I imagine Shakespeare sitting at his writing table giggling to himself. In this play, we have carefree nobility, a Dionysus in Don John, a count in love and a convicted bachelor with his female counterpart. What would happen if all characters – good, bad, honest or deceitful – shared a similar affinity for cunning and trickery? What would happen if they all felt empowered to steer the course of their destinies according to their whims? To one who finds this illusion humorous, they might sound a bit like our good friend Dogberry!
Trickery litters every circumstantial turn in the play. Ironically, while I think of these characters trying to take control of every twist with cunning and whimsical delight, I imagine Shakespeare resigning authorship to the dictation of trickery, allowing it to determine how things would progress through the play. While the characters plot and entertain an illusion of control, Shakespeare releases control of the plot to their illusion.
While many of the characters seem only like devices to move a plot of trickery, I found Benedick and Beatrice fascinating. Why do they abhor marriage so much? Is this a natural spite or a façade to protect their delicate egos? Do they really yearn for love and companionship but lack the confidence to pursue it? Throughout the first half of the play, they cringe at the shackles of marriage and refute the possibility of any man or woman rising to the task. However, while blissfully happy in the betrothal of Claudio and Hero, the other characters decide to impose their happiness on these steadfast singles and Benedick and Beatrice drop their convictions and succumb to love for one another. For me, this only indicates Benedick’s deep longing for love and how he would only relent to it when he knew the possibility of it falling to him. Beatrice, however, has a deeper tale to tell.
During the climactic trick, when things begin to spin a bit out of their control, Beatrice exhibits a singular reaction to Hero’s demise. One might employ a feminist reading at this point in order to learn more about Beatrice and about the nature of gender roles and marriage. While Hero’s father shamefully disowns Hero and prefers her death to his “shame”, the blot on her perfectly white image which incites familiar masculine chauvinism, Beatrice juxtaposes by asking Benedick to avenge the slander imposed on Hero’s honor on Claudio, his best friend. Beatrice exclaims:
Princes and counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly count-confect; a sweet gallant, surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: he is now as valliant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. – I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I shall die a woman with grieving. – Act IV, Scene I
It seems that Beatrice extracts the traditionally masculine characteristics ascribed to men and beholds them as universally moral and honorable qualities which men have abandoned. She respects these qualities more than other men but finds herself restrained by her gender from enacting these qualities herself. She deconstructs the traditional gender roles, glorifies these qualities after relinquishing men of their ownership and wails at her inability to enforce them herself. Accordingly, perhaps Beatrice genuinely laments the social expectation of her gender to marry when men do not embrace these moral qualities and women remain restricted to embody them.
Of course, the play resolves as a Shakespearean comedy should – with joy wrought from illusion. Shakespeare might expect us to despise Don John but he matters to me no more than he matters to Benedick. Every character in this play stands guilty of cunning trickery and the events resolve according to their characteristics rather than to their whims. We forgive the other characters because their cunning does not impede love and joy while Don John’s cunning would undo it. Nevertheless, we have a happy ending between Claudio and Hero, her father and the prince, and for Benedick and Beatrice – one who tricks himself among the tricksters and the other who perhaps best avoids the trickery in hopes of remaining true to her heart.