The Masked Truth

September 24, 1996
Engl 305

Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing and Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing incorporate the illusion of masks to illustrate the juxtaposition of the characters’ inner and outer feelings towards one another. Whereas the film shows the masks embodying the characters’ true feelings through visible masks, it is the language of Shakespeare’s written play where these inner and outer feelings are reversed.

In both the written play and the movie, the masking takes place in Act 2, scene 3. In the film version, we see the characters choosing masks from a tree to hide themselves for the party. Although their selection of masks seems arbitrary, each mask represents the true nature beneath the deceiving outside. There are four masks that best illustrate the idea of how actual masks are used in the film to represent the true-inner feelings of the characters. These are worn by Benedick, Beatrice, Borachio and Don John.

Benedick’s mask is round and childish and this child-like quality is further emphasized by his ridiculous lisping accent which he uses to speak to Beatrice, during the masquerade, so he is not unmasked. This masking suggests two things. First this mask suggests the general good humor that Benedick has, always being the joker and ladies’ man. On the other hand, it shows us the true nature behind Benedict as being immature. Underneath the tough macho exterior Benedick is nothing but a scared little boy who wants nothing more than to be in love — and be in love with Beatrice.
During the rest of the film his friends help Benedick into this belief by coaxing his love for Beatrice out into the open. The scene following the masquerade is important to his mask because we are told what qualities he defines love as having. These traits, found in a lady, include fairness (physically attractive), witty, rich, and intelligent (Shakespeare 2.3. 27-33) and are the exact qualities which Beatrice mirrors. When the “real” masquerade is unveiled at the end of the screenplay, then do both lovers admit to the feelings of love they share for one another.

Beatrice wears a cat-face which symbolizes her intelligence, wit and quick pounce of the tongue. In this scene, she is quick to recognize the truth beneath the masked Benedict and uses this knowledge to her benefit, teasing and taunting him to see what his desires really are. However, being the proud and quick tongued cat-woman she is, she is too proud to admit her love to Benedick. She is afraid to lose the battle of wits to a man, and that is why the other characters must coax her feelings into the open as well.

Both masks are white suggesting the purity of not only the exterior characterizations of Beatrice and Benedick, but as an ideal of the perfect love-match. This ideal is further reinforced by the traditional associations with the color white, defined by The Dictionary of Superstitions as being a color of “purity and virginity” (Lasne and Gaultier 4). Benedick and Beatrice are truly sick with love and the white physical masks allow them to converse freely. However, the masks do not obscure the personality completely, for each knows that the other is hidden beneath and although the masks free the inhibitions between them, it does so with a bit of constraint.

The next two masks are worn by Borachio and Don John and they suggest that a more subtle nature lies behind the men. Borachio’s mask is red and has three eyes. The Dictionary of Superstitions defines the eye as “‘a mirror of the soul'” and “[it was symbolic of] knowledge and supernatural perception” (Lasne and Gaultier 203). Throughout the play, it is Borachio who brings Don John all his information on the love affairs in the house. Branagh uses a third eye in Borachio’s mask to symbolize this correlation between sight and supernatural insight into all the events of the play.

On the other hand, Don John wears a traditional Renaissance bird mask. This mask hints at the presence of a evil or dangerous person and since Don John is portrayed as an evil person, his mask mirrors this quality exactly. Like his bird mask, Don John becomes the symbol of a bird of prey and he uses the happiness of Claudio and Hero to draw his strength and control them. For, he is constantly battling his brother and takes every chance he has to thwart the marriage between Claudio and Hero.

What is interesting to note, is that the masks worn by Borachio and Don John are red. The Dictionary of Superstitions defines the color red as being “linked to the demonic and Hell” as well as “blood and fire” (Lasne and Gaultier 6). Since the two antagonists in the plot wish to destroy Claudio and Hero’s marriage, the red colored masks are a visible warning to the other characters and to the audience as well.

Shakespeare’s written version of Much Ado About Nothing utilizes the concept of masks in almost the same way the screenplay does. In addition to pointing out the truth beneath the character’s surface, Shakespeare uses language as his tool to juxtapose these feelings, switching the meaning around so that the connotations are what illuminate the truth as opposed to the deceptive denotations. Benedick puts it best when he states, “there’s a double meaning in that” (Shakespeare 2.3.237). This is the exact masking technique Shakespeare employs to capture the truth beneath the surface of the characters. For, everything that is spoken by the characters’ holds a deeper or double meaning beneath the words.

The best illustration of this juxtaposition masking is the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Their incessant banter and wit-battles mask what true feelings each has for the other. For example, in the masquerade scene, Beatrice tells Benedick, “Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull Fool. … I would he had boarded me” (Shakespeare 2.1.122 and 127-128).

The above example illustrates how Shakespeare uses the language to obstruct and illuminate what Beatrice really wants. She really does not believe that Benedick is a “jester” or a “Fool,” yet that is what the audience and Benedick are led to believe. As was stated above, she is too proud to admit her true feeling lest Benedick get the best of her, as he has done in the past, and therefore this statement justifies her comparison of Benedick to the Fool.

However, the metaphor within the second statement, “I wish he had boarded me,” gives the audience quite a different picture of what Beatrice really wants. The words tell the truth of her affection for Benedick, and the pirate metaphor lends its lewd comment to the fact that she desires him. This juxtapositioning, then, of twisting the language so that one statement means the opposite and vice versa is how Shakespeare creates his masks.

Qualities of good and evil are also juxtaposed in the same way. Therefore, identifying Don John as an evil man becomes a harder task because the written text has no descriptions and stage directions to direct the audience’s beliefs towards who is the antagonist and who is the protagonist. However, it is through the other characters’ impressions and language where we are told about Don John’s true personality.

There are several cases in the play where the characters refer to Don John as being “of an melancholy disposition” (Shakespeare 2.1.5). Melancholy is usually associated with depression and unhappiness and this description fits Don John personality perfectly. Combined with metaphors and allusions to birds of prey, such as “stalk on, stalk on; the fowl sits” (2.3. 90-91) which translates into the baiting on of a person like a bird(in Benedick’s case or any of the other characters used in the play for Don John’s amusement), Shakespeare cues us and his audience into Don John’s true nature. Connected back to Branagh’s use of the bird of prey mask for John, these metaphors become the his(written) mask.

Branagh’s use of physical masks in the screenplay give the characters boundaries. The masks are subtle tags that define each character’s roles and show us how these roles are to be enacted. Without the use of the visible masks in the screenplay, Branagh would not have had the means to show the audience how the characters’ appearance can be deceiving. In contrast, Shakespeare uses language as his tool to juxtapose these feelings, so that the audience learns that what is spoken hides the truth instead of illuminating it. Both the screenplay and the written text utilize the scene of the masquerade and the idea of masking as a way to expose the characters’ true appearances and intentions by using deception to reveal the truth beneath. This scene, in turn, prepares us for the upcoming events by telling us who can and cannot be trusted.

Works Cited
Lasne, Sophe and Andre Pascal Gualtier. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Trans. Amy Reynolds. Englewood Cliffs : Prentice, 1984 (facsimile copy).