The following is an excerpt from Tina Packer's Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare's Plays.
And so we come to Much Ado About Nothing. It’s a good title. Nothing; no thing; a “thing” in Elizabethan English is a penis, so “no thing” is a vagina. Much Ado About a Vagina—presumably Hero’s, as the plot hinges around her virginity. “Nothing” also means “noting” (as in, noting what other people do), and a lot of noting goes on in this play—Claudio and Don Pedro spying on someone they think is Hero in flagrante delicto. On the comic side, the men expound on Beatrice’s passion for Benedick, making sure he is overhearing them; likewise, the women talk about Benedick’s love for Beatrice when Beatrice is “noting” them.
At the beginning of Much Ado, a visiting army—led by a Spaniard, Don Pedro—is coming to stay in Messina. They have been fighting nearby (not quite clear for whom—but Italy was full of mercenary armies, and skirmishes between city-states were common). There is much rejoicing, especially among the young women, because it means there will be a lot of men in the town. Leonato’s household seems to be composed almost entirely of young and not-so-young unmarried women. Leonato, the governor of Messina, invites the officers to stay with him. Hero, Leonato’s daughter and sole child, a virgin and inheritor of his fortune, is attracted to Claudio, a young officer. Claudio is likewise interested.
With Claudio and Hero, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of a well-arranged courtship and betrothal of two young people. They are attracted to each other. Claudio makes sure that she’s rich and that Leonato is not planning to leave his money to anyone else. Don Pedro negotiates on Claudio’s behalf, as suggested by the rules of courtly love, being a stand-in wooer for Claudio at the masked ball— thereby testing the girl’s virtue and suitability.
In the meantime, Shakespeare is drawing another picture of an attraction between two lovers. They are older; they have been around the block a few times. They are Benedick (the good dick) and Beatrice (as in Dante’s Beatrice—but a woman who is in flesh and blood, not so young—not an eight-year-old who remains an abstract inspiration for a lifetime). Their names also mean “benediction” and “the blessed.” Beatrice and Benedick seem to have been lovers in the past, but now challenge each other only with words. Indeed, Benedick swears he’ll never marry—though clearly he’s a womanizer—and Beatrice seems to be of the same mind, though she keenly supports her young cousin Hero’s marriage.
In any case, the first exchange between Beatrice and Benedick, witty though it is, allows the audience to know how powerful is the attraction between them, and leaves each lightly wounded.
The play follows the progression of our two more conventional lovers, the negotiations between the parties, and the preparations for the masked ball. At this ball, through the good services of Don Pedro, the young couple are betrothed (with a little hiccup here and there); Beatrice and Benedick manage to dance with each other, masked, and in this disguise she tells him what an idiot Benedick is and how no one respects him.
The play begins to darken and lighten. On the light side, the men persuade Benedick that Beatrice is in love with him, and to save her life, he decides to open his heart and allow himself to love her. Similarly, the women let it be known to Beatrice that Benedick is madly in love with her—and she finally admits to herself she’s overwhelmingly in love with him. On the dark side, Don John, bastard half-brother to Don Pedro, determines to undermine the proposed marriage between Hero and Claudio—for no other reason than that he’ll enjoy manipulating everyone into pain and loathing, rather than joy and celebration. So he arranges for Claudio to watch in the orchard two people making love on the balcony. (Shakespeare liked repeating his plots in different ways—though the repetitions may have had more to do with the fixed nature of the playhouse and what was possible to enact. If you had seen Romeo and Juliet recently, then, as an audience member, you would be bound to compare the absolutely sexual/ spiritual ecstasy of that scene with the ludicrous “humpings” of a pre- tend Hero making love with a pretend unknown lover.) The charade works! It’s enough for Claudio. His wounded pride and cuckolded spirit lead him to plan a public and irretrievable condemnation of Hero. The marriage goes forward, and when the priest asks first Hero and then Claudio if there is any reason why this marriage should not take place, he exposes her “infidelity” in front of the congregation, Leonato, Don Pedro, and everyone in the town. “There, Leonato, take her back again. / Give not this rotten orange to your friend.” Then he leaves, taking Don Pedro with him.
