Re-reading Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

(1) Shakespeare’s invisible women and men. In the Quarto Leonato is followed on stage by “Innogen his wife.” Innogen has no lines and doesn’t do anything, but is mentioned in other stage directions. This could make her what is called a “ghost character,” though usually she is cut from productions entirely. We also hear right away of Claudio having “an uncle here in Messina,” but there is no further mention of this figure. Then, at the beginning of the next scene, Leonato asks Antonio about Antonio’s son. If such a person exists, we never see or hear from him. In Act V Leonato tells Claudio that Antonio has a fictitious daughter and that “she alone is heir to both of us.” I don’t think any of this means anything other than that we don’t often, if ever, have a polished, finished Shakespeare text.

(2) I wonder what the significance is of Don Pedro wooing Hero for Claudio. Of course it seems awkward and inappropriate to a modern audience, but maybe it was expected that as the Prince he was the one to arrange such matters. That would fit with the unflattering view of marriage as a business transaction that Claudio and Benedict share. The first question Claudio asks Don Pedro about Hero is whether Leonato has any son. Don Pedro knows exactly what Claudio is really asking about and replies that “she’s his only heir.” Later, as Benedict entertains the notion of marrying, his first consideration is that any prospective bride be rich. These guys have their eyes on the prize, but such mercenary views were conventional.

(3) After Benedict has shaved off his beard Claudio remarks that “the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls.” Apparently this was the custom (they even found some tennis balls from the period when restoring Westminster Hall that were stuffed with putty and human hair). If you’re wondering how they worked, you have to keep in mind that the game of tennis being played was “real tennis,” which was a different game from today’s “lawn tennis.” Real tennis is a bit more like squash, and didn’t require as bouncy a ball. Which is good, because I don’t see how a ball stuffed with hair would bounce at all.

(4) When Conrade asks Don John why he is “thus out of measure sad,” the melancholy bastard replies “There is no measure in the occasion that breeds, therefore the sadness is without limit.” This is one of those pregnant lines that I get something a little different out of every time I read it. I guess at its most literal it means that since the cause of Don John’s sadness is without limit (or measure) then so is his sadness. But that raises other questions. He might be referring to his bastardy, but that’s something that he doesn’t go on about in the rest of the play (and is indeed only mentioned near the end by Benedict). He’s not an Edmund. But what the line has always seemed to mean, at least to me, is that since there is no precise cause to his misery it is something conditional, which makes it worse than if it did have a specific source. This is like the distinction between clinical and situational depression. Perhaps he just needed a good therapist.

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