Hidden in the language of Shakespeare's best-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing are several clues to an intriguing tale. It seems that the witty lovers Beatrice and Benedick had a previous love affair that ended bitterly. But how did they meet? Why did they part? And what brought them together again?
When nineteen-year-old Beatrice is brought to live at her uncle's court in Sicily to be a companion to his daughter, she first meets Benedick, a young soldier who is there with a Spanish lord on a month-long sojourn. As they begin to wage their war of wit, their words mask their deep love for one another. But the pair are cruelly parted by misunderstanding and slander. Heartbroken, Benedick sails to England on the ill-fated Spanish Armada. Beatrice returns to her home in the North and an unwanted betrothal. While Benedick must fight for his life on board ship, Beatrice fights for her freedom from an arranged marriage.
From the point of view of Beatrice and Benedick we hear the lovers tell their own story, taking us from the sunlit southern courts of Sicily, to the crippled Armada on the frozen northern seas, to the gorgeous Renaissance cities of the north.
From Marina Fiorato, author of the acclaimed historical novel The Glassblower of Murano, comes a beautifully imagined Beatrice and Benedick.
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About the Author
MARINA FIORATO is half-Venetian and a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare's plays as an historical source. She has worked as an illustrator, an actress, and a film reviewer, and designed tour visuals for rock bands including U2 and the Rolling Stones. Her historical fiction includes The Daughter of Siena, The Botticelli Secret, and her debut novel, The Glassblower of Murano, which was an international bestseller. She was married on the Grand Canal in Venice, and now lives in London with her family.
Marina Fiorato is half-Venetian and a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare’s plays as an historical source. She has worked as an illustrator, an actress, and a film reviewer, and designed tour visuals for rock bands including U2 and the Rolling Stones. Her historical fiction includes the Venetian Bargain, The Daughter of Siena, The Botticelli Secret, and her debut novel, The Glassblower of Murano, which was an international bestseller. She was married on the Grand Canal in Venice, and now lives in London with her family.
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Beatrice and Benedick
By Marina Fiorato
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Marina Fiorato
All rights reserved.
Sicily: Summer 1588
Act I scene i
The dunes at Messina
Beatrice: I did not want to open my eyes. Not yet.
I sat with the sun gilding my lids, just listening to Sicily. The ebb and flow of the tide, the temperate winds breathing in and out. The scamels singing from the oleanders, and the crickets answering from the dunes. And underlying all, the beat of my own heart.
A bee bumbled into my cheek, singing his somnolent song, startling me. I opened my eyes and for a moment the brightness blinded me. But then the view assailed me at last. From my seat, high on the dunes, the isle was spread about me like the skirt of my gown.
To the south, in Taormina, the old honeyed stones of the theatre built by the Greeks. To the north lay the glittering seaport of Messina. In the harbour, a single Argosy slid into the bay, the sail flap-dragoned by the southerly wind. Away up the hill to the east, the sunlit courts of my uncle Leonato's summer palace, its stone walls as rosy as coral. And in the west, the blue slopes of a volcano, the mountain they call Etna, gently smoking with an ever-present threat. Above all, the sky; a hot high arc of stinging azure, reaching to the vault of heaven, blue as the Madonna's cloak. Sicily was beautiful. But it was alien to me, and I felt horribly alone.
My eyes began to water. It was the brightness, no doubt. Even the sun was strange here; here it was not the friendly planet which had shone upon me for nineteen summers, but a fiery orb that could pull strange spiny plants from the earth and ignite mountains. I blinked the unwelcome tears away; the sky was never so bright in the north, in Villafranca di Verona, my home. I missed it so. This sun was foreign, and the bright southern sea led to more foreign lands with stranger's names – Tripoli, Tunis, Oran.
My homesick gaze was drawn northward like a lodestone, and I turned to where the gradient of blue darkened to the north. Beyond the sapphire bay lay the perilous straits of Messina, with the rocks of Scylla hugging the mainland and the whirlpool of Charybdis nearer the isle. This legendary pair of troublemakers had been wrecking ships since ancient times. I had to sail between the two to get here, and I realised I was still between them now. Now I was in Sicily, more the fool I. When I was at home, I was in a better place.