Benedick does not go with them—which is unusual, because one of his fellow officers has been humiliated, and the honorable action would be to join him. Leonato, for his part, believes the officers, and not his daughter. He wants her dead.
BENEDICK How doth the lady?
BEATRICE Dead, I think. Help, uncle.
Hero, why Hero! Uncle, Signor Benedick, Friar—
LEONATO O fate, take not away thy heavy hand.
Death is the fairest cover for her shame That may be wished for.
(The fathers who want their daughters dead in Shakespeare’s plays are thick on the ground: Capulet, Egeus, Leonato, Lear, Cymbeline, Leontes, to name a few.)
Through the intervention of Friar Francis and Benedick, Leonato is calmed down and forced to think about Hero’s predicament. She may be telling the truth. They will say that she is dead. She will retire to a nunnery, where she will spend the rest of her days if they do not find the reason for Claudio’s accusations. Everyone leaves the church except Beatrice. She weeps at the altar in shame, rage, and helpless- ness about being a woman.
Benedick returns. This is the key scene of the play, and really shows Shakespeare’s sensitivity to the predicament of women. As a man of real honor, Benedick will use his superior place in society to rectify this injustice; and if he truly loves, he will love the whole of her, with no caveats.
Benedick approaches the weeping Beatrice—“Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?”
“Yea, and I will weep a while longer.”
“I will not desire that.” “You have no reason. I do it freely.” “I do love nothing in the world so well as you: is not that strange?” So, at the time of Beatrice’s greatest vulnerability, Benedick declares his love for her. And, as Nigel likes to point out, he goes first. He says he loves her before he knows for sure how she feels about him. It leads her to declare her love for him—and at that moment of mutual love, he says, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” “Kill Claudio” is the answer. “Ha, not for the wide world.” So, at the very joining of the love between them, Benedick pulls back. Even though he thinks Claudio is mistaken, he will not violate the officer honor by fighting his best friend. Beatrice’s reply is “You kill me to deny it.” And she tries to leave. Benedick stops her. So angry is she at Claudio, she screams that she “would eat his heart in the market-place.”
Then they have an exchange about the true nature of honor—and this is key. In the world they live in, Hero has no way of redeeming her name or proving she’s telling the truth. She cannot challenge Claudio, nor can Beatrice. What Claudio publicly proclaims about Hero will stand, unless a man takes on the voice of the women.
Benedick asks Beatrice, “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?”
Beatrice’s reply is “Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.” And Benedick says, “Enough, I am engaged.” The reason this text is so important is, first, he knows that Beatrice has a soul (a truth still not universally accepted, as we discussed before) and, second, he takes Beatrice’s thought as the thought that should guide him. He violates the honor between officers, choosing instead to follow his love. Love is the higher calling.
Of course, because it is a comedy, it all gets sorted out in the end, and no one has to die. When Hero’s innocence is revealed, Claudio must go through public penance and a cleansing ritual. The young lovers are restored to each other. Whether the trials of their courtship will lead to a stronger marriage, Shakespeare leaves unsaid.
With Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare lines up Benedick’s loyalty to the army, the men he fights alongside, and their male world, and, on the other side, his love for Beatrice and the world she is forced to live in as a woman. And he shows they are not compatible. Benedick has to choose.
Toward the end of the play, Benedick swears to Beatrice, “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes”—the heart being the place of love, dying being orgasm, eyes being the passage to the soul. So I think we can say that this marriage will last: both Beatrice and Benedick understand the ways of the world, and they put their love for each other into the enduring terrain of an ever-regenerative sexual/spiritual merging.
Excerpted from WOMEN OF WILL by Tina Packer. Copyright © 2015 by Tina Packer. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more