This thought has been swirling around in my mind since I saw Joss Whedon's new film version last month: The whole play really is about love, isn't it?
I know what you're thinking: "No shit, it's a romantic comedy." (Indeed, it may be THE romantic comedy, the archetypal form from which all others follow.) But really, most romantic comedies, and most of Shakespeare's comedies, are about relationships. This one is, too, with the delightful sparring of Beatrice and Benedick, and the milquetoast courtship of Claudio and Hero. (The subject of another essay entirely.) But when you think about it, or at least when I've thought about it over the last month, it's really about love. Love, and all the silly, wonderful, terrible things we do because of it.
The couples, of course, do what they do out of love. Beatrice, Benedick, Hero and Claudio all react in myriad ways as their love is tested, threatened, thwarted, and, at last, returned. But what about everyone else? There's Leonato, of course; could his outrage at Hero's supposed sins be as passionate, as painful, if he didn't love her so? Don Pedro facilitates Claudio and Hero's romance out of filial love for them both; something similar might be behind his plot to match up Beatrice and Benedick. And yet, he makes more than one pass at wooing Beatrice as well. What does he feel for her? And there's poor Margaret. We never get inside her head much, but she must feel something for Borachio, and she's used for it, used to harm her friend and mistress, whom she also loves dearly. And she is, in the end, forgiven. As must we all, for who hasn't done something incredibly stupid out of misplaced love. (See also Borachio himself, and, at least in Whedon's version, the poorly misused Conrade as well.)
There is one character who's an exception to all this, of course: Don John. Nothing he does could be construed as coming out of love, not even love of himself. When he tells his comrades, and us, that he is "a plain-dealing villain", what he's actually saying is that he's incapable of love. You can't help but pity him a little bit, and while I'm generally not a fan of "villain's point of view" rewrites of classics, there's something there to mine of how he got that way. I don't believe anyone's born evil, so what happened to him? And are there parallels between him and the bitter, broken-hearted Beatrice and Benedick of the play's beginning? What would they have become, if not for their friends? If not for love?
In another project, Whedon once wrote, "Love makes you do the wacky." Not exactly Shakespearean, but you get the idea. It's probably an idea as old as storytelling itself, or older. And like all good ideas, we keep coming back to it. The point of art, after all, is to explore what it means to be human. And you could come up with worse definitions of that than "To love."