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much ado about nothing

9 may 2015

Much Ado about Nothing is not a very informative title, and as Nick de Somogyi notes in the introduction to his 2006 edition of the play, "appears to disparage the preposterous froth of its own storyline" (xxviii). De Somogyi goes on to suggest some deeper meanings to the title, but the literal one does fine for a start: everybody gets all upset about a woman's unchastity and subsequent death, and then it turns out she's alive and a virgin and everybody's OK again. Much ado indeed.

I blanked completely on the title of this play for a couple of days, a while back, even though I could run scenes from Kenneth Branagh's film in my mind, and I knew quite well who Benedick and Beatrice were, and I could sing "Hey nonny nonny." I kept thinking that play was All's Well That Ends Well. De Somogyi says that the Benedick-and-Beatrice play was in fact sometimes called Benedicte and Betteris, which would have helped me immensely.

Benedick and Beatrice are two-thirds of what's to like about Much Ado, the irrepressible Dogberry being the other third. Branagh made the inexplicable decision to let Michael Keaton play Dogberry as criminally insane, but it seems more mainstream to see the constable as the forerunner of Chico Marx, Lou Costello, Blackadder's Baldrick and other comic fools who are so low-verbal they're positively philosophical. Dogberry is thick as two short planks, but he ends up being the hero of the play because he's a sort of holy fool.

Much Ado is an uneven play otherwise. The characters don't seem to have through lines; the play is a vehicle for the stars' banter and for some musical interludes. The most impressive speeches are given to Leonato, who incorrectly believes his daughter Hero to be a tramp. They sound like rejected bits from a tragedy, and they take up too much time and energy (I'd argue) when the audience knows that their pathos is groundless.

De Somogyi's edition was prepared for The Shakespeare Folios series. This is a peculiar set of texts, with its own holy-fool quality. The philosophy behind it was to produce versions of the plays in the 1623 First Folio that are as diplomatic as possible without being actual facsimiles. That's an arbitrary undertaking; for instance, while these editions reproduce "v" as "u" and "w" as "vv" when the Folio does, they draw the line at using the long "s" in words like "ſad, ſicke, ſong." They also reproduce all the Folio's idiosyncracies (like the variable names for characters that sometimes give us Dogberry as Kemp, the actor who first played him). They even reproduce obvious typos; though a facing-page "translation" modernizes the spelling and cleans up the inconsistencies.

What these editions don't give the reader are explanatory footnotes. This makes for a real readerly workout. I fancy myself as fluent in early modern English, but take away my safety net and it gets tough sometimes to stay on the wire. The Folio text of Much Ado, which is largely in prose, is full of run-on sentences, most of the speeches the actors speak are run together with comma splices, think you this is easy to read, think again. Most difficult of all is a masked-ball scene (Act 2, Scene 1) which is terribly hard to keep straight on the page, and makes one appreciate the basic pre-chewing done by less-diplomatic editions. In other words, the Shakespeare Folios project may be a curiosity, but it's a valuable and thought-provoking curiosity.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado about Nothing. 1600, 1623. Edited by Nick de Somogyi. London: Nick Hern, 2006. [The Shakespeare Folios]