Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Unforgivable Claudio / Benedick and the lads

Claire McEachern's Arden 3rd Series Revised Edition (2015)

I was given this for Christmas, and it has been my joy through a fortnight of flu. Sutchinda Rangsi Thompson's jacket design shows a Venetian mask (with reference to the masked ball in II.1) backed by a bit of sheet music.  In fact this bit of sheet music is the first page of the Second Symphony by one "Jan Sibellius", which I confess I'd prefer not to see deployed as mere musical lorem ipsum , but maybe that's the flu speaking. However Claire McEachern's edition, originally from 2006, is a marvellous edition of a marvellous play.

There was only one moment, I think, when I found myself in protesting dialogue with the editor. The moment was in Act III Scene 2, when Don John stops Claudio and Don Pedro in their tracks.

[Don John] .... Go but with me, tonight you shall see her chamber window entered, even the night before her wedding day. If you love her then, tomorrow wed her. But it would better fit your honour to change your mind.

Claudio: May this be so?

Don Pedro: I will not think it.

Don John: If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know. If you will follow me I will show you enough, and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly.

Claudio: If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her. .... (III.2.101-113)

McEachern's note on the highlighted sentence says: "a difficult line, to the effect of 'if you won't believe your eyes, then you must refuse the knowledge they present' ". (And she adds that the two instances of "that" should both be taken as meaning "what".)

But is that really saying anything, other than a rather wire-drawn bit of epistemology? I feel that Don John ought to be saying something far more pertinent, logical, and manipulative: "If you dare not trust exposing your eyes to what they may see this evening, then don't profess that you know (that Hero is innocent)."

I'm not scholar enough to know if Shakespeare's words could support that interpretation (and surely, I can't be the first to propose it). The sentence would certainly be extremely elliptical. But it wouldn't be unprecedented for Shakespeare to dash off words that don't quite manage to nail his meaning, especially in his foul papers, which are agreed to be the source for Q.

There is, however, much in favour of my proposed meaning. Don Pedro and Claudio have not, at this stage, stated that they will go with Don John. It's still in the balance.Don John follows the disputed sentence with one that begins "If you will follow me..." It makes sense that the previous sentence should concern itself with the alternative scenario, i.e. If you decline to follow me...

Again, the sentence in question ought to flow from what has just been said by Don Pedro: I will not think it. McEachern's proposed meaning does that, but I consider my proposed meaning is more relevant to the situation. If someone announces in advance what they will or will not think, it sounds like they're about to refuse to look at the evidence. Don John needs to "head that off at the pass", as we say in the office. So he responds: Yes, you can refuse to look, you can will yourself to believe something, but you can't kid yourself that you know.


Well, enough of this speculation. What it does bring into focus is how Claudio's deeds and thoughts are strongly modified by the influence of these high-ups. He's young and Don Pedro's marks of distinction towards him are new, so Claudio is still getting used to these heady heights.

Claudio must have something about him, given these marks of favour. Since it doesn't seem to be intelligence or grace, we assume it's military prowess, courage and good looks.

But he has a genuine pal in Benedick. I say this because Benedick tells Leonato, in the midst of IV.1, "you know my inwardness and love / Is very much unto the prince and Claudio..."  At such a moment this must be the honest truth. But if it weren't for that speech, I really might doubt it, because Benedick has a big issue with openly expressing kind thoughts towards his male pals. In fact he tends to put young Claudio down. In the incessant flow of banter, which Claudio keeps up gamely, it's rare indeed that Claudio gets one over on Benedick, and when he does the latter is not very gracious in defeat. Yet Claudio and Don Pedro seem to understand Benedick. They understand that they can play jokes on him to their heart's content, that there's no real malice in him, that he doesn't bear a grudge.

But Benedick isn't easy company. George Bernard Shaw wasn't quite as astray as usual when he remarked:

From his first joke, "were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?" to his last, "There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn," he is not a wit, but a blackguard . . . 
Shaw proceeds to compare Benedick unfavourably with the generally offensive Lucio in Measure for Measure, which I think is nonsense; but the roughness of Benedick's wit when he's in the company of Don Pedro and Claudio is certainly something to ponder on. (He behaves quite differently when they aren't present.) Beatrice is perhaps spot-on when she says "he both pleases men and angers them" (II.1.128-29).

