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Civil As An Orange: Shakespearean Joke of the Day

2009 March 3

A friend and I were discussing how to treat the office cad after a particularly egregious offense. As coworkers, should we go for distant, but cordial, esteem? Should we be aloof? Or should we let our opprobrium show with a steely gaze?

As I pondered this question I was reminded of a joke from Much Ado About Nothing, my favorite Shakespearean comedy, and one that many people have actually seen thanks to Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation, starring himself as Benedick and then-wife Emma Thompson as Beatrice. It’s quite a good movie, and for clarity, I’ll refer to the characters with the actors who played them.

Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale)

Ah, young love.

Young Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) wishes to marry his lady love Hero (the then-voluptuous Kate Beckinsale), but is too shy. He enlists the aid of the debonair Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) to woo on his behalf, but becomes convinced that Don Pedro has betrayed him and intends to have Hero for himself.

When the count, who has done nothing but what he promised, arrives to announce his success, Claudio proceeds to pout sullenly without revealing what is bothering him–some things never change.

While others question Claudio, attempting to find out what’s going on, wise Beatrice figures out what has happened and describes Claudio as “civil, Count, civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion.”

Thus, the joke: civil, pronounced “civ-VIL,” is a pun on Seville, where bitter oranges come from. Not only is it a play on sound, the oranges aptly describe Claudio’s bitter feelings, as well as his jealousy (people back then were orange, not green, with jealousy). It’s a very silly pun, but it still makes me smile–and that’s what’s astounding, really, that a four-hundred-year-old joke still works.

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh)

The real heroes.

It’s especially nice that Beatrice–the best character by far–gets to make the pun. She’s described by Benedick as “my dear Lady Tongue” and we’re told that she “mocks all her wooers out of suit.” For those interested, she’s also the character that the quote in the header describes.

I’ve always found Beatrice and Benedick the main attraction of the play, and it was an ingenious move to add older lovers to comic plays. They offset the sheer idiocy of the young ones, and give the older members of the audience something to appreciate.

To return to the question of our dishonorable co-worker. Given that we are none of us young enough to act like Claudio and Hero, it seems best to be advised by
Beatrice and Benedick. And so I suggested to my friend that when it came to the cad, we should be civil–civil as an orange.

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