The classical writing program, The Lost Tools of Writing, is teaching me to write. I have studied it on my own and I have been attending a class. I have watched my son wrestle with the classical writing skills in his online class, and I have copious notes of my own. But I have not written an essay for critical review by master teachers. Until now.
For a year, I have been obsessing about Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare’s comedy about the battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. I have seen Kenneth Brannagh’s version and at the time thought it was the best out there. Ah, but my daughter turned me onto the London Theatre’s production with David Tennant (the tenth Doctor of Doctor Who?), a fine Scottish actor. http://www.digitaltheatre.com/production/details/much-ado-about-nothing-tennant-tate I also listened to him in an audio production. I ruminated on the way Beatrice’s frightful utterance, spoken not five minutes into their new relationship, makes a man out of Benedick. As shocking as it is to us, it is absolutely perfect. It has to be said. Her stand forces their love in its very earliest moments to grow up. In writing the following I finally plucked the splinter from my soul and now I can move on.
Benedick Plays the Man in the Play about Nothing
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick war with words every time they meet. Both protest they remain happily unmarried. Her barbed attacks on him are so sharp, he calls her a harpy; she describes him as dull as mud. Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, and Benedick’s brother-in-arms, Claudio, are engaged to be married. By trickery Beatrice and Benedick come to believe each harbors a violent and hopeless love for the other; by trickery Claudio is made to believe Hero has been unfaithful. As the wedding begins, Claudio rejects her violently and publicly. Hero and her family suffer humiliation and Beatrice breaks down in grief. Alone in the chapel immediately following, she and Benedick finally speak their love for one another. To seal it and to acknowledge her sorrow, Benedick asks what he can do to serve her. She replies with cold ferocity, “Kill Claudio.”
While all can agree Claudio grievously offended Hero and her family, some will say Benedick should not accept so violent a charge; some will say he should. Benedick should indeed have accepted Beatrice’s charge for three reasons: Beatrice needs Benedick to defend her family, to show his respect, and to prove his love.
The first reason Benedick should have agreed to Beatrice’s order is that she desperately needs Benedick to defend his new family. Declaring love for Beatrice is as good as asking her to marry, and this makes Beatrice’s family his own. Claudio has shamed Hero and with her the entire family with his public accusations. The shocked wedding guests withdraw convinced of Hero’s sin; how could Hero recover without a hero to defend her? Claudio’s offense reeks also because he commits this violence against his generous host, Leonato, who is helpless to defend his daughter against the strength of Claudio’s youth and the power of Claudio’s association with the prince, Don Pedro. But Benedick is uniquely placed to challenge Claudio, having both strength and association. When Benedick professes love for Beatrice, he virtually pledges to become a part of her family. As Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone of The Godfather would say, a man takes care of family. With her charge, Beatrice challenges Benedick to take responsibility to see that justice is done.
The second reason Benedick should have accepted Beatrice’s challenge is that Beatrice needs Benedick to show his respect. In Act II Scene 1 he refers to her as a harpy and rejects “my Lady Tongue”. In this same scene Beatrice reveals she has once lent her heart to him but he did not behave honorably. In all the bantering between them from the beginning of the story until they profess a new love, she uses her wit to cover her hurt and desire, while he retreats from her as quickly as he can. When he begins to believe she loves him, he is transformed by this news and converts his former disdain into kindness. Never again does he use his wit to abuse her, even as she continues, at times, in her old habits. While both formerly hid their feelings behind their jabbing jests, he lays them aside soonest. He speaks truth to her, and in the chapel recognizes immediately that she has supplied an honest answer to his honest question. Before our eyes we see him shed his habit of jesting and take her seriously for the first time. Beatrice needs to know he acknowledges her deep distress and will honor her by taking action.
Lastly, Beatrice challenges Benedick with this charge because she needs to know the extent of his love. All these years he has publically forsworn marriage. His allegiance is clearly given to his brother soldiers. Will he give his heart fully to her? Only a break with Claudio will demonstrate how much his heart is truly hers. She knows him ‘from of old’ and tells Don Pedro their history is the reason she puts him down, “So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools.” By risking his life and limb to avenge the dishonor done to her family, Benedick confirms he is at last putting her needs well before his own. In contrast to his life as a playboy, he takes responsibility for providing justice. Benedick will prove to Beatrice, her family, and his friends that he renounces his pledge to bachelorhood and pledges allegiance to Beatrice.
Some say Benedick should not have accepted Beatrice’s charge, for Claudio is Benedick’s best friend. Yet Claudio proves himself not to be the man Benedick is, for he easily believes the worst of Hero and rejects her. Benedick looks past the apparently violent words of Beatrice and affirms her heartache and helplessness. While Benedick has eyes to see the true Beatrice, Claudio only looks to appearances. In challenging Claudio to a duel, Benedick demonstrates that Claudio loses to Beatrice as nearest and dearest in Benedick’s heart.
Someone might press, “Vengeance belongs to the Lord”, and it is true that the Word of God speaks of working out justice through the law. Yet, just as Abraham raised his knife to kill Isaac, Benedick agreed to kill Claudio and yet was not brought to commit the final act. Abraham proves his love to God; Benedick proves his love to Beatrice. In the flower of time, the fragrant truth reconciled Claudio and Hero. When Benedick honored Beatrice, it bought more time for events to play themselves out. Neither Claudio’s friendship nor the letter of the law ought to have stopped Benedick from his course, for Claudio proved unworthy and the broken alliances were healed by grace apart from the law.
Benedick should have accepted Beatrice’s charge because she needed Benedick to defend his new family, to show his respect for her, and to prove his love. As he does so, he sheds his reputation as a playboy and takes on manly responsibility for Beatrice. He is ready for marriage. When he counsels Beatrice to “serve God, love me, and mend” he expresses a magnificent change of alignment, both regarding her and God’s purposes for a husband. As for men everywhere, he turns the bend in his road and leaves behind his former way of life to take up the journey with his ladylove. A bridegroom cleaves to his wife and together they will create something new. Would that all maids would expect their lovers to play the man, and that all men would fight for the hearts of their women.