Corrections or additions?
This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the July 21, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
‘Much Ado About’ . . . Something
‘Much Ado About Nothing," the production by Princeton Rep in the
lakeside amphitheater in Pettoranello Gardens, opens to the public on
Thursday, July 22 and runs Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through
Sunday, August 8 (absent rain). "This is one of Shakespeare’s most
sophisticated and audience-pleasing plays," says Victoria Liberatori,
Princeton Rep’s Artistic Director.
In my college text of the play, a footnote notes that "Nothing" is a
pun on "Note-ing." On musical notes, that is. (Balthazar, a servant,
is about to play an instrument and sing). This is also a play about
note-icing – with the eyes and ears.
Despite its full title "Much Ado" is really a play about something,
and that something is love, which wins out over caustic wit, scorn,
and spoken resolve. The play has two interwoven plots. The main plot
involves Claudio, a valiant warrior just returned from war, who –
through the wooing of Don Pedro, acting honestly on Claudio’s behalf –
becomes engaged to Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, with the easy consent of
her father, Leonato.
The second plot is that of Beatrice and Benedick, two of Shakespeare’s
most famous characters, who engage in an ongoing battle of wits.
Beatrice has sworn to have no man. Benedick finds no woman good enough
and will not wear horns as "Benedick, the married man." Their friends,
for sport, during the waiting time between the engagement and the
marriage of Hero and Claudio, scheme to have each love the other.
Benedick and Beatrice each "overhear" that the other is suffering from
unrequited love for her/him. In an instant, stung by the reputed blots
on their characters, they each resolve to requite the other’s love.
Says Liberatori, "It’s an extremely character-driven play. Both avowed
bachelors fall in love."
The comedy, over 400 years old, is frequently performed, in large part
because of Benedick and Beatrice’s clever, caustic, stinging
repartees. Princeton Rep performed it here on the Palmer Square green
in 1997. Now it’s set just after World War II and in the United
States, but still in Messina, Massena, New York, that is. Yes, there
is a Massena, New York. The difference between the two are two vowels.
Messina, Sicily, is where Shakespeare set the play.
World War II was an unusual time when women, formerly largely absent
in the workforce, worked in war plants, filling jobs to relieve men
for the military. All the women in the play have occupations,
Liberatori says. She is stressing the "Rosie, the Riveter" angle. "The
female characters are played very strongly," she says. "Nell (that’s
Nell Gwynn who plays Beatrice) was involved in the war effort; the
younger male characters (Claudio played by Addison McQuigg and
Benedick played by Alfredo Narciso) are all coming home from war."
Why did Rep choose this play? Having done a tragedy, "Romeo and
Juliet," Rep wanted to balance the season with a comedy, and Nell
Gwynn had been talking with Liberatori about doing the play. (Gwynn
was Regan, Lear’s middle daughter, in Princeton Rep’s "King Lear;"
Celia in "As You Like It;" and Ms. Ford in "The Merry Wives of – West
Both, Gwynn and Narciso, says Liberatori "are inventive and sexy;
there’ll be exciting chemistry between them. Both the actors playing
Benedick and Beatrice are exceptionally emotional, funny, have an edge
to their performances, and as in the ‘Kill Claudio’ scene, are able to
turn on a dime."
In "Much Ado" Liberatori sees a number of parallels to "Romeo and
Juliet." Hero’s relationship with her father, Leonato, parallels
Juliet’s relationship with her father, Lord Capulet, she notes. Both
Juliet and Hero were obedient daughters, respecting their fathers,
until Juliet (actually) and Hero (by seeming unchastity) disobey. In
both plays the relationship, father to daughter, is drastically
altered. Both fathers wish death upon their daughters, and Leonato
would even kill his daughter himself. In both plays there are friars
who are plotting the fates of the characters. And both female ingenues
feign death. (In "Romeo and Juliet" the friar’s plan ends tragically;
here it ends happily.)
Here the scheme to entrap Don Pedro and Claudio is unraveled by a
foolish, comic, bumbling watch who overhears Borachio confessing it to
Conrade, but who is prevented from confessing it to Leonato in time to
stop the shaming of Hero. Here, after a time of remorse, the Hero-ine
is married to her duped Claudio, who had humiliated her in church,
charging wantonness before the congregation gathered for what was to
be his marriage ceremony.
While the play is great fun, it raises fascinating, troubling
questions that are with us today. Liberatori notes that the play
builds plot and suspense on eavesdropping, overhearing, on gossip, and
social discourse. Add to that a staged betrayal. Can we believe what
we hear? What we see?
Who can we trust?
Claudio believes what he sees; assumes it’s the truth. Beatrice and
Benedick believe what their ears tell them about each other from the
reports of others. Don John, a bastard, convinces his brother Don
Pedro and Claudio with a staged scene, using Margaret, Hero’s serving
woman, and calling her Hero (so "proving" that Don Pedro gave a
"stale" Hero to Claudio.) Even Hero’s father, Leonato stricken with
grief, believing Claudio and Don Pedro, denounces her and would kill
The friar, who believes in Hero’s innocence from her expressions,
proposes a new scheme. He suggests that she be secretly kept in while
word is that she is dead, so Claudio will wish he had not accused her,
causing her death.
Benedick, now for his spoken love of Beatrice, also believes Hero and
challenges Claudio to a duel – to show his love of Beatrice, and
Liberatori contrasts Benedick’s early flowery language with his new
maturity near the end of the play. Beatrice all along believes her
However much Beatrice may believe Hero wronged, it is only through a
chance discovery of the watch that Don John’s slanderous scheme is
exposed. The discovery is followed by Borachio’s admitting the
deception to Don Pedro and Claudio. The falsely accused Hero,
pretending death, reappears as "another Hero" and finally marries her
Claudio, who has agreed in penance to marry the likeness of Hero that
Leonato will provide.
Benedict has already admitted his love to Beatrice, but it is only
near the play’s end that Beatrice confesses her love to Benedict,
acknowledging "I yield upon great persuasion: and partly to save your
All four lovers marry. To borrow another Shakespeare title, all’s well
that ends well.
Here’s just a sample of the wit in this play. Don Pedro, Duke of
Arragon, commenting on Beatrice’s words to Benedick, "You have put him
down lady." Beatrice returns the scold with, "So I would not he should
do me, lest I should prove the mother of fools."
But witty Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s great heroines, is not all
barbed speech. A complex character, she has a tender, humorous side.
When Don Pedro tells her "you were born in a merry hour," she responds
with a line that has survived centuries. "No, sure my lord, my mother
cried; but then there was a star danc’d and under that was I born."
– Joan Crespi
Much Ado About Nothing, Princeton Repertory Shakespeare Festival;
Pettoranello Gardens, Community Park North, Princeton. Thursdays
through Sundays, July 22 through August 8, at 8 p.m. Free, but a $10
donation is requested. Performances rain or shine unless conditions
become dangerous for the actors. Call 609-921-3682 or visit
www.princetonrep.org for more information.
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