historical fiction, Italy, Marina Fiorato, Messina, Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, Philip II, Romeo and Juliet, sexual mores, Shakespeare, Sicily, sixteenth century, Spain, Spanish Armada, Verona
Review: Beatrice and Benedick, by Marina Fiorato
St. Martin’s, 2014. 431 pp. $28
Beatrice, a young woman from Verona, is walking her cousin’s estate in Sicily when she sees a Moor making love to a white woman who wears an identical wedding band to his. Though at first surprised that interracial marriage is even possible, Beatrice comes away wanting a husband too, especially one who’ll desire her so powerfully. As it happens, her uncle is about to play host to Spanish noblemen representing the power that rules Sicily; joining them are Benedick and Claudio, merchants’ sons from Padua and Florence, respectively. Beatrice and Benedick fall for each other on sight, while Claudio cozies up to her cousin, Hero.
Readers familiar with Much Ado about Nothing will recognize this setup as backstory for Shakespeare’s comedy. Maybe you’ve also identified the passionate couple on the beach as Othello and Desdemona. And when you hear that Beatrice’s older brother is named Teobaldo (aka Tybalt), and that a feud between the Montecchi and Capuletti families is tearing apart Verona, you’ll know to keep an eye peeled for Romeo and Giulietta.
This bold contrivance promises a rollicking story and a bushel of grand themes: jealousy, the nature of love, the sexual double standard, how appearances deceive, split loyalties, and so forth. But Beatrice and Benedick falters from the get-go, and the narrative seldom rises above what feels ordained. It’s never easy to create tension in a well-known story, but Fiorato tries by adding plot rather than by deepening her characters. That’s a mistake.
The trouble begins with her premise, which supposes that Shakespeare was Sicilian. I might accept that notion for the two hours’ traffic of her stage if she portrayed him as a rising poet and dramatist, a charismatic figure caught up in his verse. But her ink-stained scribbler’s capacity for invention takes a distant third behind the terrible wrongs done him and his thirst for revenge. He claims the mantle of authorship solely by spouting words that have since become famous, which prompts either a wink-wink, nudge-nudge or uneasy laughter. Worse, Beatrice and Benedick quote random snippets from Guess Who and even pen sonnets from the same source. You too can write great literature in your spare time, without any practice at all!
This implausible conceit would matter a lot less if the characters, especially the men, amounted to more than a collection of attitudes, locked in place for an obvious purpose. Benedick, aside from his looks and ability with a rapier (how he learned is never adequately explained), has little to recommend him, and his pride, ideas about women, and approach to life seem handed to him rather than born from within. As the wheels turn, you sense that he’s got a long journey to make, and much ado about transforming himself, before the final drama with Beatrice takes place.
Moreover, for no good reason, he immediately embraces as great friend Don Pedro, a Spanish nobleman who wears villainy barely concealed below his charm. Yet it takes Benedick, supposedly a perceptive fellow, a very long time to get the message. Further, he does so while serving Don Pedro aboard ship in the Spanish Armada, a nod to the political theme. But the conflict between Don Pedro and Benedick could unfold anywhere, and burdening the narrative with yet another epic story–one with an inevitable ending–is too much. Maybe more to the point, Fiorato’s narrative seems to lose its moorings at sea, while it’s far more authoritative at the Spanish court, where, for example, King Philip II keeps a red-headed dwarf as a caricature of England’s Queen Elizabeth. What a fabulous scene, full of tension from unexpected undercurrents.
That leaves it up to Beatrice to save this hodgepodge, but she can’t. How she got to be so independent-minded, capable with a sword, or virtually oblivious of sex until watching Othello and Desdemona are only some of the questions I have. Her conversion to ardent feminism feels unnecessarily earnest, maybe because she doesn’t have that far to travel. Further, I’m not clear how a woman who holds feminist views (and knows how to defend herself physically) surrenders so meekly to her tyrannical father. One such surrender, however, provides what I think is the author’s best scene. Before male witnesses, a doctor brusquely examines Beatrice to prove her virginity so that a marriage contract may be drawn up. Nothing speaks more eloquently than this humiliating, abusive act, which needs no further commentary. I wish the rest of Beatrice and Benedick had shown the same directness and economy.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.