Much Ado About … Stage Direction Hidden in the Dialogue

As we’ve mentioned throughout the Project, there’s not a whole lot of stage direction in Shakespeare. A great deal is carried in the dialogue, and Much Ado About Nothing is no different. So, that being said, what clues do we have for the budding actor or director within the text?

Well, let’s take a dive, shall we?

It doesn’t take long to find the first clue: in just the ninth line of the play, Leonato says, “I find here that Don Pedro hath bestowed much honor” (I.i.9-10) on Claudio. The “find here” references something physical to be referenced, a letter, a note, something (Joss Whedon uses a Blackberry in his modern-dress film).

Later, in the same scene, after Beatrice and Benedick have the first skirmish in their merry war, Don Pedro announces,

That is the sum of all, Leonato. Signor Claudio and Signor Benedick, my dear friend Leonato hath invited you all. I tell him we shall stay here at the least a month
  • I.i.140-3

The use of the mixed verb tenses (“hath invited” and “tell”) lets us know that the interaction between the Prince and the Governor of Messina has just finished taking place; thus, while the verbal skirmish is happening, Pedro and Leonato, should be seen conferring on stage.

The next reference is less a stage direction than a casting suggestion: Hero needs to be short, not pale and petite: “she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise and too little for a great praise” (I.i.163-5). Even if you want to ignore the “brown” part, the size reference comes up again later in Benedick’s description “Leonato’s short daughter” (I.i.203-4).

Later, at the masquerade, Ursula knows her disguised dance partner is Antonio by the “waggling” (II.i.109) or shaking of his head. Given that the list of characters refers to Antonio as “an old man” (Names of the actors), this piece of dialogue could be as simple as having him nodding his head, or as complex as Leonato’s brother having a tremor (either non-essential or Parkinsonian).

When Claudio learns that the prince’s plan has worked and Hero’s hand in marriage has been won, the actor playing Claudio shouldn’t respond quickly, as Beatrice has to prompt him, “Speak, count, ‘tis your cue” (II.i.288).

After Benedick has been gulled into falling in love with Beatrice, the director can take cues for Benedick’s costuming and makeup:

DON PEDRO
Hath any man seen him at the barber’s?
CLAUDIO
No, but the barber’s man hath been seen with him, and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls.
LEONATO
Indeed, he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard.
  • III.ii.40-5

If one is going to use these lines in the play, then Benedick should have a beard up until this scene, and clean-shaven (or at least neatly trimmed) after.

As the city watch eavesdrops on Borachio and Conrad, the watchman’s aside must be loud enough for the arrant knaves to hear, as Borachio asks Conrad, “Didst thou not hear somebody?” (III.iii.129).

When Claudio accuses Hero of wantonness at the wedding, he should be crying–at least at some point–as Leonato says of the young man, “Who loved (Hero) so that, speaking of her foulness, // Washed it with tears” (IV.i.153-4). And he isn’t the only one crying, since Benedick asks, “Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?” (IV.i.255), the answer is affirmative. But when she attempts to leave the stage, Benedick should attempt to physically restrain her, as she tells him, ‘I pray you let me go“ (IV.i.293).

As you can see, it doesn’t take much digging in the dialogue to find direction.

Next time, we’ll take a look at direction in the verse.

Comment?