As a part of our Shakespeare Retellings x Beantstack Challenge, I decided to read a romance title that was billed as a Much Ado About Nothing retelling: Two Wrongs Make a Right. And while doing this, I realized a thing or two about both romance tropes (which are basically the mechanical moving parts of romance plots) and the mechanics of retellings.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Much Ado…this post will be easier to read if you have some working knowledge of the plot. No judgement if you need one, whether as a first dive into this beloved Shakespearean romcom or as a refresher. If you need to stop and read a synopsis: go for it. There will be ample opportunity to think more deeply about this play in the coming year as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival prepares to stage it as a part of its 2024 Season. So let me break down the tropes that can be retroactively applied to Much Ado:
- Second Chance Romance (“he lent it me for a while; and I gave him use for it”): Two lovers with pasts, which brings me to…
- Enemies to lovers: Because Beatrice and Benedick hate each other until they are tricked into feeling otherwise.
- Mistaken Identity: which is what Shakespeare uses to set up Claudio’s jilting of Hero as well as Claudio’s wedding to Leonato’s “niece” (except, surprise, there is no niece, it’s just Hero back now that her virginity has been confirmed). And yes, the Hero/Claudio plot is a lot harder to accept as “romantic” by modern theatergoers, but the central conflict of the plot is really tied to them and not to Benedick/Beatrice, so there really isn’t a full narrative arc without both couples!
So, this retelling: It starts out as you’d expect. Beatrice and her “Benedick” meet and take an instant dislike to each other. For whatever reason, within the context of this story, Beatrice spills a lot of drinks on him. They fight. Their friends are convinced that they are perfect for each other and trick them into texting each other and then going on a date without realizing they already know each other. Surprise: they are kind of perfect for each other. But instead of admitting this, they decide to FAKE DATE each other to get back at their friends for tricking them. This makes little sense to the reader, but a lot of sense to our two romantic leads who appear to be eager for excuses to kiss each other, though completely unwilling to tell one another how they feel. Unsurprisingly, because this is how the FAKE DATING trope works, they only fall more deeply in love. While FAKE DATING does not occur in Much Ado, I feel inclined to allow this departure because modern romance novels do go through stages of physical intimacy within the course of a story that were not expectations during Shakespeare’s time. Modern romance readers don’t necessarily buy romantic love has happened until kissing and, ahem, usually other things have happened. But seriously, fake dating in romance only ever results in the fake daters falling in love, and I have no real-life examples of such ridiculous shenanigans resulting in any positive outcome, so I have a great deal of skepticism of FAKE DATING as a trope.
But back to our story, ‘cause we need Claudio and Hero for the plot to resolve, right? Yes, we do…and here comes Beatrice’s big sis and her boyfriend, Jean-Claude, to do what exactly? Because we’ve pretty much established by now that, while there are modern romance novels that deal with virginity, this ain’t one of ‘em. Nope, Jean-Claude is just generally a possessive jerk who slowly evolves into an abuser. So Benedick and Beatrice help big sis extricate herself from the relationship. Through this, they develop the courage to pledge their love to each other, have lots of sex, and live happily ever after. Oh, and also “Benedick” does a modern paraphrase of the “I do love nothing in the world so well as you–is not that strange” speech, because it IS a Much Ado retelling after all.
So: As a romance novel, this book mostly works. It’s got tropes galore. It’s on the steamy side. It’s chock full of language modelling positive consent (which is also important in recent romance novels)…OH, and Beatrice has autism, so there are some cool representation things going on in this book.
BUT what I realized about retellings as I was reading is that, at least for me, this didn’t have what I was looking for in a retelling. True story: I am obsessed with retellings. Greek mythology, Shakespeare, fairy tales, Jane Austen. I don’t care. I love them all. And if you look at the modern publishing market, it is abundantly clear that these preferences of mine are pretty dang basic, because a lot of these books are getting published (because people like me — and maybe you — buy them.)
There’s something I didn’t realize about what I look for in retellings that I hadn’t been able to articulate before writing this post: one of the coolest things about Shakespeare for me is watching how directors, actors, etc. integrate and deal with the more challenging parts of these plays for modern audiences. What motivates Don Jon? How does the viewer feel about Claudio and his pro-virginity bias? All of this while still getting to experience the joy of the audience in getting a good laugh out of Dogberry. So when a retelling just skates along the top of the plot without going a little deeper, it doesn’t ring quite true for me. And isn’t that part of what we’ve been celebrating all month as we’ve talked about the 400th anniversary of the First Folio? Because many of these plays (though not, admittedly, Much Ado itself) might not have survived were it not for the publication of the Folio and the efforts that went in to assembling it. I hope you, like me, have enjoyed the opportunity to think a bit more deeply about Shakespeare over the past month. You can still check out a retelling if this tempts you to read further. There are many amazing titles included that look at Shakespeare’s works from some pretty unique angles. If you are looking for titles that “go a little deeper,” may I suggest All’s Well by Mona Awad or The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye.
And if you haven’t been insulted in true Shakespearean style this month, let me conclude by shouting: Thou mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms!” in your general direction.