetic Pain with Benedick, who in this instance seems a mere sitting duck for Beatrice's dueling proclivities.
In similar humorous multiplicity, Beatrice and Benedick open the play throwing verbal knives at one another. From a humor perspective, each is topping the wit of the other, and in topping one another’s wit, they are involved in Gotcha and counter-Gotcha guerilla warfare. Each thinks she or he is smart and clever, and acts upon it in clever repartee. Each topping indicates that despite their over-achievements of wit, they have, in fact, set themselves up to be got by the next thrust. And at first blush, it might seem that all this warfare is all Gotcha.
The humor of this constant topping is anything but lost on the other characters, and, in fact, they to some extent egg on the combatants by witnessing and appreciating the rapier thrusts as they flash by. In Freudian terms witwork is a three-person activity which depends on an authenticating audience (Freud). When Don Pedro enlists virtually everybody else to gull Benedick and Beatrice, part of his decision is the gracious decision to abjure the role of authenticating audience of the mutual humiliations Benedick and Beatrice “merrily” are heaping on one another.
At the same time, it’s not hard to find Incongruity humor. Incongruity abounds in Dogberrian nonsense as it replaces meaning. Incongruity is also at work in the Beatrice-Benedick exchanges—this just isn’t the way eligible young people are supposed to disport themselves—heightened when we are told that Benedick and Beatrice have been romantically involved at some point prior to the opening of the play (II.i.278 ff). Benedick’s and Beatrice’s rapid conversion on overhearing (noting) the deceptive speeches of their friends also emphasizes Incongruity.
In accord with Styan's earlier cited analysis, it might be argued that Word Play is synonymous with Beatrice and Benedick. In totally opposed senses, it is also close to synonymous with Dogberry. Beatrice and Benedick are masters of language play and massacre through language while Dogberry massacres the language. Moreover, Benedick’s companions-in-arms constantly challenge his wits when he escapes Beatrice, and just about everyone has great joy in the wording of their deliberately notable deceptions.
Of Sympathetic Pain, we will have more to say later, but can we start by admitting that we feel with Benedick, even before his first appearance on stage as Beatrice skewers him in absentia? That soul of grace, Leonato, certainly does, and repeatedly intervenes to soften what is becoming an ignoble and tasteless, if highly entertaining and humorous, assault.
Admitting then that all the mental humors are at work in Much Ado—after all, it is the battle of sexes that is at stake; we should expect no holds barred—which mental humor is the obvious predominant lead humor of the four? Again, Charles and Berlioz are seminal proofs. What makes the play memorable through the ages, what sets up a long tradition of romantic and romance-manqué comedy is the quarrel between Beatrice and Benedick, fundamentally remembered as an interminable witty exchange. What makes Much Ado inimitable, however, is Dogberry with his semantic deconstruction of just about everything.
Word Play is the dominant feature that holds these two humor axes together.
If Word Play is indubitably the lead humor-of-the-mind element in Much Ado, what is the obvious non-lead element? With Beatrice and Benedick matched in Sympathetic Pain humorous moments with the ever-lovable and eternally humorous Dogberry, we may suspect that the ultimate decision for second lead must go to Sympathetic Pain.
Of the remaining two, Gotcha is mitigated by the fact that both Beatrice and Benedick come back for more. In a sense, they don’t admit to being got, because they are always willing to resume hostilities as if all that proceeds has been a draw.
This description is somewhat oversimplified. In fact, Benedick virtually always pulls back from the attack, virtually always deserts the field, and virtually never deliberately provokes the witty exchanges. Shakespeare calls our attention to this patterning almost immediately on Benedick’s lines “I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way a’God’s name, I have done.” And Beatrice’s response, “You always end with a jade’s trick “(the trick of an ill-conditioned horse that drops out of a race early) (I.i.141-144).
