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“Much Ado About Nothing” as Precursor to “The Philadelphia Story” in an Exploration of A Classic Romantic Comedy

William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an insightful predecessor to the classic romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. The two works of art share numerous similarities and one cannot deny that the more modern work exhibits characteristics that were reminiscent of the tradition and scope of Shakespeare’s comedy. These influences are evident in the classic film’s upper-class setting and narrative constructs. Its vestiges are also evident in the character of Tracy, as well as a semblance of theme, and tone.

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in and around the estate of Leonato, the governor of Messina. Leonato is a wealthy Patriarch who enjoys a relatively high social status as well as the loyalty of his subjects and devoted daughter, Hero. Shakespeare weaves a tale involving Leonato’s family, the bastard Prince Don John, the Prince Don Pedro and his men of “excellent good name,” (III.i.98). Reputation is an important indicator for this group. This upper-class society lives its life in Leonato’s mansion, his banquet halls, his orchards and his gardens. Within the relative privacy of this privileged world, Shakespeare’s characters deal with the possibilities of love and marriage, deceit and intrigue, as well as gender roles and familial responsibility, as is befitting such a setting.

The Philadelphia Story also deals with the concerns of the upper-class and is likewise set on the Lord family’s impressive and luxurious estate. We are introduced to the film’s setting in the very first shot of the columned mansion. The viewer is primed for a story dealing with the affairs of a household as we see C.K. Dexter Haven storm out of the house, suitcase in hand, and Tracy not far behind him wielding his soon to be broken golf club. Next, an insert of a newspaper clipping confirms what universe the film’s audience is about to enter: “Social World Awaits Wedding Saturday,“ the headline boldly proclaims. This is not a world of politics and religion, but instead is a place of parlors, and banquet halls.

The Philadelphia Story steps outside the bounds of this estate only to take us briefly into the office of Spy Magazine, where we are introduced to reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor, photographer Liz Imbrie, and subsequently the deceit that sets the plot in motion as these two outsides, a working class couple, are forced to enter this upper-class world. We re-enter the world through their reactions to the extravagant house and Mike veritably spells out the setting for us as he reads, “living room, sitting room, terrace, swimming pool, stables…” listed on the telephone in the south parlor where he and Liz have been ordered to sit. The opulent setting is emphasized as Mike snoops scornfully through knick knacks and expensive wedding gifts. The only other setting outside of a home environment is seen when Tracy and Mike run into one another at the library, but even this is not an escape from the grasp of the wealthy world as Dexter admits that his grandfather built the library. Overall, the story takes place in and around wealthy homesteads and like its Shakespearean precursor, this setting influences the themes that the story explores.

The conceit of Much Ado About Nothing involves the expectation of a wedding and the narrative results in an unsuspected culmination. The play begins with Leonato and his brother Antonio receiving visitors to their town in the form of Don Pedro, his bastard brother Don John, and the prince’s loyal men, including Claudio and Benedick. Benedick arrives much to the chagrin of Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, who is engaged in an ongoing battle of wits with the gentleman. The plot moves forward as Claudio falls in love with Hero and Don Pedro seeks to woo her in his stead, by making Hero believe that he was in fact Claudio. Claudio is briefly fooled when Don John, in an effort to stir up trouble tells Claudio that the prince has taken Hero for himself. This false pretense does not last long and is but a preview of the deception Don John eventually employs. He also succeeds (temporarily) in smearing Hero’s reputation of faithful chastity by causing Claudio and Don Pedro to mis-observe and therefore misjudge her. The theme of deception occurs throughout the play. In the end, Don John’s plot is foiled and Hero and Claudio reconcile and marry. What’s more, Benedick and Beatrice, who had each declared eternal bachelorhood, are tricked into requiting love for one another and marry the same day as Claudio and Hero.

The Philadelphia Story also begins with the promise of a wedding; that of Tracy Lord Haven to self-made millionaire George Kittredge. The Lord family also receives guests into their home, but unlike the Prince and his party, Mike and Liz are not exactly willing visitors, nor are they welcome at first. They have been given an assignment to pretend to be friends in an effort to spy on the family. Tracy knows of their intention but lets them stay because Dexter reveals that the family is being blackmailed by Spy Magazine in regards to Tracy’s philandering father. Again, deception is a significant piece of the story. As was the case in Much Ado, the expected wedding has an unexpected twist. Like Beatrice, Tracy re-examines herself and has a change of heart. The wedding comes to pass, but the groom is not the man that was originally planned. “I wish Dexter could represent George,” Dinah, Tracy‘s younger sister, had lamented earlier in the story. In the end, her wish comes true. Dinah foreshadows a wedding that the bride herself would have never predicted. This deviation from the norm, and from what was expected is characteristic of the fragmentation involved in comedy. Thus we see there are several shared plot elements between the play and the film including weddings, visitors, deception, and unexpected culminations.

