William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has in fact very much to do with “noting” (an intended pun on “nothing”) or half-seeing, with perceiving dimly or not at all. Out of a host of misperceptions arises the comedy of Shakespeare’s drama. Indeed, if it can be said that one theme preoccupies Shakespeare more than any other, it is that of perception, which informs not only his great histories and tragedies but also his comedies. An early history such as Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), for example, which also involves tragic elements, proceeds not only from the title character’s inability to function as a king but also from his failure to apprehend the nature of the new politics. Both Othello and King Lear are perfect representatives of the tragic consequences of the inability to see. Hindered by their egos, they live in their own restricted worlds oblivious to reality. When they fail to take the real into account, whether it is the nature of evil or their own limitation, they must pay the cost.
Although the blindness of Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing very nearly results in tragedy, it is the comic implications of noting rather than seeing that Shakespeare is concerned with here. Yet if his mode is comic, his intention is serious. Besides the characters’ inability to perceive Don John’s villainy, their superficial grasp of love and their failure to understand the nature of courtship and marriage reveal their moral obtuseness. In fact, the whole society is shot through with a kind of civilized shallowness. The play begins as an unspecified war ends, and the audience is immediately struck by Leonato’s and the messenger’s lack of response to the casualty report. To the governor of Messina’s question, “How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?” the messenger replies, “But few of any sort, and none of name.” Leonato comments, “A victory is twice itself, when the achiever brings home full numbers.” The heroes of the war—Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick—return in a high good humor, seemingly untouched by their experiences and now in search of comfort, games, and diversion.
Only Beatrice is unimpressed with the soldiers’ grand entrance, for...
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