Much Ado about a Spider: Much Ado About Nothing in Polish and International Theatre Posters of the 20th and 21st Centuries

Par Sabina Laskowska-Hinz
Publication en ligne le 13 décembre 2018


Much Ado About Nothing seems to be an amalgam of various motifs typical for the Renaissance, such as masques, despised virtue, father’s anger, mock deaths, untamed female nature, or poisonous slander. The combination of the elements also present in other Shakespeare’s plays, together with his authorial additions, provides the audience with the unique comedy of a double plot: dark and light. It comprises an intriguing palette of masks and decorous accessories, broken hearts and mischievous Cupids, red ears and green snakes. These different oppositions become an established set of motifs, “the stage pictures” as James Black called them, all of which are applied by artists who create theatre posters. In most cases, these artists intend to awake the audience’s appetite and help them to imagine what they may experience during the performance. However, there are other posters which demand much more attention from the viewer when it comes to decoding their message. Such work was produced in 2008 by Lex Drewinski for Wybrzeże Theatre in Gdańsk. A minimalistic poster with a black spider located in the bottom left corner against a blood-redbackground immediately captures the imagination of the viewer and forces them to think of its inner purpose. The spider is a fertile source of both positive and negative symbolic meanings. Among the former, we can include creativity, protectiveness or well-being; among the latter trickery, entanglement or illusion. One can also analyse it from two other angles: in the context of the iconographical and written traditions of the Renaissance or in that of modern culture in all possible manners: a spider-man, Voldemort’s supporter, Sam’s nightmare (The Lord of the Rings), or a source of irrational fear. Such a poster remains open to an immense variety of interpretations, the number of which is restrained only by the knowledge and fantasy of its viewer.The present paper will focus on the connection between the text of Shakespeare’s comedy and Lex Drewinski’s poster. To work on both, text and image, the comparative method applied by art historians to identify the origins of ideas will be used. The main aim of the paper is to discuss the impact of separated quasi-commercial images, such as Lex Drewinski’s work, on our perception of Shakespeare’s lines.

Much Ado About Nothing semble être un amalgame de divers ingrédients qui avaient cours à la Renaissance : masques, vertu méprisée, colère paternelle, nature féminine indomptée ou calomnie vénéneuse. Ces éléments, présents également dans d’autres pièces de Shakespeare et auxquels s’ajoutent des innovations de l’auteur, proposent aux spectateurs une comédie particulière composée d’une double intrigue, sombre et légère à la fois. Elle inclut une palette surprenante de masques, d’accessoires décoratifs, de cœurs brisés et de Cupides malicieux, d’oreilles rouges et de serpents verts. Ces différentes paires opposées forment des motifs conventionnels – « les images scéniques » selon James Black –, devenant source d’inspiration pour les artistes qui créent les affiches théâtrales. Le plus souvent, ces artistes espèrent aiguiser l’appétit des spectateurs et les aider à imaginer ce qu’ils pourraient ressentir durant la représentation. Cependant, certaines affiches n’expriment pas un message clair. Ce fut le cas pour l’œuvre de Lex Drewinski réalisée en 2008 pour le Théâtre Wybrzeże de Gdansk. Cette affiche minimaliste avec une araignée noire représentée en bas à gauche sur fond rouge-sang stimule d’emblée l’imagination, provoquant une réflexion sur son message profond. L’araignée est une source fertile de signifiants symboliques associés à des phénomènes aussi bien positifs que négatifs : créativité, protection, bien-être d’une part, ou bien fourberie, imbroglio, illusion, d’autre part. On peut l’analyser selon deux perspectives : dans un contexte de traditions iconographiques et livresques de la Renaissance ou bien dans la culture moderne sous tous ses aspects : Spiderman, l’allié de Voldemort (Harry Potter), l’angoisse de Sam (Le Seigneur des anneaux) ou la cause d’effroi irrationnel. Une telle affiche peut être une source d’interprétation dont la richesse dépend uniquement de la culture et de la fantaisie de ceux qui la regardent. Cet article explore le rapport entre le texte de la comédie shakespearienne et l’affiche de Lex Drewinski. La méthode d’analyse convoquée est celle des historiens de l’art qui cherchent à identifier l’origine des idées. L’objectif de cet article est d’analyser l’influence d’images indépendantes et quasi-commerciales telles que celle de Lex Drewinski sur notre perception du texte shakespearien.


Texte intégral

1When opening the book or taking place in the audience, a drama-lover definitely does not expect to encounter an endless row of gods, spiders or god-spiders scrambling over the pages of Shakespeare’s drama Much Ado About Nothing.1 However, they are all hidden there between the lines as Greek goddesses, Roman gods, creators, god-tricksters, protectors, poisonous enemies, or boys and girls with low self-esteem. What is more, some of the characters appearing in the play might be depicted as divine creatures or spiders either in the context of ancient tradition or the Renaissance art, or modern pop-culture figures and idols.

2The specific manner of interpretation is suggested by a poster designed by Lex Drewinski for Gdańsk Wybrzeże Theatre in 2008. The poster, a simple image with a black spider in the left-hand bottom corner against the poster’s red background, constitutes a source of alternative critical interpretations of Shakespeare’s characters, placing them in the context of the ancient world of the gods, the cultural heritage of African and North American continents and modern pop culture figures and idols. Its simplicity provides the poster viewer with the vast range of interpretations limited only by his knowledge and experience. Although the poster consists of onlytwo elements, both of these are characterised by the duality conveying either a cheerful or a disturbing atmosphere, and a positive or negative message.


Much Ado About Nothing (poster)

© Lex Drewinski, 2008

3The Polish approach to poster art allows the interpreters to treat a poster on equal terms with other examples of fine art. Consequently, such a design might be regarded as a source of a critical approach to Shakespeare’s works as understood by Stuart Sillars in his book Painting Shakespeare. The Artist as Critic 1720-1820.2 The paper treats a poster as an image, a visual comment independent of both the designer’s intentions and final realisation of the performance it advertised. Most posters designed for the play direct the audience’s attention towards apparent motifs employed by Shakespeare such as love, eavesdropping, male fears and despised virtue, competition, transformation, etc. However, Drewinski’s poster inspires a discussion concerning the meaning of colours and spiders in both visual and verbal traditions. Furthermore, on the one hand, the onlookers might relate the poster to the myth of Minerva/Athena and Arachne illustrated, for instance by Velázquez, Dante or Ovid in Shakespeare’s favourite literary work, Metamorphoses. Taking one step further, the connection reveals a diverse society of ancient goddesses and gods, transposed to Messina. The African and North American traditions provide iconographic bases for alternative interpretations of Drewinski’s spider and Shakespeare’s characters. Consequently, the study of Don Pedro andDon John exposes their divine spidery nature. On the other hand, the representatives of the younger audience are capable of decoding the image drawing from other literary and iconographic sources such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s rapacious Shelob, J.K. Rowling’s evil creature named Aragog, or Spiderman, a boy whose aspiration is to be acknowledged by society, exactly like Claudio. However, there is a need for further research in this area of study.

The role of posters

4The artistic potential of posters is usually underestimated, especially regarding the critical approach to advertised events. However, these designs might be treated as examples of fine art, even though they are governed by slightly different principles than artefacts of fine art. As Zdzisław Schubert argues, the functional shift in poster art is related to the character of the Polish Poster School recognised as a “phenomenon [that appeared] within a specific time frame of the 1950s and the early 1960s.”3 The time frame is ‘stretched’ in two directions, “its origins allegedly taking place in the 1930s and its progress terminating in the 1970s or even later.”4 During this period:

the Polish poster grew from an informative communiqué of visual value into an artistic production of functional qualities. […] Functions of a poster reversed: it turned from a utilitarian, secondary discipline, subordinate to a word, into a self-contained, autonomous one, expressing its own considerations, with dominance of an image. Poster art went beyond the confines of the applied art and joined the sphere of pure, independent art. This reversal of accents effected a later emergence of the authorial poster – brought into being by independent creative act, accompanying the works of art with a capital “A.”5

5This significant change is possibly due to the political circumstances, that is the socialist system introduced in post-war Poland. However, the aesthetic reminiscence and non-functional approach to poster art are still visible in the 21st-century designs.

