Part II of PlayShakespeare's interview with actress Lauren Sowa.
Like Desdemona in Othello, Hero of Much Ado About Nothing has her romantic relationship put in jeopardy when she is falsely accused of unfaithfulness and lasciviousness; unlike Desdemona, she manages to escape being murdered in her bed for her alleged transgressions, and since she has the good fortune of starring in a comedy, everything gets more or less resolved by the end of the play. For the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production, running opposite their Othello, Lauren Sowa reprises her role as professional slander-ee. When I asked her about her approach to playing Hero, she explained the difficulties of making this comparison of characters explicit by performing the shows in tandem:
There’s a specific challenge with doing shows in rep because not only are you exploring two characters, but the audience potentially is going to come see two shows, and they want to see range within the ensemble of actors as well. And I have the specific challenge of playing two characters that are very similar – I mean, they’re very different, but they’re similar types.
In addition to their parallel plots, Desdemona and Hero share similar backgrounds as well – being the only daughters of Italian gentlemen, for example. However, another obstacle Sowa discovered in distinguishing the two characters in consecutive productions arises from a way they do notably differ, their prominence in the text:
[Hero is] incredibly important to the play, in that the play really wouldn’t happen without the whole plot to destroy Hero and Claudio’s marriage, but she’s more [...] talked about in the play than she is present physically, and so my challenge as Hero is really to find how I can tell that story and her journey without dialogue in a lot of places. And so yeah, as an actor, I think I take away from Much Ado much more of an exercise in listening and in creating behavior outside of text.
Unlike Desdemona, who is given the chance to justify her place in the plot by pleading her own case and acting on her own natural inclinations (subsequently twisted by Iago), Hero speaks less often and has fewer scenes solely focusing on her. Her romance has none of the epic nature of a star-cross’d love, and in fact progresses with relative calm until Don John gets involved; she doesn’t even get to participate in being framed, her place taken by her unwitting body-double Margaret. Her character is not as naturally compelling as Desdemona’s, and it might seem there are simply fewer opportunities for Sowa to distinguish the two.
However, while Hero’s backstory is not as dramatic as her counterpart’s, she is far from boring; there is plenty of room for characterization, even in a relatively compressed role. Sowa takes these challenges and incorporates them into her characterization of Hero:
I do feel Hero is more of a girl. Because she is young [...] I think she’s a little bit shy, even though she’s very... playful, and she’s outgoing – but I think she’s very shy when it comes to Claudio, and to love. And I think that’s why she doesn’t speak very much. There’s a great scene where Don Pedro says, “I’ve wooed Hero for you, Claudio!” and he doesn’t know what to say, and he says, “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy.” And then he essentially says “I love you, I’ll be yours,” and... [she doesn’t] say anything. Beatrice is like, “Speak, cousin!” and I just think she’s sort of overwhelmed.
Unlike her fully adult Desdemona, Sowa’s Hero is young and unsure of her place in the world, and seizing upon the ability to express joy through silence is a welcome solution for her uncertainty in articulating her emotions. This reserve is far from persistent; the production opens with her singing “Sigh No More” accompanied by Beatrice and the Friar, and she does not hesitate to speak when the situation calls for it. But Hero is frequently found lurking comfortably in the background of many scenes, especially when Claudio is involved: either pining eagerly for him at the beginning of the play, standing off with him in a semi-secluded corner during their engagement, or watching him from afar as he lays flowers at her temporary tomb. At this last occasion, silent joy is far from appropriate, and so she sings a wordless counterpoint to his mourning hymn. Though the production expands Hero’s role by the simple expedient of having her onstage more often, Sowa’s performance keeps it from seeming inorganic.
Unlike Desdemona, who apart from her husband ends up separated from any previous close confidants, Hero has a much larger support network, and Sowa takes advantage of Hero’s interactions with her friends and family to reveal her personality outside her romance. When I asked her if she considered the interactions between the lead female characters in the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Much Ado to be as close as the relationship of those in their production of Othello, she said,
It’s funny, because they are family, but [...] there’s a lot of teasing that happens within the show, and I think Beatrice holds [...] her cards pretty close to her chest. She sort of defends herself with her wit, and Hero I think much more wears her heart on her sleeve, and so those two energies don’t necessarily lend themselves to confiding in each other.
As opposed to the “fast bonding” Sowa describes as having occurred between Desdemona and Emilia, Hero and Beatrice have had plenty of time to experience sisterly irritation as well as love towards each other. Sowa’s interpretation of Hero’s interactions with her family – and her accompanying exasperation – are some of her most enjoyable moments in establishing Hero’s personality quirks. She greets Beatrice’s frequent sallies of wit with an eyeroll as often as with a laugh, and takes great delight in turning the tables to pull a prank on her. Similarly, while Hero clearly loves her father, she is extremely frustrated when he urges her to accept what they think is Don Pedro’s marriage proposal; her behavior towards the prince at the masquerade (before she finds out he’s intervening on Claudio’s behalf) is very much the letter of the law approach to encouraging his suit, as she attempts to avoid him or make him avoid her with her pointed sauciness. The character of Hero is not as rebellious and well-spoken as Desdemona, nor as witty and audacious as Beatrice, but Sowa makes sure she is not wholly lacking in these qualities, either; while more conventional than many Shakespearean heroines, she is not merely conventional.
