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 she knows what they are. Between their “noble” actions, they are are no more than seducers, “valiant trenchermen,” gluttons and leeches, or, like Claudio, vain young boys ready to fall in love on a whim. Even the stately Don Pedro is a fool who proposes to Beatrice on impulse after he has wooed the childish Hero for the inarticulate Claudio. In contrast to their behavior, Beatrice’s initial cynicism—“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me”—is salutary and seems like wisdom.
Beatrice, however, is as susceptible to flattery as is Benedick. Like her eventual lover and husband, she is seduced by Don Pedro’s deception, the masque he arranges to lead both Beatrice and Benedick to the altar. Both of them, after hearing that they are adored by the other, pledge their love and devotion. To be sure, the scenes in which they are duped are full of innocent humor, but the comedy does not obscure Shakespeare’s rather bitter observations on the foppery of human love and courtship.
Nor is their foppery and foolishness the end of the matter. Don John realizes that a vain lover betrayed is a cruel and indeed inhuman tyrant. With little effort he convinces Claudio and Don Pedro that the innocent Hero is no more than a strumpet. Yet rather than break off the engagement in private, they wait until all meet at the altar to accuse the girl of “savage sensuality.” Without compunction they leave her in a swoon, believing her dead. Even the father, Leonato, would have her dead rather than shamed. It is this moment that reveals the witty and sophisticated aristocrats of Messina to be grossly hypocritical, for beneath their glittering and refined manners lies a vicious ethic.
In vivid contrast to the decorous soldiers and politicians are Dogberry and his watchmen, although they certainly function as no more than a slapstick diversion. Hilarious clowns when they attempt to ape their social betters in manners and speech, they are yet possessed by a common sense or—as one critic has observed—by an instinctual morality, which enables them to uncover the villainy of Don John’s henchmen, Conrade and Borachio. As the latter says to the nobleman, Don Pedro, “I have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light.” Like the outspoken and bawdy Margaret, who knows that underlying the aristocrats’ courtly manners in the game of love is unacknowledged lust, Dogberry and his bumbling followers immediately understand the issue and recognize villainy, though they may use the wrong words to describe it.
Shakespeare does not force the point home in the end. He is not dealing here with characters of great stature, and they could not bear revelations of substantial moral consequence. They may show compunction for their errors, but they exhibit no significant remorse and are ready to get on with the rituals of their class. It does not seem to matter to Claudio whether he marries Hero or someone who looks like her. Even Beatrice has apparently lost her maverick edge as she joins the strutting Benedick in the marriage dance. All ends well for those involved (with the exception of Don John), but through no great fault of their own.