Much ado about noticing

I’ve been discussing old books that people have forgotten, and that brings me to one of the most unfortunate deletions from the Protestant Bible, the story in one of the excised chapters of the book of Daniel about Susannah and the elders.

Until the 19th century and the waves of immigration of Catholics into the United States, the books and chapters about whose canonicity we and the Protestants disagree used to be printed in the back of Bibles as worthy of study and attention, though not divinely inspired. So people used to know them and their stories—Judith and Holofernes, the angel Raphael and the boy Tobias and the family dog, the mother of seven sons in the time of the Maccabees, and this one, of the innocent Susannah, falsely accused of adultery by a couple of elders of Judah.

They had hidden themselves in her husband’s walled orchard while she was bathing, and demanded—both of them—that she lie with them or they would condemn her, saying that they had found her lying with a young man.

Susannah knew that she was damned both ways, and said, “It is better for me to fall into your hands without doing it than to sin in the sight of the Lord” (Dan 13:23). These elders were judges in Judah, and so the people believed their testimony. While Susannah was being led away to death, she cried out, “O eternal God, who knowest hidden things, who knowest all things before they come to pass, Thou knowest that they have borne false witness against me; and behold I must die, whereas I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me” (42-43). The Lord heard her prayer, and raised up the spirit of a boy, Daniel, whose name means “God shall judge.”

“I am clear of the blood of this woman!” he cried out, and the people turned to him in amazement, asking him what he meant by it (46-47). They gave him a free hand, since it seemed to the old men that God had given the boy the wise counsel of age. Daniel immediately ordered that the two accusers be separated, and he asked them each, apart from one another, a simple question: “Under what tree did the woman do the evil thing?”

One of them said it was a mastic tree, the other a holm tree. It thus became obvious to everyone that the judges were liars, “for Daniel had convicted them of false witness by their own mouth” (61), and so they were put to the same death which they had planned for Susannah.

This story intrigues me for two reasons. One is that, because of events at the Catholic college where I used to teach, I have only understood in the last year why so many of the psalms protest against slander and false witness. What can you do if you are their victim? Stand upon a stump and proclaim your cleanness of heart? You might as well get a shovel and dig your own grave because the more you protest, the more will you bring the slander to everyone’s attention, and they will remember none of the details of the situation, but only that you were accused.

The other reason is that what I’ll call “the Susannah Plot” was close to the heart of the greatest writer who ever lived, Shakespeare. He was, I am confident, a secret Catholic—not that only Catholics at that time read those additional chapters of Daniel, though some Puritans abominated them; and he named his beloved daughter after Susannah. Many of his plays feature pure and innocent women falsely accused of a grievous wickedness: Cordelia, Imogen, Hermione, Rosalind, Isabella, Helena, Desdemona. They are banished (Cordelia), murdered (Desdemona), held up to public vilification (Isabella), or made to stand trial, in which the accuser and the judge is the same man (Hermione).

In The Merchant of Venice, the Susannah figure is a man, the merchant Antonio, and his accuser is the Jew Shylock, who also will be convicted by the words of his own mouth. When that trial seems to be going Shylock’s way, he bursts out in approbation of the young lawyer—actually the beautiful and wise Portia in disguise—with these words: “A Daniel, come to judgment, yea a Daniel! O wise young judge! How I do honor thee!”

He will soon regret those words, when Portia turns the letter of the law, upon which Shylock had insisted, back upon himself. Says the rascal Graziano: “A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew! Now, infidel, I have thee on the hip.”

But the play that follows the Susannah plot most closely is Much Ado About Nothing, which would have been pronounced in Shakespeare’s time exactly the same as Much Ado About Noting—about noticing, taking note. The young and callow Claudio has fallen in love with Hero, a beautiful and rather shy girl, and the wedding is about to take place when a wicked and vindictive man arranges things so that Claudio, from a garden at a distance, will see, or think he sees, his own Hero making love with another man. It is actually Hero’s maid, dressed in her lady’s robes, but that is enough for Claudio. He waits until the marriage ceremony itself, in “the inside of a church”—the author’s own stage direction—to proclaim her to the world:

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.

He thinks he is a clever noticer of details, when actually he cannot see the purity of the woman before him. He mistakes the matter wholly.

His excuse is youth, and the play will end happily when at last the truth comes out and Claudio begs forgiveness. But all of these tales are cautionary, especially for our times. They should be well-heeded by Catholic educators. Be certain of principles and the law of God; but be slow in thinking that you can know the hearts of persons. Understand that if you cannot trust your own eyes, you can certainly not trust your own judgment. As Antonio himself says, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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