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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Much Ado About Something Amazing: Borachio’s Double Bluff Revealed After Four Centuries of Concealment in Plain Sight

 My wife had seen the new Joss Whedon film Much Ado About Nothing three times on her own during the past few weeks, before we went to see it together this past weekend. As you might guess, she really likes Whedon’s version a lot, urged me to see it with her, and when I did, I, too, liked it a great deal.

My first reaction, which I still hold to, is that while Whedon’s version is very different from Branagh’s-- which has been the gold standard for modern audiences since it first screened twenty years ago-- yet neither is, on balance, better than the other, they just have different strengths and weaknesses.

For example, I deem the new Don John, Sean Maher, to be much superior to Keanu Reeves in the same role, and the new Don Pedro, Reed Diamond, seems better matched to the role than Denzel Washington’s bravura Don Pedro. But, conversely, the fools of Branagh’s version, led by Michael Keaton’s Dogberry, are, to my eyes and ears, much funnier (and therefore much superior) to Nathan Fillion’s way too deadpan Dogberry, and his fellow castmates. 

As for the two main roles, I see it as a kind of artistic draw between two excellent pairings.  Branagh and Thompson are pitch perfect and bring all of their (even then at ages 33 and 34, respectively) vast Shakespearean experience to the screen with full force, and are as charismatic as Firth and Ehle in P&P2. But Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof do a surprisingly (to me at least) excellent job in their own right, and succeed in making me believe, and enjoy, their merry war onscreen, too, and not yearn for Branagh-Thompson.

In short, I am glad to now have these two complementary versions to enjoy over the coming years of re-reviewings, even though I do agree with those who see Whedon’s more cynical presentation of corruption as closer to Shakespeare’s intent,  i.e., to depict the ugly mercenary side of marriage and romance. No question,  Branagh’s version tilts a bit too far to the romantic side, and seems to blunt the full force of the cynicism of the play text, whereas Whedon seems to balance the two sides better.

So, all in all, Whedon’s film is a must-see for any lover of Shakespeare, and especially so for any Bardolater who also loves Jane Austen, because, of course, as was first noticed two hundred years ago, and has been noted dozens of times since then, Much Ado About Nothing is a crucial allusive subtext for Pride & Prejudice—not just for the merry war between Darcy and Elizabeth, which so obviously has Beatrice and Benedick in mind at every twist and turn of the progression of their complicated romance.

What is even more fundamental to Jane Austen’s allusion to MAAN in P&P is her brilliant translation of Shakespeare’s depiction of a world in which every “fact” about human interaction is subject to confusion, deception (both of self and of others) and ambiguity. That ambiguity is the foundation of both of these works of great genius, and what they also share is the deliberate superficial minimizing of such weighty epistemological themes by the authors, making it appear as if they are merely “light, bright and sparkling” romances, when actually they are so much more than that, both carrying the weightiest intellectual power.

And the same duality also applies to Pride & Prejudice in terms of the balance between romance and cynicism about love, as a hard nosed reading of P&P focuses on the meat market aspect of love and marriage in JA’s day just as much as in Shakespeare’s two centuries earlier. And my interpretations of the shadow story of P&P fit perfectly with the cynical interpretation of MAAN.

But that is all prelude to my main and final point, which I have hinted at in my Subject Line. As a result of my seeing Whedon’s film. I was prompted to revisit my earlier intense study of Shakespeare’s play, which I last did about 8 years ago, and to see if I would have better luck penetrating to the level of Shakespeare’s “shadow story”, which I always felt was there, but I could not quite get at.

It was, I think, Whedon’s depiction of Borachio that got me thinking about that mysterious “minor” character, upon whose words the main plot of the play turns so decisively. Borachio of course is the associate of the malevolent Don John, and Borachio is the schemer who is the “author” (in the same vein as Don Vincentio in Measure for Measure and Iago in Othello) of the plot to defame Hero in the eyes of Claudio, Don Pedro and the rest of Messina.

What my wife reminded me of last night, which I had not consciously retained in my memory after watching the film once, was that Whedon goes into uncharted territory when he depicts Borachio as actually being in love with Hero, and therefore being motivated to his evil schemes by intense jealousy of Claudio when marriage is arranged so quickly between Hero and Claudio.

