Conquering Hero: What to do about ‘Much Ado’?

In yet another example of the Shakespeare nut not falling too far from the tree, my daughter Daisy opens this weekend in her high school’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, playing Beatrice, one my favorite roles in what is probably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. So I can’t wait to see how she and her cast mates inhabit some of my favorite characters — and I’m also eager to see how her director handles certain aspects of the play that make it tricky for audiences in this particular cultural moment.

Much Ado is, after all, one of Shakespeare’s most sparkling comedies, featuring a pair of lovers — Beatrice and Benedick — who are perfectly matched, trading barb for barb and witty exchanges with a love that’s clear to everyone if not to them. But one forgets about Hero, whose fidelity and chastity is questioned — on her wedding day! — in a public slut-shaming conducted by not only by her fiancé but also her father. It’s painful and horrifying to watch, and made more so by the fact that we’re supposed to cheer her return to a man — Claudio — who’s more concerned with his own honor than hers.

What’s a modern audience to make of this? It’s one thing to watch lovers overcome obstacles on the way to their happy ending. It’s another to have that happy ending soured by seeing Hero return to a man whose actions are truly unforgivable. Some directors lean into that complex emotional territory, but to do so is to forget that Shakespeare’s play is meant to be a comedy. We’re supposed to be thrilled for our young lovers at the end, not conflicted.

I’ve directed Much Ado twice, and each time I took my cue from the title, which suggests that the events of the play are to be considered a comical over-reaction to something unimportant. For my productions, I tried to imagine a world where immaturity, gossip, pranks, hearsay, and misunderstandings were socio-cultural currency and characters have intense emotional responses to everything.

Wow. Sounds totally like high school to me.

Messina High Bulls football team
The Messina High Bulls football team, spelling out Shakespeare’s birthday with their jersey numbers, in Much Ado About Nothing at Pacific University, directed by Austin Tichenor.

I set my Much Ado in a 1950s high school, sort of like Rydell High except that instead of singing about greased lightning and beauty school dropouts, the kids are speaking Elizabethan English. The soldiers of Shakespeare’s play became the Messina High football team; Hero, Margaret, and Ursula were cheerleaders; Beatrice was the campus brain, highly intelligent academically if not emotionally; Leonato became Leonata, Hero’s mother and the Messina High principal; Dogberry became the vice-principal; and Don John became Donna John, the leather-clad “greaser” who chafed as much at her brother’s success as her own lack of status and – perhaps due to her gender – agency. The 1950s was an era that suggests a kind of recognizable social conservatism that reflects the play’s, and the school itself is the kind of closed and hierarchical community Shakespeare would recognize.

Much Ado About Nothing
Benedick (Josh Hauser), Leonata (Avery Kester), Claudio (Matt Gauss), and Don Pedro (Trevor Harter) in Much Ado About Nothing at Pacific University, directed by Austin Tichenor

Opportunities for comedy abounded, which is always helpful. The famous “Arbor scene,” in which Benedick is gulled by his friends into thinking Beatrice is in love with him, takes place in the boy’s changing room, with Benedick hiding in a locker that his friends take turns pounding on. Beatrice is similarly tricked by her friends in the girl’s bathroom, overhearing their conversation while hiding in a stall and trying (and failing) to avoid stepping in the toilet. Balthasar and Don Pedro were members of the garage band The Revelers, who played a 50s rockabilly version of “Sigh Not So” at the Homecoming Dance. And Dogberry was a grey-haired, cat-eye-glasses-wearing administrator who was charged with maintaining discipline but who had no real authority or power.

Much Ado About Nothing
Oatcake (Brennan Staffieri), Dogberry (Mari Cobb), Seacoal (Alexis Zmuda), and Sexton (Jojo Miller) in Much Ado About Nothing at Pacific University, directed by Austin Tichenor.

Most importantly, however, is that in this conception Claudio was a young man flush with the emotional intensity and confusion of first love, in so over his head and so easily pliable that he’s immediately susceptible to Donna John’s lies. And the nature of the accusation — enacted by Margaret and her girlfriend Borachia, dressed in man’s clothing — is that Hero was ‘disloyal,’ which Claudio exaggerates in his youthful fervor to be something much worse. He’s wrong, of course, but the intensity of his misunderstanding is more about his sense of personal betrayal rather than concern over his social standing or family honor. Anyone’s who’s ever experienced young love can relate to the fervor of that feeling.

All of this was accomplished while being faithful to Shakespeare’s remaining text. (Yes, a few — alright, many — 400- year-old references and classical allusions were given the axe.) The Duchess of Milan’s gown became Princess Grace of Monaco’s, and Dogberry’s word ‘redemption’ was changed to read “Thou wilt be condemned in everlasting detention for this!” Even the lines between Leonata and Friar Francis, while unchanged, were reassigned, allowing the Friar to be morally outraged so that Hero’s mother was free to be appalled at the accusations and quick to defend her daughter’s reputation. This adjustment helps audiences enjoy the comedy without being troubled by Hero’s lack of family support.

And when Hero takes Claudio back at the second wedding, when he’s so relieved and grateful to see her again that he throws himself at her feet, she lifts him up with his face in her hand and declares in no uncertain terms that as “surely as I live, I am a maid.” It’s a moment of agency on her part and gratitude on his that allowed audiences to embrace their reunion without feeling icky about it.

Knowing my daughter and her friends, I have no doubt the production will be funny. But I hope their director figures out what to do with Hero — I want to celebrate her romantic victory, not feel bad about her situation.