Much Ado – to Wit and Woo

Sheila O’Malley lets slip a comparison in her review of Joss Whedon’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. She wrote (and I place it in a block quote for the eyes):

Beatrice is a tough-talkin’ dame like Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn, and Benedick is an independent irritable guy, reminiscent of Cary Grant or William Powell.

Now, my ears perked up, because Beatrice is my favorite female character in all of Shakespeare and I’ve always been a fan of the screwball antics of comedienne Carole ‘the Profane Angel’ Lombard, the sophistication of Cary Grant, and William Powell in the Thin Man series. Kate Hepburn has been hit-or-miss for me because her spirit seems to channel Hawthorne’s Puritan ancestors. I never forget that I am looking at New England when I see Hepburn act. Carole Lombard, on the other hand, along with her being a wonderful actress, was also known for her blue streak and sense of humor, on and off the set. O’Malley’s sense of modern female analogue or, I should rephrase it, sense of relative analogues, got my attention since Carole has been dead for seventy years, and Hepburn was the last of the bunch to leave us, at the age of 96 in 2003.

“Tough-talkin’ dame,” yes, but Carole and Kate were never edgy as their film-noir peers, the femme fatales such as Barbara Stanwyck, or Joan Crawford, and others. You don’t do those dames wrong without paying the price. Hepburn and Lombard, when they are lit up and angry, are offended; more than that, they are outraged by a greater sense of injustice to all women. Beatrice’s rage is against Society, against the idea that a woman’s sole value is her virginity. She refuses to marry on the grounds that she has not met her equal. She also does not want to surrender her freedom. She knows all the unspoken rules that govern the behavior of a supposedly ‘good girl.’ She knows that Society is against her, knows that “I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” (IV.i.312–318) There it is: men are misogynist or at least suspicious of women, therefore Beatrice asserts the only choice that the times allow her to make: to defy marriage; she chooses to be misogamous, and, like a comedienne, she resorts to wit and the dance of words, as opposed to brutish means, like Lady Macbeth, or Tamora of Titus Andronicus. This is all dangerous stuff, this defiance that tears apart at the fabric of society, more so in Shakespeare’s day, but it is still as divisive today in ours.

Women characters in film, just as their analogues in real life, have never had it easy, but there is a peculiar trend that has gone unnoticed about angry, avenging women in film and literature. Shakespeare’s Beatrice uses her verbal skills and the result is comedic entertainment with misdirection. The early film version of the femme fatale had her using her verbal wits; it was drama with misdirection. What it is not is sex. Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy in the Maltese Falcon is a nervous twittering mess, stuttering and stammering, on edge, her eyes never meeting Spade’s, and she is proper, well-dressed. Spade is not taken in. His partner, Miles Archer, is. We know what happens to Archer. Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, is onto Brigid’s charade. Does it take another woman to see through another woman’s game? Effie doesn’t seem at all surprised to learn that Brigid O’Shaughnessy is also Miss Wonderly, and Miss LeBlanc.

Sex might be the undercurrent, the last resort, by the woman on the edge, but it is the last card played for the early femme fatale. Brigid’s mask cracks when she meets Joel Cairo. She can’t manipulate him. His “three gaily colored silk handkerchiefs fragrant of chypre” explains why. So Mary Astor is film noir’s first femme fatale. Unlike her sisters later she has to use a Victorian sense of frailty and vulnerability to get what she wants. If there is any moralizing on author Dashiell Hammett’s part it might be in her near-final lines, “I’m so tired of lying and making up lies, of not knowing what’s a lie and what’s the truth.” Comparing Elizabethan comedy to noir, a comedienne to a femme fatale, might seem apples to oranges, but wait…

Few men have written women well. Very few of the hardboiled writers wrote women well, although they, and subsequent film-noir directors, changed how women were presented between the pages and on the screen. Chandler, born in 1888, and Hammett, born in 1894, were both Victorian in outlook. Their predecessor in the genre of detective fiction is Edgar Allan Poe and Poe’s women are Berenice, Ligeia, and Madeline Usher who, in turn recall Keats’ “Belle Dame Sans Merci.” These women are mysterious, ethereal, a type. For some provocative life-and-blood eroticism from the Victorian mindset, there is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. She is undead, a vampire, and a lesbian. The only saving grace, as far as delicate male readers are concerned, is that she is like Joel Cario in that she has no interest in the opposite sex. She doesn’t abide by the rules because men have nothing that she wants and she lives outside their purview. Literally.

