Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Much Ado, Two Gentlemen, Belleforest, Bandello

Beatrice (Ellie Piercy) and Benedick (Paul Ready)

[Image source: http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/review-much-ado-nothing--6905904, from a 2014 production at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, directed by Maria Aberg]

It's commonplace that Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1590) foreshadows a host of features of Shakespeare's later comedies. This post discusses (well, let's not be too ambitious, it notes) the especially close relationship with Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598)

TGV is, as its title indicates, firmly grounded on the relationship between two male pals (Valentine and Proteus). In the opening scene, Proteus is the lover and Valentine is the scorner of love. Likewise, the opening scenes of MAAN present Claudio as the lover and Benedick as the confirmed bachelor.  There are a hundred differences in nuance, I grant. Shakespeare has an aversion to repeating himself.  But beneath the marvellously developed flesh the primitive skeleton is there. 

In both plays the supposed scorner of love yields with ease to the power of love. In both plays, too, the supposed lover goes on to behave appallingly and in ways that modern audiences find difficult to reconcile with an uncomplicated happy ending. Proteus after sundry treacheries threatens rape, while an easily beguiled Claudio hurls vile accusations at his love and appears rather untroubled when informed that she has died of his harsh treatment.

There are other parallels between the two plays, if you go looking for them. The dim-witted Watch, for example, might seem to grow out of Valentine's daft band of robbers in the forest.

And of course Leonato's false account of Beatrice with the letter recapitulates Julia's behaviour in the earlier play.

But an area where the plays firmly differ is the heroines.  MAAN doesn't deal in breeches roles. Its women are emphatically within their family circles.  Hero in MAAN is curiously muted, absent, and lacking in stature (in every sense) --- Penny Gay (see link below) points out that Hero and Claudio never address each other on stage until the shaming scene.

In fact MAAN is, in terms of pure plot-technique, a little creaky. (Notably so compared with the perfection of A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

You might ask, for example: Who can credit or understand Don John's motiveless malignity? What reason is given for Claudio's and Don Pedro's feeble gullibility? Why are Borachio and Conrade so happily willing to do evil, yet so easily unmasked, and then so urbanely penitent? Why does Don Pedro think that he assists by wooing Hero in Claudio's name, why does Claudio go along with this, and why does he then get jealous?  and so on....

That line of thinking can lead to questions about stagecraft too. Isn't the sub-plot about Claudio's jealousy of Don Pedro, rather too swiftly resolved, just filling out the early part of the play because the subsequent plot about Claudio's jealousy of a stranger is too slender? Isn't the scene where Beatrice overhears staged revelations about Benedick a little too inertly a re-run of the scene where Benedick hears about Beatrice? And aren't the witty Claudio and Hero of these scenes a bit out of sync with the way their characters behave within their own subplots? And why did Shakespeare not do more to establish Margaret and Ursula beforehand, so they come forth here like successive afterthoughts? Contrariwise, what happened to Claudio's uncle and (in the quarto) Hero's mother? Why, finally, do we seem to be heading for a duel between Benedick and Claudio, but the author drags his heels over it, and precipitates the denouement before swords are crossed? 

In all this there is an insouciance, if not downright clunkiness, that the play's popularity triumphantly over-rides. 


Of course one can see a lot of this differently. When Leonato addresses various unnamed bystanders as "cousins" (1.2), it builds a picture of the kind of large family establishment that a governor of Messina would be bound to maintain. There, and in the little interludes during the masquerade with Margaret and Ursula, in the impotent pugnacity of the two old men Leonato and Antonio, in the late interchange between Benedick and Margaret, -- in all this we can recognize the same kind of freewheeling impressionism that Shakespeare uses also in Measure for Measure. We can appreciate that Claudio's momentary dismay at being usurped by Don Pedro, or Benedick's threatened duel with Claudio, operate less as story-lines than as incidents, around which the marvellous social interplay accretes.The play is more about talk than action.

Thus, the potentially dramatic scene of Claudio "witnessing" his love's inconstancy (with many soliloquising asides and groans, no doubt -- as in Belleforest), is dismissed by Shakespeare (who decided later to have a try at that kind of scene, in Troilus and Cressida). Instead, the backstory is moved to the front and we have the less momentous, yet equally faked, scenes of "witnessing" in the garden.

