Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Much Ado About Nothing"

My favorite comedy by Shakespeare is hands-down "Much Ado About Nothing". It's an easy read with memorable characters, a good balance of drama and comedy, and has some of the best monologues and pithy statements Shakespeare ever came up with. It's also interesting because the story at first seems to revolve around two certain characters, then you realize that it's actually about two others. There are several minor characters that lend to the humor, or evil, of the story but all the storylines converge and like the title suggests, the drama all ends up a big fuss over nothing.

In 1993 a movie version of the play was made by Kenneth Branagh. With an all star cast and beautiful filming locations in Italy, it was an instant hit. So, let's delve right in! As per Shakespeare's style, we'll introduce the Dramatis Personae (cast of characters) first.

Kenneth Branagh as Benedick
Benedick is a soldier from the city of Padua in Italy. He is a fighting man, loyal to the Prince, Don Pedro, best friend to Count Claudio, and finds his amusement in bickering matches with Beatrice. A sworn bachelor, he has no desire to marry whatsoever and it fiercely disappointed when his dear friend Claudio decides to "turn husband". Despite his railings against marriage, women, love, and the like, Benedick has a heart of gold and values honor above all. His attitude swiftly goes from teasing and playful to deadly serious in an instant. When it comes down to the difficult moment where lines are drawn, Benedick is willing to sacrifice all he has for the love of one and to save the honor of another.

Emma Thompson as Beatrice
Beatrice is certainly her own woman. Intelligent, witty, and always ready with a sharp comeback, she is Benedick's most common sparring partner. Her closest companion is her cousin Hero and the two are rarely seen apart. Beatrice struggles with her anger when her cousin is denounced publicly and wishes that she had the rights of them men to handle the situation herself, such is her fierce loyalty to her family. Like Benedick, Beatrice downplays any sort of relationship that might lead to a marriage, she herself stating that she is far too particular and very difficult to please. Even so, this does not stop her friends and family from trying to lend Cupid a helping hand. (Just as a note - a common mistake is often made in the assumption that Beatrice is Antonio's daughter. She is not. She is the daughter of another unamed brother of Leonato and Antonio)

Robert Sean Leonard as Claudio
Claudio is the youngest of all of the soldiers in Don Pedro's company and has recently made a name for himself in the wars. Hailing from Florence he is romantic, shy, and a bit naive, unlike his best friend Benedick. Smitten with young Hero, he readily seeks her out as his wife, only to be drawn into a web of lies that give the story its title. Claudio is one of those characters where you love him one minute and hate him the next. Sometimes you feel sorry for him and in the next scene you hope some one bloodies his face. His youth and inexperience are his greatest weaknesses, but his love and brokenness allow him to grow from an unsure boy at the beginning of the story to a confident man at the end.

Kate Beckinsale as Hero
Young and beautiful, Hero is the only child of Leonato of Messina. She readily welcomes the romantic overtures of Claudio, but is innocent and believes the best of those she comes in contact with. She, along with others, believes it is high time her cousin Beatrice was paired up with a good man and helps to undertake the matchmaking. All is fun and joy in the household until Hero's honor is challenged on her wedding day. She is devastated and abandoned, but her savior comes in the form of the one person no one expected.

Denzel Washington as Don Pedro 

Don Pedro is the Prince of Aragon. As the story begins he is returning from a successful war campaign and is looking forward to a few weeks of quiet relaxation at the home of Leonato. While finding some respite Pedro decides to play matchmaker with more than one couple. A cheerful man, Pedro is a father figure to his younger soldiers and a brother to the more seasoned veterans. Like the others, he is caught of in the intrigue that blows a family apart and places friends on opposite sides. Pedro exemplifies good leadership, strong but gentle, honorable but humble, a man who makes mistakes but learns from them rather than defending them.

Keanu Reeves as Don John
Don John is the illegitimate younger brother of Don Pedro. Even though he has the title of nobleman and has a high rank in his brother's army, John cannot escape the stigma of his birth. Quiet and withdrawn by nature, John lives in the shadow of his elder brother's charisma and legitimacy. He does not have the personality of Benedick or the military prowess of Claudio. His brother's seeming perfection irks him and John seeks a way to discredit the prince, going so far as destroying innocent people. Unlike many of Shakespeare's villains, John is relatively simple to understand and there is no resolution for his character, possibly because the story is a comedy and Shakespeare wanted to keep the mood lighter than in his tragedies.

