‘The Jokes which society tells are a significant index of that society’s concerns and anxieties’. (M. Mangan, A preface to Shakespeare’s comedies, 1996) If this is the case what can we learn from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ about the ‘concerns and anxieties’ of the society in which Shakespeare was living? Sir H Walpole once remarked that ‘a comedy should make us think’, Shakespeare exploits this function of comedy by utilizing jokes on the themes of cuckoldry, infidelity and honour to permit the audience to think about the ‘concerns and anxieties’ associated with these jokes within Shakespeare’s society and what can be learnt from these jokes told. The figure of the Cuckold in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, a husband of a woman who commits adultery, is a running joke throughout the play.
In the play, the character Benedick, who carries a misogynistic view of women, is the main instigator of these jokes, he says that being a cuckold is what happens when you get married and you would have to ‘hang’ his ‘bugle in an invisible baldrick’ and he vows never to allow the plucking ‘off’ of ‘the bull’s horns and’ setting ‘them’ on his ‘forehead’, meaning he does not want to get married.
Even though Benedick may be slightly bestial, it is clear there is a fear of getting married in Benedick’s opinions. As Michael Mangan2 comments in ‘Huddling jest upon jest’, the jokes made in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ about husbands and cuckolds indicate to the audience ‘the underlying anxieties about gender roles’ and ‘about women’s possible sexual licence’ common in Shakespeare’s society. The cuckold theme was the subject of many ballads and pamphlets in the Elizabethan Era.
An Elizabethan Audience would have been familiar with cuckold jokes and would even probably know the place in London known as ‘Cuckold’s Haven’. However, they would also relate to the concerns of infidelity amongst women, especially the men and some would share these misogynistic views and fears of women. These fears were so strong as a result of the male honour and pride which most men had and also the accosted idea of being the natural heirs.
A modern-day audience would be able of relate to the ideas of adultery, as often portrayed in Serial Dramas such as ‘Eastenders’ or ‘Coronation Street’, nevertheless, they would probably not have the same fears as the Elizabethans as more people cohabit rather than marry and are more aware to such problems as adultery and that husbands are involved adultery as much as women. In most of Shakespeare’s comedies there is a ‘shrew’, an outspoken, independent, strong, female stock character, in ‘The Taming of The Shrew’ this is Katerina and in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ there is Beatrice.
The strong female character or ‘shrew’ is one of the comic conventions that feature in all of Shakespeare’s comedies and moreover it, is not unusual that there are jokes aimed towards the stereotype. In the play, the men refer Beatrice as ‘Lady Disdain! ‘ and that she has a ‘shrewd … tongue’ being ‘too curst’. It can be acknowledged that as the men make light of Beatrice’s outspoken, shrewish behaviour, underneath it, they are intimidated by her intelligence and strength.
An Elizabethan Audience would recognise the stock character but also correlate themselves with the anxieties of strong women. The social hierarchy was of common knowledge; where God came first, then the king or monarch who would be appointed by God, the man, the women and then beast. The Elizabethan men were just accepting Queen Elizabeth I, and would find it hard to adjust to women becoming strong and independent, feeling intimidated as a strong female character placed a threat to the social hierarchy.
On the contrary, a modern audience would be accustomed to the idea of the strong woman as of the female rights campaigns throughout the Twentieth Century, women now occupy a more central and public role in society. Nevertheless, sexism does still exist in all spheres of society even after women’s rights In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Shakespeare applies sexual innuendos as jokes to comment subtly, on the freedom sexuality in his society and the limits. In the play the sexual innuendos were remarked by women, which would appear strange to an Elizabethan audience.
In Act 1 Scene 1 Beatrice remarks whether ‘Signor Mountanto’ has ‘returned from the wars’ meaning ‘Signor Benedick’ and the word ‘Montanto’ meaning the thrust of male genitals and the ‘mounting’ of a partner. Margaret also uses a sexual innuendo by commenting on ‘the weight of a man’ making Hero’s heart ‘heavier’. It was common in Shakespeare’s comedies to use lower status characters to make such commons as not to offend any of the higher status audience and appeal to the lower status.
Furthermore, Shakespeare has not only used these sexual innuendos to entertain the more bawdy members of the audience but also, to convey the concerns and anxieties on sexuality in the Elizabethan era, as even though, illicit sexual behaviour was not heard of in the courts and upper classes of society, it was extremely common among the lower classes and Shakespeare was trying to inconspicuously, portray his concern that the Upper classes ignored such behaviour and places such as brothels.
An Elizabethan audience, would be able to relate, however, a modern day audience would be used to sexual innuendos as jokes as modern day morals are less religious and restricted. Love as a disease is another joke used in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, to highlight the concerns and anxieties in Shakespeare’s society over love.
