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Much Ado about Nothing

William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing is well-known for incorporating many traditions from the medieval era into the plot. The Provo Theatre Company performed Much Ado about Nothing with slight modification: the plot was in the Year 1918 era.

Though the Provo Theatre Company should be commended for adapting Shakespearean play into 1918 era through technical innuendos like costumes, stage settings, and gestures, there were historical contradictions and inconsistencies to the performance because the many scenes in the plot uniquely typified the fifteenth-century era.

One may feel uncertain about Beatrice demanding Benedick to "kill Claudio," it being "a man's office" to "fight with mine enemy" (4.1.289, 266, 298-99). Does this truly reflect the ordinary response of the people in the early 1900s? It is makes sense that a loyal lady would have such deep compassion for her sweet cousin Hero. We can sincerely show sympathy for Beatrice when she soliloquized: "O that I were a man! [...] O God, that I were a man! [...] O that I were a man for his [Claudio's] sake!" (4.1.303, 306, 317) Hailey Smith, the actor who played Beatrice, bespoke powerfully and beautifully a thirst for vengeance on Hero's calumniator. But Dorothea Kehler, a theatre critic, noted that "the characterization of... Beatrice's insistence on a duel can be explained as traces of medieval customs" (Kehler 11). To which I add: it cannot be explained as traces of late 1910s!

"This is a play about love, war, and Italy," Christopher Clark, the director of the Provo Theatre Company, writes. "I chose an era, 1918 Sicily, that, to me, reflected all three" ("Much Ado About Nothing," 2006). It is true that the history book reflects that there was a war in the country at the time, but we also read that "by late 1917, it was clear... that they were losing the battle" (Boyd 37). Whichever side of the war Don Pedro's army was in, the joyous responses that Leonato and the ladies' of his household displayed when they found out that their old friends were approaching Messina, and that there were only deaths of "few of any sort, and none of fame" (1.1.7), seemed peculiar and unfamiliar, considering that 1918 era carried more traits and traditions that are more familiar to us than the fifteenth-century era (see 1.1.1-29). It would have been more reasonable if the actors sighed for relief but still wondered in their minds what future the country have in store as a consequence of the war, instead of being so happy just to see Don Pedro's army return. The actors' rejoicing in the Act 1 Scene 1, the very opening of the performance, was, quite frankly, unrealistic.

It was interesting to talk with J. Scott Bronson and E. Scott Wells, the actors who played Leonato and Don Pedro. They, being the two oldest actors in the Provo Theatre Company, carried calm, gentle, and mature dispositions around them. I believe their personalities matched well with Leonato and Don Pedro in Much Ado about Nothing, who also displayed maturity, leadership and loyalty to their people. The exposition and the incremental exposition of these two characters over the plot were very well done. Unfortunately, these character traits did not help the play become realistic. Don Pedro's diligent effort, for example, to woo Hero for Claudio did not reflect the traits of people in the nineteenth-century, but rather it was a medieval trait. Kehler wrote that some actions that Don Pedro takes during the play are very unique to the medieval times. "What is not conventional is the willingness of Don Pedro to contravene protocol by courting Hero before he receives her father's permission to do so... [This] characterization of Don Pedro... can be explained as traces of medieval customs." (Kehler 11)

Jesus of Nazareth, who lived far from the land Messina, spoke of unchastity and infidelity in the last days: "And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold" (Matthew 24:12). Fortunately, history tells us that the virtue of chastity was maintained for several centuries after Christ's Ascension. Juan Vives explained how important it was for Christian women to remain chaste: "the chastity [was] the principal virtue of a woman, and couterpeiseth with all the rest. If she have that, no man will look for any other; and if she lack that, no man will
regard other." (Vives XI) It is questionable, though, that the same level of virtue explained by Vives was maintained until the year 1918. If Jesus' prophecy about many people's love "wax[ing] cold" is to be fulfilled before the His Second Coming, surely we can assume that the value of chastity is more overlooked in 1918 than the medieval times. Granted, we see much of the denigration of that virtue today -- teenage pregnancies are more common than ever, chastity is continually ignored, and less people care about infidelity. Wouldn't any student of humanity think that we would see more similar conditions one hundred years ago than five hundred years ago? And if this is true, why did all the cast react so chaotically and hysterically to Hero's supposed unchastity, even though the chastity possibly was not a big issue to
the people e at the time? It's because the plot told them to do so! Hence the inconsistency in the plot.

One of the actors commented that "Shakespeare's play can be [duplicated] in many different eras." I think he missed the mark. Provo Theater was forcibly bringing the scenes in Much Ado about Nothing into nineteenth-century, while William Shakespeare and the plot itself drew the whole production back into the fifteenth-century; the former trying to integrate, and the later trying to differentiate. There were many instances that the setting made contradictions, and consequently made the plot unrealistic. The performer's comment may sound intelligent to some, but in reality it revealed his lack of research and his know-it-all attitude. If one is to change the play setting into a different era, he must research, study, and verify that the plot would make sense in that era, because over time even the culture, traditions and customs can change dramatically. The Provo Theater Company did not do that. They lacked the understanding of the differences between the 15th century and 19th century. It is crystal clear that they changed the setting simply because they probably would look fancy.

Works Cited

Dorothea Kehler. "Much Ado About Nothing: The Medieval Connection." English Language Notes. June 2004: 11-15.

Much Ado About Nothing. (2006, February). Daily Herald, p.16.

Boyd, Carolyn P. "The Second Battle of Covadonga: The Politics of Commemoration in Modern Spain".History & Memory, Fall 2002: 37-64.

Vives, Juan Luis. "A Very Fruitful and Pleasant Book called Instruction of a Christian Women". London, 1523.