6Thus, a poster, especially a theatrical one, should be considered a visual instruction or guidance for theatre-goers, as it is defined in Waldemar Świerzy’s statement quoted by Maria Kurpik: “The theatrical poster is a signal out in the street, informing of what is going to happen inside, in the theatre. It is a promise. In a way, it is also an advertisement, but rather free from self-interest.”6 Taking one step further, it is possible to assume that posters are appreciated as independent images developed into critical comments on the text, as it is stated by Sillars, though they still remain fine art artefacts. Although, in Painting Shakespeare. The Artist as Critic, 1720-1820 he focuses mostly on paintings or graphics, his rules of revealing the critical nature of these artefacts might also be applied to posters, especially when regarded as another type of a high art.

Much Ado About Nothing posters

7By contrast, most international posters for Much Ado About Nothing use a similar range of images associated with the love comedy motifs.7 The posters arouse particular expectations about the performance; and build up “stage pictures” necessary to appreciate the development of the play.8. They often allude to the romantic element in Much Ado About Nothing with different versions of hearts: bloody-red, broken, pierced by an arrow, glued back together, etc. Though visually attractive and straightforward, they seem to miss subliminal messages that would “add depth and complexity to the meaning and presentation of their plays, that would not be omitted by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.”9

8However, already a naughty Cupid as a graphic poster element might be considered as something ambiguous. Such an image seems to suggest either a leitmotif of the play love or to portray one of the characters in the play whose ambition is to be the love god.

9Krzysztof Motyka’s poster (1989)10 introduces an exceptional angelic image. His Cupid is the combination of the medieval one defined by Erwin Panofsky as “a nude, boyish figure, with wings, the talons, the roses, the quiver, the string of hearts and the horse”11 a modern “putto”. However, in this shape, he signifies “the illicit sensual passions too low to deserve the name of love and beneath the consideration of a serious thinker.”12 The details, such as hairy thighs, a tail, hooves and horns usually associated with lusty Satyrs rather than with lovable Cupids enhance the frivolous characterof the figure. This vision of the love god also points to the motif of unfaithfulness, the dreadful issue all male characters are afraid of. However, whether a sweet angel or risqué creature, he provides an additional context for the critical interpretation of the play.

10By introducing such graphic elements as smoky or red ears, another group of posters draws the viewer’s attention to the alternative driver of the play a series of misunderstandings resulting from eavesdropping and noting which bring the action forward.13

11There are also posters exposing the motif of oppositions “merry war” between almost equally intelligent interlocutors.14 One example is the poster where the designer introduces figures inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve (oil panel painting finished in 1507) but attired in sports outfits of the opposite colours (a blue T-shirt, red shorts, blue socks for Adam and a red T-shirt, blue shorts, red socks for Eve).15 The image highlights not only the notion of competition but also implies that figures like Benedick and Beatrice share some features with the First Parents, and Messina with the Biblical Paradise, here corrupted by evil snakes like Don John or Borachio.16 Consequently, such an inspiration provides surplus material locating the play in alternative contexts.

12The same atmosphere of the lost Paradise is utilised by Waldemar Świerzy.17 His green snake, curling among flowers and stars at the bottom of a sky-like heart, suggesting the presence of evil forces in Messina.18

13Another group of symbols is constituted by so-called “stage pictures”19 with which Shakespeare, and the poster designer, seem to “lead the careful onlooker through the experience of the play.”20 The pictures on the stage, motionless within the frames of theatre posters, become the visual indications of the scenes considered as “a dramatic milestone a distance-maker, familiar and arresting because seen before, which furthers as well as marks the readers’ guided progress across a [play’s] landscape […] a repetition with a variation that advances the narrative.”21 Like Shakespeare, poster artists guide the viewer along confusing dramatic lines with the referential points selected from a fixed group of symbols and images. Thus, when facing posters repeatedly depicting carnival masks or ball decorations, the viewer not only expects corresponding scenes in Much Ado About Nothing but also assumes that they are meaningful22. Accordingly, the masked scenes and ceremonial events, repeated in the text, on stage and in posters, constitute breakthrough moments regarding, for instance, the development or exposure of Shakespeare’s characters. What is more, such corresponding scenes provide the viewer with an opportunity and space to notice more: “[t]he parallels [repeated stage arrangements or poster motifs] emphasize the differences […] Thus the audience is looking at what it saw before but is being forced to see more intensely.”23 Once the attention of the poster viewer is attracted by a repeated scene (a mask ball at the beginning and masked wedding ceremony closing the play) built up with both verbal and visual means, the scene becomes for him a referential element regarding further textual interpretations.

Lex Drewinski’s Much Ado About Nothing24

14Judged against international and a small number of Polish posters25 designed for Much Ado About Nothing, the work of Lex Drewinski stands out as particularly thought-provoking, pointing at the darker side of the play. Instead of prompting the viewer to regard Much Ado About Nothing as a light-hearted comedy of courtly love affairs taking place in a carnival atmosphere, the designer offers an image awaking disturbing emotions.

15The artist operates within a range of simple but ambiguous elements like an ordinary black spider against a red background covering the whole poster surface. The spider is proceeding across the surface towards the title of the play white simple letters trapped between two lines introducing the author’s name (the upper one) and the theatre’s name (the lower one) both in a dark red colour (as if it were black letters covered with red transparent ink).

16The dualistic nature of red colour seems to stay in agreement with the interpretation of the “merry war” concept. Thus, on the one hand, the poster viewer immediately associates the fiery hue with youth, vitality, love and life, all of those positive notions the colour signifies. On the other hand, it triggers negative associations like war and violence, the destructive force of fire, bleeding wounds; or hatred and egoism associated with the idea of war; but these are also the possible consequences of Claudio’s egoism and hatred towards wronged Hero.26

17Shakespeare’s characters seem to interpret the blush red appearing, for instance, on Hero’s countenance in various manners. The colour is said to catch the attention of males as being connected with promiscuity; therefore, deceived by Don John, Claudio immediately associates the redness of Hero’s cheeks with the stigmata of a fallen woman:


Behold how like a maid she blushes here!

O, what authority and show of truth

Can cunning sin cover itself withal!

Comes not that blood as modest evidence

To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,

All you that see her, that she were a maid,

By these exterior shows? But she is none;

She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.

Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty. (IV.1.32-41)27

18Although even in the Bible red signifies sin, the Friar interprets the shades on Hero’s face in an opposite manner:

                        I have marked

A thousand blushing apparitions

To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames

In angel whiteness beat away those blushes;

And in her eye there hath appeared a fire

To burn the errors that these princes hold

Against her maiden truth. (Friar, IV.1.158-164)

19He relates it to the innocent nature of a young lady the same ardent colour characterises angels’ faces pointing at their spiritual purity.28 Significantly, it is the fact that in the visual tradition of north-western Europe, the same vivid colour is worn by Saint Mary, the Mother of Christ.29 Likewise, spiders are considered as creatures of a double nature. On the one hand, they are regarded as the embodiments of virtues, such as creativity, protectiveness, patience, persistence, but also as Divine Creators, biblical Protectors of Holiness, and Mother figures.30 They also indicate well-being, love and happiness, especially in the Polish folklore traditions where a significant number of spiders living in a household implies that there are young spinsters ready to be wed.31 On the other hand, they are considered predators, cunning hunters and tricksters. Their evil acts are copied by Shakespeare’s characters who ensnare confine careless figures like Beatrice and Benedick in tricky love games, or weaker creatures like Claudio in the social conventions requiring, among other, a good marriage to be a worthy courtier. Such spiders are mischievous beings; their malice involves the application of slow venom, which kills the victims in the same manner as the toxic words articulated by Don John or Claudio.