Gotcha must always be distinguished from pure attack humor, like Conrade’s calling Dogberry an ass or ridiculing someone for political, religious, or ethnic association with no greater point than to inflict injury. Much attack humor and much wit are not truly Gotcha. Gotcha occurs when someone has overestimated him or herself and received a just putdown. “So’s your mother” may be hilarious to bystanders, but it isn’t the height of wit, and it needs very special pleading to make it Gotcha at all. From this perspective, it is not at all clear that Beatrice or Benedick ever seriously overestimate themselves or that they are ever seriously put down to a more realistic level about themselves. It is much easier to argue that the “merry war” is actually a series of unprovoked attacks based in insecurity and less-than-enthusiastic and equally insecure defenses.
Let us assume then, at least for the moment, that Gotcha may be the least of the mental humors in Much Ado because all deeper readings of inadequacy and insecurity work diametrically against Gotcha’s need for over-estimation of self.
That leaves Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain as possible second leads. Given a lead element of Word Play, eliminating Gotcha as a possible contender for lead humor accomplishes much. Of six mental humor personalities, it allows only two possibilities, Intellectual (Word Play + Incongruity) and Consoler (Word Play + Sympathetic Pain).
We’ve already considered the presence of Incongruity humor. Dogberry’s errant nonsense is incongruous to good law enforcement. Beatrice and Benedick, humorously are not acting the way upper-class young people are supposed to act just as, seriously, Claudio and Hero are not acting the way young people are supposed to act. These are pervasive and—sometimes-- humorous qualities of the play, but their pervasiveness also suggests that they stand as jarring background rather than as humorous foreground.
It then becomes imperative to make the full case for Sympathetic Pain humor. And as already suggested in the discussion of Comedy of Errors, we need to begin by recognizing that Sympathetic Pain is by far the most subtle of the mental humors. Even though empirical research has demonstrated that Sympathetic Pain humor is roughly equally appreciated in practice with the other three mental humors, it is appreciated by and large with smiles rather than guffaws, relying much more on an inward satisfaction than on an outward display of humorous response.
Moreover, there is substantial reason to believe that younger people generally do not appreciate Sympathetic Pain humor as much as older audiences and that European traditions of humor are much less attuned to Sympathetic Pain than are American. Risibility—laughability—is then a sometimes false guide to the presence and prominence of Sympathetic Pain humor. The structure of Sympathetic Pain humor, however, is at least as objective as any of the other mental humors, so that discussion of Sympathetic Pain humor is predominantly a matter of the presence of Sympathetic Pain structures rather than an appeal to outbursts of audience laughter.
Again, Sympathetic Pain humor occurs when someone is the victim of injury suffered without any justifying circumstance. It is victimization humor: when we see another sentient being hurt, we can respond with sympathy or even empathy. But these are painful emotions, and by and large we’d rather not. Sympathetic Pain humor allows us to recognize the hurt, recognize the lack of justice, and to laugh with rather than cry with the victim.
Demands for sympathy are rampant throughout Much Ado about Nothing, but many of these demands have nothing to do with humor. We can and should sympathize not only with Hero but with Claudio and with Don Pedro for being the targets of such unmitigated malice as Borachio perpetrates in the service of Don John. But it is a strange audience that laughs with these victims. Not all victimization is humorous.
Leonato deserves our special sympathy, having been so much portrayed to us as a giving, gracious man by every conscious act. But there is nothing funny and a great deal horrific in Claudio’s spurning of his daughter before him at the altar. And there is nothing funny about Hero fainting under the destruction of her world and the rejection of her own father or about Claudio and Don Pedro humbling themselves in their grief and admission of their guilt in honoring Hero at her tomb.
That doesn’t stop our true Sympathetic Pain humor reactions elsewhere. In the first scene of the play, we feel for Benedick, the war hero, not even getting back to an advanced staging area before he is lampooned, skewered, slandered, and generally dismembered. We nevertheless respond to the vitality of the attack upon him and have every reason to laugh with him: “That’s okay, buddy, we know exactly how you feel.” Most of us aren’t war heroes, and even among the men, most of us hope we haven’t been so totally savaged behind our backs by any woman of our acquaintance. But we know how he should feel anyway. We know the common human experience of expecting deserved praise and appreciation and getting vituperation.
