I recently asked an author to revise a script before we would publish it. The reviewer had liked the play, but felt that the same plot device had been used too many times. In feeding this back to the author, we took the view that the audience would notice the repetition and think worse of the play for it: too much coincidence and not enough invention.
A couple of days ago, via an excellent production at the Plaza Theatre, Romsey, I reacquainted myself with Much Ado About Nothing, and discovered that Shakespeare had used a plot device five times – and it was the same one that we had complained about. The plot of Much Ado runs like this:-
- Claudio fancies Leonato’s daughter, Hero, but is too shy to approach her directly.
- Claudio’s liege lord, Don Pedro, offers to do the wooing on Claudio’s behalf.
- This plan is overheard by a servant of Antonio, Leonato’s brother. Antonio reports the scheme to Leonato who approves.
- The plan is also overheard by Borachio, who reports it to his lord, the wicked Don John. Don John is Don Pedro’s brother and wishes to make trouble in his brother’s camp. He does this by telling Claudio that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself. This plot is foiled and Hero is betrothed to Claudio.
- Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato decide to turn the war of words between Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s knights, and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, into a romance. The three discuss Beatrice’s supposed love for Benedick where they know that Benedick will overhear them. Hero and her friend Ursula discuss Benedick’s love for Beatrice where she will overhear them. This goes well.
- Borachio and Don John hatch another plot through which Don Pedro and Claudio come to believe that Hero is unfaithful. After this has been successfully executed, a group of (otherwise idiotic) night watchmen overhear Borachio boasting about the plot and arrest him. Thus eventually the scheme is undone and Claudio is reconciled with Hero. (Beatrice and Benedick also plight their troth for as long as they can agree not to bandy words.)
(If you want a longer summary of Much Ado About Nothing, you can find Bill Tordoff’s thirty-minute abridgement of the play here.)
Did you spot it? The whole of the story hinges on things being overheard – two deliberately (to unite Beatrice and Benedick), three accidentally. (There is arguably a sixth instance because Claudio believes he is hearing things from Don John that were not destined for his ears.)
Does this matter? Well, yes it does if it makes the audience think that a play is dull or contrived. Much Ado, as the title tells us, is a light piece – a romantic comedy if ever there was. Nevertheless, it still needs a plot. We enjoy the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, the melodramatic villainy of Don John and the silliness of the Watch, so Shakespeare gets away with it. For modern writers, audiences will be less forgiving.