20The image causes a kind of discomfort for the poster viewer. This is due to the lack of a defined central point that would balance the forces governing the image.32 The letters in the top right-hand corner are pushed towards the frames as if they were trying to escape from the approaching spider. The creature is more stable than the letters though it is still fighting against forces working on the frames and in the centre, pushing itself in the upper direction. Additionally, due to the shadows cast by the spider’s legs, the poster viewer gets the sense that the spider alone is three-dimensional, crawling across a flat red surface. In this manner, the viewer’s unease is increased.

21The spider nature of poisonous slanders, tricksters, crafty spinners and untamed female beasts, is at least partly shared by numerous characters appearing in Much Ado About Nothing: Claudio “killing” Hero with false accusations; Don John tricking a young warrior and his guardian; Don Pedro weaving the web of love intrigues and catching their victims in an illusion of romance; and, finally, Beatrice whose role, though not so obvious, might be associated with a mythical tale involving spiders.

22Like in Sillars’ art interpretations, Drewinski’s poster provides the viewer with visual clues. They generate additional material allowing us to carry out a critical analysis of Shakespeare’s characters. Considering the Renaissance art traditions, the designer’s spider might point to a Greek myth telling the story about Athena and Arachne.33 Understood in such a manner, visual allusions of the poster seem to reveal a character of the relationship between Beatrice and Hero. They support the idea of the association between these women’s nature and the mythical world, which is suggested also in the drama’s lines:

She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too. Come, talk not of her, you shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel. (Benedick about Beatrice, II.1.231-234)


You seem to me as Dian in her orb,

As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;

But you are more intemperate in your blood

Than Venus (Claudio about Hero, IV.1.56-60).

24Regarding African and North American folklore, the spider is surrounded with different associations. He becomes a god-trickster. Equally as bad as excusable, the creature finds its embodiment in the aristocratic figures like Don Pedro or Don John. Placing themselves above society, they take pleasure in controlling the situation and deciding upon the fate of their unwitting victims or protégés.

25The universal character of poster art attracts the attention of viewers from a wide range of cultural backgrounds. Consequently, generating numerous connotations, Drewinski’s spider might be recognised as a symbolic reference to pop culture icons taken directly from the literary and visual sources of the 20th century. The spider and all Shakespeare’s characters accordingly might be approached and studied in the context of Tolkien’s Shelob, Rowling’s Aragog or Peter Parker alias Spiderman. Therefore, the red background underlines the anxiety associated with Shelob and Aragog, creatures of a vicious nature and an unsatisfied hunger; or the uneasiness experienced by a humble boy with social and emotional problems. Thus, when encountering Drewinski’s poster, the younger generation might expect to see something dangerous on the stage. These issues are worth further consideration.

The story of Arachne and Athena

26Antiquity attracted the attention of Renaissance artists. Their professional interests were extended to verbal and visual conceptions of astral mythology, ancient astrology, and the Olympian gods and goddesses.34 Shakespeare exploited the same range of sources, employing Greek or Roman motifs in his works. Much Ado About Nothing is not an exception. Shakespeare’s figures share some features with the ancient gods, goddesses and beauties, like Cupid, Hymen, Jove, Diana, Venus, Europe, all mentioned in the play; or with other divine creatures like Athena suggested indirectly. Keeping in mind all these indications, the audience might be open to associate Drewinski’s poster, for instance, with Arachne’s story described by Ovid and depicted by Diego Rodríguez De Silva y Velázquez in The Spinners, or the Fable of Arachne, 1655-1660.35


Las Hilanderas, Spinners or the Fable of Arachne, Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velázquez, 1655-1660

©Prado Museum (167cm x 252 cm)

27Diego Velázquez’s painting constitutes the putative visual source of Lex Drewinski’s work and seems to become a comment on Much Ado About Nothing. The image is arranged along three main loci where Arachne’s story gradually unfolds. As a narrative painting, it introduces temporal and three-dimensional notions. Accordingly, the foreground is populated by five female figures, with the two main characters of the Arachne myth among them Athena disguised as a matron in black attire, with a white shawl covering her grey hair. She is situated behind a spinning wheel on the left-hand side. Her young opponent, Arachne, wearing a long, dark blue skirt and white shirt. Sitting with her back to the audience on the right-hand side, she isremoving the yarn from the stand and rolling it into a ball whereas Athena is spinning the spindle. The working women are assisted by three young servants located symmetrically on the left, on the right and in the centre of the image.36

28The female servant in red skirt, white shirt and dark vest crouching in the middle of the foreground, focuses and directs the audience’s attention towards the next locus, which is significantly narrowed by the plain walls of the front chamber and separated from it by two steps. Therefore, behind the back of the girl in red, there is a kind of stage, occupied by three ladies observing a performance. The lady in a gold dress situated on the left-hand side is resting her hand on a “viole de gambe”, utterly absorbed in the performance happening in front of her eyes. Two other ladies, on the right-hand side, are almost equally fascinated with the evolving scene, though in contrast to the girl in a blue dress standing with her back to the audience, the one wearing a red dress is turning towards the outside world as if she were inviting all the observers to accompany them. The further narrowing perspective generates the final scene where Athena, in her traditional outfit, is raising the hand armed with a “boxwood shuttle” towards the devastated Arachne, who is spreading her arms in a gesture of submission. This final action is portrayed against a decorative tapestry revealing the tragic story of Europe kidnapped by Jove. The work with which Arachne is said to have won the competition is actually Titian’s painting The Rape of Europe from c. 1560-1562:

Titian is unequivocal about the fact that this is a scene of rape: Europe sprawled helplessly on her back, her clothes in disarray. At the same time, he conveys the mythic import of the story: that is, to be coerced by a god is no ordinary human experience of sexual violence. Rather it is a terrifying but transformative experience of supernatural possession or ecstasy, which may have a positive outcome.37

29The image introducing the indecent behaviour of a mighty god closes the whole story narrated by Velazquez’s work.

30One detail, a red curtain on the left-hand side, changes Velazquez’s painting from a casual image of a domestic action into a painting of an ambiguous nature. The curtain is an artistic suggestion of an additional content, alternative meanings or less obvious interpretations of the painting, which are to be revealed in front of the viewer.38 In the artistic tradition, the curtain implies the prestigious character of the composition.39 Similarly, the curtain elevates the genre scene to the level of a mythological theme standing higher in the hierarchy of art form genres.40 Hence, the viewer is susceptible to recognize in painted figures different incarnations of Athena, Arachne, or “curious nymphs” mentioned by Ovid:

Eager to witness her [Arachne’s] dexterity,

Deserted the lush vineyards of Timolus;

Or even left the cool and flowing streams

Of bright Pactolus, to admire the cloth,

Or to observe her deftly spinning wool. (VI.20-24)41

31The whole scene is, consequently, identified as a competition between an unworthy mortal and the goddess.

32The curtains or space arranged as a quasi-stage promises the viewer a theatrical experience, a fictional story which is to be narrated by the painting. What is more, the very composition of the work underlines the onlooker’s engagement in this imagined universe of divine creatures. The compositional layout directs the viewer’s attention towards its furthest loci. This notion of guidance is additionally enhanced by one of the ladies turning towards the real audience and urging them to focus on the central action Arachne’s drama and her tapestry handing in the stage background. The converging perspective establishes the vanishing point emphasizing the importance of the allegory of art and Arachne’s tragedy, disclosed by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.42 Portrayed by Velázquez, Ovid’s tale unfolds the history of a weaving competition between Athena/Minerva, the goddess and Arachne, the daughter of a humble man, a dyer from Colophon.43 The girl ignores the divine source of her skills and has to face the consequences:

All this Minerva heard; and she approved

Their songs and their resentment; but her heart

Was brooding thus, “It is an easy thing

To praise another, I should do as they:

No creature of the earth should ever slight

The majesty that dwells in me, − without

Just retribution.” − So her thought was turned

Upon the fortune of Arachne − proud,

Who would not ever yield to her the praise

Won by the art of deftly weaving wool,

A girl who had not fame for place of birth,

Nor fame for birth, but only fame for skill! (VI.1-12)

33Although Arachne challenges the goddess (“Let her contend / In art with me; and if her skill prevails, / I then will forfeit all!” (VI.35-37), Athena decides to rebuke the ungrateful young woman. She appears in front of her in the disguise of an old woman:

Arachne, scowling with an evil face.

