Ten years ago when my daughter, Claire, was in the second grade, her teacher asked all the students to tell what was there favorite movie. There were all the usual suspects from Disney such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. There were a few who preferred Pixar’s Toy Story. There were one or two who improbably liked Titanic. And there was Claire, who declared that her favorite film was Much Ado About Nothing. Her teacher was surprised. A second-grader whose favorite film was based on a play by William Shakespeare?
In truth we had very few films on VHS in those days, and Much Ado About Nothing was a family favorite. It was so exuberant, so spirited, and the music was entrancing. For Claire, it was also a puzzle, and she loved working on it, trying to understand it more and more.
For those who have not seen it, here is a brief synopsis.
Claudio, newly returned from war, falls in love with Hero, only daughter and heir of Leonato, a gentleman with a respectable fortune. Because he is shy, he agrees to let the Duke woo Hero on his behalf. Meanwhile, the Duke’s brother, Don John, plots to ruin the wedding because he hates his brother, to whom Claudio is like a right hand. Don John conspires with one of his retainers to deceive Claudio and the Duke into believing that Hero is unfaithful. Claudio makes a scene at the altar, publicly exposing and rejecting Hero, who faints from shame and injured innocence. The friar, who was to officiate at the wedding, persuades Leonato to let it be known that Hero died from the unjust accusation. The deception eventually comes to light, and Claudio is properly filled with remorse and agrees to marry Leonato’s niece as recompense. Hero appears veiled as the supposed niece and marries Claudio, and everyone is happy. There is also a side romance between Benedick and Beatrice which overtakes the main story and makes it much funnier.
There was much ado about nothing because the whole story of Hero’s unfaithfulness was completely fabricated. But Shakespeare seems to be winking slyly at us and suggesting that all the hoopla about whether Hero is really a virgin is also about nothing. Claudio’s failing is his jealousy. It leads him to act without mercy toward Hero, whom he had declared he loved.
Let’s contrast Claudio’s behavior to Joseph’s in the well-known Christmas story. In Shakespeare’s day the stories of the New Testament were as familiar as the latest escapades of Brad and Angelina in ours. Everyone knew the story of Christ’s birth in minute detail. In particular they knew how Joseph, hearing that Mary was pregnant, decided to break off their engagement quietly so as not to expose Mary to public disgrace. Joseph had every reason to suppose that Mary was unfaithful and certainly no virgin, indeed, more reason than Claudio had. But he was merciful and considerate. Though he would not marry her, he also would not shame her. Joseph, therefore, became a model to Christian men for handling infidelity.
Claudio’s ruthless exposure of Hero reveals his own pride. Even supposing Hero really was unfaithful, how had she injured Claudio? His injury should have been private. In choosing to make it public, he exposed his own vanity. The enormity of the injury done to him was not in the betrayal of his trust or an intrusion upon his intimacy with Hero. It was that he might acquire the reputation of a cuckold. He cared more about how he appeared to others than he cared about Hero. She shows herself more gracious and forgiving in the end by accepting him after he had so wronged her.
This pride in possessing a virgin occurs throughout the world. It is universally human. Every man wants to marry a virgin, wants the woman he loves to be his and his alone. Nowadays, when it seems impossible that any woman of marriageable age is still a virgin, men try to content themselves with wanting fidelity for the time being. As long as they are both still in love, the man expects complete faithfulness even though he himself may have occasional lapses.