As for these two garden scenes that are inartistically placed right next to each other (as it may seem),  the second one is certainly not so funny as the first, for example there is no equivalent to Don Pedro's off-message improvisation about Benedick's skill in avoiding a fight.  But it's quite an interesting scene in its own right,  being all in verse and being almost the only scene in which we hear Hero speaking at length. She has a sort of integrity and directness, combined with pretty images drawn from nature, that is most attractive. She has no mischief about her, yet the shaft levelled at Beatrice is more searching than anything Benedick has to undergo.

As usual, a view of the source provides some answers. Here is Belleforest's 18th Histoire from Vol 3 of Histoires Tragiques (pp. 475 - 515)


This is an adaptation into French of Bandello ("Bandel").  It's possible Shakespeare encountered the story via a lost translation of Bandello into English. Belleforest's story is twice the length of Bandello's, almost entirely because of expansion of sentiment and rhetoric. A.R. Humphreys proposes that Shakespeare drew on Bandello (either direct or via some unknown English translation), not on Belleforest, but his argument isn't clinching.  Martin Mueller (1994) pays tribute to the significance of Bandello's story for Shakespeare, as a story he interacts with in several plays.

Here's one answer from the source: it turns out that Don John's motiveless malignity has exactly the same cause as Iago's i.e. because Shakespeare decided to eliminate the motive of disappointed love for the heroine.

(MAAN and Othello are somewhat connected. In each of them, a first-rate military man idealizes a highborn beauty, reveals a distinct naivety about women, is easily duped by ill-willers, and flips into gross condemnation of his lady as a whore.)

The location in the source, as in the play, is Messina, and the historical setting (in which Shakespeare takes no interest) is the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. Peter III of Aragon was helping the Sicilian rebels in their successful overthrow of Charles of Anjou (from pure self-interest; he considered his wife Constance as the rightful owner of Sicily).

The names Don Pedro and Lionato come from Bandello (possibly mediated through Belleforest).

Belleforest tells us that after his victory Pierre d'Aragon (i.e. Don Pedro) ruled from Messina. Pierre plays no part in the ensuing narrative, just in its framing context. [In fact Belleforest, for patriotic reasons, is strongly against Pierre, so far as the historical conflict is concerned. A.R. Humphreys (2nd Arden) used Belleforest's passing negative comment to argue that Shakespeare, with his "positive" view of Don Pedro, was probably drawing on Bandello directly and not via Belleforest. I'm not persuaded anything can be made from this.]

Here´s Belleforest getting down to the nitty-gritty:

Entre vne grand' troupe de seigneurs de la suyte royale, en y auoit vn estimé fort vaillant de sa personne, & que auoit fait preuue de sa gaillardise en toutes les guerres contre las François, & ailleurs, & pource fort aymé & caressé du prince, & s'appelloit ce gentilhomme Timbree de Cardone, duquel pour la plus parte ceste histoire est bastie, & pour raison de l'amour qu'il porta à vne fille Messinoise, le pere de laquelle auoit à nom Lionato de Lionati gentilhomme de maison ancienne entre les Siciliens.

Ceste Damoiselle s'appelloit Fenicie, belle entre les plus belles, gentille, courtoise, & qui en bonne grace, & doux maintien emporta celles qui de son temps viuoyent en la royale cité de Messine. ...

Here's the gist of the subsequent 40 closely-packed pages, shorn of their numerous long rhetorical passages.

We are told that Fenicie (think Hero...) is scarcely more than 14 or 15 years old.

Her admirer from afar is the top noble and royal favourite Timbree, Comte de Cardone (think Claudio...).

The source emphasizes at length Timbree's difficulties in getting to see, meet or address the girl he has fallen for.  Messina's is a society where women rarely go outside the family circle. Fenicie, though pleased that the royal favourite is her admirer, has a high sense of family honour.

There follows an exchange involving an ancient chambermaid as a go-between, with many pages of anguished rhetorical "what ought I to do?" meditations, in which Timbree weeps and laments his loss of manliness and decision, while within Fenicie the power of Love battles Reason and Duty in the medieval manner. Timbree sends letters and songs (Benedick, you'll recall, accuses Claudio of being suddenly addicted to poetry), the chambermaid describes Timbree's piteous torments, and an upset Fenicie forbids her to ever raise the topic again (just like Julia in TGV).

