Mirabell and Millamant. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The most famous couplings in romantic comedy all bear a distinct resemblance to Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Whether the work is a Restoration comedy (The Way of the World by William Congreve), a Georgian novel (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) or a 20th century Hollywood film (too many to count), the fascination with these archetypal characters has spanned centuries. As scholar Claire McEachern notes, “the popularity of these inevitably allied antagonists is confirmed by their own ‘excerptability.’”
EARLY MODERN THEATRE
Much Ado About Nothing has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The First Quarto of 1600 indicates that it was “sundrie [many] times,” “publickely acted” at court. Leonard Digges’s dedication to the 1632 Second Folio, one of the rare Early Modern descriptions of a Shakespearean play in performance, declares the play a crowd-pleaser: “…let but Beatrice / And Benedick be seene, loe in a trice, the Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full.”
Restoration comedies by William Congreve, William Wycherley and George Etherege are all dominated by the “gay couple”—a pair of lovers whose attraction is tempered by antagonism. Like Beatrice and Benedick, the heroes of Restoration comedy are critical of social norms and contemptuous of the artificialities of wooing. Wit in these plays is a form of social currency and a means of battling the strictures of society while mitigating real consequences. Not coincidentally, this was also the era of the first female actresses onstage in England, and strong female leads were a source of intense fascination during the period.
Beatrice and Elizabeth Bennet would have liked each other. Think of how similar they are: bright and bold, doubting in love and disposed to judgment. The sparring between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, their initial aversion and eventual affection, follows that of Beatrice and Benedick. The foiling plot of Jane and Bingley’s parallel love story owes much to Hero and Claudio, too. Pride and Prejudice, the novel which is generally supposed to be the origin of all modern romantic comedy, is indebted to Much Ado.
“What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.”
Much Ado About Nothing, act 3, scene 1
Pride and Prejudice, vol. 2, chapter 13
As the film critic Andrew Sarris notes, screwball was “sex comedy without the sex.” Only talking, a la Beatrice and Benedick. Lots of it and at breakneck speed. In 1934, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert brought Beatrice and Benedick onto the big screen. With the onset of talking film, movies like Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, delighted in rapidfire dialogue and wordplay rife with insults. The dialogue was replete with suggestions of hormones and Freudian complexes that were just entering the popular consciousness– but still seemed innocent enough to make it past the censors.
(It Happened One Night, 1934)
Much Ado’s template is, if anything, even more prevalent today, as the battle of the sexes holds an immovable place in popular culture. Beatrice and Benedick are the framework upon which contemporary romantic comedy is built, and their battles have been codified into an immediately recognizable plot structure. Movies like You’ve Got Mail (1998) and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days (2003) are perfect examples: equally witty, ambitious men and women spar until their battle brings them together. Beatrice and Benedick’s model of evenly-matched opponents who become well-suited lovers has become Hollywood’s ideal image of love, almost 500 years later.