My favorite Shakespeare play of all time is more than just a silly and brilliantly worded series of lover’s quarrels. For the acute observer (or the former liberal arts student who has enjoyed this story immensely for almost twenty years), Much Ado About Nothing affords interesting little reflections on the nature of lies, truth, and our human struggle to push aside insecurity or pride long enough to find it. Not only does Much Ado provide us two accounts of drastic decisions made on false evidence, but the two outcomes could not be more opposite. While the first lovers’ friends use white lies to unite a stubborn couple in true love, Don John uses an elaborately staged lie to tear an idyllic couple apart. More than that, I would argue that in both cases the lies worked because they fit with what our characters wanted to believe.
Can we ever really evaluate evidence objectively? Or can we not help but choose the evidence that fits with what we already think?
Benedick and Beatrice come to acknowledge their true feelings for each other based on a very well-laid trap of false evidence – the testimony of their friends. Each overhears their trusted friends in conversation, talking about how much one lover’s “frenemy” is actually head-over-heels for them. While all visible evidence in the relationship between B & B would lead you to think the contrary, the friends lay the trap so well that Beatrice and Benedick are completely convinced. It seems that the lies of their friends bring about a 180º twirl from their former pride and discord into their former enemy’s arms. Or do they?
Could it be that when the friends twaddle on about Benedick and Beatrice’s love for each other, they are actually speaking the truth? While the symptoms were quite exaggerated, nothing at the root of what they said was false – each really was attracted to the other, each would never, ever tell the other of this, Beatrice really is too proud to accept a suitor…surprisingly, all not false. Could they see through their friends’ witty banter as a mere screen for the hurt and lost love beneath? Like a mother sneaking healthy food into the diet of a picky eater, can it ever be laudable to stretch or fudge the truth to lead to a greater good?
I think that the testimony of the friends was so convincing because it fit with what Benedick and Beatrice already hoped to be true. Some directors play them as badly-burned former lovers, but even if not, it’s clear that they have chemistry. Benedick admits openly how fine Beatrice is, and she must think something of him as the only man to whom she gives the time of day – even if it’s a bad time. It’s my belief that B & B wanted to be together from the start, and when the evidence came along, slight as it may be, they took it and ran. Or swung. Or jumped in a fountain. All they needed was the little white lie, the exaggerated truth to bring them together again.
For our other lovers, Hero and Claudio, seeing apparently really is believing…and yet while the testimonies told to our first lovers simply stretch real truths, the evidence Claudio “sees” is a complete and utter lie. Hero really did “meet with no man at that hour, my lord,” but no amount of words can dissuade Claudio of what he’s convinced he saw.
I think it’s another case of believing what we want to believe – Claudio had every reason not to trust Don John. Besides the fact that he’s generally known as not a great guy, Claudio already caught him lying once about the prince wooing Hero in his own name! (Don’t think he didn’t know that was Don John – Beatrice could recognize Benedick, Don John could recognize Claudio…don’t tell me Claudio didn’t know who Don John was when ALL THE REVELERS CAME OUT TOGETHER and he probably saw which mask everyone put on). A guy who would believe that his best friend and prince plays him so bad as to “woo for himself” and steal his girlfriend, let alone be too shy her out himself, clearly has some trust and self-esteem issues. It’s no shock he thinks his sweet and innocent betrothed would hook up with some rando on their wedding-eve.
Maybe, just like Beatrice and Benedick, he accepted the “evidence” that fit the beliefs he already had all along. He didn’t think he was good enough for Hero, he already believed he didn’t deserve her, so he easily fell prey to Don John’s lies.
There are plenty of other fudges and deceptions in this story, but I think you know what I mean. B & B believed their friends’ stories because it fit with their secret wish that someone wonderful could love them back. They had faith to accepted the evidence, against all surface appearances, that led to the best. Claudio, on the other hand, let his insecurity mess up his future marital relationship like twice in three days. He pushed aside what he knew of Hero’s character to prefer the fishy lies that fit with what he sadly believed about himself. By believing for the worst, he created a situation even worse than if Hero’s affair had actually been true. Despite having every reason not to, he chose the evidence that led to the bad.
I don’t have to lecture you on the importance of balanced and critical evaluation. But sometimes, we just don’t know for sure what’s true or untrue. How do we form beliefs then?
I think this little work, by that master of human nature, reflects the importance of believing for the best. We know how easily we can accept the evidence that fits what we already believe, for better or for worse. That’s why it’s important to be confident in ourselves, or as Christians, in God’s opinion of us. It’s something I’ve struggled with recently myself, but we have a choice to believe the for the best, or believe for the worst. Do we have the faith to believe, against all appearances, that God is doing something good in and around us? Because only by accepting that truth can we call it forth. Accepting evidence out of a place of fear and insecurity is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will only multiply the bad.
The next time you have to take something on faith, be a Beatrice! Believe for the best!