In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare continues to try to find the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. In terms of achieving this balance, Much Ado About Nothing is, I think, more successful than The Merchant of Venice, but it cannot match the dramatic intensity of the earlier play – not even in the final two acts where the tragic elements threaten to take over.
The comedy and the tragedy are, on the whole, kept in separate compartments. To put it crudely, the Beatrice-Benedick strand is comic, and the Hero-Claudio is (at least potentially) tragic, and although both strands start off at more or less the same time, the comic strand is all but resolved by the time the more tragic strand really gets going.
It is, I suppose, the comic strand that is better known. Beatrice and Benedick are both very extravert and talkative characters, and are constantly bickering with each other. However, from the very fact that each invariably picks the other as the brunt of their jokes, it is clear that there is something between them, even though neither is prepared to admit it. And a bit of stage management on the part of their friends soon brings them together. It is all very charming and delightful, although, speaking personally, I find their banter a bit of a comedown after the even more brilliant exchanges between Hal and Falstaff in the Henry IV plays.
The other strand is potentially tragic. One of Shakespeare’s sources for this part of the play is a story by Ariosto that Handel also used for Ariodante. The villian here, Don John, is kept more or less in the background: even his motivation isn’t made particularly clear. I’d hazard a guess that this is because, after the experience of The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare did not want to risk again the possibility of the villain overwhelming the rest of the play. Despite this, there is certainly no shortage of drama in the last two acts here: the church scene in Act 4 Scene 1 (the same position in the play where, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare had placed the trial scene) is quite splendid. I particularly like Shakespeare’s handling of the climaxes: after the climax that we had been expecting (Claudio’s public denunciation of Hero), we are given an even greater climax that is completely unexpected – Beatrice’s insistence that Benedick kill his friend. This moment is remarkable in that it drags the comic strand into the sphere of the tragic. However, Shakespeare is careful not to overdo the tragic element: even before the church scene, Don John’s henchmen (who carry out his villainy) are apprehended, thus giving the audience some assurance that the truth will out before too long, and all will be put right. But even though we are reasonably well assured that the outcome will not be tragic, Benedick’s dilemma of choosing between his fiends and his new-found love most certainly is. And the tragic mood is heightened by Leonato’s anguished speech as he turns upon his daughter at the moment of crisis: it is a quite unbearable moment, and carries with it far greater power than does Capulet’s intemperate rant at Juliet.
What follows is a sort of The Winter’s Tale in fast motion – intemperate rage followed by what seems to be death, then remorse and expiation, and, finally, reconciliation. But although the outline of The Winter’s Tale may be seen here, we do not have quite the sense of transcendence that we find in the later play: this strand may be tragic, but it is placed in a dramatic environment that is, essentially, comic; Hero is no Hermione, and Claudio is certainly no Leontes.
It would be easy, but wrong-headed, I think, to play Claudio merely as a boor. He is a shy, diffident, but courteous young man, inexperienced in life, who loses his head: if he is played as anything other than that, I think the audience would be left most dissatisfied by his reunion with Hero in the final scene. But I don’t think the audience should lose sympathy with Claudio. It is possibly difficult for a modern audience to appreciate that in the social context in which the play is set, Hero’s supposed actions would universally have been accepted as heinous; and while that may not entirely justify Claudio’s actions, it may, perhaps, be seen as a sort of mitigating factor. I think we have to believe that when Claudio understands the truth, he is genuinely penitent, and that, even though the crime was a consequence of a mistake rather than an outcome of malice, he atones for it with sincerely felt grief. The scene at Hero’s supposed tomb, which depicts this grief, is short but important, and its mood of dark solemnity should ideally be played for all it’s worth.
Shakespeare had more to say on these matters in two of his later plays – Cymbeline, and, in particular, The Winter’s Tale. It may be argued that the themes of atonement, and of restitution of what had been lost, all go by too quickly here, and don’t quite make the impact they should. But it is surprising nonetheless to find themes of such gravity and of such tragic potential in what had, in the first three acts, mainly been a light comedy of manners. Once again, Shakespeare is trying to fuse together irreconcilables.
There is much here that is impressive and remarkable, but I must admit that the scenes I enjoyed most were the scenes involving Dogberry and Verges – surely two of Shakespeare’s most delightful comic characters. I found their comedy far more to my taste than the more formal witticisms of Beatrice and Benedick. Dogberry and Verges belong not so much to the world of courtly and formal wit, but to the warmer world of Holofernes and Costard, of Bottom and the “rude mechanicals”: we know they may not be too bright, we may laugh at them, but for all that, as with Laurel & Hardy, we feel a certain affection for them – the sort of affection that we don’t perhaps feel for more sophisticated wits such as Berowne, or Mercutio, or Beatrice and Benedick. Dogberry & Verges are present mainly in the latter part of the play, and I suppose that they are classic examples of “comic relief”. But the very fact that we need “comic relief” in a play that is ostensibly a comedy is indicative of how far Shakespeare had come towards fusing these genres together.