NOTE: as it concerns the bawdiness of Much Ado About Nothing, you are forewarned that this blog entry will contain mature subject matter, adult language, and adolescent humor… skip to a later and cleaner entry, if you’re quickly offended or blush too easily…
In Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Eric Partridge calls Much Ado About Nothing “the sexual-worst of the Comedies” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge, 2008; pages 57). There’s certainly no scene like Love’s Labor’s Lost’s archery debauche-fest. So what exactly makes it so “worst” in Partridge’s view?
Well, let’s take a look…
It’s starts out quickly enough, with Beatrice in the first 30 lines referring to Benedick as “Signor Montanto” (I.i.28). Montanto is an upward thrust in fencing (nothing phallic there… right.), but also alluding to a socially ambitious man, and–of course–the idea of sexually “mounting.” After discussing “eating” and “victual” (food or provisions), she says that Benedick has “an excellent stomach” (I.i.47-8), which means appetite, both physical and “sexual” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 249).
When she then calls him a “stuffed man” (I.i.54-5), the basic meaning is that he’s a kind of effigy, a dummy, but as we discussed Touchstone in As You Like It, the verb “to stuff” also had the meaning “to coit with” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 252), or “to fuck.” So, Benedick is either a fucking man or a fucked man.
Keep this “nothing” in mind, gentle readers, as–oh, I don’t know–it’s in the fucking title!
When Leonato then says that Beatrice and Benedick have their “merry war” (I.i.57), she says that Benedick “gets nothing by that!” (I.i.60). Again, two meanings here: Benedick gets no benefit from the war, but also possibly sex. A stretch, I know, but here’s the path from nothing to some(sexual)thing: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “nothing” has a primary meaning of “Not any (material or immaterial) thing; nought” (“nothing, n.; A.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2014. Web. 1 October 2014). If you then examine “nought,” you’ll find meanings of “Not any quantity or number, zero” (“nought, n.; B.1.c.” OED Online), like an O, a hole, or a bodily orifice; or “Wickedness, evil, moral wrong; (also) promiscuity, indecency” (“nought, n.; B.3.b.” OED Online), which may be linked to the concept of that orifice.
When Beatrice then compares Benedick to a disease, she says that he is caught more easily than the plague (“pestilence” [I.i.81]), and causes the catcher to “run… mad” (I.i.82) or insane, which may be a reference to syphilis. Benedick is a disease. Does Beatrice have a case of it?
Within lines, Benedick arrives, and we begin to see his reputation. Pedro asks if a particular girl (Hero) is Leonato’s daughter, Leonato says,
Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?
Signior Benedick, no; for then were you a child.
The joke is that had Benedick been older when Hero was conceived, then there might be question as to whether Benedick is her father. Benedick is, seemingly, a ladies’ man, and is–at least according to the man himself–“loved of all ladies, only (Beatrice) excepted” (I.i.119), though he “love(s) none” (I.i.121). All women except Beatrice love him, but he returns none of their loves. Because he’s waiting for Beatrice to love him before he’s willing to return love? Could be some subtext here.
If that’s the case, then he may very well be a “professed tyrant to (the female) sex” (I.i.160-1), as he certainly does not support Claudio’s love for Hero, as he disparages marriage, saying a husband is nothing more than a “man (who) will wear his cap with suspicion” (I.i.189) of hiding cucklold’s horns. When Claudio calls Hero a jewel, Benedick’s response is that not only can such a jewel be bought, but “a case to put it into” (I.i.174) as well. While Benedick might mean a box for the jewel, “case” in Shakespeare’s day was also slang for vagina (and here “it” is a penis that he’s be “put(ting) it into”); so you can buy (or rent) a whore as easily as “buying” a jewel or wife.
After the prince returns and Benedick continues his gender-tyranny, Claudio says Benedick “never could maintain his part but in the force of his will” (I.i.225-6). Again a double meaning: clean–Benedick never wins an argument except by never giving in; dirty–he can’t keep it up (“maintain his part” or cock) without mentally thinking of sex (“force of his will” or sexual desire). Benedick is all thought, no heart or emotion, for Claudio. Benedick doesn’t dispute this; thought will keep him from becoming a cuckold, as he states, “I will (not) have a recheat winded in my forehead, (n)or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick” (I.i.229-230). A recheat is a “A call sounded on a horn” (“recheat, n.” OED Online), and bugle is a kind of horn. Again, the horn is the sign of the cuckold, and something that both he and the prince reference (I.i.250 and 256, respectively). This obsession with becoming a cuckold is something we will see again and again (throughout the plays–think back on Merry Wives’ Ford–as well as) in this play.
So much so that it might just be easier to buy sex than to risk cuckoldry.
And this is no idle opinion. Remember the case-buying from earlier in the scene? Well, Benedick says that if he is ever pale with love, then “pick out (his) eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen and hang (him) up at the door of a brothel-house” (I.i.239-40). And Pedro tells Benedick, “Nay, if Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice, thou wilt quake for this shortly… (and) you (will) temporize with the hours” (I.i.257-8, 260). Venice, in Shakespeare’s day, was famous for its prostitutes, and Pedro says that Bendick will weaken (“temporize”) with whores (a homonym for “hours”).
And all of this? All in Much Ado About Nothing’s first scene. So, is any of it as greasy as the worst scenes in either Love’s Labor’s Lost or The Merry Wives of Windsor? No. But it is relentlessly nudge-nudge to open the play.