MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare): An analysis by Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible.  Love comes about as a conspiracy.  That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy.  A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other.  Love-relations are arranged by the community.  They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness.  It is the community that decides who loves whom.  It is the community that makes love-relations possible.

We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play.  Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato.  Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject.  He will be Claudio’s intercessor:

The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit.  ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].

Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.

Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero?  Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name?  Why does Claudio not do the courting himself?  Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata?  Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?

The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third.  A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary.  Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.

Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i].  Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”

As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers.  (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.)  And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor.  Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).

Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:

I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].

Notice the use of the verb “fashion.”  Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors.  What chthonic beast will he slay?  Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.

And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:

I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].

Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends.  Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.

This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio).  This is a conspiracy of marriage.  Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick.  When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?

Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him.  He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice.  Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):

I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].

“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice.   When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect.  His superior desires Beatrice.  So must he.

In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped.  Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.

The exact scene is replicated in the third act.  Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her.  Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:

“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].

Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.].  “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.

Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].

She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing.  / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”  More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.

Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda.  And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)?  Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not.  The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will.  The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will.  Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil.  The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard.  A melancholic bastard.  And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.

What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations.  Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.

Joseph Suglia

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET / Dr. Joseph Suglia on “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville

I PREFER NOT TO MISINTERPRET Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

One of the most common misinterpretations of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is that it is a story about writing.  (See Leo Marx’s unjustly influential 1953 essay “Melville’s Parable of the Walls.”)  Bartleby, according to this falsification, is a figure for the Writer.  Whatever Bartleby experiences, then, would be whatever the Writer experiences.

Those who set forth this erroneous interpretation must answer the following question: If Bartleby is a figure for the Writer, why does he never actually write?  Only a watery understanding of the word writing would encompass what Bartleby does.  He copies; he does not write.  He does not produce anything original; he is a replicator.  He is no more a genuine writer than a Subway sandwich artist is a genuine artist.

Not only does Bartleby never write.  He does not even seem to read.  The lawyer says of Bartleby: “I had never seen him read—no, not even a newspaper.”

And why would Bartleby be a figure for the Writer and not the other copyists in the office?  Why would Turkey not be the symbolic expression of the Writer in the story?  Why not Nippers?  Turkey and Nippers do the same thing that Bartleby does: They copy contracts and deeds for pay.

One might rejoin that Bartleby represents all poetic writers.  There are indeed references to poeticism in the text.  John Jacob Astor, the lawyer’s symbolic father, is said to be “a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm”; Byron is called “mettlesome” by the anti-poetic lawyer; the view from within the artless lawyer’s office is described as “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,'” and so forth.  To say that Bartleby represents all poetic writers—and not every writer in the world—would be to engage in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but we can put that aside for the moment.

There is a more urgent problem with this argument: If Bartleby represents all poetic writers and the ostracism and martyrdom of all poetic writers, why does he stop copying in the third act of the story?  Surely, a poetic writer is someone who never ceases to write poetically, someone who turns every experience into a writable experience.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” then, is not a parable about the Writer or about Writing.  What is the story about?

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” in the first place, is the story of a copyist at a lawyer’s office who reproduces documents, but resists, with gentle dignity, doing anything other than reproducing documents.

Too many readers have overlooked the fact that Bartleby is the ideal employee.  He does exactly what he is paid to do.  Indeed, he does his work with excessive dedication and never seems to step outside of the office (before his forcible eviction): “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere… he was always there.”  He works to the limit: “He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.”  He does not do anything, however, that he is not paid to do.  This is why Bartleby is disinclined–prefers not–to examine his own copies, why he is disinclined to bring letters to the post office, why he is disinclined to fetch Nippers, etc.  Whenever the lawyer asks him to do anything other than copy contracts and deeds, the response is always the same: “I prefer not to” or “I would prefer not to.”  Whenever impressed upon to perform even the simplest of errands, Bartleby states his non-preference—passively, reactively—from a place of hidden privilege and gentle condescension.  The literalization of his job description, Bartleby resists performing duties outside of his job description with a painful politeness.

One must be careful not to read the slogan “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to” as a refusal or declination.  Bartleby’s slogan is not a “No”-saying.  It is a form of “passive resistance.”  It is a slippery slogan.  It is a way of hovering over the categories of “Yes” and “No”–a linguistic trapeze act.

