Much Ado about Nothing
Much Ado about NothingINTRODUCTION
Shakespeare's play Much Ado about Nothing has been described as a comedy which, despite its surface gaiety and occasional slapstick comedy, is also serious and even profound in its implications. It has also been considered an enjoyable but problematic play. Assessments of it have varied, but most commentators agree that Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy of manners—a play that gently pokes fun at the manners and conventions of an aristocratic, highly sophisticated society. True to this form, Much Ado about Nothing features the war of the sexes, instances of eavesdropping, mistaken identities, misunderstood communications, and a tangle of subplots all ending in the pairing off of marriageable couples, the downfall of a scheming villain, and the happiness of a wedding dance. Many readers of Shakespeare's works today would probably agree that Much Ado about Nothing is one of the foremost comedies of manners in Western literature, one that speaks with wisdom about humanity.
Scholars agree that Much Ado about Nothing was written and first performed sometime between late 1598 and 1599. An entry in the Stationer's Register, dated August 4, 1600, includes a reference to the play, ordering that it not be published. Critics have offered several explanations for this entry in the Register, with some maintaining that it reflects official censorship or Puritan pressure, and others stating that it was merely an attempt on the part of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (an acting company with which Shakespeare was associated) to prevent a pirated edition of Much Ado about Nothing from being published.
In any case, evidence indicates that Much Ado about Nothing enjoyed considerable popularity during Shakespeare's day and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But it was not until late in the seventeenth century and early into the next century that true critical assessments first appeared. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, critics identified Ludovico Ariosto's Italian Renaissance epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516) as one of Much Ado about Nothing's principal sources. These early critics also introduced several thematic and technical issues—questions regarding how true to life the characters' words and actions are, as well as examinations of Shakespeare's use of language—that were to become very important in later studies of the comedy. As for other sources for Much Ado about Nothing, the dramatist borrowed from a story in Matteo Bandello's collection of tales, La prima parte de le novella (1554), which Shakespeare knew both in Italian and in French. In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare tightened the action for dramatic effect, drawing in elements from Ariosto's version of the tale, along with some hints from Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590), a major influence on Elizabethan writers.
The language of Much Ado about Nothing is accessible even for modern audiences, except for that of Dogberry, the comical Constable. But then, Dogberry probably was hard to understand even in his times. Dogberry lives in a world of his own, while the topic of conversation among the other characters focuses on various aspects of love and relationships, which translates well into any culture of any century. Shakespeare's genius is the understanding of human psychology which, despite all the advances in other fields, remains fairly constant throughout the years, making Much Ado about Nothing as relevant today as it will be tomorrow.
Act 1, Scene 1
Much Ado about Nothing opens in Messina, Italy. Leonato, the governor of the town, is with his daughter Hero, and Beatrice, his niece. A messenger arrives, telling Leonato that Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, an old friend of the governor's, is coming back from an unnamed war. With Don Pedro is Count Claudio, a young lord from Florence. Signior Benedick of Padua is also in the group of returning soldiers.
When Beatrice hears the name of Benedick, she mocks him and everything the messenger says about Benedick. Leonato explains that there is a war of wits between his niece and Benedick.
The prince enters with his men and greets Leonato. Benedick and Beatrice exchange witty barbs, not wasting any time with niceties. Leonato invites the men to spend the month at his estate. As the men enter the grounds, Don John the Bastard, an illegitimate brother of the prince, appears. There is tension between Don John and Don Pedro, the prince, but Leonato invites Don John to stay with him, hoping to resolve the strained feelings between the brothers.
Claudio mentions to Benedick that he is attracted to Hero, Leonato's daughter. Benedick makes fun of Claudio for falling in love and considering marriage. Benedick claims that marriage is to be disdained. Women are for entertainment, not love. When Don Pedro, the prince, learns that Claudio is in love, he offers to woo Hero for Claudio and then gain permission from Leonato for Hero's hand.
Act 1, Scene 2
Leonato's brother has overheard the conversation between Don Pedro and Claudio and tells Leonato to prepare to answer the prince and agree to give Claudio Hero's hand. Leonato goes to Hero and prepares her for the proposal, telling her to accept it.
Act 1, Scene 3
Don John, the prince's illegitimate brother, also hears of this plan. He decides to set up a deception that will wreak havoc with Claudio's intentions. Don John is jealous of Don Pedro's attention to Claudio. Don John schemes with Borachio and Conrade, two men who arrived at Leonato's place with Don John.
Act 2, Scene 1
Beatrice tries to imagine the best man who could possibly exist on earth. She takes part of one man and places it on another, trying to conjure someone she might be interested in marrying. Then she drops the subject, stating that she will never marry.
Meanwhile, Leonato counsels his daughter, telling her to listen carefully to what the prince is about to say to her. Don Pedro approaches Hero, and they leave the scene, taking a walk so they can talk to one another. While they walk, the other characters in the play dance, their faces masked. Beatrice ends up dancing with Benedick. It is not clear if she knows it is he, but she tells him that Benedick is a fool. Benedick is offended, but he does not unmask himself or reveal his identity.
Don John approaches Claudio and pretends he does not recognize him. Instead, he asks if Claudio is Benedick. Claudio tells him that he is. Don John then tells Claudio/Benedick that he is concerned that Don Pedro has fallen in love with Hero and is, at that moment, asking for her hand in marriage. Don John says that if the prince goes through with it, he will be marrying beneath his social status. Of course, Claudio is furiously jealous, believing that Don Pedro has tricked him. Instead of wooing Hero for Claudio, he believes the prince is wooing her for himself. Claudio asks Don John how he knows Don Pedro is doing this. Don John says that the prince confessed his love of Hero to him. After Don John leaves, Claudio runs away.
Beatrice finds Claudio and brings him to Don Pedro, who tells Claudio that Hero has been won and Leonato has agreed to marriage. Hero will marry Claudio. Then the prince and Beatrice talk. Don Pedro tells Beatrice that she has a merry heart. He then asks if she would marry him. But Beatrice turns the prince down, stating that he is too fancy for her.
Beatrice and Benedick once again turn on each other, Benedick declaring that he wishes the prince would send him far away so that he will not have to deal with Beatrice any longer. Then Benedick and Beatrice leave, and the prince suggests that Leonato, Hero, and Claudio help him put together a plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together.
Act 2, Scene 2
Don John and Borachio hatch another scheme to thwart the marriage of Hero and Claudio. Borachio, who has been having an affair with Margaret, one of Hero's ladies-in-waiting, says that he can be in Hero's bedroom at any time at night. He tells Don John to be at the window of Hero's bedroom that night and all Don John has to do is to make sure that Don Pedro and Claudio see what is happening at that window.
Act 2, Scene 3
Still in the afternoon, Benedick is sitting in the garden when he sees Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio approach. Benedick decides to hide. He wants nothing to do with any talk of love from Claudio. In an aside, Benedick states that he will never have anything to do with marriage.
The prince and the other men have seen Benedick and know that he is hiding from them. They call for a troubadour to sing a song about love. Then they talk about how they have heard Beatrice declare her love of Benedick. Benedick, of course, is caught completely off guard. But the more he hears, the better he likes it, however, he is not sure they are telling the truth. He listens to more and decides that if Leonato is saying that Beatrice loves him, then it must be true. Of course, Beatrice is in love with him, Benedick finally realizes. How could she not be?
The men leave and send Beatrice to fetch Benedick for dinner.
Act 3, Scene 1
While Benedick waits, he tries to rationalize having changed his mind about marriage. When Beatrice appears, she is her usual self, but Benedick has changed. He does not argue with her. Instead, he keeps turning some of her barbs to his advantage, reading into them something pleasant, finding signs of love hidden inside them.
On her way back to the house, Beatrice overhears Hero and her other lady-in-waiting, Ursula, talking about how they have heard Benedick saying that he loves Beatrice. It does not take long for Beatrice to admit to herself that, in fact, she does love Benedick.
Act 3, Scene 2
Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato observe changes in Benedick. Benedick says it is because he has a toothache, but the other men say it is because he has fallen in love. They tease him about how he now brushes his hair and is concerned about his looks. Benedick, they say, is now even taking baths and wearing perfume. Benedick tires of the teasing and asks Leonato to walk with him, because Benedick has something to tell him.
Don John appears and asks to speak to the prince. Claudio is standing there, but Don John says he can stay as what he is about to say involves Claudio's future. Don John then tells them both that he has proof that Hero has been unfaithful to Claudio. She has been having an affair with another man. Don Pedro and Claudio cannot believe this. So Don John tells them that he can prove it to them. They are to meet him that night, under the window to Hero's bedroom. They will see for themselves that Hero is not worthy of marriage.
Act 3, Scene 3
The town's constable, Dogberry, a man of words that never quite make sense, appears. Dogberry is coming to Leonato's house to check on the watchmen, who are standing guard outside. Dogberry gives them orders, asks them questions, and corrects their answers, but none of his orders, questions, or corrections are rational. He tells them, for example, that they are to remain silent, which the watchmen interpret to mean that they can go to sleep, and which Dogberry appears to confirm. He also tells them to make sure that any drunkards are told to go home—unless they do not respond to the orders. In that case the guards are to leave them lie where they find them. Before leaving, Dogberry warns the men to keep a close watch on Leonato's house because there is to be a big wedding in the morning.
While the watchmen stand guard and are about to fall asleep, Borachio and Conrade appear. The guards hide and listen, sensing that they are about to hear the details of a scheme. Borachio, unaware that anyone is listening, brags about how he has deceived Don Pedro and Claudio. Borachio has wooed Margaret, Hero's lady-in-waiting, in front of Hero's bedroom window, pretending he was wooing Hero. Don Pedro and Claudio fell for the trick, believing that Hero was unfaithful.
When the guards hear this, they arrest Borachio and Conrade
Act 3, Scene 4
Hero, Margaret, and Beatrice get ready for Hero's wedding. When Beatrice says that she feels ill, Margaret teases Beatrice about being in love. Ursula, Hero's other lady-in-waiting, comes in and calls them out to the wedding. Everyone is waiting for them.
Act 3, Scene 5
Dogberry comes to Leonato to tell him about Borachio and Conrade's scheme. But Dogberry is not very clear about what has happened, and Leonato loses all patience with him. Dogberry says that he has captured two scoundrels, but he fails to tell him what the scoundrels are accused of. Leonato tells Dogberry that he is very busy right then because of the wedding and that Dogberry should examine the men's story himself. A messenger then appears and tells Leonato that it is time to get to the church for his daughter's wedding.
Act 4, Scene 1
Everyone is standing before the friar, who is prepared to marry Claudio and Hero. When he asks Claudio: "You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady?," Claudio surprises everyone by responding, "no." Leonato tries to clarify the situation, insinuating that the friar has asked the question incorrectly. Leonato says: "To be married to her." In other words, the friar is marrying them. But Claudio is being married to Hero. The friar then turns his question to Hero, who responds with the appropriate answer, "I do." The tension is released for a few seconds, until the friar asks if either of them knows any reason why they should not be wed. Instead of answering, Claudio turns to Hero and asks her directly if she knows any reason they should not be wed. No one understands why Claudio is acting so strangely, except, of course, Don Pedro. When Leonato asks why Claudio is acting the way he is, Claudio says that he will not be wed to an "approvèd wanton."
At first, Leonato thinks that it was Claudio himself who was responsible for Hero's losing her virginity, if that is, in fact, what has happened. Claudio denies this. Then he turns on Hero, saying that she is like "pampered animals / That rage in savage sensuality." Leonato turns to Don Pedro for help, but the prince stands by Claudio, declining to allow Claudio to be linked to "a common stale," a reference to a low-class prostitute. Claudio then bids farewell to Hero, calling her "most foul, most fair," exposing what he thinks of her now compared to what he used to think of her. Upon hearing this, Hero collapses.
Beatrice calls for help, but Leonato says that, for her shame, Hero is best left dead. If she does wake up from the faint, Leonato swears he will kill her.
The friar asks for their patience, stating that he thinks there is a scheme in all this. He suggests that they all pretend that Hero has, indeed, died. In this way, her shame will die with her, the truth will be found out, and then Hero can be reborn.
Everyone leaves but Benedick and Beatrice. Benedick professes his love of Beatrice. However, Beatrice is so overwrought about Hero that she has trouble returning Benedick's love. Eventually she reveals that she too loves Benedick, but she wants him to swear his love to her not in words but in actions. When Benedick asks how he might do this, Beatrice tells him to kill Claudio. Benedick refuses. Beatrice says that Benedick's refusal to do this kills her. She proclaims: "O, that I were a man!" (a line that is often quoted from this play). She goes on to say that if she were a man, she "would eat his [Claudio's] heart in the marketplace."
Benedick pleads with Beatrice to be reasonable. Beatrice says that Hero is "wronged, she is slandered, she is undone." Benedick asks Beatrice to think deeply about this. Does she really believe that Count Claudio has done this to Hero? Beatrice replies, yes. If that is so, Benedick says, then he will challenge Claudio to a duel.
