How Joss Whedon Gets Shakespeare Right

Slate's Culture Blog
June 7 2013 4:33 PM

How Joss Whedon Gets Shakespeare Right

Much Ado
Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) in Much Ado About Nothing

Photo by ©2012 - Bellwether Pictures

Doing Shakespeare in the “traditional” manner—live, and precisely as it is written—is difficult enough. Adapting his work for the screen is an even greater challenge. And setting one of his plays in the present day—as Joss Whedon does with Much Ado About Nothing, having iPhones provide the soundtrack and surveillance cameras spy on the characters’ misdeeds—introduces a whole other set of problems. While it’s become almost a cliché to perform Shakespeare anachronistically both on stage and onscreen, there are specific dramatic reasons why this is tricky to pull off. Which makes it all the more impressive that Whedon unquestionably does.

Having both performed in and seen several versions of Shakespeare’s comedy of deception, I approached Whedon’s version with very cautious optimism. Trailers suggested a beautiful, black-and-white arthouse film—a perfectly lovely thing, but not necessarily very Shakespearean. Many attempts to make the plays minimalist and “modern” fail in the effort.

Soliloquies are especially hard to portray convincingly on screen; they are often simply cut from cinematic adaptations. To see someone talking to themselves aloud, with the enthusiasm required to convey Shakespeare’s words, appears “unnatural” to many moviegoers, who are used to seeing such behavior only from the Travis Bickles of the world. In the delightful 1993 version of Much Ado directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, Branagh includes a soliloquy in which his character, Benedick laments the “loss” of his friend Claudio. But Branagh’s version is highly traditional, using period costumes and a setting hundreds of years in the past. The scene still feels a bit “uncinematic,” but it doesn’t take viewers out of the movie.

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Whedon, having opted for a more modern approach, has a slightly different task. He could have gone with simple voiceover narration—but then, so much of Shakespeare involves connecting language to the body, and the spirit of Benedick in that moment would have been lost. Instead, Benedick is seen going for a jog around the house, running casually up and down the steep stone steps in the backyard. It’s a great choice that feels both natural and true to the sensibilities of both Shakespeare’s play and Whedon’s take on it. Benedick isn’t just “talking to himself” while wandering around the garden, he’s doing something more visually active. (And who among us hasn’t talked to herself while exercising, at least a little bit?) The delivery of the lines by Shakespeare veteran Alexis Denisof gets the musicality and the meaning across cleanly and clearly even with all that movement.

And Whedon’s update doesn’t shy away from the dramatically bigger elements of Much Ado, either. In the subsequent scene, Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro trick Benedick into believing that Beatrice loves him, proclaiming it loudly enough for him to hear from outside the house—without letting on that they know he’s listening. Benedick is framed on the outside of the house, plainly visible to the audience through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors, with little to conceal him besides a tiny tree branch. As he listens intently, he tumbles on the grass in grand fashion each time the three men move across the room. It’s a great, playful scene—and it does require a significant suspension of disbelief. But the film rightly trusts us to suspend away during these very comic moments. Its staging is reminiscent of every version of Much Ado that I’ve seen, relishing the great silliness that can come with performing Shakespeare.

Part of the reason we just go with it in that eavesdropping scene is that very silliness: There are times when realism matters less to us than others, and Whedon clearly grasps that. It’s a big reason his Much Ado works so well.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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