“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” These words are spoken by Beatrice near the beginning of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, when she is reunited with Benedick, a man whom it is hinted she had been romantically involved with in the past. Shakespeare never gives us any details of Beatrice and Benedick’s history together and in this new novel, Marina Fiorato imagines how they may have met, what could have led to their separation and what brought them together again.
As the novel begins in the summer of 1588, Beatrice, the daughter of Prince Escalus of Verona, is visiting Messina in Sicily, staying at the home of her uncle Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Sicily is under Spanish rule and Leonato is preparing to welcome a party of Spaniards to the island, including the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, who is accompanied by his two young Italian friends, Claudio and Benedick. Claudio instantly falls in love with Leonato’s beautiful daughter, Hero, while Beatrice and Benedick are also attracted to each other – but are unable to admit it, preferring to trade insults instead. Just as they begin to acknowledge their love for each other, the two are torn apart with Beatrice heading home to Verona and Benedick joining Don Pedro and Claudio at sea as the Spanish Armada sets out to invade England. Eventually they will all meet again in Messina, setting the scene for the events of Much Ado About Nothing…
Well, this book was a surprise! I had expected a light, gentle romantic comedy, but what I got was an entertaining and often quite dark historical adventure novel filled with duels, pageants and puppet shows, sea voyages, mutinies and treasure troves. Like a play, the novel is divided into Acts and Scenes, each Scene narrated by either Beatrice or Benedick. The voices of the two narrators were very similar and I thought more effort could have been made to make them more distinctive, but otherwise I liked the way the novel was structured. I wondered whether Fiorato would be able to pull off the wars of words between Beatrice and Benedick, but I think she did this very well – although Benedick doesn’t seem as quick-witted as Beatrice and usually comes off worst in their encounters.
I know there are some readers who are not interested in prequels, sequels or rewritings of any kind (and actually, I usually am one of those readers) but I enjoyed this one and thought it was very cleverly done, with Shakespeare’s characters and storylines woven perfectly into the history of the period. There are also some elements and characters from other plays, most notably Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Fiorato even manages to incorporate Shakespeare himself into the novel – if you’re not already aware of the theories connecting Shakespeare with Sicily I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!
You don’t really need to be familiar with Much Ado About Nothing as this book does work as a straightforward historical fiction novel, but you will get more out of it if you do read (or watch) the play either before you start or after you finish. As for the historical aspects of the novel, it was interesting to learn about Spanish-ruled Sicily and the fate of the Moors who lived there. I also loved all the beautiful descriptions of both Messina and Verona.
Having enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick so much more than I’d expected to, are there any other Shakespeare-inspired novels you would recommend?