Much Ado and the silence of Hero

I’ve watched a lot of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s my favorite Shakespeare comedy, thanks entirely to the characters of Beatrice and Benedick and their passionate-enemies-turned-passionate-lovers story. Their witty, slightly melancholy banter laid the groundwork for Pride and Prejudice and a host of lesser romantic comedies, and it’s largely why the play gets produced and performed again and again — from Joss Whedon’s celebrity-cool Los Angeles and the BBC’s incestuous local TV station and Kenneth Branagh’s ye olde Italia to countless colleges and community theaters across the land, and most recently on the rain-soaked plains of Central Park.

For me and, I suspect, for a lot of women and feminists and fans of the best aspects of romantic comedies, Much Ado’s appeal also comes from the fact that Beatrice takes very little shit from anyone, ever. She ends the play married, yes, but defining her own terms for that marriage. She gets to end the play as equal as any of Shakespeare’s women ever get to be to their romantic partners, and more equal than most women in literature written by men get to be. She gets to end the play speaking, and perhaps even more importantly, being heard.

So Beatrice and her fate are solid.  But that leaves us with Hero, the cautionary anti-Beatrice. Whose silence gets harder and harder to ignore every time I see the play.

Hero, the ironically-named plot device masquerading as a main character, barely gets to say anything for the first half of the play. She has one line in the first act, and six more in the second, according to Open Source Shakespeare.

That only gets slightly better as the play goes on and things really start happening to Hero. Beatrice gets to speak on 106 separate occasions in Much Ado. Benedick has 134 such opportunities to speak, and Claudio 125. Hero gets 44.

This isn’t a matter of a late-arriving character. Hero is onstage from the very beginning of Much Ado, but mute until midway through the action – which, to be clear, mostly revolves around her body. In those first two acts and seven lines for Hero, the plot concerns: who gets to marry Hero, and how that man will woo her (by letting his boss pretend to be him – okaaaaay), and how that man will ask Hero’s father for permission to marry her. Oh, and how that man’s boss’s brother will try to spoil this (frankly incredibly stupid) plot and destroy Hero’s reputation, just to get back at his brother. All of this happens to Hero in just the first two acts of Much Ado’s five, and she gets to say very, very little about it.

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Divergent, Dystopias and Murderous Children

Veronica Roth’s Divergent was a good plane read that started boring me, conveniently, right at the end of both the first book and the plane ride. I don’t care enough about what happens next to actually read the sequels; I might care enough to look up their plots on Wikipedia, though it’s been three days and I haven’t bothered yet. The book did make me slightly more interested in the movie, because Shailene Woodley is a better actor than the protagonist deserves, and the book certainly left her a gaping void of character to fill however she chooses. (Ditto Kate Winslet and the book’s villain, who was the victim of some weirdly specific authorial body-shaming. I look forward to seeing Winslet portray a woman whose characterization begins with “wears glasses to look smart” and ends with “pudge around the middle” and “stretch marks on her thighs.”)

Despite the somewhat obvious Hunger Games comparisons, Divergent reminded me much more strongly of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, particularly in its description of the colorless, repressed “Abnegation” society that the heroine rejects. I was sorry when she left it to go jump on and off of buildings and trains (that apparently never bother stopping, in this city that has a large caste of menial laborers but doesn’t bother employing any of them as commuter rail conductors … but moving on, pun not really intended.)

Divergent made me miss The Giver, and its emphasis on the quiet, seemingly rational horrors that the best dystopias perpetrate. I’m so much more interested in the world-building in these types of books, in the theory of dystopias than in their often over-the-top effects. (It’s why the second Hunger Games installment is my favorite; it opens up the world that created the child-gladiator rituals and shows us how it works.) The setup and evolution of these once-ideal societies, and the bureaucratic souring of those ideals, is generally so much more interesting than the killing that results.  At the very least, the killing has to be earned by the world-building — and that is definitely where Divergent fell down the most for me.

I’ve read way too many contemporary YA books that kill characters easily and en masse, which makes it pretty hard to like the protagonists who shrug at the deaths and move on with their hero-ing. Hunger Games gets a pass, because whatever other flaws there are in the books, the murder of children is sold from the very first pages and doesn’t happen lightly. Even early Harry Potter did a good job with not killing kids cheaply or as window dressing, before its eventual devolution into mass casualties and death-by-curtains. But Divergent throws a few kids off a train and then progresses to sociopathic bullying, suicides and casual maiming, all of which are really just a backdrop for our heroine to score a boyfriend. By the time Roth progresses to brainwashing, gun battles with distant parents and friends dying casually, it was hard to see any of the violence having an impact on the narrator — and so the only impact it had on this reader was to make me stop reading.

