Much Ado about Nothing
One of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, Much Ado about Nothing combines a cheerful mood with an intricate series of deceptions and miscommunications. As Richard Ornstein (1986) summarizes, the play “is warm as well as witty, and compassionate in its view of human frailties and limitations.” The play focuses on the conflict between Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship takes place as a subplot within the narrative of Claudio's courtship, rejection, and rejuvenated love of Hero. The unconventionality of Beatrice and Benedick's relationship, which is based on an apparent mutual dislike, delight in wordplay, and the conspiratorial matchmaking of their family and friends, has frequently captured the interest of contemporary critics and modern audiences. Feminist critics of the late twentieth century have been drawn to the play’s themes related to the feminine ideal and patriarchal authority. Other critics have focused on the misuse of political power and of ineptitude on the part of authorities in the play, as well as the seriousness of the “nothing”—triviality, silences, scenes unseen, and nonsense.
Beatrice's character, who is depicted as Benedick’s equal in intelligence and will, has drawn the attention of feminist critics. Her well-known exclamation, “O that I were a man … !” and her assertiveness mark her difference from Hero's conventional femininity. Kathleen L. Carroll (1990) looks to how Beatrice’s character was portrayed in two nineteenth-century productions of Much Ado about Nothing in order to find “insight into the conflicting perceptions of femininity on the American stage.” Claire McEachern (1988) contends that the play reflects Shakespeare’s questioning of patriarchal authority and his desire to examine its root causes. McEachern argues that Much Ado about Nothing dramatizes the conflicts and tensions within a patriarchal structure, particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between Hero and her father. Contesting this reading, Roy Battenhouse (1991) claims that Leonato's response to Claudio's rejection of Hero is absurdly overdrawn, and plays into the spirit of the comedy, rather than providing serious social critique. He argues that the play is best understood through Christian conceptions of redemption and resurrection, expressed in the Friar's advice to Hero: “Die to live.” Recent feminist criticism has increasingly focused on the subtleties of Hero's characterization. Some critics have read Hero's treatment at the hands of her father and Claudio as Shakespeare’s critique of feminine conventionality and the weakness of the feminine ideal in Elizabethan culture. Mark Taylor argues that Hero's silence at Claudio's declaration of love can be performed either as a momentary modest pause, or as an “implied ellipsis” that disturbs the conventionality of her role.
The tension in the play between the order established by authorities and the disorder constantly threatening this stability implies, as some scholars conclude, a different kind of cultural critique—that of the corruption or inefficiency of the political authorities of Shakespeare's time. The ineptness of Dogberry and the Watch, who ultimately do unravel Don John's scheme to undermine the marriage of Claudio and Hero, serves as a farcical subplot to the main dramatic action. Phoebe Spinrad (1992) contends that they bring order to the stage and affirm the general stability and political health of Messina. Gavin Edwards (1991) suggests that Shakespeare's attention to the temporal order of the play reinforces the impression that the audience is intended to see the intertwining of order and disorder. Ornstein comments on the mercurial change in the emotional tenor of the play's scenes as a reflection of the chaos—emotional and social—brought on by the human weaknesses of deceitfulness and gullibility. Claudio's character in particular reveals the difficulty of the comedy: his enactment of the “tradition of the courtly lover,” as Karen Newman remarks (1985), brings him to repudiate Hero without arousing the loathing of the audience, so that he can redeem himself fully at the second wedding. Newman claims, “Mistaken identity, role-playing and alternate identities are therapeutic instruments which lead the characters to self-knowledge. …”
Several recent critics have attempted to articulate the significance of the title of the play: the role of what seems trivial, absurd, or unspoken. In addition to Hero's silences, the plot is confused by what have been termed “problematic” elements: the history of the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, Claudio's callousness and subsequent regret, and why Hero cannot provide an alibi when she accused of being “but the sign and semblance of her honour.” David Ormerod examines how the word “fashion” functions as an alias for the word “nothing” in certain instances in the play, and contends that fashion “is the real villain of the play, and that its destructive function is recognised to a greater or lesser extent by many of the play's characters.” Stephen Dobranski (1998) elaborates on the hints in the text regarding Beatrice’s emotional history with Benedick, and suggests that the “nothing” of the title includes an “imagined lost child that haunts their relationship.” The ellipses, missing scenes, and trivialities that complicate the drama are, according to these writers, intimately bound up with its significance, and enrich its portrait of human interaction even as they interrupt any simple determination of genre.
1. Much Ado About Nothing is supposedly a comedy: Beatrice and Benedick trade insults for professions of love, and Claudio and Hero fall in love, out of love, and back in love again. But the play contains many darker, more tragic elements than a typical comedy. In what ways is this play tragic?
2. A central theme in the play is trickery or deceit, whether for good or evil purposes. Counterfeiting, or concealing one’s true feelings, is part of this theme. Good characters as well as evil ones engage in deceit as they attempt to conceal their feelings: Beatrice and Benedick mask their feelings for one another with bitter insults, Don John spies on Claudio and Hero. Who hides and what is hidden? How does deceit function in the world of the play, and how does it help the play comment on theater in general?
3. Language in Much Ado About Nothing often takes the form of brutality and violence. “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs,” complains Benedick of Beatrice (II.i.216). Find examples of speech and words representing wounds and battles in the play. What do Shakespeare and his cast of characters accomplish by metaphorically turning words into weapons? What does the proliferation of all this violent language signify in the play and the world outside it?
4. In some ways, Don Pedro is the most elusive character in the play. He never explains his motivations—for wooing Hero for Claudio, for believing Don John’s lie, even for setting up Beatrice and Benedick. He also seems to have no romantic interest of his own, though, at the end of the play, without a future wife, he is melancholy. Investigate Don Pedro’s character, imagine the different ways in which he could be portrayed, and ascribe to him the motivations that you believe make him act as he does. Why is he so melancholy? Why does he woo Hero for Claudio? Is he joking when he proposes to Beatrice, or is he sincere? Why would Shakespeare create a character like Don Pedro for his comedy about romantic misunderstandings?
5. In this play, accusations of unchaste and untrustworthy behavior can be just as damaging to a woman’s honor as such behavior itself. Is the same true for the males in the play? How is a man’s honor affected by accusations of untrustworthiness or unfaithfulness? Do sexual fidelity and innocence fit into the picture in the same way for men as it does for women? Examine the question of honor and fidelity as it relates to four male characters in the play: Benedick, Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro. What could Shakespeare be saying about the difference between male and female honor?