Recently the Chicago Reader published a piece about Much Ado, Michael Lenehan’s new book about a 2014 production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing mounted by the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The article highlighted one section of the book in particular, which addresses how Beatrice delivers her famous “Kill Claudio” line. We thought we should excerpt the whole section for you now, as a preview of the book.

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KILL CLAUDIO

The scene continues:

Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?

Beatrice: As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you, but believe me not, and yet I lie not. I confess nothing nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.

Benedick: By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me.

Beatrice: Do not swear and eat it.

Benedick: I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.

Beatrice: Will you not eat your word?

Benedick: With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.

Beatrice: Why, then, God forgive me.

Benedick: What offence, sweet Beatrice?

Beatrice: You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you.

Benedick: And do it with all thy heart.

Beatrice: I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.

Benedick: Come, bid me do any thing for thee.

Beatrice: Kill Claudio.

We can’t know for sure, because we have almost nothing in Shakespeare’s own hand, but he seems to have written very little in the way of stage directions. He had no use for them: he was writing for performance, not posterity, and as the plays were developed he was there to tell the actors whatever he wanted them to know. The Folio texts, which were assembled by Shakespeare’s colleagues after his death, are marred by errors and inconsistencies and give only the most rudimentary directions—exits and entrances, mostly, and not nearly all the exits and entrances that the lines imply. In many cases (as we saw back in the act 2 dance), scholars and editors have had to interpolate the comings and goings, as well as such directions as “aside” or “To Hero.” Even then it’s sometimes impossible to know which character or characters are supposed to be hearing a line. Or, to put it another way, it’s up to directors and actors to decide which character a line is addressed to—and how and when and whether to walk upstage, stand or sit down, pick up a prop, fall silent, shout, kiss, or crash to the floor. This is one reason for Shakespeare’s enduring appeal: so much is amenable to interpretation and renewal.

“Kill Claudio” is a case in point. All Shakespeare gives us is these two words—one of the most important lines in the play. Four hundred years later, the question is not so much how should it be played? as how do you want to play it?

David Frank and the actors wanted to play it serious. And yet they knew the audience would probably find it hilarious. Colleen Madden, who had done the play twice before in smaller roles, said she never understood it as a laugh line. But David Daniel, who had done it at least three times, said the audience never fails to laugh. Frank admitted he laughed himself whenever he heard it, though mostly from surprise, and he never found the reaction very satisfying. At one point he asked hopefully, “We will—yes?—kill the most famous laugh line in the play?” It was wishful thinking, but a goal worth working toward. Much Ado always was and always would be full of laughs, Frank knew, but he saw more to it than that, and he wanted to play it all.

Modern audiences don’t readily grasp the implications of the line the way Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have. Claudio, Benedick’s best buddy, has slandered Beatrice’s blood relative. Hero must be avenged. It’s Sicily, after all. To exact the vengeance is not a woman’s choice, and this enrages Beatrice: “O God that I were a man!” she cries. “I would eat his heart in the market place.” But where’s the man to do it for her? Her uncle Leonato is no help; a few minutes ago he was threatening to thrash his own daughter. If only Beatrice had a brother to fight for her. Or a husband. Or a fiancé.

Or a man who professes to love her.

She grills Benedick to assess the depth of his commitment. “Will you not eat your word?” And when he swears he won’t, she says “Why, then, God forgive me.” Why does she say that? And what does she mean by, “You have stayed me in a happy hour?” These questions were discussed in the rehearsal room, but I never had the sense that they were answered conclusively. My reading is that Beatrice is deliberately luring Benedick into a commitment whose implications are not yet clear to him. It’s not that professing his love has made the hour happy for her; it’s that the profession has come at just the right hour: just when she needs it. She needs someone to kill Claudio. Really.

Benedick, who has just invited her to “bid me do anything for thee,” didn’t really mean it. He recoils immediately, and the couple have their first argument. Like many arguing couples, they talk about two different things: Beatrice rails against the injustice done to her cousin, while Benedick keeps insisting that he loves her—what could be more important than that? Finally, even as she tries to pull herself away from this disappointing oaf, Beatrice makes her point:

Benedick: Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.

Beatrice: Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.

Benedick: Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?

Beatrice: Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.

Benedick: Enough, I am engaged, I will challenge him. I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account. As you hear of me, so think of me.

In other words, remember me fondly, I might not be back. In 21st-century America we can easily underestimate the gravity of this challenge, but Beatrice and Benedick both know the drill: Benedick must either kill his best friend or be killed himself. He is as engaged as he can be (and in two senses of the word).

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Madden and I talked about “Kill Claudio” in her kitchen one Friday morning during the run. She was multitasking: while her husband, James Ridge, talked with a designer in the front room—he was set to direct a play in Madison in a few months—she was making a cake for a sick friend, submitting to an interview, and fielding multiple mom calls from one of her two sons. “We never meant it to be a laugh line,” she said. Of course she had seen productions and films of the play in addition to doing it herself, but the audience reaction to the line had never made much of an impression on her. “I guess I never saw it. Never tuned into it. And David Daniel and I have been asking, do we resist that? I’m going to try something tomorrow, I think. Or I may wait till a non-Saturday to do it. Where I say ‘Kill Claudio’ a little earlier. Just to see if—but I don’t know, maybe it’s supposed to be a laugh line.”

Maybe Shakespeare did want a big laugh. Maybe he was happy to have it both ways. He’s allowed, he’s Shakespeare. In any case, over the course of the season I saw Madden try a few different things. In rehearsals she held the line off, preceding it with three deep breaths, as though steeling herself for what she was about to ask. By the time the first preview was over she knew that wasn’t working, so then she tried speeding it up. But whatever she did the line produced a big laugh. It was surefire.

For more information about the American Players Theatre, visit their website at http://americanplayers.org

The Chicago Reader article can be found at http://bit.ly/2fiOzkI

If you’re interested in purchasing Much Ado, please visit https://www.les-grizzlys-catalans.org/titles/much-ado