MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare): An analysis by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible.  Love comes about as a conspiracy.  That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy.  A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other.  Love-relations are arranged by the community.  They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness.  It is the community that decides who loves whom.  It is the community that makes love-relations possible.

We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play.  Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato.  Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject.  He will be Claudio’s intercessor:

The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit.  ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].

Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.

Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero?  Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name?  Why does Claudio not do the courting himself?  Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata?  Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?

The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third.  A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary.  Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.

Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i].  Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”

As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers.  (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.)  And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor.  Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).

Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:

I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].

Notice the use of the verb “fashion.”  Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors.  What chthonic beast will he slay?  Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.

And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:

I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].

Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends.  Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.

This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio).  This is a conspiracy of marriage.  Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick.  When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?

Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him.  He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice.  Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):

I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].

“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice.   When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect.  His superior desires Beatrice.  So must he.

In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped.  Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.

The exact scene is replicated in the third act.  Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her.  Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:

“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].

Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.].  “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.

Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].

She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing.  / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”  More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.

Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda.  And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)?  Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not.  The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will.  The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will.  Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil.  The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard.  A melancholic bastard.  And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.

What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations.  Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

MAO II by Don DeLillo / An Analysis of MAO II by Don DeLillo

An Analysis of MAO II (Don DeLillo) by Joseph Suglia

Exactly ten years before the terrorist assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) compared the act of writing with the act of terrorism.  As terrorists, writers once had the power to destabilize perceptions of the world.  They unsettled one’s customary responses to things and opened up the possibility of new thoughts and impressions.  By giving ordinary things extraordinary names, literary language had the power to radically transform one’s relationship to the world.  Today, however, what could be more harmless than a novel?  A novel is insignificant in comparison with the explosive force of terrorist initiatives.  Literature is dead, and the news is the new means of perceptual disorganization.

The only way that literature can be effective in a culture of terror is by absorbing the gestures of terror.  In DeLillo’s novel, literature, quite literally, terrorizes.  Legendary novelist Bill Gray is blackmailed by a Maoist Lebanese political organization to act as its spokesperson.  Although literature has lost its power to alter human perception, the image of the author exerts a certain authority.  For this reason, Gray’s simulacrum will be used to promote the causes of Lebanese nationalism.  The writer becomes a reporter, a mediator of images that stimulate fear.

As if to acknowledge that literature is absorbed by the culture of the image, Mao II takes the form of a “picture-book.”  On the one hand, its various scenes have the “feel” of a documentary and resemble the news in printed form; there is, for example, an extraordinary “documentary”-like moment in which Brita and Karen watch Khomeini’s funeral on television and witness endless crowds simulating paroxysms of grief.  On the other hand, each section of the book is segmented by actual photographs: masses of Chinese citizens gathered before Mao Zedong; a preordained marriage ceremony at Yankee stadium; a crowd of people crushed against a steel fence by the rampaging stampede at the 15 April 1989 soccer game in Sheffield, England; Khomeini’s portrait; children in the trenches of war-torn Beirut.  All of this serves to reinforce the book’s thesis that the book is dead.  Dead or swallowed by an infinite swarm of technically reproducible images.

The author of a novel about terrorism, Martin Amis incorrectly categorized Mao II as a “postmodernist” work.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If anything, the book traces the limits of postmodernism by opposing the transformation of words into images.  The novel links the tyranny of images with the tyranny of terror–hence the title, which is taken from one of Andy Warhol’s mass-reproductions of Mao Zedong’s portrait.  By aligning the order of images with the order of terror, the book condemns both.  Of course, one of the characters, George Haddad, representative of the Lebanese terrorist group and Gray’s interlocutor, claims that terrorism has not been incorporated and subsumed by the culture of the image: “Only the terrorist stands outside” [157].  By saying this, Hadded attempts to identify the terrorist with those who are outside of mainstream culture.  But the exact opposite is the case–just because Haddad makes this claim does not mean that “DeLillo” agrees with him.  Terrorists need technically reproducible images in order to terrorize.  Without television and the massive circulation of sound-bytes and images that it empowers, the efforts of terrorism would be ineffective.  By contrast, literature is, strictly speaking, invisible: it is constituted by hints, clues, gestures, and ambiguities.  In a culture in which terror is spread through images, literature is doomed to failure: “What terrorists gain, novelists lose.  The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought.  The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous” [157].  American culture is a culture that valorizes the obvious–and for this reason, terrorism, which exploits the obvious, has a firm hold on the American sensibility.  Everything must be visualized, everything must be known, everything must be self-evident, everything must be confessed.  There is no place for literary opacity in a culture that values transparency above all else: “Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture.  Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.  They make raids on human consciousness.  What writers used to do before we were all incorporated” [41].

And yet terrorists are also incorporated.  One must no longer imagine that terrorists are “Others” who infiltrate a domestic territory.  Terrorists do not attack “us” by way of an intervention or an incursion from the outside.  Terrorism, according to the logic of Mao II, inhabits the very culture that it pretends to assail.  All writers are terrorists and “half murderers” [158]–and Gray is no exception.  As the other “dictators” mentioned in the novel–Khomeini, Mao, and Moon–Bill recedes into an exile that would precede his accession to power and intensify his influence.  He disguises his past and changes his name (from “Willard Skansey, Jr.”) in order to de-expose himself.  His openness–the media exposure to which he “submits”–is the most devious form of concealment.

How else can an author survive in a culture of terror except by immersing him-/herself in an ever-proliferating sea of images?  Even before his “proselytization,” Gray allows himself to be photographed by the enigmatic Brita.  As the subject of a photograph, he yearns to obtain power through inaccessibility: “The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes” [42].  By retreating into the illuminated darkness of the image (like Pynchon, like Blanchot, like Salinger), the writer occupies a sacred space once reserved solely for godhood.  Only when the subject is dead can his or her image have any meaning.  Authors kill themselves by permitting themselves to be visualized.  The photograph is the death mask of the author.

Dr. Joseph Suglia