And Be You Blithe and Bonny

June 22, 2010 at 8:31 pm (Analysis and Discussion, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , )

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny nonny.

I love Balthasar’s song. It describes the play’s action in a nutshell. The men in Much Ado About Nothing are deceivers. The women let them off the hook. Hero forgives Claudio for his (in my mind unforgivable!) actions and marries him. Beatrice, though nursing some past wrongs from Benedick, sees past them and marries him. We hear nothing from the maid Margaret regarding ill will toward Borachio for using her in order to frame her mistress Hero.

And so they all move into hey nonny, nonny (nonsense words… like la, la, la — letting go). The men here make much ado about nothing; the women make no ado about much, in my opinion. In any event, we are left with everyone blithe and bonny at the end, lightening their heels, as Benedick instructs them to dance as they strike up the band! So Balthasar’s song really summarizes the play for me.

Let’s focus now on the blithe and bonny part. These words mean lighthearted and merry. There is certainly much to laugh at in the play! I know my post on the many deceptions of menfolk may leave the impression that it’s a rather dreary combination of conniving, maneuvering and trickery. That’s not the case at all (although the dark stuff is all part of the plot!). The play is also filled with lighthearted mirth and slapstick humor. It’s quite fun!

We’ll start with the slapstick: Dogberry. He’s an oddball. He’s in an authority position as the constable in charge of the watch (he’s like the police chief). It becomes clear (when Conrad calls him an ass) that he thinks highly of himself and he can’t believe anyone would see him in a different light. And truly, he ends up doing his job well here — because of him and the watchman working for him, the truth of the window scene deception is uncovered and Hero’s reputation is cleared.

HOWEVER. Dear God, could Shakespeare possibly have created a more ass backwards character? He really is an ass. A complete and utter ass. I totally see the wisdom of portraying Dogberry and the watch as the Keystone Kops. He is so beyond silly and ridiculous. Ludicrous. I don’t even know how to describe this character.

His language is so wrong that it’s hard to glean meaning from it. Literally, I need a translator, and it’s not because it’s Elizabethan English. It’s because Dogberry says the opposite of what he means or he makes up words that sound like they could be meaningful, but have no meaning whatsoever. And he does it all very seriously. It’s so crazy-silly! Here are just a few examples from his first appearance:

First, who think you the most desertless [meaning deserving] man to be constable?

You are thought here to be the most senseless [sensible] and fit man for the constable of the watch. Therefore bear you the lantern. This is your charge: you shall comprehend [apprehend] all the vagrom [vagrant] men…

Okay, that gives you a small sense of the liberties Dogberry takes with vocabulary. These flips are constant and unceasing.

But beyond that, his meaning (and again, he takes a most serious posture with everything he says) is also often ass backwards. I mean, in his first scene where he is giving instructions to the watchmen, he basically tells them to go ahead and sleep on their watch and to leave the drunks to their own devises.

So, I find myself sitting here scratching my head a lot of the time with Dogberry. What did he say? What did he mean? And then, what makes the whole schtick even funnier is that his cohorts all go along with him like he makes sense. It really is the silliest thing. Frankly, it’s all so crazy that I’m left not really understanding (or trying that hard to understand) all the foolery. 

Now, maybe a reader will comment about what an intriguing character Dogberry is and I will need to consider him in more detail as I did when I said it might be just as well to yada yada through Mercutio’s constant sexual puns in Romeo and Juliet!

The Pranksters
Oh sheesh. Don Pedro comes up with the idea of getting Benedick and Beatrice together by tricking them into each thinking the other is just about sick with love and unable to voice it. Pedro seems to do this for sport… it’s a pastime as they while away the long days until Claudio and Hero’s wedding. It’s also maybe because of the challenge he made to Benedick early on when Benedick is swearing up and down that he’ll never get married. Pedro responds: “I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love.” I.1.235

In any event, Pedro comes up with the merry plan of bluffing these two into love, and everyone else falls merrily into the plot, loving every minute of it and playing it to the hilt! They are all just a giggling mess as they’re baiting the hooks and reeling B&B into their nets. It’s so silly!

Who is in on the game? Everyone! Pedro, Claudio and Leonato pull the wool over Benedick’s eyes. And Hero, Margaret and Ursula mess with Beatrice, all at Pedro’s instigation. Oh, how they laugh! Pssss, psssss, psssss… whispering like I do when I’m telling secrets with my kids. They lay it on so thick. Here’s a little taste:

Hero thinks surely she will die; for she says she
will die, if he love her not, and she will die, ere
she make her love known, and she will die, if he woo
her, rather than she will bate one breath of her
accustomed crossness.

It goes on and on. And they do this with Benedick eavesdropping, trying to catch every last morsel about Beatrice, who he suddenly sees in a new light! Benedick, newly starry-eyed and bamboozled, says, “Love me? Why, it must be requited.” II.3.213-214

And the pranksters are just laughing themselves silly. Pedro says:

The sport will be, when they hold one an opinion of
another’s dotage, and no such matter: that’s the
scene that I would see, which will be merely a
dumb-show. Let us send her to call him in to dinner.

He’s saying he can’t wait to see the two of them together after Beatrice has gone through the same shenanigans, because then they will each just be bursting with their newfound feelings… maybe even tongue-tied! B&B tongue-tied! That will be a sight! Oh, they are laughing at all this.

