Big Love

. . . he understands the size of the love, and the kind, in Shakespeare’s plays.
—Jeffrey Horowitz, Theatre for a New Audience, on American actor John Douglas Thompson


Deep in the action of Much Ado about Nothing, two people find themselves alone in a church, lately the site of turmoil. The woman, Beatrice, is distraught; the man, Benedick, is trying to comfort her. Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, has just been humiliated at the altar by her betrothed, Claudio, who has publicly accused her of involvement with another man and left the church in a self-righteous huff. No matter that Claudio is deceived: everyone but Beatrice, Benedick, and the perceptive Friar Francis has joined Hero’s fiancé in spurning her. Having devised a plot to pretend that Hero is dead until the damage to her reputation can be remedied, the Friar has ushered Hero and her kin offstage. Now Beatrice and Benedick are left alone to realize their love for one another.

They are the last to acknowledge it. Everyone else both onstage and offstage already knows that the constant verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick signals their mutual attraction. The timing in the church is both awkward and auspicious. Beatrice’s rage at Benedick’s close friend Claudio renders her irrational enough to express not only her animosity toward Hero’s defamer, but also her tender feelings for Benedick. By inches, they each express themselves, Benedick first: “I do love nothing in the world so well as you—is not that strange?” and again: “I protest I love thee.” Then, after much coaxing, Beatrice: “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.” Made giddy by her words, Benedick submits himself to Beatrice’s service. “Come,” he says, “bid me do any thing for thee.” Little does he expect she will take him up on his offer with one of the most startling lines in all of Shakespeare: “Kill Claudio.” Benedick’s response—“Ha, not for the wide world”—confirms the fear she utters earlier in the scene, that Benedick will “swear” an oath of love and then “eat it.” Benedick’s refusal to make good on his protestation of love elicits Beatrice’s disdain: “You kill me to deny it. Farewell.”

Beatrice’s dead-serious demand is both thoroughly understandable and unreasonable. She knows without a doubt that Hero is “belied.” She thinks she knows with equal certainty that Claudio has meant to treat Hero maliciously. What she doesn’t detect, but what Benedick suspects, is that Claudio has been misled by other characters who mean mischief. In the grip of heartache and prevented by her gender from repairing the wrong done to her cousin, Beatrice lashes out at Claudio. “O that I were a man!” she fumes. “O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.” Benedick tries another oath—“By this hand, I love thee”—but is rebuffed. “Use it for my love some other way than swearing,” Beatrice returns. She’s calling on him to be the man she cannot be herself.

He obliges her in the most remarkable of ways. The moment occurs when Benedick next asks Beatrice, “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wrong’d Hero?,” and she responds, “Yea, as sure as I have thought or a soul.” That is all Benedick needs to hear. Without further hesitation, he sets aside reason and fulfills her need; he agrees to kill Claudio in defense of Hero’s honor. “Enough,” he says, “I am engag’d, I will challenge him.”

Here is the crucial point. Benedick still thinks Beatrice is wrong about Claudio, but he puts her beliefs and wishes first, even before his loyalty to Claudio, even if she’s mistaken.

Who does such a thing? It defies common sense and ration­ality. But it also requires and cultivates trust. That Benedick doesn’t have to go through with killing Claudio is beside the point. He does in fact challenge him, though Much Ado, being a comedy, resolves in favor of its main characters before any blood is shed. Only Benedick’s willingness matters. The situation fore­grounds not an impending duel but the outsized faith that enables Benedick to pull away from the male companions he’s been cleaving to until now and to commit himself fully to the woman he says he loves. He risks his reputation, as well as his standing within Messina’s predominantly misogynist culture, for Beatrice’s sake. In a play preoccupied with the influence that “fashion”—public image—exerts, Benedick acts purely on principle. What anyone else thinks of him becomes immaterial.

