Michael Hayden appears as Benedick and Sara Topham as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at The Old Globe.
When a would-be husband levels a slanderous accusation of infidelity against a virgin bride on her wedding day, a bickering couple sets out to avenge the maiden’s subsequent death.
Or so might read the TV Guide summation of the plot to Much Ado About Nothing, one of several Shakespeare plays credited with establishing an entire subgenre of — you guessed it — comedy.
Specifically, romantic comedy, and what has become a familiar trope: plucky lead characters who are the last to find love because they’re too stubborn to realize the clever insults they trade only mask a secret affection. Before our adorable latent lovers may enjoy their destined happily ever after, they must overcome a contrived sequence of events set in motion by a simple misunderstanding.
In this case, it’s the reputation of the innocent virgin bride. So far as misunderstandings as a source of humor go, the cruel public shaming of a young woman reads a little dark for rom-com. Still, despite revealing a culture where a women’s sexual history might see her condemned to ruin, it proves a genuinely delightful romp.
Maybe we can laugh about it now, because, 400 years after the play debuted, we’ve learned the rules governing reputation are mutable as hair styles. We live in this marvel of a time, where a powerful man in this country is more likely to lose his reputation to allegations of sexual misconduct than other way around. Where he is more likely to be writ down an ass. Maybe it’s because we know gender disparity remains a significant problem, centuries on, and laughing helps us cope.
Shakespeare understood romantic comedy is made funnier against a tragic baseline, that escapism works best when there’s a kernel of existential pain at its center. Much Ado makes a plot point out of the injustice of a sexual double standard. By comparison, contemporary entries in the genre often acquire bland hues as they work hard to mine humor in modern issues of social anxiety rather than social inequity. Modern rom-com villains tend to be no more unsettling than a greedy developer tearing down an institution, or a privileged narcissist, besmirching a hero to advance his own sense of importance.
Which is to say, unsettling enough in current context. Especially when the narrative requires a fraction of the characters in a story react angrily and decisively false information, steering the whole diegesis into calamity while the audience can do nothing to stop it. Perhaps Shakespeare didn’t create romantic comedies so much as he did tragedies that end in weddings.