At the beginning of the “Much Ado About Nothing” production in the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold, the credits roll over events several years before the action of the play. Beatrice is preparing for a big date; Benedick is preparing…to skip town for a big job.
Now, some of you may realize this isn’t countertextual: it’s a spinning out of one line:
DON PEDRO: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of
BEATRICE: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.
I could go on at some length about the casting of this production — Damian Lewis as Benedick, be still my heart; and Sarah Parish, the pretty, witty Beatrice with the motile face. But I’m here to talk about the introduction and one shot in particular where Beatrice scatters red rose petals over her bed, then looks at them, goes off screen, and comes back with a dustbuster to remove them. With her expressive face, you see the whole thought process play out.
I love this moment. It crystallizes something very important: Beatrice is a reluctant romantic. She is a romantic, or she never would have thought of the petals: but once deployed they strike her as too much, too obvious, too vulnerable, too earnest. Too romantic.
I can sympathize. I don’t know what scholar put forward the idea of the romance cult, but I first read about it in Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Basically, the idea is that as the power of the Church has declined in post-Medieval Europe (and the European-inflected West) the place of Christianity has been supplied by worldly romance. Sure, the Western world is still chock-full of Christians, but Christianity can no longer safely be assumed to be a universal constant. Stories told in the Renaissance and later depend on different universal truths and aspirations, a different transcendant happiness: romantic love. Love, moreover, that transforms and elevates, that is itself a destiny and purpose. True Love with One person, Forever.
It’s natural, perhaps, that this world order should have its cynics, just as the religious one did. But most of us — not all, I note — do crave companionship, and the idea of a lasting partnership that will fix us and save us from ourselves has been programmed in from an early age. Even those of us who believe more in density than in destiny often have a yearning heart.
And so, for us, there are the reluctant romantics, the bickering lovers, the banterers and sarcastics. Beatrices and Benedicks, Hans and Leias: characters who are strong and self-reliant, resistant perhaps to the vulnerability of love or belief in it, characters who demonstrate with every barbed word and cynical protest that they will not go gently into the sunset. It’s become an overused device itself, but done right, it still enchants. In the process of convincing their doubting hearts, they convince ours too.