My recent viewing of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing reminded me of just how strange this Shakespeare comedy is. Primarily remembered for featuring the ur example of the squabbling “get a room” couple, tonally it runs the gamut from rom com to film noir, the shift occurring when the callow Claudio is tricked into thinking that his demure bride-to-be, Hero, has been inviting every man in Messina into her bed. At this point the battle of the sexes that's been lightheartedly represented in the bickering of Beatrice and Benedick explodes and turns vicious. The innocent and defenseless Hero is publicly shamed and reviled at the altar, even by her father, who can barely be persuaded to believe in her honesty and swears to her that his hands will “tear her” if the accusation proves to be true, and the plotline of the burgeoning romance between Beatrice and Benedick is derailed when Beatrice, the only character to take offence at the treatment of Hero, her cousin, exhorts Benedick to prove his love for her by killing Claudio on her behalf.
But then romantic comedy is a stranger genre than we normally think. The faked death of Hero, which removes her from the play while her innocence is slowly but surely established by the dim-witted local Watch (compare the deus ex machina role of the childlike Pettibone in Hawks's His Girl Friday), is an instance of the “death of the hero/heroine” trope that Northrop Frye identified as a feature of the comedy genre. In the case of the hero, imprisonment often substitutes for death – a trope that can be traced in American film comedy from Sturges's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (whose plot concerns the proving of the technical “innocence” of a seemingly unwed mother) to the first Ghostbusters movie. The death and rebirth of the heroine, on the other hand, are often treated more literally – and never more literally than by Shakespeare in this play and the late romance (in the Frygian sense of the term) that sees the full development of the Hero-Claudio plot, The Winter's Tale.
Psychologically, the violence that descends on Hero on her wedding day metaphorically represents the violence of defloration; Shakespearean comedy is still close to initiation ritual here. The pure maiden must disappear and be reborn to prove that her purity can survive the carnality of marriage – and compare the weird romance (Frygian sense again) Love Letters, directed by William Dieterle, with a screenplay by Ayn Rand, which may supply the missing link between Shakespearean comedy and Hitchcock's Vertigo. But then so does Sturges's The Lady Eve, which also features a heroine with a dual identity. And The Lady Eve is as tonally troubling as Much Ado, with Barbara Stanwyck's declaration of her affection for Henry Fonda, “I need him like the axe needs the turkey,” almost as naked an expression of the battle of the sexes as Beatrice's “Kill Claudio.” Three-and-a-half centuries after Much Ado, The Lady Eve is still generating dark comedy from patriarchal expectations of female purity, and Stanwyck finally achieves Beatrice's revenge on Claudio – not by murder, but by an even better means, babbling an endless fictive list of her premarital indiscretions to Fonda on their wedding night.
Besides the romantic comedies and romances of classical Hollywood cinema, another notable heir of the plot and concerns of Much Ado is Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which also features a complex principle couple who are perfectly matched but at odds with each other and a simpler secondary couple whose romance is nevertheless interrupted by outside interference – at which point the tone of the novel darkens. Here Darcy – rather than the villain, Wickham – interferes with the Jane-Bigley romance, confirming the ire of Elizabeth, who reproves with him and uncivilly rejects his marriage proposal in an anguished scene that I was reminded of during the scene where Beatrice persuades Benedick to challenge Claudio. Elizabeth has not only Beatrice's wit (although Austen reproduces Shakespeare in a less bawdy register) but also her loyalty to her milder female relative, the “conventional” young woman contrasted with the “modern” heroine. Equipped with not only a sister but also a best friend whom she loves, Elizabeth has more ties to her own sex than most famous heroines of fiction. Darcy not only loses her affection by ruining her sister's happiness, but regains it by assisting another sister who has disgraced herself.
One of the few carryovers I noticed from leads Alexis Denisof's and Amy Acker's former incarnation as a couple in a Whedon project, as Wesley and Fred on Angel, was the sense conveyed that Benedick loves Beatrice more than Beatrice loves Benedick, which is how she can manipulate him. A supreme sense of the traditional stakes for each sex in marriage undergirds the romantic comedy plot of Much Ado: for men it means the risk of being sexually betrayed, for women the risk of becoming the victim of the misogyny underlying such male fears. Shakespeare proves the men delusional and the women justified; consequently, Beatrice has much more to fear from marriage than Benedick. His misogyny is nothing more than a pose, whereas her misandry is deep-seated – in this play, with good reason.
By agreeing to kill Claudio, Benedick joins the women's side in the play's brutal battle of the sexes, out of love for Beatrice. How the audience is meant to feel or will feel in response to Beatrice's demand and Benedick's concession is another question, and remains one of the disquieting ambiguities of the play. Does Claudio deserve to be murdered – personally or as a representative of the male attitudes he displays so spectacularly? If we answer yes, or at least entertain the question, for a modern audience Claudio's crime is not defaming an innocent maiden's chastity but regarding his wife as a possession in the first place. The demand that a wife be a virgin is of course the direct result of men regarding women as their personal property under patriarchy; as Simone de Beauvoir puts it in The Second Sex, “The surest way of asserting something is mine is to prevent others from using it.” And as Stanley Cavell has argued, in Shakespeare lack of certainty about a woman's fidelity (or in de Beauvoir's terms, of one's ownership of another human being) has the effect of turning into a universal skepticism for the male protagonist that results in madness and is itself a kind of madness.