In Act 3 Scene 2 , after Benedick has apparently fallen in love with Beatrice he claims to have ‘the toothache’ and Don Pedro and Claudio tease him suggesting he ‘draws it’ or ‘hang it’ and in Act 3 scene 4 after Beatrice has supposedly fallen in love with Benedick she claims to be ‘sick’ and Margaret and Hero suggest ‘cardus benedictus’, a holy thistle and a clever pun on Benedick’s name. Shakespeare discreetly portrays how Benedick and Beatrice’s alliance with their honour provokes them to fear being reliant in another person and this explains Benedick’s fear of marriage.
Shakespeare is vividly commenting on the fears of love and its effects in Messina as a microcosm of Elizabethan England. An Elizabethan and a modern day audience could relate to this concern, as there are many pressures and problems that come with falling in love such as suitability, personality, appearance and many more. They could also make a connection to the effects love has on a person where it makes them a victim, oblivious to all things around them, gives them a loss of their sense of reality and a blindness to their lover’s faults.
In Shakespeare’s society fashion was very topical and in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ he addresses this with jokes about fashion. In Act 2 scene 3 Benedick ponders to himself why Claudio is interested in the ‘fashion of a new doublet’ remarking that love has changed Claudio and yet, ironically, in Act 3 scene 2 Claudio and Don Pedro teasingly comment that Benedick now has the ‘appearance of fancy in him’ and that he ‘rubs himself with civet’ a perfume. Furthermore, being interested in fashion was a sign of a loss of dignity and honour and a person without substance, also the theme of fashion exposes the superficiality of the male code of honour.
An Elizabethan audience would appreciate the connection between fashion and a loss of dignity, whereas, in a modern day audience’s society, appearances are the threading that holds together all impressions of a person and wearing the latest style or fashion has become a great necessity for most people. Subsequently, they would not comprehend the concerns and anxieties over fashion. In the Elizabethan era, the Male Code of Honour was a foundation established and seen of great importance, however, in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Shakespeare exposes this code of honour, by means of jokes, to depict how shallow it was.
In the play Beatrice mocks this code of honour by calling Benedick ‘a stuffed man’ and ‘a very valiant trencher man’. She also remarks less humorously, ‘manhood is melted into curtsies’ and that ‘men are … turned into tongue and trim ones’. Therefore through Beatrice, Shakespeare discloses the concerns and anxieties of the male code of honour and how it is superficial and lacks substance in the behaviour and speech which is always very fanciful and uses a lot of hyperbole; Shakespeare shows this by having the men speak in verse in iambic pentameter to demonstrate them as one-dimensional.
Especially, in the scene after Claudio has seen Hero and is professing to be in love with her. An Elizabethan audience would be able to network with this theme as they would have held this code in high esteem, on the other hand, a modern day audience would not identify with why the male code of honour would be so highly valued and they would be concerned with matters such as money, status, fashion, love and others. In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Shakespeare discreetly uses the malapropisms of the Police Constable Dogberry as a joke to unmask the concerns and fears over the law in Shakespeare’s society.
In the play, Dogberry says such things as ‘senseless’ instead of sensible, ‘tolerable’ instead of intolerable and many more. These malapropisms appeal to the audience showing the humour of Dogberry’s behaviour and the stereotypical behaviour the police and authorities in Elizabethan society, who were not taken seriously and often laughed at, which proved to be a major concern in that society. An Elizabethan audience would find the joke humorous but also be aware of the serious undertone, that there is an anxiety over the incompetence of the police force not keeping society safe and secure.
A modern day audience would not shoulder the same fears, as the police authorities are respected and feared by law abiding citizens. Out of all the several factions of humour, incongruity of practical jokes are used the most in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ as forms of deception. This conveys the anxieties and concerns that Shakespeare was trying to demonstrate. All of the deception is plotted by men which parallels back to Balthasar’s song ‘men were deceivers ever’ and deception comes naturally to men.
In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Balthasar’s song is implemented with all the men listening to the song and paying particular attention to it, this places the importance on to how relevant the song is to the men of the play. In the famous gulling scenes Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato, Hero and Ursula try ‘to bring… Benedick and … Beatrice into a mountain of affection’ with them fashioning ‘it’. As well, Don John and Claudio try to ‘cross’ the ‘marriage’ of Claudio and Hero and they ‘misuse the prince, to vex Claudio’.
As the deception of these practical jokes may appear comical, they underline the concerns, in Shakespeare’s society, of deception, as Shakespeare uses it in all of his comedies; ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As you like it’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ this illustrates that deception was not only an entertaining comic convention but a serious and sever anxiety within his society because in that period of time there were many who tried to deceive others, however, the deception was well hidden.
A modern day and an Elizabethan audience would be able to connect to this as deception was and still is a very common occurrence witnessed by many in societies. In the title of 3Peter Holindale’s essay on the subject of comedy remarks that there are ‘serious voices in a Comedic world’, this is viewed in Messina and paralleled to Elizabethan England.
The jokes crafted and exploited by Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ elaborate and reiterate the anxieties that not only the Elizabethan era faced but every generational society faces and adds to as each day passes and furthermore, make each new generation of audience laugh at these anxieties.
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