Much Ado About Nothing: A battle of wits
The ‘merry war’ between Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s much loved comedy is waged against the background of a larger conflict
There is, explains Leonato at the start of Much Ado About Nothing, a ‘kind of merry war’ between Beatrice and Benedick, a series of witty skirmishes that onlookers soon realise masks an underlying attraction: they are – as we might put today – ‘frenemies’ destined to wed.
Courtship expressed as combat was a fundamental aspect of Early Modern literature. Influential Medieval texts such as The Romance of the Rose had imagined the seduction of women by men as a form of siege warfare, and Renaissance writers followed suit: Cupid, the babyish god of the love who today adorns treacly Valentine’s cards, was in the 16th century a ‘murdering boy’ armed with a ‘bloody bullet’ (as Philip Sidney put it in Apstrophil and Stella).
But the trope of the ‘warring lovers’ obscures the unusual extent to which the language of battle pervades Much Ado About Nothing, and hide the fact that the comedy takes places in the fall-out of traumatic conflict. Beatrice and Benedick might be in the mould of classic sparring partners but the post-war setting of the play helps us to understand their relationship in a particular context. The couple can trade insults in the peaceful sunshine of civilian Messina because Benedick’s there on shore leave after an unspecified military ‘action’, compulsory billeted with the rest of his unit on Leonato’s household.
‘The trope of the ‘warring lovers’ obscures the unusual extent to which the language of battle pervades Much Ado About Nothing, and hide the fact that the comedy takes places in the fall-out of traumatic conflict’
If nowadays we sometimes glide over the references in the first scene to ‘wars’, ‘killing’, ‘victory’ ‘cost’, ‘trouble’ and ‘soldiers’, Early Modern theatregoers would have had no difficulty seeing the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing for what it is: the requisitioning by a well-equipped victorious army of a civilian’s house and assets – in which category Hero seems unsettlingly to be included. Violently disruptive events underlie both the romantic comedy sub-plot and the near-tragedy of Hero’s unjust accusation. The emphasis on warfare encourages us to think about the disturbing implications of a courtship culture built on the verbal articulation of patriarchal aggression.
Shakespeare doesn’t trouble to fix on a historical war as the backdrop to Much Ado About Nothing, but the play’s location would have made English audiences in the 1590s think of a major battle within living memory. Messina was the point of embarkation for league of Spanish and Italian forces that engaged the Ottoman Empire at the Battle Lepanto in 1571, when tens of thousands of troops fought hand-to-hand on the decks of some 400 vessels, strung out in formation across a weep of the Ionian Sea. The setting of Messina, and the mix of Spanish and Italian nationalities featured in Much Ado About Nothing (Don Pedro is Aragonian, Benedick is from Padua, Claudio is Florentine), imaginatively lodge the action of the play in the aftermath of one of the 16th century’s most epic battles.
‘The setting of Messina, and the mix of Spanish and Italian nationalities featured in Much Ado About Nothing imaginatively lodge the action of the play in the aftermath of one of the 16th century’s most epic battles’
The good living in Leonato’s house has in consequence an erratic, unsettled quality: Claudio’s faith in Hero is too easily knocked; the radical unsociability of the malcontent Don John speaks of horrors seen or horrors perpetrated. Like the Jazz Age lifestyles that lacquered over the trauma of the First World War with cocktails and laughter (‘but what comes after?’ asked Noël Coward), the courtly hospitality, song, and witty conversation in Messina suggest a group of people trying with all their might to forget the past and embrace a self-consciously carefree present.
In fact, Beatrice and Benedick’s insistent drollery in the face of trouble associates the play with another central text of Renaissance gentility, also composed under the threat of war. Baldassare Castiglione’s sensationally popular The Book of the Courtier (1528) recalls his time at the ducal palace in Urbino, a centre of culture, as the Italian Wars swirled across the peninsula. It takes the form of a set of dialogues featuring witty aristocrats, male and female, who practice the arts of conversation, social display and compulsory good humour. Castiglione put into the mouths of his characters instruction for sophisticated peacetime living that every reader could follow. ‘Practice in everything a certain nonchalance that shall conceal design’, he wrote, ‘and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without though’. This was the prized quality of sprezzatrua: making difficult accomplishments (a quick wit, a fine voice, sprightly dancing) look effortless.
Much Ado About Nothing snaps and crackles with Castiglione’s sprezzatura: an effortless display of witty conversation and good humour. Photographer: Manuel Harlan
Although written in troubled times, Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier wasn’t an escapist fantasy. True, the real world doesn’t seem to intrude much on the stylish court of Urbino, but Castiglione set out to how that nonchalant good humour was a vital tool for operating successfully in the worlds of war and politics. As a soldier and a diplomat he knew the value of a easy wit, the apt deployment of which could defuse tension and asset one’s own status at the same time. Like his contemporary the Florentine politician Niccoló Machiavelli, Castiglione responded to the chaos in his homeland with a programme of personal development that emphasised the subtle skills of communication, people-management and diplomacy. His stress on sprezzatura – assured elegance that seems to take no effort – was not so different from Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince (1532) that successful rulers must make an effort to seem ‘compassionate, faithful, humane, honest, religious’ even if they are not: ‘it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them’.
In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice and Benedick snap and crackle with energy that seems distinctly Castiglionesque. In the post-war environment of Messina, they model an English version of sprezzatura, albeit one filtered through an Italianate setting. The lovers are examples to follow, plastering the cracks of a fractured society with a self-confident wit and charm. For Shakespeare’s audiences, anxious about war with Spain and the looming political challenge of the succession, the play must have come as a tonic. In Shakespeare’s play, Beatrice and Benedick provide an interlude of humour in a series of battles that are not yet won. And in today’s London, Shakespeare’s suggestion that we need a dose of sprezz in uncertain times resonates more powerfully than ever.