Richard "Dicky" Briers as Leonato
Leonato is the governor of Messina, father to Hero, and master of the villa where the story takes place. He is also a close friend to Don Pedro and makes a sincere attempt to draw Don John into their circle. He is a cheerful man who takes great pleasure in watching the continual banter between Benedick and Beatrice and is a ready and willing accomplice the the prince's matchmaking schemes. He is well pleased with Hero and Claudio's engagement but when Hero is slandered on her wedding day, he is broken and devastated and worse yet, does not believe his daughter's protestations at first. In the end, Leonato comes up with a clever plan of revenge that, unlike most forms of retribution, leaves everyone quite pleased.

Brian Blessed as Antonio
Antonio is Leonato's brother and uncle to both Hero and Beatrice. Like his brother, Antonio is a boisterous and happy man and dotes on his two nieces. Although the more outgoing of the two brothers, it is Antonio that calms Leonato's rage when life falls apart and helps him to concoct the "revenge" plan. He also is a bit of a flirt, often pursuing Hero's maid, Ursula.

Gerard Horan as Borachio
Borachio is one of Don John's men and spends a large amount of the story drunk, scheming, or both. He willingly aids John in concocting the plot against Hero in an attempt to discredit Don Pedro. He has a thing for Margaret and uses that to his advantage. Ultimately, it is his big mouth that lands him in hot water and in a roundabout way, saves Hero.

Richard Clifford as Conrade
Conrade is another of Don John's men. Not as clever as Borachio or John, he often goes along with what the other two are planning. He has a bit of a temper and a superiority complex, especially with those he feels are beneath him. In the story Conrade often comes across as slimy and creepy. In other words, he fits right in with Borachio and John.

Michael Keaton as Dogberry and Ben Elton as Verges
Dogberry and Verges are the local constables. Like most constables of the time, they are local citizens, untrained and unsuited for their jobs. Dogberry is the master of the malapropism, often causing unintended confusion. He never solves his cases intelligently, it's always an accident. Verges goes along with his partner's antics and while providing some of the funniest scenes in the story, they also save the day, albeit unintentionally.

Imelda Staunton as Margaret
Margaret is one of Hero's "gentlewomen", or a lady-in-waiting. She is energetic, outspoken, and a huge flirt. She has a goes after Borachio and unknowingly ends up in the scheme against Hero. However, she is devoted to Hero and is portrayed more as a sister to her rather than a servant. In the end she is embarrassed by what has happened and the role she played in it and the family readily welcomes her back into their circle.

Phyllida Law as Ursula
Ursula is Hero's other lady-in-waiting. As the oldest female character in the story, she has adopted a more motherly tone towards Hero. She is part of Don John's matchmaking schemes and firmly believes in Hero's innocence. She is often the object of Antonio's affections, a setup she seems to enjoy greatly.

The Story

The story is set in the countryside of Messina, Italy, on the island of Sicily. The family and tenants of the villa of Leonato, the governor of Messina, are enjoying a picnic when a messenger arrives. He brings word that the prince, Don Pedro of Aragon is on his way home from the recent wars and will stop over at the governor's house. As the soldiers are seen riding down the road the group heads to the villa to prepare. The soldiers, dusty and tired from the road, bathe in the pools outside the house (be prepared - this scene is a bit "revealing"!). 

When the two groups come together, Leonato warmly welcomes his friend, the prince. In a few minutes Benedick makes a comment, to which Beatrice snaps out a reply, and they are off and running. The sparring match has begun. When Pedro announces that they will remain at Leonato's for at least a month, Leonato notices a quiet young man, standing alone in a corner. It is Don John. Leonato welcomes him and begs him to be reconciled with his brother. John had previously tried to usurp his brother but seems to be walking a different path now. As the group disperses Benedick and Claudio stay behind. Claudio asks Benedick for his opinion of Hero, which he gives, essentially saying he really didn't notice or care, then asks if Claudio has intentions of "turning husband". Pedro finds them, still arguing and he encourages Claudio. This infuriates Benedick who fires off the reasons he will never marry (in a very humorous manner), then storms away.