I felt a pressure upon my boot, and looked down; an urchin was crawling over my toe. His coat was as spiny as the cactus plants that grew everywhere here. He snuffled his spiny nose at my sole, so I kicked him gently away and got to my feet, brushing the sand from my skirts. It was then that I saw two figures emerge from a little house farther down the yellow sands. They were a man and a woman, and they walked in my direction, holding hands.
I could have run, for I had time; but instead I dropped to the sand and crouched down guiltily. Had they been an ordinary couple I would have trespassed no longer and left them to their promenade, but what held me were their different colours. For the man was as black as his lady was lily white.
I watched, prone on the sand, my eyes peeping over a knoll, my hands parting the brittle grasses that hid me from view. I could see them clearly below me. They sank down in the powdery white sand between the hillocks only feet away and began to kiss.
My pulses thumped in my ears. I had seen a Moor before, of course. Moors walked about the streets of Padua or Bologna, as students, as merchants, as travellers, and no one troubled them. In Verona even the patron saint of our city was black; St Zeno, who was rendered in polished ebony in our basilica. But the Moors I had seen kept to their own; I had never seen a Moor with a white woman before.
The pair were dressed the same, in loose white cambric robes, as if they had only just risen from their bed to make a new one here in the dunes. Now they were kissing hungrily; him on top, her beneath. He seemed to be almost devouring her. He paused once, to look upon her tenderly and stroke her face as if he could not believe she was real. I noticed his fingertips and palms were white, and her cheeks stained with a blush, as if his colour had transferred to her. She was a beautiful creature, with hair so fair it was almost white, and eyes as pale as a dawn sky. But it was his beauty that held me transfixed; his skin was as burnished as St Zeno's ebony, his teeth pearl. His eyes were dark and fathomless, his lips thick and pliant as they mouthed at her, hungry as a babe. His hair was close cut, almost shaven, and I could see the bones of his skull. Her white fingers clutched the back of it, and one of them wore a gold ring. A man's ring. His ring.
They looked like two urgent angels, one black, one white in their flowing robes. As I watched he moved his body over hers, and he raised her robe higher. I could see the shadow of hair at her groin, and her bone-white curves revealed. She raised his robe likewise, bunching his shift above his waist. I saw his ebony back and rump and averted my gaze, only to see a black hand close on her white breast. His hand wore a ring too, the twin of hers; and I thought for the first time – they are wed. She arched her back as his lips replaced the hand, and she clawed and clasped a handful of sand in her transported state, the pale powder flowing away through her fingers as the Moor became one with her. Then they began to move together like a bark riding the waves, higher and higher. At the pinnacle of their passion she turned her head in ecstasy and opened her eyes, and I was shot through with her blue gaze as her eyes met mine.
I scrambled down from my perch, blushing scarlet, my flesh afire. I crouched, frozen and listening, for them to rise and shout. But no, their passion spent, murmurs and soft laughter replaced it, sounds somehow even more intimate than before. They would not have seen me even had I stood above them, blocking the alien sun.
I scrambled down to the shore and hurried back in the direction of Leonato's house. In my sleeve I carried the horn of ink I had been sent to fetch from Messina, ready for a day of my cousin Hero's schooling. My flight had dislodged it and as I drew out the little bottle the ink stained my pale hand. Black on white; the Moor and his wife.
I had to walk, to still the roiling tempest of my humours. I strode along the frill of the ebbing tide, one foot in sea and one on shore, hardly noticing that one leather slipper became soaked in the brine. At length my heart slowed, my cheeks cooled, but my spirits were still in turmoil. I wanted to laugh and cry. I felt excited but desolate, suddenly even more alone, excluded by that union. I looked out to the limitless sea, my mind tossing on the ocean.
I had been in Messina for a month, sent to summer here as a companion to my young cousin Hero. My father, Prince Escalus of Villafranca di Verona, had sent me from the city to my uncle – Lord Leonato Leonatus, Governor of Messina – for reason of my safety. Verona, in recent weeks, had become a seething cauldron of feuding and violence. Some trivial quarrel had woken the age-old enmities of two rival Veronese clans and the sleeping lions had become scrapping cats. When I was actually trapped in our carriage, caught amidst a brawl in the very street, my father had me packed and shipped and speeded to the safety of Sicily.
