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Much Ado – A Conflict in Interpretation

I’m a Whedon fan.  I am not ashamed to say that I pretty much not only follow Whedon’s shows and movies but I follow any actor who has been on a Whedon show.  Examples:  I started watching Bones because of David Boreanaz – Buffy and Angel; Castle because of Nathan Fillion – Buffy, Firefly, Doctor Horrible ; Suits because of Gina Torres – Firefly. You get the picture.  So I have been following Much Ado by Whedon for some time before it was even released in the US. I’ve been stocking IMDB to find out when it was showing, checking the blog to see when there were theaters within driving distance for me to see it. And trying to wrangle my friends to get a time when we could go as a group (the last part sort of failed but I did have a companion for the 2.5 hour drive to the nearest theater showing the film). Needless to say I finally saw the film.

The film was delightful.Much Ado_Whedon

But as I have mentioned I have been doing some anxious waiting, which for me means that I am reading articles and bugging friends about them.  One article in particular struck my interest, Drunk One-Night Stands Don’t Fit in Shakespeare’s World, by Gina Dalfonzo.  It articulates some real concerns about Whedon’s choice of showing a drunken tryst between Beatrice and Benedict. Having not seen the film yet I was only left with my own feelings on the subject and this article, which I happened to agree with.  A one-night stand doesn’t fit not with Much Ado! Isn’t the whole point of the ado about Hero’s supposed unfaithfulness?  One of the points that Dalfonzo makes that is compelling is the idea of maidenhood.  We don’t use that word now a days but the idea of purity and what it means to be pure cannot have changed that much?  Could it?A081_C005_1017RU

Now Dalfonzo’s article alludes to an interview with Whedon some weeks earlier.  As I read the interview I came to see Whedon’s point of view. (Here is a little glimpse to some of the questions asked of Whedon concerning the idea of a sexual relationship between Beatrice and Benedict)

Did you worry that there would be any tension between that sexual history and the central tragedy of the play, in which Hero’s virtue is sullied so badly that even her own father wants her dead?

No, these people sort of have license to do whatever they want, and then when they suddenly turn on Hero, it’s a very ugly moment. I believe that Claudio and Leonato’s pain is genuine. They feel betrayed by someone they trusted.

So the crime is less the sex per se–the virtue in the classical sense–than it is the perceived disloyalty and deceit.

Exactly. I remember the first time I saw a production of the play, I didn’t really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding. Which, you know, I still believe in modern times.

 I agree that there was some relationship between Benedict and Beatrice.  No, one is questioning that, but the nature of the relationship is. Whedon even says, “There are some lines in the text that indicate it [sexual relationship], but there are some lines that contradict it.” As I watched Whedon’s Beatrice deliver her lines, I felt them as the stabbing pains of bitterness and regret.  It may have been a drunken affair but she felt something for him and she regretted not only the affair but that the thing between them was apparently over. She thought he didn’t love her. So she masks her shame and guilt with laughter and wit. And she does so quiet well.  Benedict masks his pain and regret in much the same way.  Thus, Whedon’s pair of lovers are able to be so easily persuaded by their informants because they actually want their love to be requited and their guilt alleviated through an honest relationship. 

It is clear that Dalfonzo was looking for the “virtue in the classical sense” in the interpretation of Much Ado.  Yet,Whedon bypassed that concept entirely. Why? Well, oddly enough it is not Whedon who explains this or even Dalfonzo, it is the interviewer.  In response to Whedon’s, “which, you know, I still believe in modern times”, the interview state,”Yeah, I hope we can continue to keep the bar at that level.”   When I read that I had to do a double take.  Where was the bar sat exactly? “I didn’t really understand the whole idea that she had to be a virgin; I understood that she had to not be sleeping with someone else the night before her wedding.”  The bar was set based on the inability to understand the virtue of virginity. If we miss the concept of that virtue than we have to find another virtue and Whedon did an admirable job of finding the next best virtue – loyalty and honesty.  Yet the virtues of loyalty and honesty would in fact lead to the virtue of virginity, because a woman/man would want to be loyal and honest with her/his spouse (future spouse, as well) therefore she/he would not want to sleep around and thus be discredited as being disloyal and unfaithful.  But in “modern times” the bar has been set as low as don’t sleep around on the night before you’re married and the virtue of virginity is lost. 

