Much Ado About Virtue

One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.

Much Ado About Nothing, Act V, Scene IV

Hero's disgrace

Hero’s disgrace

I had a chance to see a screening of Joss Whedon’s film, Much Ado About Nothing last week. As we have established here on Sassafrakas, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare. The language, the stories, the themes… they speak to me.  As some of you know (but we have not discussed here on the blog) I am also a big fan of Joss Whedon. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the first TV shows that I decided to watch on my own as a teenager, and in its own way, it stuck with me. I’ve stuck with Joss Whedon throughout his career. This film for me is the perfect storm of things that I’m into.

You know the drill about this movie, right? Its been buzzing all over the internet for months, but if you don’t know (hi, Mom!) here are the basics. Director and producer Joss Whedon shot it in 12 days in his own California home, with a collection of actors plucked mostly from other productions of his over the years.  It’s filmed in black and white and set basically in the present (although the fashion is decidedly non trendy, and that throws the viewer’s ability to place it). It has guns instead of swords and very, very, little technology.

I didn’t really worry about this when I wrote about Romeo and Juliet (because it’s freaking Romeo and Juliet. Babies know that story.) but I’m going to assume that there is no such thing as spoilers for something written in roughly 1598 and discuss some plot points. However, I will talk about how this particular film handles some of this stuff, and that might be spoiler-y.

Beatrice and Bendick

Beatrice and Bendick

Hero and Claudio

Hero and Claudio

Much Ado rotates around two couples: Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio. The former are all lightning wits and repressed tension, and the latter innocent love in first bloom. Hero is the virginal daughter of Leonato, the governor of Messina. Have I stressed Hero’s innocence enough?  The play and its characters are obsessed with it. Now, this fixation on Hero’s (and seemingly only Hero’s) virtue isn’t at all uncommon in Shakespeare, or in Shakespeare’s time. However, it causes some serious discomfort in this film set in the present.

The plot: Hero and Claudio fall in love and, with some help from the Prince, get permission to get married. This next part gets complicated. Essentially what happens is that the villain, Don John, wants to discredit his brother the prince, Don Pedro, who had a hand in getting Claudio and Hero together. Don John tells Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero has been cheating on Claudio, and that he can prove it if they hide outside Hero’s window with him the night before the wedding. What they see in Hero’s window is Hero’s gentlewoman Margaret having consensual sex with one of Don John’s henchmen, dressed in Hero’s wedding dress (for sexy role-playing purposes), with no idea she is being watched. Claudio thinks that Hero is no longer a virgin, and like a big jerk, he dumps Hero at the alter the next day by accusing her of being damaged goods.

This is where it gets really messy and icky in a modern film. It’s totally reasonable to not get married because your fiancée cheated on you the night before your wedding. However, that is not Shakespeare’s rhetoric in this scene; instead Hero is ruined and worthless. It is really a brutal scene, and its painfulness is both underscored and brushed over in this version. The staging of the rest of the film demonstrates a fairly modern attitude towards sexuality.  We open the film on a flashback of Beatrice and Bendick in bed together. Beatrice doesn’t get censured for this – it just adds depth to their relationship, their flirting, and their repartee. There’s also a scene with the villain Don John and his followers that teeters just on the edge of a threesome. There is at least one couple making out in public at the masked party early in the film. Sex doesn’t seem to be an issue, in this film, in this culture, until all of a sudden, WHAM, it is.

The film hurtles happily through the first half of the play and hits this bump with the wedding, and then this adaptation seems to no longer know what to do. The text is suddenly at odds with the way sexuality has been portrayed. Hero’s father wishing she is dead during the wedding is even more of a gross overreaction to Hero’s supposed transgression.

However, the setup with Beatrice and Benedick formerly having a sexual relationship adds more depth to the fact that Benedick steps up as Hero and Beatrice’s defenders in the aftermath of the wedding. Usually this is just Benedick being a standup character, but now he is culpable. Beatrice could be subjected to the same kind of censure as Hero. In Shakespeare’s time, adultery (or any kind of sex outside of marriage) was a big deal, if you are a woman, especially a noblewoman.  Even more than allegations of impropriety, Claudio leaving Hero at the altar effectively ruins her. If Hero is lucky, her father would let her stay in his household, but there will be no other offers of marriage. She is young and beautiful and is now done with her life as she knows it.

However, this is not what happens to modern women who have premarital sex. It’s not. Its a tough break, but Hero’s life should in no way be over, which makes all of this a bit overblown and tonally out of place.

Hero is also disturbingly silenced in this scene. No one believes her initial denials, so she stops talking. Her own father says it would better for her to be dead, than disgraced like this.  The Friar is the one who suggests that they fake Hero’s death, that Claudio will warm to the memory her, imperfections and all, if he thinks her dead. (Also what is it with Shakespeare’s friars helping ladies to fake their own deaths to save their virtue?) A really disturbing part of this work – and the world – is how some men prefer their women, even the women they loved, dead rather than alive and impure.

