Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
In tackling on one of Shakespeare’s most popular pairings in her latest novel, Marina Fiorato is taking a big risk. The sparring partners who dominate the action, but are really the sub-plot of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing, step forward to centre stage in her sixth novel, a sort of prequel to the play. As a fan of Fiorato’s novels since her first, The Glassblower of Murano, I had to read this one – and for me she pulled it off, producing a brilliant summer read.
When you read or see Much Ado, it is clear from the very first scene when the messenger arrives to say Don Pedro is on his way to Messina, and Beatrice enquires about Signor Mountanto, aka Benedick, that they have history.
Beatrice: He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged
Cupid at the flight; and my uncle’s fool, reading
the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged
him at the bird-bolt. (Act 1, Scene 1).
As Shakespeare makes clear above (although rather convolutedly), on their previous encounter, Benedick had abandoned Beatrice, just when everything seemed to be going their way. And no sooner do they meet again when Don Pedro arrives later in the scene, than they are sparring:
Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?
How did they get to this state of affairs? Fiorato goes back to their first meeting the previous year.
Sicily is under the control of the Spanish, and Don Pedro is courting Leonato, the Governor of Messina, amongst other Sicilian and Italian nobles – the Governor and Don Pedro have become quite close. The year is 1588 and Philip II of Spain may have need of allies in Italy.
Meanwhile, Beatrice, a Princess from Villafranca in Northern Italy, is visiting her uncle’s household as companion to Hero, his young daughter. Benedick from Padua is companion to Claudio, who is visiting his uncle, the archbishop. Not yet a soldier under Don Pedro and definitely a bit of a ladies man, when introduced to Beatrice, he palms the settebello, the winning card in a Scopa deck, into her hand. She is intrigued… This card, his token, will go back and forwards between them many a time over the next months. It’s not until dinner that he engineers an opportunity to talk to her, and they sound each other out:
‘Call you this an argument, Signor Benedick? I would never favour an acquaintance with one of my arguments on a first encounter.’
‘We must be friends, then, before I am admitted to the pleasure of disputing with you?’
‘Precisely,’ she said smartly. ‘But I prize honesty in my friends above all things and I am afraid you have not been honest with me.
I spread my hands like a conjuror, hiding nothing. ‘I have spoken plain and to the purpose. Tell me how I have erred.’
She looked down at her trencher. ‘When you said you had no profession, you did not speak truly. If you are delivering a young count to his uncle, you are a nursemaid.’
And so it goes on, their war of wit starts right from the off, yet they are quickly obsessed with each other.
Don Pedro has need of smooth-talking Italians like Benedick to help in his negotiations, and persuades him to accept the medal of St James (of Compostella), and to join his band of soldiers.
This is set against the background of Spanish-Sicilian politics. Sicily has always been one of Europe’s great meeting places and a melting pot. Many Moors had made their homes there, yet now under the Spanish, they were no longer welcome – this resonates throughout the book.
Beatrice is, as we know, a feisty and rather independent young woman, and as she realises what Spanish rule will bring Sicily, she rebels, forming a friendship with her aunt’s best friend Gugliema Crollalanza, who has some Moorish blood in her. Gugliema’s son is Florio, a writer, and Beatrice also gets to know him. Don Pedro seeing this, seeds distrust in Benedick, holding him to his oath and duty as a soldier under Spanish direction.
There is much speculation in academe about why Shakespeare chose to set so many of his plays in Italy; this is especially so in Italy itself. Theories abound, and Fiorato, who is of Italian extraction, also enjoys incorporating them into the novel together with elements from some other Shakespeare plays. This made me chuckle with recognition, but the intrusions work in context with the setting of this novel.
That politics plays such a part in this novel was unexpected and it adds a depth to the central romance that made things far more interesting. Several key events, both historical and imagined, which I shall not elucidate upon, drive the story in a different tack. The author has certainly done her research and it shows some of the key characters in a less flattering light, (but not B&B!). This aspect was rather fascinating, though it didn’t tie up so naturally with Much Ado, but that is a minor quibble.
Like the play though, the serious stuff is surrounded by glorious froth, and Fiorato makes time to give us lots of fun too. She takes lots of references from Shakespeare’s original and builds them into the story – Benedick is a ‘good trencherman’ so where better for a cross Beatrice to return the settebello card for instance. The banter and bickering is as sparkling as you’d hope for too.
The chapters alternate between Beatrice and Benedick’s points of view, and all the way though, I was imagining Ken and Em (Branagh and Thompson) as Beatrice and Benedick. That filmed version of the play, it turns out, is Fiorato’s favourite too. I had no need to picture further, being a huge fan of the film, although Branagh’s casting of Don Pedro (*swoon*) would not work with the Spanish politics portrayed in this novel.
Darker as a whole than expected, this novel is, ultimately, a comedy, because as Florio says at one point, ‘In a tragedy, everyone must die. And in a comedy, everyone must marry.’ – and you know how it ends up!
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books reviewers, and needs to return to Italy for a holiday soon!
Marina Fiorato, Beatrice and Benedick (Hodder & Stoughton, London, May 2014) 978-1848548008, Hardback, 448 pp.