I find the merits of Whedon’s interpretation within the disagreement of Dalfonzo’s critique and Whedon’s interview. Modern times.  Dalfonzo would say that even in a modern interpretation one cannot have an affair and fit it into Shakespeare, but Whedon did and I think it worked.  I don’t like it – not on artistic grounds or even interpretation.  I don’t like it because I am morally apposed to it.  I value the classical sense of virtue and purity – the virtue of virginity.  I also recognize that Whedon and most of the world is coming from a perspective of misunderstanding – post sexual revolution, where virginity has become something archaic and fool of oppression.

Yet even with this view of sexuality in mind, Whedon still presents a strong case for purity until marriage, which is not based on a moral code.  Beatrice and Benedict’s tryst had consequences.  No, they weren’t publicly shamed as Hero was for her supposed unmaiden like behavior, but they were part of their own private shame that ate away at them. You could see it in their glances, tone of voice, attitude concerning Hero’s shame.  Beatrice’s wit becomes her weapon to bring shame on Benedict, while he acts like nothing happened.  But his behavior is just as much a mask as is seen when he declares “I cannot endure my Lady Tongue.” He too is hurt and shamed but does not know what to do. Seeing their misery, is proof that having an affair- drunken or not – is not worth the pain that it breeds. 

Another coupling that also speaks volumes about purity being a good thing is Don John and Conrade (in Whedon’s film Conrade is a woman).  In the first major scene with Don John, he and Donrade are rather sensual and clearly about to enjoy one another when Borachio steps in. At first I was not comfortable with the scene, but I got to thinking.  Isn’t that the point.  Here are two persons who have no regard for anyone but themselves.  Don John is the villain and Conrade is only as good as she can entertain him.  Don John in fact abandons her when it is convenient. Their behavior concerning sexuality and propriety are a reflection of their natures, which we see at once are evil and cruel. 

Much Ado

On a side note, if I taught a Shakespeare class I’d probably show Whedon’s version over Branagh’s, because of the above argument.  The question of virtue  and what is virtuous is compelling and necessary for us in modern times to understand the disparity in concepts of virtues in culture.  And of course Whedon’s film is delightful.  It was great to see so many actors from Whedon’s other shows and movies.  It was like watching a reunion of sorts. There were some many things about the film that were beautiful and artistically pleasing – the black and white film, the landscape, the costumes. 

“IN IT BUT NOT OF IT”: CHRISTIAN VIRTUE IN A CORRUPT WORLD

This is a talk I gave to the SE District Conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America in Gainesville, FL, Feb. 23, 2012.   I think it has relevance for all of us who write–or read–literature (or any other art form) in today’s world.

“IN IT BUT NOT OF IT”:

MAINTAININIG CHRISTIAN VIRTUE IN A CORRUPT WORLD

I would like to speak today on a difficult and controversial topic: the Christian and Entertainment.  At the risk of not being entertaining, I would ask you to entertain in your minds the even more basic issue which is logically prior:  The Christian and his relationship to the world in which he is called to live and to which he is called to minister, a world that throws a lot more at us than just “entertainment.”  How do we maintain Christian virtue in a corrupt and corrupting world, one which is dangerous to us but which we must know and touch in order to reach?  I want to look at three passages which are foundational to any biblical view of these issues, make some simple observations about their teaching, and then try to draw some general conclusions from them.

I.  IN BUT NOT OF (John 17:14-15).

”I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.  I do not ask thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.”

This passage is where we get the formula “in the world but not of it.”  I have three observations about this passage: what is forbidden in it, what is often attempted in response to it instead, and what is actually commanded by it.