When Claudio asks about Hero, Benedick hints at a potential moral judgment in questioning Claudio's motive, but the moralizing soon gives way to mischief. And he is also mischievous and unsupportive during the masked ball, when Don Pedro seems to be stealing Hero from under Claudio's nose. In both scenes, Benedick's implication to Claudio, if he has one beyond his own self-regard, seems to be: Don't take love so seriously.

Anyway, coming back to the scene with Don John...  at this particular juncture in Claudio's journey through the play, Benedick isn't around. Claudio has Don Pedro, who has been far more openly helpful to Claudio than Benedick ever has. However, Don Pedro is a prince, and sometimes a prince is not the best sort of friend, not even for a Count (for "the right noble" Claudio is repeatedly named as a Count, unlike Benedick who is a mere Signor). Don Pedro is undoubtedly well-meaning, but he has his own way of going about things (and Claudio, when jolted by Don John, had got rather confused about Don Pedro's proxy wooing). Don Pedro also has a prince's temptations, which are not like those of other people.

The presence of Don Pedro as an active figure in the play makes a great difference to the character of Claudio (as compared with his model Timbreo in Bandello). Timbreo never remotely suspects his informant, just as Othello never suspects Iago. But Claudio, Count though he be, is more overawed than unsuspicious. After all Don Pedro does have pretty good reason to suspect the good faith of his brother, and Don John is even bold enough to refer to it (actually he has no choice: if he didn't refer to it, others would). But it's a prince's part to take no note of petty causes of suspicion. To do otherwise might seem timid; one is above that sort of thing. So neither Don Pedro nor Claudio enquires how Don John comes to know about this secret assignation and what motives his informants may have had for telling him. In all this royal superiority to pettiness, Claudio doesn't get much of a chance to review any suspicions he might have. Instead he's swept along, and perhaps losing his head in such high company, makes that rash statement about shaming Hero at the church. You get the impression he's trying to be seen to be doing the high, decisive, princely (or countly) thing.


It's a sort of tribute to the shock-power of one of Shakespeare's greatest scenes (IV.1), that over the years Claudio has been increasingly viewed as unforgivable. For Claudio, so shy in his courtship of Hero, is apparently more than willing to take centre stage when it comes to calling her a whore (Don Pedro, as he promised in III.2,  adds his own gross insults, but only after Claudio has led the way). We have to accept, which isn't always easy, that Claudio and Don Pedro genuinely believe that Hero has flagrantly betrayed her husband-to-be the night before her wedding, gullible as this makes them appear. Some of Claudio's words witness to bitter disappointment in love.

Claudio, like Othello, will later use the excuse of "mistaking" but in both cases it rings quite hollow these days. Of course we understand that people do make mistakes, especially when a villain sets out to deceive them. But, maybe bcause of our own era's belief in the law of attraction, we tend to have an inner feeling that if someone's deceived, they somehow contributed to it themselves. And that's especially true with these impertinent accusations, by outsiders, of a lover's sexual infidelity. Why (we think) didn't you show a bit more faith in your partner? Why didn't you at least talk to them (in private) before striking out?( And if they were indeed unfaithful to you, what made them feel like that, why were they unhappy and what was wrong between the two of you? ...) Plus, undeniably, ethics have changed since Shakespeare's time, at least on the surface. We don't, most of us, place a value on bridal virginity, and in Shakespeare's time they did. So Claudio also gets blamed for the values of his society.

It's apparent that Claudio doesn't know Hero particularly well, and indeed we never hear them speak together prior to this scene, though they apparently do talk together and they do both take part in the general conversation with Don Pedro about his plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together (end of II.1). That plan, Don Pedro makes clear, is to be organized along gender lines.  Don Pedro, "with your two helps"  (meaning Leonato and Claudio), is going to gull Benedick;  Hero on the other hand (albeit briefed by Don Pedro) will look after gulling Beatrice. There's an assumption that normal discourse (and presumably normal life) tends to mostly involve hanging around with your own gender.

