Friday, 12 October 2012

Constable Dogberry - Shakespeare's most endearing officer of the law

Dogberry's Charge to the Watch
by Henry Stacy Marks

Able-bodied citizens charged with preserving the Queen’s peace were a great source of comic fun for Shakespeare, and none more than Constable Dogberry of Much Ado About Nothing. 

Much of the fun in this comically incompetent constable is in his humorous malapropisms, such as his claim to have ‘comprehended two auspicious persons’, when he means ‘apprehended two suspicious persons’. This must have been especially amusing to the playgoers of the Globe familiar with the character-type portrayed on the stage, particularly if he was based on an individual familiar to them.

Constables at the time were elected, and any man who refused to serve could face a fine of £5. Besides their duties of keeping the peace, they were also charged with dealing with absences from church, and had the thoroughly thankless task of filling the role of a fire brigade, fighting the flames with leather buckets and hooked-poles to pull apart the wooden buildings to prevent the fire from spreading.

The first actor to portray Dogberry was Will Kemp (or Kempe), whose actual name appears in the speech prefixes for Dogberry in an early printing of the play in 1600. Over the succeeding years many comic actors have successfully acted the part, among them the Scottish actor Gerard Kelly, whose interpretation of the role in a production of 1993, with Mark Rylance as Benedick, was quite outstanding. But in Kenneth Branagh’s screen version of the play, also in 1993, the interpretation of Dogberry by Michael Keaton was embarrassingly awful, though to be fair to him, he should never have been cast in the part. 

(The ideal actor for the film would have been Victor Spinetti, whose role of the army sergeant in the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour was pure comic genius.)

Much Ado remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and much of the popularity must be due to the clownish antics of his lovable constable, for when Dogberry walks onto the stage the audience knows that laughter cannot be far behind.

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