Favorites (and parentheticals) of 2013: Books, TV, movies, travel

Most lingering book read: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I admired more than I loved — but I admired it a lot, especially Jennifer Egan’s ability to write a September 11 in New York novel by deliberately not writing a September 11 in New York novel. That day wasn’t an obvious plot device for Egan; it wasn’t recreated directly on the page, it wasn’t something the characters overtly spent pages and pages responding to. It was an aside, a memory of a breakfast meeting a few days before the restaurant fell from the sky, or the reality of a regular commute home now distorted by the hole in lower Manhattan. Egan let the aftermath, rather than the cinematic trauma of an event all of her readers lived through themselves, shape the stories elegantly, subtly, ordinarily, in a way that reflected life after September 11 much more than any other work of fiction I’ve read or seen trying to depict that day or its fallout. (Ahem, Emperor’s Children. Let alone Extremely Loud and Incredibly Manipulative.)

Best TV discovery: Orphan Black. Runner-up props to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which got me binge-watching YouTube in a way few regular TV or Netflix series have done recently, and Sleepy Hollow, which I expected to take the Revolution/Flashforward/generic-Lost-clone route to boredom and banality, but which became something much stranger and sparkier than I expected. (I still don’t pay much attention during the monster scenes, but the Abbie-and-Ichabod Show is worth infinite fake-history flashbacks and rejected X-Files monster-of-the-week masks.)

Best TV stride-hitting: The Good Wife, ad infinitum. Conversely, I’m still waiting for Elementary to live up to its potential this season. Bringing Moriarty back (yay!) just to make her more vulnerable — and vulnerable due to her feminine roles as mother and Sherlock’s girlfriend (sigh) — emphatically doesn’t count. Nor does having Watson sleep with Sherlock’s semi-estranged brother, though Sherlock’s reaction to that development (and the general notes they’ve been repeatedly hitting about trust and emotional intimacy and need for soulmates and other relationshippy words between the characters) seems like a strange choice for a show whose creators keep on vowing that their leads will never hook up.  I’m mostly indifferent as to whether that happens, though it seems hard to write a sustained drama about two intelligent, attractive people becoming professional, intellectual and emotional partners without turning it into a romance (or having your audience do that for you. Speaking of characters named Sherlock.)

Most memorable movie: Probably Frances Ha, which I saw late and after reading much of the hype, but which still surprised and delighted me in a way that Girls has never managed (and yes, do I feel guilty for preferring a movie that’s directed and co-written by a man to the series directed and written by a woman. Then again, I only had to tolerate Frances for 85 minutes. I gave Lena Dunham that time several times over before giving up on her characters.) I think The Pretty One also deserved more attention for doing a similar coming-of-age, girl-to-womanhood story with more whimsy and a wider view of its characters’ worlds.

Favorite travel experience: Out of a year that included trips to LA, DC, Miami, Chicago and western Illinois, South Carolina, Italy and San Francisco, I probably most enjoyed the pure vacation of my two weeks in Italy. But the immediate turnaround to San Francisco was my third and best experience in that city, which felt dream-like in the picture-perfect early October sunshine (and under the influence of nine hours of accumulated jet lag). I was a better explorer this time, spending more time outside of the tourist-trap hotel areas and the work meetings of the financial district (though I learned that not changing clothes between the work meetings and the exploring can lead to lots of questions about why exactly you’re thrifting in the Mission “so dressed up,” in what I thought was business casual). And I’m still not nearly as “elite” a traveler as I would like to be, but 2013 was also the year that I had fun scratching at the door of how to become one.

Re-reading Ender’s Game: Racism, blogging and video games

I loved Ender’s Game the first time I read it, as a pre-Internet pre-teen without any knowledge of Orson Scott Card’s bizarre and homophobic vitriol. I even liked the first sequel, before the second one convinced me that maybe some stories were better off as one-shots. Then I found out about Card’s personal beliefs, and mentally classed the book with early Mel Gibson movies and other entertainment I feel vaguely guilty about liking. But as the new, rather-joyless-looking movie adaptation arrived, I decided to reread Ender’s Game, to see how much of what I liked about it remained and how much I could pick up on Card’s prejudices as an adult reader. The short answers: Not as much as I remembered, and more than I expected! First of all…

1) Surprise N-word: Orson Scott Card, would you like some racism to go along with your homophobia? I read an old copy of the book, an early printing that includes a part where, in some routine trash-talking, Ender calls his friend Alai by the n-word, and then jokes about how his great-great-grandfather would have sold Alai’s grandfather to another slaveowner for not liking that term. Kids these days!

