Much Ado About Nothing shares a theme common to Shakespearean Comedy: a romance is disrupted, but love triumphs. However, unlike such earlier works as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream, this play is a comedy of character, rather than of situation; its major development—the defeat of the threat to romantic happiness—comes about through a psychological change on the part of the major characters, rather than through changes in their circumstances. While elaborate and melodramatic coincidences bring the play to its climax, that climax—Beatrice and Benedick's commitment to each other—is one of personal crisis and response.
The conflict between Beatrice and Benedick is the central element of the play, although it is sometimes seen as a subplot, being humorous and lacking the villainous interference that adds suspense to the story of Hero and Claudio. The two scorners of love are unquestionably the brightest and most vital characters in the play, and their lively battle of wits engages much of our attention. It is introduced before Claudio and Hero even meet, and Claudio's feebly motivated love at first sight has none of its appeal. The comic trap that brings the former foes together holds our interest in the second half of the play; the tale of the foolish Claudio and his passively victimized lover seems most important as the stimulus for the growing trust between Beatrice and Benedick, who are much more fully developed characters.
The gulf that at first separates Beatrice and Benedick is not created by any outside interference; rather, the lovers themselves have established it. We are immediately aware that they love. each other, despite their protestations to the contrary: in 1.1 Beatrice cannot refrain from asking after Benedick's fate in battle, though she affects scorn in doing so, and Benedick thinks first of Beatrice as a model with which to compare Hero (unfavorably) when he mocks Claudio's intention to marry. Beatrice and Benedick have apparently quarrelled in the past; she speaks of 'our last conflict' (1.1.59) and implies an earlier unhappy romance in 2.1.261-264. He is overly sensitive to her criticism, declaring himself unable to abide her company in 2.1.257-258. These hints lead us to believe that both parties are trying to protect themselves against a repetition of their previous unhappiness.
Thus their relationship develops in a way that makes it stirringly real. When Don Pedro's plot makes them fall in love with each other, it seems entirely appropriate and their responses are convincing. Each, once convinced of the other's love, accepts affection and reciprocates it. Their reactions are both comical and humanly touching, as they half-heartedly attempt to disguise their new feelings with transparent complaints of toothache (3.2.20) and head cold (3.4.40). When their friends tease them, we feel a pleasurable sense of escape, seeing on stage, at a safe distance, a kind of foolishness to which we ourselves might be susceptible.
The reaction of these vital and good-humored figures to the denunciation of Hero lies at the moral heart of the play. The scene of Hero's rejection in church (4.1), which alludes to such religious concepts as 'grace' and 'damnation' (4.1.171, 172), presents a crisis of spiritual values. Beatrice acts on her faith in her cousin, and Benedick acts on his faith in Beatrice. This involvement in a serious issue brings them together utterly, completing the work of their friends' earlier ploys. This process permits them to return to the world of normal relations, where earlier they had isolated themselves from it.
Although Beatrice and Benedick dominate the play—significantly, it was long known by the title 'Beatrice and Benedick'—Claudio and Hero reinforce their lesson of love and faith. While these lovers are undeniably shallower than Benedick and Beatrice, this very fact makes them effective in their own way. Hero and Claudio are conformists who believe in the romantic norms that their more spirited friends reject. Their conventionality supports the comic tone of the play by preventing our emotional or sentimental involvement in their situation.
Hero is a typically pliant and acquiescent young Elizabethan woman. She shows no interest in Claudio until Don Pedro tells her that she is betrothed to him. She is mildly charming, and she is spirited enough to help trick Beatrice into loving Benedick, but she is mostly a docile participant in an arranged marriage. Claudio plays a more prominent role; if Benedick and Beatrice must learn that their opposition to love is a false sentiment, Claudio must also be freed from the naive pseudo-love that he at first declares for Hero, an emotion not grounded in experience. Claudio has often been condemned as a cad, a mere cardboard figure, or both. However, he should be taken at his word when he professes love for Hero; even as he rejects her, he does so in sorrow, regretting that his love has been disappointed. His vicious attempt to humiliate Hero reflects the extent of his hurt. Moreover, as a conventional young man, Claudio is concerned about the offence to his honor—and to that of his prince, Don Pedro—caused by what he believes to be a plot to foist a promiscuous bride on him. While this consideration is almost meaningless today, it will have been appreciated by Elizabethan audiences, and thus we should recognize that, while Claudio is plainly foolish and gullible, he may reasonably plead in his own defense that he has sinned 'but in mistaking' (5.1. 269).
His repentance at Hero's supposed tomb is often criticized as cynical, too slight and superficial to be taken seriously, but the text of the scene (5.3) offers no justification for this view; it presents a solemn, if brief, ritual of grief and atonement, followed by a formal quatrain, spoken by Don Pedro (5.3.24-27), that invokes hope for the future. However, even though Claudio is properly repentant, he remains uninteresting and it is fitting that he and Hero are simply ignored at the end of the play, when attention turns to Benedick and Beatrice.
Don John is also a conventional figure, a 'plain- dealing villain' (1.3.30), for whom 'any bar, any cross, any impediment will be medicinable to me' (2.2.4-5). His true nature is hidden even from his brother, Don Pedro, even though he has recently rebelled against him. (In 16th-century melodrama, the evil of a villain often remains unknown to his victims until he is overtly exposed.) He is a plot device more than a truly complex character—a sort of anti-comic symbol who opposes the happy ending. Such a mechanical villain is necessary, because a true villain, like Richard in or Iago, would destroy the comic assurance that all will be well for the crossed lovers. Significantly, Don John is not present at the final reconciliation, for his nature is utterly at odds with it.
