Charles Bell, company member
In a review of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2013), Shiela O’Malley states, “Beatrice and Benedick steal the show, though, in this version and in every version I’ve seen, on film or on stage.” O’Malley is not alone in this focus on Beatrice and Benedick. Claire McEachern calls them “the darlings of the theatre,” a couple “whose sparring and eventual capitulation to each other has kept people laughing and weeping for centuries.” Those familiar with the film versions of the play directed by Kenneth Branagh (1993) and later Whedon can picture the way their love story finishes: Hero and Claudio have been reunited, and Beatrice and Benedick resort to their old habits, denying their love for each other and bickering. In the end, however, Benedick exclaims, “Peace! I will stop your mouth” (5.4.85), and they finally kiss.
Or do they?
In the first quarto edition of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1600), there is no indication that Benedick even speaks this line. A brief exchange between Beatrice and Benedick, culminating in this iconic line, appears as follows:
W. Shakespeare, Much adoe about nothing As it hath been sundrie times publikely acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants (London: Andrew Wise and William Aspley, 1600), The Huntington Library, STC 22304, I4r.
The speech prefixes (shortened versions of the characters names that precede speech in early English playbooks) clearly indicate that Leonato (“Leon.”), Beatrice’s uncle, is the character who promises to stop someone’s mouth. There is no stage direction printed at this moment to indicate a kiss of any kind. This is followed in the first folio, the first printing of Shakespeare’s plays as a collection.
Benedick speaks this line and kisses Beatrice in almost every production of Much Ado that has been produced in the last two hundred years due to the intervention of an editor. In 1733, Lewis Theobald emended the text of Much Ado in his The Works of Shakespeare to read:
L. Theobald, ed., The works of Shakespeare: in seven volumes. Collated with the oldest copies, and corrected; with notes, explanatory, and critical (London: A. Bettesworth et. al., 1733), vol. I, 485.
Not only does Theobald give this speech to Benedick, but he also adds the stage direction for Benedick to kiss Beatrice. Theobald justifies his decision by citing instances of characters using similar verbiage of “stopping mouths” to indicate kissing in other early English plays like Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady, and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (485–86). He also cites an earlier moment in Much Ado in which Beatrice advises Hero to, “Speak, cousin, or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and let not him speak neither” (2.1.285–86).
My point here, however, is not to argue whether Theobald was right in changing Leonato’s speech prefix and adding the stage direction for Benedick to kiss Beatrice. Rather, his decision has significantly changed this moment for both readers and playgoers, and the play now exists in multiple forms both in print and on stage. McEachern attributes this speech to Leonato in her 2016 Arden edition, adding the stage direction “Hands her to Benedick” (SD 5.4.97). The editors of the third edition of The Norton Shakespeare (also printed in 2016) give this line to Leonato as well, but they draw on Theobald’s edition by adding two stage directions: “He gives her hand to BENEDICT” and “BENEDICT kisses BEATRICE” (SD 5.4.97–98). The late David Bevington copies Theobald’s version of events in his 2014 edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Benedick speaks the line, and a stage direction indicates that he then kisses Beatrice (5.4.97). All three of these editions of the play were published within two years of each other, yet they all differ significantly as a result of Theobald changing four letters and adding two words to the play in 1733.
Therefore, this moment provides an opportunity for both editors and directors to shape the relationship between Beatrice, Benedick, and Leonato. On the one hand, if they, like Theobald, give the line to Benedick, it could give the reader or audience member the pleasure of finally seeing the lovers enact their love. On the other, some could interpret Benedick telling Beatrice, “Peace, I will stop your mouth,” as a moment in which patriarchal norms are silently inserted into this seemingly egalitarian love affair: the man finally silences the smart, capable woman. Giving the line to Leonato could indicate that he is telling both of them to be quiet, restoring an egalitarian reading of Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship. He could simply be silencing Beatrice and compelling her into a marriage she does not want similar to the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, once again establishing a gender hierarchy that silences and denigrates women.
Any and all of these choices are now available to anyone interacting with Much Ado today because Shakespeare’s works are not dead, static entities. Editors and theatre practitioners actively shape the text in the way that best suits their interpretations of the work in question. So how has the creative team at the Alabama Shakespeare Project handled this much ado about a speech prefix? What is their interpretation, and who will speak this line? Come out on 7 October and find out.