Journal

If You've Seen Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing...

Posted by Maddie on November 8, 2011 at 10:30 AM

...You may like this. For English class, my final term project could be anything. I could have used Google Sketch-Up to create a set design, I could have acted out a scene, or could've wrote a personal essay on a theme that strung through Othello, Much Ado, and The Merchant of Venice. Instead, I chose to analyze a film: my favorite of the three: Much Ado About Nothing. Perhaps it was the beautiful scenery that drew me in, or maybe Much Ado is just my favorite play. Whatever the reason may be, I chose Much Ado About Nothing (1993) to analyze the first scene of. I recommend you watch it and then read my analysis to see what my take of Branagh's director decisions. Here is the clip: www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIACPr5XEQM


Shakespeare’ Much Ado About Nothing reveals that people have a tendency to create schemes to trick others, whether the victims are their friends or enemies, in order to take control of the situation. Of the five schemes in Much Ado, the three that determine the play’s fate are crafted by heroic characters, Don Pedro and the Friar, characters who have good intentions. While Shakespeare convinces us that good intentions return successful results, or that understanding human nature is crucial to fashioning successful plans, the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing (1993) illustrates the power of women through the song “Sigh No More, Ladies,” color, location, and biblical illusion, to change our basic assumption that good characters, like any fable, triumph in the end. While suggesting that Much Ado’s characters are divided into hero and villain is a safe assumption, Branagh chooses to risk commentary from Shakespearean purists to argue that successful schemes are determined not by ethics, but by gender, with female characters who decide the fate of the play. He highlights female superiority over men in Much Ado’s opening scene to have us think more deeply about the true tensions the play is centered around: good vs. evil or women vs. men. Branagh makes Beatrice the focal point of his film to strengthen the role of female characters in the play. Beatrice — a victim of being tricked into loving Benedick — teaches us to invest little emotion in men in her recitation of “Sigh No More, Ladies.” “Sigh No More, Ladies” is originally sung by Balthazar in Act 3 Scene 2, where Benedick is tricked into falling in love with Beatrice. The woeful song teaches a lesson directed at women from a woman, which makes the song’s message more genuine, serious, and personal, than having it sung by a man to men, as Shakespeare intended it. When sung by Balthazar, Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio, and Benedick do not consider the song’s importance as more than a love song sung badly. However, Branagh has Beatrice directly recite the song instead of Balthezar in the first scene, is speaking about men as womens’ source of woe. Beatrice’s tone suggest her words are one of caution, telling women that they should distance themselves from misbehaving men in order to free us of our woes and overcome the male power that is exerted on us when our emotions are controlled by men. The lyrics are white words leaping across a black screen reveal Branagh’s desire to engage his audience with the lyrics personally and wants to engage his audience with the lyrics personally and come up with their own connection to Shakespeare’s words in the opening song “Sigh no more, Ladies” before bringing in his interpretation. After all, Branagh presents the medium to how we typically connect to Shakespeare and what we praise him for: his brilliant words. Branagh wants his movie to be accessible to everyone, and the opening of the movie displays this desire. He starts off with the recitation of Shakespeare’s words because he wants to draw a contrast to how he uses this song and how Shakespeare used this song. The fact that a woman sings this song in the beginning suggests that women set the standard for the direction of the play. The white font on black also emphasizes the seriousness and importance of this song, where there was not much importance in Shakespeare’s handling of the song. This song also appears in the film’s end credits, as well as Shakespeare’s original placement of the song in Act 3, Scene 2, when Benedick is being tricked into liking Beatrice. Thus, Branagh reveals that this song stages the movie’s themes, twists the plot in the middle, and is apparent during the final scene and rolling credits to reveal that women are the ultimate controllers of fate from the beginning to the end. Branagh also uses location to emphasize female power; location and scenery physically stages women looking down on men. In addition to the “Sigh No More, Ladies” song, the soldiers who arrive at Leonato’s home have a duty to yield to women. When Beatrice is angry at Claudio for ruining Hero’s reputation during the wedding, she gives Benedick an ultimatum: kill Claudio and keep her or do not kill Claudio and lose her. Also, when Hero is supposedly dead, Leonato makes Claudio indebted to him, making him create an epitaph, mourn for her, and to swear to marry Antonio’s daughter. Branagh uses setting to reveal this dominance of power that females have over men. The beautiful setting that the movie takes place is considered to be the official location for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, which reveals that females have dominance over the villa. Branagh uses the element of height to reveal the power women have over men. He uses hills to elevate women and to have them looking down on men three instances in the first scene. After Beatrice’s line, “Not til a hot January,” the camera focuses on the men on horses galloping beneath them. Also, when the women are inside the house getting dressed, when Hero and a woman look out the window, the camera shifts downward to capture men on horses, still galloping beneath them. Lastly, when Claudio and Benedick are on ground level inside Leonato’s villa speaking about Hero, they are gazing up at Hero and Beatrice, who are standing on a balcony staring down at them. In addition to Branagh’s use of elevation, Branagh wants us to pay attention to color perhaps to mark the conventional heroes and villains; but more importantly, he wants to highlight