Shakespeare’s Beatrice has a dilemma. She is in the world of the living. She cannot live outside of the natural order. She is dependent on men; if not on a husband, whom she has defied in principle, then at least on her father and other men. Shakespearean men are concerned with war and conquest. The men in Much Ado are home from war and if there is one thing that British history has demonstrated is that a nobility not at war creates unrest. A villain will make himself known. In Much Ado, the villain is Don John and he announces himself as the “plain-dealing villain.” Shakespeare has him sow discord for Claudio and Hero, but the intent of the play is to demonstrate how to deploy one’s wit and to woo.

The late Tony Tanner pointed out a curious thing in an essay on the play. The words wit, woo, and slander appear the most in Much Ado than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays, but the word hearsay appears only in this play. Misprision is another curious word Shakespeare uses in the play. It is the pompous, illiterate “I am an ass” Dogberry who, as the play’s Fool, sees through all of the slanders (Act V, i, 214-18). The “hearsay” is all the words misheard, misunderstood or misrepresented. Misprisioned. The ado about nothing is all about what it seems or means, and all of that comes about as a result of Shakespeare’s plotting. Matters go awry, characters act on “hearsay.” Shakespeare’s question about the endless tension between the sexes is that the evidence always remains questionable. Everything is based on hearsay and not proof. Much Ado was first performed in 1598. Othello’s “ocular proof” would take the stage in 1604. A metaphorical discussion on what is and what seems is presented in Hero and Margaret’s comments about clothes for a wedding.

Shakespeare’s brilliance shines at the end of Much Ado because it is the men who are called to do repentance and mourning for their misapprehensions, for their mistreatment of women. This is a reversal and accomplished without a litter of bodies on the stage. Claudio must make amends to Hero. He had thought that she was another because of “hearsay,” yet she is the same Hero. She had been a victim of “slander lived” (V, iv, 66). Near the end, the Friar advises “change slander to remorse” and to “look for greater rebirth” (IV, I, 209-12). Tony Tanner interprets the Friar as Shakespeare the Director and as an “embryonic Prospero,” which took me aback because I, like others, have read Prospero as Shakespeare the Writer making his final farewell. The first performance of The Temptest was in 1611. Shakespeare died in 1616.

The idiosyncratic digression into femme fatale is here for contrast, between the then and now for film and literature. The means by which the clever woman achieves her objective, whether it is marriage or material gain, has changed and not changed. Brigid O’Shaughnessy would give way to film versions of James Cain’s black widows in his novels: Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), Joan Crawford in the title role of Mildred Pierce (1945), and Lana Turner as Cora Smith in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). The men don’t get off so easily (no pun intended). The chivalric Marlowe, prude though he was, had some semblance of morals, and Spade, who, though he may have restricted his morality to the Bro Code, was still a nice guy, while the lawmen who came later on the scene were not so nice. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a pugilist, Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford, a psychopath. The action in either book or film becomes increasingly violent. The image of the femme fatale progresses from the ersatz vulnerability of Astor to the narcissistic Gilda to the all-out sex bomb detonations of Ava Gardner, Turner, and Yvonne De Carlo. By the time Mike Hammer is pummeling some bad guy’s melon to mush, women are peripheral to the plot and nobody pays attention to their wiles. Hardboiled literature, while strong on image, was weak on plotting (read The Big Chill or watch the film), but, by the Fifties, dialog is nothing but a series of flippant quips on radio, and the rest of the accessories, clichéd props such as bottle in the drawer, cigarettes, revolver and a trenchcoat. The woman doesn’t seem to matter. She is a victim of undecided value. There is nothing to laugh about there.

I chose to highlight film noir here because Joss Whedon filmed his Much Ado in black-and-white, in his home, over a period of two weeks, with the people he obviously loves and respects. I gambled to compare apples and oranges to illustrate the role of women in two genres, comedy and drama, film and literature, in the hands of two masters, Shakespeare and his capable student, Joss Whedon. I chose film noir because our perception of black-and-white film is associated with film noir and ‘old-school cinematography,’ with noir’s stark contrasts of dark and light with morality. ‘Film noir’ as a designation came much later, from the French. Billy Wilder made it clear in an interview that no director woke up in the morning and said, “Damn. I’ve got to film a noir. Kill all the lights and find me a miserable location with lots of rain. Take everyone off of the antidepressants.” Wilder explained that ‘noir,’ as we know it, was simply another tool in the tool box, which is not to say that Wilder and his peers were ignorant of the ‘cinematic effect’ pioneered by Lang and the German Expressionists. They did. Whedon reminds us what shadows do, can do, what they suggest and imply. Whedon’s visual tone mirrors the particular language of the play: “hearsay.”


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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