Looked at the goddess, as she dropped her thread.

She hardly could restrain her threatening hand,

And, trembling in her anger, she replied

To you, disguised Minerva: (VI.51-55)

34Once the girl challenges Athena even more eagerly, the goddess reveals herself and the contest starts. Both weavers select motifs associated with gods, but their approach differs. Athena portraits the celestial gods and, in the corners of her work, she displays the tragic results of god-human competitions:

And, so Arachne, rival of her fame,

Might learn the folly of her mad attempt,

From the great deeds of ancient histories,

And what award presumption must expect,

Minerva wove four corners with life scenes

Of contest, brightly coloured, but of size

Diminutive. (VI.70-86)

35The scenes by Arachne bring the stories of unworthy competitors punished with the transformation “to those rigid forms [the mountains, a crane, a stork or the temple steps]” whenever they aspire to “rival the high gods” (VI.90-91). Arachne’s answer highlights the gods’ susceptibility to the feminine charms of human beauties. She conjures forth the stories of how the gods conduct tricks and deceptions to win the bodies of Asteria, Leda, Antiope or Europe “the scenes / That showed those wicked actions of the Gods.” (VI.168).

36Because both works are equally beautiful, the flawless art of Arachne causes Athena’s anger:

Minerva could not find a fleck or flaw −

Even Envy cannot censure perfect art −

Enraged because Arachne had such skill

She ripped the web, and ruined all the scenes

That showed those wicked actions of the Gods;

And with her boxwood shuttle in her hand,

Struck the unhappy mortal on her head, −

Struck sharply thrice, and even once again. (VI.164-171)

37Eventually, the young girl is unable to handle Athena’s reaction and her accusations. The wrath of a mighty goddess pushes the miserable girl to commit suicide, which seems to be the only decent solution for this young girl.44 However, Athena, a solicitous though an offended goddess pities the young mortal. She:

Sustained and saved her from that bitter death;

But, angry still, pronounced another doom:

“Although I grant you life, most wicked one,

Your fate shall be to dangle on a cord,

And your posterity forever shall

Take your example, that your punishment

May last forever!” Even as she spoke,

Before withdrawing from her victim's sight,

She sprinkled her with juice − extract of herbs

Of Hecate. (VI.176-185)

38Under the influence of the poisonous herbs administered by Athena, poor Arachne undergoes a dramatic transformation into a spider: “whence / She vented a fine thread; and ever since, / Arachne, as a spider, weaves her web.” (VI.192-194).

39Ovid’s tale and Diego Velázquez’s painting introduce two significant female characters. By provoking a range of literary and visual references, Lex Drewinski’s poster juxtaposes the fate of Shakespeare’s dramatic figures with mythical creatures. It allows the viewer to approach Hero and Beatrice (and also Benedick as Jove) in the context of Arachne and Athena’s characteristics. Consequently, it is possible to recognize in Beatrice a Renaissance version of a mother-less goddess; in Hero a weak and silly human being; in Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship the one between Europe and Jove, at least according to Claudio; or in the whole plot of the play, a world woven from the illusion, where heroes and heroines are trapped in the web of imposed relationships.

Beatrice as Athena/Minerva and a Spider girl

40By depicting a spider, Lex Drewinski’s poster suggests the connotations between Athena’s figure, which might be used

to create meaning or critical comment through the dialogue established between its original meaning − a moment of high moral election that would decide the future life of a hero in classical epic − and that which it carried in its new setting, comically or satirically inappropriate to this ethical elevation.45

41Due to the visual allusion to the Arachne myth, the designer provides the audience with critical milieu for constructing an alternative analysis of both Beatrice and her relationship with Hero.

42Athena is said to be small in stature, a motherless daughter of Zeus.46 The viewer or reader of Much Ado About Nothing possesses a basic knowledge of Beatrice’s origins, limited only to the information concerning her relation to Leonato as his niece. Shakespeare conceals any direct information regarding her parents, but he appoints Leonato her guardian. He is a father of Hero who might feel uneasy every time Beatrice advises his daughter on love affairs and romance (II.1.3-73) or when she displays a hostile approach to marriage or men:


By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue.


Just, if he send me no husband; for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening. Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen.



Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.


Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. […] truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred. (II.1.50-57)

44According to Robert Ornstein, Beatrice “prides herself on her independence and self-sufficiency. Although her society assumes that she must marry to have a place in the scheme of things, she has no need of a man to protect her and she cannot imagine treating any man as her lord and master.”47 Athena despises love affairs and marriages with similar stubbornness, being occupied by other vital issues, for instance competing with other gods for the patronage over Greek cities.48 However, both females are considered desirable beauties, whether by amorous gods or Benedick:

I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter: there’s her cousin, and she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. (I.1.179-182)

They say the lady is fair; ’tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous; ’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise, but for loving me; by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. (II.3.222-227)49

45Beatrice is less rough or inaccessible than Athena a virgin;but intellectually and physically both women equal male opponents or even surpass them.

46Although Athena’s armour adorned with Medusa’s head and her spear signify the martial character of this goddess, she does not find pleasure in acts of killing like her brother Ares.50 Her primary objective is to protect those who are treacherously attacked.51 War is always treated seriously by her, but whenever possible she endeavours to settle conflicts peacefully, treating military solutions as a last resort. Athena’s most powerful weapon is her intellect and cleverness.52 She and Beatrice seem to share these features. However, the Shakespeare character, deprived of the male privilege of violent revenge, has no other choice but to use her wit:


Is ’a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O, that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour? O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place. (IV.1.300-305)

47Beatrice uses her intellect and cunning to manipulate men like Benedick, and to achieve her goals for instance, revenge.

48Athena is susceptible to losing her temper, getting angry or even cruel features which reveal themselves in Arachne’s tale. Nevertheless, she is also capable of self-reflection and improvement. Similarly, though deprived of armour, shield, spear or Zeus’s aegis, Beatrice is a woman whose anger and outrage change her into a figure as dangerous as the goddess Athena especially when her cousin Hero is falsely accused of adultery.

49What is more, when at some point Beatrice is made either honestly or on purpose aware of her weaknesses, which are according to Hero the pride and scorn;


… But Nature never framed a woman's heart

Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice;

Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,

Misprising what they look on, and her wit

Values itself so highly that to her

All matter else seems weak: she cannot love,

Nor take no shape nor project of affection,

She is so self-endeared. (III.1.49-56)

50Beatrice decides to offset her behaviour: “Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much? / Contempt, farewell; and maiden pride, adieu; / No glory lives behind the back of such” (III.1.108-110).

51Formed by the juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s lines against Ovid’s and Velazquez’s works, the chain of visual and verbal associations makes possible the link between Beatrice and the ancient deity of war and cunning, putting Beatrice on the same level with, for instance, Don Pedro who pretends to be Cupid. Consequently, the references and allusions to mythological beings provide Beatrice with the authority appropriate for a goddess.53

52However, when calling herself“uncle’s fool,” Beatrice declares also the alacrity to represent the divine god of love in shooting contest with Benedick: “He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt.”(I.1.36-39)54 In this witty manner, the lady might herself imply the rightful place among Olympic creatures or in male society.

53Such divine connections, according to Stuart Sillars, “demonstrate a common habit of appropriating earlier forms to give authority […] to a living figure.”55 Beatrice is elevated above all other female characters, equalised with authoritative men such as the Prince of Aragon, and consequently allowed to express her opinions freely. Therefore, she converses with male characters with unrestrained freedom, revealing her female-originated and male-originated features. Accordingly, on the one hand, “even as she rejects the gentility and propriety […], she takes advantage of her femaleness to make the kind of remarks to Benedick that would be intolerable from a man;”56 when engaged in male-dominated conversations or teasing, Beatrice usually avoids losing her female dignity or social status in doing so. On the other hand,

male banter is a kind of verbal version of the secret handshake, cementing bonds and denoting hierarchy in much the same manner as the exchange of women. One of the reasons Beatrice is perceived to be ‘an excellent wife for Benedick’ (II.1.324) is that she talks so much like the men in the play (in the play’s original staging, Beatrice’s verbal masculinity would have been underscored by the fact of a boy actor playing the role).57

54Consequently, her voice in dialogues is valued and considered by men, proving her strong social identity. She becomes an Athena among Shakespeare’s male characters seen as the Olympic gods.