When I teach Much Ado about Nothing to undergraduates, I’m desperate to convey the essence of this scene, which, but for Benedick’s self-sacrifice, is the kind of ordinary declaration of love college students have come upon innumerable times in literature and film. Time was when my students, baffled by my excitement over the matter in class, looked at me as if I had antlers. Over the years, I’ve gradually learned to modulate my agitation and present my explanation in a low-key way, slipping it in as though it’s commensurate in importance with any number of other observations about the play. But I know it’s not, and every time I read, see, or discuss the play, a visceral wave overtakes me at recognizing the depth of Benedick’s troth. Without it, the feelings that Beatrice and Benedick share in the church would inevitably perish.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies center on the tension between a willingness to trust and a fear of taking that risk, whether so-called “golden comedies,” like As You Like It, in which a disguised Rosalind coaches her beloved, benighted Orlando to keep his word, or “problem comedies,” like All’s Well That Ends Well, where Helena inexplicably reposes faith in Bertram, who seems incapable of telling the truth about anything except his scorn for her. As Shakespeare moves from one play to another, he explores the limits of the comic formula. How can characters who represent real people, barely beyond adolescence, be left credibly at a comedy’s end to live happily ever after before they’ve encountered more of the disappointment, heartache, and loss that await all human beings? Can a comic resolution hope to imitate and anticipate audience members’ lived experi­ences? Probing the sustainability of drama under the weight of such questions, each comedy offers resolution, such as it is, that hovers over at least one protagonist’s unwavering commitment to another person.

Shakespeare was apparently obsessed with the problem of fidelity—or, rather, the failure of men to trust women. He revised the Much Ado plot three times—in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale. In the tragic version of the same dilemma, the one in Othello, men utterly fail at trust and punish their loyal women, who hold on fast and offer unconditional acceptance. The full-strength passion that, like Othello’s, promises lifelong devotion merely masquerades as love. It belies an insecurity that trans­forms “virtue into pitch.” You could object that Othello’s love of Desdemona is initially pure and authentic, corrupted only by Iago’s manipulation of “one not easily jealious, but being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme.” In this reading, Othello is a victim, a noble warrior whose social acceptability as a black man, hinging as it does on his military usefulness to white Venetians, renders his identity unstable, socially marginalized, and therefore vulnerable to Iago’s control. As the prominent Shakespeare scholar David Bevington points out, however, Othello himself bears a great deal of the responsibility for his fall, as signaled, even from the outset, by the self-regard that taints his affection for Desdemona. The rapt attention she pays his story-telling at her father’s house, before the play opens, portrays her as Othello’s “perfect audience,” says Bevington. “Othello speaks of her as of a person whose function is to complement his life and make him feel wonderful about himself.”

“O, these men, these men!” bemoans Desdemona later, after Othello has inexplicably struck her to the ground in public. Of course she doesn’t realize he believes she’s unfaithful: in her innocence, she can’t imagine his suspicion. Nor does she understand what the audience knows and Emilia senses—that “these men” include Emilia’s husband, Iago, the expert on unsubstantiated jealousy. When Iago announces to the audience that he believes Othello has slept with Emilia, we’re doubtful. When he later adds, “I fear Cassio with my night-cap too,” we could conclude he’s paranoid. Highly intelligent and theatrically prodigious though he is, Iago may well overestimate the degree of control he professes over himself and others. His bravado continually shows stress fractures.

Early on, Iago ridicules love virtually out of existence, reducing it to no more than “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” But although he prides himself on regulating his emotions and “carnal stings,” his fear of maintaining control over his wife gets the better of him in the last scene. Threatened by her tongue and unable to silence her any other way, he draws on her before a host of male dignitaries, one of whom succinctly remarks on Iago’s ironic self-emasculation, “Fie, / Your sword upon a woman?”

