Much Ado About … Stage Direction Hidden in the Verse

A couple of days back, we discussed the use of hidden stage directions in the dialogue of Much Ado About Nothing. But there are more clues for actors and directors to be found in the subtle variances in the rhythm and meter in the verse itself as well.

Interestingly enough, just as the majority of the found dialogue-based stage directions are found in or before the aborted wedding, the major verse-direction occurs in that scene.

As the wedding is starting, Claudio asks Leonato,

Will you with free and unconstrained soul
Give me this maid, your daughter?
  • IV.i.23-4

The clue here is the short length of the end of the question. It’s a strange question to be asked at a wedding, and the three-foot poetic line should prompt the actor playing Leonato to pause, as if taken aback by the question (an understandable response).

Later, when Claudio talks of his pre-wedding relationship with Hero, he states,

No, Leonato,
I never tempted her with word too large
  • IV.i.50-1

Again, we get a shortened line in “No, Leonato” so there’s a pause there. Is Claudio waiting for a response from Leonato, and without one then goes on? In the earlier stage direction/dialogue discussion, we found evidence to show that Claudio should be crying at some point in this scene; is this the point at which he breaks down? Or is something else happening on stage?

When chaos breaks out, Claudio tries to get Leonato’s attention again (so that he can question Hero), asking the old man,

Leonato, stand I here?
Is this the prince? is this the prince’s brother?
Is this face Hero’s? Are our eyes our own?
  • IV.i.68-70

Again a shortened first line, again from Claudio. And what does this say about his character? Is he, by nature, so low in self-esteem that he is always looking for someone to respond to him, to finish his sentences?

When Hero tries to ask Claudio, “Who can blot that name // With any just reproach?” Claudio doesn’t let her finish, interrupting, “Marry, that can Hero!” (IV.i.79-80). We can tell it’s an interruption because the shared line is six, not five, poetic feet long, breaking the pattern we’ve seen thus far in the scene.

When Don Pedro begins to describe what he witnessed the night before, he states,

                            Leonato,
I am sorry you must hear: upon mine honor,
Myself, my brother and this grieved count
Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night
Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window
Who hath indeed, most like a liberal villain,
Confess’d the vile encounters they have had
A thousand times in secret.
  • IV.i.86-93

Again, the final line is a short one, a foot and a half short. But what comes before it is what’s of interest. He says he, Claudio and Don John had seen Hero “talk” with a man at her window, and that the man had admitted to having done this before, “a thousand times in secret.” This is a pretty big revelation. A huge accusation. Something that might not hold up under cross-examination. It seems, though, that Pedro wants to reveal all that he knows, in support of Claudio; and he leaves that possibility hanging in the air. Luckily for Don John the Bastard, no one takes advantage of the pause, and he is able to himself:

Fie, fie! they are not to be named, my lord,
Not to be spoke of;
There is not chastity enough in language
Without offence to utter them. Thus, pretty lady,
I am sorry for thy much misgovernment.
  • IV.i.94-8

But even John the Bastard isn’t smooth enough to pull this off easily… just look at the scansion of the lines:


/ / / ~ / ~ ~ / ~ /

Fie, fie! they are not to be named, my lord,
/ ~ ~ / ~

Not to be spoke of;
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

There is not chastity enough in language
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Without offence to utter them. Thus, pretty lady,
-~- / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /

I am sorry for thy much misgovernment.

The first line is a jumble of poetic feet: a spondee (fie fie) followed by two trochees (they are | not to), before falling into iambs. But even that is short-lived: the next short line starts with a trochee (Not to), but can’t continue to a full-line completion. The third line again starts with a trochee (there is) before it regulates to iambs for the rest of the speech. Here, John panics to stop Don Pedro from going too far; but once the panic–as seen in his irregular meter–passes, he can continue on his villainous speaking pattern. Though it’s not as smooth as he’d like: the penultimate line of his speech is a foot longer than pentameter… he’s trying too hard to be calm.

Later, in the scene, as Benedick tries to calm Leonato, we get an almost perfect melding of form and content: “For my part, I am so attired in wonder, // I know not what to say” (IV.i.144-5). He doesn’t know what to say… so much so that he can’t even complete the poetic line, which ends after only the third foot.

When the Friar attempts to take control of the scene, he begins “Hear me a little” (IV.i.155), and then he pauses the remainder of the poetic line to make sure that no one interrupts–another great balance of form and content. It’s not completely successful to get everyone to listen, though. When Leonato rants against both Hero and those who might have meant her harm, the Friar again has to interrupt Leonato, overlapping by a beat the father’s “…To quit me of them thoroughly,” with his own “Pause awhile” (IV.i.200).

Benedick later tells Leonato than he will be part to the Hero death deception, and that Leonato should do the same:

Signor Leonato, let the friar advise you:

Yet, by mine honor, I will deal in this
As secretly and justly as your soul
Should with your body.
  • IV.i.244, 247-9

Leonato’s response interrupts Benedick with “Being that I flow in grief, // The smallest twine may lead me” (IV.i.249-50), saying–in its own short line–that he is so pulled by sadness, any suggestion (Benedick’s “smallest twine”) will change his direction. In other words, it’s not a wholehearted agreement. But as noted, this is a short line as well, only three iambic fee (plus a feminine ending). And this makes the Friar’s response, after a two beat pause, a comic punch-line: “’Tis well consented” (IV.i.250).

In a play that is less than 25% verse, the rhythm of that poetry takes on a greater importance, and so it is no surprise that this turning point in the play is filled with metric irregularities that act as vital signposts for the director and actors.

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