How does Shakespeare present the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” and how has Kenneth Branagh interpreted this in his 1993 film version?
“Much Ado About Nothing” is a comedy. Shakespeare’s comedies often involve tragedy, betrayal and love. They always have a happy ending, often with a marriage. Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is supposed to be the sub-plot, as Hero and Claudio’s relationship is the main plot in this play. However, Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship seems much more interesting. As it is so unconventional and humorous, people who watch this play follow their development more closely.
Shakespeare connects Beatrice and Benedick through echoes and links. Their names are actually linked; Beatrice’s name means ‘she who blesses’, and Benedick’s name means ‘he who is blessed’. The insulting names they call each other also echo. She calls him “Signor Mountanto”, suggesting that he is proud and arrogant, and he calls her “Lady Disdain”, suggesting that she is contemptuous and scornful. Their personalities are very similar, since both are extremely confident and outspoken. At the time this play was written, these characteristics were very unconventional. Women were meant to be submissive and acquiescent. Even the men were not supposed to be quite as disrespectful as Benedick is at times. An example of their similar personalities is seen when they first meet each other in the play. They trade insults over a petty matter and are unafraid to say exactly what they think of each other in front of their audience. Beatrice says, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”, to which Benedick replies, “God keep your ladyship till in that mind, so some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face”.
Branagh presents this first conflict by focusing on Beatrice and Benedick alternatively, giving a ‘ping-pong’ effect. As they fire insults at each other, the pace of the argument increases and the camera follows them. Their eyes are locked, as they intensely concentrate on each other. They are both so similar, making the development of their relationship comical.
It is mentioned briefly by Shakespeare that there has been a past link between Beatrice and Benedick. Towards the end of their first argument, Beatrice says, “You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old”. In the film, Beatrice says this in a sad, sorrowful tone. Beatrice later explains that she had given him her heart once before, but Benedick only lent his and then took it back. She says, “he lent it me a while, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one”. It seems that this is where the arguments, conflicts and firing of insults have derived from; they are defensive mechanisms used to protect themselves from the hurt they might undergo if their hidden feelings for each other are revealed. However, they do get hurt, for example, Benedick says, “she speaks poniards, and every word stabs”.
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Shakespeare describes Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship as a “merry war” and “a skirmish of wit”. They throw insults, harsh words and names at each other throughout most of the play. At the ball, Beatrice knows that the man she is talking to, who is hiding behind a mask, is in fact Benedick. However, Benedick does not realise that she knows who he is. At this time, Benedick has already told Beatrice that he thinks she is “disdainful” and has her “good wit out of The Hundred Merry Tales”. Beatrice decides that this would be a perfect moment to express some of her negative feelings for Benedick, as he cannot reveal his true self. She tells him that he is the “prince’s jester”, “a very dull fool” and that his only gift is in “devising impossible slanders”. This is just one example of their insulting matches. Benedick has also called Beatrice a “Harpy” and “Lady Tongue”. The audience find the arguments humorous.
Beatrice and Benedick are presented by Shakespeare as very unconventional characters. At the time this play was written, it was unusual for women or men to have negative feelings towards the opposite sex and marriage was expected. They both seem to protest too much that they will never fall in love or marry. For example, Beatrice exclaims that no man will ever be right for her. She says, “He that hath a beard is more than a youth: and he that hath no beard is less than a man”. Beatrice describes marriage as a series of dances. She describes the wooing stage as a “Scotch jig”, suggesting that it is exciting while it lasts, but is over quickly. She then describes the wedding stage as a “measure”, which is a stately and dignified. The last stage is compared to a “cinquepace”. This stage is referred to as the repenting period, where the marriage is a downward spiral, sinking fast.
Benedick thanks his mother for her usefulness, but says that under no circumstances will he ever attach himself to another woman. He says, “That a woman conceived me, I thank her…but…I will do myself the right to trust none”. When Claudio discusses marrying Hero with Don Pedro, Benedick thinks of three things he would allow them to do if he ever fell in love. He says for example “pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen, and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid”. All three things that he would allow Claudio and Don Pedro to do are exaggerated, dramatic and self-indulgent. The audience find unconventional characters so much more interesting because they are different from everyone else. The fact that Beatrice and Benedick have different views in comparison to everyone else’s just suggests further that they should be together.
Shakespeare fluctuates the control in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. At the ball, Beatrice has the upper hand because she knows that the man behind the mask is Benedick. She now has complete control and can say whatever she likes about him because he will not reveal himself. She calls him the “prince’s jester” and a “very dull fool”. However, later on, Benedick offers to travel extreme distances just to get away from Beatrice, who he calls a “harpy” in front of a lot of people. He now has the control because he has the power to humiliate her in public with his ridiculous and hyperbolic statements. Shakespeare fluctuates who has the control because he wants to make them appear equal and the same.
