Dogberry (Much Ado about Nothing)

Since this may be the greatest secret Shakespeare ever put into a play, I'm reluctant to reveal it. But I might not live through the plague, and I've never seen this written down anywhere, so here goes.

Dogberry is Jesus Christ, returned to earth in disguise, to do some unostentatious good for a few good people (although Dogberry considers everybody good, with the possible exceptions of Don John and Conrade), and obviously not telling anybody who he is. If you're Jewish, just think of him as Adonai assuming human form and walking around unrecognized--Undercover Boss in its most extreme form.

For his companion, see Verges. I had the very great fortune to direct this play in 1994. My friend--now deceased--Jeremy Johnson, played Dogberry. We went over his part together, and finally I said, "Larry" (Jeremy was his stage name), "this is impossible. Nobody could be this stupid. He's doing this on purpose." Once you accept this fact, the play falls into place.

Dogberry's language seems to be frequently unintelligible. He appears to be using malapropisms, long before there was a Mrs. Malaprop (who appears in Sheridan's The Rivals, 1775). That's what Jesus did; he spoke in parables. The French word for "words," paroles, is a descendant of parables. When Verges (in III.5) blurts out that the Watch have caught two errant malefactors, Dogberry immediately begins making fun of Verges' supposed senility. He had previously warned Verges, "Palabras, Neighbor Verges." Palabras is Spanish for "words," so Dogberry might be saying, "Don't blather." But if you sort out the anagram of palabras, you understand his warning: "talk in parables, Neighbor Verges."

Dogberry's name, is--I should hardly have to point this out--but I like to hear my own voice--a scrambling of the words "bury God." Dogberry has buried his divine nature in this disguise.

If you bother to examine Dogberry's language, you discover that it is only incomperhensible nonsense on the rare occasions when He is desperate not to be understood--or, more often, when He is having fun by confusing the other characters. For example, His last line in the play is (at V.1.315), "And if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!" What a confused fool, right?

Wrong. All the characters in the play have behaved as if they were on a drunken binge--Leonato has offered to murder his own daughter for her non-existent promiscuity, Benedick nearly fights a duel with his best friend Claudio--there's even a character named Borachio, a corruption of the Spanish borracho = drunk--and the result of their carryings-on has been disastrous. (You have to look into the Oxford English Dictionary to find that one of the meanings of "merry" is tipsy.)

Dogberry's address to the Watch, about their conduct, must be compared to the Sermon on the Mount, a summary of Jesus' teachings. It's not an exact paraphrase, because Shakespeare is writing a comedy, not a religious tract--and remember that Dogberry doesn't want anyone to know who he is.

Masks are an important element in the play. The men wear them at the party (although nobody seems to be fooled by anybody else's mask). Don Pedro's mask throughout the play is the mask of concealed hopeless love--first of Hero, then of Beatrice. Dogberry's mask is the deepest and most impenetrable of them all.

Dogberry's mask comes off only once: when Leonato tells him and Verges to interrogate Borachio and Conrade. When Leonato leaves, Dogberry and Verges are left alone to enjoy their paroxysm of delight:

Take their examination yourself and bring it me. I am now in great haste, as it may appear unto you.

It shall be suffigance.

Drink some wine ere you go. Fare you well.

[Enter a Messenger.]

My lord, they stay for you to give your daughter to her husband.

I'll wait upon them. I am ready.

[Exeunt Leonato and Messenger.]

Go, good partner, go get you to Francis Seacoal; bid him bring his pen and inkhorn to the jail. We are now to examination these men.

And we must do it wisely.

We will spare for no wit, I warrant you. Here's that shall drive some of them to a non-come. Only get the learned writer to set down our excommunication, and meet me at the jail.

[Exeunt.](Ado III.5.47-60)
suffigance = sufficient; Dogberry continues to speak what sounds like nonsense, but which is perfectly clear, even without footnotes.

Messenger: if you look up "angel" in the Oxford English Dictionary, you discover that the word is a descendant of the Hebrew for "messenger of Yahweh." Naturally we had doubling in our cast (as Shakespeare always did), and it was another fun secret among us that, whenever a "Messenger" appeared onstage, he or she was an angel in disguise. Two of my favorite "angels" were my two beautiful young Mormon girls, Eliza and Summer (hi, there!), who often hung out with Dogberry and Verges.

Francis Seacoal is probably the brother of the watchman George Seacoal. They can apparently both read and write--a talent which impresses Dogberry not a whit. When he chooses the Watch, he wants to know "Are you good men and true?" And Seacoal can see coal, that is, he can see if the coals of hell are burning in a man's heart.

examination: Dogberry throws Leonato's word back at him, though Leonato has left the stage and can't hear it. (Which is of course not true of Dogberry; he can hear everything everyone says, be they just out of his sight, or on the other side of the universe.
When people make fun of Dogberry's apparent incompetence, or when Benedick tosses in the gratuitous anti-Semitic remark, "If I do not love her, I am a Jew" (III.1.253--and we all remember that Dogberry is a Jew and King of the Jews, as well as King of the Universe--which is why there is no other king in the play, though there are princes), is Dogberry resentful or angry? Not a bit. He hung on the cross for these people, knowing that they were all flawed, and He has long since come to terms with all their shortcomings. He tried, and continues to try, to teach them how to live, and He will never abandon them, no matter how hopeless they seem.
non-come = non compis mentis = "not of sound mind," "in a distraction." The use is a sort of malapropism, but I'd prefer to call it a code, because obviously Verges knows what Dogberry means.

excommunication: of course. In the Christian church, of which Verges is the head, excommunication is the worst punishment one can visit on a sinner, and Dogberry and Verges know that they are dealing with sinners--they were responsible for their capture.

