Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Classics Club 9 and 10: Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's comedies focusing especially on the relationships between Hero and Claudio and between Beatrice and Benedick. Beatrice and Benedick are older and seem to have some "history". They engage in witty repartee, claim not to like each other and have no intention of marrying. Yet, by the end we realise that their barbs actually mask affection and it is no surprise when, after Benedick proves himself to Beatrice, that these two end up together. While their relationship will undoubtedly continue to be stormy it does feel genuine and a match between equals.

I found the relationship between Hero and Claudio to be much more troubling. Most of their romancing is done via intermediaries and he appears older and controlling. While she doesn't seem unhappy she doesn't appear to have a lot of agency either. When Claudio is maliciously and erroneously led to believe that Hero has been unfaithful, he cruelly shames and rejects her at the altar. All (except Beatrice and then Benedick) turn heir back on her as well.

When the truth is eventually revealed her father and others conspire to marry her to Claudio, although it is not until after the ceremony that he is made aware of exactly who he has married. Why anybody would want to marry their daughter to someone who had so cruelly mistreated her, and why others would want to celebrate such a union remain a mystery to me.

So while, as usual, I enjoyed much of Shakespeare's writing especially the witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick, I found the play as a whole troubling and ultimately unenjoyable. I'm aware that placing my twenty first century views on a play from another era when sensibilities were very different is not entirely fair but that's my honest reaction.

The Tempest on the other hand did not press any hot-issue buttons for me, so I was free to enjoy Shakespeare at his finest. The Tempest is the last play that he wrote by himself and is one of just two that has a totally original plot. In it Shakespeare shows himself to be as masterful as his main character, Prospero.

Prospero, formerly the Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda  have been exiled to an island for the past twelve years. Over the course of the play he uses his magical powers to conjure up a storm which wrecks a boat carrying, among others,  those who usurped his Dukedom. He dazzles them with his powers, forgives them for overthrowing him,  receives apologies in turn, renounces his magic and prepares to return to Milan as it's leader. In typical Shakespeare fashion there are many interwoven and complicating sub-plots, most notably the romance between his daughter Miranda and  Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples who played a role in Prospero's overthrow.

One intriguing aspect of this play is the way it explicitly draws parallels between Prospero's magic and the "magic" of the theatre. I also enjoyed the way it touched on themes such as revenge versus forgiveness. Placing it in the context of Britain's growing colonialism, added another layer to my appreciation and understanding of this play.

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