15 December 2014
“For Man is a Giddy Thing”: The Significance of “Sigh No More Ladies” in Much Ado About Nothing
In Shakespeare’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, the song “Sigh No More Ladies” has produced much controversy, especially in relation to its use in the 1993 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh. It’s use in the film is the basis of Philippa Sheppard’s article “‘Sigh no more ladies’—The Song in Much Ado About Nothing: Shakespeare and Branagh Deliver Aural Pleasure.” Sheppard argues that the song emphasizes male infidelity and the female indifference and/or ignorance of it. She claims that it is used in merry or celebratory moments in the film, which conflicts with the song’s lyrics and message, or that “[Branagh’s] own jolly treatment of the song obscures the lyrics’ bitter taste” (92). However, I feel that firstly, this song’s message goes deeper than the interpretation that women must accept the fact that men are “constant never” to one woman. I agree with Floyd Cheung’s theory that the song means to encompass everything in a man’s life: a man is “constant never” to not just women, but other men as well, and could even go so far as to include decisions and outlooks on life. Secondly, this change in character is what makes the story such an interesting combination of tragedy and comedy, and thus is fitting as it is used heavily within the film.
Shakespeare provides many examples of how the men of the story are fickle, and not just when it comes to women. When Don John is able to easily convince Claudio that Don Pedro woes Hero for himself, Claudio is heartbroken and concludes that “[f]riendship is constant in all other things / Save in the office and affairs of love” (Shakespeare 2.1.146-147). The fact that Claudio so readily accepts Don John’s accusation rather than trusts his own comrade reveals that he must not have valued his comradeship with Don Pedro very highly. What he hears from Don John supersedes his loyalty to Don Pedro instantly, just as he believes Don Pedro’s loyalty to him had been broken just as easily. It is clear that the men of Much Ado About Nothing can be just as inconstant to each other – their comrades. This peculiar unfaithfulness to his friend is part of what makes a comedy; a character so easily persuaded is easily manipulated and very gullible. This fickleness can also be central to a tragedy, as it can lead dramatic betrayals which are sometimes only caused by mere misunderstandings. Keeping either genre in mind, this character trait is essential to a successful story plot. Dynamic, rather than static, characters provide freshness and keep the readers guessing at what is coming.
A prime instance of Benedick’s fickleness concerning more than just women is when he is asked to kill Claudio, his comrade, to prove his love to Beatrice. His initial reaction is: “[n]ot for the wide world” (Shakespeare 4.1.286) – which seems like quite a stable opinion, but after a bit of arguing, Beatrice persuades Benedick to do this. This inconstancy in Benedick is what makes him so human and such an intriguing character. Many well-developed characters are created that remain constant throughout a work of literature, but it is those who change that become the most compelling. To quote Cheung, “change makes reconciliation possible.” By the end of the play, Benedick has adhered to beliefs almost entirely opposite to his own at the beginning of the play. I think the song, “Sigh No More Ladies,” reflects this inconstancy of beliefs, not just women, because at the end of the film, the song is sung jovially as all the characters as they dance around, right after Benedick proclaims his love for Beatrice and announces his new opinions on marriage and love. I believe that Branagh did this to relate man’s fickleness to all things, including one’s values.
There is a song titled “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons which explores this theory. It includes quotes from the play including “sigh no more” and “one foot in sea, one on shore” as well as another, “For man is a giddy thing” (Shakespeare 5.4.112), which is not in the song but is spoken by Benedick at the end of the play. This last phrase is repeated four times in the song, implying that it may be more closely related to the original song, “Sigh No More Ladies,” than previously thought. It is meant to emphasize that man, or more broadly, mankind, changes it’s mind frequently. Even if one had sworn to be devoted to an idea or a belief or even a person, these things may change in time as a result of conflicting desires, the dwindling of one’s trust in another, or even mere accidents (Cheung). In the end of Branagh’s film, Branagh pauses before speaking the line, “For man is a giddy thing,” and then emphasizes each word, alerting the audience that this is one of the most crucial lines in the entire play. The Mumford and Sons song also includes the lyrics:
Love; it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free.
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design, and alignment to cry
of my heart to see,
the beauty of love as it was made to be.
The song seems to be its own analysis on the aspect of the play described in this essay. In relation to the story, I believe it means that Benedick changed when he found love, and became a happier and better man because of it. He finds that loving one woman faithfully will not “enslave” him or make him miserable, but will “set him free”, which I believe it does in the end of the play and is portrayed in the film. This change seemed to be an improvement upon his character.
Perhaps the lyrics of the song were not meant to comment on the infidelity of men and the encouragement to women to cope with this by simply accepting it and loving them anyway. The lyrics instead describe the fickleness of mankind and the acceptance that not all conclusions are final, and that it is only natural for people to change themselves and their beliefs. Therefore, contrary to Sheppard’s belief, the song’s use in the end of Branagh’s film does seem quite fitting. The characters celebrate Benedick’s change of heart and his transformation into a better man because of it. Perhaps the lyric “Then sigh not so, / But let them go” (Shakespeare 2.2.58-59) does not advocate for women to let them be unfaithful, but to let them change, as it doesn’t explicitly refer to just infidelity. Others must “let them go” because it is only natural for people to alter their beliefs. Because of Benedick’s recent proclamation of his love to Beatrice and his explanation of how “giddy” mankind can be – in that people often contradict themselves – the cheerful closing song seems to sum up the themes of play rather nicely, instead of conflicting with them. The heavy use of the song throughout the rest of the film also hints to the audience at the theme of inconstancy. If the audience is paying close enough attention to the lyrics in relation to the action of the play, they may be able to decipher exactly what is meant by this motif: that mankind should accept the fact that it is ever-changing.
Much Ado About Nothing. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Robert Sean Leonard, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale. BBC Films. 1993. Film.
Mumford and Sons. “Sigh No More.” Sigh No More. 2009. CD.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. ed. Folger Shakespeare Library. 2003. Print.
Sheppard, Philippa. “Sigh No More Ladies”– The Song In Much Ado About Nothing: Shakespeare And Branagh Deliver Aural Pleasure.” Literature Film Quarterly 33.2 (2005): 92-100. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.