I’ve wanted to see Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing ever since I heard about it back in 2012. The idea of Whedon directing a Shakespeare adaptation using his guests from a house party that he threw sounded like a concept that should be too fun to pass up.
And I’ll give the movie this: it is a fantastic adaptation.
The cast consists pretty much entirely of Whedonverse alumni, and they all nail their parts terrifically. Whedon’s house (which he used as the set, because, y’know, this whole project was a lark) is beautiful. I think it’s everything you could ask for in a domestic comedy of errors.
Well, except for the misogyny.
I don’t remember ever reading Much Ado About Nothing (for whatever reason the Shakespeare comedies that I always studied were The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest), but I have to say that it’s a pretty hard plot to stomach.
Our conflict revolves around two potential couples that everyone’s trying to set up together at a house party being thrown by the governor of Messina, Leonato. The first is Leonato’s daughter Hero and the Count Claudio, who falls in love with Hero immediately upon seeing her, and gets the help of Don Pedro in wooing her. The second (and far more interesting) couple is Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, and Benedick, a friend of Don Pedro with whom Beatrice has some history. Beatrice and Benedick despise each other at the start of the story, and by the end they’ve been tricked into loving each other through the machinations of pretty much everyone else staying with Leonato. Throwing a wrench into all this manipulated happiness is Don Pedro’s half brother Don John (The Bastard), whose motivations seem pretty unclear to me besides the fact that he’s a bastard, and that means he must be evil (Renaissance era social conventions are pretty appalling). Through more manipulation, Don John convinces Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful the night before the wedding, leading to a big blow up where Claudio calls off the wedding at the altar and publicly shames Hero for not being a virgin.
This is a Renaissance comedy, so we know everything will end with weddings, but the second act misunderstanding in this case is just particularly brutal and misogynist.
I’m not terribly impressed with Claudio (he’s impetuous and at every turn ready to believe that his friends have betrayed him; perhaps it’s justified since everyone in this house is constantly manipulating one another for fun), but I could perhaps sympathize with him for believing that Hero’s been unfaithful to him. That’s a problem that we still understand very well today. Unfortunately, infidelity’s not the main reason that he decides to humiliate her in front of all the house guests. The real problem that Claudio has is that Hero may have had sex with someone else, and is therefore no longer a virgin.
For a really good, compact explanation of why a person’s status as a virgin is problematic, check out Samantha Field’s video on the subject. It’s good, and points out very succinctly that our concept of virginity is largely a social construct designed to impart economic value on women’s bodies. Much Ado even backs this reasoning up with Leonato’s insane tirade against Hero when he thinks that she’s been having sex (he’s willing to overlook a potential infraction with Claudio be
cause that’s her new owner husband, but anyone else is ruinous for his reputation). It’s just a terrible, creepy scene.
Adding to the weirdness in this adaptation is the fact that the movie opens with a scene showing that Beatrice and Benedick have slept together as some point in the past. It’s a non-canonical scene (the only information we ever get through dialogue is that Beatrice knows Benedick; it’s left ambiguous whether they’ve had a relationship before). What this change means is that at best we can assume in this version that no one knows Beatrice and Benedick have a prior romantic relationship; at worst, they’re aware of it, but for no apparent reason don’t hold Beatrice to the same absurd standard as Hero. It’s a jarring juxtaposition that can’t be excused by a handwave of Beatrice being an independent woman while Hero still lives under her father’s roof (that Leonato would presume to use Beatrice as a bargaining chip in getting Claudio to fulfill his obligation underscores the fact that this reading makes no sense). I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the wedding scene is one of the most painful bits of cinema I’ve watched in recent memory.
Fortunately, the wincingly misogynist wedding scene gets balanced out a little bit by a scene where Beatrice implores Benedick to do what she’s not allowed to as a woman and challenge Claudio to a duel for humiliating her cousin. Nothing ever comes of the challenge, but the scene is fantastic as it goes a long way to highlight just how unfair the lot of a the women is in this universe. For everything that’s wrong with the wedding, this scene stands in contrast and offers a glimmer of hope that Shakespeare might have understood just how awful the social mores he was writing about were (I’m doubtful he understood too well; it’s not like Beatrice ever calls BS on the whole virginity debacle). Overall, the whole scene’s just a nice palette cleanser as it’s about frank honesty in the face of endless gossip and manipulation.
If you have any interest in adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, this is a good one. The performances are all highly watchable, and there are never any moments where the complex language occludes the meaning of the scene (I watched it with subtitles turned on, which I found helpful for following the wordplay). Whedon’s house is beautiful, and there’ll be plenty of moments where you’ll wonder if it’s the actual star of the movie (also, the wine; it feels like there’s wine in every scene regardless of the time of day). Don’t expect miraculous things with the plot, because it’s all highly contrived and the misogyny just can’t be scrubbed out of this particular work (if anyone ever wanted to make a gender flipped version I would watch the heck out of that, because I think this is an excellent text for communicating the discomfort inherent in purity culture, and sometimes putting men in the position of the women is the only way you can get through to folks about what’s wrong with it). Instead, enjoy it for what it is, and then spend some time thinking about just how messed up house parties can be.