Timbree at length confides in a Messinese pal (never named), who agrees to speak to Messer Lionato on the subject, and within a short paragraph it's suddenly all settled, Lionato and his wife being thoroughly pleased with their daughter's match, and the betrothal announced to the citizens of Messina with all happiness.

BUT, (excursus on the vagaries of Fortune), nothing is assured in this world. Timbree has a friend Gironde (start thinking Don John/Borachio/Conrade here, though as you'll see the differences are significant....), a noble and a respected soldier,  who has long been secretly  in love with Fenicie, but got nowhere with his suit (no details are given as to how this suit was manifested, if it was; one's impression up till now had been that Timbree was the first admirer who ever impinged on Fenicie's consciousness). Anyway Gironde, this noble gentleman, becomes madly jealous, loses all regard for reason or honour and decides to wreck the engagement -- attending only to his own interest, like a typical Sicilian (Belleforest/Bandello remarks parenthetically) -- (excursus on Envy). He hires a man fit for no good, one of those Parisian blades who hang around the court, and who happens to be known to Timbree. This unnamed man goes to Timbree and after mock-reluctantly beating about the bush says that his honour compels him to inform him that there is a gentleman who sleeps two or three times a week with Fenicie, and that he will, as customary, be attending him there this very evening. And if Timbree promises to do no offence either to him or the gentleman, Timbree can witness it all.

Timbree is dumbstruck, but, more moved by pride than by love for his lady, thanks his informant coolly as having done him a service, and agrees to all the conditions, asserting that he bears no ill will to the fortunate lover or his accomplice. (He already speaks of Fenicie and of women generally in a disrespectful way.)

Gironde's servant tells Timbree to watch at 23:00 on the ruinous side of Lionato's mansion, where there's a chamber, rarely used, that overlooks the street.  Meanwhile Gironde arrays himself and his servant in gorgeous clothes... Timbree while waiting soliloquises on the deceitful appearance of Fenicie, and on inconstancy generally. His meditations interrupted by a noise, he sees his informant with a perfumed gallant (Gironde) and overhears Gironde telling the informant to be careful with the ladder, because Fenicie fretted that he made too much noise about it the last time they were here. The lurking Timbree suffers agonies and longs to fly at his enemies but remembers his promise. The conspirators scale the wall into Lionato's palace. Timbree's love is turned to hate and he doesn't even wait to witness anything else. The next day Timbree sends a message via the Messinese gentleman who had originally broached the match with Lionato. The Messinese finds Lionato with his wife and daughter, as he hoped. He apologetically recounts Timbree's message to Leonato, which is that it's not Lionato who's to blame, but he'd better find another husband since it turns out that his daughter has yielded her virginity to another lover.

The message is received with astonishment. Lionato (unlike in MAAN) is staunch in defence of his daughter's virtue, and suggests that Timbree is trying to wriggle out of the marriage because he has found out that Lionato is not so wealthy as he had supposed, and Lionato's family is admittedly not on the level of the Count's. At this point Fenicie turns deadly pale and drops into a faint. Well-wishers, all assured of her innocence, surround her bed, and when she recovers breath, she addresses them in passionate defence of her honour, and then appears to expire, without any sign of life visible to the doctors.

Lionato, believing he has lost his daughter, berates fortune and regrets the decision to ever get involved with the upper echelons. Then he attempts to console his wife with philosophy. She shuts herself up, accompanied by her sister-in-law (Fenicie's aunt), in Fenicie's chamber, where they wash her daughter's face and at the touch of the warm water Fenicie begins to revive. Lionato's wife and the instantly summoned Lionato are overcome with joy. However they don't go public on Fenicie's recovery, since the name of Fenicie has been publically dishonoured, but weight the coffin with rubble and allow the funeral to go ahead, intending that their daughter might at some point re-emerge to commence a new life with an unsullied name.  All who attend the funeral are very angry with Timbree. Lionato provides a poetical epitaph.