And then Hero, Margaret and Ursula work their magic on Beatrice, just as thick. And the newly starry-eyed and bamboozled Beatrice falls for it, just as heavily as Benedick: “And Benedick, love on, I will requite thee.” III.1.111

I save the best for last. Dogberry is ridiculous; he is like the Three Stooges on steroids. Don Pedro and his pranks are silly business. But the barbed banter of Benedick and Beatrice is something else to behold. Their exchanges are witty and bright, fun, funny, punny and light. The humor of B&B’s wit keeps you on your toes.

It’s not all easy to get; and some of it has darker double meanings. Particularly Beatrice, who has been hurt by Benedick in the past, has an edge… a very sharp edge, on her rapier wit. Here is their first interchange in the play. They have not seen each other in several years. They feed off each other and they are each quick on the return parry.

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.

What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.

Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I
am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I
would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard
heart; for, truly, I love none.

A dear happiness to women: they would else have
been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God
and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I
had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man
swear he loves me.

God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some
gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
scratched face.

Scratching could not make it worse, an ’twere such
a face as yours were.

Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and
so good a continuer. But keep your way, i’ God’s
name; I have done.

You always end with a jade’s trick: I know you of old.

It is always like this between B&B. It’s exhausting! You can just imagine all the onlookers gawking at the back-and-forth like the audience at a tennis match. Funny? Oh my gosh, yes. But also, it’s easy to sense some bitterness hidden not far below the surface with Beatrice. Maybe much of her humor is defensive; a protective mechanism, saving her from facing the injury Benedick dealt her in the past.

Benedick is a worthy and witty adversary, but Beatrice often has him by the seat of his pants. At the masked dance, Benedick pretends to be someone else and not even acquainted with Benedick; Beatrice (I believe not fooled) is then freed to go off on a witty tangent about what a dull fool Benedick is. Benedick can’t believe that Beatrice doesn’t recognize him and would say such things — he is hurt by her words.

I think the next scene is the funniest in the play. Benedick is talking to Pedro after the masked dance and then sees Beatrice coming toward them. He begs Pedro to send him on any errand to any spot in the known world to give him an excuse to avoid Beatrice. Here’s the exchange. 

The Lady Beatrice hath a quarrel to you: the
gentleman that danced with her told her she is much
wronged by you.

O, she misused me past the endurance of a block!
an oak but with one green leaf on it would have
answered her; my very visor began to assume life and
scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been
myself, that I was the prince’s jester, that I was
duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest
with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood
like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at
me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs:
if her breath were as terrible as her terminations,
there were no living near her; she would infect to
the north star. I would not marry her, though she
were endowed with all that Adam bad left him before
he transgressed: she would have made Hercules have
turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make
the fire too. Come, talk not of her: you shall find
her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God
some scholar would conjure her; for certainly, while
she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a
sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they
would go thither; so, indeed, all disquiet, horror
and perturbation follows her.

Look, here she comes.


Will your grace command me any service to the
world’s end? I will go on the slightest errand now
to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on;
I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the
furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of
Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great
Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies,
rather than hold three words’ conference with this
harpy. You have no employment for me?

None, but to desire your good company.

O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not: I cannot
endure my Lady Tongue.

II.1. 224-260

I can just imagine the tears running down Pedro’s face, he must be laughing so hard. It’s all so fast and furious, there’s hardly time to take a breath! Poor Benedick, in such a tizzy over the lady Beatrice. Game, set, match! (But which one won?!)

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  1. tuesorensen said,

    Dogberry is of course a comic relief character, and it’s possible he’s supposed to be a bit slow – not quite knowing all the right words, but making up for it (kind of) with an active imagination! 🙂

    The key to the silly behavior of the watchmen, however, might be more complex. I believe that this is a utopian play. The wars they’ve just come from were the final wars, period! The play chronicles the onset of a golden age (where reason and emotion – Benedick and Beatrice – are unified with each other). This means that there is hardly any crime left, either, so the watchmen needn’t be particularly vigilant, and don’t need to use weapons, either. That, at least, is how I prefer to understand the play, and I think Branagh’s movie agrees a lot with my interpretation. It’s a world so perfect that the sun is always shining! 🙂

    • orwhatyouwill said,

      Hey nonny, nonny! 🙂 The sunshine is awfully nice in the Branagh movie.

      How does Don John fit into utopia?

      I just watched a show (I’ll post soon) about the authorship question and their theory was that Marlowe wrote the plays from exile in Italy (where he escaped after faking his death), sent them to his front man, Shakespeare, who added the comic characters like Dogberry to appeal to the English audiences who loved farce, and then got them produced under his own name. (I’m not a conspiracy theory believer… thought it was a funny idea, though!)

  2. tuesorensen said,

    Don John is the guy they fought the final war against. He’s like the final bad guy – after him, there are no other serpents to disturb paradise! 🙂 And note that he is forgiven early on, and he abuses the trust the others place in him. And ultimately he repents.

    No intelligent people subscribe to anti-Stratfordianism. As you say: noise.

  3. tuesorensen said,

    Doesn’t he? OK, maybe I remembered wrong on that one…

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