Act 4, Scene 2
In a courtroom-like scene, Dogberry and his assistant Verges appear before the town sexton. The watchmen, as well as Conrade and Borachio, are there. Dogberry stumbles through his accusation of crime against Conrade and Borachio, as the sexton tries to assist Dogberry in the examination procedures. Eventually the truth comes out. Then the sexton tells Dogberry and everyone else in the room that he has just heard that Don John has run away and that the marriage between Hero and Claudio has been called off, and Hero, lost in her grief, has died.
Act 5, Scene 1
Leonato is overwhelmed by grief and confusion. His brother tries to comfort him, but Leonato states that it is easy, when you are not the one that is stricken, to tell another to ease up on his pain. Then the two brothers see Don Pedro and Claudio and pursue them. Leonato accuses them of ruining Hero's good name. He tells them that he is not too old or lacking in energy to challenge them. Before leaving, the brothers say they will have their revenge.
Benedick appears. Don Pedro and Claudio are happy to see him. The prince is planning to leave with Claudio and assumes Benedick will be coming with them. Benedick says that because of what they have done to Hero, Benedick will no longer be traveling with them. He tells them that Hero has died and Don John has run away. Then Benedick accuses Claudio of slandering Hero and thus killing her. For this, Benedick says, he challenges Claudio to a duel. Benedick leaves, saying he will wait for Claudio's answer.
Dogberry then appears with Verges, the watchmen, and Borachio and Conrade. Borachio admits what he has done. Don Pedro and Claudio realize their mistake and the consequences it has caused. When Leonato and his brother reappear, the prince and Claudio beg for forgiveness. Claudio says he is willing to accept any punishment from Leonato for having been the cause of Hero's death. Leonato tells Claudio to go throughout the city and claim Hero's innocence. Then Claudio needs to write a poem about Hero and sing it in front of her grave. Finally, Leonato tells Claudio that his brother has a daughter, almost the image of Hero. Leonato asks that Claudio marry his niece in place of Hero. Claudio consents to all that Leonato has demanded. Leonato then has Borachio and Conrade taken away.
Act 5, Scene 2
Benedick is seen, attempting to write love poetry to his Beatrice. He fails miserably, deciding that he is not a writer. Beatrice appears and the two admit their love, once again, and flirt with one another. Ursula enters, announcing that Borachio has admitted his scheme. After once again admitting their love to one another, Beatrice and Benedick leave to find all the other members of the household.
Act 5, Scene 3
Claudio is at Hero's tomb. He reads the poem that he has written about Hero's innocence and the "slanderous tongues" that have caused her death. A song is sung that reflects these same sentiments. Then Claudio promises to visit her tomb each year.
- There is a DVD of Joseph Papp's 1973 New York Shakespeare Festival Broadway stage production of Much Ado about Nothing set in a summery "America" just after the Spanish-American War, with Dogberry (Barnard Hughes) as a Keystone cop. Sam Waterston plays Benedick with Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice. The DVD was produced by Kultur Studio.
- The BBC (British Broadcasting Company) produced a television adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing as part of the series The Shakespeare Plays. BBC, 1984.
- In 1993, Columbia Tristar produced the movie Much Ado about Nothing (1993) under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, who also played the part of Benedick. Other actors include Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves. The film was shot on location in Tuscany, Italy. It is available on DVD.
- The BBC also produced a modernized version of Much Ado about Nothing for television in 2005, setting much of the action in a television studio of the twenty-first century.
Act 5, Scene 4
Everyone has gathered for the second wedding of Claudio and Hero—everyone but Don Pedro and Claudio. Margaret has been questioned about her part in the scheme and is believed when she says that she did not realize that Claudio and the prince were being tricked by her actions with Borachio. Benedick is happy with the turn of events, because now he does not have to kill his friend Claudio. Benedick then takes Leonato to the side and asks for Leonato's permission to marry his niece, Beatrice. Leonato approves.
Leonato tells Hero, Beatrice, Margaret, and Ursula to leave and when he calls for them, they are to return with their faces masked. After the prince and Claudio appear, Leonato calls for the women. Hero steps forward when asked to. Claudio wants to see her face but Leonato says not until Claudio vows to marry her. Then Hero lifts the mask and Claudio realizes it is Hero.
As they all prepare to leave for the party to celebrate the marriage, Benedick asks them all to stop. He then calls out for Beatrice and asks her to profess her love for him. Beatrice denies loving him more than as just a friend. So Benedick denies loving Beatrice. But Claudio and Hero display copies of the love poems that both Benedick and Beatrice had tried to write to one another. Benedick and Beatrice realize that they can no longer deny their love and promise to marry. When Benedick is teased about all those things he had previously said against love and marriage, he says he does not care about how he felt in the past.
A messenger appears with the news that Don John has been found and captured. Benedick tells the prince to put off thinking about his brother's punishment. Benedick will help him think up something appropriate tomorrow. Then they all leave to enjoy the music and dance.
Antonio is Leonato's brother. He is present throughout the play but becomes most prominent after Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful to him at the wedding. Antonio tries to calm his brother but nonetheless joins his brother in confronting the prince and Claudio, willing to fight them for Hero's honor. Leonato later tells Claudio that his brother Antonio has a daughter who looks just like Hero and asks Claudio to marry her. Antonio gives Hero (who is masked) to Claudio at the final wedding scene, with Claudio believing she is Antonio's daughter.
Balthasar is an attendant to Don Pedro, the prince. It is Balthasar who sings the melancholy love song, "Sigh No More, Ladies, Sigh No More," in act 2, scene 3, as the prince, Leonato, and Claudio trick Benedick into believing that Beatrice is in love with him.
Beatrice is Leonato's niece and Hero's cousin. She is a strong-willed woman who knows her mind and is not afraid to speak it. She is content, or so she says, to remain unmarried, suggesting a Shakespearean link, as some scholars have theorized, to Queen Elizabeth I, who never married. Beatrice demonstrates her intelligence through witty barbs that she uses against Benedick from the beginning to the end of the play. Although she uses these barbs to prove that she has no feelings for Benedick, it becomes clear that her feelings for him are strong. She is merely afraid of showing them for what they are, so she masks them with her wit.
Even after Benedick confesses his love for her, Beatrice, unlike Hero, does not immediately give in. She wants proof of Benedick's love and issues Benedick a big challenge. She asks him to kill his friend Claudio, for having shamed Hero. Beatrice tests the love that Benedick claims, rather than just accepting his words. Benedick passes the text by accepting the challenge, because he does truly love Beatrice.
Even at the end of the play, when Benedick asks Beatrice to tell everyone that she loves him, she refuses to go first. She does not want to be humiliated, in the event that Benedick is setting her up. Once Benedick has been exposed publicly, however, Beatrice gives in.
Benedick is a young lord of Padua. One of Don Pedro's soldiers, he is a confirmed bachelor who initially sees in Beatrice only a verbal sparring partner; each tries to outdo the other in expressing mutual disdain, though they eventually agree to marry.
One of Don Pedro's trusted comrades-in-arms, Benedick possesses a brisk, bouncing nature and ready wit. He is a self-confessed bachelor who would prefer to enjoy life while keeping women at arm's length—especially Beatrice, for whom he has a particular, antagonistic regard. His disdain for women, it has been suggested, masks his wary respect for Beatrice, with whom he might have been once involved romantically. As evidence of this, critics note the giddy, schoolboyish behavior Benedick exhibits upon being tricked into believing that Beatrice loves him, rationalizing that Beatrice's scorn is really a façade that covers her deep affection for Benedick.
Benedick's newfound passion is put to the test severely after Hero's humiliation by Claudio. Beatrice commands Benedick to kill Claudio. Benedick is torn between his love for Beatrice and his loyalty to his army comrade. Ultimately, love for Beatrice wins out, and Benedick coldly and insistently challenges Claudio to single combat. All seems headed for a sad and violent parting between the two friends, until Borachio and Conrade confess their guilt in shaming Hero.
In the end, Benedick is reconciled with Claudio and engaged to Beatrice, with whom he has a final, friendly skirmish of wit. Critics note that when all of the principal characters are on stage together, the major interest of the audience is not the love-at-first-sight relationship that develops between Hero and Claudio, but rather the merry war between Beatrice and Benedick.
Borachio is a follower of Don John, the prince's illegitimate brother. Borachio is having an affair with Margaret, one of the ladies-in-waiting to Hero. It is Borachio who comes up with the plan to trick the prince and Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful. Borachio purposely places Margaret at Hero's window and then calls out Hero's name, making it look like Borachio is having an affair with Hero. Later Borachio is arrested and tried for his crime. It is his admission that makes Claudio and the prince realize that they have misjudged Hero.
Claudio is a count from Florence who has been fighting at the side of Don Pedro, the prince. He has fallen in love with Hero upon seeing her at Leonato's. Claudio is shy and unsure of himself and allows Don Pedro to woo Hero for him. Hero also gains permission to marry Claudio from Leonato. However, Claudio is easily tricked by Don John, who informs Claudio that Don Pedro, the prince, is after Hero for himself. Although this deeply hurts Claudio, he says nothing of it to Don Pedro, willing, like Hero, to accept whatever is dealt him. Claudio, who claims to be head-over-heels in love with Hero, nonetheless falls for another trick by Don John. The only time Claudio shows any gumption is when he accuses Hero (mistakenly) of cheating on him. He shames her in front of everyone, calling her horrible names and wanting to have nothing to do with her. Even when he hears that she has died, he shows no feelings.
Upon learning that he has been set up by Don John and that Hero was innocent, Claudio displays not so much emotion or regret but rather conforms to the role that a count should play. He asks for forgiveness and accepts his punishment, which includes marrying another woman, or so he thinks. When Claudio discovers that the other woman is Hero, he immediately falls back in love with her, forgetting all the negative feelings he so easily succumbed to before.
Claudio is one of the military heroes of Don Pedro's victory over Don John's forces. He is an impressionable, unimaginative young man who is somewhat out of place in the lively, witty society of Messina. He falls in love with Hero upon first laying eyes on her, believes immediately in her unfaithfulness upon witnessing Borachio's deception, immediately agrees to marry another woman sight unseen, and then unapologetically enters into marriage with the so-called resurrected Hero. Not surprisingly, critics have described Claudio as one of the least likable lovers in Shakespeare.
Conrade is a follower of Don John, the prince's brother. Conrade is with Borachio when the watchmen hear Borachio boasting of how he has fooled the prince and Claudio. Conrade is arrested with Borachio.
Dogberry is the local constable who has trouble speaking clearly. Dogberry is in charge of the watchmen who overhear Borachio confess that he has tricked the prince and Claudio into believing that Hero is having an affair. Dogberry becomes flustered when he approaches Leonato with the news that he has caught Borachio. Leonato, who becomes impatient with Dogberry, shoos the constable away, thus setting into motion the catastrophe at Hero's wedding. Later, Dogberry returns to Leonato's and tells everyone what Borachio has done.
Friar Francis represents the church and officiates at the wedding of Claudio and Hero, both times. It is also Friar Francis who tries to calm Leonato, when Hero is accused of being unfaithful, telling Leonato that he suspects that someone is scheming. Friar Francis also suggests that Hero pretend that she is dead.
Hero is Leonato's daughter. She is young and innocent and falls in love with Claudio. After her marriage is arranged, Hero focuses on her cousin, Beatrice, tricking Beatrice into admitting that she is in love with Benedick. On the day of her wedding to Claudio, Hero enters the church as innocent and pure as ever. However, Claudio has changed and Hero is at a loss as to why this has happened. When Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful to him, Hero faints. She is shamed in front of her community and can not handle it. She complies with the friar, then, and fakes her death. After the scheme to slander her has been revealed and Claudio makes amends, Hero is willing to take Claudio back and marries him without much being said between them, as if nothing had happened. In comparison to Beatrice, Hero is weak and too willing to get married. This makes her love appear thin and shallow, and makes it appear that she is marrying in order to be married instead of because she loves Claudio. It has been said often that Hero is, for the most part, a sweet but colorless young woman who is not so much a three-dimensional character as an entity existing to fill a place in the drama. She and Claudio mechanically go through the motions of betrothal, with no development of interest, no initial conflict, nor even any wooing of Hero on Claudio's part.
Don John is listed as Don Pedro's bastard brother. Don John is the villain of the play, an undeveloped character who causes trouble, sometimes with little result, and by the end of the play is caught. His presence in the play is felt in his absence almost as much as when he is on stage, which is not often. He has no redeeming values and does not change throughout the play.
Considered one of the more problematic figures in the play, Don John is a snake-in-the-grass. The bastard half-brother of Don Pedro, he is a rebel and presumably a traitor whose armed uprising results not in his deserved death but in an attempted reconciliation between himself and the perhaps overly kind Don Pedro. The latter fails to see that Don John has a deep-seated grudge that leads him to try to destroy the happiness of the principal figures who defeated him: Don Pedro and Claudio. Don John is thus allowed enough freedom by his captors that he nearly wrecks several lives. Don John is considered, by many critics, to be a cardboard villain, not a well-drawn character.
Leonato is the governor of Messina, the father of Hero, the uncle of Beatrice, and the brother of Antonio. It is at Leonato's house that most of this play takes place. He is a loving father and uncle, who wants to see both women married. He is also a gracious and generous host, inviting the group of soldiers with the prince to stay with him for the month.
