Book Meme: Literary Love

One of my friends recently remarked: “There are good men out there. It’s just that they are all fictional!”

Besides being a rather cynical view of the world and men, this is also a curse the female book-lover’s suffer: holding fictional men as our ideals.

Real men do have something of a difficulty holding up in comparison.

Particularly as the qualities that we look for in men are formed by our education. Which would be  . . . the books we read.

In part this open adoration is because all those little day-to-day living arrangements that will always get annoying . . . never happen to us as readers! If I had to live with any of my many book crushes I would probably be driven crazy. (Good lord, I forgot to put Howl on that list! He would be the most difficult of ALL to live with.)

But, of all the Fictional Men that make me swoon, squeal, jump about, grin like a madcap, or weep over their beauty, suffering, or heroic nobility, there is really only one that warms the cockles of my heart in that extra special I-could-live-with-that way.

Benedick of Padua.

Aka, Signior Mountanto, the stuffed man! Of the Shakespeare creation Much Ado About Nothing

Oh, he is a flawed character. In fact, it is probably easier to list his faults than his virtues.

  • He is immature, with no mind for anything other than war or fun.
  • He is snappy and egotistic.
  • He apparently has a fickleness in his affections, as he has “each month some new sworn brother”.
  • He is all too willing to fight with a woman.
  • He is a smart aleck who scoffs at love and marriage.
  • He seems to have no idea that his interactions with Beatrice are tinged with romance, which seems to be in part what embitters her.
  • He randomly trusts a strange conversation to the effect that he can proclaim himself to be “horribly in love!” (And THEN he is persuaded by this beloved to kill his best friend!)
  • He is suddenly besotted to the point of idiocy. (“There’s a double meaning in that!” Uh, no, there isn’t.)
  • He is incredibly awkward in his wooing, and almost fails at a confession.
  • He decides to challenge his best friend to a duel.
  • He cannot write poetry.
  • He is still in denial about loving. He still battles his beloved Beatrice.
  • He royally messes up his final proposal and almost loses her. Again.

So, basically, he is very like a real man in the real world.

And yet, I defy any woman to resist his charms.

Immature, selfish, snappish, hot-tempered, easily deceived, easily turned in his affections, and stumbling in expressing that affection: that is Benedick.

I adore him.

I will admit, he does have a few positive traits as well.

Benedick is:

  • Child-like: He takes delight in the small wonders, and has an incredible curiosity. He loves being in the world! And whether he is played by Kenneth Branagh or David Tennant, he retains this absolutely wonderful quality of joy; expressed by getting covered in paint or cavorting fully clothed through a fountain! This open fun sets him apart from the sappy (and overtly ambitious) yearnings of Claudio, or the more gravely minded Don Pedro. Adorable!
  • Open-hearted: He makes friends easily and freely, being a fun and funny guy.
  • Equal-minded: He considers Beatrice to be worthy of his blade tongue verbal sparring, something which he does not even accord to Claudio. But he does not hold back from responding to Beatrice as an equal in wit and standing.
  • Witty: He can snap a reply almost before his audience can process the first sally. Either it in a war of wit with Beatrice or in one of his delicious commentaries, it is clear that he enjoys wit for wit’s sake. Not to mention the sheer hilarity of almost everything out his mouth. (“Is it not strange that sheep guts can hail men’s souls out of their bodies?”)
  • Honest: Although his world view appears darker than Claudio’s or Don Pedro’s, he is the one who can recognize truth most easily. He knows the ways of the world and remarks on them for freely and frankly than any other character. He recognizes that a conventional romance would not be best for him, practically speaking. Yes, he is tricked by Pedro & Co., but he does first test this against what he knows; “I would think this a trick but that grey bearded fellow speaks it.” Also, he is the one who from the first discounts Don John’s attempts at subversion. Would that Claudio and Don Pedro had such an ability and sense of value! (Notice that only those who are willing to deceive are seriously injured by deception?)
  • Humorous: He is just plain funny. And he knows it. But that’s okay, because even though he is completely puffed up, he also doesn’t take himself too seriously.
  • Chivalrous: Yes, he argues with Beatrice even in the midst of wooing. But when it matters, such as defending the honor of a slandered woman, he can and does take up the challenge. And not just because he wants to please Beatrice: he takes pains to ascertain the truth of the matter, and acts accordingly.
  • Loving: Even though is “tricked” into his love, it seems that is more a discover of something that has always been there, rather than a new and sudden obsession. (Ahem. Claudio.) He does completely change his approach to Beatrice; they maintain their bickering, witty style of communication. But the affection and respect that has been lurking under their barbs is finally allowed release. Their tone is tender in the midst of the teasing, and their love is apparent under the hyperbolic extravagance. (“I shall live in thy eyes, die in the lap, and moreover I will go with thee to thy Uncle’s.”)
  • Poetic: Alright, so he was not born under a rhyming planet. But he tries. And his attempts prove that, A.) he at least has some sense of what makes a poem, or not, and B.) he really is incredibly sweet and adorable. Who needs a perfect word form when you have his sincerity?
  • Manly: He almost misses his chance. But he doesn’t. Because he finally steps up and risks everything to win Beatrice. In fact, he has been portrayed as a leader of men through the whole play, from the account of him as a soldier, to the respect that Don Pedro and Claudio show him. And he has been seen to be capable to grasping circumstances wisely, and taking proper action. And proper action is the mark of a Real Man.

