There is perhaps no such thing as a perfect book, but I will attest that perfectly-written dialogue exists and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an example of such. I’ve seen enough adaptations to have memorized sections and am liable to use lines in regular conversation or say it with the characters if we are watching a film version (don’t ever watch one with me!). It’s a little unappreciated by school syllabi, which favor the tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, or Macbeth. But it stands strong as one of Shakespeare’s wittiest comedies, as well as one of his most romantic and complex. It has quite a few over-the-top and less believable moments that are common tropes in some of Shakespeare’s plays, like the falsified affair, the faked death, the clever priest, and a very neat ending, but the story itself is good enough that it doesn’t ever feel as contrived as it sort of is. I’ve seen it performed (twice in 2014) by the inimitable pairing of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater in the Public Theater’s production that summer. I saw the 1993 film version starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson way back when I was a kid, and I went to one of the few theatres that showed Joss Whedon’s 2012 film adaptation. I also religiously followed The Candle Wasters’ phenomenal modern retelling, Nothing Much to Do (2014), via YouTube as it was serialized each week. In all of these adaptations, even as dialogue or situations are modernized, as they are in Whedon’s film or The Candle Wasters’ series, certain lines come through unchanged and just as powerful as the original text.
So it was with some excitement but trepidation that I started to read Marina Fiorato’s Beatrice and Benedick (2014). Fiorato is a historian, so places the story in a historical context: the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. She pulls in the Medici and the Spanish Armada, expounding on what is actually in the play’s text, but is never focused on by Shakespeare himself. Other Shakespeare characters, like Othello or Juliet, make appearances, as Fiorato also writes retellings of other Shakespeare plays and weaves them in together. This can be distracting if you know a lot of Shakespeare’s plays and while I enjoyed those cameos, it made it hard for me to concentrate on the main storyline, since I kept trying to guess the role of these other characters. To further complicate things, Fiorato holds to a theory that the writer of Shakespeare’s plays was a Sicilian man named Michelangelo Florio Crollalonza, who plays an important part in her novel. In order for me to enjoy the story, I had to let go of all expectations or opinions and just read. Once I was doing that, I could fully love the novel.
It is the late 16th century, and Italy is not yet a unified nation, but city-states ruled by divisive nobility, while the rest of the world cows under the might of Spain and England. Certain young Italians are drawn into Spain’s war with England, as Spanish power grows in the Mediterranean and King Philip is determined to crush Queen Elizabeth. Beatrice is a princess of Villafranca, living in Sicily with her uncle Leonato and aunt Innogen, supposedly tutoring her sweet younger cousin, hero. But Beatrice is spirited and adventurous, longing for passion and freedom. In the summer of 1588, she meets Benedick, a clever young man from Padua, uncertain of his future and drifting along without ambition in the company of the Spanish Don Pedro of Aragon. Beatrice and Benedick clash instantly, each used to being the wittiest person in the room, and both afraid of their desire for each other. Fiorato (like Whedon and the Candlewasters) addresses the suggestion in the play that Beatrice and Benedick have a history, and the two fall in love and split up due to their own prideful natures, misunderstandings, and the Spanish-Sicilian conflict. Beatrice is trapped in a patriarchal society that sees her only as a pawn for marriage and Benedick is caught up in the idealistic charms of going to war. It’s a harsh world they live in, and for most of the story they each have to find their own way and determine what they truly want. By the time the actual story events of Shakespeare’s play come about, we are two-thirds in and it is more of a dramatic finale to the events preceding.
Fiorato is a skilled writer, with turns of phrase that are almost too pretty and dramatic. Readers who hate adverbs and adjectives would not be able to make it through a page of her writing, as she will describe everything with every descriptive word she can come up with. She is more a historian than fashionable novelist, and does not subscribe much to simple language or the favoring of clear wording over historical accuracy. The language is Shakespearean, cultural details are not always explained, and similes and metaphors run rampant. Once you enter Fiorato’s novel, you are immersed completely in Renaissance Europe, privy to all the large-scale international conflicts as well as the minor tiffs between Italian lords. The Protestant Reformation’s threat to the Catholic Church’s domination looms in the background of the story. You feel throughout that Europe is on the precipice of change, which adds another dimension to Beatrice and Benedick’s love affair. Just as they come out of their troubles (witch-hunts, wars, arranged marriages, Hero’s humiliation, the Spaniards’ scheming) as changed people, so does Europe itself.
Beatrice and Benedick is by no means an easy read. I recommend it to fans of rich historical (and romantic) fiction like Phillipa Gregory, Kate Quinn, or Sharon Kay Penman. The writing itself reminded me of Paula Cohen’s Gramercy Park, which occurs centuries later and mostly takes place in America, but is a historical novel that delves right into the world and culture it’s about without fear of alienating the reader. If you are an avid Shakespeare fan, I do think Beatrice and Benedick will be interesting to read, but it has to be viewed as a retelling with many liberties taken, more of an interpretation than a direct novelization. If you’re a strict Stratfordian like I am, Fiorato’s pro-Crollalonza-as-author agenda can be frustrating, but can also be taken in stride as more fictionalization. Overall, I give it 4 out of 5 stars–I would have liked to see more of the actual play events come about, and some excellent lines were used early on and so did not come off as strongly. My purist nature couldn’t be silenced completely.
But the book reminded me of why I love Shakespeare and why so many years after these plays were originally performed, people still debate over the author and want to reinterpret his works. It’s a testament to the timelessness of his stories.
Brittany Ann Zayas