Tracy is a wonderful reinvention and veritable combination of both women that Shakespeare deals with in his classic tale. First and foremost one cannot help but compare her to sharp tongued and quick-witted nature to the feisty Beatrice. Her cutting banter with Dexter is a game of verbal play and parlance if ever there was one. Tracy, like Beatrice, is older and unmarried. Beatrice implies she once had a relationship with Benedick through her lines, “…I gave him use of it [her heart], a double heart for his single one…your grace may well say I have lost it.“ (II.i.76-79). Tracy also had a previous relationship with Dexter that turned antagonistic. Though both Benedick and Dexter seem to antagonize the leading ladies, they ultimately reconcile in professions of love. The difference in the tone of the repartee between the two couples is that Benedict and Beatrice are engaged in a “merry war,” as Leonato puts it. Much of their banter seems to be for the sake of personal and social entertainment. Tracy however exhibits a genuine condemnation towards her ex-husband. Dexter refutes this condemnation by pointing out Tracy’s façade.

Tracy and Beatrice are both women who live life beneath a façade. Beatrice is clearly strong and scorns her position in society as a woman who cannot do what she pleases. For example, she laments her inability to revenge Hero’s slander caused by Claudio‘s public rejection and boldly wishes she were a man that she might do so. Beatrice is a woman who needs to be in control at all times. She advises her cousin to attempt to exert control over Claudio when she tells Hero, “Speak cousin; or if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss, and let him not speak, neither” (II.I..307-9). In holding on so tightly to the ideals of strength and control, Beatrice denies that she could ever love a man, much less marry. However, Beatrice opens herself to love within five lines of hearing that Benedick is in love with her. So swiftly does she change her tune, one can hardly believe her previous declarations were sincere. Yet she is unapologetic for her own façade and sheds it, only to put it back on in front of the assembly, and then sweep it aside once again when writing in her own hand is found to declare her love. I would posit that Beatrice and Benedict loved one another all along. It is possible that they played the game of wit for so long that the façade they showed to the rest of the world became so much a part of their identities that they perhaps began to believe it even themselves. Tracy is a reinvention of these characters in that her façade of strength seeped so much into her being that she had to relearn what it meant to be loved.

One way that Tracy departs from the Beatrice character is that she becomes aware of her own façade and subsequently troubled by it. It is not so easily shed in her case. Tracy, as pointed out by Dexter, has no tolerance for human fault or weakness. According to her father, she may as well be made of bronze. Tracy comes to term with her true status with a degree of difficulty. “What’s wrong with Tracy?” Mike asks. “You tell me,” she replies, almost tearful. It is only when her eyes are clouded by Champagne that she begins to see clearly and let go of the control that has held her so tightly. She opens herself to moonlight and pools and love, albeit with the wrong suitor, but the most important realization is the one she makes about the man she is about to marry. “In spite of the fact that somebody‘s up from the bottom , he can still be quite a heel, and even though somebody else is born to the purple he can still be a very nice guy.” Tracy realizes that her self-imposed mask of goddess is not what she wants at all. She does not want to be worshipped. She wants to be loved. And isn’t that what all women want, whether they reside in Southern Italy or Pennsylvania?

The next morning, after Tracy has spent the night with Mike in the pool, Tracy’s character bares a comparison more similar to Hero than Beatrice. Hero, so different from her feisty cousin, in that she is polite, and does what she is told, is the victim of a man’s assumption that she was unfaithful. Without true proof, only what their eyes have seemingly perceived, Claudio and Don Pedro, themselves deceived, succeed in publicly shaming Hero for an act of which she is innocent. Beatrice, on the other hand, believes Hero without need of any proof. The men are not so easily persuaded. Herein lies the theme of assumed female infidelity.

Like Claudio, George Kittredge believes his eyes rather than his heart. As Mike comes strolling up from the pool, arms full of Tracy, George feels the cuckolds horns sprout atop his ever coiffed head. In this modern setting, even Tracy herself doubts her own fidelity, as does her younger sister. As Tracy tries to piece together the night’s events, she comes to assume that she and Mike had indeed slept together during their tryst. When the truth finally comes to light, Tracy expresses her need for her male counterpart to have believed in her, more than she did herself. She charges George with assuming her guilt, until Mike proved her innocent. George condemns her entire sex in an earlier conversation with Dexter: “You pretend not to believe? Then you don’t know women,” he declares with certainty.

In the end, George being deceived about Tracy’s faithfulness turned out to be exactly what Tracy needed to confirm that George was not the man for her. Deception played a significant part in each story as it is used by both the protagonists and the villains. Though Don John’s deception involving Hero was negative, Don Pedro involved several major characters in getting Benedict and Beatrice to believe that each one had confessed to pining for the other, when neither had. As a result of this well-intentioned deception, their true feelings were revealed and they became happily married. In the same vein, Mike and Dexter reversed the deception of the Spy magazine editor and blackmailed him in an effort to protect Tracy’s family from blackmail and exploitation. So, we see that deception was a common tool employed by both stories for the better or worse of the characters.

Ultimately, The Philadelphia Story is a tale of a woman with intellectual prowess who rediscovers her own vulnerability and therefore her humanity, as well as the ability to love and be loved. Though its conventions are products of its historical context, it nonetheless bears an important resemblance to Much Ado About Nothing concerning its setting, narrative construct, character development, and themes.

Film Romantic Comedy Hollywood History


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