Leonato changes, however, when his daughter is publicly shamed at her wedding to Claudio. He takes the side of the accusers, at first claiming, when Hero faints, that he hopes she dies. If she does not die, Leonato says he is willing to kill her. Once his rage subsides, however, he goes after her accusers, telling them that he will get to the bottom of their accusations. If they had any hand in setting this scheme against her, he is willing to challenge them to a duel.
When the mystery is solved, Leonato then returns to his loving self and instantly forgives the prince and Claudio.
Margaret is a lady-in-waiting to Hero. Margaret is having an affair with Borachio but she is innocent of the scheme that Borachio hatches to make the prince and Claudio believe that Margaret is Hero. Later, Leonato questions Margaret to make sure that she did not know what Borachio was up to. Margaret is quickly cleared and is brought back into the fold of the family.
Don Pedro is the prince of Aragon, the brother of Don John. The prince has led his soldiers in a battle and comes to Leonato's house at the beginning of the play. The prince is a friend of Leonato's. It is because of this relationship that Leonato invites all the soldiers to stay at his house for the month.
Don Pedro is very much involved in the lives of his soldiers, especially Claudio's and Benedick's. First the prince woos Hero in Claudio's name and gains permission from Leonato for Claudio to marry Hero. After the prince asks Beatrice if she will marry him and Beatrice refuses, the prince schemes to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. The prince gathers several of the people at Leonato's house and has them plant little tidbits of information in the minds of Benedick and Beatrice, pretending that they have heard both of them expressing their love for one another. The trick works, and Benedick and Beatrice finally admit their love
Despite the fact that there are bad feelings between Don Pedro and his brother Don John, the prince is easily fooled by his brother. He does not question the actions of Don John when he is brought to the window of Hero the night before Claudio's marriage to her. Instead, he joins in accusing Hero of being equal to a prostitute. The prince is forgiven by the finale of the play, which Benedick ends on a cute note by telling the prince to get himself a wife.
Ursula is another of Hero's ladies-in-waiting. Ursula helps Hero trick Beatrice into believing that Benedick is in love with her.
Verges is the inept assistant to the constable, Dogberry. He and Dogberry represent comic relief in the midst of the more tense parts of the play.
War of the Sexes
The differences between men and women—how they relate to each other, how they misunderstand each other, how they love and repel each other—is a common theme in motion pictures, comics, television shows, and world literature. It also appears throughout Shakespeare's comedies as well, and Much Ado about Nothing is no exception to the pattern. In this play, much of the conflict between the sexes concerns Beatrice and Benedick, with their relentless disdain for each other. Each tries to outdo and out-duel the other in crafting the cleverest and most deflating remarks, and the impression is given that their sparring has a long history, one that precedes the action of the play. The goal of each is not to deliver the most crushing, hot-blooded blast but to offer the most coolly disdainful and witty remarks possible.
After Benedick and Beatrice actually admit the love they have been hiding under their masks of disdain for one another, the tragedy of Claudio and Hero's separation causes a different type of war between Benedick and Beatrice. The sudden and newfound tenderness that Benedick and Beatrice have shared reverts to a heated, near-frantic rage on the part of Beatrice, after Benedick hesitates at her command to kill Claudio. Here she turns from employing wit to questioning Benedick's manhood. In one of the most-often quoted sections of Much Ado about Nothing, she declares, "O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones, too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing: therefore I will die a woman with grieving." This sentiment is one with the words of Balthasar's song, from act 2, scene 3: "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever / One foot in sea, and one on shore, / To one thing constant never." This song, one of the loveliest in all of Shakespeare's plays, describes the war between the sexes, set to poetic phrases.
Appearance versus Reality
The theme of appearance versus reality has long been considered central to this play's structure and tone. All of the main characters deceive or are deceived by others at some point during the play. There is the masked ball, during which Beatrice reveals her feelings to Benedick, not knowing that she is speaking directly to him because he wears a mask. There is also the masked bride at the second wedding at the end of the play, so that Claudio does not know what woman he is marrying until Hero reveals herself.
There are many other forms of deception, such as the schemes of Don John as he tries to trick Claudio, first, into believing that the prince is wooing Hero for himself, and then that Borachio is making love to Hero. When Friar Francis has Hero pretend to be dead, he enters into deception as well. On this theme of deception, many critics have observed that the title of the play contains an Elizabe than pun on the word nothing, with Shakespeare playing off the word noting, which means "eavesdropping." However, other critics believe that the key to the play's unity lies in equating the word noting with the meaning "to observe." In this view, the title suggests that one take note of a situation and make judgments based on observation. In Much Ado about Nothing, there is a failure, some critics argue, to observe and to act sensibly. This is very true in the case of the prince and Claudio failing to grasp the lack of integrity in Don John, who had tried to deceive them before his ultimate trick of making both men believe that Hero was unfaithful. Why do the prince and Claudio not see Don John's true nature? Why are they so easily duped by Don John?
Love and Marriage
There are grand discussions of love and marriage throughout much of this play, especially by Beatrice and Benedick who swear against both love and marriage, at least at first. They claim they do not believe in such foolishness. For example, when Claudio admits that he has fallen for Hero, Benedick cannot believe him. Benedick tells Claudio if it is love and marriage that Claudio wants, he should go do it. However, Benedick warns Claudio that love and marriage are like putting one's "neck into a yoke," and then wearing that yoke for the rest of one's life. If Benedick ever makes the mistake of falling in love, Benedick tells the prince to "hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me."
Later, in act 2, Beatrice has her own way of explaining that she will never marry, until "God make men of some other metal than earth." In other words, there is no man on earth that attracts Beatrice enough to cause her ever to think about marriage. Although these two characters make their gestures against love and marriage, Shakespeare's play does not turn in that direction. Shakespeare does, however, create the opposite type of couple, one that falls madly in love without knowing much about one another and not really caring about that detail. Claudio and Hero are infatuated and that is enough to lead them to the altar.
Of course, Shakespeare makes it quite clear that Beatrice and Benedick are not as hardened in their commitments to stave off love as they sound, but quite the contrary. They just do not believe they can ever find someone who will meet their standards, which are very high. On a subconscious level, both Beatrice and Benedick know that they have met someone whom they could fall in love with—namely one another—but they can not admit this to their rational minds. They have to be tricked into it. They both want the other person to admit it first. Once Benedick believes that Beatrice has admitted loving him, Benedick gets just as mushy inside with infatuation as Claudio did earlier. Likewise, Beatrice has a similar reaction. Before the end of the play, a double wedding is in order, thus bringing the play's theme of love and marriage to its fulfillment.
However, Shakespeare is a master of representing opposites. And this play is no exception. Don John represents the other side of the love-and-marriage issue. Don John is completely void of love. Having him called the bastard brother immediately puts Don John at a disadvantage, insinuating that lust replaced love and marriage at his conception. It is because of this lack of love that he attacks the prince and tries to destroy the love Claudio has for Hero. However, Shakespeare does not allow his play to turn on Don John's misery. Love and marriage, rather, are what hold this play together.
Loss of Honor
A woman's loss of honor has significant consequences in this play; even the thought or suspicion of it is devastating for Hero. A woman must be married a virgin, or if that cannot be attained, it is her soon-to-be husband who must have taken her to bed, an act, which Leonato suggests, can be pardoned. As Leonato tries to understand why Claudio is hesitating in the first marriage scene in act 4, he implies that maybe Claudio has been with Hero, and Shakespeare insinuates that Leonato is about to forgive Claudio for this. "Dear my lord," Leonato says, "if you in your own proof / Have vanquished the resistance of her youth, / And made defeat of her virginity—." But Claudio denies this, saying quickly that he knows what Leonato is about to say, but this is nowhere near the truth of the matter. "I know what you would say: if I have known her, You will say she did embrace me as a husband," Claudio says. This would be approved, in other words. But the fact that Hero might have had sexual relations with a man other than Claudio is unthinkable. One of the reasons for this is that inheritance was passed down from the father to the firstborn son. In order to prove that the firstborn son was indeed a creation of the husband's, the newlywed wife had to be a virgin. No matter how much Claudio might have been in love with Hero prior to this knowledge, he can no longer love her, cannot marry her. And not only this, Hero is so publicly shamed by this accusation that her own father is willing to kill her. One could almost forgive Claudio for no longer wanting Hero, at least back in the sixteenth century; but for her own father to want to murder his daughter after obviously loving her from the time of her birth is unforgivable by twenty-first century audiences.
It is from these attitudes of Leonato's that modern audiences can sense how important a woman's virginity was in Shakespeare's time. The loss of virginity appears to be a worse crime than murder. There is no mention of a similar pressure on men. Benedick mentions brothels, which implies that he has visited them; and Borachio mentions having an affair with Margaret, Hero's lady-in-waiting. So the standard of chastity seems to apply only to women of the upper classes.
Although the character of Beatrice could easily be likened to a modern women in that she speaks her mind, she is not concerned about having a husband to make her whole and challenges Benedick to prove his love instead of just taking him at his word, there still remains in this play the double standard for men and women, as seen in the emphasis put on a woman's loss of honor.
Shakespeare has created much better villains in plays other than Much Ado about Nothing. For example, the character Iago in Othello is probably the best villain Shakespeare ever created. It is not only the level of villainy that makes a character like Iago different from Don John, the villain in this play, it is the development of the role. Don John is villainous, but his character is very thin. The audience knows very little about him. Things like hints about what drives him, where his anger is coming from, and what pleasure he derives from his misdeeds are all missing from this play. Audiences can assume some things, such as jealousy because he is illegitimate and therefore unable to ever rise to the level of the prince. He may not be as good as Claudio in warfare and maybe that is why he lost his battle against the prince. He may even wish that he could woo Hero for himself; but none of these motives are provided by Shakespeare. The audience, at best, has to speculate. The only thing interesting about Don John is that he is able to pull the wool over the prince's and Claudio's eyes two times in a row. However, that makes Don John less believable, not more so. Don John's character therefore stays on the surface. Don John represents villainy but only through two meager tricks, which are quickly uncovered and, in the end, cause no long-lasting harm.
Some critics claim that the song sung in act 2, scene 3 in Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most beautiful. The title of the song is "Sigh No More, Ladies, Sigh No More," and its words tell of the inconstancy of men. The song is written in rhyming verse, of an ac / bd / eg / fh pattern, meaning that alternating lines rhyme. There are two verses, and the last two lines of the first stanza are repeated in the last two lines of the second stanza. Each line is written in what is termed heptameter, or seven beats to a line, with each line containing an end rhyme. Each stanza contains eight lines, which means that each stanza is called an octave. The song is rather lighthearted, especially in its refrain of "Into Hey, nonny nonny," which suggests that women should make light of their sighs and not get lost in the gloom of their emotions, which are aroused by men being difficult, and which cause women pain.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Neither Beatrice nor Benedick were able to write the courtly poetry popular in Elizabethan England. Look for examples of courtly love poetry, either in Shakespeare's plays or from some other writer and write two poems: one declaring your love for Beatrice; the other your love for Benedick, as if they had written them to one another. Keep in mind the kind of relationship that Benedick and Beatrice shared in this play. Then read your poems to your class.
- Research a typical courtship between two twenty-year-olds who lived in the upper class of Elizabethan England. Gather statistics about such details as how long the courtship might have lasted and how the man and woman might have met. What were the typical traditions in terms of dowries? What would a typical wedding ceremony have been like? Who would have paid for the wedding? Did the father give the bride away? Then present your findings to your class, using your historical details to compare them to contemporary relationships in the United States.
- If you had an opportunity to talk to Hero, what would you tell her in terms of her marriage to Claudio, knowing what you have learned in the twenty-first century about women and their relationships with men. Ask a friend or classmate to help you present a dialogue in front of your class between Hero (representing a sixteenth-century woman) and you.
- Watch a video version of Much Ado about Nothing. Present a report to your class on how seeing the play performed helped you to better understand it. Pay attention to the body language, the action, and the intonation of the actors' voices so that you can report how these visual and audio aids helped make Shakespeare's language more cleare.
Witty Linguistic Competition
People in the upper classes of Elizabethan England displayed their education and intelligence through witty conversations. In this play, Beatrice and Benedick are champions at this type of wit as they banter back and forth, each one trying to outwit the other. The wittiness of their dialogue does two things, besides showing off their intelligence: it helps them to keep their true feelings hidden and acts almost like a competition between them, as if one of them can win it and then walk away from the other, claiming victory. Beatrice even comments on this in act 1, scene 1, when she says: "You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old." She says this to Benedick, when he ends the witty dialogue too abruptly. A jade is an untrustworthy horse that tricks its rider, possibly by pulling up short when the rider least suspects it, thus throwing the rider from its back. Beatrice is in the throes of her conversation with Benedick and wants it to continue because she wants to outsmart Benedick. However, he silences her with a remark that leaves her nowhere to go. Thus, Benedick claims victory for having delivered the last witty line.
