As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women

By Penny Gay | Go to book overview

5

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

A kind of merry war

Much Ado About Nothing takes place not in a ‘world elsewhere’— Illyria or Arden—but in Messina, Sicily. From its very opening lines it insists that the audience recognise on the stage a simulacrum of the ‘real world’, with its townsfolk, householders and their families, servants and visitors—and its gossip. In this Much Ado is much more akin to Romeo and Juliet or Measure for Measure than it is to the other ‘romantic comedies’ with which it usually grouped. This is not a world in which a girl can disguise herself as a boy and not be recognised even by her lover; it is, rather, a society structured very like the Elizabethan one which first witnessed it, in which the niceties of interpersonal behaviour are directed by accepted rules. And although those standard tropes of farce, disguisings and tricks, soon enter the narrative, they are not its principal dramatic interest; they are merely there to help along the plot which has from the first held the audience’s chief attention—the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick. The bringing together of two prickly, unconventional adults in marriage—into conformity with the structures of society which they have hitherto managed to flout—holds a gleeful fascination for the audience, as it does for the ‘audience’ on stage— all the other members of Leonato’s household. None can finally escape the powerful coercion of our social system: ‘The world must be peopled!’ (II.3). Despite Benedick’s apparent libertarian bravado here, what he means and what the play means is a world peopled via the ceremony of Christian marriage only. The play’s triumph is to make the audience assent to its vision of a community always to be revitalised from within, by the incorporation of rebellious energy, not its expulsion. It does this by presenting, in Beatrice and Benedick’s dialogues, such an ‘erotic friction’ (in Stephen Greenblatt’s term) that our profoundest desire is to see that friction come

-143-

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As She Likes It: Shakespeare's Unruly Women
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page v
  • Contents vii
  • Plates viii
  • Preface x
  • Acknowledgements xii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Twelfth Night 17
  • 2 - As You like It 48
  • 3 - The Taming of the Shrew 86
  • 4 - Measure for Measure 120
  • 5 - Much Ado about Nothing 143
  • Conclusion 178
  • Notes 180
  • Bibliography 201
  • Index 205
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