NB: Read in tandem with the Branagh, Whedon and BBC’s versions. This review draws extensively from my reading of the three movies, as well as from my re-reading of the play.
Let’s get this out of the way first. “Much Ado about Nothing” is one of my favourite Shakespeare’s plays.
Each time I re-read it, I always feel Shakespeare uses it as part of the macho banter in the male-dominated culture of this soldier band of brothers, but it also has a serious side in creating a sense of male insecurity and mistrust of women.
The entire play is underlaid with mistrust of women- Benedick's first line is, "were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?" Leonato's jest lightly plays with the stereotype of the unfaithful wife and the masculine fear of raising another man's son and Benedick immediately takes him up on it. I think Shakespeare is creating a cast of men who are very much in a male only world and struggle to trust women on any level. It's notable that Don John is a known quantity and yet both Claudio and Don Pedro are quick to believe their eyes and fall for his trap, even though they themselves have just set a similar trap for Benedick and Beatrice and might be expected to stop and think how easily such a thing could be faked. Leonato immediately believes his daughter is corrupt, though only a second's reflection should make him realize that he (and Beatrice) could not have been unaware of a "thousand" midnight meetings between Hero and her imagined swain.
Nothing is a very important word in Shakespeare and full of different meanings. It is very impressive the “Nothing” from Cordelia, a simple word that contains everything. It contains all love she feels for her father, King Lear. It contains her complete disagreement for the empty and false words of her sisters Goneril and Regan. And besides it’s the key that opens the main door of the tragedy.
But what does Shakespeare mean by “Nothing” in the title of the play “Much Ado about Nothing”? Is it a big fuss about nothing? Or it could also be referred to the heated bantering between Benedick and Beatrice. Many words and witticisms only to end up married accordingly to tradition and helplessly in love. Marriage would equal “Nothing” in this case scenario. Might Shakespeare have presented those characters ironically to mock human being's inconsistent resolutions and the pressure of society to shackle its denizens to convention? Or, if one remembers that Shakespeare's Globe was situated at the south side of the Thames in London in the neighborhood of sailors and prostitutes you may think about the slang Shakespeare was used to. The "Thing" is the genital of a man. Because women are in these times considered as a "Weaker vessel", a defective form of a man, women were considered to have a "no Thing". The central character is called Hero; her nothing. The action centres on the honour of a woman; a character with “no thing”.
In this sense, the play is much about Hero’s virginity.
As a total side note, I think it's interesting that in both of the films (Kenneth’s and Whedon’s) Margaret is shown having sex with Borachio, but in the play itself he ultimately claims that he's always known her to be virtuous and they are only described as talking at the window. The films make Claudio's rage a bit more understandable while the play itself makes it sound as though he only saw a man talking to her and is willing to humiliate her unto death for that betrayal.
Lastly, one of the memorable lines that has come up in the discussions is Beatrice's when she says that Benedick plays a "Jade's trick" and that she knows him of old. In my understanding, that's basically saying, "a whore's trick," which again brings up the image of promiscuity and infidelity. In Kenneth Branagh's version Conrade was portrayed as a man, but in Whedon's version Conrade was portrayed as a woman. It seemed to me most of the lines spoken by Conrade worked well whether Conrade is a man or a woman. But when others addressed Conrade... Not so...
I also noticed that Dogberry addressed both Conrade and Borachio as "these men" when they were brought to the Prince and Claudio (around 1 hour 25 min mark). A few minutes later, Dogberry called Conrade as "this plaintiff" (not gender specific word), then Leonate called both Conrade and Borachio as "these fellows".
I have a feeling that Whedon wanted to be as faithful as possible to the original play written by Shakespeare, and I can sense that no disrespect was ever intended. This is more of my personal wish that because Whedon made an interesting choice to come up with a female Conrade, I just hope he and the script writers also took the trouble of tweaking the script a little to accurately indicate Conrade the woman's gender.
If Conrade is the "intimate associate" of Don John's... the word "intimate" can be translated in many ways, and a woman could work as well. Even in Branagh's version, Don John was getting a massage from Conrade. If Don John and Conrade were THAT close, Conrade could be a woman, I thought, but this might not have been very authentic.
Another thing. Don John was an illegitimate half-brother of Don Pedro's. While Don Pedro had the respect from the community, Don John received very little respect. He had a sad disposition. And his unhappiness was remedied only by the unhappiness of others. With these personality traits, for him to have a female confidant who is expected to completely fulfill his needs and wants makes him even less likable.
Inauthentic, very much so...
To aim for the theatrical effect to make Don John less likable: Yes, very effective...
If I were a director, I would have changed the name of this character possibly to "Conrada"....
On the other hand, It's a little awkward, but I think it's somewhat covered by the fact that Dogberry is such an ass and uses the wrong words ALL the time. For instance, Conrade is not a 'plaintiff' but an accused. Notice how annoyed the father, Leonato, gets with him all the time because he can never figure out what he's saying. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Dogberry would mix up his words and call a woman a fellow or a man. I think Whedon didn't want to change anything and so decided that coming from Dogberry, not making sense kind of makes sense.