Later on in the garden, Pedro and Claudio have a more serious conversation about Hero. Claudio is seriously considering marriage and Pedro agrees to act as the intermediary and arrange the marriage with Leonato. (Ok, let's sidetrack here for a minute. This is the part of the story where most people get confused. Why on Earth doesn't Claudio just ask the girl to marry him? He's a grown man and a soldier. What's the holdup? The holdup is that's not how it was done back then. If a young man wanted to marry a girl he would go to his own father first to ask permission. His father would then go to the girl's father to see if she was even interested. If she was then the girl's father would present his daughter to the young man. So, where is Claudio's father? Answer: He's dead. How do you know that? Because of Claudio's title - Count. A count has fully inherited his title from his father. If Claudio's father were still alive he would be a Viscount. Claudio has no father to act as his intermediary, so Pedro is standing in the place of Claudio's father. This is vitally important to understand because Pedro is brokering the marriage. He is setting it up, saying that both are honorable people and right for marriage.) While this conversation is going on, Borachio overhears it from a window. He goes and tells John of Pedro's plan. John had been talking to Conrade about how he was tired of living in his perfect brother's shadow and since a military overthrow didn't work the only thing left was to destroy Pedro's character. The three think that this upcoming marriage may provide the answer.

That night there is a grand masquerade in honor of the returning soldiers. Leonato informs his daughter that if she is solicited by the prince in terms of marriage she is to accept. Beatrice playfully scoffs, and in much the same manner as Benedick, proceeds to tell them why she will never marry. The soldiers appear, fully masked, and party really gets started. Beatrice ends up with Benedick and not knowing it is him, proceeds to greatly offend him. Pedro takes Hero while Claudio watches from a distance as the prince unmasks and speaks to her. John approaches Claudio, who re-masks quickly and claims to be Benedick. John and Borachio tell him that they know Pedro is seeking Hero for his own wife and that they will be married that night. Claudio believes him and storms off in a rage. Benedick runs into the prince and Hero on his way out and when Beatrice joins the group he refuses to stay there, making his opinion of her quite plain. Beatrice has brought Claudio back at the prince's request and Pedro presents Hero to him. Beatrice leaves the group after gently refusing a proposal of marriage from Pedro. (Ok, stop right here. Number one, she said no to a prince. Number two, and even more unbelievable, she said no to Denzel Washington! Hello! What are you waiting for woman? Anyway back to the story...) Pedro now announces his next plan. Hero and Claudio's wedding is set for one week from that day. In that week they plan to bring Beatrice and Benedick together and get them to admit how in love with each other they really are. Claudio, Hero, Margaret, Ursula, Leonato, and Antonio are all in agreement. They group leaves to make their plans as John watches from a distance, angered that his lie did not work.

Benedick overhears some very interesting information.
(Ok, I had to include this picture because I just love his expression!)

Later in the week Benedick is wandering in the gardens, lamenting the change in Claudio and telling the audience exactly what his ideal woman is like (i.e. impossible and unattainable). When Claudio, Leonato, and Pedro enter the garden, he hides. He soon overhears the three discussing a "conversation" Leonato supposedly had with Beatrice where she passionately declared her love for Benedick. After they leave Benedick expresses his disbelief and thinks that it's be a trick except that the information came from Leonato. He jubilantly dances around the garden, his whole attitude and demeanor changed. Later, Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula having the same sort of conversation where Benedick supposedly confessed his love for Beatrice to Hero. Beatrice too is overjoyed at the news. But will these two ever admit it to the rest of the family? Lord, no. They'd rather die first.

That night the three men find Benedick primping in his room. They tease him and he huffs off, asking Leonato to come with him as he has something he wants to discuss with him out of earshot of the other two (presumably Beatrice and what he overheard in the garden). John comes and tells Pedro and Claudio that he has some news that may affect the wedding that is supposed to be taking place the next day. He leads them to a window where is appears that Hero is involved in a romantic interlude with another man. From their distance they cannot see that it is actually Borachio and Margaret. John convinces the two not to say anything until the wedding.