If this is true before Benedick even appears on stage, it is certainly there to be played up by any competent actor, wincing under Beatrice’s blows even as, warrior that he is, he weakly parries her thrusts.
At the same time, as soon as we are acquainted with the fact that Benedick and Beatrice have a former relationship, Beatrice’s sharp tongue becomes funny in a new way. She is not just a shrew; she is determined not to fall for Benedick again, and, in Liza Doolittle’s words, she is determined “to get her own back.” So the “merry” war we witness is full of opportunities to humorously sympathize with Benedick but also with Beatrice. “That’s okay, sister, let him have it; we know exactly how you feel”—and perhaps most of us really do know how she feels.
Don Pedro, as we’ve already said, is gracious to intervene to limit such carnage. The only way to limit it, however, is to deceive both Benedick and Beatrice. And Shakespeare makes sure that we see Benedick first and Beatrice later as they are made fools in love by their best friends. We really don’t have to go any further. Made fools by friends. If we can’t say “That’s okay, we know exactly how you feel,” then we’ve led very sheltered childhoods and lives generally. What makes it all the funnier is how thoroughly Benedick swallows the bait, how much he yearns for the verbal war to mean something quite else. And in that, if we know ourselves as well, we should easily be able to feel the Sympathetic humor of the times we magnified whatever folly others incited in us because we too wanted so desperately for our folly to be reality.
And what really tops the joke is that Benedick is wise enough to know his own folly and his own excess:
“I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laugh’d at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love.” (II.iii.7-11)
This, of course, is said of Claudio, a scene before Don Pedro and company gull Benedick. And, therefore, it is in Benedick’s mind probably more than in ours when he decides, “Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled” (II.iii.240-242). Incongruity?—certainly. But at a deeper and more satisfying level, this is basically a Sympathetic Pain joke written very large.
As argued by so many, Shakespeare seldom deigns to repeat himself. He is always on to further, fuller achievement. And thus, in Act III, scene i, when Beatrice is gulled by her cousin and Ursula, Shakespeare does not merely repeat the joke of a magnified folly self-condemned beforehand. The great line for Beatrice is “Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!” (109). This is, of course, a complete incongruity reversing her entire stance as we have known it earlier.
But at a deeper level, along with the immoderate folly of the gulled, Shakespeare let’s us in on a new joke. Beatrice is appropriately contrite and repentant. It is clear from the rest of the play, however, just how tenuous her repentance is, how much maiden pride has still to be put down, and how easily contempt looks for reinstatement. If we wish, we can say that this is simply Shakespeare’s deep wisdom—it is wise to the ways of human nature. And thus wise to our ways, not just Beatrice’s. Mature audiences are likely to recognize in Beatrice their own past easy assumptions that renunciation was as easy as a rhetorical gesture. We should know just how she feels when she finds out that the rhetorical gesture will need a lot more backing.
The speech ends with less need for maturity in our humor response: “For others say thou dost deserve, and I/Believe it better than reportingly” (115-116).
Ah, the enthusiasms of finding out one is loved! Easy to laugh with, not at this elation—and to know that this too is rhetoric that will be tested.
The history of criticism about Much Ado is a history of critical protestation about how affable and sympathetic Beatrice and Benedick are to us all. And if they are, in fact, the sympathetic characters everyone has always held them to be, then it is only the obtuse who will not find in their situations all the humanity and self-contradiction which provide the highest delights of Sympathetic Pain humor.