. . . and his most attractive points seem awfully similar to his worst flaws. Hmm.

But perhaps this paradox is secret to his humanity. His closeness to life. His aura of manliness that remains present throughout the entire play.

I will contend that Benedick comes as close to reality as any fictional character can. He is rough, full of himself, somewhat common, and given to excessive teasing. And yet he is among the most charming, delightful, wonderful, swoon-inducing heroes of all time. Shakespeare . . . you knew what you were doing. No matter who plays him, Benedick is always adorable.

See?

Both Benedicks are awesome.

(But for the record, I really do recommend reading the play rather than relying on any film or stage version. Those will have to edit, and so lose some of the intrinsic cohesion and value.)

It might be that in my affection I merely decide to see his faults as being part of makes him human. But it is his very humanity makes him attractive. He is the real fictional man.

To quote the inestimable John Wayne – himself a paragon of manliness – “You have to be a man before you can be a gentleman.”

Benedick hits both marks.

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17 thoughts on “Book Meme: Literary Love

  1. I can’t argue with you. Benedick almost made my top five. What kept him back, for me, is that I love his relationship with Beatrice more than the man alone. He is, indeed, a very human character, which gives us all some hope, aye?

    p.s. Could you bash Claudio some more? I find it very cathartic to watch…

    • I had thought about him in context with Beatrice and without, but I think I like him either way! Also, no one ever is going to be without that type of influence; we do not live in voids. And while Beatrice does certainly bring out his best – and worst . . . and most hilarious – points, he really DOES need her to become the man he is supposed to be. And I Iove how he reacts to her promptings, by becoming even more awesome.

      Claudio bashing is my forte! Is there anything in particular that you want bashed? 😉

      • True.

        Apart from his head, with a brick? I am all for free expression in the noble art of Claudio-bashing. Let your imagination run wild.
        I always hope beyond hope that the next time I pick up the play or one of its manifestations, that Hero will decide that she would rather marry a decent man than that wet, petulant, selfish boy, but alas! I hope Beatrice and Benedick never stop mocking his head off for his behavior.

    • You know, I had the “b” there, and then in my late night attempt at editing, I allowed the wordpress spellcheck to “fix” it. Silly idea . . . Thanks for the catch!

      • that makes the typo all the more entertaining! Poor pathetic spell-checkers. They are helpful against my dyslexia, but they have such limited and prosaic vocabularies.

    • It’s the line “Hath Leonato any sons?” (wink wink, Hero will inherit EVERYTHING!) that really destroys his character for me. He is just a sappy, melodramatic wuss up until that point, whereupon he becomes a conniving barstud. Because, really, how can a guy who spouts such fluffy stuff so suddenly and coldly inquire into the wealth of his supposed love? I think he was only interested in the money and position at the start, and it took actually Hero’s “death” to make him see HER!

      Which is, again, another point of contrast to the awesomeness of Benedick; even before admitting to love, he sees Beatrice clearly. And even admires her, albeit behind her back!

      • If he even sees her after that. He feels bad, but it’s still all about him, as far as I can see.
        “yet sinn’d I not but in mistaking” he says.
        …I will let Beatrice speak to that: “Is he not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? Oh that I were a man! What, bear her in hand unitl they come to take hands; and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancor…”

        Claudio, even if you had not been mistaken, you would have sinned. You find out that your fiance is not “virtuous.” Do you confront her? Give her any chance to speak for herself? Do you honor her father, who is your elder, host and friend? Oh no. You intentionally wait until you the wedding ceremony in order to do the upmost damage to her, her father, and all their family. You intentionally cause the most pain possible with no thought beyond the fact that you feel that you have been wronged. Where’s your honor, man? Where is your heart? It is obvious that you have neither.

