Last week, I set out to review Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and that is what I did, but later that day, it occurred to me that I had never really taken the time to think critically about the play. I was doing some house cleaning and that song kept playing in my head. If you have seen either of the two versions I posted about last week, you know which one I mean. I had watched the Branagh version after I posted, and so my brain was toggling between the two tunes. (I always have some music playing in there; as far as earworms go, the two versions of Sigh No More are WAY better than some of the things I get stuck with.) As the songs repeated themselves over and over, I began the think about the words, and I came to realize that even though I generally assume that women get the short end of the stick in the works (they are, in the tragedies especially, often compared to the inconstant moon; an article addressing that subject can be found here), in Much Ado is the MEN who are painted as fickle and difficult to deal with. It’s right there in the lyrics, which Branagh so helpfully plasters across the screen in the beginning of the movie:
Sigh no more, ladies sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny
(There is a second verse; the whole song can be found here )
It’s all right there in the song, the whole play. Women, men can be assholes. It’s not you, it’s them; don’t let it get to you. Just be happy and don’t depend on them for your happiness. They will come around in the end as long as you are true to yourself. No wonder the play feels fresh and modern to me, despite its Elizabethan language and sensibilities. It IS a modern sentiment; women today are still struggling to master the art of being complete people in their own right, being happy with who they are, with or without a partner. It is a struggle that goes back far further than I realized, and one I suspect that will continue as long as humans exist.
With this realization, I came to understand something else about this play. Despite the fact that it is four hundred years old, Much Ado About Nothing is, at heart, a chick flick. Not the movies, but the play itself. Let us look at the trajectories of the two love stories:
Hero and Claudio:
Girl meets boy; they fall in love. Something comes between them through a misunderstanding or the manipulations of a jealous third party. After much heartache, the misunderstanding is resolved. They live happily ever after
Beatrice and Benedick:
Girl and boy already know each other. Maybe they grew up together, maybe they work together, maybe their families are friends. They seem to hate each other, exchanging witty, biting banter, though each has a secret passion for the other. Through some plot manipulation, they each are convinced the other is in love with them. They eventually come to realize they were in love with each other all along.
Right there you have the plot lines of the majority of Harlequin novels or romantic comedies ever written. We are only missing the mistaken identity love story (ably covered in Twelfth Night) and the lovers-separated-by-station-or-association (Romeo and Juliet, although that is far from a comedy). I have always blamed Jane Austen for the invention of the modern romantic novel — I know a lot of her writing is snark, but most people miss that and take her at face value — but I see now that it was Shakespeare all along. I’m sure I am not the first person to make this conclusion; it seems so obvious now that someone has to have made the connection before, but it was not obvious to ME. I am finding I really do not know as much about Shakespeare as I thought I did, and I really like that.
Macbeth. For real this time. I promise!