All centrally true for Beatrice and Benedick, but let us not stop there; let us transfer attention to Dogberry, that second axis of humor in Much Ado. The history of criticism is also unequivocal about Dogberry. He is a perennially endearing character. We all hope that we don’t massacre language as indiscriminately as he does. But Dogberry is, after all, our ideal Constable when and if we ever get in a jam. He’s the Wisconsin cop who catches us speeding in a car with Minnesota license plates, who stops us but then, evidently reflecting that it is an offense to stay someone against his will, lets us go with a friendly warning.
It doesn’t take Shakespeare’s art long to have us on the edge of our seats, awaiting Dogberry’s next obstruction to language and thought. And disappointment is palpable when he leaves the stage. In the last speech of Act IV, scene ii, we find that Dogberry has an elevated estimate of himself (“I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more a householder . . . .”) (80-81), and Shakespeare neatly inserts that he is also a man “that hath had losses” (84). Suddenly, the Sympathetic Pain of everything about Dogberry makes sense. Every error, every foolish gesture is easily explained by his need for self- worth and the dignity appropriate to one who has suffered through loss. And we all know how he feels.
So we’re going to call the question of secondary lead humor in favor of Sympathetic Pain.
We hope that makes us part of a mature audience.
If the evidence for others leans in favor of Incongruity, then for them the play has an Intellectual character. This is thoroughly in keeping with long stretches of critical tradition which glory in the keen wit debates between two very bright protagonists, (and it is perhaps quintessentially American in our criticism to deviate in emphasis away from Incongruity and over to Sympathetic Pain.)
For us, if Word Play and Sympathetic Pain are the predominant humors of the mind, then Much Ado is characterized by Consoler personality.
In Chapter 4, we defined the Consoler as one who sympathizes and eases pain with the right words. The final scenes of the play are a tour de force of finding the right words to make a very messy situation seem a lot better. The play ends with Beatrice and Benedick acquiescing to marry one another in absurd rhetorical fashion—he for pity, she to save his life (V.iv.91-97)—to ease the humiliation of having testified against themselves regarding their own love. Benedick consoles himself over his own sudden abandonment of confirmed bachelorhood with a quip: “for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion” (V.iv.108-109).
Yet it is arguable that even from the beginning, Beatrice’s and Benedick’s merry war can be seen as a desperate attempt by both of them to console themselves that they were right all along. As we noted earlier in our discussion of comedic form, the play comes well short of dispensing justice, (the underlying value of Gotcha humor) and, in fact, leaves many issues unresolved. Consolation is what can be offered to bruised, battered people in a world that can not afford thorough justice.
What, then, can be said of the texture of a Consoler play? Looking first at the texture of individual humor sub-forms, we noted in our discussion of As You Like It that a heavy use of Word Play creates a sense of the dazzling, of punchiness, and of stop-action. Such a texture is highly appropriate for and even indicated by Leonato’s reference to the “merry war,” and ongoing “skirmish of wit” (I.i.62-63) between Beatrice and Benedick which has resumed immediately upon his return from the wars. The onlookers are all ready for the fireworks to begin, and normal action has halted in order that the verbal joust take center stage. In As You Like and 1 Henry IV, we see Word Play used for sophistication and for strategic purposes, in the former for temporizing in political uncertainty, in the latter for rehearsing arguments for a claim to the throne. In Much Ado, we see a sophistication perpetrated by Word Play, a sophistication of two experienced, bruised lovers and their friends. Beatrice and Benedick use Word Play to disguise repressed feelings and insecurities, giving the appearance of self-assurance when there is none. But Word Play can also be childish. It is one of the earliest subforms of mental humor to develop in children. Beatrice and Benedick’s verbal jousting is finally childish to their friends, finally in need of challenge and repudiation.
Sympathetic Pain, we noted in our discussion of Comedy of Errors, is the humor of maturity and experience. It is a humor that has learned from failings and hard knocks to extend mercy and compassion rather than judgment. Beatrice and Benedick are not young lovers but experienced, sparring lover/haters. They have both been through the mill. And by the end of the play, everyone has been through the mill, ground up by unpredictable and unmotivated meanness thrown into the mix of their own grave inadequacies. To mete out full judgment in such a situation, to distribute appropriate consequences for all meanness, all villainy, but also for all bad judgment, all childishness, and all negligence would be to leave a rubble of hopelessness.
