A couple of weeks ago, I rewatched the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. That’s my favorite adaptation of that play. Branagh does a lovely job of making it so real and vital, and the cast manages to make the Shakespearean language sound perfectly natural. It takes maybe one scene to tune your ear, and then you just get caught up in the story and forget that it’s Shakespeare. Emma Thompson is particularly good, able to spit out all those zingers while still showing humanity and vulnerability.
I realized while watching that this play contains one of my least-favorite romantic comedy tropes and one of my favorites.
The least favorite is the old “see something involving the other member of the couple out of context, leap to the worst possible conclusion, flounce on the relationship without even discussing it with the other person, then realize they’re wrong, but then everything’s okay and the other person doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that someone who supposedly loved them was willing to jump to the worst possible conclusion about them.”
You’d think this would have died out long ago, since it’s more than 400 years old for Shakespeare, and it comes from an even older work that Shakespeare based his play on, but it’s still a staple of rom-coms and Hallmark movies. Shakespeare actually does a somewhat better job with this trope than many of the modern stories do. It’s a deliberate set-up, for one thing, intended to give Claudio the wrong impression. He’s brought to a particular place just in time to see something being staged for his benefit, with Hero’s name being said, and what he sees is unambiguous. Someone he highly respects sees the same thing and comes to the same conclusion. It’s not like the “dark moment” in the Hallmark movies when the heroine sees the hero hugging another woman and decides to flounce back to the city and let the ornament factory close because she thinks he’s involved with another woman.
Then once Claudio learns the truth and realizes he wronged Hero, he does penance even though he’s not the one truly at fault. And in their society, even though she’s been proven blameless, her reputation might have remained damaged if the one who accused her hadn’t taken her back, so of course she’s glad he still wants her. I don’t cut the modern characters as much slack. If she assumed he was cheating on her and didn’t even discuss it with him, then after she realizes that was his sister he was hugging and she goes back to him, I don’t get why he would be so willing to take her back. Why would he want to be with someone who’s that irrationally jealous and who thinks the worst of him?
I have seen one movie in which the woman visited the man’s workplace and saw a wedding photo of him, assumed he was married and she was the “other woman,” so she refused to speak to him again, and after she learned that he was a widower she apologized, but he wasn’t ready to take her back. It took some big gestures on her part, a lot of apologies, and some strings being pulled by his friends for them to move past it and get back together. That worked a bit better, but I’m ready for that misunderstanding trope to be given a rest or at least a twist. Maybe have that happen at the beginning of the story, and that’s why the character is single and maybe a bit bitter when the story’s real love interest comes along. They wouldn’t take back the person who dumped them in a fit of misplaced jealousy, or else they’re the one who screwed up. There could even be a second-chance thing, where this is backstory, and they meet again after this happened.
But the play also contains one of my favorite tropes, which is the people who act like they dislike each other to cover for the fact that they do like each other but are too afraid to let on, for fear that the other one actually does dislike them and would use the knowledge of their feelings as a weapon against them. Benedick and Beatrice bicker and shoot zingers at each other, but they’re ridiculously easy to trick into confessing their feelings. The moment each of them “overhears” (thanks to a scheme by their friends) that the other likes them, they’re delighted and go all-in. There is one speech by Beatrice early in the play that suggests they have a past. It hints that maybe they had a relationship before that ended badly. In the “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode on this play, actors who’ve played these roles said they read it as them having had a romance that went wrong, and both of them see themselves as the wounded party, so they’ve been bickering, but they never got over each other. They’re just both too proud and too wounded to lower the barriers and let their feelings show. It takes other people intervening to make them feel safe to express their feelings.
This isn’t really an “enemies to lovers” thing because they’re basically on the same side. They just pretend not to get along. It’s sort of a second-chance thing. Whatever it is, it can be a lot of fun if it’s done very well, with good dialogue and sizzling subtext. But I suspect it would be very tricky to pull off in a novel that allows you to get inside the characters’ head. It works in the play/movie because they can have fun with the subtext (especially with actors on the level of Branagh and Thompson). It would lose something if you got into their heads and knew how they really felt. I’ve been trying to think of how to make it work in a novel. I’m not sure it could work in third-person narration, where you get to eavesdrop on their thoughts. It might work in first-person narration, with the narrator not being privy to the other character’s thoughts and editing her own thoughts so that she’s not telling the whole story or being entirely honest either with herself or the reader. Or it could be told from some other character’s perspective, say, if the couple were members of a team and the viewpoint character is someone else on the team being amused by how dense those two can be. That was kind of what happened in the Harry Potter books with the relationship between Ron and Hermione, which was seen entirely from Harry’s perspective, except he wasn’t even amused by them. He was as dense about what was going on as they were, and the reader had to figure out what was going on from the subtext and realize that although they bickered a lot, their feelings regarding each other were quite strong.
Now, of course, I’m trying to figure out if I could make the mistaken assumption story work in a way that I like, and I’m mentally scanning my story ideas to see if there’s a place for a “Beatrice and Benedick” relationship. Because I need more story ideas. (Not! I don’t have time to write all the ideas I currently have.)