On a side note, Emma Thompson is one great actress; she does not portray her characters being:
She enunciates, every word clearly expressed. Every facial and bodily gesture has relevance, and significance to an attentive and receptive audience. She’s able to capture beautifully the way Beatrice hides her vulnerability beneath a protective shell of lightning quick banter. “I know you of old” indicates her hurt at an earlier liaison with Benedick, the “jade's trick” his way of always slipping out of things, including (it seems) commitment. Beatrice has made her choice in a world and period of time when marriage defined who a woman was. She has opted for the relative freedom of publicly setting her face against marriage but this comes at an emotional price - her suppressed love for Benedick. We see this in the gulling scene by how quickly she is won over at the thought that Benedick really does love her, something she hardly dared believe.
What about the BBC version? Robert Lindsay and Cherie Lunghi played a wonderfully Benedick and Beatrice respectively. Of the BBC versions I’ve watched recently, this is definitely the best so far, being “Romeo and Juliet” the worst. I don’t quite understand why one of Benedick’s replies was omitted: when Claudio says of Hero, "Can the world buy such a jewel?", someone “forgot” to include Benedick's reply, "Yea, and a case to put it into!", which is quite important line as it, among other things, antecipates Hero's apparent death and thus her placement in a coffin (= casket = case).
User: lady beatrice, hast thou wept all this while?
Turing machine: of course thou doeth! Thou thinketh that ye are me.
User: I will not desire that. Turing machine: wherefore not?
User: certes i doeth believe thy fair cousin is wrong'd.
Turing machine: but I liketh thou.
User: is thither any way to showeth such friendship?
Turing machine: I couldst giveth thou mine email.
User: may a maneth doeth it?
Turing machine: sure.
User: I doeth loveth nothing in the ordinary so well as thou. Is not that strange?
Turing machine: thou can't changeth thy mind anon. user: by mine bodkin, Beatrice, thou lovest me!
Turing machine: who art thy subjects?
User: I will sweareth by it that thou loveth me, and i will maketh him eateth it that says I loveth not thou.
Turing machine: ok.
User: with nay sauce that can be devis'd to it. I protest I loveth thee.
Turing machine: who doeth thou loveth?
User: what offense, sweet Beatrice?
Turing machine: Thy faceth.
User: and doeth it with all thy heart.
Turing machine: we always findeth a way. User: cometh, bideth me doeth aught f'r thee.
Turing machine: aught is something.
User: ha! not f'r the wide ordinary.
Turing machine: i'm not sure.
User: tarry, sweet Beatrice.
Turing machine: tare tare tare tare.
Turing machine: what is a Beatrice exactly?
User: we'll be cater-cousins first.
Turing machine: aye we art not.
User: is Claudio thine foe?
Turing machine: Claudius was an emp'r'r of the roman empire.
User: heareth me, Beatrice.
Turing machine: doeth thou knoweth who plato is?
User: nay, but Beatrice.
Turing machine: then thou will nev'r knoweth whence i am.
User: beat-. Turing machine: beateth?
User: tarry, good Beatrice, by this handeth, i loveth thee.
Turing machine: i loveth that too!!
User: thinketh thou in thy soul the counteth claudio hath wrong'd hero?
Turing machine: the voices art telling me thoust glasses.
User: enough, I am engag'd. I will challengeth him. I will kisseth thy handeth, and so I leaveth thou. by this handeth, Claudio shall rendereth me a dear account.
Turing machine: aye. User: as thou heareth of me, so thinketh of me. goeth comf'rt thy cousin. I wilt sayeth she is dead, and so farewell.
Turing machine: but if i was what I thinketh I am but I wasn't wouldst I be wrong?
(User: Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?
Turing machine: Of course you do! You think that you are me.
User: I will not desire that.
Turing machine: Why not?
User: Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.
Turing machine: But I like you.
User: Is there any way to show such friendship?
Turing machine: I could give you my email.
User: May a man do it?
Turing machine: Sure.
User: I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?
Turing machine: You can't change your mind now.
User: By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me!
Turing machine: Who are your subjects?
User: I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.
Turing machine: Ok.
User: With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.
Turing machine: Who do you love?
User: What offense, sweet Beatrice?
Turing machine: Your face.
User: And do it with all thy heart.
Turing machine: We always find a way.
User: Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Turing machine: Anything is something.
User: Ha! Not for the wide world.
Turing machine: I'm not sure.
User: Tarry, sweet Beatrice.
Turing machine: Tare tare tare tare.
Turing machine: What is a Beatrice exactly?
User: We'll be friends first.
Turing machine: Yes we are not.
User: Is Claudio thine enemy?
Turing machine: Claudius was an emperor of the Roman Empire.
User: Hear me, Beatrice.
Turing machine: Do you know who Plato is?
User: Nay, but Beatrice.
Turing machine: Then you will never know where I am.
Turing machine: Beat?
User: Tarry, good Beatrice, By this hand, I love thee.
Turing machine: I love that too!!
User: Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
Turing machine: The voices are telling me you have glasses.
User: Enough, I am engaged. I will challenge him. I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account.
Turing machine: Yes.
User: As you hear of me, so think of me. Go comfort your cousin. I must say she is dead, and so farewell.
Turing machine: But if I was what I think I am but I wasn't would I be wrong?
Pretty neat for a machine, wouldn’t you say?