What is forbidden are, by implication, two approaches to the world:  identification with it and isolation from it. We are to be “not of” the world (hence identification), but Jesus does not want us removed from it (hence isolation).  Now, there is a sense in which we do identify with the world.  We identify with it in its need and in its suffering, as our Lord modeled for us when he accepted a Baptism for the remission of sins which he did not personally need.  But we do not find our identity in the world, we do not allow it to define us, and we do not allow ourselves to be forced into its mold (Rom. 12:1).  In that sense, we identify not with the world but with Christ.  He defines us, he transforms us, and we find our identity in him.

Unfortunately, the easiest way to avoid identification with the world is to try to withdraw from it as much as possible, that is, to practice isolation from the world.  We create our own little Christian ghetto and withdraw within its borders so we will not be corrupted.  We Evangelicals think our Fundamentalist forebears had a problem with this, but we don’t.  I wonder if we have just made our response more subtle?   We write our own music and books and create our own TV, most of which somehow turn out to be strangely cheap imitations of what the world is doing but without the grosser forms of immorality.  But this is a false approach, and Christ makes it clear he does not mean us to take it, both by his prayer here and by his example, hanging out with publicans and sinners and scandalizing the religious conservatives of his day.

Somehow we must be “in” and “not of” at the same time.  But that is difficult.  What we often attempt is the much easier task of taking one of the two prepositions in isolation from the other.  It requires no effort at all to be “in” the world; the path of least resistance will suffice to accomplish that most efficiently.  And, while it requires more effort, it is also possible to be “not of” the world.  Here we create our (partially) insulated parallel universe, with borders guarded by ever-increasing lists of Rules.  “We don’t cuss, drink, smoke or chew, / and we don’t go with girls that do.”  But we can pursue either of these prepositions in the flesh.  We do not have in ourselves either the wisdom or the strength to be “in” and “not of” at the same time.  That requires the wisdom and the power of God; that requires discernment and dying to self.  And so, of course, it is not to be thought of by half-hearted Christians; and so it is seldom seen.

Yet that is precisely what is commanded:  not isolated prepositions in the flesh, but the integration of the two prepositions in the Spirit.  But how can we do that?  A good question: it leads us to the next verse.

II.  WHATEVER IS TRUE (Phil. 4:8)

”Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”

My observation about this verse is a question:  What kind of command is it? Answer:  it is a positive command.  It is about what we are positively supposed to dwell on.  But what interests me is the fact that in our application of it we have almost universally turned it into a negative command, about what we are not supposed to read, watch, or listen to:  “Oh, this is impure, so I’d better stay away from it!”  Why have we managed to be so inattentive to what the Text actually says?  We do it because the negative approach is easier.  It is easier to boycott all movies (or all movies of a certain rating) than to use discernment; it is easier to swear off of “secular” music or “rock” than to listen critically to what the world is actually saying through these media, understand with empathy the cries of its lost voices, but then choose the good, and dwell on that.

I repeat:  this verse says not one word about what we cannot read, watch, or listen to.  It says not a single word about what we must turn a blind eye to, pretend isn’t there, or be ignorant of.  It says a lot about what we should nourish and feed our minds on.  Contrary to the T-shirt, Nietzsche isn’t peachy; he is actually very preachy, and what he is preaching is straight from the Pit.  But he has been very influential and he is important, and even in his evil he can teach us some things.  Therefore I was not disobeying this passage when I read him, even though he is rightly described by none of the adjectives (except possibly “excellent,” in the sense of “outstanding”) that the verse recommends.  But that is not the kind of thing I feed my mind on constantly.  On the other hand, I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings twice in 1968, the year I discovered it, and have read it annually since.  That is what the verse is talking about!

I am not saying that there is nothing that is so raw, so evil, so corrupting that we should not expose ourselves to it.  There is unfortunately plenty of material out there of which these things are true, including but not limited to pornography. What I am pointing out is that our main strategy for dealing with these problems is too often negative, while the Bible’s is positive.  And I am pointing out that understanding this truth makes Phil. 4:8 the answer to the dilemma raised by Jesus’ words in John 17.  How do we live “in” the world without becoming “of” it?  Do not focus primarily on what you can not read, watch, or listen to.  Do not use ignorance as the path to safety!   Rather, really feed your mind on what is Good, True, and Beautiful, and then it will respond rightly to the rest.