“And Shen.”

“That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?”

Ender decided that Alai was joking. “Hey, we can’t all be niggers.”

Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”

“My great great grandpa would have sold him first.”

Card edited that exchange in later editions, but apparently not because he’d regretted using the word or even realized that maybe having your white, super-genius, messiah-like hero use racial epithets and joke about slavery isn’t a great way to develop a sympathetic protagonist. No, according to Orson Scott Card, “prudes” forced his hand.

 “Even as the old obscenities dealing with sex and excrement were unleashed upon the public, new obscenities moved from the realm of the merely indecorous to the sinful. What f* and s* (and worse words) had once been, now n* has become. And, just as there were prudes who screamed in outrage and demanded that any work containing those old bad words must be banned, so we have a new group of prudes making identical demands about works containing the new bad word,” he wrote in 2000, in response to a question about why he had edited that passage. (Card begins that answer by comparing himself to Shakespeare, which gives you an idea of the rest. He also goes onto to assert that truly sophisticated readers would understand that Ender’s racism was really about teaching Alai tolerance and rebuking his friend for being racist about Asian people – an argument which requires a whole separate critical takedown.)

2) The invention of blogging: Forget the Big Twist. The parts I most remembered from the book over the years, and the parts I was most impressed by, were Card’s prescient depiction of political blogging and the influence that Internet writers would have on world events. Okay, maybe Matt Drudge or Nick Denton haven’t become world dictators, as Ender’s blogger/psychopath brother Peter eventually does. But I was very impressed at how Card, in my memory, predicted the rise and the influence of personality-driven online writers, who become famous based largely on their (carefully-calculated) inflammatory rhetoric. When I went back to reread Ender’s Game, I was most looking forward to spending time with Peter and sister Valentine, who make themselves famous by getting into anonymous online debates with each other.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Peter/Valentine/blogging plotline takes up about half a chapter, plus a few lines towards the end for plot resolution and sequel setup. I don’t know what it says that throwaway subplots formed my most enduring memories of the book, but it’s not a great recommendation.

3) Video games are about as interesting to read about as they are to watch other people playing. Ender’s Game is a very readable book, which is a big accomplishment considering its reliance on poorly-described virtual combat. The “battle simulations,” first at Ender’s school and later when he’s tricked into destroying the enemy’s homeworld, were pretty opaque to me during this re-read – I finished those scenes with no real visual of what the children gladiators actually accomplished or physically did during the battles. It was much easier to visualize the arenas in the Hunger Games books, for example, or the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books. I think Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had a bit of an advantage over Card, in that both of them described battles that were more in the physical world than the video games that make up so much of Ender’s Game. But world-building or big-picture description of any sort isn’t a strength of Card’s – there’s a slapdash civil war shoved into the book’s resolution, between superpowers that have never been clearly delineated. And it’s a problem when you do choose to set a book in what is essentially a series of video game championships and then can’t describe them clearly enough for a reader to do much more than skim for dialogue and outcome.

4) The Big Twist makes no sense. When your main character is a tactical genius, the best strategic mind in generations and the savior of the human race, it rather strains credulity that he can’t figure out when he’s fighting actual battles against an actual enemy. Especially when he’s purportedly hoodwinked by a couple of bumbling mid-level military guys and the washed-up war veteran version of Rip Van Winkle.

"

There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don’t take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men.

"Great" books, as defined by the Western canon, didn’t contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all.

"

It’s Frustratingly Rare to Find a Novel About Women That’s Not About Love - Kelsey McKinney - The Atlantic (via oditor)

I have a lot of problems with the arguments in this essay (to pick one, I don’t particularly like Jane Eyre, but claiming that its protagonist has “no story of solitary self-discovery” makes me think you skipped the whole second half of the book). But my main objections are: Anne Shirley. Emily Starr. Laura Ingalls. Scout Finch. Kit Tyler. Turtle Wexler. Dicey Tillerman. Lucy Pevensie and Jill Pole and Polly Plummer. Many others I’m forgetting right now. You can keep your Jack Kerouacs and whiny Holden Caulfields- I had plenty of literary female protagonists to admire growing up.

(via literarynerd)

theparisreview:

“Reader, I married him.”

