Shakespeare, Feminism, and Joss Whedon

Originally appearing in the Apex Publications blog (now defunct), March 2014.

Shakespeare is NOT the forefront of anyone’s mind when someone mentions “feminist literature,” but Much Ado About Nothing comes closest to our modern sensibilities. It features a female-heavy cast and barely squeaks past the Bechdel test, but it does pass. Hero and Ursula talk about Beatrice and then Hero, Margaret, and Beatrice talk about Beatrice’s cold. Not a lot to go on but technically, they aren’t speaking to one another solely about a man. It’s tough as this is basically a romantic comedy so relationships are the main thrust (giggedy) of the plot.

What makes Much Ado so palatable to the modern audience is Beatrice with all her wit and sass and self-actualization. That makes her quite an anomaly in the world of the 16th century when the works was penned. It is heavily implied that Beatrice and Benedick have had sex in their tumultuous past, something that Joss Whedon makes explicit in his 2013 film interpretation. Why would this be ok? Well, Beatrice was written as if her character was male. She cracks jokes, she can obviously read and write as she and Benedick write and exchange (unwillingly) love notes to one another during the course of the play. She also declines an offer of marriage…to the Prince, Don Pedro,….and she isn’t executed, exiled, or even disciplined. The Prince is bummed, to be sure, but he shrugs it off. She also begins the play by going on about how she’ll be a bachelor all her days and completely scorns the idea of being in love. This is ridiculously groundbreaking for that period! How does Beatrice manage to not get killed or bundled off to a convent? She has no parents.

It is implied in the text, that Beatrice may have been born out of wedlock. In Act 2, Scene I Leonato fusses to his brother, Anotnio, about Beatrice’s ‘tude. Antonio agrees that she’s mouthy and they move on. Kenneth Branaugh’s version implies that Anotnio might be Beatrice’s father, but he never behaves like a father within the confines of the play. Leonato bestows his blessings on Beatrice’s wedding, as well as those of his own daughter. In Act 2, Scene II Don Pedro says to her after she rebuffs his proposal, “Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you; for, out of question, you were born in a merry hour.” And, somewhat oddly, she replies, “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.”

This is the only time Beatrice’s mother is ever mentioned in the entire play. And what a strange thing for Beatrice to say about her. It is more than labor pains that she references, but I think her shame of her situation. But Beatrice has made the best of her situation. She has become Leonato’s ward but her parentage means that she can get away with so much more than any other woman in the play (except maybe Margaret who totally has sex onstage and no one cares and she doesn’t get fired…more on that later). Shakespeare makes very good use of this weird little arrangement, he uses the rigid world of the Renaissance to his advantage here, to show a well-rounded female character onstage. She cannot be an heiress, cannot hold any kind of rank or title, but as the bastard daughter, she has nothing to lose. She also steps into the role as the funny and sexually available friend/cousin/confidant that is established with Columbina in the Commedia della Arte tradition.

Whedon makes amazing use of her spectacularly snarky humor, written nearly 500 years ahead of its time. Which makes the passionate, heart-rending “If I were a man” speech in Act 4, Scene I all the more terrible as she runs right up against the thing she cannot to which is to avenge her wronged cousin. Even in Whedon’s modern version, Beatrice cannot go against the power and clout of Don Pedro and Count Claudio and being a “man” is used far more metaphorically (as in “man up”).

And the “wronging” of Hero in Whedon’s version steps far outside the simple losing of her virginity. The wronging is more about slut-shaming. They aren’t necessarily angry that she has had other lovers, but offended at the utter tackiness of having gotten some from another dude on the eve of her wedding. The contextual shift was brilliant and empowering. Don Pedro and Count Claudio are called out for “wronging a sweet lady” and perpetuating the issue of slut-shaming. What was interesting, was that in all of the film iterations, as well as in the script itself, that no one cares about Margaret sleeping around.

Throughout Whedon’s version, she’s shown as a flirt, a shameless and incorrigible flirt, and no one has a problem with that, in fact, Leonato seemed genuinely amused by her overt sexuality. After the mix-up, wherein Borrachio is “woos” Margaret in Hero’s dress, no one is upset at Margaret. This is the inherent classism of Shakespeare. Servants and the lower classes were not meant to curb their “base” desires, but interestingly, even in the original she is not used as a scapegoat. Whether a rare measure of sex positivity, or simply a hand-waving dismissal of “those people,” the servants, the lower class who can’t help themselves. But translated into Whedon’s work, there is no dismissal. Margaret is still accepted as a part of the family and forgiven for the trouble her tendency toward promiscuity caused. Also in Whedon’s version, Conrad was cast as a woman and engaged in an openly sexual relationship with Don John, the bastard, the villain. (Hey, even villains need love, too!)

But the very best part of Whedon’s 21st century adaptation of Much Ado was how little he had to change. Which was not much. In fact watching both Whedon’s version and Branaugh’s version, the lines haven’t changed, but the setting and the context has. And this is why I think Much Ado About Nothing has such a universal appeal, it is so easily adapted and so easily understood in our modern world.

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