Technically, Much Ado about Nothing has all the elements of a Shakespearean comedy: It contains at least one journey of a young woman from the virginal state to that of matrimony, or the journey of a young woman out of her family's control into marriage. The trip is seldom smooth: obstacles are presented as the young lovers attempt to reach the day of their wedding. A comedy also requires some form of deception or the wearing of masks. And a comedy ends with a wedding. This play meets those criteria, but there is more. There is, for instance, the villainy of Don John to consider, as well as the shame of Hero and her supposed death. Because of these elements some scholars have labeled this play a tragicomedy, a cross between a tragedy and a comedy. By adding the tragic elements, in some ways hinting at Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, especially in the parallels between the friars and the mock deaths of Juliet and Hero, Shakespeare adds depth and tension to his comedy. Likewise, the addition of Don John and his tricks makes the audience question whether Hero and Claudio will ever really wed. Another tragic element is Beatrice's request that Benedick prove his love to her by killing Claudio and thus avenging the awful shame and ruin of Hero's reputation.
Shakespeare uses a lot of animal imagery in this play, making references to animals to more fully define a person or a person's actions. For example, in the opening lines of the play, the messenger, who announces to Leonato that the prince and some of his men are coming, describes Claudio as "doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion." In just a few words, the messenger describes Claudio's character, his psychology, and his actions. Shakespeare uses animal imagery here to give his audiences a mental picture to help them immediately grasp the significance of Claudio and what he has done. Claudio seems like a very mild-mannered young man, meek, and a good follower. However, when Claudio had to face battle, he must have surprised his fellow soldiers with his fierce attitude, slaughtering his enemies as fiercely as a lion.
Animal imagery works because everyone knows the general traits of certain animals, such as the sheep and the lion. The contrast between these two animals is dramatic. In addition, Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with Biblical references to the lamb and the lion. By using the lamb and the lion to describe Claudio, Shakespeare has told a significant background story about Claudio in just a few words.
Plot and Subplot—Which Is Which?
It is not clear, and this is unusual for Shakespeare' plays, which is the plot and which is the subplot. There are two sets of lovers, not unusual in Shakespeare's comedies, but what appears to be the main focus of the play, the relationship between Hero and Claudio, is easily overshadowed by the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick.
Since Hero is the daughter of Leonato, whereas Beatrice is only his niece, it would seem that Hero's love affair would take center stage. However, Hero's and Claudio's lines are less entertaining, and some critics have even come right out and said they were dull. This is far from the praise that the dialogue between Beatrice and Benedick has received, going back as far as when the play was first introduced. At one point, the play was even retitled Beatrice and Benedick.
However, it is Hero's and Claudio's relationship, dull though it may be, that drives the plot forward. Most of the action is dependent on what develops between them. Don John, for example, does not plot against Benedick but rather against Claudio. Benedick does not defile Beatrice's reputation as Claudio does Hero's, thus leading to the challenge against Claudio, the faked death of Hero, and finally, the wedding that closes the play. But if Beatrice and Benedick were removed from the play, chances are the play would completely disintegrate. Claudio and Hero's affair is not enough to carry the play on its own. First of all, they are not very funny; and since this is a comedy, they should at least be entertaining. There is little passion behind their words; and they take what is given to them and barely question it. On the other hand, the meat of the story, the part that draws audiences in and keeps them awake, is the sparring, and finally the coming together, of Beatrice and Benedick, the true heroes of the play.
Wordplay to Create Laughter
Shakespeare uses wordplay to make his audience laugh. His characters take turns playing on one another's words, such as Beatrice does in the opening scene of the play when the messenger arrives, announcing the approach of the prince and his soldiers. For example, when the messenger says of Benedick: "And a good soldier too, lady." Beatrice turns the messenger's words around so that rather than meaning that Benedick was good in war, it sounds like Benedick was good in bed. Beatrice takes the word too that the messenger has spoken and replaces it with the word to. Beatrice says: "And a good soldier to a lady, but what is he to a lord?" By making this play on words, Beatrice has wiped out all of Benedick's military conquests and brings the conversation down a few notches, wrapping the message in sexuality.
When the conversation continues, Beatrice turns the messenger's words again. "A lord to a lord, a man to a man, stuffed with all honorable virtues," the messenger says. In other words, he is saying that Benedick can stand as an equal to any lord or any man. However, Beatrice focuses on the word stuffed and changes the whole perception. "He is no less than a stuffed man," she says, implying that either Benedick is full of himself or is a replica of a human being but not completely real.
Italy as Setting
There is no real significance to having this play set in Italy. There are wars in England as well as Italy. Likewise, the villainy of Don John could easily be found in Shakespeare's country. So why is this play set in Italy? One reason might be to give the audience a distance from their English reality. It is so much easier to laugh at people of another culture. So in placing this play and all the deception, misunderstanding, and social behaviors in a foreign country, the English audience members of Shakespeare's time could enjoy a good laugh without feeling self-conscious or defensive. These are someone else's problems, they could say. These are someone else's foibles. No self-examination is necessary because the playwright is depicting someone else.
Prose instead of Poetry
Many of Shakespeare's plays are written in blank verse, a type of poetry that is characterized by measured lines of five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables with no end rhymes. However, Much Ado about Nothing is written mostly in prose, which means there is no ordered form but rather normal conversational patterns. Often, Shakespeare uses blank verse to elevate a character's lines, such as a military leader, like King Henry V, talking to his troops before a war; or Marc Antony delivering a speech upon the death of Julius Caesar. Much Ado about Nothing has no grand speeches such as those. Most of the dialogue is among peers, in the form of couples or very small groups. The atmosphere is relaxed and, for the most part, very lighthearted. There are exceptions though. When Shakespeare writes in prose for the majority of the lines then switches to verse, it is done to call attention to whatever is being said. An example occurs in act 1, scene 1, when Claudio talks about his feelings for Hero. This is an important part of the play. Claudio's speech touches on the main theme of the play, which is love and the relationship between a man and a woman. Claudio's lines, as well as those of Don Pedro's, are written in verse. The verse is set off from the regular prose dialogue in several ways. First, the right hand of the text does not reach the full right-hand margin. This is because each line contains only ten syllables. Second, each line starts with a capital letter even when that word does not begin a new sentence. If the verse is read out loud, the meter or beat of the line becomes noticeable, with each line's beat matching the others. From line 284 in act 1, scene 1, to line 323, Don Pedro and Claudio speak in verse, as if their combined conversation were one poem.
Located at the northeast corner of Sicily, Messina, Italy, with its population of almost one-half million is the third-largest city in Sicily. Sicily sits at the so-called toe of the boot that is the mainland of Italy. Greeks, Romans, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, and the English have all, at one time or another, claimed Messina as their own. In the seventeenth century, Messina was considered one of the greatest of European cities. The city has a great port, used for merchant ships as well as for the military. In 1908, the city was hit with a double catastrophe, a large earthquake and a devastating tsunami, which destroyed most of the city's structures and took 60,000 lives.
The Italian Wars
A series of wars were fought on Italian soil between 1494 and 1559 and were referred to as the Italian Wars. It is unclear what year Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing is set in, but it is possible that the prince and his soldiers were coming home from fighting in one of the latter battles of these wars. The wars were over the control of land and an extended power among the monarchs of several countries including Spain, France, England, and Austria. Where city-states such as Florence and Rome were once home to mighty navies as well as to the leaders in the renewed interest in history and art known as the Renaissance, at the end of the wars, all the power in what is now Italy was at best second-rate in comparison to countries such as Spain.
Role of Women in England in Shakespeare's Time
Not only were women not allowed to act in Shakespeare's plays (all parts were played by men or boys in Elizabethan England), women also had very little to do in any role outside of the home. Typically, women were the creators and nursemaids of the future generations, staying at home either pregnant or taking care of small children. A typical woman, if her physical condition allowed, gave birth every two years. Bearing and raising children was considered an honorable occupation at that time, so in some ways, men and women held equal status within different roles. This equality did not run through every aspect of their lives, though. Women could not attend school (although they could be educated at home), could not vote, could not serve in the military, nor hold a political office. Except for the monarchy, women did not inherit their father's titles (duke, earl, baron, etc.).
It is rather ironic that some of the female characters in Shakespeare's plays are very strong-willed, sharp-tongued, and independent, while, at the same time, women were not allowed to play these roles on the stage during Shakespeare's time. Acting was not considered an honorable occupation for women.
Female Roles in Shakespeare's Plays
Until 1660, only men could act on stage. The profession of acting was not very credible, with many of the early plays presented in inns by acting troupes that traveled around the countryside in large wagons. It was considered immoral for there to be women in the group of actors. In addition, there were laws against woman playing any of the female roles. Instead the female roles were acted by young teenage boys, who trained with older actors, learning feminine mannerisms, makeup, and such, as best as they could. The young boys received the lowest wages of the acting troupe. The law against women acting on stage was relevant only in England. Other European countries allowed women actors.
Contemporary Playwrights of Shakespeare's Time
Literature during the reign of Queen Elizabeth was blossoming. This was the time of the Renaissance in England, and the queen was a great supporter of the arts. The Renaissance, literally a rebirth, brought with it new ways of thinking and creating. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are considered the Golden Age of English literature.
A contemporary of Shakespeare during this Golden Age was the playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), named by some as the father of English tragedy. Marlowe was also considered a master of blank verse, with his play Tamburlaine the Great (1587) being the first popular drama to use blank verse in English. Marlowe's Jew Of Malta (first performed c. 1589) was probably one of Shakespeare's sources for The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596). There is a speculative notion, since Marlowe died so young, that he faked his own death, then took on the identity of William Shakespeare because he was in trouble under his own identity. There is no proof of this; but it is an interesting concept.
Thomas Kyd was another English playwright who was very instrumental in legitimizing Elizabethan drama. Like Marlowe, Kyd also has controversy surrounding his name. Some eighteenth-century scholars believed they found a play called Hamlet, written by Kyd, that predates Shakespeare's play of the same name, possibly making it the source of Shakespeare's work. Kyd's best known work was The Spanish Tragedie (c. 1589), possibly the most popular and influential tragedy of his time. Kyd was in a company of actors sponsored by Lord Strange, the same company that Christopher Marlowe belonged to. Kyd and Marlowe were roommates and were arrested for what was called heretical material, possibly dealing with atheism. Kyd was tortured and released. Marlowe was questioned and the next day killed. After this, Kyd was not allowed back into the theater company. He died the next year.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1600s: In the early 1600s in England it is considered immoral, and, more to the point, it is against the law for women to appear on stage.
Today: Today there are many women involved in acting careers on stage, in television, and on film. However, most leading female roles, especially in film, are written for younger women, leaving most actresses over forty with only minor roles to play.
- 1600s: Messina, with its large port in the Mediterranean Sea, is a thriving city of merchants and noble families. Trade from all over the world passes through its ports as do vast fleets of military ships.
Today: Messina is the doorway to Sicily, which has become a great tourist destination because of Sicily's mild weather, great historic sites, and good Italian food. The area is also known as the birthplace of the Mafia.
- 1600s: Shakespeare's plays are performed in front of enthusiastic audiences at the Globe Theatre in London.
Today: Shakespeare's plays are performed all over the world. Many scholars focus all their attention on the works of Shakespeare. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., has the world's largest collection of Shakespearean material and is entirely dedicated to providing studies of Shakespeare's works and presenting his plays.
- 1600s: Queen Elizabeth holds a tight rein on the material presented in plays. The dramatists who criticize the government or go against the religious views of the crown are questioned and sometimes punished.
Today: British drama is experiencing a burst of creativity by young playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill and Moira Buffini, who are pushing the boundaries of what British audiences have grown used to seeing on stage. New works are filled with sex, violence, and what is called street poetry. These plays focus on topics such as consumerism and problems of violence.
Ben Jonson (c. 1572–1637) wrote his first popular hit, Every Man in His Humour in 1598 and William Shakespeare played one of the characters when it was performed. Comedies were in vogue at that time, and attempting to take advantage of his success, the next year, Jonson wrote Every Man out of His Humour, which is said to have been almost as successful. In 1601, Jonson was asked to revise Kyd's successful play, The Spanish Tragedie, which he did. Jonson wrote plays that had political themes, which often got him into trouble. However, when King James I came to the throne in 1603, Jonson fared better. It was during the beginning of King James's rule that Jonson wrote his best plays. These included the dramas that he is most well known for: Volpone (1606), a comedy about greed and lust, and The Alchemist (1610), a comedy that revolves around a swindle. Jonson was considered the intellectual writer of the times. In contrast, Jonson saw Shakespeare as a crowd pleaser. They knew each other and often included remarks (actually jibes or digs) in their work that reflected any disagreements they were having between them.
Many scholars classify Much Ado about Nothing as one of Shakespeare's more popular comedies, one, at least since the eighteenth century, that is most often staged. As the critic Andrew Dickson, in his book The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, describes the play, Much Ado about Nothing "fizzes with holiday spirit." It is lighthearted, at least on the surface. Harold C. Goddard, in his The Meaning of Shakespeare, refers to this play as "a study in the egotism of youth, its sentimental and romantic egotism in Claudio, its antiromantic and intellectual egotism in Beatrice and Benedick." The play depicts this egotism but then allows the characters involved to escape from it and to learn through a series of lessons that help the characters to mature and realize that love can be an enriching experience.
