Interview by Greg Carlson
Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” is only the second theatrically released, English language, synchronous sound version of the text produced as a film and not a filmed version of a stage production, distinctions that have prompted excitement for fans of Shakespeare at the movies. High Plains Reader film editor Greg Carlson asked Concordia College professor David Sprunger, a scholar whose research interests include, among other things, medieval literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, to share some of his thoughts on the production.
Greg Carlson: In your opinion, how does “Much Ado About Nothing” rank among Shakespeare’s comedies?
David Sprunger: “Much Ado” deserves its reputation as the best of Shakespeare’s love comedies. It has the bickering sexual tension of “The Taming of the Shrew” but with a kinder resolution. It also has the distinction of containing far more prose than verse, so the language is more accessible than in other Shakespeare plays.
GC: In Whedon’s film, one of the things you notice immediately is that Beatrice and Benedick have already slept together as the action gets underway. How did that choice alter perceptions of their subsequent courtship in this version?
DS: The play contains several lines in which Beatrice alludes to a possible earlier relationship with Benedick, but the context of the lines leaves some question as to whether Benedick is aware of Beatrice’s perception of whatever happened in the past. The opening scene in Whedon’s film shows Benedick’s rather cowardly conclusion to the relationship. His subsequent unwillingness to acknowledge their encounter or to attempt to explain his departure makes him a less sympathetic character.
GC: Whedon is so regularly described as a filmmaker who respects women I could not help but wonder about the ways in which womanhood and femininity are treated in contemporary productions of “Much Ado.” Can you comment on the sexual politics that interested Shakespeare and whether or to what extent they are effective in the show today?
DS: Shakespeare’s love comedies are predicated on Elizabethan attitudes toward courtship and marriage as largely economic transactions with important implications for entire families. One reason why “Much Ado” probably maintains its appeal is that Beatrice seems to be largely outside of such a system. She is the ward of her uncle and no mention is made of any dowry or other financial component of her marriage.
Shakespeare also sets high value on same-sex friendships, particularly between men. Beatrice’s “kill Claudio” command calls competing loyalties into question. The rapidity with which Benedick declines Beatrice’s request shows that although he loves Beatrice, he is not yet willing to put her interests above his friendship with Claudio.
GC: The modern setting really highlights all the language revolving around Hero’s chastity and the social “value” of her virginity. Other than the convenience of plotting, why doesn’t Claudio take Hero’s word over Don John’s when her honor is called into question?
DS: It’s not that Claudio takes Don John’s word over Hero’s but that he trusts his own senses. The power of what he thinks he sees is enough to overcome all other reason. When Hero protests her innocence, she is not arguing with Don John the Bastard but with visual evidence, with what Shakespeare calls elsewhere “ocular proof.”
In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would probably be pronounced as our modern “noting,” so there’s a suggestion that we not make “much ado” about what we see. The play is rife with misunderstandings that result from conversations overheard and events seen at a distance. The trick played on Claudio is parallel to those played on Benedick and Beatrice, but it has far darker implications. The play’s title would seem to downplay all these notings.
One way that Whedon keeps this sense of noting active through the film is in the device of an omnipresent photographer whose job is apparently to document all events of Don Pedro’s visit to Leonato’s. She reminds us that within the film’s world, everything is open to scrutiny and nothing is really private.
GC: Were there any significant changes or omissions that really stood out to you?
DS: Every production of a Shakespeare play is an adaptation with details being dropped or rearranged. Whedon makes small changes between the text and the film, but nothing seemed particularly daunting. Leonato’s brother is dropped and we get less Dogberry than in some productions. You’ve already brought up the opening scene and subsequent flashback to Benedick and Beatrice’s prior relationship. That element was the most important to me.
The decision to cast Don John’s follower Conrade as a woman was a curious choice, but I liked it. One wonders why anyone is willingly aligned with Don John, the political loser of the war that precedes the play’s action. Conrade’s gender and relationship with John gives one such motive. Borachio, the other person in John’s party, is portrayed as younger and less military than the other male actors, which gives him a sort of intern-like appearance.
GC: How do you think Whedon’s interpretation fares next to the Branagh production of 1993?
DS: It’s hard not to watch Whedon’s film and make mental comparisons to Branagh’s. In the end, I prefer Branagh’s interpretation, which develops more leisurely and more spaciously.
GC: Who managed the best performances in this version?
DS: Amy Acker does a great job as Beatrice. She brings some physical comedy to the role. The comic center of the play is the scenes where their friends trick Benedick and Beatrice into thinking each loves the other. The duping of Beatrice was my favorite scene in the film.
Also, Nathan Fillion’s portrayal of Dogberry is the best I’ve seen on stage or screen. Call me a contrarian, but Michael Keaton’s exaggerated portrayal in Branagh’s film is a blot on that production. The way Fillion underplays the bumbling logic and malapropisms makes the character more palatable.
GC: This production has received attention for its low-budget, speedy shooting schedule, and the use of Whedon’s own residence as the location and his gang of actor friends as the cast. Do you think that homemade ambience was an asset or a liability?
DS: The low-budget elements worked for me. A friend who saw the film mentioned that it really helps to know the play before seeing the movie because the plot moves quickly and jumps about a bit.
I came away from the film thinking about the tremendous amount of alcohol displayed and consumed in the film. Perhaps this is the way the Hollywood elite live during their down time, but it seemed as if every room in the house had a bar or decanter with an inexhaustibly varied supply of glassware immediately at hand. Perhaps the intent was to signal a sort of prolonged party/carnival atmosphere but it undercut the love story for me a bit.
GC: What is the most memorable production of “Much Ado” that you have seen?
DS: Last fall I had the pleasure of seeing a production set in twentieth century India. The emphasis on family honor gained extra significance in the Indian context. I’ve been thinking about that production this week since Benedick was played by Paul Bhattacharjee, the British actor whose mysterious disappearance and subsequent death have recently been in the news.