Much Ado about Italians in Renaissance London
Much Ado About Nothing is widely celebrated as one of Shakespeare’s most sparkling Italianate comedies. Kenneth Branagh’s famous 1993 film version depicted its story as a light-hearted romance set in the sun-drenched foothills of a faraway Tuscan idyll. Yet this is not how early criticism saw the play. Instead, readers were struck by its realism. Charles Gildon was so shocked at the play’s treatment of Hero that he felt it inappropriate as comedy. Hazlitt saw Dogberry and Verges as imitations of characters Shakespeare must have observed in real life, Mrs. Anna Jameson regarded Beatrice as powerfully and psychologically complex, and more recently, Barbara Everett has identified in the play a “novelistic sense of the real”.1 The play itself, however, seems on the face of it to eschew realism. Its opening scene removes us from the muddy pathways of Holywell, Shoreditch, and the crowded lanes in Bishopsgate, to introduce “Don Pedro of Aragon”, a “young Florentine” named Claudio, and “Benedick of Padua”, nicknamed Mountanto (a fencing term meaning “up thrust”), all newly greeted at the house of the genial Leonato of Messina. For the two hours of its performance, the creaky stage-boards of the Curtain have become sea-bound, amicable Sicily, and the players are all exuberantly Italian. This world is bookish, imagined from the pages of Ludovico Ariosto, Matteo Bandello, and perhaps William Painter and George Whetstone as well; even its central character, “My Lady Disdain”, traces a literary ancestry to Plautus’s Bacchides (“contemtricem meam”). The argument of this chapter is that the play’s earlier critics were largely right to register a degree of unease at the play’s realism. The play simultaneously gives us two versions of the same society: one predicated on courtship leading to nuptial happiness, the other on sexual betrayal and more readily recognizable. However removed the literary world of Much Ado may have seemed to be at the time, the play blends elements of a more local citywide actuality into its Italianicity. The play reaches its hymeneal conclusion, but only by reminding its audience of discomfiting truths that lie just beyond the playhouse walls, in the streets and lanes of early modern London.