I had been happy enough these past weeks – I loved my cousin and her family, the island was pleasing and the climate balmy. I had, for my own amusement and for her sake, taken Hero's education in hand; for I had been shocked to learn that my cousin had never read a single book. But I had of late become the victim of dolorous moods and shifts in my temperament. One moment I would rock with laughter; the next be swept away in a gale of tears. I had always been of a merry disposition; perhaps I needed a tonic to settle my humours.
Or perhaps it was my age; at nineteen I was well into my marriageable years. Yet my father had not yet drawn up any contracts or covenants for my marriage, for his position as Prince Escalus was difficult. The two other families of consequence in our state were at war, and our bloodlines were entangled with both. To wed me to one and not the other would remove my father's impartiality and the delicate balance of power in Verona. My brother his heir was unwed for the same reason, and would doubtless become a bachelor prince when my father died.
I had been most thankful, until now, for this. But now I thought of the white woman in the dunes, carrying the weight of a husband. She was my age. She had the blond hair and blue eyes of the north, as I did, and my pale skin too.
As I left the beach for the coast road, the whole island seemed indecently fertile, dotted with vineyards and row crops of vegetables. Along the way calendulas, rock roses and native blackberries bejewelled my route. Even the spiny cacti grew blooming yellow flowers and prickly green pears, seeming to mock my celibacy. I wondered what the Moor's child would look like; a handsome mixture of light and dark. My stomach turned over alarmingly at the thought, and my treacherous liver heated with choler. I resolved to visit the apothecary for a linctus.
By the time I had view of my uncle's house I acknowledged what the problem was, and no linctus would cure it. I wanted what the maiden had. I wanted the Moor, or my own Moor, or a man of any colour; just someone who would look at me as if I was the only woman in the world.
I sped through the archway and the courtyard in search of Hero. She was only sixteen, my cousin, but she was wise beyond her years, a funny, sober little thing, fiercely intelligent, but with a gentle sense of humour beneath her serious demeanour. She had become my confidante in the last month, and I knew my aunt and uncle were already thinking of an alliance for her, so I saw it as my duty to educate her in others ways beside the construction of Latin verbs. Truth be told, in the last week more of our lessons had been taken up with the recounting of my favourite Italian folk tales than Latin grammar. The subject of these fables was always the same: Love. And today I had another story to add to the canon – the unfolding story of the dusky Moor and his wife.
Act I scene ii
A courtyard in Leonato's house
Beatrice: The chapel bell tolled nine times and it was time for lessons to begin.
I mounted the steps to Hero's chamber, thinking, as I always did upon stairs, of my family name Della Scala, and our blazon of a ladder upon a shield. My father had told me often that in Roman times, our ancestor Cangrande had brought the sacred stairs of Pontius Pilate back from the Holy Land to Rome, the very stairs which Christ had descended on his way to be crucified. The emperor Constantine rewarded Cangrande with the name Della Scala, 'of the Stairs'. It was not just this singular name which set our family apart; our redstone castle in Villafranca was topped with a vast tower containing the highest staircase in the Veneto. 'Stairs separate us from the common man,' my father was fond of saying. 'The poor do not have stairs but live in hovels, grubbing about upon the ground. Princes have towers, and many floors; we are elevated. You may measure a man by the stairs in his house.' If this was true my uncle Leonato was doing tolerably well, for his pink palazzo was a maze of stairwells, and the house had nearly as many steps as our castle in Villafranca.
I took this particular flight two at a time in my usual fashion (which I know pained my uncle) but my way was blocked. My aunt Innogen, wife to Leonato and mother to Hero, prayer book in hand, was descending to mass and stopped me with a kiss. Her embracing arm turned me around firmly and steered me back down the stairs to the coloured courtyard, where the wondrous mosaics of dolphins, sea serpents and mermaids, much older than the house, wove about our feet in their seaborne measure.