In Maurice Charney's book All of Shakespeare, the author comments on various characters. On Benedick, Charney writes, "Like other reluctant males in Shakespearean comedy, Benedick is carried away against his conscious will to love Beatrice, and Beatrice too loves him in spite of herself. The witty war in the play turns on the conflict between powerful impulse and equally powerful commitment to gender pursuits." Charney continues, "The comedy is designed to show that neither Benedick nor Beatrice can get away with such sacrilegious protests against love." Although Charney praises the part of the play that features the verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick, he is not so pleased with the subplot that involves Don John, which Charney states, "leaves something to be desired in the way of psychological credibility, especially in a play where Beatrice and Benedick are such believable characters." There are too many holes in the character of Don John. Shakespeare does not explain why Don John is so vengeful, for one. Then Charney points out that much of the villainy in this play is "set in a comic context of the bumbling watch, incomparably played by Dogberry, Verges, and their officers." Charney describes Dogberry as one who "is always earnest and sincere and never overtly comic, which is the secret of his success." It is through Dogberry, Charney claims, that the villainy in this play is undercut and therefore "renders it harmless. It is as if Don John and his malicious companions are not allowed to appear in their true colors in a comedy. They are rendered impotent by the context." This might be what makes Don John a thin character, placing him in a position that "is only peripherally related to the villains of tragedy. He is isolated in Much Ado about Nothing and deliberately separated from the main action, except as a plot catalyst."
In the Essential Shakespeare Handbook, co-authored by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, the authors write that "No Shakespearean lovers enjoy quarrelling more than Beatrice and Benedick." They continue: "Shakespeare is especially careful to balance serious and light layers of action [in this play], preventing the false death of Hero and the rage of her father Leonato from turning the comedy into a more disturbing kind of play." Instead, the play is "skillfully built as characters overhear conversations, often laden with misinformation to trick the eavesdropper." Then the authors state: "Throughout, comical prose exchanges advance the action while keeping it light." As they list the attributes of the various characters, Dunton-Downer and Riding write: "Don John and Borachio are deliciously transparent villains who enjoy spinning their dastardly plot; and Dogberry and Verges are among Shakespeare's most charmingly comical law enforcement officers." Despite the fact that some of the wordplay has "worn so thin as to be incomprehensible in current English," the authors believe that most audience members will "readily understand that Beatrice and Benedick mock one another because they are too tough-minded to speak comfortably about love."
Frank Kermode, in his The Age of Shakespeare, describes the plot of Much Ado about Nothing as an old one. "It will appear to modern audiences that the wicked plotter succeeds in disgracing not the innocent Hero but Claudio, for his condemnation of his bride is coarse and public, and even when he knows her to have been innocent he is apparently unmoved by the report of her death." This might be one of the many reasons why the subplot, the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is so appealing. "The wit combats of these characters were apparently what always pleased most [audiences]." Kermode then explains that "verbal wit, considered an index of intelligence, was highly valued in all the aristocracies of Europe." Kermode then adds: "We need not suppose that Elizabeth's courtiers" were all as witty "as Beatrice and Benedick; but they doubtless spoke in lithe and resourceful prose, not altogether remote from what Shakespeare made of it in writing Much Ado About Nothing.
In The Friendly Shakespeare, Norrie Epstein describes this play as one that is "best known for its brilliant lovers, the dazzling Beatrice and Benedick." Epstein then states that "Beatrice is one of Shakespeare's most loquacious—and engaging—heroines." Epstein continues:
Throughout the play she and Benedick exchange insults when it's obvious to everyone but themselves that they are drawn to each other. As in The Taming of the Shrew [another of Shakespeare's comedies], Shakespeare reveals that those who love deepest are usually those who are most guarded against it. Coolness and witty detachment are the best defense against the confusions of the heart.
Cassal focuses on the minor character of Dogberry, and specifically the slander directed his way by Conrade. However, the slander—in which Conrade calls Dogberry an "ass"—"happens to be true and … represents its subject accurately," notes Cassal.
In Much Ado About Nothing, the slander of Hero has attracted a great deal of critical attention. Harry Berger, S. P. Cerasano, Barbara Everett, and A. R. Humphreys, among others, have commented on the slander and its effects on the young heroine. When Claudio describes Hero as a "stale," "an approved wanton," and a "rotten orange" during the church scene (4.1), his remarks constitute slander as defined by the English secular courts during Shakespeare's lifetime—they are false, malicious misrepresentations that attempt to defame or injure (Helmholz xvii, xl, lxxii-lxxxvi, and the OED). However, there is another type of slander in Much Ado, one that tends to be overlooked by critics: that of Dogberry, whom Conrade calls an "ass." Conrade's description of Dogberry is malicious (as well as exasperated), but it is neither false nor a misrepresentation. It is slander that happens to be true and that represents its subject accurately.
The labeling of Dogberry as an ass is presented comically. Part of the joke is that Dogberry publicizes his own slander, bringing it to much wider report than it would otherwise attain, as he proclaims, "remember that I am an ass" and "forget not that I am an ass" (4.2.73-74, 75). Whereas Hero wanted her slander to be erased as soon as possible, Dogberry shouts it to the heavens, or rather to the authorities, urging that the slur against him be written down to inscribe it permanently in Messina's official record: "O, that I had been writ down an ass!" (4.2.84-85). While Hero was painfully aware of the effects of slander on her reputation, her place in society, and her marriage prospects, Dogberry seems clueless not only of the impact of being publicly labeled an ass, but of the meaning of the word. This may be one of many instances where the relation between language and meaning escape him, and it may be the one that displays his comprehension problems at their most basic level. Whereas in other cases he confuses relatively sophisticated terms—"damnation" and "redemption," for instance—here he does not seem to understand the meaning of "ass." However, there is also a sense that, despite his cluelessness, he does somehow grasp the meaning of the slander and wants society to note the damage that has been done to him. In this respect, "Oh, that I had been writ down an ass!" becomes a lament over lost evidence, an expression of regret that there is no official documentation of his slander, and thus no way to recover his reputation. Dogberry implicitly believes that the written word has more power, more authority, than the spoken one, and he mourns the loss of written evidence to support his contention that he has been defamed.
Dogberry's defamation may be contrasted with Hero's in that the comic character, unlike the heroine, never seems to grasp fully the nature of the slander that is leveled against him. But the constable's defamation also resembles Hero's. Dogberry, like Hero, is a vulnerable figure within Messina society, and both characters rely on the good offices of powerful males. Indeed, Dogberry is feminized and has the marginalized status of a woman throughout the play. He even describes himself as "as pretty a piece of flesh in all of Messina" (4.2.79), a line that probably evoked a great deal of laughter in Shakespeare's time when uttered by the comic actor Will Kemp, for whom Shakespeare created the character of Dogberry (in the 1600 quarto the name "Will Kemp" is one of the speech tags for Dogberry). But beneath the comedy one notices that Dogberry sees himself much as the men of Messina see Hero: as a pretty piece of flesh, an object, a piece of property. Dogberry parodies this kind of male gaze directed at women. Like Hero, Dogberry lacks the verbal facility to defend himself, though his problem is not a lack of words, as we see in the heroine, but rather a mangling of language. He, like Hero, cannot use words effectively enough to mount a defense against slander. His cries for justice, like Hero's, fall on deaf ears, but like Hero he is vindicated at the end. He may be an ass, but he is instrumental in catching the villains of the piece. Like Hero, Dogberry "hath had losses" (4.2.82). Usually these are interpreted as being losses of money, property or possessions, but one wonders if Dogberry has not also suffered the loss of his reputation, if his "years" and his "place" were disrespected even before his encounter with Conrade and Boracchio.
The men of the watch serve many functions in the play. One, of course, is comic relief. They provide a counterpoint to—and perhaps a parody of—the macho posturing of Don Pedro and the other manly men of the Messina Men's Club. With their malaprops and non sequiturs the watch also offer a comic use of language that counterbalances the witty, intelligent and sophisticated banter of Beatrice and Benedick. Not all of the watch's functions are comic, however. In Much Ado, as Jean Howard has suggested, Dogberry and Verges demonstrate that "beneath the world of unstable appearance there is a world of essences to which man has access if he has, parodoxically, either careful noting skill or strong powers of intuition" (108). Dogberry and Verges "intuitively know a thief despite misunderstanding his language" (108). And Dogberry uses his intuition to sense when he is slandered even when he cannot fully grasp the meaning of what is said against him.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written sometime between 1594 and 1596, is one of the most often produced Shakespearean comedies in contemporary times. It is a story of four young people, a troupe of amateur actors, and their adventures when they encounter fairies in the woods.
- Another interesting comedy is Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597). In this play a foolish, jealous husband tries to prove that his wife is having an affair with a royal knight. The tables are turned when the wife becomes wise to her husband's attempts to catch her in the arms of the knight.
- Joan Silsby's The Devil's Bride: A Sequel to William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing takes the reader deeper into the play, filling out details that go unanswered in Shakespeare's version. This fictional work begins where Shakespeare left off, one week after the young Hero and Claudio have married. Much attention is given to Don John, creating another side to this somewhat flat character in Shakespeare's version.
- In the mood for a modern romance? Try Susan Andersen's All Shook Up (2001). This book is filled with some of the same elements as Shakespeare's play, such as two characters who think they hate each other to begin with, then fall in love; and a villain who is out to get them both. Set in eastern Washington, this is a fun read.
- For a more elegant love story, but still a funny one, read E. M. Forster's A Room with a View (1908). Lucy Honeychurch, a young British woman, leaves one suitor at home and finds another in Italy. She must make a choice. Will it be the practical one or the one with heart? This book is a classic.
- The Shakespearean scholar Alexander Leggatt looks at the comedies of sixteenth-century England in his work, Introduction to English Renaissance Comedy (1999). Comedy was flourishing in this period. It was also changing form. Leggatt provides a comprehensive examination of how comedy was used to analyze Renaissance relationships in the English court as well as in the countryside.
One should also note that the church scene—the nastiest scene in the play, and the one that Much Ado must struggle to accommodate within its comic framework—is sandwiched in between two scenes that feature Dogberry and the watch. These comic scenes are meant to cushion the negative impact of the church scene, and it is primarily through this cushioning that the ugliness of that scene is absorbed within the comic spirit of Much Ado. Structurally, the scenes of the watch distract the audience from the vile activities of the nuptial that goes wrong. Conrade's slander of Dogberry, following on the heels of Claudio's slander of Hero, fuses the tragic with the comic, lessening the impact of Hero's plight. Indeed, through comedy, Hero's debacle is linked to that of Dogberry, and so the play accommodates the sordid business of the church scene and maintains its comic trajectory.
Source: Steve Cassal, "Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing," in The Explicator, Vol. 64, No. 3, Spring 2006, pp. 138-141.
In this essay, Shead explores the "power of report"—how "what we are told profoundly influences our perceptions and judgements." The critic focuses on the character of Claudio, who is particularly susceptible to misreporting, while contrasting him with other characters such as Beatrice who are more immune to bad reports.
It's a strange thing—the power of report. I was once handed a hot drink with the decisive information: 'Here's your coffee.' It took me nearly half the cup to trust my taste buds and tell my host he had given me tea (while he was coming to the conclusion that his tea 'tasted funny'). This, of course, is a major idea of Much Ado About Nothing—that what we are told profoundly influences our perceptions and judgements.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio is the prime example of a character who tastes only tea once told that is what he is drinking. In preparation for Don John's major deception, the audience is shown Claudio's susceptibility in the masked ball scene. Although he should expect to see Don Pedro's proxy wooing, Claudio is quickly ready to see what Don John tells him: that he has been double-crossed and the Prince 'woos for himself'. Later, faced with Don John's more damaging misreporting, Claudio does not believe in Hero's infidelity on hearsay alone. But it is clear that, even before he sees the scene staged on her balcony, he is inclined to do so. He promises:
If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her tomorrow, in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her. (III.ii.112-14)
A decent lover might threaten Don John with a duel if he failed to support his accusations; but Claudio is already planning revenge on Hero for her possible misdeeds, not on her accuser for possible slander. None of this is surprising. To Claudio 'beauty is a witch' and as early as Act 1 Scene i he needs reassurance that Hero is worthy and that Don Pedro is not praising her simply to 'fetch him in'. In Claudio, Don John can draw from a well of latent mistrust and he seems to know this. Instead of labelling Hero explicitly, he tells Claudio to 'think you of a worse title', and lets suspicion and insecurity do the rest. Shakespeare intends irony, then, when he has Claudio ask the wedding party 'Are our eyes our own?' as if the reply, like Hero's guilt, is self-evident. Clearly the answer is 'Not in your case'. Claudio is constantly 'borrowing' the vision of others.
A more comic treatment of the same idea occurs in the Beatrice-Benedick relationship. Once convinced she loves him, Benedick is sure he spies signs of love in Beatrice, though her behaviour at that moment (end of Act II Scene iii) is as spiky and combative as ever. In fact, most characters in the play are subject to such misnoting under the influence of misreport. One possible exception is Beatrice. The play avoids any serious challenge to her claim to 'have a good eye'. For example, Shakespeare arranges his scenes so that Beatrice never encounters Benedick supposing him in love with her while he shows no sign of it. Though tricked into love with Benedick, she believes what she hears about him in the orchard 'better than reportingly'. Therefore, Beatrice, like Claudio, can be made to swallow the bait, but not if it runs counter to her judgement of character. Claudio lacks such judgement, leaving him prone to scandalmongers.
