One of my favorite roles in Shakespeare is Constable Dogberry in “Much Ado About Nothing”. It was, reportedly, Will Kemp’s last role with Shakespeare’s company before dancing across the Alps. Kemp was an irrepressible clown, much beloved by the London audience, the actor who created the broader, more physical clowns of Shakespeare’s early work: Dromio, Launcelot Gobbo and Grumio. He was replaced by Robert Armin, a more poetic and verbal comedian who gave us Twelfth Night’s Feste and King Lear’s Fool.
I found it interesting in living with Dogberry that he doesn’t come on until two –thirds of the way into the play, and then appears in four important scenes, finding the culprits, interrogating them, and taking them to Signor Leonato for justice. I imagined Kemp sitting in the dressing room, listening to Shakespeare struggling to do without him, knowing he’d have to come in to save the day. “That’s right, Will. Keep with the lovers. Oh yes, you don’t need the crass, funny people, do you?”
Another thing that struck me was what Shakespeare might be saying about “the lower people”, the citizens’ Watch, organized by Constable Dogberry. They’re much like the Mechanicals who perform the play in Midsummer Night’s Dream. In “Ado” they’re an uneducated lot, with no policing skills, but earnest when charged with protecting Signor Leonato’s villa on the eve of the gala wedding, and honored to do so. And in a typical Shakespearean master stroke, they may be inept, but they know a crook when they see one. They take action first and worry about justifying it later.
In comedy, this is delightful. In tragedy, it’s frightening. But even in Shakespeare’s comedy the volunteer, civilian “Watch” is under the command of the professional policeman. And even though he’s personally outraged at being called “an ass” by one of the suspects, Dogberry controls himself and follows procedure. He submits them to the lawful judgment of his superiors.
He doesn’t become the judge. He doesn’t provoke. He doesn’t punish. He does his job and only his job, and trusts the system. – Lance Davis