SHAKESPEARE’S COMEDIES AND SOCIAL HISTORY
‘You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.’ Thus, in the opening minutes of Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato encapsulates my theme in this book. As the visible representative of patriarchy—governor of Messina and head of an extensive household—he feels obliged to explain (to another male, even one as lowly as the Messenger) the odd behaviour of a young woman under his protection, and to assert her normalcy: ‘You must not mistake my niece’, he says, evidently worried that his female relation might prove impenetrable to the ‘normal’ male gaze. Yet the behaviour that he is so busy explaining is intrinsically paradoxical and transgressive of norms, ‘a kind of merry war’. Beatrice’s demeanour towards Benedick cannot be described by ordinary (that is, male-defined) linguistic usage, though Leonato tries to contain it by his oxymoronic metaphor drawn from the masculine military world (from which the Messenger and Benedick have just arrived). What Leonato sees in the ‘skirmishes’ of Beatrice and Benedick is what is traditionally known as ‘the battle of the sexes’, masculine and feminine genders in continual opposition (and here ‘tradition’ might be thought of as the product of a patriarchal culture, that can only think in this way about relations between the sexes). However, the element of ‘merriment’ in this conflict disrupts traditional assumptions about the proper behaviour of young men and women: Beatrice and Benedick—Beatrice particularly—via their verbal wit and the laughter it generates seem connected to a source of energy that cannot be fully contained by social forms.