Much Ado's central plot device is the readiness of the characters to accept error and misinformation: Don John's false presentation of Hero is merely the most important incident in a series of erroneous reports and misunderstandings. While Don John maliciously misleads his intended victims, Don Pedro benevolently tricks Benedick and Beatrice. Dogberry is fully capable of confusing himself and everyone else.
Disguise, another source of error, is also a prominent motif. At the Masque in 2.1, Beatrice and Benedick converse in masks, and their dialogue, more vitriolic than usual, marks the extreme extent of (heir hostility. In the same scene Claudio is pretending to be Benedick when Don John tells him that Don Pedro loves Hero. More important, the play turns on Margaret's use of a disguise, Hero's clothes, as part of Don John's plot to slander Hero. This episode is lent further mystery by being only reported (twice—by Borachio in 3.3 and, slightly differently, by Claudio in 4.1) and not actually shown on stage.
The theme of error and confusion is also enhanced by various other dramatic devices. Prominent is the repeated importance of overhearing, an act that lends itself to misinterpretation and error. Don Pedro's plan to help Claudio woo Hero is overheard and misunderstood by Antonio's servant, as is retold by Antonio in 1.2, and it is also overheard—correctly but with malice—by Borachio, leading to Don John's first piece of villainy. Don John's scheme involves the invention of another overheard conversation, with which he deceives Claudio. Don Pedro uses overhearing benevolently to convince Beatrice and Benedick that each is loved by the other, and the Watchmen overhear Borachio's account of Don John's second villainy, leading to the eventual exposure of his plot. The frequent recurrence of this motif lends strength to the role of luck and timing in the comedy's gratifying resolution. The very title of the play may contain a pun on this subject, for 'nothing' was probably pronounced like 'noting', which in Elizabethan English could mean 'overhearing' or 'eavesdropping'. This possibility seems to be supported by the wordplay in 1.1.150-152 and 2.3.157. The casual title serves a thematic purpose in any case, affirming the play's comic nature by implying that the lovers' trials will prove in the end to have been of no consequence.
The various plots of Much Ado are intricately interwoven in a fabric that both suggests and reinforces the complex confusions that are central to the play. From the beginning our attention is repeatedly transferred from one set of lovers to the other. One plot is conventionally melodramatic, while the other is a series of clever rejections of conventional romance; each of these qualities contradicts the other, preventing a single tone from dominating. The Claudio-Hero plot is written entirely in verse, whereas Beatrice and Benediltk spar in particularly loose and lively prose. (An exception, Beatrice's lyrical outburst when she hears that Benedick loves her [3.1.107-116], is sometimes seen as evidence that Shakespeare adapted Much Ado from a lost play in verse, though it is just as likely to have been intended as a sign of her sudden receptivity to romance.)
While the two stories are thus antithetical in some ways, they are similar in others. Both plots feature heroes who err in renouncing their lovers out of pride in both cases—Benedick's pride of overvalued independence, Claudio's pride required by a conventional sense of honor. Both men, however, are plainly going to end up married. Similarly, Beatrice and Hero are alike in destiny and opposed in personality. The two stories combine when they both come to their dissimilar climaxes in 4.1. In fact, Claudio's rejection of Hero sparks the co-operation and trust between Beatrice and Benedick.
Other features of plotting emphasize the play's confusions. Strikingly, Don John's villainy is first spent on a scheme that goes nowhere, the attempt to make Claudio believe that Don Pedro is taking Hero for himself. This ruse makes us aware of important aspects of both the villain and his victim. Similarly, the third plot element, that of Dogberry and his Watchmen, is also full of confusion. But it is handled with a precision that makes Much Ado respected as among the most deftly plotted of Shakespeare's works. Dogberry's Watchmen appear exactly at the crucial moment when Don John's second, more potent villainy has been unfolded to us, though not to its victims. When the Watchmen overhear Borachio and Conrade, we are assured that Hero will be exonerated. Yet Dogberry's comical ineptitude ensures that she won't be cleared immediately, and the lovers' stories are allowed to continue to their resolutions.
Thus hints of tragedy alternate with comical reassurances. We learn the truth while the characters operate in ignorance of it; thus we laugh, preserving the comic nature of the play. Our emotions are insulated from the distress that the deluded characters would evoke in a tragedy or in real life. Nevertheless, the melodrama of Hero's unjust disgrace, shockingly brutal because it is set at her wedding, forbids escapism. Like the later Problem Plays, Much Ado has the capacity to disturb, and we are morally engaged. The happiness that is finally attained is made more valuable by the difficulty with which it is achieved. At the end, though, as in The Merchant of Venice, these hardships are forgotten, and love and happiness prevail. The final reconciliation stems from the essential goodness of the world of Leonato's court: its denizens are cheerfully at home with each other, too witty to be sentimental and too kind to be unfeeling. While Claudio and Don Pedro prove vulnerable to Don John's manipulations, their error is rectified. Evil is undone through the redeeming power of love and faith and through the timely grace of chance. We can agree with Benedick when he says, 'man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion' (5.4.107), but perhaps it is Dogberry who most truly, if unwittingly, states the play's nature when he chastises Borachio, asserting, 'Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption' (4.2.53-54).
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