Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Deforming Sources: Literary Antecedents and Their Traces in Much Ado about Nothing

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Deforming Sources: Literary Antecedents and Their Traces in Much Ado about Nothing

Article excerpt

IN ONE OF HER most verbally expansive moments in Much Ado About Nothing, Hero directs her attendant "gentlewomen," Ursula and Margaret, on where to have Beatrice positioned to overhear the "honest slanders" and other misrepresentations through which Beatrice is to be led to believe that Benedick loves her:

   And bid her steal into the pleached bower,
   Where honeysuckles, ripened by the sun,
   Forbid the sun to enter, like favorites
   Made proud by princes, that advance their pride
   Against that power that bred it.
   (3.1.7-11) (1)

Leaving aside the temptation to hear in it a topicality that editors routinely admonish us to resist, (2) and disregarding the malice toward Beatrice it implies, what surprises us at first about the political commonplace (3) in Hero's comparison is simply who says it, or, as Harry Berger reminds us, that "Shakespeare oddly allows the usually quiet Hero to break into epic simile." (4) Its deeper effect, however, is to challenge us to recognize why we should feel surprised, and to discern the discursive demarcations the play asks us to accept as integral to its geography. In part, of course, these are demarcations of gender: how little we know Hero that we should take this utterance as surprising is a reminder of how little we hear her voice in "mixed" company elsewhere in the play and how much she is kept infantilized within the bounds of the "pleached bower" erected for her by the social and linguistic segregation of the sexes in the play, a segregation that Beatrice, on the other hand, at once italicizes and renders herself conspicuous by transgressing. (5)

Yet at the same time, we also hear in Hero's simile an evocation of the martial, heroic romance world of the writings most commonly taken to be the literary antecedents of Much Ado About Nothing, works by Bandello, Ariosto, et alia, works which provide the core elements of the Claudio-Hero plot in the play and which are metamorphosed into the determinedly holiday world of Messina. (6) Decontextualized and rendered conspicuous in its incongruity, Hero's simile reminds us of the way in which references to these writings populate Much Ado About Nothing. Surprising us in varying degrees of incongruity, evocations of its literary background cling to the play as a kind of scattered verbal residue by means of which the play summons its antecedents only, it seems, to distance itself from them, investing their recollections with the force of ironic, parodic allusions, or elements of a foreign fictive economy intruding upon the dramatic fiction that is Shakespeare's Messina. Indeed, the charge Benedick levels at the teasing Don Pedro and Claudio is applicable to the play as a whole: the "body of [its] discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither" (1.1.286-87).

Drawing upon the compilations and discussions of putative, probable, and possible sources so helpfully arraigned by Charles Prouty, Geoffrey Bullough, and Kenneth Muir, (6) reading Much Ado by reading its reading of these antecedents, I propose to look at the way in which juxtapositions of the sort introduced by Hero's simile help to shape the peculiar dramatic space the play configures and our experience thereof. In part, of course, what we encounter in Much Ado About Nothing merely offers a paradigm of the problematically furtive and mutually revealing relationships Shakespeare's plays regularly assume with the materials that influence them. More particularly, however, I would argue that in the degree to which Much Ado deflects even as it glances at the various literary productions that are its nutrients, it mirrors in this relationship a more significant furtiveness and ambivalence that mark its representation of character, of politics and power, and, indeed, of representation itself. With the multiple meanings of its title, Much Ado About Nothing teases us to "note" the divers ways in which it makes good on its eponymous claim to make much ado about nothing; beyond the ways that critics have already enumerated, (7) in the degree to which it renders its sources shadows, decoupling itself from the tropes and topoi to which it is heir, we find one more sense in which the play brings much and nothing into a precarious and comic proximity. …

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