Later that evening the local constable, Dogberry, and his partner Verges, accidentally overhear Borachio telling Conrade how the whole scene with Margaret was a setup by the himself and John. Margaret was drunk and Borachio actually called her Hero to make the deception seem real. It was all to make Hero seem unfaithful and to cast doubt and shame on both her and the prince, who had arranged the marriage. The two are arrested and hauled away.

The next morning is a frenzy of activity as everyone is preparing for the wedding. Dogberry and Verges arrive and speak to Leonato, attempting to explain that something is going to happen during the wedding and that foul play is afoot. Unfortunately, Dogberry royally screws it up and Leonato sends them on their way, the message never delivered.

As the wedding begins Friar Francis asks if Claudio is willing to marry Hero. His answer? A flat out no. Everyone is surprise. Claudio then challenges Hero to think of anything that would prevent them from marrying. Confused, she says she cannot. Claudio then proceeds to tell everyone assembled what he saw and exactly what Hero has done. A shouting match ensues between the two as Hero insists it's all a mistake but Pedro steps in and says he saw it is well. Enraged, Claudio hurls some of the most vile things at Hero, causing her to collapse. He and Pedro leave the chapel along with the guests. Margaret also quickly escapes, realizing who it was they actually saw and terrified of what may happen. Hero comes to quickly and is now facing down her own father. Benedick is the only soldier who remains and swiftly steps in to calm the situation. He is convinced that John is behind this whole ordeal and begs Leonato to listen to reason. Benedick and Friar Frances then devise a plan to say that Hero has died of shock to see what the reaction of Pedro and Claudio would be, a story they would believe since she was unconscious when they left. It is agreed and Ursula leads Hero away and Antonia tend to his brother, leaving Beatrice and Benedick in the chapel. Benedick asks Beatrice what he can do to help, and she flies into a rage, not at him but at what has happened. Benedick tells her that he will do whatever it takes to help right the wrongs and the two finally admit their love. Beatrice then asks him to kill Claudio in a duel, knowing full well that Benedick is the more experienced soldier. At first he refuses, but then says he will do it, realizing that he cannot sit on the fence with this one. He loves Beatrice and he believes Hero has been terribly wronged. Something must be done.

In the midst of all the chaos, John has slipped out and fled Messina, knowing that eventually the truth will come out and he wants to be elsewhere when that happens. He has also left Borachio and Conrade to fend for themselves. 

Later on, Leonato and Antonio bring news to Pedro and Claudio that Hero has "died" of shock. Coldly and heartlessly they reply that she brought it on herself. Playing their parts well, Leonato rages at the two and Antonio leads him away. Benedick comes up as they are leaving and Claudio makes a joke about the two brothers. Benedick shoves Claudio up against the wall, challenging him to a duel to the death for the honor of Hero. He then tells the prince that he can no longer remain in his service due to Pedro's role in Hero's death. Both Claudio and Pedro are shocked at Benedick's sudden anger and care for Hero, someone they though he didn't even like.

After all of this, Dogberry and Verges bring Conrade and Borachio, fresh from their interrogation with the magistrate to Claudio, Pedro, Antonio and Leonato. There, Borachio admits that the whole romantic interlude was planned by John to discredit Pedro. Hero was innocent all along. Leonato coldly asks if Margaret was a willing accomplice and Borachio swiftly exonerates her, claiming full responsibility. Claudio is crushed and breaks down. Leonato offers him a chance at restitution. He must hang a plaque on the family crypt, where Hero is supposedly buried, and keep vigil all night. The next morning Claudio will marry Antonio's daughter, who looks just like Hero and at that point all will be forgiven. Claudio agrees and that night Hero watches from her Uncle's house as not only Claudio, but Pedro as well, keep the death vigil.

The next morning, Beatrice and Benedick, who have been staying with Hero, are talking when Ursula rushes up and informs them that they now have proof that Hero is innocent and John was behind the whole thing and that they are all to go to Leonato's house at once. 