And Claudio's journey, certainly, takes place very much within an all-male environment. Even at the altar he more easily addresses Leonato than Hero. Before his lady, he exemplifies the chivalrous shyness that can be so easily transformed into disappointed spite. Unlike Benedick, he's not a lady's man and is not seen in female company.

There's more that's unforgivable. In V.1, Claudio and Don Pedro have an uncomfortable walk. They pretend to be in haste about something, but this is evidently self-consciousness of being in a false position. No wonder -- what are they doing still here in Messina, having publically shamed their host's daughter? (And didn't Don Pedro say he was only staying for the wedding, anyway?). First they meet Leonato and his brother Antonio, who attempt to challenge Claudio to ill-matched duels.

[What is brother Antonio doing in this play? Shakespeare mysteriously revisits the situation in Titus Andronicus, where it is Titus and, especially, his kindly brother Marcus, who stand up for the raped and mutilated Lavinia. Compare:  Antonio: God knows I loved my niece. ... with  Marcus: ... gentle niece ... lovely niece...    Lavinia's, briefly, is the fearful image that hovers over what Claudio and Don Pedro have done to Hero.]

Being rid of the old men, Don Pedro and Claudio then encounter Benedick, and perhaps the unforgivable thing is that Claudio attempts to be witty at Benedick's expense, which seems tasteless given that (so far as Claudio knows) Hero has died after his shaming of her. Surely some sobriety would be in order, even though Claudio and Don Pedro still believe themselves in the right. As the scene unwinds, first with Benedick's very serious challenge and then with the confession of Borachio, that belief is destroyed. (It's curious that Borachio addresses Don Pedro as "Sweet prince", recalling the same address by first Claudio and then Leonato during the shaming scene at the start of IV.1.). Then, indeed, things do change.  Claudio remembers "Sweet Hero" spontaneously, and he ends the scene with "Tonight I'll mourn with Hero". It has not been felt to be enough, though McEachern makes a good case for the emblematic importance of the monument scene (V.3). The truth is, Shakespeare's abbreviated time-scheme, essential for gripping theatre, doesn't allow for credible penitence. But Shakespeare could have tried harder if he'd wanted to. For instance, Claudio's ease at marrying another, and his rough jesting at Benedick in V.4, before he knows that the other is his Hero, still seem to us to lack acknowledgement of the harm he's done.

Shakespeare apparently doesn't mind. His critique of Count Claudio and the "sweet prince" is explicit. Much Ado About Nothing is a tough little tragicomedy and it isn't concerned that all its principals aren't moral paragons, or that its final dance doesn't securely promise an eternity of well-merited happiness.


Most readings of Much Ado About Nothing accept the romcom theory that Benedick and Beatrice are already in love before they are tricked into thinking so, and I agree. It's apparent from the start that Signor Benedick, who is consistently spiky with his high-up military pals, is only truly at ease in the company of Beatrice. To Leonato (once out of earshot of the aforesaid pals) he is sincerely courteous and polite; and it's Leonato's presence that apparently convinces Benedick that the garden scene isn't feigned. Markedly in contrast with the Count Claudio, he is at ease in female company (e.g. the little scene V.2, with Margaret). Benedick isn't really one of the lads. But he doesn't much admire insipid females either (such as Hero). Beatrice is the woman who matches him. Their flurries of wit and insult are outrageous, but, looking closely, we see that Benedick does pull his punches. When Beatrice says "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me" (I.1.125-26), she lays herself open to a more brutal response than Benedick chooses. And though Beatrice complains of it, Benedick's "I have done" (I.1.137) is really an instinctive curb on following up his own victory. Likewise during the masked ball, Benedick is extremely temperate when Beatrice unleashes her cutting remarks about the "prince's jester", which somehow end by turning into flirtatiousness. At some deep level Beatrice allows herself to be vulnerable, she already knows that Benedick won't abuse his advantage. And the conversation ends with a prescient moral agreement (positively Jane Austen-style):

[Beatrice].... we must follow the leaders.
Benedick: In every good thing.
Beatrice: Nay, if they lead to any ill I will leave them at the next turning. (II.1.137-140)

When they do lead to ill, Beatrice indeed declines to follow the leaders. And at that crisis Benedick will go along with her.



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