Much Ado About – Conflict in Interpretation

Originally posted July 2013

I’m a Whedon fan.  I am not ashamed to say that I pretty much not only follow Whedon’s shows and movies but I follow any actor who has been on a Whedon show.  Examples:  I started watching Bones because of David Boreanaz – Buffy and Angel; Castle because of Nathan Fillion – Buffy, Firefly, Doctor Horrible ; Suits because of Gina Torres – Firefly. You get the picture.  So I have been following Much Ado by Whedon for some time before it was even released in the US. I’ve been stocking IMDB to find out when it was showing, checking the blog to see when there were theaters within driving distance for me to see it. And trying to wrangle my friends to get a time when we could go as a group (the last part sort of failed but I did have a companion for the 2.5 hour drive to the nearest theater showing the film). Needless to say I finally saw the film.

The film was delightful.Much Ado_Whedon

But as I have mentioned I have been doing some anxious waiting, which for me means that I am reading articles and bugging friends about them.  One article in particular struck my interest, Drunk One-Night Stands Don’t Fit in Shakespeare’s World, by Gina Dalfonzo.  It articulates some real concerns about Whedon’s choice of showing a drunken tryst between Beatrice and Benedict. Having not seen the film yet I was only left with my own feelings on the subject and this article, which I happened to agree with.  A one-night stand doesn’t fit with Much Ado! Isn’t the whole point of the ado about Hero’s supposed unfaithfulness?  One of the compelling points that Dalfonzo makes is the idea of maidenhood.  We don’t use that word now a days but the idea of purity and what it means to be pure cannot have changed that much?  Could it?A081_C005_1017RU

Now Dalfonzo’s article alludes to an interview with Whedon some weeks earlier.  As I read the interview I came to see Whedon’s point of view. (Here is a little glimpse to some of the questions asked of Whedon concerning the idea of a sexual relationship between Beatrice and Benedict)

Did you worry that there would be any tension between that sexual history and the central tragedy of the play, in which Hero’s virtue is sullied so badly that even her own father wants her dead?

No, these people sort of have license to do whatever they want, and then when they suddenly turn on Hero, it’s a very ugly moment. I believe that Claudio and Leonato’s pain is genuine. They feel betrayed by someone they trusted.

So the crime is less the sex per se–the virtue in the classical sense–than it is the perceived disloyalty and deceit.

Exactly. I remember the first time I saw a production of the play, I didn’t really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding. Which, you know, I still believe in modern times.

I agree that there was some relationship between Benedict and Beatrice.  No, one is questioning that, but the nature of the relationship is. Whedon even says, “There are some lines in the text that indicate it [sexual relationship], but there are some lines that contradict it.” As I watched Whedon’s Beatrice deliver her lines, I felt them as the stabbing pains of bitterness and regret.  It may have been a drunken affair but she felt something for him and she regretted not only the affair but that the thing between them was apparently over. She thought he didn’t love her. So she masks her shame and guilt with laughter and wit. And she does so quiet well.  Benedict masks his pain and regret in much the same way.  Thus, Whedon’s pair of lovers are able to be so easily persuaded by their informants because they actually want their love to be requited and their guilt alleviated through an honest relationship.

It is clear that Dalfonzo was looking for the “virtue in the classical sense” in the interpretation of Much Ado.  Yet,Whedon bypassed that concept entirely. Why? Well, oddly enough it is not Whedon who explains this or even Dalfonzo, it is the interviewer.  In response to Whedon’s, “which, you know, I still believe in modern times”, the interview state,”Yeah, I hope we can continue to keep the bar at thatlevel.”   When I read that I had to do a double take.  Where was the bar sat exactly? “I didn’t really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding.”  The bar was set based on the inability to understand the virtue of virginity. If we miss the concept of that virtue than we have to find another virtue and Whedon did an admirable job of finding the next best virtue – loyalty and honesty.  Yet the virtues of loyalty and honesty would in fact lead to the virtue of virginity, because a woman/man would want to be loyal and honest with her/his spouse (future spouse, as well) therefore she/he would not want to sleep around and thus be discredited as being disloyal and unfaithful.  But in “modern times” the bar has been set as low as don’t sleep around on the night before you’re married and the virtue of virginity is lost.

I find the merits of Whedon’s interpretation within the disagreement of Dalfonzo’s critique and Whedon’s interview. Modern times.  Dalfonzo would say that even in a modern interpretation one cannot have an affair and fit it into Shakespeare, but Whedon did and I think it worked.  I don’t like it – not on artistic grounds or even interpretation.  I don’t like it because I am morally apposed to it.  I value the classical sense of virtue and purity – the virtue of virginity.  I also recognize that Whedon and most of the world is coming from a perspective of misunderstanding – post sexual revolution, where virginity has become something archaic and fuel for oppression.

Yet even with this view of sexuality in mind, Whedon still presents a strong case for purity until marriage, which is not based on a moral code.  Beatrice and Benedict’s tryst had consequences.  No, they weren’t publicly shamed as Hero was for her supposed unmaiden like behavior, but they were part of their own private shame that ate away at them. You could see it in their glances, tone of voice, attitude concerning Hero’s shame.  Beatrice’s wit becomes her weapon to bring shame on Benedict, while he acts like nothing happened.  But his behavior is just as much a mask as is seen when he declares “I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.” He too is hurt and shamed but does not know what to do. Seeing their misery, is proof that having an affair- drunken or not – is not worth the pain that it breeds.

Another coupling that also speaks volumes about purity being a good thing is Don John and Conrade (in Whedon’s film Conrade is a woman).  In the first major scene with Don John, he and Conrade are rather sensual and clearly about to enjoy one another, when Borachio steps in. At first I was not comfortable with the scene, but I got to thinking.  Isn’t that the point.  Here are two persons who have no regard for anyone but themselves.  Don John is the villain and Conrade is only as good as she can entertain him.  Don John in fact abandons her when it is convenient. Their behavior concerning sexuality and propriety are a reflection of their natures, which we see at once are evil and cruel.

Much Ado

On a side note, if I taught a Shakespeare class I’d probably show Whedon’s version over Branagh’s, because of the above argument.  The question of virtue  and what is virtuous is compelling and necessary for us in modern times to understand the disparity in concepts of virtues in culture.  And of course Whedon’s film is delightful.  It was great to see so many actors from Whedon’s other shows and movies.  It was like watching a reunion of sorts. There were some many things about the film that were beautiful and artistically pleasing – the black and white film, the landscape, the costumes.