Joss Whedon’s Much Ado about Nothing is a tender, sexy, and very funny film production of Shakespeare’s comedy, but what made it most satisfying was its creepy presentation of Hero’s public shaming and its concluding on a melancholy note rather than with victorious fanfare.
For those unfamiliar with the play, the ill-tempered Don John plots some villainy by making it appear as though Hero, the daughter of the governor of Messina, is not a pure maid as everyone from her soon-to-be husband Claudio to her own father expects her to be. Instead of speaking to his beloved privately, the unimaginative Claudio and his friends simply assume that Hero is guilty, “an approved wanton” and no maid, a mere “sign and semblance of her honour.” Before a crowd of guests and the priest who expects to hear the couple’s vows, Claudo shoves Hero back to her father, intent not be be married to her. Eventually Hero’s innocence and modesty come to light, but much grief could have been saved had Claudo given his beloved the respect due a person.
Of course, in his world he wasn’t expected to do so. Hero’s father Leonato doesn’t protest his daughter’s shaming; he accepts the words of these other men and joins in the shaming: “Hence from her! let her die.” This public shaming is socially awkward, but nonetheless socially acceptable. Hero’s accusers are mistaken, but they’re acting in line with social expectations and norms. The individuals realize their error and, as individuals, all seems to end well for them after forgiveness and penance. And yet the patriarchy of which Don John made devastating use remains. Of course it does. It too much serves the interests of men like Claudio and Leonato.
Setting the film as Whedon did really helped get these social expectations across. The structural sexism is more apparent alongside the occasionally seen smart phone, within the film noir stylization, and with “Sigh No More” sung with a hint of sadness. We in the audience expect that these classic characters would know better than to treat Hero as goods damaged before the date of sale. The fact that they don’t know any better helps bring the social context in which they act to the foreground.