[In an excerpt from a general essay on Much Ado, Everett illustrates the development by Shakespeare, in his comedies, of certain feelings and attitudes which are a constituent part of his entire dramatic canon, and which tend to be most clearly expressed by the female characters. From Shakespeare's women, the critic argues, come the clearest expressions of humane principle, generous nature, and constancy.]
Much Ado About Nothing is not, I think, among Shakespeare's most popular comedies. It lacks many of those perpetuating devices that we look for to give us a sense of timeless pleasure, of a "holiday" that is at once a sportive release and also, through lyricism, gives the faintest air of holiday blessedness and calm. It contains no sunlit or moonlit wood where every Jack finds his Jill. No heroine leaps happily into hose to find the sexless and timeless liberty of intellectual sport. There is no "play within a play" to strengthen the artifices that surround it with the solidity of comparative reality, and so to give their happy ending the stamp of truth. If "we did keep time, sir, in our snatches," it is not a snatch of perpetuity that is given in the songs of the play—no Journeys end in lovers meeting, nor It was a lover and his lass, nor When daisies pied and violets blue—hut an omen of change: Men were deceivers ever. The play appears to present, by...
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Appearance Vs. Reality
The theme of appearance versus reality has been deemed central to the structure and tone of Much Ado. Reflecting on the numerous instances of deception in Much Ado, Barbara K. Lewalski has observed, "mistake, pretense, and misapprehension are of the very substance of life in Messina." Reflecting on the numerous instances of deception in Much Ado, John Dover Wilson has asserted, "Eavesdropping and misinterpretation, disguise and deceit—sometimes for evil ends, but generally in fun and with a comic upshot-such are the designs in the dramatic pattern of Much Ado." While critics have often noted that the theme of appearance versus reality is articulated in most of Shakespeare's plays either, by circumstances or by deliberate acts of deception by the characters, Elliot Krieger has maintained, "Much Ado about Nothing fits neither pattern, for the series of deceptions that compose the plot, although created by the characters, are lived through en route to other deceptions, and are not overcome; false perception characterizes rather than disrupts the norm of the society depicted in the play." All of the main characters deceive or are deceived by others at some point during the play, and critics agree that the successful resolution of the play, to a great extent, concerns the stripping away of illusions that otherwise distort characters' knowledge of themselves and reality. Michael Taylor has addressed the theme of the...
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Music and Dance
Critics have long noted the presence of music in Much Ado, both in the text itself and in the form of the play. The play concludes with a dance; and Balthasar's song, "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more," has been commented upon often, in part because it is performed in a crucial point in the play. (Balthasar's song was, in fact, assigned a prominent, recurring role in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of the play.) Several important critics have written about the importance of music in Much Ado, including Bernard Shaw, W. H. Auden, and Paul N. Siegel; while composer Hector Berlioz based one of his most accomplished works on the play. Of music in Much Ado, Shaw wrote sourly that "comparatively few of Shakespeare's admirers are at all conscious that they are listening to music as they hear his phrases turn and his lines fall so fascinatingly and memorably; whilst we all, no matter how stupid we are, can understand his jokes and platitudes, and are flattered when we are told of the subtlety of the wit we have relished, and the profundity of the thought we have fathomed." Writing fifty years after Shaw, Auden seeks to show how Balthasar's song contributes to the dramatic structure of Much Ado, while Siegel illustrates the affinities between the plot of Much Ado and the movements of a formal dance.
W. H. Auden
[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in...
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Beatrice and Benedick
Most critics concur that Shakespeare's depiction of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick far surpasses that of Hero and Claudio in depth and interest. Scholars have often emphasized the fact that Shakespeare deliberately introduces the theme of the sparring mockers Beatrice and Benedick before the theme of the pallid romantics Hero and Claudio; and further, that when all of the principal characters are on stage together, the audience is drawn not to the tame love-at-first-sight relationship that develops between Hero and Claudio, but rather to the "merry war" between Beatrice and Benedick. Commentators have also noted that while the romance of Hero and Claudio is based on the outer senses, Beatrice and Benedick place more value in each other's inner attributes. A key scene often held up for examination is Act IV, Scene i, beginning where Beatrice, alone with Benedick, commands her suitor to "Kill Claudio—and then, enraged by Benedick's hesitation, declares, "Oh, God, that I were a man! I would eat his [Claudio's] heart in the market place." "It is untrue to say that Beatrice and Benedick steal the limelight from them because Claudio and Hero never held it," John Crick has written. "Hero is far too nebulous a figure, and Claudio is made unattractive from the start." However, John Dover Wilson has contended that "the Hero-Claudio plot, on the whole, is quite as effective as the Beatrice-Benedick one, which is to some extent cumbered with dead wood in the...
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Hero and Claudio
For years, critics of Much Ado have examined the reason why the Hero-and-Claudio plot seems so colorless alongside the romance of Beatrice and Benedick. John Wain explains why and how, to his understanding, the Hero-and-Claudio plot fails to come to life, despite Shakespeare's craftsmanship. In further explanation, scholars have said that with Messina being a society of wit, the conventional Hero and Claudio are in a setting in which their shortcomings, particularly Claudio's, stand out. In this context, John Crick seeks to show how Hero and Claudio exist in a society in which their conventionality stands out as dullness and where Claudio's shortcomings are brought to the fore. Critics agree that Claudio's high point in the play comes at a low point in the portrayal of his character: when he accuses Hero of being a wanton in the presence of her father and the entire wedding party. Feminist criticism has focused upon this particular scene, with scholar S. P. Cerasano contending that Much Ado "implicitly dramatizes the plight of women and slander within the actual legal structure" of the play's society. For additional commentary on the character of Hero, see the essays by Barbara Everett and John Crick in the OVERVIEWS section and the essay by John Russell Brown in the APPEARANCE VS. REALITY section. For additional commentary on Claudio's character, see the Crick and Brown essays.
[In the excerpt...
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Constable Dogberry is considered one of the most beloved characters in all of Shakespeare's works. But critics have not devoted the intensive studies of his character as they have of other principal characters in Much Ado. James Smith has written one of the more short studies of Dogberry, emphasizing that the wordy constable, far from being mere comic relief, mirrors the values of his betters in Messina society, with their emphasis upon superficiality and appearance above all. Critics agree that, despite their stupidity, Dogberry and his companions, Verges and the Watch, are key to the resolution of the play for their role in divulging the truth about Don John's plot against Hero. Anthony B. Dawson demonstrates the significance of Dogberry as an interpreter and conveyer of messages crucial to the play's outcome; he also compares Dogberry with Bottom, from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
[In the following excerpt, Smith seeks to refute Samuel Taylor Coleridge's claim that Dogberry is a dispensable figure in Much Ado, and that the play lacks a unified design. The critic contends that Shakespeare's treatment of the constable and his associates is closely linked to his depiction of Messina and its inhabitants, which embody absurdity, shallowness, irresponsibility, and immaturity.]
Coleridge chose Much Ado as an illustration of his famous "fourth distinguishing...
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