Incidentally, in my production, when Leonato invited Dogberry and Verges, "Drink some wine ere you go," Dogberry scowled. Was he supposed get pleasure from drinking his own blood?

* * *

Consider Dogberry's interrogation of Conrade and Borachio. They both have unfortunate names--Borachio, drunkard, and Conrade = "can read," a vanity to which Dogberry attributes no importance whatsoever.

Well, for your favor, sir, why, give God thanks and make no boast of it; and for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity. (Ado III.3.18-21)
Yet after their interrogation, Dogberry takes a strong dislike to one of them:
. . . What is your name, friend?


Pray write down Borachio. Yours, sirrah?

I am a gentleman, sir, and my name is Conrade.

Write down Master Gentleman Conrade. Masters, do you serve God?

Yea, sir, we hope.

Write down that they hope they serve God; and write God first, for God defend but God should go before such villains! Masters, it is proved already that you are little better than false knaves, and it will go near to be thought so shortly. How answer you for yourselves?

Marry, sir, we say we are none.

A marvellous witty fellow, I assure you; but I will go about with him. (to BORACHIO) Come you hither, sirrah. A word in your ear. Sir, I say to you, it is thought you are false knaves.

Sir, I say to you we are none.

DOGBERRY Well, stand aside. Fore God, they are both in a tale.          both in a tale = they offer a previously-agreed-upon spurious defense (Ado IV.2.10-31)
Dogberry has taken an instant dislike to Conrade, which dislike lasts to the end of the play. Yet Conrade and Borachio (whom Dogberry treats more kindly) have said exactly the same thing, have they not?

Indeen not. Conrade has used "Marry" as a slang ejaculation, almost as a curse word. Dogberry does not like having the name of his mother taken in vain, and his "a marvelous witty fellow" is, for him, unusually steely. Again I refer you to marry in the Oxford English Dictionary: "the name of the Virgin Mary used as an oath or an ejaculatory invocation."

I suppose that any Christian, or even anybody who's been to a Christian service, has heard the blessing:

"The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be amongst you and remain with you always." --Book of Common Prayer
Now consider, if you please, Dogberry's farewell to Leonato:
God keep your worship! I wish your worship well. God restore you to health! (Ado V.i.312-4)
Oh, I might as well make a beautiful table:
The blessing of God almighty, the Father God keep your worship!
the Son I wish your worship well.
and the Holy Spirit God restore you to health!

I hope that the correspondence is obvious: Dogberry gives Leonato the formal church blessing, but He substitutes Himself for the Son.

I suspect that not only will people not believe these things about Dogberry, they will resent and despise the suggestions. The Toronto Quarterly sent me back the article with the comment, "Our editors feel your ideas are interesting, but that you have not proved your case." Well--no--I can't prove it. It's Mr. Shakespeare's brain and skill against mine, and he has done his best to allow Dogberry to keep his identity a secret. I'm overmatched.

However, I have seen the play produced enough times that I can pretty well guarantee that if you present Dogberry as the embodiment of fatuity, you are going to be surprised why the character isn't hilarious and why, in fact, the play doesn't work as well as it should. I've seen lots of stupid Dogberrys.

When I had the great pleasure of producing the play, Dogberry &c. got the last bow, after my Emmy winner, Cady McClain, after my Beatrice and Benedick. The entire cast lined up at the front of the stage and Dogberry, Verges, and Eliza and Summer, wearing two beautiful white dresses that they had bought for the occasion, entered upstage. Those last three halted upstage and Dogberry came downstage and the cast made a space for him. The rest of the cast dropped to their knees and sang a hymn-tune which Raphael Crystal and I had written.
God, who watches from above, Bless and keep you in his love.
Dogberry did not bow. He held his hands up as if he were blessing the audience, then turned, and the saint and angels exited with him, followed by the rest of the cast.

Now after that, might one not think that that the audience would guess Dogberry's identity?

After a performance I went out drinking with Leslie, Mark and Mary Lou (Ursula), and I asked Mark and Leslie, "Dogberry has a secret. Can you guess what it is?"

Mark replied, "He has Alzheimer's?" As I already said, Shakespeare is cleverer than I.

But, good Lord, what a beautiful picture of the world! I suspect that Shakespeare had realized shortly before this that he was in love with a girl ("some girl," as Beatrice tauntingly says to Dante), and he was so happy that he pictured the entire world as beautiful, peopled with human beings. almost all of them essentially good, whose happiness was so important to God (Adonai, Jesus) that He would actually interfere personally in human affairs to produce a happy ending.

Toward the end of his life, Shakespeare was an atheist. If you want to see his sober assessment of the bad side of human nature look at King Lear, where nobody is good, or at The Tempest, where some humans are good and some are incorrigible. None of these later plays detracts from the glorious joy expressed in Much Ado about Nothing.

© Deloss Brown 2020

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