News of the funeral having reached Timbree, he is overcome with remorse and a sense of having wronged Fenicie (who does indeed appear to him once dead, as Shakespeare's Friar suggests, in the ideal form in which he first loved her). He does not feel culpable, since he saw what he saw, but he does start to wonder if there might have been some dirty business. He remembers that he did not see anyone actually let the conspirators in, and he recollects that this part of the palace is not in use. And it occurs to him that it's pretty implausible that Fenicie, who sleeps in the chamber next to her father, could at midnight secretly get out through the main door, as she'd have to do in order to get to the disused part of the palace.  [It's an important factor in these tales that it never occurs to the duped hero that anyone might have a motive for deceiving him. Consequently deceptive performances are accepted as evidential, without any close scrutiny at the time --- Because, why would anyone want to lie to me?]

Gironde (seeing himself as the cause of Fenicie's death) suddenly repents, seeks out Timbree and asks to speak to him in private. They go into the church where Fenicie's monument is. Gironde throws himself before Timbree and confesses all, begging Timbree to take his life, or otherwise he'll take his own. Timbree weeps, Gironde weeps. Timbree though in despair doesn't feel like punishing Gironde, since he acted through love. Timbree laments his own credulity and his shaming of Fenicie. Timbree has pity on the despairing Gironde and renews his friendship towards him. He asks Gironde to join him in publishing Fenicie's innocence. [This emphasis on noble forgiveness of a friend who betrayed you evokes more thoughts of TGV.]

They visit Lionato and his wife, and tell all, begging for forgiveness, which Lionato gladly gives, giving thanks to God that his daughter's innocence is publically re-established. Timbree says that though it hasn't worked out that Lionato is literally his father-in-law, he hopes that Lionato will consider him as a son. Lionato agrees and requests that he should be allowed in due course to choose Timbree's wife for him. Gironde also asks for forgiveness, which Lionato gives, though not with as much warmth as to Timbree, since he does regard Gironde as the source of all the mischief.

Timbree continues to attend Lionato's house over several years, and Fenicie's reputation is completely restored. Meanwhile, living in seclusion, Fenicie (now 18) has grown taller and wiser, so that she would not be instantly recognized as the Fenicie of former days. She has a younger sister Belle-Fleur, nearly as beautiful as her, who is now 15.

Lionato now says to Timbree that the time has come to redeem his promise as Lionato has found a bride for him, and could Timbree and Gironde meet him the following Sunday at a village two or three miles from Messina? Lionato presents Timbree with Fenicie (under the name of Lucilie), whom he gladly marries but doesn't recognize. Nevertheless he keeps being drawn back to her face, fascinated by its resemblance to Fenicie's. Fenicie's aunt, seeing this, asks the count innocently: Were you ever married before? And he breaks down in tears, and recounts the sad past and his undying shame and misery night and day. (Gironde breaks in, insisting on taking his burden of guilt.) The aunt asks Timbree to recount the whole story. She then asks him, "Prior to marrying your new bride, what would you have done to get Fenicie back?" He replies, Anything, descend into Hell like Orpheus, etc. A delighted Lionato can no longer withhold the truth and "Lucilie" is revealed as Fenicie. Timbree and the whole company are filled with joy. Gironde asks for Belle-Fleur's hand in marriage, which Lionato gladly agrees to, and all ends happily, though not rapidly, with royal revels and with moral reflections.


There's obviously no comparison in point of quality between Belleforest's forty turgid pages and Shakespeare's incandescent comedy. Nor can the story-line in either work be claimed to be very credible in terms of absolute naturalism. But Belleforest is at least internally consistent in terms of the conventions of romance: while in that respect, perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare tends to damage the story.

Some, perhaps most, of these changes can be explained by pretty basic requirements for turning a story into a drama.  Long passages of time are a no-no on the stage, so Claudio needs to discover he's been deceived and repent and be forgiven, all more or less instantly. So in MAAN Leonato offers Claudio a spanking new bride before Claudio has done any public confession, still less any private penance, for causing Hero's death. In contrast, Timbree's years of repentance and dutiful fealty to Lionato make us feel his eventual reunion with Fenicie as much more acceptable and moving, in a Winter's Tale kind of way. You could say Timbree has proved his right to forgiveness, he's proved that he's changed. How can Claudio do that in a day? Really, he can't. Shakespeare introduces the monument scene, and that can be powerful and moving. But there's still an odd feeling about Claudio saying (more or less), well that's for the old wedding, let's hope this new one works out better.