The “Sunday episode” is the crux of the story.  One Sunday morning, the lawyer goes to Trinity Church to hear a “celebrated preacher.”  Arriving rather early, he decides to kill time before the sermon starts by walking to his office.  Unable to open the door, he struggles with the lock.  The door opens, and Bartleby appears, his lean visage thrusting at the lawyer.  The lawyer slinks away, servilely accepting the apparition of Bartleby (the term “apparition” is used, evoking the spectral character of Bartleby).  One of the effects of this episode is evidence that there is absolutely no division between the private and the professional for Bartleby.  This point—the erasure of the distinction between the private and the professional—is reinforced later in the text, when the lawyer invites Bartleby to stay with him at the former’s home.

Bartleby destabilizes the office by being the perfect employee.  He super-agrees with the terms of the office.  He over-adheres to the policies of the office.  Soon, his keyword prefer spreads throughout the office as if it were a vicious linguistic virus.  Every adult in the office—the lawyer, Nippers, Turkey—soon finds himself using the word prefer.

Bartleby is the perfect copyist—and this is what unsettles the lawyer’s once-imperturbable placidity and is what robs the lawyer of his virility (the lawyer is “unmanned” by Bartleby, de-manified by Bartleby).  Bartleby perfectly identifies with his professional role as a duplicator—and thus subverts the profession with which he perfectly identifies.  He copies the office and thus undermines the office.

The point to be made is that Bartleby over-agrees with his job description.  He exaggerates and affirms his position to the point of absurdity, throwing the office into chaos and driving his employer to madness.  The logic of super-agreement is why Kierkegaard is an enemy of Christianity.  Kierkegaard was such a super-Christian, endorsing Christianity with such fervidness, that he made being a Christian a nearly impossible state of being.  Kierkegaard’s super-agreement with Christianity, his fervid endorsement of Christianity, means the undoing of Christianity for many readers.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, who ferociously hammered Christianity, is, paradoxically, Christianity’s friend.

This is not to say that Bartleby endorses the ideology of the office.  Bartleby is a rebel, to be sure, but he is a quiet rebel.  If he were a raging lunatic (think of “The Lightning-Rod Man”), Bartleby would be dismissible.  His commanding calmness is the reason that the lawyer is overthrown by his employee: “Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me as it were.”  Bartleby is a quiet rebel whose quiet rebellion takes the form of relentless passivity.  At the core of his passivity is an active dimension.  He is actively passive, pushing the terms active and passive beyond their usual significations.  His weakness is an unconquerable strength, to channel Duras.  He is emblematic of “passive resistance”–and in these words, one should hear resonating the words of that other great American, Henry David Thoreau: “civil disobedience.”

What, then, is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” actually about?

The work is a critique of Evil America in the nineteenth century–an America in which too much of everything is dehumanizing Business.  Bartleby is a Christ within the world of nineteenth-century American capitalism, but he is not a self-negating Christ.  [Note: Much in the way that Peter denies Jesus, the lawyer denies Bartleby.]  The “I” is the most important word in the slogan, “I prefer not to” / “I would prefer not to.” (Deleuze’s word is “formula.”)  “I prefer not to” is the assertion of subjectivity against the impersonal and anonymous space of the office, the imposition of subjectivity on the desubjectified world of exchange.

Reading “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in twenty-first-century America is a defamiliarizing experience.  These days, any employee who asserted, “I prefer not to” would be sent to Human Resources for immediate termination.  We live in a culture of compliance and submission, of obeisance to managerial authority (compliance is a word that is used in the text: “natural expectancy of immediate compliance”).  Now, Bartleby does, in fact, participate in the capitalist world of nineteenth-century America, yet his compliance is a kind of conditional compliance, his submission to authority is submission on his own terms, his acceptance of the world of exchange is a conditional acceptance.  His patrician passive-aggressive preferences-not-to are ways of saying, “I will do whatever I please, but nothing other than what I please.”  This is Americanism, to be sure, but the Americanism of Thomas Paine and the other Founding Fathers, not the Americanism of the bureaucrats.

Bartleby exists on the boundary of capitalism.  A Christ in Evil America, he is deathly, from the other side of life, former and current employee of the Dead Letter Office in Washington.  This is why Bartleby is iteratively described as “cadaverous” in this text (three times), an “apparition” (twice), and a “ghost” (twice).  He is dead and yet present; he is in the capitalist world and yet not of the capitalist world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia