“I learn in this letter” – Much Ado About Nothing.
I chose this first line primarily because I have not had the opportunity to do much scholarly work on Much Ado, yet it is one of my favourites to see. This line holds so many possibilities and has been so much fun to explore!
One of my first thoughts about this line was that it gives the feeling that they play is starting in medias res. “I learn in this letter” sets up what is to happen later in the scene, but does not give us any sense of place or time like other opening lines can do, like the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. However this also makes me think that it gives Much Ado more credence as potentially being the lost play Love’s Labours Won (the play was portrayed this way by the RSC this season). To me, this line is a good example of this, given that with the announcement of the Don Pedro’s return, we as the audience are expected to derive immediate meaning and perhaps even recognition from the declaration. I am looking forward to seeing Love’s Labours Lost this summer to see if this theory could really work!
The mention of the letter sets up the importance that language and words are going to have throughout the play. Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is founded not only on their constant verbal sparring, but also on the second hand information that they gain from their friends. Leonato similarly presents the information in the letter to the characters gathered on stage, thus giving them the information second hand as well. Knowledge and the sources that provide it, as well as the way those sources are able to manipulate language to provide knowledge is a running theme in the play. And letters are often a malleable medium in Shakespeare’s plays, giving characters the opportunity to manipulate others.
In terms of the feeling of the line, I would say that because a letter is a physical thing, it does actually evoke a sense of touch. One must be holding a letter to read it and gain the information, and therefore the mention of it evokes that feeling. The sharing of letters has a rich history and was a feature in both drama and novels long past the Renaissance. Thus a community is able to form around the letter reader, as they share the knowledge imparted through the letter. In this case, the letter not only brings together the community of the people of Messina, but also the men coming home from the war. This scene begins the ultimate goal of the comedy: the creation of a whole community.