Much Ado About Eucatastrophe
By Ryan Brown
Shakespeare's comedies show full mastery of "eucatastrophe," and nowhere more son than in Much Ado.
Christmas Day disappoints sometimes; an unassuming box arrives with the expectation of mints or another pair of ugly socks. But when that box holds a gift we didn’t dare to hope for, Christmas really feels like Christmas. Throughout many of his plays, Shakespeare utilizes this theme, most prominently in his comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The concept of being “surprised by joy” (as C. S. Lewis expressed it) traverses a journey of antithetical characters, including a simple constable who appears foolish but proves wise, and a quarrelsome couple who show an unlikely devotion.
Dogberry, the master constable of Messina, provides a comedic role within the play. He constantly mixes up words and proclaims garbled phrases at inopportune times. Shakespeare delights the audience with Dogberry’s pragmatic judgment and moral resolve despite his hilarity. Though Dogberry is not the most intelligent player in the drama, he and his watch apprehend two criminals who recently poisoned a wedding and the honor of a woman. Shakespeare describes the charges brought against the criminals later in the play: “Marry, sir, they have committed false / report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; / secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they / have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust / things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.” Through his uncomplicated honesty, wisdom, and faith, he resolves the conflict that no noble within Messina could settle by uncovering the pervasive lie slandering Hero’s virtue. Gleaning the idea of foolishness shaming the wise from the Bible, Dogberry averts the metamorphosis from comedy to tragedy through his intervention, thus becoming in a sense the protagonist. In Dogberry, Shakespeare presents a character who represents the epitome of surprise with joy.
Benedick and Beatrice surprise the viewer with joy through the progression of their tumultuous relationship. The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, believes that Benedick, one of his soldiers, and Beatrice, the niece of the Governor of Messina, could become the perfect pair. This may seem absurd to the reader, as both exchange insults, bicker, and argue with one another, inflicting deep wounds forestalling any possibility of relationship formation. Recognizing the potential bliss and joy that awaits the future couple, their friends resolve to intervene by revealing the hidden affection held by the pair. The first wedding described in the play culminates in disaster and yet serves as the unlikely backdrop for the revelation of affection. Though this wedding day ended with the death of relationships and reputations, it also serves as a springboard for the concealed affection between Benedick and Beatrice, a new beginning for the couple. Benedick begins with, “I do love nothing in the world so well as you, is not that strange,” to which Beatrice answers, “I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.” As the quotes demonstrate, new perspectives smite Benedick and Beatrice with their flaws and lead both to reform and the uncovering of requited love, setting the pair on a romantic journey that ends several days later at the altar.
The second wedding mends what was broken at the first ceremony. In his book Brightest Heaven of Invention, Peter Leithart describes this redemption: “The second wedding scene is perfect in all the ways the first wedding was damaged … the second wedding is everything a wedding is supposed to be: reconciliation of opposites, union, new life, a restoration of Eden.” This second wedding also completes what began at the first, with Benedick and Beatrice as well as Hero and Claudio united at last in matrimony. Therefore the relationship of Benedick and Beatrice, though seemingly hopeless at times, joyfully surprises the reader through the eventual uniting and melding of two lives. When all seems lost, suddenly, everything broken emerges restored.
Thus Shakespeare joyfully surprises the reader, with the comic but crucial character of Dogberry and the bantering but bettered characters of Benedick and Beatrice—like the euphoria that erupts from a stadium after watching a “hail Mary” pass leading to an unlikely victory for the underdog team. J. R. R. Tolkien later discussed this concept in his essay On Fairy-stories, where he famously named it eucatastrophe: “the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ … is a sudden and miraculous grace.” Shakespeare well expressed the concept of eucatastrophe in many of his plays, creating the effect of joyful surprise in the climax and resolution. He masterfully constructs paralyzed characters such as Dogberry, Benedick, and Beatrice found in hopeless situations. And yet, as the play unfolds, the reader meets surprising joy, cheering for the apparent fool effecting a heroic victory and for a dubious match discovering marital bliss.
Ryan is a homeschooled junior from Fort Worth, TX. He has always been fascinated with flight, and after reading a biography of Nate Saint, he was inspired to channel his passion into an aviation-focused mission career; he is considering an aerospace engineering or aviation degree, with the hopes of one day flying for Missionary Aviation Fellowship. In his spare time, he enjoys competitive club swimming and reading.
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Published on 22nd April, 2022. Page image of the cathedral of Messina, Italy, the city in which Much Ado About Nothing is set.