365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

287. The balance of comedy and tension in “Much Ado About Nothing”

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In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, he has managed to strike a perfect balance between lightness and darkness, between comedy and tension. Though the play is indeed a comedy, and undoubtedly one at that, there is still a dark subplot that helps to push the play in the direction of a black comedy while not quite achieving that distinction (saved for the play “Measure for Measure”, it seems). This one is more of a “gray comedy” in that sense.

The darker story occurs when Hero is accused of being unfaithful to her betrothed, Claudio. Claudio is enraged and publicly shames Hero, slandering her at their wedding, then storming off when she swoons and falls down presumably dead of shame. Of course, she is not actually dead, but Claudio does not know this. The innocent Hero ends up exploiting Claudio’s belief in her death by pretending she is dead indeed, so that when her innocence is proven, Claudio will remember her fondly and feel guilt over her “death”. The plan works perfectly, and it ends up that Claudio and Hero will be married in the end, all the bad air between them cleared. All this mayhem is caused by the prince’s brother, Don John, who is a bitter bastard bent on destroying happiness wherever it lies.

However, the lightness far outweighs the darkness in this play. There are verbal sparring sessions, hilarious malapropisms via Dogberry, merrymaking and masked balls, and, of course, romantic encounters. There is no doubt that this play is a comedy, however dark the undertones may be. Shakespeare frequently injected dark themes into his subplots – the abuse of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, the disturbing properties of the magical flower in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and the prejudice present in “The Merchant of Venice”, to name a few – but his comedies were always comedies.

It is true that there is quite a bit of tension amidst the humor in “Much Ado About Nothing”, and that the balance between the two, at times, can be found to be hanging by a thread. However, Shakespeare seemed to recognize that the greatest work could be achieved just before the thread snapped, and he frequently toyed with the boundaries of that line between comedy and tension. “Much Ado About Nothing” provides a wonderful balance between laughter and stress, and it is probably the best example of Shakespeare’s ability to combine the two in the canon.


Written by Caroline Mincks

July 15, 2010 at 12:04 AM

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