Much Ado About Nothing
This admirable comedy used to be frequently acted till of late years. Mr. Garrick’s Benedick was one of his most celebrated characters; and Mrs. Jordan, we have understood, played Beatrice very delightfully. The serious part is still the most prominent here, as in other instances that we have noticed. Hero is the principal figure in the piece, and leaves an indelible impression on the mind by her beauty, her tenderness, and the hard trial of her love. The passage in which Claudio first makes a confession of his affection towards her conveys as pleasing an image of the entrance of love into a youthful bosom as can well be imagined.
Oh, my lord,
When you went onward with this ended action,
I look’d upon her with a soldier’s eye,
That lik’d, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love;
But now I am return’d, and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant; in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying, I lik’d her ere I went to wars.
In the scene at the altar, when Claudio, urged on by the villain Don John, brings the charge of incontinence against her, and as it were divorces her in the very marriage-ceremony, her appeals to her own conscious innocence and honour are made with the most affecting simplicity.
Claudio. No, Leonato,
I never tempted her with word too large,
But, as a brother to his sister, show’d
Bashful sincerity, and comely love.
Hero. And seem’d I ever otherwise to you?
Claudio. Out on thy seeming, I will write against it:
You seem to me as Dian in her orb,
As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Veilus, or those pamper’d animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
Hero. Is my lord well, that he doth speak so wide?
Leonato. Are these things spoken, or do I but dream?
John. Sir, they are spoken, and these things are true.
Benedick. This looks not like a nuptial.
Hero. True! O God!
The justification of Hero in the end, and her restoration to the confidence and arms of her lover, is brought about by one of those temporary consignments to the grave of which Shakespeare seems to have been fond. He has perhaps explained the theory of this predilection in the following lines:
Friar. She dying, as it must be so maintain’d,
Upon the instant that she was accus’d,
Shall be lamented, pity’d, and excus’d,
Of every hearer: for it so falls out,
That what we have we prize not to the worth,
While we enjoy it; but being lack’d and lost,
Why then we rack the value; then we find
The virtue, that possession would not show us
Whilst it was ours.—So will it fare with Claudio;
When he shall hear she dy’d upon his words,
The idea of her love shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination;
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparel’d in more precious habit,
More moving, delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul,
Than when she liv’d indeed.
The principal comic characters in Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick and Beatrice, are both essences in their kind. His character as a woman-hater is admirably supported, and his conversion to matrimony is no less happily effected by the pretended story of Beatrice’s love for him. It is hard to say which of the two scenes is the best, that of the trick which is thus practised on Benedick, or that in which Beatrice is prevailed on to take pity on him by overhearing her cousin and her maid declare (which they do on purpose) that he is dying of love for her. There is something delightfully picturesque in the manner in which Beatrice is described as coming to hear the plot which is contrived against herself:
For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs
Close by the ground, to hear our conference.
In consequence of what she hears (not a word of which is true) she exclaims when these good-natured informants are gone:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee;
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand;
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in an holy band:
For others say thou dost deserve; and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
And Benedick, on his part, is equally sincere in his repentance with equal reason, after he has heard the grey-beard, Leonato, and his friend, ‘Monsieur Love’, discourse of the desperate state of his supposed inamorata.
This can be no trick; the conference was sadly borne.—They have the truth of this from Hero. They seem to pity the lady; it seems her affections have the full bent. Love me! why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censur’d: they say, I will bear myself proudly, if I perceive the love come from her; they say too, that she will rather die than give any sign of affection.—I did never think to marry; I must not seem proud:—happy are they that hear their detractions, and can put them to mending. They say, the lady is fair; ’tis a truth, I can bear them witness: and vir-tuous;—’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise—but for loving me;—by my troth it is no addition to her wit;—nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her.—I may chance to have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me, because I have rail’d so long against marriage: but doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth, that he cannot endure in his age.—Shall quips, and sentences, and these paper bullets of the brain, awe a man from the career of his humour? No: the world must be peopled. When I said, I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were marry’d.—Here comes Beatrice; by this day, she’s a fair lady: I do spy some marks of love in her.
The beauty of all this arises from the characters of the persons so entrapped. Benedick is a professed and staunch enemy to marriage, and gives very plausible reasons for the faith that is in him. And as to Beatrice, she persecutes him all day with her jests (so that he could hardly think of being troubled with them at night), she not only turns him but all other things into jest, and is proof against everything serious.
Hero. Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on; and her wit
Values itself so highly, that to her
All matter else seems weak: she cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared.
Ursula. Sure, I think so;
And therefore, certainly, it were not good
She knew his love, lest she make sport at it.
Hero. Why, you speak truth: I never yet saw man,
How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featur’d,
But she would spell him backward: if fair-fac’d,
She’d swear the gentleman should be her sister;
If black, why, nature, drawing of an antick,
Made a foul blot: if tall, a lance ill-headed;
If low, an agate very vilely cut:
If speaking, why, a vane blown with all winds;
If silent, why, a block moved with none.
So turns she every man the wrong side out;
And never gives to truth and virtue that
Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.
These were happy materials for Shakespeare to work on, and he has made a happy use of them. Perhaps that middle point of comedy was never more nicely hit in which the ludicrous blends with the tender, and our follies, turning round against themselves in support of our affections, retain nothing but their humanity.
Dogberry and Verges in this play are inimitable specimens of quaint blundering and misprisions of meaning; and are a standing record of that formal gravity of pretension and total want of common understanding, which Shakespeare no doubt copied from real life, and which in the course of two hundred years appear to have ascended from the lowest to the highest offices in the state.