III.  HANDLE, TASTE, TOUCH?  (Col. 2:20-23)

”If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’  . . . . These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

It is not just that the negative approach is less valuable than the positive one I have recommended (and Paul commanded).  The Apostle says here that the negative approach is of no value at all!  Why?  Because you can abstain not only from Rock but also from Country (all those “cheatin’ songs”!)–hey, Mozart and Wagner were supposed to be immoral people, so we’d better abstain from Classical too—and what about all those divorces?–better add Contemporary Christian to the list.  You can abstain from everything except the Psalms in the original Hebrew sung to Gregorian Chant, and still be proud, envious, wrathful, slothful, greedy, gluttonous, and lustful.  The absence of the Evil (or even of the Questionable) simply does not equate to the presence of the Good (or of Virtue).  A negative photograph of the “world” is not necessarily a positive portrait of Jesus.

O.K., so what does work?  What is of value?  Phil. 4:8.  The cornerstone of our approach to being in the world but not of it, i.e., to maintaining Christian virtue in a corrupt world, should not be all the things we do not read, watch, or listen to.  It should be a mind really fed on and nurtured by the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as we find them in Scripture and in the best of the Christian and classical traditions.  You cannot keep the “impure” out of your mind.  But you can keep the fresh, pure mountain spring water of Scripture and the rest that is good flowing strongly through it, so that the impure is constantly being washed away.  And that is the only way to keep it pure.

CONCLUSION:

I often ask my Composition students to write an essay on “Why I came to Toccoa Falls College.”  It’s slightly less boring than “What I did on my Summer Vacation,” and besides, I want to know.  Over the years the results have been very consistent. The one answer that I get more than all other answers combined is, “To escape the evil influence of the secular university.”  This has always troubled me, and in preparing for this message I realized more clearly why.  It is a negative answer, not a positive one.  We came to a Christian college to hide.  Why hasn’t anybody ever given the answer I’m looking for: “Because Toccoa Falls is the West Point for Christian Soldiers.”  If there is anyone reading this who has that mentality and who is considering college, I want you in my classes next Fall!  So I want you to understand:  If you came to a Christian college, or to a Christian day school, or to your church to hide in the Christian ghetto, this is not the mentality of Conquerors for Christ, but of people who are defeated already before they ever enter the battle.  Christians are not called to be afraid of the world or ignorant of it; they are called to be different from it.

Understanding this, Milton asked, “What wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbear, without the knowledge of evil?  He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer what is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian.”  And he therefore concludes, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies forth to face her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

What shall we say, then?  Feed your mind on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as we find them in Scripture and in the best of the Christian and classical traditions, and then it will respond properly to the rest.  Develop uncloistered virtue: positive, discerning, unafraid.  Then we may say with Bunyan’s Pilgrim, “Apollyon, beware what you do; for I am in the King’s highway, the way of holiness; therefore take heed to thyself.”  And the gates of Hell will not prevail against us.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of NE Georgia.  An ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, he has spent many years in pastoral ministry and several summers training local pastors in Uganda and Kenya for Church Planting International.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  His website is http://doulomen.tripod.com.

Merely A Wanderer – Part IV – The Beauty of Virtue

Just as there are a myriad of versions of the Beauty and the Beast story found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tradition of writing and retelling of the story has continued.  A decent modern version, which stays within the bounds of the more traditional version of the fairytale, is Robin McKinley’s Beauty.  Many of the essential points of the plot that are seen in Madame Le Prince de Beaumont’s popular version come to life with McKinley’s telling. Beauty is the youngest of three sisters. Their father is a merchant who has fallen on hard times.  He goes to see if he can improve their fortunes.  Beauty asks for a rose while her sisters ask for jewels.  Their father returns with only a rose and a tale of a great and terrible Beast that demands the life of one of his daughters in exchange for his life.  Beauty, in a show of exceptional character, goes to the Beast in order to save her father’s life.  Beauty learns to love the Beast, and when she agrees to marry him willingly, the curse is broken.  So the story goes.