55The critical reflection on Hero reveals some features which might be found also in Arachne. Judging from Ovid’s and Shakespeare’s descriptions, both girls seem to be psychologically weak and inexperienced adolescents. Although quite resolute when criticising their older companions, the direct accusations and public humiliation unnerve them both leading to their “death.” Hero and Arachne die only to be resurrected as entirely transformed creatures.58 The idea of transformation finds its realisation in Shakespeare’s female figure becoming a new character, a pure bride and Arachne changing into another creature, a spider.59

56Velasquez’s painting and Ovid’s tale are, of course, not the only sources of Arachne’s image. Another, literary source is introduced by Dante in Canto 12 of Purgatory: “O mad Arachne! So I thee beheld / E’en then half spider, sad upon the shreds / Of fabric wrought in evil hour for thee!”60 The poet recognizes in her the embodiment of punished pride. This encounter is not accidental because he is in fact there to look down at her, become familiar with the sin of Pride, and discover it in himself all to become humble again. We learn that Pride becomes a sin only when associated with “contempt for those that you think are below you”: “So the humility and pride really have to go hand in hand and one attenuates and changes the meaning of the other.”61 Both emotions are experienced by our Hero, whose pride is followed by the willingness to pull Beatrice down.

Hero chimes in: ‘I will do any modest office, my lord, to help my cousin to a good husband!’ Her earnestness betrays the real motive of the three of them [Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio]. Beatrice and Benedick are aloof and superior; the conversational world wants to bring them within its orbit.62

57Hero does not spare her cousin, criticizing Beatrice’s behaviour and attitude towards men. She does it because “in her father’s own household, she has been eclipsed by her cousin.”63

Messina as Mount Olympus

58The preliminary interpretation of the poster locates Shakespeare’s drama within the borders of an imaginary Messina reminiscent of Mount Olympus populated with mythological gods, goddesses and their mortal lovers, servants and heroes. Almost everything that happens there is subordinated to pseudo-divine interventions and desires of the nobility. The inhabitants of Messina, as well as their visitors, seem to be deprived of their power to make independent decisions.

59However, their “gods” and “heroes”(Don Pedro/Cupid and Jove, Beatrice/Athena and Dian, Benedick/Hercules and Jove, Hero/Dian and Venus) are merciful and forgiving, and, what is most crucial, their primary objective is to keep the subordinates constantly joyful.

60For instance, Don Pedro considers himself another Cupid who should be regarded as superior to the rest of Messina society though at the same time slightly detached from the party. He is “transformed […] to a type of ‘deus ex machina,’ one of the ‘only love gods’ (II.1.357),”64 with the power to appoint other characters like Hero and Ursula, as ladies-in-waiting at the court of Cupid. His Cupid-like trick “is that these two [Benedick and Beatrice] who pride themselves on their intellectual distance from human foibles will become, in love, a spectacle for others, unwitting of the deception practised upon them.”65 While plotting against Benedick and Beatrice, Don Pedro retains his “love god” position, which was already indicated at the mask ball when he won Hero for Claudio (I.1.301-308).

61Messina seems to harbour other divine creatures, Hercules and Ate, who are mentioned by Benedick: “She [Beatrice] would have made Hercules [Benedick] have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire, too. Come, talk not of her, you shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel” (II.1.231-233). Obviously, Benedick regards himself as Hercules and Beatrice as the mighty goddess Ate, “the classical goddess of discord […], and eldest daughter of Zeus, beautiful in appearance but unusually clad in rags, and an instigator of the Trojan war.”66 While Benedick thus sees Beatrice as a powerful deity with agency to subdue other deities and cause discord, Claudio seems to regard Hero as an essentially passive incarnation of both the innocent Diana and corrupted Venus: “You seem to me as Dian in her orb, / As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown; / But you are more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus,” (IV.1.56-59). Male characters imagine themselves as gods judging and tricking women.67 However, eventually, it is Beatrice who overpowers men; and not only as the embodiment of mighty Athena but also as the goddess Diana:

Hero says about Beatrice that “I never yet saw man − / How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featured − / But she would spell him backward” (III.1.59-61); what she means is that Beatrice manages to convert any male virtue into a fault, but the phrase ‘spell … backward’ gives a sense of Beatrice’s power to pervert meanings through her facility with words, and her Diana-like ability to metamorphose both meanings and men.68

62In such a network of references and allusions, some characters are elevated to the position of divine creatures noting, eavesdropping or keeping themselves entertained at the expense of other, less lucky ones. What is more, Claire McEachern argues that “the prevalence of noting gives a sense of community closely, claustrophobically knit together” almost exactly as the audience might imagine the life among the Olympic gods.69 However, the textual and visual indications, provoked also by Drewinski’s poster, allowing the viewer to recognise in Beatrice the goddess of war or Don Pedro as Cupid, also provide a comic notion of fictional characters who are pretending to be someone else or someone better.

Where are these spiders?

63The image of a spider in Drewinski’s poster provides the viewer with wide interpretational frames. The first approach described above constitutes a male-ruled reality populated with divine creatures. Don Pedro, Don John, and even Leonato endeavour to maintain control over other characters’ emotions, desires, or fates; they establish intricate networks of mischiefs and lure their victims into traps: “the whole plan has been laid by Don Pedro after his conversation with Leonato in II.1: just as he remains in control of action in the play.”70

64Don John and Don Pedro are a pair of significant characters who interfere in mortals existence whenever there is a chance either to cause distress or to display their authority. As superior figures standing above the average citizens, they are immediately forgiven for their lack of remorse if Don Pedro sinned it was only “but in mistake” (V.1.264-265) and they are not to bear any consequences even when they misbehave: “If you meet the / Prince in the night you may stay him. […] He may stay him marry, not without the prince be willing.” (III.3.73-74, 77-78).

65Consequently, both aristocratic figures display characteristics associating them with greedy spiders.71 They are like Anansi or Iktomi, god-tricksters introduced as spiders in the iconography of African and American cultures.72 In literature, god-tricksters are characterised as clever, deceitful and selfish figures. Michael Carroll distinguishes three main features/incarnations defining tricksters’ place in myths. First of all, a trickster is “the ‘selfish buffoon,’ he practices enormous cruelties upon others in attempting […] to gratify his own desires [his almost constant hunger or seemingly uncontrollable desire for sexual intercourse].”73 The god is called a “buffoon” because his doings “often backfire and leave the trickster looking incredibly foolish.”74Secondly, this divine buffoon plays a crucial role concerning the development of human culture.75 Carroll understands a trickster as “a type of culture hero […], a transformer who makes the world habituated for humans by ridding it of monsters or who provides those things […] that make human society possible.”76 Finally, the critic argues that a trickster is characterised by his “solitary habits […] the Trickster is disassociated with culture.”77

66Levi-Strauss supplements this enumeration with an additional comment concerning the nature of tricksters. According to his studies, such figures possess a vital mediating function: they are placed “half-way between two polar terms like life and death.”78 Consequently, they “must retain something of that duality, namely an ambiguous and equivocal character.”79” What is more, the trickster “may be endowed with contradictory attributes; for instance, he may be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time.”80The general, god-figure associations are justified regarding Don Pedro, primarily due to his pretence that he is “the only love-god”(II.1.337), that he holds the amorous power over Beatrice and Benedick, and that he is capable of mesmerising Hero with “love of other men’s women.”81 However, he also exhibits the features of a god-trickster.