Set against the egotism of Iago and Othello, Desdemona’s refusal to indict Othello offers an alternative, even as Emilia’s love of Desdemona proves redemptive. How impoverished these women’s stories would be if either were idealized. How compel­ling both are because of each woman’s human imperfections and complexities. During Desdemona’s first appearance onstage, she announces her independence and “downright violence, and storm of fortunes” in choosing to marry Othello, words that betray a capacity for passion that matches his. Although Desdemona certainly wasn’t involved with Cassio, she’s portrayed right away as someone who, under other circumstances, might have been, by sheer virtue of the appetite for adventure that has made her Othello’s enchanted auditor. Her openness to risk, which enables her to lobby for Cassio with Othello after his drunken brawling has disgraced him, only furthers Othello’s distrust of her. The audience cringes at what, in her goodness, she doesn’t under­stand about her husband’s misperception of her.

When cornered by Othello to produce the handkerchief that she has misplaced and that Iago will use to incriminate her and Cassio, she succumbs to her fear of angering her husband. She lies.

OTHELLO. Is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak, is’t out o’ th’ way?
DESDEMONA. Heaven bless us!
OTHELLO. Say you?
DESDEMONA. It is not lost; but what and if it were?
DESDEMONA. I say, it is not lost.
OTHELLO. Fetch’t, let me see’t.
DESDEMONA. Why, so I can, sir, but I will not now.

She lies repeatedly! Her language suggests a child’s skittish evasion of an accusing parent. It is a small, provisional lie, a fudge—she believes she’ll soon find the handkerchief—and no one in the audience will judge her less than justifiable in prevaricating to protect herself. But the moral shading that her manipu- lation of the truth lends her characterization makes her final choices all the more striking. As she expires, she refuses to own Othello’s charges of adultery—“O, falsely, falsely murder’d!” and “A guiltless death I die.” Yet neither will she implicate nor condemn Othello, identifying herself as her own murderer and urging Emilia, “Commend me to my kind lord.” Her dying words make good on her earlier insistence that Othello’s “Unkindness may do much, / And his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love.”

Desdemona’s resistance to blaming Othello is another version of unconditional love. It suits perfectly her awareness, and ours, of her own vulnerability to being morally judged. Yet no matter how exquisitely right in context is her refusal to indict Othello, it’s a hard sell to today’s college students. They view Desdemona —not unjustifiably—as a victim of battered wife syndrome. They respond far more favorably to Emilia, who distinguishes herself from her mistress by letting her husband have it in the end. Emilia’s grit is palpable to them. She is their hero. But they tend to overlook how very much Desdemona and Emilia have in common—particularly their self-sacrificial love, which is easy to miss in view of their superficial differences.

Emilia’s flaws are more flagrant than her mistress’s, as her uprising against Iago in the last scene is brasher than any con­frontation Desdemona would likely undertake. Before Emilia’s final stand, though, she’s no less passive than Desdemona, arguably more so. Iago has her cowed. In their first scene together, he publicly humiliates her for shrewishness and emotional manipulation. In truth, however, Emilia “has no speech,” as Desdemona points out; she hardly seems shrewish. Iago’s efforts to subdue her, like his similar tactics for sullying Desdemona in Othello’s eyes, seek to erase her personality and, with it, her power to challenge him. Ironically, however, those efforts unveil his fear of sexual inadequacy; if wives, as he attests, “go to bed to work,” he may not be up to the task. Better to suppress a woman preemptively than be found wanting.

Emilia’s darkest moment results from her submission to Iago. It comes during a short break in the middle of the play’s most famous scene—act 3, scene 3—in which Iago implants jealous doubt in Othello’s mind. Othello has momentarily left the stage, and Emilia enters with Desdemona’s handkerchief, which she intends to give to Iago without questioning him, merely “to please his fantasy.” When Iago asks her how she came by it, she denies stealing it, yet she knows that Desdemona will “run mad / When she shall lack it.” So forceful is Iago’s sway over her that, later, she passively stands by as Othello menaces Desdemona about the missing handkerchief. If Emilia doesn’t technically lie in this instance, she betrays her mistress every bit as much as if she did.

