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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: September ::
Much Ado
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1829  Wednesday, 27 September 2000.

From:           Phil Steele <
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Date:           Tuesday, 26 Sep 2006 18:01:26 -0400
Subject:        Much Ado

[Editor's Note: The query below arrived from someone who is NOT a member
of SHAKSPER. If you wish to respond, please do so directly to

 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  and not to the list.  -Hardy]

Hello,

I have written a short piece on Act IV, Scene 1 of Much Ado About
Nothing.  It's not scholarly and is just my reading, my opinion.  Are
there publications or other venues, on the internet or otherwise, to
which I might submit it?

Phil Steele, Hartford CT

Claudio's attack on Hero at what was to be their wedding ceremony as a
"rotten orange" is one of those parts of Shakespeare, like the
anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice, that have to trouble us from
our perspective at the end of the 20th century. Yet it provides the
material for one of the most powerful and evocative scenes in
Shakespeare.

While rotten may not be too strong a term for a woman who would cavort
with another on the eve of her wedding, had she actually done so,
comparable behavior by Claudio himself would never draw such indignation
and moralizing. What is it about "the heat of a luxurious bed" that so
enrages these 16th century men? Much of the play to this point has been
joking about "horns," and they seem to take it for granted that to be a
married man is to be a cuckold, so unfaithful and libidinous is woman's
nature. Shakespeare does not seem to have any quarrel with this slander
against women, even if his own view of them seems anything but sexist in
that he repeatedly makes them full human beings with as much wit and
intelligence as men and usually with more good sense, kindness, feeling
and morality.

All the more troubling is the reaction of Hero's father. One would like
to think that a father's love for his daughter would win out despite the
male chauvinism of the time, but the way he turns on Hero is even more
horrifying than Claudio's attack on her. Nonetheless, Shakespeare's
dramatic sense and his feeling for the complexities of human character
make this scene far more powerful than the raw farce of proud men and
slandered women. The anguish of the emotional wounds Leonato inflicts on
himself moves us even as the failure of his love disturbs us and the
injustice to his daughter saddens and outrages us.

Picking up the kind of comedy and punning of the first three acts, the
scene begins with Claudio's terse response to the friar's nuptial
inquiry.

Friar. You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady.

Claudio. No

How many other writers would be content with this monosyllable! How many
other playwrights would sense its dramatic power? Thinking, or perhaps
just hoping, that Claudio is merely playing on words, Leonato
interjects, "To be married to her. Friar, you come to marry her." When
Friar Francis asks Hero and then Claudio if they know of any reason they
should not be married, Claudio remains silent and Leonato again feels
compelled to come to the rescue. No doubt he's beginning to sweat as he
responds, "I dare make his answer, none."

When Claudio then charges that Hero is "but the sign and semblance of
her honor" a woman whose blushes cover "cunning sin," Leonato's first
reaction is confusion. Then, assuming Claudio had bed her himself, he
defends Hero, suggesting a double standard from Claudio that should
undermine his charge.  When Claudio persists, Leonato turns to Don
Pedro, only to hear the same harsh condemnation of his daughter. "Are
these things spoken, or do I but dream?" This is Shakespeare at his
best, capturing the father's disorientation, pain and difficulty trying
to deal with something horrifying. Shocked, hurt and confused though he
is, Leonato for the moment is still thinking rationally. He asks Claudio
to explain, and when Claudio asks to be allowed to have Hero answer one
question, he tells Hero, "I charge thee do so, as thou art my child."
The patriarchal voice, foreshadowing Lear, is a little troubling, as if
Leonato is already leaning against her.

No doubt feeling that her father as protector may be deserting her, Hero
cries, "O, God defend me! how am I beset!/What kind of catechising call
you this?" After Don Pedro and Claudio proceed to explain how they
overheard what, through Don John's deceit, they believed to be Hero's
conversation with a lover, Leonato is crushed. He does not respond, "No,
this cannot be.  I know my daughter." Male as he is, socially tied as he
must feel he is to two soldier princes, he accepts their thin but
unchallenged verdict. His emotion, however, is not at first contempt for
his daughter but merely sadness, indeed devastation that his family, his
world has fallen apart, and he can only long for death. "Hath no man's
dagger here a point for me?"