67Richard Levin claims that Don Pedro is of an ambiguous nature, neither entirely positive nor negative. The Prince wants to be considered Claudio’s guardian, the one who shapes the young character or influences his decisions. It is quite easy because the youth is prone to manipulations: “Claudio mistrusts his own judgement and is very much concerned to find a wife highly regarded by others.”82 As a supportive master, Don Pedro wins Hero’s hand for Claudio but his acts seem to be not entirely honest. According to Levin, he has three motives when approaching Leonato’s daughter on behalf of the youth: “He will help his young friend. He will encourage in him a feeling of gratitude. And third, he will find for himself a role on an occasion when his own failure to woo would otherwise be noticeable.”83 Not without pretences, Don Pedro’s amorous treatments happen to cause some misunderstandings: Claudio, teased by Don John, experiences the notion of betrayal and inferiority. What is more, Don Pedro’s behaviour prevents the growth of the emotional bond between the young couple by separating them and depriving them of intimacy. Although he does not suffer from a constant hunger or sexual desire, it is possible to detect a great need for control and manipulation in this figure.

68Don Pedro seems to provoke situations that result in undermining Claudio’s decisions. For instance, once he becomes aware of the marriage’s inevitability, Don Pedro wonders as Levin interprets it “whether his friend realizes that marriage alters all of a man’s previous relationships, even his relationship to a patron.”84 According to the same critic, Don Pedro makes Claudio uneasy by mentioning the sexual pleasure associated with conjugal nights. Consequently, the young man, experiences, on the one hand, an uncomfortable notion associated with the idea of losing the Prince’s patronage, and on the other, hand, the embarrassment when the idea of marriage is compared to satisfying immature desires: “Nay, that would be as great of your marriage as to show a child his new coat and forbid him to wear it.” (III.2.3). Levin suggests that Don Pedro describes Claudio as “a foolish young lover” and forces him to declare his constant willingness to remain “the companion of an urbane and elegant prince.”85 When it is revealed that Don Pedro has been wrong about Hero, the Prince endeavours to avoid any consequences, “distancing himself from the crime”, and does not want to “confront […] the wrong [he has] done.”86 Don Pedro pretends to be a responsible man and apologies but eventually leaves the moral compensation to Claudio’s conscience:


I know not how to pray your patience.

Yet I must speak. Choose your revenge yourself.

Impose me to what penance your invention

Can lay upon my sin: yet sinned I not

But in mistaking.

Don Pedro

                              By my soul, nor I.

And yet, to satisfy this good old man.

I would bend under any heavy weight

That he’ll enjoin me to. (V.1.261-268)

69Therefore, after hearing the instructions of repayment, it is only Claudio who declares the willingness to perform: “O noble sir, / Your over-kindness doth wring tears from me! / I do embrace your offer; and dispose / For henceforth of poor Claudio” (V.1.282-285), while Don Pedro remains silent. The superior man seems to prove unworthy to maintain the role of a moral guide for his young friend.

70Claudio, an inexperienced follower of the Prince, like Hero, is a young, naïve character “anxious for the approval of his elders and convention, unsure of himself, eager to do the right thing both in marrying and in extricating himself from a bad bargain.”87As a person of low self-esteem and with an absolute confidence in mature guides, Claudio constitutes an ideal prey also for Don John, another spider, god-trickster. Don Pedro manipulates his young companion, but it is Don John who causes more pain when pretending to be a caring person.88 However, according to Levin it is not obvious that Don Pedro’s role in the play is to “create love” and Don John’s is to “destroy it”; “the ‘melodramatic’ distinction between brothers becomes blurred so that we are prepared to see some of Don John’s ill in his brother.89 The preys caught in the “spread net”must eventually be happy because, as it is mentioned above, it is characteristic for god-spiders to be at least partly unsuccessful in their intrigues. They try to satisfy their desires manipulation and revenge but they are also doomed to failure. Both selfish and of a dubious nature, they are finally excluded from society. Don John escapes but once caught, he is separated from the rest and awaits punishment (V.4.123-126), whereas Don Pedro, remaining unmarried and with no wife-to-be, cannot join the final merry dance.

Further research perspectives

71In Western European culture, the image of a spider awakes numerous associations. The fantasy books’ readers might connect such a creature with evil characters introduced by J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien.

72In the series about a young wizard, a giant spider appears in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.90 The creature is a greedy friend of Hagrid, named Aragog. As a dangerous species, it lives in the Forbidden Forest with other Acromantulas, its permanently hungry offspring. Although, finally, in Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, the spidery children betray their protector and hand him to Voldemort, Aragog himself is more difficult to define; like Don Pedro and Don John (at least in Levin’s reading), he is more of an ambiguous character.91 Consequently, Drewinski’s Much Ado About Nothing indicates the ambiguity and magic nature of Shakespeare’s characters. The first assumption is to connect this spider with both Don Pedro and Don John who are quite difficult to define regarding the nature of their intentions. Sometimes their actions are dictated by the need of pleasure or good laughter, and sometimes by the craving for revenge. Further studies might reveal more possible interrelations.

73Another well-known spider emerges in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit; or There and Back Again and The Lord of the Rings.92 According to an interview carried out by Ruth Harshaw on January 15, 1957, Tolkien admitted that he introduces spiders in the Hobbit to frighten young readers, especially his son who was apprehensive of these creatures.93 Therefore, Tolkien’s spiders are dark creatures, who suffer from constant hunger.94 Being exceptionally cruel to their victims, they prolong the agony of the caught victims as long as possible only to enjoy the very act of killing, or better to say eating.

74In The Lord of the Rings the travellers, Frodo and Sam confront the descendant of Ungolianta, Shelob who occupies the mountain tunnels of Mordor.95 She is an incessantly hungry, ugly and cunning creature. Although the spider hates light, signifying here well-being, happiness and love, she does not belong to the supporters of the Dark Lord. According to George H. Thompson, Shelob represents the embodiment of an evil, destructive force, constituting an adversary of Frodo, the “pure hero” who has to confront her.96

75The most Shelob-like creature in Much Ado About Nothing ambiguous, vengeful yet not entirely devilish is probably Don John.97 He is driven by the willingness to devastate other’s existence, acting against his victims (either exploiting the good intentions of his guardian or the innocence of a girl), using poisonous insinuations.98 In this case too, further studies might reveal some alternative understanding of Shakespeare’s characters.

76Finally, reaching for other interpretations of Drewinski’s spider, the viewer might identify it with Claudio who, like Spiderman, has identity problems, and undergoes a vital change from a soldier into a married man. Peter Parker suffers from a “marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women” which is a quite accurate description of Claudio’s struggles. Both might be considered as the young generation representatives who are forced to face various problematic situations.99 It is possible to discover many more similarities between these two young boys; for instance, they are in sore need of more mature guardians. However, Peter is not as fortunate as Claudio,since except for his uncle Ben (who unfortunately dies too soon), he is deprived of a positive role model. Other potential father-figures turn out to be vicious, weak and evil creatures. Claudio does have a guiding father figure, in the shape of Don Pedro, but, as has been argued above, Don Pedro’s selfishness masked as altruism, together with his refusal to shoulder responsibility, tend to render him more ambiguous than purely good.

77Claudio seems to be limited regarding the judgment about what is considered right and acceptable or disapproved of by the society into which he wants to fit. Although guided by the mature man, he still has his doubts. That is why he carefully searches for additional guidance, opinions and help, especially in affairs of the heart. Spiderman experiences the same uncertainty concerning relationships; however, there are no men like Don Pedro or Benedick who might instruct him.100 In addition to their diffidence in matters of lovePeter Parker and Claudio share a general insecurity and clumsiness. All these parallels show that Shakespeare manages to construct a universal and perennial approach to people and their existence. Consequently, the further research of pop culture heroes based on Shakespeare’s figures is another path to explore in studying his dramas.

78Drewinski’s poster manages to portray the ambiguous atmosphere of Shakespeare’s drama. It is due to red and black colours whose appearance awakes positive and negative associations respectively. We also see the arrangement of the selected elements, spider and letters, employed by the artist in the manner that makes the viewer uneasy when confronting the poster a black creature which seems to chase the letterings across the poster surface and trap them in its corner.

