I spent a long time yesterday evening reading everything the internet had to say about the murder of Jo Cox, and this morning I had a line from Much Ado About Nothing stuck in my head. I’d got it slightly wrong but now I’ve looked it up:
“you have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady”.
It’s Benedick when he decides that the story isn’t funny any more, calls Claudio out, resigns his commission and walks away. It’s one of the points in Shakespeare’s comedy when we see the ugliness and violence beneath the surface of the games that powerful people play. Benedick calls them all out: there was a moment, back then, “among you”, when people’s lives started mattering less than something else, when the only thing you saw was your honour and reputation, when you wanted to be the big man, or you wanted to be one of the lads, more than you wanted to be compassionate or hear the truth, and right then, “among you”, someone was caught in the crossfire.
(Of course in the play we – and even Benedick – know Hero isn’t really dead. But, having seen the violence that exploded against her, we also know that she could have been).
And Benedick, the joker, has realised that this isn’t funny any more. If Benedick can’t make a joke, if a situation’s got too serious, you might expect him to walk away. That’s his normal style, he’s got form. But he doesn’t, not this time. He steps forward. He walks right into the heart of the trouble. It doesn’t bother him. He calls Claudio out. He takes the ridicule that comes his way, he doesn’t even seem to notice it. He doesn’t let it go. We know why, and so do the “lads”:
“DON PEDRO: He is in earnest.
CLAUDIO: In most profound earnest; and, I’ll warrant you, for the love of Beatrice”.
Beatrice. She’s the voice of passion and compassion; she’s wise and funny and angry and strong and loyal, and she’s never taken in for a minute, and she won’t give up. There’s that astonishing scene where we – with Benedick – hear all her rage against the wrong done to her kinswoman, and how clearly she sees the truth, and how powerless she is to do anything, and how little hope she has that anyone will do anything:
“What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands; and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour,-O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place”.
You get the sense that she’s not just talking about this incident, and she’s not just angry with Claudio, and it’s not just this one wrong she wants to set right. She’s calling out everything that’s wrong with the world she lives in, all the “much ado about nothing”, all the stupid power-games with real casualties, all the cruelty disguised as wit and all the small and large failures to notice what love demands.
And at that point at least one other person steps forward, instead of walking away. Which, in this play, is enough.
There’s a point when “much ado about nothing” stops being funny. In this referendum campaign we reached it a long time ago and didn’t stop. And we’re not in a light Shakespearean comedy, so death is real. But I’m hearing Beatrice’s rage and maybe it’s not too late for people to step forward.