My aunt drew me down beside her on a stone bench. Behind us, a hanging tapestry showed a woman petting a white unicorn with her white hand, and was animated in the breeze as if the figures lived. I knew that unicorns would only let maids touch them and was suddenly struck – I did not want to be wed to unicorns for the rest of my days.
I knew, before my aunt began, that I was in trouble; for my aunt Innogen was more like my own dead mother, her sister, than she realised. She had the glassy, blue-grey eyes of my mother, the same colour as the Venetian lagoon on a summer's day. But the calm, just as at those waters, was superficial. Below the surface swirled riptides of intelligence and penetration. Being with my aunt made me miss my mother less, for I felt that I was still under her eye. I knew, looking into my aunt's eyes now, that she had divined where I had been this morning, and what I had seen. My cheeks heated again. But when she began her discourse, again with my mother's trick of speech, my aunt talked of quite a different subject.
'I hear, Niece,' began my aunt, 'that you have become quite the teller of tales.'
I was silent, for I did not know what she had heard, and did not want to buy myself more trouble. Innogen raised an eyebrow at me. 'Let me see. Love stories. Not exactly Latin verbs, Beatrice.' She chided, but there was a smile in the voice.
'Hero told you of her schooling, then,' I mumbled.
'Do not tax Hero with this fault; she was naturally keen to share the fruits of her lessons,' I heard the gentle emphasis, 'with her mother.'
I did not blame my cousin, but had she told the latest tale?
'Furthermore,' continued my aunt, 'I myself overheard, when passing Hero's chamber, the story of a gentlewoman who had contrived to get herself betrothed to a young count, who refused her hand, causing her to chase him in a most ungentle fashion.' She smoothed her hair, dark like Hero's but shot with silver, into its golden net, and managed with the gesture to communicate her disapproval. 'I did not hear the sequel to that one, for I understand the story has, thus far, been left unfinished.'
'Ah now, this is a fine story,' I babbled. The tale was begging to be told, as I had not yet finished it for Hero. 'The count falls in love with another, but his betrothed contrives to wait in his lover's bed, and he surrenders his family ring to her by mistake —'
'Enough!' my aunt cried, throwing up both hands in horror. 'This history is preposterous.' Her hands dropped to her silken lap and she fingered the bracelet she always wore about her wrist, a gold band with a glowing stone of green chalcedony. She laughed a little. 'As if a jewel could be taken from a person unawares!' She spoke softly, as if to herself. 'And bed-tricks are certainly not meat for maid's ears.' She sat a little straighter. 'My husband, your uncle Leonato, wishes Hero to be a model of modest chastity, with a maid's mild behaviour and sobriety. It is he who has forbidden her to read thus far, for this very reason; that she should not be exposed to ... licentious stories.'
I caught a chime of discord in her voice and felt the tapestry behind us stir in the breeze and touch my shoulder. 'And what do you wish?' I asked, gently.
My aunt pursed her lips. 'Try not to be insolent, Beatrice. My husband's wishes are, of course, my own. That said, I ... we ... now want Hero to be educated, as you were yourself, in letters and arts as is befitting a well-born woman. And you would do well to remember, Niece, that you will never get a husband if you are so shrewd of your tongue.'
'But I do not want a husband. Why do you speak of husbands?' I asked, suddenly cold in that oven of a courtyard.
'Hero,' said my aunt carefully, 'is sixteen years old and may now, by law, become betrothed. Today we are expecting a progress of noble guests at our house for the Festival of the Assumption, and they will stay for a summer's lease. Hero will be thrown in the way of many a young sprig. And there may even be a man enough in the company for you, Niece.' There was a small significant silence, filled only by the gulls mewing from the sea. The tapestry behind us bellied like a sail in the warm breeze, and the unicorn lady brushed my shoulder with her skirts. Like a warning.
I breathed out slowly. 'Was that my father's design in sending me here?'
She raised a dark brow. 'I do not know. Was it?'
It all made sense. If I were packed off to find a prince or a count of the south, my father would not have been seen to give the crucial balance of power away at home. I smiled grimly. 'Come, Aunt. I am not my cousin, a child to be gulled into a union. I can see a church by daylight.'
Excerpted from Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato. Copyright © 2014 Marina Fiorato. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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