79However, by positioning Drewinski’s work in the context of ancient traditions, Renaissance visual and literary culture and, finally 20th-century pop culture, the poster unquestionably generates a range of interpretations. Firstly, the poster directs the viewer’s attention towards Ovid’s story, illustrated by Velázquez and commented by Dante, where, instead of Athena and Arachne, the audience casts Beatrice now regarded as a mighty goddess equal to any man or god, and Hero, a naïve, proud but wronged girl. Secondly, it provides the foundation to connect Messina, a Sicilian city founded by the Greeks and occupied by, among others, the Romans with the ancient world of gods, where Shakespeare’s characters discover their divine alter egos: Don Pedro Cupid and Jove, Beatrice Athena and Dian, Benedick Hercules and Jove, Hero Dian and Venus, etc. This only proves how crucial the knowledge of mythology is to appreciate the god-like figures appearing in the play. Thirdly, the poster suggests the possibility of seeing Don Pedro and Don John in the framework of god-spiders whose nature has been analysed by Claude Levi-Strauss, Richard Levin or indirectly by Sigmund Freud. These analyses allow the poster viewer to have a sufficient insight into both Don Pedro and Don John, their manners of making decisions, their intentions and nature in general. Finally, the design points at the modern incarnations of spiders in literature and visual culture, indirectly connecting Don John, Don Pedro or Claudio, with characters, on the one hand from J.K. Rowling’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, and on the other hand, from comic books and films following the adventures of Spiderman. Popular culture provides further contexts for Shakespeare drama studies which are worth to be explored.

80The art and literary associations provided by the poster become a vital contribution to the critical studies of Much Ado About Nothing. A group of graphic motifs signifying amorous adventures, deceptions, masquerades, transformations, competitions, etc., is complemented with additional interpretations. These alternative approaches seem to be deeply rooted in Greek and Roman mythology, African and American traditions and popular culture. Due to colours, lettering, images and poster compositional solutions, the viewer is encouraged to search for other meanings. Consequently, this visual key, Drewinski’s poster, opens up a wholly new can of worms or should I say, jar of spiders.


1  All quotations are taken from William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Claire McEachern (ed.), Arden Shakespeare, London, Bloomsbury, 2007.

2  Stuart Sillars, Painting Shakespeare. The Artist as Critic 1720-1820, Cambridge, CUP, 2006.

3  Zdzisław Schubert, Mistrzowie plakatu i ich uczniowie, ed. Jan Koźbiel, Warszawa, Przedsiębiorstwo Wydawnicze Rzeczpospolita SA, 2008, p. 100.

4  Ibid., p. 100.

5  Ewa Kruszewska, “Golden Age of the Art of Poster”, in Krzysztof Dydo (ed.), Polish Theatre. Poster 1899 - 1999, Kraków, Krzysztof Dydo Galeria Plakatu, 2000, p. 43.

6  Maria Kurpik, “Theatrical Poster of Inter-War Period in a Collection of the Wilanów Museum of Poster”, in Krzysztof Dydo (ed.), Polish Theater. Poster 1899 - 1999, Kraków, Krzysztof Dydo Galeria Plakatu, 2000, p. 35.

7  Mirko Ilić, Steven Heller, Presenting Shakespeare. 1,100 Posters from Around the World, New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2015, p. 86-91.

8  James Black, “The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet”, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 15.2 (1975), p. 246.

9  Ibid., p. 246.

10  Krzysztof Dydo (ed.), Polish Theatre. Poster 1899 - 1999, Kraków, Krzysztof Dydo Galeria Plakatu, 2000. p. 615.

11  Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology. Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Oxford, Westview Press, 1967, p. 117.

12  Id.

13  Mirko Ilić, op. cit., p. 88. Web 01.03.2018.

14  Of course, the female side is represented by a more gifted party.

15  Mirko Ilić, op. cit., p. 86. Web 01.03.2018Web 01.03.2018. A poster by Maris Argalis (1979) for Lenin Komsomol State Youth Theatre of Latvian SSR, Latvia. An alternative version of Argalis’s poster: Web 01.03.2018

16  The viewer might identify Adam and Eve with, for instance, Claudio and Hero both initially innocent figures who he learns to be of a weak nature, easily beguiled; with Claudio ready to falsely accuse Hero of her being unfaithful. However, the dynamism of Dürer’s Eve underlined by her leg’s arrangement in an evident contrapposto seems to be more in Beatrice’s manner than in Hero’s.

17  Mirko Ilić, op. cit., p. 90.

18  Motyka’s snake reminds the viewer about a different Shakespearean beast: ‘the green-eyed monster’ (III.3.168) of jealousy from Othello. Both creatures prey on emotionally weaker beings.

19  James Black, op. cit., p. 246.

20  Id.

21  Ibid., p. 249.

22  Poster examples: Mirko Ilić, op. cit., p. 90 or Web 01.03.2018.

23  James Black, op. cit., p. 247.

24  Mirko Ilić, op. cit., p. 91. Web 01.03.2018.

25  I managed to find only three Polish posters because most performances have been probably advertised with simple leaflets.

26  Herder, Leksykon Symboli, Jerzy Prokopiuk (trans.), Lech Robakiewicz (ed.), Warszawa, tChu, 2009, p. 51.

27  Claudio indicates that it is Hero who should be parallel with the goddess of passionate love or a horny animal: “But you are more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus, or those pampered animals / That rage in savage sensuality” (Claudio, IV.1.58-60).

28  The mosaic in Sainte Maria Maggiore, Basilica in Rome, dated to the 5th century depicts red-faced angels (Dorothea O. Forstner, Świat symboliki chrześcijańskiej, Ryszard Zakrzewski, Wanda Pachciarek, Paweł Turzyński (eds.), Warszawa, Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1990, p. 118-119).

29  Virgin Mary paintings also very often present her in white or in blue attire.

30  Kim Dennis-Bryan, Nicola Hodgson, Nil Lockley (eds.), Signs & Symbols. An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings, London, Penguin Company, 2009, p. 77.

31  This is the traditional belief in Polish culture.

32  Rudolf Arnheim, Sztuka i percepcja wzrokowa. Psychologia twórczego oka, Łódź, officyna, 2004, p. 24.

33  The story is brought by one of William Shakespeare’s favourite authors, Ovid in his Metamorphoses.

34  It is worth to take in consideration that such a particular interest in the ancient culture is expressed already in the Middle Ages. Aby Warburg claims that “[s]o deeply was this peculiar interest in classical learning rooted in northern medieval cultures that in the earliest Middle Ages we already find a kind of illustrated handbook of mythology conceived for those two groups of people most needful of them painters and astrologers” (Aby Warburg, “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferarra” in Gert Schiff (ed.), Essays Art Hist. Winckelmann, Burckhardt, Panofsky, Others, New York, Continuum, 2004. p. 235). Later he adds “that an in-depth iconological analysis of the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia [Francesco del Cossa, c.1469] ought to reveal the twofold medieval tradition of the imagery of the classical gods” (Ibid., p. 236).

35  Zygmunt Kubiak, Mitologia Greków i Rzymian, Warszawa, Świat Książki, 1997, p. 230. The painting:

36  Grażyna Bastek identifies these women with three daughters of Zeus and Themis, who are called Moirai, goddesses of human fate: Clotho, the one who is spinning; Lachesis, who is stretching the yarn; and the darkest one Atropos, who is cutting the human thread of life (Grażyna Bastek, Michał Montowski, “Wszystkie tajemnice ‘Prządek’ Diego Velázqueza “, Jaki to Obraz, Warszawa, Polskie Radio Program 2, 2013).

37  The painting: 01.03.2018.

38  Antoni Ziemba, Iluzja a realizm. Gra z widzem w sztuce holenderskiej 1580-1660, Warszawa, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2016, p. 166.

39  In aristocratic households, the curtains were drawn to cover paintings either because of their value or due to their erotic messages. Once covered, they were inaccessible for incidental or female viewer. Artists introduce the motif of fabric partly covering the painted composition to indicate the unique value of the work; or its sexual character (Ibid., p. 158-166).

