‘How to Know if Someone Is in Love’: An Examination of Elizabethan Courtship in Much Ado About Nothing.

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Like any other animal, human beings adopt a series of behaviours to show interest in mating in an appropriate way.  In the Elizabethan era, courtly love meant that a man strove to obtain his lady both through force of arms and through his skill in poetry.

Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing despise this kind of courtship (in addition to swearing off love altogether). When they fall in love however, they gradually fall right into the conventional phases of wooing!

Phase 1: Extravagant Praise. Even at the peak of their rivalry, Benedick praises Beatrice’s beauty, saying that she “exceedes in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (Much Ado, 1.1). Elizabethan poets frequently compared their lovers to natural beauty like springtime.

Phase 2: Speaking in poetry After Benedick realizes his love for Beatrice, she enters to call him to dinner.  Benedick’s speech immediately changes from prose to blank verse, the poetic metre that Shakespeare’s characters use when in a state of passion.

BENEDICK

Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.

(Much Ado About Nothing, 2.2).

Benedick might be trying to impress Beatrice by speaking in verse, or Shakespeare might be hinting at how Beatrice’s presence makes Benedick feel. Whatever the reason, Benedick has fallen into another snare: he is one step closer to being devoured by romantic convention. 

Phase 3: Treasuring a token of his lady.

Traditionally, when two people were in love, they would treasure some kind of memento from their lovers (like penguins with their pebbles). Some of the most popular items were gloves or pictures of them. Benedick gets Beatrice’s picture after he vows to be “horribly in love with her” (2.2).

Phase 4: Making a vow to defend his lady’s honour

As knights of old fought for their ladies, Benedick vows to fight for Beatrice’s love. The twist is that he is actually fighting to defend Beatrice’s kinswomen Hero, whom Claudio accuses of adultery. In act 4, Benedick swears a very telling oath when he agrees to challenge Claudio to a duel: “Enough, I am engaged, I will challenge him.” This oath proves his commitment to Beatrice. When Benedick vows to defend Hero for Beatrice, he finally obtains her trust and her affection.

Phase 5: Writing Sonnets

Elizabethans used poetry to express passion in socially appropriate ways. This is why lovers in Shakespearean plays speak blank verse. Benedick loathes this kind of courtship the most, yet in act 5, scene 2 he writes “a halting sonnet” to Beatrice. This is the last hurdle Benedick jumps through for Beatrice’s love, and he changes into what he swore he’d never become — a prating, poetry-writing lover. When Claudio and the Prince mock him for this behavior, Benedick has no retort other than to admit that he was no match for the power of love, which transformed him into the stereotypical lover:

BENEDICK

Since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any

purpose that the world can say against it; and

therefore never flout at me for what I have said

against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my

conclusion.

(Much Ado, 5.4)

Looking at Benedick’s transformation, an audience can see that no-one totally escapes love’s power to change human behavior. Although courtship makes people act like fools, it is as natural as breathing. Love traps us all into speaking the language of courtship, and we read Shakespeare’s poetry today to express our desires in a powerful and beautiful way.

 

Paul Rycik

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Author:Paul Rycik

Paul Rycik is a dramaturg and actor with Open Air Shakespeare NRV, Virginia.

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