Although Emilia doesn’t ask herself or Iago what he intends to do with the handkerchief, she knows, even if subconsciously, that he’s up to no good. In a play crammed with densely ironic passages, one of the thickest occurs when Desdemona is trying to imagine what’s wrong with Othello and Emilia surmises he’s being misled by “some eternal villain, / Some busy and insinu­ating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave,” someone, she continues, who incited Iago “to suspect” her “with the Moor.” As suppressed as her intuition appears at this point, it breaks free in the final scene, where the full force of Iago’s “odious, damned lie” comes to light through Desdemona’s murder. Now Iago’s attempts to cue her into silence—“Go to, charm your tongue”—have no potency. In a gesture paralleling Desdemona’s refusal to condemn Othello, Emilia dies not just for speaking “true,” but for the sake of vindicating the woman she inadvertently helped to murder while under Iago’s thumb. Emilia’s remarkable reversal intertwines a woman’s discovery of her voice and the ultimate self-effacing service she can render a woman she loves more than her own life and certainly more than her monstrous spouse.

Over and again, Shakespeare fashions select characters who do the unthinkable by offering everything, their lives included, for the sake of another. Twelfth Night’s Antonio, a sea captain hunted by Duke Orsino and seized by love for Sebastian, abandons caution and follows his friend into town, despite the risk of arrest. “If you will not murther me for my love,” he solicits Sebastian, “let me be your servant.” The play’s comic heroine, Viola, eventually follows suit. Having spent most of the play hiding behind a page’s disguise, she suddenly reveals the depth of her passion for Orsino. When he childishly threatens to kill her—“I’ll sacrifice the lamb that I do love”—as a punishment to Olivia, she blithely acquiesces. “And I most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die,” she replies, melding romantic love and service in its profoundest sense. Her line glances at the incomparable sacrifice implicit in the play’s title. Twelfth Night—Epiphany—celebrates the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi and thus the manifestation of Christ’s love in the world, a love that, through selfless death, will redeem humanity. Accept no substitutes, this play and others seem to exhort. Only total surrender will do. Whether it occasions joy, as in Viola’s case, or humiliation, as in Mark Antony’s complete submission to Cleopatra’s whims, it alone is valid.

What’s to become of such big love? Does it, can it, so much as register in today’s culture? I used to wonder whether Americans can pretend to analyze, act, or claim Shakespeare alongside the English. These days, however, I’m more concerned with whether love—unconditional and emptied of ego as it repeatedly emerges in these plays—can find a place among us, British, American, or otherwise. Can it even be understood, let alone valued? It seems antithetical to the public display that ardor has become.

The American advice columnist Amy Dickinson recently provided an example when she published a letter from a woman explaining that her only quarrel with her steady boyfriend was his refusal either to change his relationship status on Facebook from “single” to “in a relationship” or simply to list no status. The woman elaborated: “I think part of the problem may be that we dated in college and I dumped him but he told his friends that he dumped me, and now he doesn’t want to admit publicly that he’s dating me.” The boyfriend, she added, said he wanted to defend his privacy by not categorizing his availability on Facebook. “Am I being unreasonable?” the woman asked Amy, whose response began with the observation that the writer’s problem was “petty” and her concern over “who dumped whom” was beside the point. Amy advised the woman to redirect her attention toward the relationship between two people and off of the couple’s onlookers:

Imagine that you live in a world where what really matters is the reality of your actual feelings for each other and the personal regard you hold for each other, Facebook status aside. Imagine that you don’t care about his social network status. And then don’t care.

Concern over how others perceive our relationships or how others’ relationships shape our own is hardly new. It’s a part of Shakespeare’s repertoire, too. Witness the many instances in Antony and Cleopatra, say, in which both lead characters, Cleopatra in particular, treat love as a spectacle and display self-consciousness about how they’re being noted and possibly emulated or shunned by their public. Or consider the performative aspect of Petruccio and Katherina’s bumpy marriage; after they first meet, rarely are they shown alone together but are constantly being observed, studied, and analyzed. Yet in such examples, however aware the partners are of being watched, love nevertheless establishes itself from within and emanates outward. It begins as or ultimately becomes a private feeling, not an external fashion, not something imitated or put on without being experienced.

