by guest author, Lauren DeBlasi Jackson
My 11th grade English teacher beat books to death.
I don’t blame her for it. Now a teacher myself, I know she was paid peanuts for an almost ten-hour work day, she had to deal with smartass students and incompetent administrators and parents who kept wondering why their kiddo who kept showing up to class high as a kite was failing. I get it.
I also don’t really forgive her either. That class bullied me into believing that the only way to truly understand a book, to really “get it,” was to tie the story to a chair and torture the meaning out of it, like the students in the Billy Collins’ poem, “Introduction to Poetry.” We vivisected stories, carefully cataloging each instance of symbolism, characterization, allusion, allegory, like gruesome literary coroners.
So when people tell me they don’t like Shakespeare, I don’t roll my eyes and and tell them that they don’t understand true art. That kind of language is for pretentious assholes sitting in cafes behind a battered laptop, writing out some derivative script that they think is ‘like, really deep.” Instead, I usually do something along the lines of get really excited and ask them if they like “10 Things I Hate About You.” After we’re done gushing over the film I tell them it’s just Shakespeare (even though it’s based on the worst Shakespeare, I said he was great not unproblematic).
When I refer to Shakespeare here, I refer to over 150 sonnets and and 37 plays full of romance, murder, sex jokes, revenge, passion, ill conceived ways to finally get your kids to tell you they love you, the deconstruction and rejection of rape culture and toxic masculinity, and a bunch of bisexual disasters falling in love and fucking up their lives forever by marrying the wrong twin.
You don’t have to love Shakespeare.
But there’s more here for you than you think.
With that, let’s dive into one of my personal favorites, the comedy that delves into the pervasive destructiveness of misogyny, Much Ado About Nothing.
Enter Shakespeare’s worst antagonist: Don John.
When I say the “worst,” it’s not because he’s particularly evil, or wily, or manipulative. No, Don John’s plans are the dumbest, most half-assed machinations to ever tread the Globe’s boards. The most popular incarnations of the character drive this home to the point of absurdity; if you want a good chuckle go check out the opening credits of the 1993 movie and look at Keanu Reeve’s face as he rides up that hill. Don John’s dialogue chews the scenery around it, telling the audience that he’d rather be “a canker in a hedge than a rose in [the prince’s] grace” and that he’s “but a plain-dealing villain” before they’ve known him ten minutes.
And yet, his plot still succeeds, because men don’t trust or believe women.
Let’s back up a tic, and go over Don John’s inane, half-baked plan to fuck with his brother, Don Pedro.
Don Pedro has a friend named Claudio, who is about to be married to a beautiful young maiden named Hero. This pisses Don John off for reasons that are best explained as “maybe jealousy?” followed by a hand wave or a quick shrug of the shoulders. So Don John and his servant, Borachio, cook up a scene where Borachio will seduce Hero’s maid in full view of Don Pedro and Claudio, with the aim of getting them to believe that he’s really seducing Hero, and that she’s been unchaste, and call off the whole wedding.
He doesn’t even have to go that far though, because Don Pedro and Claudio (whose dialogue, by the way, could be replaced in its entirety by high pitched whining and absolutely nothing about the play would change), true paragons of tact and restraint, are totally down to believe him before they’ve even seen the evidence, despite the fact that Don John tried to break up their friendship over Hero’s hand in marriage the day before.
But that’s okay, because the next day, Claudio talks to his fiancé about his concerns, they have a conversation, she says she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and Don John is proven to be a liar and a fiend.
Nah, I’m just kidding, he buries his rage deep until he calls her a slut at the altar and leaves her broken and senseless on the floor of the church. Her father buys into Don John’s garbage instantly with nothing but Claudio and the Prince’s word to go on and tries to beat her while her cousin, Beatrice, is screaming that Hero is innocent and no one is listening to her.
This scene, difficult and chaotic and even possibly triggering for some, is the culmination of three acts full of sexist jokes from each and every man in the play including Hero’s dad, Claudio, and the previously unmentioned Benedick. It is the obvious result when men treat women as objects to be idolized and thrown away, as things to be sought after, quested for, won in games played by the men around them.
Shakespeare lays out in black and white the consequences of unchecked misogyny, where even the dopiest, most short sighted plans can succeed in a culture that is up to its neck in sexist jokes and obsession over women’s sexual habits. Even the title of the play, Much Ado About Nothing, has been interpreted by some to mean, roughly, Freaking Out Over Vaginas.
So where does the play go from here? How does this whole thing get resolved?
By men learning to be better.
There are two men who aren’t trying to beat the shit out of Hero for being made a victim by her fuckboi fiancé, and they are the friar who was supposed to perform the ceremony, and Benedick, who opens the play as a self-professed tyrant to women and closes it like he’s John Mulaney (“My wife is a bitch and I like her so much”).
The root of this drastic change? He witnesses the destructive power of the misogyny around him and he refuses to participate in it. He is horrified by Claudio’s behavior at the wedding, listens to Hero when she says she didn’t do anything and he believes her right away, even though he’s been palling around with the prince and Claudio for the entirety of the play. He even agrees to kill his friend for what he’s done, when he realizes that Claudio’s actions have not only ruined Hero’s life, but they have devastated Beatrice, the woman he loves.
Benedick goes to meet with Claudio and the Prince to announce his intention to duel, and these two douchebros, who at this point have been made to believe that Hero is dead and they couldn’t give two shits about it, try to get him to participate in their sexist jokes like they did before. Benedick, who way back in Act One was telling Claudio that one can buy women like jewels, instead tells them both to fuck right off, declaring “I will leave you now to your gossip-like humour: you break jests as braggarts do their blades, which God be thanked, hurt not.”
It is only after this interaction, where Benedick calls them out on their bullshit, that Claudio and Don Pedro begin to doubt their actions against Hero, and this then, is Shakespeare’s statement on the role of male allies in feminism.
There are thousands of Don John’s out there today. They’re the Matt Lauers, the Harvey Weinsteins, the Bill O’Reillys. They’re the men taking advantage of a world that’s stacked against women at every turn, that rely on a system of men protecting each other from the consequences of their sexual harrassment, from the consequences of destroying the lives and careers of the women around them. They’re the men shaming women from behind a computer screen, sharing revenge porn, screeching about forced diversity in popular movies, and they will not listen to women even if we, like Beatrice, are screaming in their faces.
Shakespeare knew four hundred years ago that women cannot stand against misogyny alone. Like Benedick, it is the job of male allies to listen to what women have to say, to shut down sexist comments from their fellow men, to not feed into the ‘ball and chain’ rhetoric, to stop protecting the men that try to ruin women’s lives. Much Ado About Nothing lays out the thesis that misogyny carries a toxicity that hurts everyone it comes into contact with, and the only way out of it is through a coordinated, concentrated effort from everyone on the gender spectrum.