The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is presented by Shakespeare as something the others can be amused by. In Branagh’s film, the director makes the audience laugh and cheer at them whenever one of them throws an insult. In particular this occurs during their confrontation on their first meeting. They all see Beatrice and Benedick as entertainment and they revel in the attention. Don Pedro thinks that he and a few others could usurp Cupid’s power to “bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection, th’one with th’other”. This is just a bit of light entertainment to pass the time quickly before Claudio and Hero marry. In Branagh’s film, at the end of the play when Beatrice and Benedick have confessed their love for each other, there is genuine happiness from their friends and family. There is a positive and happy atmosphere and there are cheers and applause when the long-awaited kiss takes place.
Shakespeare portrays Beatrice and Benedick as victims for love. Shakespeare uses entrapment imagery to make it seem as if Benedick is to be fished for. While reeling Benedick in Claudio says, “Bait the hook well, this fish will bite”. Benedick takes what Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio are saying about Beatrice’s love for him on very quickly, although he is shocked at first. Benedick says, “This can be no trick, the conference was sadly borne, they have the truth of this from Hero”. This suggests that maybe he wanted to hear this for quite some time. In the film, he even falls off his deckchair with shock, which is funny. Beatrice is portrayed as a helpless victim. Claudio says that “down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs, beats her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses, Oh sweet Benedick, God give me patience”. When the men finish this unconvincing and hyperbolical trick, Benedick declares that her love for him “must be requited”. Beatrice is also easily duped and this time, Benedick is portrayed as a suffering man. Shakespeare also uses entrapment imagery, again to make it seem as if Beatrice is to be fished for. She finally decides to “requite thee [Benedick]”. In Branagh’s film, we see a montage of Benedick splashing in the fountain and Beatrice on the swing. Both actions are quite immature, but show how happy they are that the other loves them.
Beatrice and Benedick react physically to their new found love as well. They both are sick with love; Beatrice has a cold and Benedick has a “toothache”. Benedick also shaves his beard, combs his hair, starts to wear perfume, use a cosmetic lotion and puts on make-up. The audience find their reactions very entertaining since the change is so dramatic it is almost ridiculous. The fact that both are being totally hypocritical and contradictory towards the feelings they had before towards love and marriage is very humorous.
Shakespeare differs the tone of Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship after the denouncement of Hero and shows how their love must undergo trials. At first, the atmosphere is serious, intense and sombre because Beatrice is in mourning for the pain that has been inflicted on Hero. Benedick suddenly declares his love for Beatrice. He says, “I do love nothing in the world so well as you”. Beatrice’s declaration of love is more subtle and led by him. She replies, “it were as possible for me to say, I loved nothing so well as you, but believe me not, and yet I lie not, I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing”. In Branagh’s film you can see that their faces are close, suggesting intimacy. There is soft, floating music in the background and a sudden crescendo at the moment of the kiss. They are comfortable, which is demonstrated when he touches her hand.
The mood, however, suddenly changes when Benedick says that he will do anything for her, and she replies, “Kill Claudio”. This selfish request is refused at first. In response Beatrice says that if he will not do this for her, he does not truly love her. She repeats, “Oh that I were a man” because she feels trapped, limited and confined by her gender. She realises that if she were a man she would have the freedom to challenge Claudio herself. Finally, Benedick accepts her wish and promises her that he will challenge him. This shows ultimate loyalty and proves that he will do anything for Beatrice. Branagh’s film shows this part of the scene as tense and unsettling. As soon as Beatrice says, “Kill Claudio”, the music stops to emphasise the words. Beatrice paces, throwing furniture and making extreme gestures with her hands. She shouts with frustration and Benedick has to restrain her at various points.
However, at the end of the play, Shakespeare shows how the love between Beatrice and Benedick is fully restored. They only agree to marry each other backhandedly, after making excuses, like for “pity” or “to save your [Benedick’s] life”. In the Branagh film, there are cheers and applause from the crowd when Benedick kisses Beatrice. This happy ending is complete and ends with a marriage, a common feature in Shakespeare’s comedies. It is a satisfying ending for the audience, as Beatrice and Benedick are finally together.
The future for Beatrice and Benedick seems like a ‘happily ever after’ ending. They agree that they are “too wise to woo peaceably”, and from there, it is presumed that they will move on with a loving relationship. In Branagh’s version, positive music begins at the end of the film. There is a repetitive melody, possibly suggesting that Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is ongoing and for eternity. All the characters then begin to dance in circles, maybe representing eternity, wedding rings and therefore, marriage. These themes echo the themes of the play.