Adventures in History and Romance

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Much Ado About Shakespeare's Birthday

It's Shakespeare's birthday! Hoorah! 

It's also very close to my birthday, and it just so happens I got a marvelous early birthday present when the publishers of Signature Shakespeare contacted me and asked if I'd like a copy of their edition of Much Ado About Nothing to review.   (Apparently word has gotten out that I am a Shakespeare geek! I'll lay claim to that proudly.)

It's a gorgeous, hardbound volume, beautifully designed.

Inside the book are several pages of pictures made from cutout paper in blue and gold -- hard to describe, but truly lovely:

(Note: The editorial reviews for this book on the Barnes and Noble website say the play text is abridged, but I compared it to my Pelican Shakespeare and the complete play is given. I can only assume the reviews refer to an earlier version.)

Much Ado is my favorite of the Shakespeare comedies. I just love the interplay between Beatrice and Benedick, who insist they dislike each other, and yet we as the audience know differently! For example:

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior
Benedick: nobody marks you.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I
am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I
would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard
heart; for, truly, I love none.
BEATRICE A dear happiness to women....

Of course, in the end, thanks to the machinations of their friends, they finally confess that they are in love. As a romance writer, this of course makes me very happy!

You might be familiar with the film version made in 1993, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branaugh. I loved that movie, even though I thought Keanu Reeves was a terrible choice for Don John. I'm also eagerly anticipating the modern-day version coming out this summer from Joss Whedon.

But my favorite Much Ado so far is a film of a live performance at Shakespeare's Globe in London, starring Eve Best and Charles Edwards.

Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize Edwards as Edith's love interest, Michael Gregson. [Another aside: if they give him and Edith a larger role, season 4 might actually be worth watching...] As much as I know this play inside out, I actually cried at the end when Beatrice and Benedick finally get to their Happy Ever After.

Back to the Signature Shakespeare version -- I thought the layout, with the play on the right side and accompanying notes on the left side, worked very well.  I believe these editions are marketed for students, so I was a bit surprised to see places where the notes point out a few of the sexual innuendos that run throughout all the witty banter. That's the sort of "insider knowledge" I never got until college, although I suppose that given what high school students know these days, the information will not be too shocking. It might even make them like the play more... *ahem*

But what I really like about this Signature Shakespeare edition is the extensive notes in the back, covering the significant performances over the years, plus a discussion of other films and dance productions that have been inspired by Much Ado.

Being a firm believer that Shakespeare is best enjoyed in performance, my favorite note of all is on page 324, which details how actresses over the years have delivered Beatrice's famous line to Benedick: "Kill Claudio." Coming as it does right at the height of so much emotional turmoil, where various circumstances have placed Beatrice and Benedick in the midst of both of great joy and horrified sorrow, those simple words can be played a multiplicity of ways. I was intrigued to read about how the great ladies of theater and film have done it.

In short, this is a fabulous volume.  I look forward to spending more time going through the notes in greater detail, as well as immersing myself in this wonderful play yet again. I will definitely be looking up the other volumes in this series. My thanks to the publishers for giving me a wonderful excuse to geek-out on Shakespeare's birthday.