Thus updated, this Much Ado allows the (mostly) faithfully rendered text to speak to today’s audiences, and therein lies the surprise. Whedon’s Messina seems every bit as much an idealized vision of our own time and place as Shakespeare’s Messina was an idealized vision of his England — even more so. People generally did not then and do not now speak in courtly phrases, gliding imperceptibly into and out of iambic pentameter. But people did then at least nominally believe that romance — and its ultimate end, marriage — must be approached with awe, humility, and courage.
Such sentiments are entirely absent from the hookup culture that passes for young love in the urban West, which makes their appearance in a strikingly modern film all the more surprising — and refreshing. “I fixated on this notion that our ideas of romantic love are created for us by the society around us,” Whedon explained. “Escape from that is grown-up love, is marriage, is mature love.”
In truth, and although it is as far from a polemic as imaginable, Much Ado resoundingly indicts the norm of sex without consequences, exposing it as a cheap fraud and a license for barbaric selfishness. At first, Benedick and Beatrice — who had their own hookup in a prologue, one of the film’s few embellishments — think themselves the more mature pair. Viewing the besotted Hero and Claudio from afar, they dismiss the younger couple’s infatuation with a wink and a smirk. Eschewing love, they are the swinging life of Leonato’s party. But theirs is a brittle wit, a self-regarding cleverness that shields its possessors against the risks of trust and true affection. Beatrice, we learn, was deeply wounded by her casual assignation with Benedick, and by his easy departure thereafter. She conceals her grief and loneliness by making light of everyone who crosses her path. In characterizing Beatrice, Hero also reveals her as a postmodern ironist, so besotted with knowingness that she can neither love nor hate:
Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprizing what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love
Nor take no shape nor project of affection
She is so self-endeared.
Unfortunately, while narcissism may detach us from civilization’s pleasures, it does not really shield us from its perils. Don John, a decidedly unironic jerk who quite simply despises his half-brother (“I am a plain-dealing villain,” he muses), needs only to plant the slightest evidence of infidelity among the houseguests to turn their fey, fragile spirits to dark suspicion and recrimination. Outside the broken shell of irony, the merry band of banterers experiences the full brunt of tragedy.
In response, the worldly-wise Beatrice and Benedick grasp, clumsily at first, for the ideals that they had previously scorned — she by remaining obstreperously loyal to her disgraced cousin, he by pledging on his honor to right the wrong and rashly challenging his friend to a duel. Their actions are foolish, dangerous, and still in part self-interested. They are also the first faltering steps toward real generosity, steps that point toward still further unwitty and unironic acts — like repentance, redemption, and even holy matrimony. All of its glorious kidding aside, Much Ado About Nothing issues a serious challenge to its heroes and to its viewers — to eschew the cool, selfish, and ultimately barbaric detachment with which we are taught to approach our relationships with one another, and instead to open ourselves to the joys and sorrows of a sincere, loving life in full.
— Will Allen is an editorial intern at National Review.