the man who does not fall into either category, character Don Pedro. Don Pedro is neither a villain nor does he end in marriage because he does not end in a happy union with a woman. Not only did Branagh cast Don Pedro as a black character, his horse is the only one that is white, in comparison to everyone else’s dark brown and black horses. A removal of class distinction between the men galloping on horses supports Branagh’s view that men can be either heroes or villains, but their plan will not turn out successful, because women control the fate of our schemes anyway, not ethics. Conrade, Borachio, and Don John wear black collars and black leather pants, while the good men wear denim-colored pants and baby blue collars. However, Don Pedro is unique again, in that his collar is both black and blue and his pants are blue. By the lining of their collars, Branagh distinguishes Don Pedro from the other men, as well as the black collar of the villains and the blue collar of the heroes. When the film title appears on screen, “Much Ado About Nothing” shows up as the seven soldiers collectively pump their fists in the air and shout. The phrase “much ado about nothing” represents the powerlessness of men, and that men are “nothing” in terms of influencing the play’s final outcome. When Beatrice and Hero are involved in engineering plans to have their marriages work, they turn out to be successful; however, because Margaret did not know she was part of Don John’s plan to trick Claudio into thinking Hero was having an affair with Borachio, so the plan eventually fails, while the plans Beatrice and Hero are behind, succeed. Success may come for both villains and heroes, but the plans that are permanent are due to a presence of female control over schemes. Branagh’s presentation of the play portrays Don Pedro as a person who is neither happy nor sad at the end. He is the one hero who does not have someone to marry, which is why he is singled out through costume and does not end up happily at the play’s end. It may be that he asked Hero to marry him—even though he pretended to be Claudio—and that he also asked Beatrice to marry him, which she rejected. Although Don Pedro is portrayed as a hero, Branagh uses clothing to suggest that color does not symbolize good and bad, but the happiness the characters’ leave the movie with. He believes happiness is determined by marriage, the villains are punished, so they are wearing black, but Don Pedro fits neither of these categories, which is why color suggests that being involved with women allows us to have successful plans, which here is happiness. Much Ado alludes to The Bible’s story of Adam and Eve to reveal that women determine the fate of men, just as Eve convinced Adam to eat the forbidden apple. Along this parallel, the first person we see is Leonato with a color palette and paintbrush in hand, which is similar to God in behavior when he had control of how the world is seen and what he wants to bring to the world. Just as God starts with a blank canvas of darkness before his creations, so too does the movie; Branagh’s creation starts out black and eventually turns into a splendid luscious environment, with the painting as beautiful as reality. Painters are referenced in Much Ado, in a conversation between Borachio and Conrade before they are caught by the watchmen: “sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh’s soldiers in the reechy painting…where his codpiece seems as massy as his club” (3.3.129-33). As I noted in my essay “Understanding Human Nature Gives People Power,” painters can manipulate peoples’ perception of others to their advantage by controlling the whole appearance of what they want the audience to see, which alludes to the power of God. When the hype of men and women interacting occurs when they are pampering and taking showers, both women and men are frolicking or laughing in water nude, with everyone next to each other. They seem unaware that they are naked and in very close proximity to one another. Rather they are laughing, joking, and playing in the water, with this scene portrayed as not sexual in any way, but as innocent. The innocence that comes from nudity in Much Ado conjures up parallels to Adam and Eve’s ignorance when they were unclothed and not ashamed until they ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Eve’s mistake determined the fate of the human race, which could explain why Branagh alludes to the story of creation in his innocent scenes of nudity to show that women have the final say in Much Ado’s finale, as Eve does with the human race. Branagh says, “I think that our job is to communicate to and to communicate to as many people who are to hear it and not just see it as some sort of elitist thing.” He rejects traditional beliefs that men are superior to women, by revealing that women have control over the fate of men because the tension that steers the play until the end are threads of gender confrontation, witty banter, fear, and hidden emotions that come from creating a human relationship. The reason for my risky explanation for director Branagh’s film choices is because I believe Branaugh was risky in his film choices to reflect what he understands about heartbreak and giving emotions away. Understanding human nature provides security, and being moral or villainous is decided by nature for us, for women, putting ourselves out there for men is risky. While the fate of women may be successful in romantic comedies, Branagh sees a dark undercurrent: women who put themselves out there may not receive the happy ending they see in romantic comedies. Branaugh connects his audience to black and white screen of streaming lyrics and slow melody to reach out to his female audience and let them know they are not alone; in fact, he is on the other end risking film choices to empower women, which may move away from Shakespeare’s original manuscript. Branagh tries to explain that women in the end are happy because they follow Balthezar’s “Sigh No More, Ladies” and have let go of the past and “converted all [their] sounds of woe.” Before venturing into a fairytale comedy where women will sing “Hey nonny, nonny” in spirits of joy, he sympathizes with his female audience and empowers them by making women the center of the play with the power to determine the fate of men.

Categories: Maddie, Poetry, Portfolio

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