Shakespeare notes this difference too—for instance, in Cymbeline, a late play. Posthumus Leonatus is another of Shake­speare’s several husbands deluded into believing their wives are unfaithful. In this case, Posthumus is misled by an adversary, Iachimo, and seeks revenge for his wife Imogen’s imagined disloyalty. Once he thinks his servant has fulfilled his order to assassinate her, but before he understands that she’s in fact both alive and spotless, he regrets ever having commanded her death for the sake of his wounded pride. “You married ones,” he addresses other husbands, “If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murther wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little!” Penitent, he resolves to attend less to appearances and more to integrity. “To shame the guise o’ th’ world,” he proclaims, “I will begin / The fashion: less without and more within.”

In a speech marked by characteristically layered Shake­spearean irony, Posthumus comes off as both ennobled and still painfully misguided. He has the right goal in mind—to cultivate his character—but he’s missing some crucial preparation and information for reaching it. In view of Imogen’s innocence, his presumption at judging her at all for infidelity appears shallow, even if he protests that her trespass wasn’t all that bad—not bad enough, anyhow, to warrant her death or to make her morally inferior to him. What’s more, his admirable vow to “fashion” himself more “within” than “without” falls by the wayside almost immediately after he makes it. Here, at the opening of act 5, he can foresee what redeeming himself will require, but can’t follow through. As subject to irrationality as he was when he commanded Imogen’s murder in act 3, he now erupts in immature anger at a gentleman who asks him for news about the ongoing war between the Romans and the British. Then, in the play’s last scene, he commits his most brutal act of all, striking his disguised wife to the ground in a fit of rage and thus recalling Othello’s unmerited hostility toward Desdemona.

The ultimate point about Posthumus, then, isn’t his failure to control his temper or his failure to act out of compassion rather than in defense of his male honor. Posthumus’ maturation is, even as the play ends, a work in progress. If he doesn’t complete the objective of developing his inner worth, he continues to try. And because that goal eludes his grasp, moreover, he needs Imogen’s unconditional love. When he hits her, believing her to be a “scornful page,” she returns to her feet, offers him another chance, and embraces him. “Why did you throw your wedded lady from you?” she chides him gently as he recognizes her. “Think that you are upon a rock, and now / Throw me again.” In yet another irrationally forgiving response to irrational violence, Imogen turns the other cheek, alluding to the verse in Matthew where Jesus identifies Peter: “upon this rock I will build my church.” The rock, Peter’s faith, is also the founda­tion of a solid marriage. In context, such faith points in two directions: toward Posthumus’ faith in Imogen’s troth and toward Imogen’s faith in Posthumus’ future promise.

Faith, though rock-like, is unseen. Posthumus’ trouble begins when he thinks he sees evidence of Imogen’s unfaithfulness in what are actually lies wrought by the villain Iachimo. Pretending to have seduced Imogen in Posthumus’ absence so as to bring him down, Iachimo concocts misleading images of intimacy that never occurred. Posthumus falls prey to faulty vision by relying on outward “fashioning”—what Iachimo tells him—rather than on the inner vision of the heart, whose reasons can be neither explained nor proved.

How many members of Shakespeare’s original audience, I wonder, thought through Cymbeline and other plays to such conclusions? Although I tend to assume that most Elizabethans did, and that they were therefore much wiser than we are today about the subject and substance of love, I may be misjudging. Drama and literature are aimed at the culture poised to consume them while, at the same time, they may challenge that same culture’s most deeply held tenets and values, urging introspection and change. Did Shakespeare’s big love take his initial audiences by surprise, or was it familiar and predictable to them? Did it escape their apprehension, or evaporate into oblivion, upstaged by the adolescent jokes that caused Dr. Johnson such heartburn? Or, four hundred years later, are we peculiarly unequipped to recognize and appreciate it?

