Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

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Beatrice and Benedick, Marina Fiorato 2014, Hodder & Stoughton 2014

I wish I had never read this book.

This isn’t a terrible book but it has ruined one of my favourite plays of all time for me. I hope the effects will wear off because Much Ado About Nothing is my go to audio play when I’m in a grey mood.

Firstly is a prequel for Much Ado justified? Yes I think it is. Everytime I listen to or read the play I always linger over Beatrice’s words to Don Pedro in the masked ball of Act II.

DON PEDRO

Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of
Signior Benedick.

BEATRICE

Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

If Shakespeare had been writing in the modern age this would have been the scene that spawned a thousand fanfics.  As it was I was very receptive to read an interpretation of Beatrice and Benedick’s failed first relationship and so approached the book with an open mind. At first I was pleasantly surprised. Foriolo’s approach to the faintly vague setting of the play was to set it firmly in the real world with a heady blend of Italian landscape and lush descriptions of summer. It was a beautiful introduction to medieval Italy and I read passages slowly to savour the atmosphere.

The story is set in the year of 1588 when Beatrice, Princess of Verona, is visiting her Uncle Leonato as a companion to his daughter Hero. Sicily is under control of the Spanish and Don Pedro enlists Benedick in the world of politics and intrigue simmering underneath the seemingly idyllic setting.  I was happy that Benedick was a bit of a loser and Beatrice was uncomfortably prickly and awkwardly so but they did start to grate on me in a way the original versions never could. There were also lots of things that I enjoy in historical fiction like women fighting duels, politics and intelligent banter.

“If I am the knight, then I thank you for my gage.” She favoured me with a soldier’s grin. “But now our joust is at an end, and I am the victor, I have the honour to return it.” She nodded to my plate as she turned to go, and spoke her parting riposte over her shoulder. “If you have no more stomach, Lady, you had better turn your trencher. Farewell.”

But then came the huge red mark against the story. The subplot of the Moors. The Spanish accelerate their expulsion of the Moors in Sicily and this is mostly illustrated to us through Beatrice’s relationship with a mixed race lady called Gugliema Crollalanza  and a random man she sees on the sand dunes. The problem with using atrocities against People of Colour to add depth to a romantic story between two white people shouldn’t even need explaining about. After Gugliema is burnt to death and the story goes straight back to Beatrice and Benedick and the petty misunderstandings in their romance I just didn’t care about them anymore. Especially when Benedick who has obviously learnt so much from seeing a woman brutally executed nearly hands in a Moor “boy” he comes across thinking excitedly how it’ll help his career seeing as the boy must be a spy. Even worse were the racial stereotypes about the first black man in the book and the fetishising of his relationship with a white woman.

I was cringing reading this book and seeing all the big name positive reviews on the cover I have to wonder. Did the reviewers not notice the problematic elements and racial stereotypes? Or worse, did they notice it and just not care.