By this, Whedon makes Borachio an audacious trickster, because his scheme to defame Hero includes within it the supposedly fictitious element that Borachio loves Hero, and that is why he has a final tryst with her in her bedroom the night before her marrying Claudio.  How audacious of Borachio, then, if he actually does love Hero, and hides his unacknowledged love in plain sight in this way!

So, perhaps, subconsciously, I did register Whedon’s bold new interpretation of Claudio, because it was only a few days later, i.e., yesterday, that I realized that Shakespeare played his own audacious game of hiding in plain sight with the character of Borachio, in the pivotal scene in which Borachio calls himself a “true drunkard” and then proceeds to spill the beans about the defaming-Hero plot to his buddy Conrade (whom Whedon, interestingly, depicts as a woman), while being overheard by Dogberry and his cohorts hiding very close nearby.

Scholars have grappled with the contradictory character of Borachio for many years, in particular with respect to the surprising 180 degree about face he makes once he has been apprehended, appearing to genuinely repent for the dreadful harm he has almost caused for Hero et al. He seems to morph from Iago-like “motiveless malignity” to Othello-like unrestrained repentance in a matter of days. 

Over the past day, I’ve grappled with the paradoxical Borachio, reading and rereading his speeches, reading articles and chapters about him by various scholars, struggling to figure out what makes him tick. And it was only then that I realized in a flash of recognition that Shakespeare meant for knowing readers of his play text to ask the following suspicious question:

What if Borachio—who is after all a serial liar--was _not_ a “true drunkard” at all (despite his name, which means “drunkard” in Italian!), but was feigning drunkenness, and, what’s more, had first deliberately planting himself with Conrade in close vicinity to Dogberry & Co., so as to be certain that they would overhear his confession!?

So, where did I get this nutty-sounding idea, and what made me think it was an idea Shakespeare had deliberately planted in my mind? Well, from the entire rest of the play, where else?!

Specifically, what we see in Acts 2 and 3 are benevolent hoaxes, involving Beatrice and Benedick, in which the benevolent schemers deliberately situate themselves in the paths of the two sharp-tongued lovers/haters, respectively, so as to be “overheard” by each of them, supposedly quoting each of them declaring undying love for the other! I.e., we have these two instances very fresh in our minds, from seeing two such schemes played out in front of our eyes.

And then, not much later in the play, we have the capper---another case of staged eavesdropping –staged by none other than Borachio himself!---which, when we examine the circumstances, look very suspicious indeed.  I.e., Borachio’s staging the witnessing by Claudio and Don Pedro (egged on by Don John) of the alleged infidelity of Hero in her bedroom right before!

I suggest that Shakespeare hides this alternative interpretation in plain sight, pushing it in our faces, by having the absurd coincidence of Borachio making his confession right next to where Dogberry & Co. are situated, and then, even seeming to ignore the sounds of the voices of the law enforcement bumblers, suggesting it is only the sound of the wind. Shakespeare is practically begging us to realize that Borachio is only doing with Dogberry exactly the same thing that we’ve seen enacted three times previously in the play! And it is when he hears Dogberry et al reacting verbally to his performance, he knows he has caught his fish on his hook, and then he proceeds to reel Dogberry in.

As far as I can tell from my preliminary research, there is no scholarly article or chapter in which this idea of Borachio deliberately setting himself up to be overheard by Dogberry has been broached. Has anyone seen a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in which this was played this way?

In any event, that still leaves the huge question--- why would Borachio stage a confession to be heard by the local cops the night before the wedding? How can it be incorporated into a satisfying theory of Borachio’s motivations?

I’ve got my theories about that, and am still working on them, as they are still very fresh in my mind, and demand deeper consideration. But in the interim, if you want to, I suggest you go back to the text of MAAN and see if you can discern what his motivations might have been—if you come up with anything, let me know!

And then, if you’re a Janeite, here’s a companion question---what if Jane Austen was well aware of this alternative reading of Borachio’s “confession” in MAAN, and therefore wrote the beginning of P&P so that some suspicious readers might suspect that Darcy meant be overheard by Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly when he first dissed her? 

Food for thought!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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