In this play, the truth wins out. Don John’s henchman comes forward about exactly which lady he was romancing in Hero’s chamber, and Hero is redeemed and she and Claudio marry. Once everything comes out into the open, even Margaret gets off the hook easily (because it doesn’t really matter if maids are “pure” or not! Yikes.)  But it all comes back together in a desperate and unsettling way in the film, involving a duel, a faked death, and some more disguises.

When I set out to write this, I was looking at the way this film deals with sex as a misstep, as a faulty note in an otherwise lovely piece of art. Now I’ve maybe argued myself into all of this seeming intentional. It certainly stirs up the surface of this otherwise calm lake of a film.When I walked out of the screening I got exit interviewed, and I blurted that I thought it was a charming film.  I stand by that. It’s well cast and well acted, with a couple of wonderful (if not expected) performances. Nathan Fillion as buffoon law enforcement officer Dogberry landed jokes that I’ve never heard before, and I’ve seen Much Ado more than a few times. Amy Acker as Beatrice let every emotion, every thought, show in the smallest of expressions and gestures, and was moving and lovely. Alexis Denisof as Bendick demonstrated both charisma and a flair for physical comedy that I’ve never seen from him in any other role.

But it doesn’t change the fact that while lovely and gorgeously-acted this film comes up just a little bit short, ringing a tiny bit hollow. Some of the depths of emotion are touched rather than hurtled into. The prettiness of the setting, combined with filming it in black and white, makes everything feel just a little bit unreal and distant. This makes a good attempt, but ultimately isn’t enough to bridge the disconnect between the presentation and the subject matter.


 – Charlotte will put this Shakespeare thing to bed for a while. Unless you let her anywhere near a production of Twelfth Night. And then all bets are off.


6 thoughts on “Much Ado About Virtue

  1. I think it’s hard to bring Shakespeare’s plays into modern times because of the antiquated social norms that are hard wired into the plots. Are there Shakespearean adaptations that successfully make the jump to match our current sensibilities?

    • Heather, that’s a really good question. I think that Shakespeare can be set in the present, if you are careful. The best modernly set productions are inspired by the play to make a commentary on something contemporary. They are set in modern time, not out of ease, but because it helps bring new light to an old story. I think the kind of scary thing about Much Ado, is that there still are patriarchal societies where this kind of story could play out. Joss Whedon just didn’t set this film in one, with its cavalier attitude towards sex.

  2. Huhn. I’m going to have to disagree. I actually really enjoyed it and got very into it. The black-and-white didn’t alienate me or make it feel surreal; I think it muted everything so that the language would be highlighted rather than cinematography or setting. If that was the intent, I think it was very effective. Out of every performance (staged and filmed) I’ve ever seen of Much Ado, I thought this version was most successful at conveying the meaning of the language. This is absolutely essential for Much Ado, where plays-on-words are a huge part of what makes it so funny and compelling.

    The scenes and circumstances surrounding the abominable treatment of Hero vis a vis her chastity are always awkward and uncomfortable to the modern viewer. Most of us these days are more likely to root for Benedick to shoot Claudio than for Hero to forgive him. (By the way, Benedick slapping Claudio across the face was so satisfying.) It feels tonally at odds with the rest of the play/film, but to me it always does, which begs the question: What else could Whedon have done to mitigate that? His portrayal of Leonato’s struggles with the situation is the most sympathetic I’ve seen. Leonato comes off as heartless and cruel toward his daughter at the beginning of the exchange (as he does in most versions), but then he cries and embraces her, making him come off more as saddened and conflicted and desperate for there to be a way that the accusation is false. Again, it’s uncomfortable, but how could it have been done better? When adapting a 400+ year old piece and not altering the language or editing the plot much, it’s very difficult to have everything resonate smoothly with modern viewers.

    I really, really love your point about how the portrayal of sexuality in the film alters our traditional perception of Benedick’s stake in defending Hero’s honor. In other versions he does it because at the end of the day he’s a good dude and he wants to make Beatrice happy (or at least, lessen her pain). And in this version, you’re completely right: highlighting a past sexual relationship with Beatrice gives Benedick a reason to feel empathy, which strengthens his stake in the situation. I didn’t realize that until you highlighted it.

    I’m surprised you didn’t spend more time on the fact that Conrade was genderswapped! I really loved that decision and what it added to the film, but I get the feeling that not everyone agrees with me.

    P.S. Twelfth Night is the best.

    • P.P.S. I am now finally watching the Fiennes/Butler Coriolanus, which has been sitting in its Netflix disc sleeve by my TV for probably over a year.

    • I know I came down kind of hard on parts of it but I really did enjoy it. It’s well put together and gorgeous, and lots of interesting things are going on.
      I also really liked the gender swapped thing with Conrade. She was great fun. It’s a busy play and there are lots of angles I could have taken to write about. She’d be an interesting one.
      I really do feel like the stuff with Hero’s virtue would be less jarring if the rest of the film wasn’t so cavalier about sex. But that would make it a very different film.

      • Definitely. My worry would be that in trying to make that scene less jarring, the rest would be less accessible to modern viewers, and thus less effective. It’s a very difficult situation to navigate and I think he gave it his best.

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