        Bleh!

      • Yeeeesss . . . Claudio is just a low class act all around!

        The same friend quoted at the beginning of this article also wants to someday try to make a production of Much Ado with a sympathetic character. I do think that his villiany/stupidity is often played up, but I wonder how much it is possible to play him as simply a weak male. (Note: NOT a MAN.)

  2. You know, come to think on it, Much Ado About Nothing has always been my favorite Shakespeare. It’s so full of joy, and successfully places the emphasis squarely on the characters I’m most interested in: Benedick and Beatrice. You’ve a very good examination of his character here, one that I will neither gainsay nor add to. As to Claudio, I never gave him much thought 1) because he’s generally uninteresting, and 2) because as I strive to be a gentleman I find it hard to give my respect to a man (however fictional) who would jump to such dubious and slanderous conclusions about any person, much less a gentlewoman, even less his supposed love! I usually read him as being merely immature, foolish, and rash, though probably well-intentioned. However, you may be right in making him out to be really an ass.

    Also, in my book, you are free to bash that dolt Romeo as well. I’ve always thought it a travesty that Shakespeare should honor such a worm as he with such romantic lines.

    • Ah, but a man’s perspective on a fellow man is usually quite different from ours. What ARE your thought on Benedick? Is he as wonderful to you as he is to me?

      Oh, poor Claudio. He might be the summation of our problems with “modern men”. The poor guy.

      But really, he is a numbskull.

      As for Romeo, I mostly resent the attention and adoration that their love story gets. IT ENDS TERRIBLY, people! I would prefer my love story to end prosaically in a nice little house with 9 kids and a messy kitchen. But hey, if you want to die in a stupid and hormone-driven mistake, be my guest!

      Ahem. Sorry, I went off on my own spiel there. Anyway, yes, Romeo is a wuss. But on the otehr hand, he has the poetential to mature into a man. If he would only stop to think every now and then. Have you read Robert Penn Warren’s essay “Pure and Impure Poetry”? He has somewonderful things to say, mainly about poetry, but specifically using Romeo’s speeches as an example. It is an amazing essay in any case.

      • A sympathetic Claudio? Hmm… I’d be curious to see if it could be done. I was amused by the scene in the David Tennant/Catherine Tate production when Claudio had his alcoholic suicidal angst-fest because it highlighted his “its all about me and what I am feeling” attitude… grrr

        I can say this for Romeo, as much as he annoys me: He’s a convincing teenager. There are moral lessons to be learned there. I suppose one could learn moral lessons from watching Claudio, too.

    • Haha, I used to hate “Romeo and Juliet” because it ended that way, but now I at least appreciate the emotional punch and moral warning of the tragedy. But Juliet could have done so much better than Romeo. Yes, I agree he is a convincing teenager, as is Juliet. But he’s a jerk. I mourned Juliet’s death, but so much his…

      As to Benedick, let’s see. I’ve never thought of him as “wonderful,” but then that’s not usually how I think of other guys. He’s a good man, and I like and admire him. I could be good friends with him, I think; though he’s a bit touchy and combative, he also has some wisdom and maturity about him. I was a bit disappointed that even in his love for Beatrice he would swear to duel (and maybe kill) his best friend, but I accept that as the sort of thing that happens in melodramas of this nature. In reflection, he probably is my favorite Shakespearean character.

      As caveat, I admit that I have not read or thought too much on Shakespeare outside of classes and the occasional Shakespearean movie or theater production, and so give my thoughts with a grain of salt, as I do not spend much time with him.

      • I like Romeo and Juliet! No, the title characters are certainly not paragons of virtue, but I think you are very right in saying they’re convincing teenagers, and as such, perceive the events of their lives with a heightened sense of drama and urgency. Most teens do this, even if they don’t get secretly married and then commit suicide (thank goodness!). But I agree that it is ironic when people treat their story like the romance of the ages. No, it isn’t. But taken for what it is, a somewhat cautionary tale of the very real emotions young people can feel, I do really like the play. And that sonnet made up of Romeo and Juliet’s first lines to one another just mades me go all puddly-wuddly. I love you, Shakespeare…

  3. I agree, Urania. It seems silly to me when the story is held up as a Great Romance, but I find it an effective tragedy. Teenagers do teenager impulsive things and the adults around them are too engrossed in a feud/too weak to give them much needed guidance and support.

  4. Pingback: Conclusion « Egotist's Club

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