At the house Hero, Beatrice, Ursula, and Margaret, who has returned and been welcomed home, wait for the men in the chapel. When they arrive, all four women are veiled. Claudio asks which he is to marry, and Antonio, playing the role of father, takes Hero and leads her forward. Claudio asks to see her face but Leonato says he cannot until he gets down on his knees and swears to marry her. Claudio immediately does and Hero pulls off her veil, revealing herself to the crowd. Pedro's response, "Hero that was...dead?" is utterly priceless. As the couple starts to leave, Benedick stops them and asks which is Beatrice. The others shove her forward and she asks him what he wants. He point blank asks her if she loves him, which she denies, then she turns the question on Benedick, and he denies it as well, both declaring the conversations they overheard must have been very mistaken. Claudio and Hero retrieve love letters from the pockets of each and finally the two, in a sarcastic and joking manner, decide they'll get married, more for the sake of the other than for real love. Laughing, Benedick kisses Beatrice and the crowd cheers. Benedick then approaches Claudio and calls off the duel and the two happily reconcile. As they prepare for the wedding dance, a messenger approaches with John in chains. Pedro is too stunned to do anything but stare at his brother. Benedick tells him not to think about it on that day, worry about it tomorrow. John is hauled away, obviously upset only at being caught. The music starts, the dance begins, and the story ends.

So the question here is, who is the hero of this story? All of Shakespeare's stories have some hero; some person that shows honorable character, selflessness, or concern for another. Is Leonato, with his fatherly ways and protective nature? Is it Pedro, who tries to match up his friends in good marriages? Is it Claudio, who realizes his error and is willing to do anything to atone for them? Is it Beatrice with her fierce loyalty? Or is is Hero herself, as her name may suggest? My suggestion is that the real hero of "Much Ado about Nothing" is.......


Ok, so why Benedick?

He seems like the most stuck-up, arrogant, chauvinist possible at the beginning of the story.

All right, he is, but be that as it may, when push comes to shove, Benedick is the one who has the strength of character that some of the others are lacking. Sure, Pedro and Claudio supposedly saw Hero doing stuff she wasn't supposed to be doing, but they knew John's past, and believed him without question. Pedro so desperately wants to believe John has turned the corner and has changed his ways that he doesn't question his brother's motives. He's blinded by his desire to win his brother's loyalty. And John had been behaving himself lately, so we can give him that one. Claudio is young and innocent, easily led, and easily angered. Anyone could understand why he would be upset with Hero. But what should they have done? They should have gone to Leonato and discussed the issue privately, not cut loose in front of everyone at the wedding.

So why does Benedick come out shining like gold? Because he never doubted Hero's innocence. He never believed she was capable of the behavior Claudio was accusing her of. In this we see that Benedick actually knew Hero and her character better than Claudio did, despite his claims of indifference and not caring. Granted, he didn't see what the other two saw, but he immediately took sides against his two best friends. That's never easy to do. When they stormed out of the wedding, he remained behind. He took care of Hero and Beatrice when they were pretending Hero was dead. He immediately saw John's handiwork in the whole mess whereas the others didn't. In an instant, gone is the sharp-tongued, sarcastic man and is replaced with the serious, honorable soldier. One who is willing to take on his best friend for the honor of another and then leaves the service of the prince because he feels that the prince is in the wrong and Benedick tells him so on the way out! Basically, he's telling both of them to go take a flying leap. But Benedick can forgive as well, as is seen at the end of the story. He loves deeply, cares more than he will admit, defends those who cannot speak for themselves, and will see the right and honorable thing done, even if he's the one who loses out.

That's why Benedick of Padua is my favorite character from any Shakespeare story.


All in all this version of the movie us utterly spectacular. Kenneth Branagh is in his element and took a play that would normally be hours long and compacted it into move length without losing any of the importance, wit, humor, sadness, or joy.

Some people didn't like the casting of Keanu Reeves as John or Michael Keaton as Dogberry. I disagree. I think Keanu Reeves has been wasted on action movies. He played the nervous, stumbling, cold, role of Don John perfectly, especially when contrasted with Denzel Washington's warm and sociable Don Pedro. His grasp of Elizabethan language and intonation is also quite good, especially for someone who was not trained in that sort of acting. Ok, Micheal Keaton as Dogberry. If you don't like him, you're crazy. Just sayin'. He's hilarious! Exactly what Dogberry is supposed to be! Just when the story gets a little too heavy, in waltzes the watch, slip-ups ensue, and voila! Mood is lightened. Sure, both men are acting outside of what they normally do, but that's what makes a good actor...not getting typecast in the same roles, but playing varied roles and different characters. But don't take my word for it, go watch the movie yourself!