As if in direct response to that question, American screenwriter and director Joss Whedon, known for television series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like The Avengers, has recently signaled Shakespeare’s cultural relevance with a film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. Many aspects of the movie, in addition to its being made in the first place, run counter to current trends. In black and white and without major star power, it was filmed over only twelve days, in Whedon’s Santa Monica home, on a “micro-budget.” Perhaps most refreshing is that the play script is more or less intact, the 109 minutes of film requiring some cuts and simplifications of a characteristically convoluted Shakespearean plot, but the language (here, mostly prose) generally preserved and well delivered. These features taken together put the naked script squarely center. Expensive gimmickry, costly sets, and lavish filming defer to the play itself. The film held its own in specialty theaters, where, as one local newspaper predicted, it was “sure to make a tidy profit.” Could the appearance of this film possibly bode the beginning of legitimate, artistic filming of Shakespeare for a young audience ready to consider the plays’ fiber?

Although one of the “Frequently Asked Questions” about Whedon’s movie on the IMDB website reads, “Is ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ based on a book?,” even a query that basic has its positive angle: viewers new to Shakespeare are being drawn in. An entire section of the website is devoted to the question of whether someone who has no familiarity with the play can go to the movie “cold” and follow it. Most respondents are encouraging, citing their ability to adjust to the language and figure out who’s who within minutes of watching. Another section of open discus­sion concerns whether the play works in a contemporary setting. Though a few respondents complain that faked deaths and aristocratic characters jar with the California chic setting, many more are open to such apparent inconsistencies, realizing that ele­ments like a sham death have nothing to do with historical period but would be fictional in any case, and not just fictional but fantastical and symbolic. “Does the play work with ‘modern’ sensibilities?” writes one viewer. “Not particularly, but so what? If you go into it realizing what it is, you should be fine.”

Following plot, accepting historical curiosities, and embracing tropes like Hero’s resurrection, however, aren’t the same as recognizing where the play’s capacity to entertain opens out to its vision of trust as essential to a loving relationship. Does the film permit Much Ado to take the willing audience beyond duping scenes and malapropisms and delve meaningfully into the makings of a marriage?

In the case of Beatrice and Benedick, I believe it does. The filming of their confession, following Claudio and Hero’s disrupted wedding, is carefully done. It closely observes the two characters’ rapidly evolving feelings, which shift almost line by line, and it recognizes the emotional risks at stake. Amy Acker, playing Beatrice, conveys fury and frustration with nearly perfect pitch, and Alexis Denisof’s Benedick plainly deliberates the choice of unquestioned loyalty to Beatrice against background music savoring of heroism. The attentive audience is likely to see his decision as crucial.

Even more telling as to Whedon’s vision of the play, though, is his framing of the action with two scenes involving Beatrice and Benedick. The opening scene is not in the play but is entirely Whedon’s own invention. It is of the two characters in bed together, meant to suggest a romantic entanglement between them before the play opens, as is only intimated in Shakespeare’s text. Benedick rises out of bed and tries to sneak off without Beatrice’s notice, but the camera shows her awake and wistfully aware of his departure. I have read and heard complaints about this scene, based mainly on the feeling that its depiction of premarital sex is anachronistic and at odds with the “ado” in the main plot over Hero’s maiden honor. Until I thought more about the matter, I shared these reservations. But once I considered this scene in view of the final shot of Beatrice and Benedick, I changed my mind. That shot is of the couple alone and fully clothed, in a fond, obviously loving embrace that pointedly contrasts with the earlier shot of them in bed. Now emotional, versus physical, intimacy prevails. The framing implies that the lovers have grown together over the course of the narrative, such that their spiritual closeness has replaced sexual involvement without commitment.

I once hosted American scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the progenitor of “new historicist” Shakespeare studies, in my undergraduate Shakespeare survey class. Although I don’t remember the exact subject under discussion at the moment, I distinctly recall his looking my students in the eye and asking, “You realize that everything in Shakespeare is about sex, don’t you?” The college where I teach, of Presbyterian origin, enrolls mainly students with distinguished academic records and unusually polite deportment. At Greenblatt’s question, their eyes widened as they looked over at me as if to ask, “How should we reply?” At the time, we all nervously laughed off Greenblatt’s query. But were that situation to arise again, I believe I’d respond that I think we know better than that—and, in fact, Shakespeare did too.