Oh, oh, oh. In which Barbie Liz Taylor plays “poor, obscure, plain, and little” Jane Eyre to Vincent Price’s Rochester. Adding this to my collection of wonderfully off-key vintage book covers.

theparisreview:

“Reader, I married him.”

Oh, oh, oh. In which Barbie Liz Taylor plays “poor, obscure, plain, and little” Jane Eyre to Vincent Price’s Rochester. Adding this to my collection of wonderfully off-key vintage book covers.

Reposting this, because Darcy the gothic highwayman and Lizzy the American governess want to wish you a happy (belated) Pride and Prejudice day.

Reposting this, because Darcy the gothic highwayman and Lizzy the American governess want to wish you a happy (belated) Pride and Prejudice day.

millionsmillions:

Pride and Prejudice turns 200 this year, and to celebrate, the artist Jen Sorensen drew this neat little graphic synopsis. 

Weirdly skips over much of the book’s second half, including the road trip to Pemberley where Lizzy changes her mind about Darcy after seeing his massive crib, and also his dive into the pond (wasn’t that canon?). But still pretty great.

millionsmillions:

Pride and Prejudice turns 200 this year, and to celebrate, the artist Jen Sorensen drew this neat little graphic synopsis

Weirdly skips over much of the book’s second half, including the road trip to Pemberley where Lizzy changes her mind about Darcy after seeing his massive crib, and also his dive into the pond (wasn’t that canon?). But still pretty great.

Movie hopes lowered: David Mitchell’s soulless Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is the book equivalent of Mad Men: intellectually polished, impressively intricate, chilly and soulless.

In full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading the book yet; I have one chapter left. I’ve had one chapter left for about a week, since I ran smack into yet another narrative wall in the novel, wrenching me away from characters I’d almost started to care about and dropping me back in the lap of characters I’d now forgotten. It’s possible that the last 34 pages of Cloud Atlas will completely change my mind and make me realize what a brilliantly moving, important piece of literature this book is. But having barely slogged through the first half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Ye Olde Historical diary that opens and closes the book, I’m not holding out great hope for its conclusion.

This isn’t to say I disliked all of the book. I don’t mind abandoning novels that bore me, but Cloud Atlas - once my desire to compare it to the movie powered me past that great bore of a first chapter - has kept my interest sporadically, in almost alternating main characters. Adam Ewing? Don’t care. Robert Frobisher? Gradually started to care, with a neat segue into the much better Luisa Rey. And then the awful Timothy Cavendish, relieved by the superlative Sonmi-451, and then a plummet into the interminable Zachry. The trip back has been less fun, because I read Sonmi’s conclusion dreading the return to Cavendish, and now that I’ve finished Frobisher, I really am not interested in whatever happened to Adam Ewing, and what it all means in Mitchell’s grand matrix-y philosophy of past and present and future and reincarnation and whatever other grand intellectual things he’s trying to say with this very dazzling book.

It’s hard not to admire, in a freshman crit-lit seminar sort of way. Mitchell skips easily, showily from historical epistles to hard-boiled 70’s thriller to a futuristic Aldous Huxley pastiche to an apocalyptic pidgin folk-story. He’s very accomplished. But every time I start to lose myself in the story, to become subsumed in the message rather than having the message whacked over my head with birthmarks and dreams and sextets, Mitchell yanks me back by switching characters. I could have easily spent an entire novel in the futuristic “corpocracy” of Korea, where clones are bred and then butchered and “pureblood” humans are endowed with “Souls” that track them and require them to spend a certain amount of their salaries every day. The semantics alone of this world are dazzling, and the clone narrator is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all of Mitchell’s protagonists. But on the verge of her execution, she gets rushed off-stage to watch a movie about the bumbling Cavendish, and Mitchell again pulls me out of his story.

I first started reading this book because I wanted to compare it to its new movie adaptation. And I was hoping, before reading it, that the directors of the first Matrix movie and Run Lola Run would deliver a kinetic, sparky science-fiction film with just enough philosophy underneath the dazzle. Now I’m afraid it will be the other way around.

I’ll still see the movie. But now that I’ve read their source material, I’m bracing for something from the directors of the last Matrix movie and The Princess and the Warrior.

The best Pride and Prejudice cover ever, in which Darcy is a highwayman with a sordid yet noble past, Elizabeth a swooning governess, and off-duty Harlequin Romance novelists went to town. Found in a Chiang Mai used bookshop.

The best Pride and Prejudice cover ever, in which Darcy is a highwayman with a sordid yet noble past, Elizabeth a swooning governess, and off-duty Harlequin Romance novelists went to town. Found in a Chiang Mai used bookshop.