Thomas Sutcliffe: Much ado about eavesdropping

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The Independent Online

I was just about to ask him who'd written it when it became clear that I'd misread the remark. "There's" didn't mean "there is" but "there could be". I thought his title certainly had the authentic touch. It's just the sort of thing you might find in an English faculty library - followed by a colon and something a little more formal for the writer's colleagues: "Secret Knowledge and Misprision in Shakespeare's Problem Plays" perhaps. It also gave me a pang of belated frustration. If only I'd thought of it years ago when I was casting around for a dissertation subject.

Like many good ideas, it turns out that it has already occurred to other people. A cursory trawl on the internet turns up the fact that one P Scobie submitted "Marking the encounter: Shakespeare's use of the eavesdropping device" for his MPhil at Manchester in 1996. And a Yale academic called Ann Gaylin published a book called Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust - after spotting how crucial overhearings are to the plots and moral drama of many 19th century novels.

I don't know whether either is any good, but it's surely clear that the subject is: knitting together the pleasingly nuts-and-bolts stuff of how you get a story to work with more high-flown business about "narrativisation" and truth-content.

Need to get a bit of Derrida and Lacan in there, so that you can hold your head up at faculty meetings? Well, it's a breeze, frankly. At the same time, there's something fundamentally compelling about the overheard conversation, about the tangle of knowingness and innocence that it automatically sets up. And that's just in its most basic form. Add in the possibilities of false eavesdropping and mistaken overhearing and the subject blooms even larger.

It isn't very hard to understand why Shakespeare should have been so captivated by the device. Eavesdropping takes on an extra resonance in paranoid or intimate cultures, or those in which status is unusually dependent on assessment by others. Elizabethan society was all three, and the Elizabethan court distilled those qualities to even higher intensity. But Shakespeare also understood that eavesdropping offered a way to pry apart the tightly-packed mille-feuille of public speech, which moves from outright lie to utter sincerity through numerous intervening forms.

The beauty of the eavesdropping scene in Much Ado lies in the fact that so many layers are involved. Benedick is working on the basic assumption about overheard speech - that it is more truthful and uninhibited than any other kind. Because his friends have notionally excluded him from this conversation he can find out things from it that they would never tell him to his face. What's so delicious for us though, is that neither dupe nor duper quite understands what they're listening to.

Benedick's friends - glorying in their guile - have inadvertently forged a true coin, one which will eventually pass the assay better than Claudio's loud proclamations of love for Hero. And this scene - in which the wrong end of the stick and the right end turn out to be one and the same - then leads into the the most compelling kind of eavesdropping that Shakespeare creates, the soliloquies in which we overhear the words of a solitary character speaking to himself.

At least it does if the production gets it right, which I didn't think Hall's did. It's only fair to say I was alone in this view, which was why the conversation continued. Everyone else laughed at the comic business, in which Benedick is shoved bodily out of the way by his friends. I thought it made him look cretinously gullible - and disabled one of the play's central truths, which is that love can make even this sardonically intelligent character behave foolishly.

Others liked the fact that his soliloquy was spoken to the auditorium. I thought it completely short-circuited the speech - which is written as an utterly private act of persuasion. He doesn't care what anyone else believes at this point - he cares about what he believes, and how he can square it with what he feels. And, if he's addressing us directly, how on earth can we trust a word he says?