Much Ado About Much Ado

Super-fun, and super-problematic.

Public domain (source).

This weekend, I went to go see the Joss Whedon Much Ado About Nothing (my favorite Shakespeare play plus my favorite director: I was obligated), and it got me thinking: Much Ado About Nothing is basically impossible to do modern adaptations of. At the same time, it begs for modern adaptations.

First, a breakdown for those of you who haven’t spent your summer rewatching this production of the play: the play has two interlocking plots. One, the more engaging plot, follows two people who hate each other (Beatrice and Benedick) who are convinced by their friends and family that each loves the other. After much sexually tense banter, the pair swallow their pride, decide they do love each other, and–by the end of the play–marry. This is the part of the play that is totally calling out for a modern adaptation, because it is essentially the plot of every romantic comedy and/or endlessly readapted Austen novel. Beatrice and Benedick are by turns the origin of great banter (à la His Girl Friday) and some wonderful slapstick as they eavesdrop on friends who know they’re there.

But the second plot is where it gets sticky. In it, Beatrice’s virginal cousin Hero is engaged to be married to Benedick’s friend Claudio. Don John, the bastard brother of the prince (Benedick and Claudio’s boss) convinces Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful. Claudio casts Hero away at the wedding, she pretends to be dead for a while, and once she is vindicated and Claudio has pledged to marry Beatrice instead in order to repair the damage, Hero reemerges and is married to Claudio. Then, dancing!

Plot one is super-fun. Plot two is super-problematic if you’re going to go the route of so many wonderful modern Shakespeare adaptations and use the original script. If a director decides to use the plot but not the original lines, the Hero/Claudio plot is easily salvaged: part of Claudio’s upset with Hero is her perceived infidelity, which is totally reasonable to a 2013 audience: infidelity is no bueno.

But, if the director is using the original script in a modern setting–as was done in this Whedon adaptation–we run into some problems, because the script is uncomfortably clear: the main conflict as far as Claudio is not the infidelity, but the fact that Hero is presented as a virgin and isn’t. For this, Claudio casts Hero away and her father wishes her dead.

There isn’t a modern equivalent to this among sane people.

But, because of the way that the play is structured, the two plots can’t be separated out. Benedick and Beatrice are a delight, but nothing they do moves the plot forward. Without Hero and Claudio, Much Ado About Nothing is 30 minutes of sexy, sexy banter and pratfalls. What’s more, the Hero plot is part of what makes Benedick a likable romantic lead: after the failed wedding, he stays to protect Hero from her father, rather than going with Claudio and his friends.

Directors deal with this in different ways. Whedon didn’t change the lines, but it’s clear in the staging of his version that he’s pushing the audience towards being more upset about the infidelity–he also makes it explicit that Beatrice, at least, has previously been sexually active by adding an extra scene, in which Benedick bails on Beatrice after sleeping with her, as an explanation for why they dislike each other. The David Tennant/Catherine Tate Much Ado (or as I like to call it, “the best”) does the same without the added scene, and casts an unusually strong Hero–it also benefits from a setting that is modern, but only nebulously so.

The Kenneth Branaugh/Emma Thompson version (from back when they were still married) ignores the problem by being a straight period piece adaptation, where the virginity question makes more sense. I am increasingly convinced that the Hero plot is why Branaugh set his adaptation that way–as his Hamlet and (terrible) Love’s Labour’s Lost show, he clearly enjoys playing with both national and temporal settings in his Shakespeare.

Seeing the film was an interesting reminder of the difficulties of modern adaptations of old source materials. Much Ado About Nothing is simultaneously a hugely sexual play and one in which virginity is a key expectation and plot point. I wonder if modern-setting productions 20 years from now will change the wedding scene to ignore the virginity aspect, or if the play will fall out of favor.

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