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.
- 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 tongueverbal 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.
(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.