40  According to the history of art, mythological themes were perceived as more prestige and of greater culture value than everyday-life scenes. Ibid., p. 158.

41  Naso P. Ovidius, Metamorphoses, More Brookes (trans.), 1922. Web 17.10.2017.

42  Grażyna Bastek provides an alternative interpretation of the painting, associating it with a work by Latin poet Catullus describing the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (Grażyna Bastek, Michał Montowski, op. cit.).

43  “Her mother, also of the lower class, had died.” (Ovid, VI. 16-17). However, according to other sources, Arachne was a princess (Jan Parandowski, Mitologia, Warszawa, Czytelnik, 1972, p. 73).

44  Wanda Markowska, Mity Greków i Rzymian, Warszawa, Iskry, 1973, p. 44.

45  Stuart Sillars, op. cit., p. 10.

46  Zygmunt Kubiak, op. cit., p. 223-224. Athena either has no mother or the mother is mentioned indirectly as pregnant Metis swelled by Zeus. The god suffers from a great headache. He asks his son Hephaestus to hit his head with a huge axe, and from the crack emerges Athena.

47  Robert Ornstein, Shakespeare’s Comedies. From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1986, p. 125.

48  Jan Parandowski, op. cit., p. 71. Wanda Markowska, op. cit., p. 42.

49  Like Athena dismissed Hephaestus’s wooing, Beatrice declines Don Pedro’s marriage offer:

50  She is also called Athena Pallas, the one who shakes a spear.

51  Jan Parandowski, op. cit., p. 73.

52  Wanda Markowska, op. cit., p. 42.

53  There is another god Beatrice is juxtaposed with: Cupid.

54  Claire McEachern, “Comments” in William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, ed. Claire McEachern, London, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2013, p. 152.

55  Stuart Sillars, The Illustrated Shakespeare, 1709-1875, Cambridge, CUP, 2009, p. 6.

56  Robert Ornstein, op. cit., p. 125.

57  Claire McEachern, “Introduction” in William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, ed. Claire McEachern, London, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2013, p. 27.

58  Hero’s figure is based presumably on Fenicia from Matteo Bandello’s La Prima Parte de le Novelle from 1554. The original girl was said that with age her appearance had changed beyond recognition (Claire McEachern, p. 10).

59  As with other Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing follows the conventional motifs introduced by Ovid, especially the idea of transformation and animalistic notions:

60  Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatory, Courtney Langdon (trans.), Web 14.10.2017.

61  Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante in Translation, lecture 12, New Haven, Open Yale Courses, 2008.

62  Richard A. Levin, Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. A Study of Dramatic Form and Content, Newark, University of Delaware Press, 1986, p. 99.

63  Ibid., p. 100.

64  Claire McEachern, op. cit., p. 22.

65  Ibid., p. 49.

66  Ibid., p. 193. Don Pedro is in his own opinion potent enough to “undertake one of Hercules’s labours which is to bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’other.” (II.1.337-339). McEachern points at other mythical creatures mentioned in the drama: “Philemon’s roof” where Jove and Mercury find a shelter (II.1.85), the figure of Jove employed here as the alter ego of Don Pedro (Ibid., p. 183); “the wheels of Phoebus”, the Roman sun-god (V.3.26); and again, Jove, this time as the alter ago of Benedick, deceiving Europe:

67  A similar situation of gods tricking women constitutes the main motif of Arachne’s tapestry.

68  Claire McEachern, op. cit., p. 37.

69  Ibid., p. 60.

70  Stuart Sillars, 2006, op. cit., p. 289.

71  Don John demonstrates a limited ability to stage an entirely effective ambush comparing to his more distinguished half-brother. Furthermore, he at least has servants who support him with “good” ideas.

72  According to legends, Anansi is a trickster, creator and culture provider. He is regarded as a good spirit, supporting those who are weak and wronged as well as the spirit of all knowledge. Symbolizing a strong mind and cleverness, Anansi stands for human ability to win physically a stronger enemy (Arthur Cotterell, Słownik mitów świata, Katowice, Książnica, 1996, p. 67), Iktomi “can be seen as both good and bad […] He can use tricks to control humans like puppets […] trick gods and mortals.” (Ibid., p. 68).

73  Michael P. Carroll, “Levi-Strauss, Freud, and the Trickster: A New Perspective upon an Old Problem”, American Ethnologist, 8.2 (1981), p. 305.

74  Michael P. Carroll, “The Trickster as Selfish-Buffoon and Culture Hero”, Ethos, 12.2 (1984), p. 106.

75  Carroll’s claim stays in contrast to Freud’s theories about the relation between the immediate satisfaction of sexual desires and its destructive consequences touching the integrity of human culture. (Michael P. Carroll, 1981, op. cit., p. 301-313).

76  Ibid., p. 305.

77  Ibid., p. 309. However, Carroll admits that this claim is rather weak.

78  Claude Levi-Strauss, “The Structural Study of Myth”, The Journal of American Folklore, 68.270 (1955), p. 441.

79  Id.

80  Ibid., p. 442.

81  Claire McEachern, op. cit., p. 170.

82  Richard Levin, op. cit., p. 90.

83  Ibid., p. 92-93.

84  Ibid., p. 102.

85  Ibid., p. 103.

86  Ibid., p. 111.

87  Claire McEachern, op. cit., p. 21.

88  Don John convinces Claudio firstly that his half-brother’s objective is to win Hero for himself, and secondly, that Hero lost the chastity. (Michael Mangan, op. cit., p. 181).

89  Richard A. Levin, op. cit., p. 94.

90  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

91  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, London, Bloomsbury, 2007.The spiders do not hold a clear position in the final battle and they are not direct supporters of the Dark Lord.

92  J.R.R. Tolkien, Hobbit or There and Back Again, London, HarperCollinsChildren’s Books, [1937], 2013.

93  J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson, Hobbit z objaśnieniami, Wrocław, Bukowy Las, 2012, p. 243.

94  I may venture that J.K. Rowling based her Aragog on Tolkien’s spiders.

95  In both Letters and The Silmarillion, the readers learn about Shelob’s ancestor Ungolianta, a pre-historic gigantic spider who used to support the Dark Forces, greedily depriving the world of light. However, finally it abandons its master and devotes itself to cultivating the pure hatred towards all other creatures, including Melkor. (J. R. R. Tolkien, Listy, Warszawa, Prószyński i S-ka, 2010, p. 295-296) (J. R. R. Tolkien, Silmarillion, Warszawa, Czytelnik, 1985, p. 83-113.)

96  George H. Thomson, “’The Lord of the Rings’: The Novel as Traditional Romance”, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8.1 (1967), p. 54.

97  His best ideas come from his supporters, but they are still not entirely effective.

98  A “poisonous head” − “attorcoppe” is another name for a spider which comes from Old and Middle English as a union of two words, where “ãtor”, “attor” stands for a poison, and “coppe” means a head. (J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas A. Anderson, op. cit., p. 138-139.)

99  Sally Kempton, “Spiderman’s [sic] Dilemma: Super-Anti-Hero in Forest Hills”, The Village Voice, 1965, p. 96.

100  Peter wants to marry his beloved but, at the same time, he worries about her safety. Hence, Parker’s naivety seems more altruistic in nature than Claudio’s; the latter’s seems to be his own image.

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Par Sabina Laskowska-Hinz, «Much Ado about a Spider: Much Ado About Nothing in Polish and International Theatre Posters of the 20th and 21st Centuries», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°13 - 2018, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Sabina Laskowska-Hinz

Sabina Laskowska-Hinz is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw. She submitted her MA thesis (“The Critical Reception of William Shakespeare’s Plays in the British and Polish Fine Art of the 19th and 20th Century”) in 2014 at Gdańsk University. She is a member of the British Shakespeare Association and the Polish Shakespeare Society, and participated in several Polish and international conferences on Shakespeare Studies. Her main fields of interest include the relationships between text and i ...