With the possible exception of Beatrice, the audience of Much Ado About Nothing has the luxury of being better informed than any of the characters (even Don John, who will learn that his accomplice has been arrested later than we do), and therefore feeling much cleverer than those on stage. This is necessary for Shakespeare's purpose: he needs an alerted audience, fully apprised of the facts, to appreciate the haste, folly and alarming consequences of on-stage errors. In fact, we are kept so well informed that there is a danger we might get complacent. Is the audience intended to feel exempt from the influence of misreport? Or does the play set any bait for its watchers? My belief is it does, and one such instance comes from an unlikely source: the benign and perceptive Friar.
Like Beatrice, Friar Francis seems to have a good eye and manages to detect the truth about Hero simply by noting her carefully. Impressed by this, some critics … have been inclined to accept other things the Friar says which are well intentioned but actually unreliable. The Friar's plan connects to the power of report in two ways. First, he makes claims for the effects of report on another character, saying when Claudio hears of Hero's death:
then shall he mourn—
If ever love had interest in his liver—
And wish he had not so accused her:
Second, the Friar's plan is itself a report of what we can expect to see, just as Don John indicated to Claudio what he would see on Hero's balcony. Both these claims prove false. The report of Hero's death does not have the expected impact, and so we do not see the behaviour from Claudio that the Friar predicts—or certainly not when the Friar predicts we will see it.
The morning after the wedding (Act V Scene i) a grieving Leonato and his brother encounter Don Pedro and Claudio in the streets and there is an ugly fracas. If Hero's 'death' has not reached their ears before, it certainly does when Leonato tells Claudio that his daughter lies buried with her ancestors. The only textual sign of Claudio's reaction is an indignant response to the charge that his villainy has killed Hero. This encounter over, Benedick immediately enters (to deliver his challenge) and is informed by Claudio 'We had like to have had our two noses snapped off with two old men without teeth' (V.i.115-16). There is not only little sign of mourning Hero here, but mockery of her relatives' enraged grief. It is possible to perform this line with bluff humour, suggesting it hides discomfort and misery (Claudio does welcome Benedick's entrance saying he and Don Pedro are 'high-proof melancholy'). But if Claudio and Don Pedro proceed to tease Benedick chiefly to cheer themselves up, then it is unpleasant to watch how successful they are. Don Pedro reports in humorous vein Beatrice's feelings for Benedick and concludes 'the old man's daughter told us all', which Claudio confirms with 'All, all' (V.i.175-76). The 'old man's daughter' is, of course, Hero. Not only is there no sign of remorse at Hero's death; there is no tact or discretion in referring to her. When Benedick, his challenge delivered, departs with 'you have killed a sweet and innocent lady' (v.i.188-89), the remark does not strike home either. Any gravity in his charge is brushed aside, and Claudio and Don Pedro discuss the challenge as the kind of utter foolishness a man commits once he is in love. In short, Claudio makes too good a job of hiding grief to be feeling much of it.
But the playwright does not leave the matter there. Later in the scene Borachio confesses, and Claudio says:
Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear
In the rare semblance that I loved it first.
The 'now' is telling—not before, but only now. The Friar suggested Claudio would mourn for Hero even 'though he thought his accusation true' (IV.i.233). The opposite is shown to be the case. There is no sign of remorse until Claudio is sure his accusation is false. The Friar's benign supposition that loved ones lost will be grieved, despite their faults, is contradicted by much bleaker facts: Claudio recognises the value of Hero's life only when she is a dead maid, not a lost bride, nor a bereft father's child. Uncomfortable though this is in a comedy swiftly heading for a happy ending, it is clearly so.
Most misreport in the play is fairly easy for the audience to identify. This miscalculation by the Friar of how a man will behave 'if ever love had interest in his liver' is left for us to detect. How much attention we give it probably affects how easily we are steered towards an ending that restores Hero to Claudio and ejects Don John, as if society has thus been purged. And if we track the apportioning of blame through the final stages of the play, it is something of a slalom course—which perhaps shows Shakespeare's own consciousness that Much Ado About Nothing's patriarchal society has played the part of Macbeth while Don John simply stirred the cauldron.
In his confession Borachio describes Don John as having incensed him to slander, though this very much underplays Borachio's active role in the balcony plot, and his virtual coaching of Don John in Act II Scene ii. At character level, this can be interpreted as 'passing the buck'. At the level of dramatic handling, it prepares us for Don John's role as scapegoat. It is interesting that only a few lines later, when questioned by Leonato, Borachio asserts he is the villain 'even I alone' (V.i.258). Surely this is to provide an opportunity for Leonato to comment acidly on Claudio and Don Pedro's roles in Hero's mistreatment:
Here stand a pair of honourable men—
A third is fled—that had a hand in it.
Claudio's own repentance is deftly handled. He first accepts punishment and offers to fulfil any penance Leonato devises, but adds 'yet sinn'd I not, / But in mistaking' (V.i.268-69). This is careful wording. At first glance it sounds like I sinned, but only by mistake, which is fair enough; no one would accuse Claudio of setting out to ruin his own marriage and harm a much-desired bride. But on closer scrutiny, it looks remarkably like: The only sin I committed was in making a mistake. This is dubious, given the calculated spite in his public humiliation of Hero and his callous response to her 'death'.
Shakespeare provides time and opportunity for audiences to reconcile themselves to a Claudio forgiven and rewarded at the end of the play. First, there is the bantering courtship between Beatrice and Benedick in Act V Scene ii to lift our spirits. Next, we see Claudio mourn for Hero and declare himself one of those responsible for her death. In the last scene he obediently accepts his new bride 'on trust'. Finally, the malcontent is captured and imprisoned, giving a sense that evil has been located and its growth stemmed. Despite all this, many spectators down the ages have found it difficult to forgive Hero's treatment and accept Claudio. Perhaps this is not so surprising. In Much Ado About Nothing one character is finally labelled as the villain, but there is plenty of evidence during the course of the play to suggest this is a gross simplification. If members of the audience note a discrepancy between what is reported by those on stage and what they actually witness, they must make their own judgements. Our eyes, after all, are our own.
Source: Jackie Shead, "Are Our Eyes Our Own?' Jackie Shead Explores the Power of Report in Much Ado About Nothing," in The English Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, September 2004, pp. 28-31.
In the following excerpt, Muir offers a general historical and literary assessment of Much Ado about Nothing.
The date of Much Ado about Nothing can be fixed with unusual accuracy. It was performed while Kemp (who played Dogberry) was still a member of Shakespeare's company, but too late for Francis Meres to know of its existence when he listed Shakespeare's plays in Palladis Tamia. So 1598 was the date of its first performance; and it was printed, probably from Shakespeare's manuscript, two years later.
It is hardly anyone's favourite comedy and it is not so frequently performed as As You Like It or Twelfth Night, doubtless because the main plot is so much less interesting than the underplot. The Hero-Claudio plot, written mainly in verse, is combined with the Beatrice-Benedick plot, written mainly in prose. In our degenerate days it is natural for audiences to prefer prose to verse, but it is possible that Shakespeare, towards the end of the sixteenth century, went through a phase when he thought that the increasing subtlety of his actors demanded a style nearer to colloquial speech—some of Shylock's best speeches, all of Falstaff's, most of Beatrice, Benedick and Rosalind are in prose.
The plots are linked together in various ways. The bringing together of Beatrice and Benedick is a means of passing the time between the day of Hero's betrothal and her marriage; Benedick is chosen by Beatrice to avenge her cousin's honour; and Benedick is a close friend of Claudio's, so that Beatrice's demand poses a favourite problem—posed earlier in The Two Gentlemen of Verona—of Love versus Friendship.
The play is also unified by imagery. As in Macbeth, the dominating image is one of clothes, and the most frequent figure of speech is antithesis. Clothes are used as a symbol of the difference between appearance and reality, and hence of hypocrisy. In the first scene, for example, Beatrice says that Benedick 'wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat'; Benedick calls courtesy a turncoat; in the second act Benedick says that Beatrice is the infernal Ate in good apparel; and Beatrice asks if Pedro has a brother since 'Your Grace is too costly to wear every day'. Benedick contrasts the amorous Claudio with the man as he used to be:
I have known when he would have walk'd ten mile afoot to see a good armour, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. (II.iii.I8ff.)
Pedro has a speech in Act III on Benedick's fancy for strange disguises. Borachio has a long dialogue with Conrade, apparently irrelevant to the matter in hand, on the subject of fashion:
Bor. Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak is nothing to a man.
Con. Yes, it is apparel.
Bor. I mean the fashion.
Con. Yes, the fashion is the fashion.
Bor. Tush, I may as well say the fool's the fool. But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is … Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is, how giddily 'a turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five and thirty, sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh's soldiers in the reechy painting, sometime like god Bel's priests in the old church window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club?
Con. All this I see; and I see that the fashion wears out more apparel than the man. But art not thou thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou hast shifted out of thy tale into telling me of the fashion?
Bor. Not so neither. (III.iii. 108ff.)
The climax of the many references to appearance and reality is the scene in church, when Claudio repudiates his bride. Hero is compared to a rotten orange, 'but the sign and semblance of her honour', blushing like a maid, although she is immodest:
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.
Out on thee! Seeming! I will write against it:
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, or those pamp'red animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
In a later speech Claudio drops into the favourite figure of antithesis, a figure most apt for the contrast between appearance and reality:
O Hero, what a Hero hadst thou been,
If half thy outward graces had been placed
About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart!
But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! Farewell,
Thou pure impiety and impious purity!
The two plots are linked together in another way. It has often been observed that the over-all theme of the play (as Masefield put it) is 'the power of report, of the thing overhead, to alter human destiny'. It is true that the complications of the play are all due to overhearing, although it could be argued that Claudio might, even without the detective work by the watch, have learnt his mistake, and Beatrice and Benedick might have allowed their unconscious love for each other to rise into consciousness. But there are at least seven examples of rumour in the course of the play:
1. In the second scene Antonio tells Leonato:
The Prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached orchard, were thus much overheard by a man of mine: the Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter, and meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance.
In this case, the servant had misheard, for Pedro had offered to pretend to be Claudio, to woo Hero for him.
2. In the next scene Borachio has overheard, correctly, that Claudio hoped to marry Hero, and that Pedro was going to woo for him.
3. In the scene of the dance there are a whole series of misunderstandings, partly owing to the fact that the characters are masked:
(a) Hero, instructed by her father, apparently thinks that Pedro is wooing for himself, but it is not explained what her reactions are when he pretends to be Claudio, as this takes place off stage.
(b) Don John, for reasons which are never explained, thinks that Pedro woos for himself.
(c) Benedick thinks that Beatrice does not recognise him, and she calls him the Prince's Fool.
(d) Borachio pretends that Claudio is Benedick, and tells him that Pedro is wooing Hero for himself; and this, in spite of their previous arrangement, is forthwith believed by Claudio.
(e) Benedick, who is not aware of the arrangement between Pedro and Claudio, naturally believes that Pedro has wooed for himself.
The purpose of all these confusions—and their improbability is not so apparent in performance, is to soften up the audience, so that they are willing to accept as plausible Don John's deception of Pedro and Claudio.
4. In the third scene of Act II, Benedick overhears that Beatrice is dying of love for him, and he promptly decides that her love must be requited.
5. In the first scene of Act III, Beatrice hidden by the woodbine coverture, overhears that Benedick is in love with her. She forthwith decides to return his love:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And Benedick, love on; I will require thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand;
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
She uses, as Petruchio does, the image of the tamed hawk.
6. Borachio is overheard making love to Margaret, whom the watchers think is Hero; and Borachio, telling the tale of his deception of Pedro and Claudio to Conrade, is overheard by the Watch. This leads to his arrest, and the acquittal of Hero.
7. On the Friar's advice, a report is circulated that Hero is dead, so as to cause Claudio to feel remorse. This remorse becomes overwhelming when it is proved that she was falsely accused. But it is typical of Claudio's self-centredness that when he hears that Hero was innocent he is more concerned about his own feelings than about her supposed death. And when he agrees to marry her cousin he has the significant lines:
I do embrace your offer; and dispose
For henceforth of poor Claudio.
The plots, then, are linked together structurally, imagistically and thematically, so that complaints about lack of unity have little justification. There remains the feeling of many readers that the two plots don't really harmonise since the main plot is largely conventional—depending on the convention employed by Shakespeare in Othello and Cymbeline that the calumniator of female chastity is always believed, though in real life he would not be—and the sub-plot is much more realistic. Moreover, Hero is a nonentity and Claudio is a cad; whereas Beatrice and Benedick (though absurd) are attractive figures to whom an audience warms.
There are several possible answers to these complaints. The first answer is one that has to be made over and over again to Shakespeare's armchair critics: that his plays were meant to be acted, not read, and that the test we should apply should be a theatrical one—Does it work in the theatre? The convention of the calumniator believed always does seem to work. We may think Claudio is a credulous fool, but Pedro's equal credulity prevents us from having too harsh an opinion of him.