Don John and his fellows do evil for no apparent reason. Don John disappears and Borachio and Conrade (equally for no apparent reason) are perfectly happy to repent.  By contrast, Gironde's actions, both the wrongdoing and the repentance, are well-founded. But then Gironde's story is largely solitary and internal. It would be difficult to dramatize disappointed love, and equally difficult to dramatize a reversion to deep repentance. Shakespeare migrates the source of the villainy into the heart of Leonato's palace and the social ambit of his play, but at the expense of neglecting the villains' motives.

Shakespeare invents a Friar to come up with a hare-brained scheme about Hero pretending to be dead in order to make Claudio repent. By contrast, in Belleforest the general belief in Fenicie's "death" comes about by natural circumstance and the fiction is maintained for good reasons. But the scenes of Fenicie's faint, recovery, apparent death, and second recovery are intrinsically static. The Friar's scheme is not too credible, but it does get the story moving along to things that audiences are more interested in.

Shakespeare adds Margaret's apparently innocent role in the deception... (probably remembering Ariosto).  Belleforest has no such inadvertent female accomplice. The addition has the implicit weakness that it doesn't occur to Margaret to speak out when her mistress is accused. [Again, Othello comes to mind...]  Why did Shakespeare do this? The actual scene of the deception is not shown. Apparently, to make Claudio's deception feel more credible. What Claudio "thought he saw" is more easily excused if it includes an apparent Hero. The deception in Belleforest is actually rather convincing, but it couldn't be persuasively defended on stage: What, you became convinced of Fenicie's inconstancy when you never even saw her? Shakespeare further extenuates Claudio's error by introducing Don Pedro as an open-minded second witness. (This also means that Claudio has someone to confide in on-stage.) Few will feel more sympathetic to Claudio as a result. After all, it's not the fact of him being duped that is the issue, it's what he does about it, i.e. the violent shaming at the altar.

The shaming is as vehement as it is, perhaps for two reasons. Firstly, because Shakespeare shows us Claudio's emotions in action: the violence is partly his love for Hero, as well as his despair. In Belleforest, the equivalent is a cold little message sent by someone else's hand. The second reason is to compensate for not really dramatizing the narrative's well-established context of Messinese over-protective families and  the enormous disaster of a publically besmirched reputation.


So we can elaborate a bit on the "insouciance" now. MAAN depends on a plot, but Shakespeare is pretty rough with the timescales and with necessarily externalizing what was internal in Belleforest/Bandello. He doesn't care all that much because the focus of MAAN is at one remove from this plot, creating the uneasinesses noted, for example, by Coleridge:

Take away from Much Ado About Nothing all that which is not indispensable to the plot, either as having little to do with it, or at best, like Dogberry and his comrades, forced into the service when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night-constables would have answered; take away Benedick, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former upon the character of Hero, and what will remain? In other writers the main agent of the plot is always the prominent character. In Shakespeare so or not so, as the character is in itself calculated to form the plot. So Don John, the mainspring of the plot, is merely shown and withdrawn.

(John Drakakis, link below, is very good on this.)


Some links about Much Ado About Nothing that I found interesting:

John Drakakis, "Trust and Transgression: The discursive practices of Much Ado About Nothing" in Machin and Norris, eds., Post-structuralist Readings of English Poetry (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 59 - 84.  Mostly available here:

Michael Dobson writes about the darkness at the heart of the play, and its parallels with Othello:

As always, the Shmoop view is well worth a read:
(though the claim that Claudio weeps when his soldierly feats are honoured is a mistake: it's Claudio's uncle who weeps.)

Emma Smith writes about the emphasis on male-male bonding and the misogynistic structures of the play.

Penny Gay on Beatrice, Benedick, speech and gender roles:

Commentary on MAAN from the Hudson Shakespeare site. I am not sure who wrote these excellent commentaries, unless it was Jon Ciccarelli (the company's artistic director); but this is an informed and balanced view addressing a lot of the issues raised in my post. It takes a sensible way out of some of the dilemmas by firmly placing Benedick and Beatrice as the real centre of the play, and by pointing out the abundant evidence that the pair are already in love at the beginning of the play, long prior to the garden scenes.

Martin Mueller "Shakespeare's Sleeping Beauties: The Sources of 'Much Ado About Nothing' and the Play of their Repetitions" (Modern Philology 91 (1994) pp. 288-311. Read it for free on MyJstor.

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