By the time you read this, a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts called the Understudies (featuring Karan Bhagat, Megha Gulati, David Stanton and I) will have performed excerpts from his plays (‘Bardy Bits’ as Karan christened the event) at Museum of Goa Pilerne to commemorate the Bard’s 400th death anniversary. The selection was an eclectic mix of histories, tragedies and comedies from Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
It has been such a thrilling experience, immersing ourselves in the wit, the punning humour, the wickedly intelligent verse of Shakespeare’s writing, and one has to marvel at his insightful grasp of psychology and the human condition. I really wish we had read more Shakespeare at school and college. I remember having studied just two pithy extracts from Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice in our English syllabus in secondary and higher secondary school.
The comedic excerpt at our event was taken from one of his finest, Love’s Labour’s Won, better known as Much Ado about Nothing, written in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, between 1598 and 1599.
The “nothing” in the title is believed to be a triple entendre, meaning not only “nothing” but also “noting” (a homophone in Shakespeare’s day to “nothing”, with “noting” meaning overhearing, rumour, scandal and gossip) and the bawdy Elizabethan slang for “vagina” (derived from the pun of a woman having “nothing” between her legs, or “an O-thing”).
Although like most Shakespeare plays there are several main characters and even more peripheral ones, much of the witty back-and-forth exchanges occur between Beatrice and Benedick, and are today considered the leading roles of the play. King Charles II even wrote ‘Benedick and Beatrice’ beside the title of the play in his copy of the Second Folio.
The French composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) understood this as well, giving his opera comique based on Much Ado about Nothing the title ‘Béatrice et Bénédict’.
Berlioz got a double whammy when he was introduced to Shakespeare in 1827 in Paris. A company of English actors gave a series of performances of Shakespeare plays at the Odéon theatre. Among the cast was an Irish-born actress named Harriet Simpson, who played Ophelia and Juliet in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet respectively. He was instantly smitten by Shakespeare and infatuated by Simpson, raising the curtain on what he himself called “the greatest drama of my life.” It is striking that the performances were in English, which Berlioz did not understand at all, yet he still fell under the spell of the verse, prose and drama.
From then on, he constantly read Shakespeare, often aloud if he had company, and could connect personal experiences and parallels with characters from the plays.
His Shakespeare-inspired musical compositions are many: his 1831 overture King Lear (Le roi Lear) and his composition Lélio for orchestra, chorus, solo voices and spoken text which features a fantasy on The Tempest; the symphony Roméo et Juliette (1839), his 1849 choral work Tristia has two scenes from Hamlet, the death of Ophelia and the funeral march from the final scene (La mort d’Ophélie; Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d’Hamlet); but his biggest work is ‘Béatrice et Bénédict’, which had a gestation period of almost three decades before it was staged in 1862.
Berlioz himself wrote the French libretto to the opera, staying closely to Shakespeare’s text. He was “in pain and impatient for death” at the time of completing the opera, suffering from a condition then termed as “intestinal neuralgia”, which he endured in the last decade of his life. But you wouldn’t guess it from the exuberance of the music.
The verbal sparring between Béatrice and Bénédict takes the form of a soprano-tenor duo, while an allegretto trio showcases the “conspiratorial humour” of Don Pedro, Claudio and Bénédict (incidentally we used this excerpt in our ‘Bardy bits’ event) where the latter swears never to marry.
The overture is a lot of fun both to play and to listen to. It wittily depicts in the music the back-and-forth, tit-for-tat exchanges between Béatrice and Bénédict, and makes several references to the music that unfolds later in the opera.
If the pattern of boy-girl trading insults initially, only to discover that they have feelings for each other, with a happily-ever-after ending sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve encountered this time and again in Hindi films. Indeed the 2001 comedy-drama hit film Dil Chahta Hai is believed to be based (very loosely) around Much Ado about Nothing. Preity Zinta-Aamir Khan (Shalini-Aakash) are the modern-day Beatrice- Benedick counterpart in the film.
In the Sydney Australia sequence, when Shalini enters the frame, there is a sailboat to the right named ‘Much Ado’. When she takes Aakash to the Sydney opera (the ‘play-within-a-play’, a device commonly used by Shakespeare himself), it is another Shakespeare-inspired work being staged, Troilus and Cressida. Although if one looks it up, the opera is alleged to be English composer William Walton’s work, I am not so sure. I could be mistaken, of course, but the music doesn’t seem to bear his mark, and the libretto is being sung in French, not English. And Walton based his opera on Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, not the Shakespeare play. Be that as it may, the scene is in some ways central to the film, as this is when Aakash realises that Shalini is the love of his life.
If only Berlioz’ own real-life “greatest drama” had nearly such a happy ending, though. From the moment he set eyes on Harriet Simpson, he would besiege her hotel room with love letters. His Symphonie Fantastique was inspired by his obsession with her, and the concept of the idée fixe entered his musical writing as well. The couple did marry, a good six years later, despite neither being fluent in the other’s language. But living together was very different from worshipping Simpson from afar, as Berlioz would soon realise. They were evenly matched but in the wrong way: both were hot-headed and prone to outbursts of temper. Simpson took comfort in alcohol after her acting career ebbed away, and eventually over two stormy decades later, the couple separated, although Berlioz continued to support Harriet financially for the rest of her life.
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)