Beaumont’s version reveals the jealousy and vanity of the sisters, which could be the undoing of Beauty.  However, McKinley’s version shows a different side to the sisters.  Beauty is not the exceptionally beautiful one; she is rather plain compared to her sisters and particularly practical.  Beauty’s sisters are kind, sweet and very loving.  If anything, their love for Beauty is nearly her undoing.  McKinley’s version of the story focuses on the depth of love and self-sacrifice that one comes to expect in the story of Beauty and the Beast, but McKinley does not give that virtue only to Beauty.

In some respects, by giving all of the characters in the story noble personalities, there is really no adversary but the immaterial magician who cursed the Beast and perhaps each individual’s own weakness of self-doubt and loss. McKinley’s characters are the good hardworking sort that take pride in honest work.  They are a stellar example of a loving, strong family that can and do weather the storm because they love each other and will work for each other.   However, this makes Beauty’s sacrifice even more powerful.  She sacrifices all that is good and gentle and gives up great love to go to a vast and frightening unknown that is the Beast’s castle.

Yet, Beauty is still the fairytale character. Her Christian name in McKinley’s book is Honour and as an ironic nickname, she is called Beauty, even though she is particularly plain. But her names are important to her character:  “Beauty is selfless, and perhaps that is why she has no name, she is nameless.  All girls are supposed to become ‘beauties,’ i.e. selfless and nameless” (Zipes, Fairytale as Myth 33).  Beauty is honourable.  She is good; she is honest; she is self-sacrificial; she is dutiful to a fault.  Beauty must be these things in order to fulfill her part in the fairytale.  She demonstrates that through doing as she is told, and sacrificing her own desire in the process; she will obtain her desire through her obedience:

The justification of Beauty’s right to marry is part of a series of discourse on manners that constitute the major theme of the tale: virtuous behavior is true beauty, and only true beauty will be rewarded, no matter what class you are. Beauty (and other characters as well) are tested throughout the tale to determine whether they can tame their unruly feelings (desire, greed, envy, and so forth) and become civilized…Beauty  always chooses to fulfill her obligations rather than follow her heart. Although it does turn out that, by fulfilling her obligations, her heart is rewarded, it is plain to see that her destiny depends on self-denial that, she comes to believe, is a wish-fulfillment. (Zipes, Fairytales as Myth 30)

This is a story about learning how to love properly and in its proper time. Beauty goes from being an unwilling bride to a willing one.

The story also has implications concerning appearance and the shallowness of only being able to look skin deep.  Beauty is by definition beautiful; however, even if she were plain as in McKinley’s version, what gives Beauty her beauty is actually her character.  Beauty would not be able to love the Beast if he did not show the virtue of a good heart – kindness, gentleness, self-sacrifice.  The Beast is ugly because of an enchantment.  He may have had a dark soul, which was why he was enchanted to begin with, but by the time Beauty arrives in the story, the Beast has reformed for the most part and is only waiting for someone to love the beastly appearance so that the man beneath can return.

McKinley’s story continues to provide the motif of the restoration tale and the rise tale.  The Beast is restored to his former self through the trials and sacrifices of Beauty, and Beauty is elevated through her great love and devotion from a merchant’s daughter to a queen. Oddly enough, in the later incarnations of the story, the trials of Beauty are her separation from her family and not so much the separation from her lover.  The Beast’s trials are not so much the mistrustful actions of his beloved, but his own failings – pride, arrogance, violence, or infidelity.  The trials become internal struggles that demand great virtue to overcome.  These virtues – strength, honour, grace, love, prudence – are the lesson that the hearer of the tale should take with them when the tale it done.  The story is proof of the triumph of virtue over adversity.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is one of the best retelling of the the Beauty and the Beast story.  It is good, wholesome, and shows the promise of living out the cardinal virtues that everyone should abide by.   This is a young-adult read and if the child is old enough to read something like Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia, than he is old enough to read Beauty.