Tuesday, January 15, 2013

In Defense of Beatrice and Ben's Bickering -- "Much Ado About Nothing"

Boy, critics can be tough. I recently a couple of reviews of the Bard's Bed & Breakfast Mysteries that were....critical. There's only one problem. The comments ignored the reality of the series. The two main characters are Beatrice and Benedick Jones. As in Beatrice and Benedick from Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing". If you're not familiar with the play, the couple spends a great deal of time bickering.

So, is the criticism justified? Should I not have Beatrice and Benedick bicker? Is Beatrice really "tiresome"?

First up, let's consider things from her point of view. When you're married to a CIA officer (active or retired), you're still married to a man who is married to the job. That means he's always going to put duty ahead of his personal life. It's the nature of the job. But does that automatically grant him a pass as a husband?

One criticism involved the fact that Beatrice stopped Benedick as he raced to the airport, because she wanted a proper kiss before he left. If you're married to someone with a high risk job, is it really unreasonable to expect that that kiss might prove to be your last? Think about that one person in your life who matters most to you. Would you not want just one more kiss to carry you into eternity if he or she never returned?

A sensible husband, like Uncle Edward, would just go ahead and kiss his wife on his way out the door. Benedick, on the other hand, is a guy who likes to keep his skills sharpened, and that means he sometimes manipulates his wife. It's not that he does it to irritate her, although I suspect it amuses him, much like Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing" revels in Beatrice's discomfort.

That's really the nature of the beast in this case, too. Benedick, as a CIA officer, is always on the job. He can never really relax because he's irritated a lot of people and made some lifelong enemies. He knows that at any moment, he may to have to react. Vengeance is cruel and the people you love are sometimes used as pawns. Some professionals react by keeping folks at arm's length -- more as a protective measure than for any other reason.

With time, I hope that Bea and Ben develop as characters. I will certainly work harder on communicating their situation, clarifying their bickering, to make them more human. That was one of my goals in writing the series. We often have this image that every CIA officer is a James Bond. Mythical. Seductive. Glamorous. Bulldocky. The reality is the nature of the job defines the beast. Very often, intelligence people are dealing with the dregs of society, the bottom of the barrel, and the bad guys aren't always playing by the rules. That puts CIA officers and operatives in the position of having to do things they would never, in normal life, ever choose to do. Imagine dealing with an evil despot one moment and your adored wife the next. You know, that's not a job for a fuzzy-wuzzy cuddly bear. That's a job for a guy (or gal) who can think, act, and react without taking things personally. That requires an ability to separate out the self from the mission, the emotions from the logic. And there still has to be time to sort out feelings during those "off-the-job" times. For a man like Ben, his wife is the great normalizer. She's the one who doesn't treat him like he walks on water. She expects him to be a decent husband, a normal man. If he didn't have her in his life, he'd never get that kind of stability. And in some ways, that's the cause of the bickering. Beatrice wants a normal life and she's willing to challenge Ben to get that.

There's a great mystique about the CIA and the people who work for the agency. They're either heroes or villains, but rarely just human. In reality, an agency is only as good as the people who serve, and if CIA personnel can't experience being human, we're all damaged by that. Ben is a man who carries around a lot of tension to accompany all that responsibility. Having the opportunity to bicker with his wife allows him not only to stay mentally sharp, but to mentally fence with his wife, to defuse the tension

And that nagging she does? It reminds him that she's not some little delicate flower he can shove around like the bad guys.She's not going to crumble when he shoots her a dirty look or speaks sharply. She'll tell him to go stuff himself because he's a pompous jerk. She's more than happy to prick his conscience on the big issues. Frankly, if she didn't, I fear he would be a man without a human anchor, forever drifting through his own life according to the needs of his job. Bea allows him to live a very civilized life in a very uncivilized world, and those times he must leave her, he can rest assured that his home remains his castle. She will be Bea in his absence, and she expects him to come home again in one piece. This is not a woman who loves an image. Ben is not the dashing rogue who will break her heart or the tragic figure standing out in the cold. He's a man and he'd better act like one if he knows what's good for him. Bea is more than happy to take him on, should he fail to comprehend that. She's willing to fight for the noble causes in life.

Which raises the question of what happens to a man like Ben when he's forced into retirement. He'll still be involved with intelligence work. That's a given. The government never really likes to give up all those skills it invested in honing, does it? When you poured your soul into being a spy, it's kind of hard to stop, even when you're told to -- maybe why a lot of former spies get into trouble in their later years, especially those without real ties, real family. The frustration of feeling like the job is left undone drives a lot of people to try to finish those unfinished missions. It can be haunting.

So, yes. I understand the criticism of Beatrice as a bickerer. But I also understand Shakespeare's take on her. She's a tough cookie. The fact is my Beatrice makes some good points. It's too easy to think of Ben as the "important" one in the relationship. Heaven knows Ben would, given his druthers. But as the woman who loves him, Beatrice demands and expects him to be better than he would be on his own. She raises the bar for him and expects him to jump higher. In the end, she is a great motivator for the man who might otherwise check his emotions at the door. Without her, there would be little joy and passion in his life. He would be the job, the duty, the cause. With her, he gets to be a human being, warts and all, and the romance that flows between them comes from the heart as much as from the head.

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