This piece was cross-posted with permission from Bitch Flicks
Joss Whedon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is soaked in sex, languidness, and alcohol, as any decent adaptation of a Shakespeare comedy should be. It’s not a “wedding movie” in the traditional sense: there are no Bridezilla jokes, montages of wedding planning going hilariously wrong, or subplots about in-laws fighting each other.
But Much Ado About Nothing does have more than one wedding scene, and the film does employ the classic “left at the alatr” plot point. Claudio (Fran Kranz), in love with Hero (Jillian Morgese), abandons her on their wedding day. What follows is not the typical “wacky wedding hijinx” story, but a story that exposes the true nature of the characters involved in the ceremony, where several male characters reveal disturbing attitudes toward women, and one surprises us by being a little more enlightened than we expected.
Claudio doesn’t have cold feet because he’s nervous about marriage. At the beginning of the film, there’s nothing he wants more than to go to the chapel and get ma-a-a-a-aried. In fact, he wants to marry Hero the day after she accepts his proposal, prompting her father Leonato (Clark Gregg) to tell him to put on the brakes because he’s not quite ready to transfer ownership of his daughter to a husband…I mean, er, “watch his little girl grow up.”
Then the villain Don John (Sean Maher) tricks Claudio and Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) into believing that Hero is unfaithful to him. Don John stages a moment where his cohort Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) seduces Hero’s lady-in-waiting, Margaret (Ashley Johnson), in Hero’s bedroom. Claudio and Don Pedro witness two shadowy figures going at it behind a curtain, and believe that Hero is disloyal. She is, as Don John puts it, “your Hero, Leonato’s Hero, every man’s Hero.” (Keep away from that Runaround Sue.)
So, naturally, Claudio and Don Pedro a) forget that Don John is the same villain who was in handcuffs at the beginning of the film for trying to stage a coup against Don Pedro, and b) decide that two shadowy figures in his fiance’s bedroom is concrete proof that Hero is cheating on him. They believe this because someone wrote “gullible” on every ceiling in every building they’ve ever been in.
Feeling betrayed and resentful, Claudio doesn’t simply call off the wedding or privately ask Hero for an explanation. He manhandles her at the ceremony, shoves her back into her father’s arms, calls her a whore, and refuses to marry her. Don Pedro joins in on the slut-shaming, and once they’re done humiliating Hero in front of her friends and relatives, they stalk off with Don John (who hilariously steals a cupcake from the dessert platter before leaving the ceremony).
The scene is mostly played as serious; Whedon even eliminates Benedick’s Captain Obvious moment where he comments, “This is not a nuptial.” The film focuses on the horrifying behavior of Leonato, the previously affectionate father, who wishes for his daughter’s death after hearing the prince declare that she is nothing more than a “common stale.” Some of his exact words: “Let her die.”
Leonato’s denunciation of Hero is the most disturbing moment of the film, as it should be. Verbal and physical abuse at the hand of a lover or boyfriend is traumatizing and life-altering, but there is something profoundly and uniquely painful in suffering at the hands of a parent. The casting of Clark Gregg, aka everyone’s favorite Agent Coulson from The Avengers, is a particularly brilliant move; any fan of Joss Whedon’s is conditioned to see Gregg as a good guy, and the moment of betrayal feels particularly pointed when coming from the mouth of such a likable actor.
Meanwhile, only two men present at the ceremony believe Hero’s (accurate) version of the story without question. One man is a priest, who is not so much a character as a plot device, serving the same purpose as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet and coming up with the always brilliant “hey, let’s pretend the girl is dead!’ scheme.
The other man who immediately believes Hero is Benedick.
Remember Benedick? The man in the beginning of the play who proudly proclaimed his eternal bachelorhood to anyone who asked his opinion (and those who didn’t?). The man who only ever referred to Hero as “Leonato’s short daughter”? The man who, when pressed to think of a compliment for a woman, could only say, “That a woman conceived me, I thank her”?
He’s the only male character of note who takes Hero’s word.
Granted, Benedick did not witness Don John’s display of shadow puppet porn theater on Hero’s balcony–but then again, neither did Leonato, who immediately believes the accusations against his beloved daughter. Benedick also knows better than to trust anything that comes from Don John’s mouth.
But even though he believes Hero, he’s not willing to engage Claudio in a fight. He puts the blame on Don John. His position seems to be that even though Claudio and Don Pedro were wrong, they were tricked, and not entirely to blame.
After his conversation with Beatrice, however, Benedick changes his tune. He agrees to challenge Claudio.
This is a complete role reversal from the beginning of the film. Claudio, the professed lover, and Don Pedro, seemingly a friend to women, think nothing of denouncing and humiliating a woman in public. Benedick, the proud bachelor and misogynist, prioritizes the woman he loves over his closest friends.
What can we learn about misogyny from the Much Ado wedding that wasn’t?
To put it in the most cliched terms, we can learn that actions speak louder than words. Claudio’s sweet professions of love mean nothing when compared to his behavior towards Hero, and Benedick’s rants against women and marriage are redeemed when he defends one woman on behalf of another woman he loves.
Or, to put it another way–the guy who says a lot of sweet things and seems genuine might turn out to be a gullible asshole with a lot of internalized misogyny, and the mostly-decent guy who stands up for you will still need to make a lot of sexist jokes for the sake of appearances and male ego.
(Go see this movie immediately.)
Lady T has a B.A. from Hofstra University where she majored in English and Education and minored in Drama. She taught public school for four years until she came to her senses, and now she works at a private nonprofit school for children with autism. She enjoys Shakespeare, The Simpsons, and trying to find the perfect intersection between feminism and comedy. Her novel is almost done and will be coming soon to a bookstore near you — assuming an agent picks it up and bookstores still exist in a few years.”