NOTE: as this concerns the further bawdiness of Much Ado About Nothing, you are forewarned that this blog entry will contain some nudge-nudge wink-wink, adult language, and sophomoric sensibilities… skip to a later and cleaner entry, if you’re quickly offended or blush too easily…
Yesterday, we discussed Act One of Much Ado About Nothing, and how it contributes to the perception of Eric Partridge (in his Shakespeare’s Bawdy) that Much Ado is the “sexual-worst” of the comedies. Between horns and whores, the bawdy tone is set in the first scene. Let’s take a look at how the second act builds on that start.
As with the first act, the first salacious salvo is fired by Beatrice. When Leonato describes a man mixing qualities of Don John and Benedick, Beatrice responds,
Here, it’s all about the body parts, except “foot” and “purse” were slang for “penis” and “scrotum,” respectively. So with a good cock and full balls, a man could get any woman, if he could get her “powerful, sexual desire” (“will”, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge, 2008; pages 284).
When Leonato and Antonio call her “shrewd” and “curst” (II.i.17 and 18, respectively), she responds shrewishly again,
She says that if a woman is (somewhat) shrewish, God will send her short horns, or men with short cocks, but if she’s too curst, God will send her no man at all. When Leonato says that’s why she has no husband, she says that she is “upon (her) knees every morning and evening” (II.i.26-7), thankful for that. To quote Gertrude, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet, III.ii.226).
There is some critical opinion that her discussion of a man with “no beard” is a reference to a homosexual male; she says that she “is not for” such a man (II.i.36). If that’s the case, then it is interesting that a later dialogue (III.ii.40-5) implies that Benedick is bearded at this point in the play.
When Benedick in disguise continues his merry war with Beatrice at the masque, saying he had heard that she was disdainful, she is sure that he had heard this from Benedick, who is “the prince’s jester, a very dull fool” (II.i.131). She also says that she believes that Benedick is in the sea of dancers: “I am sure he is in the fleet” (II.i.136), then keeping with the naval imagery, she says, “I would he had boarded me” (II.i.136-7). Her statement can be interpreted as a desire that Benedick has been man enough to “assault” her with his accusations of disdainfulness. And this would make sense. Only, we have seen in earlier plays (see The Merry Wives of Windsor) that the verb “board” also has a sexual connotation: “to coit with” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 84). She could be intimating a desire for Benedick to approach her sexually, and if this is the case, one has to wonder if she already knows this man is Benedick. Is she serious? Is she toying with him?
Later, after Benedick complains to Pedro of her insults, Pedro tells Beatrice,
So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools.
Putting Benedick down verbally is a pre-emptive strike for Beatrice, so that he would not put her down on the bed and impregnate her.
In Act Two, Scene Two, when Borachio lays out a plan to dishonor Hero, his goal is to make her a defiled prostitute (“contaminated stale” [II.ii.24]).
Later, during the gulling of Benedick, Claudio tells of a note with Benedick and Beatrice’s names written on it, so that when it is folded, one would find “‘Benedick’ and ‘Beatrice’ between the sheet” of paper (II.iii.134-5), punning on finding them between the bed-sheets.
All in all, Act Two is not as dirty as Act One, but not exactly chaste, either.