Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Proof is in the Plotting: Stratford, Cymbeline, and Much Ado About Nothing

I recently spent a weekend in Stratford, Ontario for the Shakespeare Festival. Each Fall the University of Rochester English department makes a theater pilgrimage to Stratford led by the indomitable Russell Peck and his equally incredible wife Ruth. The trip is, for me, wrapped up in the changing season, the new school year. As leaves turn and new courses begin, the trip cements old bonds and creates new ones. Returning each year to the same small town to see very different plays helps create for me a sense of both the cyclical and the ever-new. The trip also encapsulates what I love about my program. Not only do I adore a chance to see such wonderful theater, but I treasure the kind of community fostered by the trip. The last night always ends in the Pecks taking everyone out to dessert, and professors, grads, undergrads, family, friends, significant others all crowd around pub tables to discuss the plays and gorge on chocolate and meringue. The connections made across horizontal and vertical lines through the shared experience of theater remind me of what a vibrant community the university can be.

My co-blogger Kate flew back from California to make the trip, and it was good to spend quality time with her in pursuit of our favorite hobby -- trying to cram as many plays as possible into one weekend (we saw five plays in three days). I'll focus in this post on the first day, when we saw both Cymbeline and Much Ado About Nothing, because seeing those two together really called my attention to interesting aspects of each play. Though I have seen Much Ado many times and know the play well, I had never before seen Cymbeline, nor have I studied it much or taught it before. I'll admit that, aside from reading it in a youthful effort to read all of Shakespeare, I hadn't given Cymbeline much thought. But this particular production was so engaging that it made me want to take another look at the play. Both of these plays feature a man's misplaced jealousy against an innocent lady, so that connection was immediately clear, but I started to notice other connections as well. Each play has an intriguing focus on misunderstood evidence, on bodies themselves misrepresented and misread. A striking scene from Cymbeline features Imogen weeping over the headless body of her enemy, who had dressed in the clothes of Imogen's husband Posthumus before getting himself killed. We the audience realize that the body doesn't belong to her husband, but she reads the body based upon its clothing, and her grief is terrible to behold. The most startling part of this scene to me was when Imogen dissected the body with her words, saying that she recognized the calves, arms, chest of the corpse as those of her own husband, when in fact all that she recognized was the textile exterior of shirt and breeches. This corporeal misrecognition comes after we have already seen a corporeal misrepresentation of Imogen herself. The scheming Iachimo, unable to seduce the virtuous lady, sneaks into her bedroom and takes note of the features of her chamber and, more disturbingly, of her sleeping body. This production maximized the tension in the scene, having Iachimo literally crawl over the inert body of the unconscious lady like the ghoul from Fuseli's The Nightmare. The violation involved in his actions were readily apparent, and I had a visceral reaction which I thought was exactly the right feeling for such a scene. In many parts, the production played up the comedic potential of the play, and this scene could have been funny or even ridiculous, but I felt they made the right choice by making it instead terribly uncomfortable. So details of Imogen's body related to her husband cause him to think her unchaste, while details of her husband's clothing cause her to think him dead. The evidence in each case seems strong, physical, tangible, and yet in each case it proves false. Compounding such bodily misreadings, when Imogen arrives dressed as a boy, her husband doesn't recognize her. In fact, no one but her servant realizes that it is she in boy's clothing. As his clothing made her believe a strange body to be his, strange clothing made him believe her body was not her own.

The production made even more of this focus on clothing in that it combined various historical eras of costume. Some characters seemed from the 12th century, while others seemed from the 16th or even 17th. When the Roman soldiers arrived, they were dressed as centurions. The Roman costumes complicated matters, since the Italian characters from the play are also from Rome, and therefore Romans, and yet their dress was from a much later period. During the battle scenes at the end, these Italian characters joined the Roman forces and slowly merged into the visual homogeny of the Roman troops. Kate and I wondered if the varying costumes were connected to the fact that the many-stranded plot is itself pieced together from a variety of sources. Part Geoffrey of Monmouth, part Holinhshead, part Boccaccio, Cymbeline partakes of stories from other times and places and combines them all, as Shakespeare tends to do, with Elizabethan England. The costumes may therefore represent the different narrative threads, and the changing and merging costumes at the end might show how all of these threads come together to give the play its satisfying, if someone ridiculous, conclusion. It's to the production's credit that the entire audience was so moved by the ending, which could easily have lapsed into the absurd. I heard delighted sounds and chuckles and sighs all around me at the end, and we all jumped to our feet as soon as the lights dimmed.

The Much Ado that we saw was enjoyable, though not my favorite version of the play. The overall concept of the production didn't always come together for me. There were insertions of singing and dancing which could have been charming, but seemed a little disjointed. But the witty lines and a strong Benedick made it still a fun performance. The physical comedy in the scenes where Benedick and Beatrice overhear their friends discussing them was, I thought, quite effective. I was most interested, however, given my musings on Cymbeline from that afternoon, in the fact that the play didn't feel the need to show us Margaret and Borachio at the window. So many versions of the play include the mis-viewing at the window, and I feel that it actually does make a huge difference whether we as the audience have seen the "evidence" or not. Since the play didn't include that scene, we not only know that the evidence is false, that it's not really Hero at the window, but we are only told of any of it secondhand. The misunderstanding of physical evidence, the misrecognition of Hero's body and voice, exists at an extra remove from us. And yet the misrecognition of the faithful woman occurs firsthand for Claudio, who believes Margaret to be Hero, whereas Posthumus only hears about his wife (and receives her bracelet), but never sees any misconduct with his own eyes.

