Shakespeare, W - Much Ado About Nothing (Arden, 2006).pdf

This is a play known for its wit to have wit is to be

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This is a play known for its wit; to have wit is to be in the know. It is the superior wit of both Benedick and Beatrice that marks them out as tempting victims for a kind of structural cuckolding, a desire to turn them into the butts of others' wits, and so rob them of their preening immunity to the bestial foolery of love, to dupe them into 'a mountain of affection th'one with th'other' (2.1.338-9) on false pretences, a transformation which will, or so it is hoped, rob them of their wit: 'The sport will be when they hold one an opinion of another's dotage, and no such matter . . . which will be merely a dumb-show' (2.3.208-11). The hope is that these two who pride themselves on their intellectual distance from human foibles will become, in love, a spectacle for others, unwit- ting of the deception practised upon them. Thus the cuckold provides Shakespeare not merely with a spe- cies of joke, but with a design of comedy. The play is built around the question of who knows what, and when. It is formed by a series of movements of confusion and disclosure. The knowledges at stake include: the question of Hero's true suitor, mistaken by Leonato and Antonio, then Claudio and Benedick; the content and effects of the gulling plots; the discovery of the Watch, in which we are comforted by the knowledge of villainy apprehended (and frustrated, Othello-like, at its failure to be disseminated); Hero's mock 'death', and the forging of a bond between Beatrice and Benedick (by which they become, in effect, wittols, or complaisant in their own deception). In each situation some character or char- acters are at an epistemological disadvantage, and so provide the sport of others and ourselves. The conversion of characters into effective 'cuckolds' not only provides for the figurai attention to 49
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Introduction the play's imagery of metamorphosis, but prepares for the greater emotional transformations of sceptics into lovers. Much of a production's closing tenor is determined by whether Beatrice and Benedick remain 'cuckolds' - that is, not fully cognizant of the origin or impetus of their mutual attraction - or become 'wittols': having some ownership of their own feelings. For one unusually cynical critic, for instance, they are merely victims of a 'social conspiracy': 'They are tricked into marriage against their hearts; without the pressure that moves them to professions of love, they would have remained unmarried . . . they constantly tantalize us with the possibility of an identity quite different from that of Claudio and Hero, an identity deliberately fashioned to resist the constant pressure of society. But that pressure finally prevails' (Greenblatt, 1386). An alternative vision might find the two in full possession of their own emotions, having united over and beyond the ways in which their community has prompted them. Either way, Shakespeare asks us to ponder the complicated relations of self- and social knowledges.
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