Much Ado About Nothing (2009)
By Lynne Collins
Wars take center stage in the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing. The first is the war from which Don Pedro and his men return. This war isn’t named and doesn’t appear central to the plot, so it is useful to consider why Shakespeare chooses to identify the men as victorious warriors. War in the background answers a number of questions about why these men behave as they do. Don Pedro and Claudio are military men who have just returned from a lifeand- death struggle and are ill-equipped for the gentler rhythms of civilian life. Don John has fought against his brother in this war; he has been defeated, but his war is not over. Benedick is a brave soldier, but he must discover a very different kind of courage in the battle with his heart.
The second war is the “merry war” of love. The weapon in this war is words—a witty and charming weapon in the hands of Beatrice and Benedick, but deadly in others.’ Don John drips poisonous words into Claudio’s ears. Claudio is not satisfied merely to abandon Hero but slanders her publicly in order to destroy her completely. Beatrice sees the weapons of war and slanderous words as one and the same: “… men are turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.”
Much Ado exists in the shadow of war, but love and laughter have the final word. I have set our production in Barcelona in 1934, just two years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In the fall of 1934, the nationalist forces believed they had put down a revolution and that a full-blown civil war had been averted, but a raging battle of rhetoric and lies would soon make a civil war inevitable.
While we have set our production in turbulent times, Much Ado is above all a romantic comedy that explores two very different kinds of love. Beatrice and Benedick defy tradition and accept that they are “too wise to woo peaceably.” Claudio and Hero follow social conventions and embrace an uneasy peace. Barcelona embodies the same balance of the modern and the traditional. The Modernist buildings of Gaudí stand beside Gothic cathedrals. The music of church organs and the sensual Spanish guitar are equally central to the city’s sound. Both Much Adoand Barcelona embrace the tension of old and new, dark and light, betrayal and love.
In Barcelona, Leonato learns from a messenger that the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, is returning home after a victorious battle. Don Pedro arrives, accompanied by the soldiers Benedick and Claudio and his half-brother Don John. Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, exchange quips, and Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter, Hero. He privately confesses his feelings to Benedick and Don Pedro, and the Prince devises a plan by which he will pretend to be Claudio at the evening masquerade, confess his (Claudio’s) love to Hero and woo her.
After dinner, a discussion about men leads Beatrice to swear off all husbands, echoing Benedick’s earlier anti-marriage remarks. The revelers enter and the dance masquerade begins. Beatrice mocks Benedick when they dance together, although it is not clear if she recognizes him beneath his disguise. Don John takes the opportunity to misinform Claudio that Don Pedro is in love with Hero, and Claudio naively believes him. Claudio’s melancholy increases when Benedick unwittingly plays into Don John’s lie. However, Don Pedro is true to his word, brings the two lovers together and even swears to unite Beatrice and Benedick. Don John is disheartened by the revelry, and Borachio proposes to destroy Hero’s engagement by tricking Claudio and Don Pedro into mistaking Margaret (Hero’s waiting-woman, and Borachio’s lover) for Hero during a passionate exchange with Borachio. Meanwhile, Claudio, Leonato and Don Pedro pursue their plan to trick Beatrice and Benedick into marriage. When the three men find Benedick hiding in the orchard, they fool him into believing that Beatrice loves him. Benedick falls for the ruse and decides to return Beatrice’s love.
When Hero and Ursula (Hero’s other waiting-woman) discover Beatrice spying in the orchard, they similarly trick Beatrice into believing that Benedick has amorous feelings for her. Beatrice is duped and decides to requite Benedick’s feelings. In the meantime, Claudio and Don Pedro tease Benedick for his newfound love, and he leaves them to speak with Leonato. Later, Don John tells Claudio that Hero is not the virtuous maid she appears, and invites Claudio and Don Pedro to witness proof of her infidelity that night. After Don John’s plan is executed, Borachio and Don John’s man Conrade stumble into Dogberry and Verges’s hidden night watch. Borachio drunkenly tells Conrade of his part in the conspiracy against Hero and is overheard by the Watch and apprehended. The next day, Margaret and Hero tease Beatrice about Dogberry and Verges attempt to tell Leonato about the arrest, but in his great rush, the governor is dismissive.