So much of Much Ado is about the way in which narratives can be used constructively (to bring Benedick and Beatrice together) or destructively (to tear Claudio and Hero apart). I've had wonderful conversations before with Russell Peck and Russ McDonald about the fact that “nothing” may have been pronounced “noting,” a fact which opens up my interpretation of reading and misreading and fiction and truth. The play is so much about listening, overhearing, and reading people and situations. The characters, like the audience, bare the burden of interpretation, and much of the plot hinges on how they choose to interpret. There are many lines in the play about reading evidence or noting something, and Benedict even says that he doesn’t want Beatrice to see his bad rhymes. Even the comic relief with lower class malapropisms make more sense to me in this context of noting, since malapropisms call attention to the importance of effective communication. And let us not forget that it is the malaprop-wielding Dogberry, in all his ridiculous comic presence, that stumbles upon the truth of Don John's deception -- the learned and witty characters can't untangle that knot on their own. It is the character with the least command of language who is able to apprehend the truth in the form of Borachio and Conrade.

The protagonists of Much Ado spend their days creating deceptions, whether simply for fun (the masque, which leads to several cases of mistaken identity), or for redefining the community (the verbal games to bring Benedick and Beatrice together, the near-deadly game to convince Claudio of Hero's betrayal/unchastity). The image of the second wedding, in which Claudio believes the veiled woman he's marrying to be Hero's cousin, brings together the elements of disguise and misunderstanding in the play. Whereas before Claudio assumed a woman was Hero without seeing her face, he now assumes that a woman is not Hero when he can't see her face. In either case, he believes what he is told about the female body before him without actually looking at the evidence for himself. This production gave us a Claudio who seemed perfectly fine with marrying another woman in place of Hero, as if Hero herself really were interchangeable (as the fact that he twice mistakes her for someone else suggests). The multiple ways that evidence is uncovered at the end, both in the confessions from the villains and in the literal unveiling of Hero's face, allow for ultimate clarification even as the play makes us uncomfortably aware of the limitations of evidence to reveal truth.

I would like to teach a class one day with Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, and Othello. (Now that I think of it, I could include some great medieval stuff as well -- rewritten letters and mistaken identities as false evidence in "The Man of Law's Tale" and The Roman de Silence, for example.) In each of these plays, evidence, even strong evidence, proves insufficient. Characters read evidence through the lenses provided for them by other characters with various motives. I think it could be instructive to think about the ways in which we rarely can see evidence objectively. It could be interesting to even talk about objectivity itself and if/when objectivity is desirable. We necessarily bring our own interests and experiences to texts, and I have argued elsewhere that this is not a bad thing. (And, hey, Benedick and Beatrice find happiness because the false rumors of love for one another they overhear match with their own actual desires to be together.) Perhaps the important thing is to be aware of our own subjectivity. To try to examine our influences as well as we can. Characters in these plays hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes (or see with the eyes of others who have some token or proof to back up their stories -- a bracelet, a handkerchief), and yet they are wrong again and again, sometimes with disastrous results. Their fault is in believing themselves to be objective receivers of fact rather than active interpreters. Teaching a class about the reception of evidence itself could call attention to the very processes of close-reading and writing that take place in such a class, could call attention to the fact that I want the students to think for themselves even as I, the instructor, lead discussion and provide context. I may choose the texts, but the students have a responsibility for their own ideas and writing, and I think a discussion of such texts could lead to some fascinating dialogue about the act of interpretation itself.


  1. Very interesting. Your post has me thinking about issues of intentionality as well. Specifically with Much Ado and the positioning of Benedick in the various conflicts. If Claudio believes that Hero is unfaithful due to the interests and experiences that he brought to the "text" of her supposed dalliance with Borachio, then where do those interests and experiences come from? It would seem clear in such a reading that they come from none other than Benedick himself, who opens the play by playfully attempting to lecture his young "apprentice" bachelor on the danger and sexual dishonesty inherent in women (his idea--not mine :) ).

    That makes Benedick a far more complicated character than I had previously thought. His later conflict with Claudio is full of ironic twists of characters "noting" what others have said:

    Benedick becomes the dutiful lover due to the narrative manipulations of Claudio and co. As part of that role, he defends the cousin of Beatrice. Claudio becomes the jealous, maniacal figure he does due to the internalization of the anti-female narrative fed to him by Benedick. By exchanging roles (and in being the cause of each other's change in role) their friendship turns to deadly conflict.

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting this, Kristi. I'm going to be puzzling over this for a while, now.

    1. Scott, I love your idea of Claudio and Benedick changing roles. I think you're exactly right that the narrative of female infidelity comes from Benedick, whose misogynistic joking takes a serious turn in Claudio's mind as soon as he begins to court Hero (via Don Pedro). We see pretty quickly how the humorous banter against women that Benedick performs can take on a darker tone. I think the idea of joking having serious implications makes sense for a comedy that begins with a war in which nobody (at least nobody of importance) died. Benedick's later role as potential killer of his fellow soldier, the one whom he trained to react in just the jealous way he did, does indeed take on a deeper meaning now that I'm thinking through the play in this way. While Claudio is certainly responsible for his own actions, Benedick, who has taken on the role of teacher, probably does bare some responsibility for shaping Claudio's expectations of women. Even off-hand remarks and jokes can have real effect in the world, and we are indeed responsible for what we say to others, especially others who respect us as authority figures. Now you've got me really thinking... Thanks for the thought-provoking response!


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