Shakespeare’s plays are often called ‘timeless’. But should we really treat them as such?
Recently, star writer Joss Whedon brought his version of Much Ado About Nothing to the screen, which, overall, resulted in a well-played and occasionally funny film. He moved the action from sixteenth-century Sicily to twenty-first-century California, which is well enough: turning Leonato’s noble court into a mafia clan presents a clever solution to some of the problems this presents. Where Whedon may have gone wrong, however, was when he kept the original text.
Now this is a text which, to present-day North-American ears, sounds deeply misogynist as well as racist. A happy woman is a silent woman. A bride must be a virgin (but a groom must not). A single word of slander is enough for a father to want his daughter dead. And a brown-skinned woman is understood to be an undesirable one.
All of this is not surprising in a sixteenth-century text, for in Shakespeare’s society a man could be what we think of as a sexist and a racist, and still be considered a decent person. But things have changed. And a movie in which a present-day North-American household lives by the same ideas as sixteenth-century Englishmen, is odd if nothing more.
It is true that Shakespeare offers emancipating moments, most obviously in the role of Beatrice. She lets Benedick have it with both barrels – until her mouth, too, is stopped towards the end of the play. Admittedly, Joss Whedon has fiddled a little with the dialogue, altering some pronouns, in order to squeeze two more women into the list of speaking characters, which is almost completely male in Shakespeare: Conrade and the clerk are played by actresses in the film.
But if you turn a sixteenth-century play into a twenty-first-century movie, you should go further than that. At least in gesture and facial expression, show the opinions of characters who do not get to speak their minds: they may not always agree with the more vocal characters. (Hero gets to speak even less in the film than on stage.) And at least change Claudio’s line about ‘even’ being willing to marry an Ethiope – referring to ‘black’ women. Unless as a director you expressly decide to portray Claudio as a racist person, you risk ending up making your entire film a racist film. (Because this impression is only strengthened by the fact that all the speaking roles are played by pink actors. Brown actors are relegated tot the extras bench.) Even then, it remains an open question whether such measures are sufficient to turn Shakespeare’s lines and plot into a believable twenty-first-century North-American story.
My aim is not to chide either Shakespeare or Whedon for being racist or misogynist; rather, what I am saying is that Much Ado About Nothing, as it turns out in Whedon’s version, does not escape being a racist and misogynist play in the end; and that this could happen because the director made some unlucky choices.
To put it simply: either change the text, or change the textile. As it is, Whedon invites us to watch sixteenth-century characters in a modern environment; to judge sixteenth-century people by twenty-first-century standards. And those clothes do not fit too well.