We opened Much Ado last night at Kentucky Shakespeare, our second audience, and I’ve already noticed something fascinating.
The Wife and I got to play Petruchio and Kate in Taming of the Shrew a couple of years ago and now we’re playing Beatrice and Benedick. (We’re running out of bucket list pairings, frankly. Maybe Don Armado and Moth? She’d be a terrific Armado.) The sort of easy go-to critical response is that the former are just a rough draft of the latter, but I’d fight that to the end. I’ve gone on about this before. And I should add to those previous musings first that K&P and the whole world of that play are all painted in rather broad strokes (not an aspersion; I love broad strokes).
And there’s another vital difference – B&B are almost entirely prose and K&P in verse.
Not just verse, but early verse, so very end-stoppy, by which I mean their thoughts and phrases often coincide neatly with what Benedick calls the “even road of a blank verse”. Take for example this from Petruchio (which I memorized when I was 18 for something and if I ever have an accident or a stroke will probably provide my Mel-Blanc-“What’s-up-Doc?” awakening, so put that in your pocket just in case – pardon the lack of Folio spelling, but it’s faster to type from memory):
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And ‘tis my hope to end successfully;
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
And so on. If you say that out loud to yourself while obeying the verse, you can hear how confident it sounds. It can be acted in a way that makes that confidence sound false (which is helpful when playing a palatable Petruchio in a 21st century production), but still each little chunk of logic/thought lines up with each chunk of verse.
It’s a good general order of operations, I think, to give the verse rhythmic priority over the punctuation, or if you prefer, to see the verse as another type of punctuation, something I’ve probably gone on about before and will again. In early Shakespeare, the verse and sentence structure have a tendency to line up anyway. This is tricky when playing comedy, because a huge part of comedy is rhythm that feels unexpected but right (if that makes any sense; I’m not sure it can or should be properly verbalized). So a predestined ten-syllable line makes for some specific choices, one of which can always be to break the line, I guess, though that provides its own challenges.
But in prose, you have a lot more wiggle room – one of the results of even characters in the early plays like, say, Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona being written in prose is not a sense of low social standing but a freedom to wing it a bit so people don’t clearly know how your line will end. Petruchio’s longer speeches are all little even verse arias that are tough to interrupt beyond a) actor-manufactured bits and b) trying to let laughs land between lines. Not a bad thing, again, but a difference. Launce’s prose is all about little gag set pieces (The Shoes Story; The Dog Piss Story). Very entertaining but not what you’d call character development.
And so we’re back to Benedick. Yes, he shares Petruchio’s professed He-Man Woman-Hating, although he’s nowhere near as hard-boiled and drops it at the first sign of a serious situation come the abandoned wedding of Act IV.
And yes, he shares the Sam’n’Dianity of his romantic sparking with his inevitable lady-partner. But Benedick only slides into verse sporadically, and never for long. So instead of the above soliloquy, when Benedick speaks to the audience, they get:
I doe much wonder,
that one man seeing how much another man is a foole,
when he dedicates his behaviours to love,
will after hee hath laught at such shallow follies in others,
become the argument of his owne scorne,
by falling in love,
& such a man is Claudio,
and on for a while without a period for about twenty lines. The above layout is not the way it’s set in the Folio or any modern edition, but I wanted to highlight the commas. They’re not grammatical so much as rhythmic and I’ve been using them for emphasis in various ways (breathing, smacking the word before the comma a bit harder, etc.) and they do all the work for you, setting up the joke, subtle on the page but a really solid laugh in performance, that the audience is being wound up to hear an admission and gets only more mockery of the lovelorn (which will pay off with the other Benedick soliloquy that provides the scene’s matching bookend).
Now, I knew these things intellectually and to a degree even practically before these last two nights of handing the show over to the audience. But the feeling of the way the audience’s attention works during that speech, and how using that punctuation to ensure that everything comes in clear so as to set up the punchline that is the word “Claudio”, is just that: a feeling. Difficult (and maybe not useful) to get more specific about.
It’s also not nothing that Benedick reaps the rewards of being in a better play than Shrew or Gents – I love ‘em both, but the script gives the audience a chance to be genuinely emotionally invested in Benedick, so his moments with the audience and with Beatrice aren’t set pieces but an ever-evolving series of builds and payoffs with an almost Tati-esque level of development and structure, all torn apart and then seemingly falling back together when you aren’t expecting it. (If I didn’t have to go do the show I’d get more specific but for example check out the way women being “wise”, “fair”, and “virtuous” is used in different spots throughout II iii).
And this later/denser writing (plus being in a different story) gives Benedick a vulnerability Petruchio lacks and an intelligence that Launce (of course) lacks. B still has some of the emotional immaturity of those two, but it seems to be in its waning days as the play continues and he learns things.
And when he does use verse, it’s tricky. The title of this post is from a soliloquy in which Benedick says he “was not born under a rhyming planet”, dooming his poetic attempts. But in the next scene in which he appears he speaks for a long time in verse that stutters nervously but in perfect rhythm. I didn’t notice this until well into rehearsals, but as he asks Leonato for Beatrice’s hand, notice the weird syllable repetitions:
Signior Leonato, truth it is good Signior,
Your neece regards me with an eye of favour…
Your answer sir is Enigmaticall…
In which (good Frier) I shall desire your helpe.
Weird little internal rhyme there. The only other major rhyming by Benedick was in prose and was looong ago after the dance when he tells the Prince:
Yet it had not beene amisse the rod had beene made,
and the garland too,
for the garland he might have worne himselfe,
and the rod hee might have bestowed on you,
who (as I take it) have stolne his bird’s nest.
Which he ruins intentionally (and to me delightfully) with that last line and which isn’t in iambic pentameter at all but cannot be said unrhymingly.
But now, meeting Claudio again towards the end he comes of with (and bear in mind that this rhymed better in the pronunciation of the era):
Bull Jove sir, had an amiable low,
And some such strange bull leapt your father’s Cow,
‘E got a Calfe in that same noble feat,
Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.
Easy as you please. And then it all falls apart, for the next thing he’s responsible for is a public proposal to a woman too wise to woo peaceably. Spoiler: it all works out.
These probably don’t read to an audience at all, but these are the details that make this work such a pleasure.
We’re supposed to have lovely weather all weekend. Y’all come see us.
* Photo by Bill Brymer