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Shakespeare & Beyond

Conquering Hero: What to do about 'Much Ado'?

Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing

In yet another example of the Shakespeare nut not falling too far from the tree, my daughter Daisy opens this weekend in her high school’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, playing Beatrice, one my favorite roles in what is probably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. So I can’t wait to see how she and her cast mates inhabit some of my favorite characters — and I’m also eager to see how her director handles certain aspects of the play that make it tricky for audiences in this particular cultural moment.

Much Ado is, after all, one of Shakespeare’s most sparkling comedies, featuring a pair of lovers — Beatrice and Benedick — who are perfectly matched, trading barb for barb and witty exchanges with a love that’s clear to everyone if not to them. But one forgets about Hero, whose fidelity and chastity is questioned — on her wedding day! — in a public slut-shaming conducted by not only by her fiancé but also her father. It’s painful and horrifying to watch, and made more so by the fact that we’re supposed to cheer her return to a man — Claudio — who’s more concerned with his own honor than hers.

What’s a modern audience to make of this? It’s one thing to watch lovers overcome obstacles on the way to their happy ending. It’s another to have that happy ending soured by seeing Hero return to a man whose actions are truly unforgivable. Some directors lean into that complex emotional territory, but to do so is to forget that Shakespeare’s play is meant to be a comedy. We’re supposed to be thrilled for our young lovers at the end, not conflicted.

I’ve directed Much Ado twice, and each time I took my cue from the title, which suggests that the events of the play are to be considered a comical over-reaction to something unimportant. For my productions, I tried to imagine a world where immaturity, gossip, pranks, hearsay, and misunderstandings were socio-cultural currency and characters have intense emotional responses to everything.

Wow. Sounds totally like high school to me.


While I don’t disapprove of more modern treatments/adaptations of the Bard’s plays, I do believe that great care must be taken to maintain the integrity of his work. It’s Benedick, not Benedict. I don’t see the point in changing an iconic character’s name. Also, changing “redemption” to “detention” may delight teens, but it changes the nature of the joke. Dogberry’s malapropisms cause him to use words that are the opposite of what he means. “Redemption” has a positive meaning, when Dogberry really means to convey that Borachio (I think) will be forever damned by his deeds. “Detention” has a negative meaning, which actually works with Dogberry’s intention. But it’s not what Shakespeare intended. I wonder how many other meanings suffered. I do like the idea of the eavesdropping scenes occurring in lockers and bathrooms, however.

Susan Edgren — May 18, 2018

What people frequently forget that it’s a “play” and not real life. One reason we have plays is that we can “hold the mirror up to nature”, which gives us the license to take human frailty and onerous behavior to its heightened reality so that we can witness our shortcomings and (hopefully) not repeat them in real life – where they could have devastating, unrepairable consequences. Changing plays to comply with the current overly political correct climate, does a disservice to the playwright, younger playgoers and the historical presentation of the plays.

J Neville-Andrews — May 19, 2018

Susan — You’re absolutely right on all three counts. I didn’t change Benedick’s name in the production, but we clearly didn’t proof this article before we posted it. His name has been changed above. As for swapping ‘detention’ for ‘redemption’, I agree completely that it changes the nature of this particular joke, and I also agree with you that “great care must be taken to maintain the integrity of his work.” Dogberry uses many different comic tropes — they’re not all malaprops — so I felt entirely comfortable changing this one word in order to more faithfully serve Shakespeare’s larger intent for this play, which is to “be funny.” In this specific context, ‘detention’ was funnier.

Austin Tichenor — May 27, 2018

I just finished a production of MUCH ADO where I was Balthasar and Oatcake. The actor who played Leonato had a tough time at first with the wedding scene since he has a daughter in real life and cannot imagine doing that to her. But then, he thought of his own father when he would get in trouble…. “Son, if you screwed up like they said, you’re gonna get it. But if they’re lying, I’m going to go to the mats for you.” Leonato’s initial reaction is a knee jerk reaction… but he does make it clear if he finds out the men are lying, there will be Hell to pay. We all agreed, however, that Claudio REALLY doesn’t deserve forgiveness. Ha ha

Michael Curtis — April 27, 2019