Like so many plays of days gone by, be they tragedy or comedy, they all need some sort of clown, and one my favourite clowns ever is Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing. Quite often referred to as the first romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing is a play about love, deception, and merry wars. Within this incredible play is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most beloved clowns, Dogberry, and today we’re going to take a little look at one of Dogberry’s speeches.
We begin in Messina, Italy. Where Don Pedro, Benedick and Claudio have just returned from battle. When they arrive the Governor of Messina, Leonato, invites Don Pedro to stay for a month, and Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John tags along too. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice, another courtier of Messina get back to their ‘merry war’, because they totally aren;t into each other, and Claudio’s love for Hero, Leonato’s daughter is rekindled.
Claudio informs Benedick of his love for Hero and of his plans to court and marry her, to which Benedick, who hates marriage, tries to convince him not to, but Claudio doesn’t listen.
And so a masqued ball is planned and all of our friends are in attendance. Don Pedro in disguise woos Hero on Claudios behalf, but Don John his brother convinces Claudio that Don Pedro that he’s wooing her for himself. Claudio is upset and rails against beauty, but it turns out that Don Pedro was doing no such thing, the matter is resolved and Claudio is promised Heros hand in marriage. They plan to be married in a week.
Meanwhile at the Party Beatrice and Benedick under the guise of their masks have been trading witty and disparaging remarks to one another playful until Benedick hears Beatrice speak about him, and he says he yearns to be spared the company of “Lady Tongue”.
Don Pedro and his friends are bored at the thought of having to wait a week, YES A WHOLE WEEK, for a wedding so they decide to concoct a plan to matchmake Beatrice and Benedick. So they make sure that he hears a conversation where Beatrice confesses her love for him and vice versa. Match: Made, Hotel: Trivago.
Don John concocts yet another plan to derail Hero and Claudios wedding by convincing him that Hero is unfaithful. He tells Claudio that Borachio will enter her bedchamber to sleep with her, and that Claudio should listen to hear so for himself. All the while Don John knows it’s Heros’ chambermaid.
Little do they know that Constable Dogberry has instructed his watchmen to their posts, which just so happen to be where Borachio and Conrade decide to debrief after their escapade. Overhearing that Don John has paid the two for their hands in the plot, the watchmen arrest them on the spot.
So the next day at the wedding, Dogberry finds Leonato and tries to explain to him that he has something very very very important to tell him, but his way with words, or lack thereof bores Leonato so much that he says the news will have to wait as he has to get to the church for the wedding. Now we come to the day of the wedding and Claudio denounces Hero because he “caught” her being unfaithful and she faints on the spot as Claudio storms off. Leonato being humiliated says he wishes she was dead and the Friar, thinking Hero innocent, comes up with a plan to make Claudio and her Father Leonato think that she IS dead. Meanwhile Beatrice and Benedick have proclaimed their love for eachother, but Beatrice tells Benedick that he must kill Claudio to prove his devotion, to which Benedick reluctantly agrees. Benedick tracks him down and challenges him to a duel.
Now after all of that comes time for the interrogation at the court prison, where Dogberry, his watchmen and the Sexton, who sort of is acting as the stenographer for this interrogation go to interrogate Borachio and Conrade. Despite Dogberry’s less than stellar interrogation skills the confessions come out.The Sexton being satisfied with what he has written, runs off to show Leonato, but just after leaving Conrade calls Dogberry an ass, Dogberry realising that no one is there to write down that he is an ass says…
Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou
not suspect my years? O, that he were here to write me
down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass;
though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am
an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be
proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow,
and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a
householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of
flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law
– go to! – and a rich fellow enough – go to! – and a
fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two
gowns, and everything handsome about him. – Bring
him away. – O, that I had been writ down an ass!
position, post, office, rank
malapropism for ‘respect’
proper, fitting, appropriate
(Note, when Dogberry says suspect what he means is respect)
Do you not suspect* (respect) my position? Do you not suspect (respect) my age? Oh I wish the Sexton were here to write down that I’m an ass. Everyone, remember that I am an ass, even though it’s not written down, don’t forget that I’m an ass. No you crook, you’re full of piety, and that will be proved by witnesses in court. I’m a wise man, and what’s more, an officer of the law, and what’s more, a homeowner, and what’s more, as handsome a piece of meat as anyone else in Messina, and I know the law! Get out of here! And I’m a reasonably rich man, get out of here! And I used to be even richer, but I’ve still got two robes and some other nice stuff, dammit! Take him away. Oh how I wish the Sexton could write down that I am an ass!
Notes on Performance
So as with all comic characters, if it’s funny to the actor, it’s not gonna be that funny to the audience. What makes an audience laugh is seeing someone genuinely have to deal with the problems that they’re going through, and in this case, it’s that Dogberry has been insulted by a prisoner. So always approach any comedic role or performance from a sense of truth and you’ll be halfway there.
The other thing to note with this is that there are a myriad of different ways you can approach a speech like this but I’d like to offer up two general approaches for you to ruminate on.
The first, as I said before, is from a complete and utter grounding of truth. If you were to play this scene with the utmost of stakes, truth and frustration that this police officer is going through it could make for a very funny moment in the play.
Now the second way to think of this is to lean into the clown that is Dogberry, really play around with finding the clown in this character, vocally, physically and mentally. What moments can you find in the piece to add in a little physical comedy? There’s a lot of repetition in this speech, what motifs can we create?
Now with all that said, ideally we’d love to find the best of both worlds with any character we play, particularly fools. Can we find those clowning moments but bring them to the stage from a place of truth? Like all things when it comes to acting, there must be a sense of balance in everything we do. Not too far this way or that, but just right. The goldilocks philosophy.
So when it comes to performing this piece I think the best thing you can do is explore your own comedic muscles and bring yourself to the character! Not try to create what you think might be the “right” Dogberry. So have fun and see what you find! You might surprise yourself.