Nor is it unusual in Shakespeare's plays for him to present his characters on different levels of reality. It has often been noticed that Katherine and the scenes in which she appears are much more vital than those relating to the wooing of Binaca. Just as in painting, an artist will relegate some figures to the background, and just as a photographer will keep his central theme in sharp focus, while the rest of his composition may be comparatively blurred, so the dramatist can vary his treatment of characters in the same play.
The characters in this play range from the purely conventional to the purely human. Don John (for example) announces himself as a villain, a true example of motiveless malignity, who does evil for the sake of evil. Although we could (I suppose) ascribe his villainy to the results of his bastardy, it is not really possible to regard him as anything but a conventional stage villain. Or consider Margaret. At one point in the play she is apparently the mistress of the debauched Borachio, who for some unexplained reason is willing to pretend she is Hero, and call Borachio Claudio (unless this is a textual error). At another point in the play, she is a witty lady-in-waiting, on almost equal terms with Beatrice and Hero. She cannot be present in the church scene—if she had been she would have exposed Borachio's plot—though it is quite unnatural that she should not be present. When Leonato says that Margaret was hired to the deed by Don John, Borachio protests that she is completely innocent:
No, by my soul, she was not;
Nor knew not what she did when she spoke to me,
But always hath been just and virtuous
In anything that I do know by her.
In the next scene, she engages in a witty exchange with Benedick; and at the end Leonato says (in relation to the slander of Hero)
But Margaret was in some fault for this,
Although against her will, as it appears.
Leo Kirschbaum, in Character and Characterisation in Shakespeare, argues that psychologically the two Margarets are completely incompatible. She is a flat character; but in the course of performance we do not notice the discrepancies, and Shakespeare was not troubled by the difficulties his readers might encounter.
Hero and Claudio are more realistically presented, but they are still conventional figures, and this prevents us from being too involved emotionally at Hero's distresses. Indeed, the audience is never in doubt that things will come right in the end. The very title of the play Much Ado about Nothing tells them as much. The chief song has as its refrain,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny-nonny.
Borachio, moreover, has been arrested by the watch before the church scene; and it is only the loquaciousness of Dogberry which prevents the slander from being exposed before the marriage scene. So the audience knows that Hero's name will eventually be cleared.
Dogberry is, indeed, a masterly character, one which is beautifully functional, but which is much more than functional. He has to be pompous, loquacious, fond of long words, very much on his dignity, semi-literate, and a bungler; otherwise he would get at the truth much sooner, and Leonato would not hasten to get rid of him on the morning of the marriage. On the other hand, he has to have some glimmerings of intelligence, or he would not have eventually arrived at the truth. On this functional basis, Shakespeare creates a wonderful portrait of a Jack-in-office, much less competent than Verges, whom he bullies and despises. He is the true ancestor of Mrs Malaprop, but much more plausible than her, who having been brought up as a lady would not be likely to make such absurd mistakes. All Dogberry's mistakes, taken individually, are the sort of mistakes one still hears from local politicians in England. Dogberry uses desartless for deserving, senseless for sensible, decerns for concerns, odorous for odious, aspicious for suspicious, comprehended for apprehended. Shakespeare may have known such a man; but he had probably read a book by his acquaintance William Lambard, on the duties of constables, so that one gets a curious mixture of Elizabethan practice with the wildest fantasy. Funny as the Dogberry scenes are, they are best played without too much farcical business; for as with all the best comic characters, there is an element of pathos about Dogberry, as when he is called an ass by one of his prisoners:
Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it not be written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow; and, which is more, an officer; and, which is more, a householder; and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina; and one that knows the law, go to; and a rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath had losses; and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass! (IV.ii.69ff.)
For a modern audience, the rejection of Hero in church makes it difficult to retain any sympathy for Claudio. Prouty seeks to defend him by suggesting that it was merely a marriage of convenience. Since Hero was not a virgin, her father had broken a contract, and a public exposure was therefore permissible. This is all very well. But there is one line only in Claudio's part to suggest that he was thinking of Hero's dowry. His first question to Pedro, when he reveals that he is thinking of the marriage is 'Hath Leonato any son, my lord?' Otherwise Claudio is presented as an abnormally shy, sentimental lover.
Shakespeare had to have a public repudiation. There were theatrical necessities for it—one has only to think what the play would be like without this climactic scene. There were also perfectly good dramatic reasons for a public repudiation. Claudio's action has to seem so atrocious that Benedick—his bosom friend—is willing to challenge him to a duel. The repudiation, and the following scene between Beatrice and Benedick, are a means of showing the innate good sense of Beatrice, her warm-heartedness and intuitive understanding; and they are a means of precipitating the confession of love.
The Mueschkes make the good point that the theme of the play is Honour: 'Honour is the warp of the three hoaxes [perpetrated in the course of the play], hearsay is the weft, and illusion spins the web.' They go on to suggest that
The repudiation scene, examined with the courtly code of honour in mind, is much more than a coup de theâtre. In terms of Renaissance mores, it is a scene of poignant disillusionment and despair. In the conflict between appearance and reality, between emotion and reason, tension increases when lover turns inquisitor and father turns executioner. Here, in a conflict between good and evil, truth clashes with error in a charged atmosphere of contradictory moods and shifting relationships while the outraged moral sense oscillates between absolute praise and absolute blame. Here, when malice triumphs, shame so submerges compassion and slander, mirage, and perjury are accepted as ocular and auditory proof. Incensed by defiled honour, men argue in absolutes shorn from any rational mean, and under the aegis of the courtly code act and react with prescribed cruelty.
In other words, Shakespeare's aim is to criticise the accepted code of honour; and (it may be argued) when Beatrice demands that Benedick should challenge Claudio she also is enslaved by the conventional code. For if Benedick kills Claudio, it will prove only that he is a more accomplished swordsman; and if Claudio kills Benedick it will do nothing to prove the guilt of Hero. It is the dim-witted watch, and the pompous self-important Dogberry who restore Hero's reputation. As St Paul says: 'God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.'
The behaviour of Claudio—and, indeed, of Pedro—in the scene of the challenge exhibits once again the limitations of the code. Their treatment of Leonato is bad enough, but their light-hearted ragging of Benedick shows a callousness to the memory of Hero, and cannot quite be expiated by the ritual mourning which follows the revelation of her innocence.
Beatrice and Benedick are obviously the two characters who are most vital and real—the ones who are the least conventional. Least conventional in a double sense: in the way they are drawn, and in their reacting against the romantic conventions of the society in which they live. They alone, of the characters in the play, are three-dimensional.
Superficially, it might seem that Beatrice and Benedick who detest each other are tricked into loving each other by overhearing that each is dying for love of the other. But it is fairly obvious that they are in love with each other from the start: that is the reason why they are continually attacking each other. Beatrice and Benedick have several reasons for not admitting to their love. Both (it is clear) are unwilling to make themselves ridiculous, and they are too intelligent and unsentimental to indulge in the gestures of conventional romantic love. It is possible (as Prouty suggests) that they are equally in revolt against marriages of convenience. Beatrice, moreover, thinks of Benedick as a philanderer. When Pedro says 'you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick', Beatrice replies:
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one; marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.
The speech is rather obscure; but it seems to imply that Benedick at one time had made love to Beatrice, and she felt his intentions were not serious. Both are proud and apparently self-sufficient. Benedick boasts, not very seriously, of the way women fall in love with him; but he declares to others that he will die a bachelor, and to himself:
One woman is fair, yet I am well, another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. (II.iii.31 ff.)
Beatrice similarly says:
He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man I am not for him. Therefore I will even take sixpence in earnest of the berrord, and lead his apes into hell.
Leon. Well, then go you into hell?
Beat. No; but to the gate, and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say 'Get you to heaven Beatrice, get you to heaven; here's no place for you maids'. So deliver I up my apes and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long. (II.i.31-41)
It was speeches like this that so shocked Gerard Manley Hopkins that he called Beatrice vain and unchaste. Beatrice does not talk like a mid-Victorian lady, but there is not the faintest suggestion in the play that she is unchaste, and few will agree with Hopkins's epithet 'vile'. Nor, I think, is Beatrice vain; but she is proud. It has been suggested that Hero's lines describing her cousin—
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—
are based on a character representing pride in The Faerie Queene. But we must remember that Hero is deliberately exaggerating, as she knows that Beatrice is overhearing her. The lines cannot be taken as an accurate portrait. Yet both Beatrice and Benedick are absurd in their self-sufficiency. Much Ado about Nothing may be regarded as a subtler version of The Taming of the Shrew, transposed from farce to high comedy—and, of course, Benedick needs to be tamed as well as Beatrice. As we have seen, Katherina's violence is at least partly due to the fact that she hates equally the artificialities of romantic love and the humiliations of marriages of convenience, in which she is bound to suspect that the suitor is after her fortune—as indeed Petruchio admits from the start. But the struggle between the Shrew and her tamer is carried out in terms of farce. In Much Ado, Beatrice, instead of being physically violent, is aggressive with her tongue, and she chooses as her victim the man she really loves. She is cured and tamed, not by physical violence and semi-starvation, but by hearing the truth about herself, and about Benedick. The irony is that Hero and the others who talk about Benedick's love for her think they are lying, although they are telling the truth; and Pedro and Claudio think they are lying when they speak of Beatrice's love for Benedick.
By the end of the play we realise that all the characters in the play, except the Friar, have been laughed at: the watch for their stupidity, Dogberry for his self-important illiteracy, Leonato for being more concerned with his own honour than with his daughter's life, Claudio and Pedro for their credulity in being deceived by an obvious villain, for the cruelty of their code of honour, and for their failure to recognise that Beatrice and Benedick are in love; Beatrice and Benedick for their pride and self-sufficiency. It is not only Dogberry who should ask to be writ down as an ass.
Bernard Shaw has pointed out how much the witty repartee depends on style. The passage occurs in a review of a performance of the play in 1898:
Shakespear shews himself in it (sc. Much Ado) a commonplace librettist working on a stolen plot, but a great musician. No matter how poor, coarse, cheap, and obvious the thought may be, the mood is charming, and the music of the words expresses the mood. Paraphrase the encounters of Benedick and Beatrice in the style of a bluebook, carefully preserving every idea they present, and it will become apparent to the most infatuated Shakespearean that they contain at best nothing out of the common in thought or wit, and at worst a good deal of vulgar naughtiness … Not until the Shakespearean music is added by replacing the paraphrase with the original lines does the enchantment begin. Then you are in another world at once. When a flower-girl tells a coster to hold his jaw, for nobody is listening to him, and he retorts, 'Oh, youre there, are you, you beauty?' they reproduce the wit of Beatrice and Benedick exactly. But put it this way. 'I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.' 'What! my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?' You are miles away from costerland at once. When I tell you that Benedick and the coster are equally poor in thought, Beatrice and the flower-girl equally vulgar in repartee, you reply that I might as well tell you that a nightingale's love is no higher than a cat's. Which is exactly what I do tell you, though the nightingale is the better musician.
Shaw, of course, exaggerates, because he was campaigning for Ibsen. It was only in his later years, after all his plays had been written, that he confessed that his own masters were Verdi, Mozart and Shakespeare; and by a curious irony his own plays are being performed now, not for their ideas, but for their style.
In all love comedies the union of the hero and heroine must be delayed by obstacles of one kind or another.—'The course of true love never did run smooth.' The obstacles can be external, as for example the opposition of parents who have other plans for their children. Or they may be psychological, the unwillingness of one or other to marry. In Congreve's masterpiece, The Way of the World, Millamant is afraid that (as so often in her society) marriage will destroy his love for her. And when she is finally cornered, she tells her lover:
I shall expect you shall solicit me, as though I were wavering at the gate of a monastery, with one foot over the threshold … I should think I was poor if I were deprived of the agreeable fatigues of solicitation.
Then she lays down an elaborate list of conditions for her surrender, including the provisos that she shall not be called such names as 'wife, joy, jewel, spouse, sweetheart, and the rest of that nauseous cant in which men and their wives are so fulsomely familiar … Let us be very strange and well bred, as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.' Millamant, like Beatrice, uses her wit as a shield, because she is in fact very vulnerable and sensitive. In a great modern comedy, Shaw's Man and Superman, it is the woman who chases the man, chases him halfway across Europe in a motorcar; in Much Ado both the hero and the heroine apparently wish to remain single, and the marriage at the end is a satisfactory one because it fulfils their unconscious wishes. A modern dramatist has written a sequel to Much Ado in which Beatrice and Benedick, after their marriage, continue to fight each other as they had done before. But the continuation of the merry war (as Shakespeare calls it) does not mean that their marriage would not be a success. They will enjoy the wise-cracks, and use them as a private method of courtship, long after Claudio and Hero have exhausted the pleasures of romantic hyperbole. (Indeed, if one were to treat the matter realistically—and it would be perverse to do so—one could imagine Hero reminding Claudio too often of the way he repudiated her in church.)…
The climactic scene in the play is the one in which Benedick and Beatrice first confess their love for each other. Hero has been repudiated in church by the man she was to marry. Hero faints. In this situation the behaviour of Beatrice and Benedick is contrasted with that of the other characters. Whereas Leonato behaves like an hysterical old fool, first believing that Hero is guilty and wishing that she would die, and later uttering threats against the Prince and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick are concerned for Hero. Beatrice knows instinctively that she is innocent, and Benedick asks some of the questions which the audience are waiting to be asked. (No one, however, seems to realise that Don John's story of a thousand secret encounters can scarcely be true, since Beatrice and Hero, until this last night, have shared a bed.) The Friar puts forward his plan of pretending that Hero has died, and suggests that the wedding-day is but postponed. Benedick naturally suspects that Don John is at the bottom of the plot to defame Hero, since Claudio and Pedro are honourable men. Everyone leaves the church, except Benedick and Beatrice, who is still weeping for her cousin.