At the wedding, Claudio rejects Hero on grounds of her immodesty. She faints, and Claudio and Don Pedro hurriedly exit. The Friar, believing in Hero’s innocence, concocts a plan wherein she is to pretend her death, both to turn Claudio’s slander into remorse and to bring the truth to light. When Beatrice and Benedick are left alone, she makes him swear to kill Claudio. Meanwhile, Dogberry, Verges and the Sexton interrogate and document Borachio and Conrade’s part in Hero’s wrongful accusation, and it is discovered that Don John has fled.
Benedick soon challenges Claudio to a duel. Benedick exits, and the Constables bring forward Borachio, who confesses his part in Don John’s plan. Claudio repents, and Leonato tells him that he must now restore Hero’s tarnished name among the people of Barcelona. He also tells Claudio that he has a niece nearly identical to Hero (who in fact is Hero), and offers her in marriage to Claudio. Beatrice and Benedick strengthen their romance, and
Claudio delivers an epitaph at Hero’s tomb. The next day, Hero is revealed to Claudio as still living, and the two couples prepare to marry. Finally, a messenger arrives with news that Don John has been found and will be punished.
By Daniella Venitski
Barcelona in 1934
Directors approaching Much Ado About Nothing must face the question of its emotional tone. While full of merry making and comic exchanges of wit, the play also possesses surprisingly dark undercurrents. Preparing for this production, director Lynne Collins was attuned to the presence of war as it looms over the world of the play. She decided to relocate Shakespeare’s Messina to beautiful, but politically strained, Barcelona in 1934.
Spain at this time was, on the one hand, celebrating the birth of a new and idealistic government called the Second Spanish Republic. The Second Republic advanced many positive initiatives associated with socialism, and its 1931 Constitution was dedicated to reshaping civil rights. For example, laws on civil marriage, divorce, universal suffrage, the right of women to gain custody in the case of divorce, and equal distribution of land were all introduced. Despite the opposition of conservatives, the country was flush with optimism. This was especially true in Barcelona, a stronghold of progressive sentiment. George Orwell wrote, “Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom.”
On the other hand, the Second Republic was controversial for its highly secular attitudes in predominantly Roman Catholic Spain. Resentment also grew among rich landowners and the traditional aristocrats. These growing tensions were apparent in the 1934 elections, which the conservatives won, leading to what has been termed biennio negro or the “two black years” of Spain. Although the socialist Popular Front regained power in the 1936 elections, the brewing tension erupted into a full-scale civil war that year, with the right-wing opposition led by military leader Francisco Franco. Franco would win the war in 1939 with the backing of Italy and Nazi Germany.
Pre-Spanish Civil War Barcelona captures the tension between idyll and war that is evident in Much Ado. The specific battle from which the men return at the beginning of the play is, in this production, a miner’s strike in the town of Oviedo, known as the Asturian Uprising of 1934. This strike was a reaction against the right-wing CEDA government (Confederación Española de Derechas Autónomas) that dismissed the values established by the 1931 Constitution.
Despite the dark tones of war that weave through the text, the play concludes on familiar, uplifting and comic notes. Romantic love and kinship prove victorious at the end of Much Ado.
Lincoln Center dramaturg Ann Cattaneo once asked, “How can a modern production honor and preserve the way a classical play] worked in its own time and yet allow it to speak to a society that is vastly different?” Many contemporary producers of Shakespeare respond to this question by creating a “period analogue” whose historical events can serve to underline a play’s action and themes.
Director Lynne Collins sees 1934 Barcelona as a period analogue for Much Ado About Nothing that speaks to both the luxuriant elegance of Shakespeare’s Messina and the looming presence of war. Additionally, placing the action in Spain underlines the play’s sparkling, festive tones. According to scholar Edward Stanton, “Spain spends more time and money on collective celebrations than any country in the world. Masked revelers dance through the streets of Cadiz in Carnival … young girls adorn themselves with flowers from head to toe during the May festival in Almeria, … [and] bonfires burn on Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches for St. John’s or Midsummer’s Night.”
Scenic designer Andrea Bechert’s lush outdoor setting creates a sense of sensuality and play, and is influenced by the great Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926). Gaudí was fascinated by organic forms, which he used in surprising and idiosyncratic ways. Gaudí’s style perfectly suits Much Ado: not only is the action frequently set outside, in nature; it also flutters with idiosyncratic characters, romance and modern themes.