It is the greatness of Shakespeare that he can have us feel intensely
for Leonato even as he undermines him. Ironically, it is not Leonato who
dies but Hero, or so she seems to. Even as he chooses not to condemn the
blindness and narrowness of these men, Shakespeare shows us that the
injustice to Hero is not merely the inaccuracy of the charges against
her, but their unfairness, their basis in the stupid prejudice of the
men whose love fails.

And thus our sympathy for Leonato quickly gives way to a kind of horror
at this paternal abandonment, to revulsion for his lack of sympathy, for
his condemnation of his own daughter, for a father's failed love.

I think Shakespeare even senses the cruelty of the sentence Leonato
helplessly endorses. He thinks his daughter has died and when she stirs,
the father in him is not relieved. Her life is not most dear to him.
Instead, he is caught up in the code of honor:

          "O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.
          Death is the fairest cover for her shame
          That may be wish'd for.

Leonato then says that if he thought she "wouldst not quickly die" he
would wait only to reproach her further before killing her himself. As
if this were not severe enough punishment from a father, he reproaches
himself for ever having loved her. "Why ever wast thou lovely in my
eyes?" In effect he disowns her. Certainly, at this moment in the play
at least, this is tragedy approaching Lear's condemnation and
abandonment of Cordelia.

It is even more affecting for while Leonato says Hero is no longer
lovely in his eyes, we know the opposite is true, that she may be more
lovely than ever because her loveliness is now lost to him. He could as
well say, "Why art thou lovely in my eyes?" If he no longer loved her,
were she no longer beautiful to him, he would have found much harsher
language to express his disdain. But he's torn. The social/sexual code
of honor drives him to disown her but Shakespeare knows that human
feeling cannot evaporate so quickly. We hear his heartfelt anguish, even
though his self-pity is largely undeserved, even though he has largely
brought his pain on himself, and despite the fact that Hero is the real
victim. Leonato can only express this feeling by speaking of the past:

          But mine, and mine I loved, and mine I praised
          And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
          That I myself was to myself not mine,
          Valuing of her,--

Even if his fatherly feeling for Hero is wrapped in false notions of
pride and possession, there is still a genuine and unselfish tenderness
to it.  Even in this guise, we cannot, Shakespeare does not, mistake
love.

In the space of a few minutes Shakespeare moves from comedy to tragedy.
He gives us Claudio's haughty, pained contempt and Hero's devastation,
and most moving of all, Leonato's nervous reassurances, his surprise and
confusion, his humiliation, anger and grief, and through it all, a kind
of repressed tenderness. We cannot simply condemn his male notion of
honor because we also feel how the prejudice of his mind crushes the
tenderness in his heart.

Nor is this moment undone by the return to comedy and our renewed
exasperation with Leonato when Friar Francis and Dominick suggest that
perhaps a mistake has been made. If Claudio and Don Pedro are correct
about Hero, Leonato pledges to punish her, and if not, to punish them
for staining her honor. Please! It's hard even to pity Leonato at this
point, hard to accept that he's deflecting his pain. First, we note what
sounds like a double standard. If they speak the truth, "These hands
shall tear her," but if not they'll "hear of it." Hero must bear
physical violence if she was unfaithful, while the two gentlemen escape
with a mere harangue from an old man. To be sure, while so severe a
punishment is, unfortunately, within the patriarch's power, he has
little sway over soldier or prince. And Leonato's threat is not quite as
idle as the "dried ...blood" he acknowledges. He is the governor of
Messina and has at least some friends who might help him. Still, the
double standard rankles. Second, Leonato is hiding from the fact that he
is as guilty as Claudio and Don Pedro. He too has allowed poison in the
ear to destroy his own affection, and he had greater knowledge, a life's
relationship, to tell him not to trust hearsay. In joining their
accusations, he has wronged her honor even more than they have, and his
crime is harder to forgive.

Only a misguided political correctness would criticize Shakespeare for
giving expression to a male chauvinism that was embedded in his
culture.  What is part of the greatness of Shakespeare is the way he and
his characters get beyond such cultural surfaces. Indeed, Shakespeare
uses such attitudes as if it they were stage scenery, enabling him to
reach deeper into his characters' humanity, both the good and the bad of
it, and especially the intermixture of the two. Shakespeare tells us
that the ideas and prejudices that people have about other people, about
class and gender, are interesting, indeed comical, but they are not what
life is really about, not what's most important in human nature. What's
most important, most real, lies under these surfaces and we may catch
only glimpses of this human depth, but Shakespeare is one of those few
writers who gives us such insight, such experience, again and again.
 

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