Since they learned that they were loved by the other, Beatrice and Benedick have not met in private, and the audience have been waiting for their meeting for about half an hour of playing-time. In the scene which follows, Benedick is forced to choose between love and friendship. After he has promised to do anything in the world for Beatrice, and she asks him to kill Claudio, he first exclaims 'Not for the wide world'. When John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft appeared on Broadway, one of the critics regarded the production as a failure—though it was the best I have ever seen—because the audience laughed at this point. The critic thought the audience laughed because it was obvious that Gielgud's Benedick would not hurt a fly, let alone his friend. But although the scene as a whole is a poignant and dramatic one, there are several lines which are intended to be funny, and this is surely one of them. It is right that the audience should laugh when Benedick offers to do anything that Beatrice wants and refuses the very first thing she asks.
Source: Kenneth Muir, "Maturity: Much Ado About Nothing," in Shakespeare's Comic Sequence, Barnes & Noble Books, 1979, pp. 68-81.
In the following excerpt, Crick offers a general discussion of Much Ado about Nothing, focusing upon the characters, theme, and language of the play. He depicts the play as one concerned primarily about the potential for evil existing in people who have become self-absorbed in a society that reflects and supports that self-absorption.
'The fable is absurd', wrote Charles Gildon in 1710, and most of us would agree. Yet there is the effervescent presence of Beatrice and Benedick and the engaging stupidity of Dogberry and Verges to assure us that all is not dross. Coleridge was convinced that this central interest was Shakespeare's own, his motive in writing the play, and the 'fable' was merely a means of exhibiting the characters he was interested in. This may have been the attitude of audiences in Shakespeare's time: as early as 1613, the play was referred to as 'Benedicte and Betteris'. Can we summarise the play in this way: a few good acting parts standing out against the unsatisfactory background of a preposterous Italian romance? I think not.
Most of the play's critics have seized on the apparent absence of any unifying dramatic conception: the play fluctuates uneasily, it is said, between tragedy, romance, and comedy and never establishes a convincing dramatic form for itself. In these circumstances there are too many inconsistencies of plot and character and, in particular, in the presentation of Claudio and Hero: they begin as the hero and heroine of a typical italianate romance and, under the growing dominance of Beatrice and Benedick in the play, become—rather unconvincingly—the perpetrator and victim respectively of a nearcriminal act. Beatrice and Benedick throw the play off its balance.
It is a truism criticism should be concerned with what a work of art is, and not with what it ought to be. In the case of Much Ado, however, it is one worth remembering, for preconceptions about form, plot, and character, and the other components of a play, have so often obscured what is unmistakably there, and shows itself in the very first scene of the play: the precise delineation of an aristocratic and metropolitan society. This is done with a thoroughness and depth which is beyond any requirement of a romantic fable in the tradition of Ariosto and Bandello, and beyond the demands of a plot merely intended to exhibit the characters of Beatrice, Benedick, Dogberry and Verges, in the way that Coleridge suggested. The opening scene of the play establishes for us the characteristic tone of Messina society. Don John's rebellion has been successfully put down and the victors are returning to Messina with their newly-won honours. It is significant that, in spite of the fact that Don John still exists to cause trouble, there is no serious discussion of the reasons for or consequencies of the rebellion. War is regarded as something that might deprive society of some of its leading lights—Leonato asks the messenger 'How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?'—and enhance the status of others. The messenger informs us that no gentlemen 'of name' have been lost, and Claudio and Benedick have fought valiantly and achieved honour. War is a gentlemanly pursuit, a game of fortune—nothing more.
This first conversation of the play has a studied artificiality which seems to bear out this reading of the situation. The language is sophisticated and over-elaborate, as if it has been cultivated as an end in itself, and not as a vehicle for the discussion of serious matters. Leonato's sententiousness may be that of an old man; yet it fits naturally into the play's elaboration of words:
'A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers.' 'A kind overflow of kindness: there are no faces truer than those that are so washed. How much better is it to weep at joy at weeping!'
Even the messenger—a person of humble origin, we presume—has caught the infection and uses euphuistic phraseology:
'He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion: he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how.'
'I have already delivered him letters, and there appears much joy in him; even so much that joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness.'
This initial impression—of ornate language as the normal conversational mode in upper-class Messina society—is confirmed by the rest of the play: there is an abundance of antitheses, alliterations, puns, euphuisms, repetitions and word-patterns. The imagery has a similar artificiality and tends to consist of the prosaic and the conventional, rather than the striking. Prose, rather than verse, is the natural medium for conventional talk and ideas, and it is therefore not surprising that there is far more prose in Much Ado than is normal in a Shakespearean comedy.
In such a society, Beatrice and Benedick are naturally regarded as prize assets. They, too, relish talking for effect—although they do it with far more wit and vigour than the others, whose speeches are usually lifeless and insipid. If Don John's rebellion has not been taken seriously, as we suspect, it is probably because the 'merry war' between Beatrice and Benedick is of far more interest to a fashionable society which, as such societies do, regards a war between the sexes as a subject of perennial fascination. Beatrice, as Benedick says, 'speaks poniards' and 'every word stabs; and yet no harm is done. No Messina gentleman is likely to be deprived of his life by 'paper bullets of the brain'. Yet, one of the play's ironies is that it leads us to doubt this: considerable damage is done by the mere power of words. (It is another of the play's ironies that Beatrice's 'Kill Claudio'—an unusually straightforward command—is motivated by charitable feelings.) Hero—the main victim—comments on this power: 'one doth not know How much an ill word may empoison liking' …
Where Messina conventions are fallible—and Beatrice as a woman, in a predominantly masculine ethos of courtship, games and war, is particularly qualified to speak here—is in questions of love, marriage, and the relationship between the sexes. Beneath her raillery, Beatrice shows a realistic and discriminating attitude to the subjects. She won't accept the choice of others for a husband, ironically remarking, 'Yes, faith; it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, "Father, as it please you." But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy, and say "Father, as it pleases me"'; she rejects romantic notions of the opposite sex—'Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face'; and, by implication, she won't accept a business marriage. (Benedick's attitude to marriage is similarly realistic—'the world must be peopled'). Hers is a sane perspective on events, an application of generosity and sympathy in a society dominated by ultimately inhumane standards. Her feminine charity triumphs, as Portia's mercy does in The Merchant of Venice. Benedick becomes acceptable to her when he symbolically joins his masculine qualities to her feminine principles by taking up, however reluctantly, her attitude to Claudio, and thus shows himself to be, in her eyes, of a finer 'metal' than the average Messina male. Ironically, the plotting which separated Claudio and Hero brings them together, their true feelings breaking through their conventional jesters' roles, and it is Beatrice's clear-sightedness which triumphs over all the pattern of misunderstandings, deceptions, and self-deceptions which make up the play. (This patterned and stylised aspect of the play is very marked in the plot, characterisation, and language: consider, for example, the balancing of the two scenes in the church; the characterisation in pairs: the artificiality of the masque and the mourning scene; and the rhetorical devices of most of the language.)
The incapacity of Messina society is also exposed, at another level, by Dogberry and Verges. Dogberry, like his superiors, adopts the mode of language and behaviour he conceives to be fitting to his position. When it comes to a real-life drama, he is as patently useless as Claudio. He displays condescension towards Verges and all the pompousness of authority: 'I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer, and, which is more, a householder …' Claudio, too, has 'every thing handsome about him'. Dogberry has caught the Messina infection of pride and self-centredness, that self-centredness which makes Leonato—the perfect host at the beginning of the play—wish Hero dead because of the way in which she has shamed him. (Isn't there something more than just a resemblance of name between him and Leontes and Lear?)
Essentially, the play is, I believe, about the power for evil that exists in people who have become self-regarding by living in a society that is closely-knit and turned in on itself. The corruption is usually that of town and city life. (Significantly, Shakespeare's story does not fluctuate between town and country as Bandello's does.) A moral blindness is generated that, if not evil itself, is capable of evil consequences. The agency of evil in this play is not outside, but within. The ostensible villain of the piece—Don John—is a mere cardboard figure who, excluded from a world of flatteries and courtesies, has resorted to 'plain-dealing' villainy. He may be an early sketch for Iago and Edmund but he lacks their intelligence and flair, and Shakespeare has wisely kept him within the narrow bounds appropriate for comedy. The real orgin of the crime is not jealousy, sexual or otherwise, but blind, consuming egotism which expresses itself in a studied artificiality, and at times flippancy, of both language and attitude. Later, Shakespeare was to take the same theme and mould it into tragedy. In the world of Othello, Lear, and Gloucester, the consequences of pride and self-centredness are catastrophic. The ultimate is perhaps King Lear—another 'much ado about nothing'—where Lear, like Claudio, could say 'Yet sinned I not but in mistaking'.
Source: John Crick, "Much Ado About Nothing," in The Use of English, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring 1966, pp. 223-27.
W. H. Auden
In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in Encounter in 1957, Auden (a major twentieth-century poet) demonstrates how Balthasar's song in Act II, Scene iii of Much Ado about Nothing contributes to the dramatic structure of this work in two ways; by marking the moment when Claudio's "pleasant illusions about himself as a lover are at their highest"; and by suggesting to Benedick, through the song's message, an image of Beatrice as well as a dark sense of "mischief" ahead.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
Source: W. H. Auden, "Music in Shakespeare," in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, Random House, Inc., 1962, pp. 500-27.
Charney, Maurice, All of Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Dickson, Andrew, The Rough Guide to Shakespeare, Rough Guides, 2005.
Dunton-Downer, Leslie, and Alan Riding, Essential Shakespeare Handbook, DK Publishing, 2004.
Epstein, Norrie, The Friendly Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 1993.
Goddard, Harold C., The Meaning of Shakespeare, University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Kermode, Frank, The Age of Shakespeare, The Modern Library, 2004.
Shakespeare, William, Much Ado about Nothing, Folger Shakespeare Library edition, Washington Square Press, 1995.
Branagh, Kenneth, Introduction to Much Ado about Nothing, W. W. Norton & Co., 1993.
This book by the British Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh concerns the question, why film Much Ado about Nothing? Branagh replies that the play is about love, one of humankind's obsessions.
Hays, Janice, "Those 'Soft and Delicate Desires': Much Ado and the Distrust of Women," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Hays examines Much Ado for its treatment of what Hays calls a theme addressed several times in Shakespeare's plays: the sexual distrust of women and their subsequent testing and vindication.
Honigmann, E. A. J., Myriad-Minded Shakespeare, Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.
A Shakespearean scholar, Honigmann studies all of Shakespeare and helps readers understand the man as well as his tragedies and comedies. He explores everything from the sexist insinuations in the plays to the political comments and environments.
Leggatt, Alexander, "Much Ado about Nothing," in his Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, Methuen and Co., 1974.
Leggatt notes that many of the characters in this comedy are highly stylized, and he emphasizes the ceremonial aspects of the church scenes, the patterning of the tricks played on Beatrice and Benedick, and the image of order signified in the final dance sequence. Against these he balances the realism and spontaneity of Beatrice and Benedick.
Maslen, Robert, Shakespeare and Comedy, Arden, 2005.
Maslen looks at Shakespeare's works, tragedies as well as comedies, and concludes that Shakespeare's comedies are not always funny. But, Maslen concludes, that is what makes them so compelling.
McDonald, Russ, ed., Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1945–2000, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
A rewarding collection of essays that help the reader to better understand Shakespeare's plays. Themes, construction, and modes are fully explored by some of the best Shakespearean critics and scholars.
Pettet, E. C., "Shakespeare's Detachment from Romance," in his Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition, Haskell House Publishers, 1976.
Pettet argues that Much Ado reflects Shakespeare's growing dissatisfaction with the traditional formulas for romantic comedy. Pettet regards the dominance of the Beatrice-Benedick entanglement over the Hero-Claudio story as the most telling sign of Shakespeare's shift in interest away from the love romance.
Rowse, A. L., "Much Ado about Nothing, 1599," in his Prefaces to Shakespeare's Plays, Orbis, 1984.
Rowse focuses primarily upon the main characters, Beatrice and Benedick, Hero and Claudio, Dogberry and Verges, and Don John, as well as on Shakespeare's use of source material. Rowse deems Much Ado to be a prime example of Shakespeare's comedy. The play has romance as well as comedy that cuts across classes.