As we noted also in Chapter 5, Sympathetic Pain creates “a texture of inclusiveness, of mercy, of a gentleness which is alive to pain, yet refusing to let pain have the last word.” Much Ado is alive to pain. Yet by grace, it refuses to let pain have the last word. And it argues for—struggles for—an inclusive, interventionist society that connives to unite battling lovers too foolish to know themselves and contrives to meld justice and grace so that man is not utterly defeated by his own depravity. There is much that is not gentle about Much Ado. But the humor, competitive though it is, creates a gentleness. Without Sympathetic Pain, Much Ado about Nothing would move toward the scourging of tragedy, leaving us raw and empty.
Turning to the synthetic texture of Consoler, a synthesis of Word Play and Sympathetic Pain, we have previously in Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle characterized that texture as soothing, feather-bedded, like a soft landing (Chapter 7: "Father of the Bride",12 on-line version). Such descriptions at first seem in jarring contrast to the villainy of Don John and his compatriots, to the easy gullibility of Claudio and even Don Pedro, and even to the spit-fire repartee of Beatrice and Benedick. So are we way off base? Or, in fact, in this dark comedy, does not the humor spread the foam for an emergency soft landing?
Consoler humor, in that it is heavily Word Play, often stops unsettling or even malicious action, arrests emotional depth in favor of dazzling repartee. Consoler humor, in that it is heavily Sympathetic Pain, reminds us to leave judgmentalism aside in favor of compassion and fellow feeling.
Consoler humor, in that it is both heavily Word Play and heavily Sympathetic Pain, allows us to identify strongly with Beatrice and Benedick, with Dogberry, with Leonato, with Don Pedro and in the midst of their troubles to simultaneously appreciate the wit and brilliance they occasionally show.
The Consoler texture of Much Ado about Nothing is finally in us as audience. And like the minor characters who repeatedly save the day, we as audience want for Beatrice and Benedick, for Don Pedro and Don Leonato, for Claudio and Hero that somehow something can be said to get everyone through and back to comfortably “normal” states centering on double marriages. Of Dogberry, we live in constant hope of enjoying him more paradoxically combined with a hope that having discharged his duty, he can go home, enjoy his house and robes, and move beyond having had losses, probably remembering as if it were gold Leonato’s gracious words in accepting his mangled report.
Consoler is a good balancing humor for the deadly main action of the play, the villainous assault on Hero and Claudio. It is also an appropriate stance from which to watch Beatrice and Benedick mangling each other and contorting their own judgments at every turn in favor of their own emotions.
And it is an appropriate stance from which we can agree with Shakespeare’s and Benedick’s final judgment, “man is a giddy thing.”
 For more in-depth discussion of dark or sombre comedy, see Paul Grawe, Comedy in a New Mood. [Return to text.]
 cf Bevington’s discussion of the flections of medieval theater in Shakespeare. [Return to text.]
 cf. Germaine Greer's Shakespeare’s Wife. [Return to text.]
 Psychological research has found “a statistically significant increase in [self-reported] state hopefulness after exposure to a humorous video relative to a control group viewing a neutral video” (Vilaythong, 79). [Return to text.]
 In “The Split Humor Personality of Don Quixote,” Elizabeth Grawe and Paul Grawe argue that many of the critical contentions over Don Quixote can be understood in terms of the relative degrees to which readers perceive Gotcha and Sympathetic Pain in the work. The European critical tradition heavily leans to Gotcha sensibilities while the American critical tradition leans heavily toward an idealistic, Sympathetic Pain sensibility which is perhaps epitomized in the song from Man of LaMancha, “The Impossible Dream” (HQN 5.1. 1999). [Return to text.]
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