While Sowa focused on keeping Hero and Desdemona as distinct characters, the shared elements of the plot elicit some similar reactions from the two. In reference to the wedding scene in Much Ado where Claudio repudiates Hero, Sowa said, “It feels very similar to me to the scene where Othello is saying ‘What, are you not a whore?’ [...] and emotionally, it resonates in me in a similar place.” This apparently caused some convergence, where her performances influenced one another:
I remember there was one day when we were working on the wedding scene, and Dominic our director was like, “Lauren, I loved what you were doing, there was so much strength there today!” And I think we had just come from a school show of Othello, and I couldn’t help but think, “Well, I think that’s a little bit of Desdemona bleed-over.”
The wedding scene is where Sowa’s two characters seem the most similar. Hero is as shocked and appalled at the accusations against her as Desdemona, as staunch in her own defense, and as determined not to lose her (almost-) husband’s love, beseeching Claudio with soft touches when her words fail to help.
However, though a transference of Desdemona’s strength would not be out of place, Sowa has successfully differentiated the characters enough that their similar reactions have arrived from very different places, and one of her most clever choices for Hero’s character also helps the entire play resonate for a modern audience. In contrast to Othello, where Iago deliberately stirs the characters to the most tragic ending possible, the stakes in Much Ado are somewhat lower: while Don John may want to destroy his brother, he’ll settle for embarrassing him and Claudio; likewise, Claudio wants to shame Hero for her alleged betrayal, but not kill her. However, this gives the audience plenty of opportunity to meditate on the culture gap between Elizabethan England and today, where Hero’s purported loss of virginity is as great a crime as her infidelity and Claudio’s public excoriation of her seems incredibly disproportionate.
The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre helps offset this by setting their production in a nearly equally conservative post-World War II Europe, but Sowa bridges the gap further by showing that Hero herself has internalized these values. She is by far the most conscientiously well-mannered person in the play, whether primly arranging the flowers just so for the masquerade, or becoming affronted at Beatrice’s cynical or Margaret’s sexual asides about the opposite sex. Claudio’s (and subsequently her own father’s) attacks on her honor are devastating, but it is her reaction afterwards that is most intriguing. As the Friar outlines his plan to clear her name, she carefully sets her posture and begins reclaiming her poise; however, at the news that she may never recover her “wounded reputation” she physically recoils in horror, a loss of control last seen when she literally passed out from stress. A happy resolution is necessary to appease the moral code not just of Messina (or Elizabethan England), but of Hero as well.
The play itself supports the importance of her strong moral sense: besides the obvious pun in her name, the epitaph on her tomb (“Done to death by slanderous tongues / Was the Hero that here lies: / Death, in guerdon of her wrongs, / Gives her fame which never dies”) would not be out of place commemorating some fallen warrior, and Claudio’s mourning song calls her the “virgin knight”. Hero’s efforts to restore her honor are framed as a valiant exploit equal to, if not greater than, the shame rained down upon her by actual soldiers Claudio and Don Pedro in their misguided attempts to preserve their own honor.
By the end of the play, both Hero’s honor and her love have been challenged; her resolution requires that neither be sacrificed to the other. Sowa discussed Hero’s personal growth by the end of Much Ado:
[Hero and Claudio] have been through a traumatic experience together, and the fact that Hero still chooses to be with him after that shaming speaks to a growth in her maturity. [...] At the [Shakespeare] Forum [the New York-based artistic collective and outreach program] we always say, “Love is the strongest choice.” And as frustrating as that can be sometimes, as a modern woman, where it’s like, “No, but you hurt me, and now I’m pissed!” that’s always in the back of my head, that love – and forgiveness – is a stronger choice because it creates more harmony in the world, and I think that that is really important to these plays. At least the comedies, because they end in a place of harmony.
I mean, what are her other options, really? She marries Claudio, or she becomes a nun. At least that’s what the Friar says: he’s like, “Look, this is either going to work, and he’ll realize his mistake and he’ll want her again, or we can seclude her in a religious life.” And that’s not for Hero, I don’t think. I don’t think she’d be happy.
There is no third option for either Hero or Desdemona: they either reconcile with their husbands, or they must withdraw from society. It is this tension, where the beauty of love and forgiveness clashes with the unfair expectations and restrictions placed on women, that resides at the heart of both these plays – and many of Shakespeare’s others. He demonstrates himself that the harmony achieved at the end of Much Ado is a rare and by no means guaranteed opportunity by following it with Othello.
Shakespeare’s concerns are with the dramatic potential of social issues, and not necessarily with ways to fix them. But one cannot help but notice that there is a simple solution to Othello and Much Ado About Nothing (not to mention Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale ): listen to the woman who has been slandered and believe her defense; ignore or dismiss her at the risk of confusion, chaos, and tragedy. Shakespeare writes his fair warriors and virgin knights to be worthy of the respect of the characters in the plays, the audiences watching them, and the companies performing them. The success of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s productions of Othello and Much Ado About Nothing is certainly due in part to treating their slandered heroines with the regard they deserve.
Of course, all of Shakespeare’s characters are entitled to this consideration. If Lauren Sowa’s current performances are anything to go by, this will not be a problem:
I have this dream of playing all of the roles. I don’t know if that will happen. But a girl can dream, right?