Random things I noticed about "Much Ado About Nothing" 
(Otherwise entitled "evidence I've watched this movie way too many times)

A lot of what I noticed came from this shot alone.

Don Pedros's men wear blue lined coats. Don John's men wear black lined coats.

The coats can button all the way up, but due to the summer setting of the movie and the natural heat they are usually shown open, if they are worn at all. The only time they are buttoned up all the way is at the weddings and the memorial. 

The soldiers usually wear their coats with the cuffs rolled down. Don Pedro usually wears his with the cuffs rolled up. 

Don Pedro is not Italian; he is a Spaniard from Aragon, the same city as Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. 

Claudio is the only man without facial hair of some sort.

Borachio wears gloves for much of the movie. He is also the only one who wears a neckerchief.

Don Pedro is the only character that regularly wears jewelry. He wears a gold necklace and a ring on his right hand. The only other jewelry seen is Hero's pearl necklace she wore at the first wedding. 

Don Pedro wears leather-like pants. All the other soldiers wear fabric pants.

Keanu Reeves must be left handed since he wears his sword on his right side. (A sword is always worn opposite of the fighting hand)

Much of the movie must have been filmed outside because the actors are very sunburned in several scenes. 

The final scene of the movie was filmed in one unbroken shot. 

Ursula is the only woman who wears her hair up.

Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were married to each other when they made this movie. 

Contrary to most popular belief, Kenneth Branagh is not English. He's Irish.

Phyllida Law, who plays Ursula, is Emma Thompson's mother, also making her Kenneth Branagh's mother-in-law at the time of the movie. 

Even though Emma Thompson and Kate Beckinsale play cousins supposedly fairly close in age, Thompson is actually 14 years older than Beckinsale. 

During Benedick's monologue in the garden he laments that Claudio only cares for fine clothes and love songs. Yet, the next time Benedick is seen he is primping in front of a mirror. Later, he is seen composing a love song to Beatrice.

There are very few costume changes in this movie. The women wear the same dresses throughout and the men occasionally change vests. 

The wedding ceremonies of the two couples never actually take place. 

Don Pedro does not take part in the dance at the end of the movie. 

This story has several strong female roles. However, in Shakespeare's time, women were not allowed to act, so all of the women's roles would have been played by young men. 

Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton acted in "Sense and Sensibility" together. Both later played in the "Harry Potter" Series, as did Kenneth Branagh. Branagh was Gilderoy Lockhart, Thompson was Sybil Trelawny, and Staunton was Delores Umbridge. 


  1. Dig it! This is an awesome and thorough description of the play. And I even learned something: that Imelda Staunton plays Margaret! I never realized that.

    I really love this version too, and this is my second-favorite Shakespeare play. Branagh seems so suited to playing Benedick, doesn't he? He always seems to be having such fun, no matter what movie he's in, and that works so amazingly well here.

    And yeah, dude, what was Beatrice thinking, turning down Don Pedro? It's Denzel!

    1. Thank you! I've always loved this play and especially this version of it. Branagh is amazing as Benedick. And he's really easy to look at in this movie... ;) I think for both he and Emma Thompson there was less acting in the movie and more reacting naturally to a given situation. (Can you imagine those two married? Yjkes!)

      When I watched this with my youngest sister for the first time she summed Benedick up nicely - "So what you're saying is Benedick is just afraid the girls are gonna bust up their boy club?" She's got it!

    2. Just realized I never responded to this! Oops. Have you ever seen the movie Dead Again? It's Branagh and Thompson again, plus Derek Jacobi, and it's crazy smart and cool and twisty weird, but never extremely scary. I really like it, but it also definitely makes me go, "Imagine these two married! Eep!"

      And that's definitely a good summation. That's totally Benedick's problem.

      BTW, I nominated you for another award :-o This is the Beautiful Blog Award, and your blog is beautiful, so I couldn't resist! Read this post of mine for info.


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