What’s the background to Much Ado?––Jumpypants

Jumpypants:  A few questions I’d love to get your input on, regarding Much Ado About Nothing:  For what occasion do you think it was written? Was it for a wedding?  And who do you think were the models for the leading characters?

Hughes:  In seeking a date for a particular play we need to connect possible topical references with what was going on in the author’s life.  Because Oxford wasn’t writing for money, we need to examine what reasons he might have had, personal, political, emotional, or social, for writing this play at a particular time.

Holding fast to my belief that the most moving drama is written under the stimulus of a personal situation that is denied any other outlet, it seems to me that Much Ado must have been written while Oxford was suffering the slings and arrows of an outrageous passion.  The progress of a mature man falling in love, almost against his will, is so beautifully detailed that we’re looking for a moment when he was in love with someone who was a good match for him intellectually.  It’s nice to think that it was written as the joyous aftermath of the first intimate encounter after a prologue of the kind of witty sparring that the play so delightfully preserves.

The only possible moment for this situation is 1580, when he was in love with witty Ann Vavasor, the Queen’s Maid of Honor. (Benedick is more mature than Romeo, but not yet suffering the mid-life crises of the Poet of the Sonnets or Cleopatra’s Antony.) The happy tone of the play, upbeat all the way, requires that it be written before Ann gave birth to Oxford’s son in March 1581, a devastating event that spelled disaster for them both.

With the backing of the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, Oxford was riding high at Court in 1578-80. Given the green light by Sussex who needed good entertainment for the French envoys who had come to Court to discuss marriage between the Queen and the Duc d’Alençon, Oxford may have gotten a little too frisky with his plays as well as his love affairs. For although it’s certain that this play was written for the Court, it’s so blatantly about himself and Ann Vavasor that one must wonder how he dared to write it. The only answer is that people in love are inclined to be reckless about displaying their feelings.  They can have such a strong urge to tell the world that sometimes they just can’t resist.

Who then are the real cast members? As he often does, Oxford has cast himself twice, as Benedick, the lover (good dick) and as Claudio (cloudy E.O.) the confused husband.  Dividing himself into the two roles he is playing in real life, Ann Vavasor’s passionate lover and Anne Cecil’s confused husband, Oxford imagines a situation whereby all turns out for the best, including a moving speech delivered by his lover in defense of his wife!  (Oh, if only!)

The Claudio-Hero plot is a rerun of the story he will tell over and over throughout his writing career, the story of his rejection of his wife after his return from Italy, an act of cruel abandonment, which he blamed on rumors that she had been unfaithful while he was gone.  The real snake in the grass was either his cousin Henry Howard, the villain of so many of his plays, or his erstwhile friend, Rowland Yorke, who by the time this play was written had already gotten his literary quietus as Parolles in All’s Well.

Here the snake has been given the name and biography of one of Oxford’s heroes, Don John of Austria, the bastard son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the best general in Europe.  Don John died in 1576, but his memory was still alive at the English Court, for he too had been interested in marrying Elizabeth (or, if that didn’t work out, taking her by military force).  As a bastard, Don John was driven to excel to surpass in his father’s eyes the legitimate heir, his half-brother, Philip II of Spain.  As for being tormented by envy of his brother, as is the Don of the play, that trait is more closely related to Oxford’s favorite villain, Henry Howard, who spent his life plotting to damage those he envied.

The false death and resurrection of Ann is an interesting plot point, reflecting the more thorough treatment he had given it in A Winter’s Tale (an early play, not “late” as the “experts” would have it). Written long before Anne’s death, this treatment suggests the awful remorse he felt at how she had been treated, and was in fact, still being treated.  This plot must be an integral part of the original version, not something added later, since the entire play revolves around it.

Leonato, Hero’s father, is one of Oxford’s more upbeat portraits of Burghley, though the fury he unleashes at his innocent daughter may suggest a less pleasant side of Oxford’s guardian, who, despite his biographer’s fervent claims regarding his love for his daughter, seems to have shown little affection for any of his children.  As for Beatrice, although some have seen in her a portrait of the Queen, if she has another side to her than Ann Vavasor, it’s more likely one of the Queen’s more sympathetic ladies-in-waiting, one Oxford liked.  In Beatrice’s early negative comments on marriage she mirrors, not only the Queen’s most typical attitude, but the attitude she most preferred in her ladies-in-waiting.  The real Queen figure is the unmarried Prince, whom Beatrice wishes could find married love.  With the issue of the Queen’s possible marriage to the French prince so hot at the moment, anything else would have been unwise.

Although the play is about marriage, and portrays marriage, it’s hard to see it as a wedding play.  Marriage as a talking point was continually in the air at Court throughout 1579 and ‘80 as the Queen continued to drag out her interminable courtship with the duc d’Alençon, but according to biographer, Anne Somerset, by 1580 everyone knew that the courtship was 90 percent political farce that would come to nothing.

The most likely time for a first production of Much Ado would be sometime during the winter holiday season of 1580-81, if only because by then there would have been a good reason for portraying a member of the Hapsburg family as a sneaky bastard, Philip having absorbed Portugal into his European hegemony in August.  Almost any of the companies then functioning could have performed it: what play titles we have for this period give no clue and some plays have no titles.  That it was a party play for Twelfth Night or Shrovetide seems most likely, as the final words call for music and dancing.

A person of perspicacity has suggested that the model for Friar Francis, contriver of the plot that ends the trouble between Hero and Claudio, was Sir Francis Walsingham.  It’s hard not to like this idea, combining as it does Walsingham’s genius for successful plotting and the close association that I believe he had with Oxford, which resulted two years later in establishing Fisher’s Folly as a sort of unofficial PR office and Oxford as chief playwright for the Queen’s Men, the Crown company organized by Walsingham in 1583.

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