What is the role of miscommunication in Beatrice and Benedick's relationship?
As the title suggests communication is the key theme in Much Ado About Nothing. In Shakespearean times, nothing was often said as "noting." Noting can mean "taking notice of." The play is based around observations. While some of these observations are true, most of them are somehow misinterpreted. Eavesdropping, mishearing, and misreports are all commonplace throughout the play and a great many are intentional.
Beatrice and Benedick are masters of subtext communication. They often use puns, jokes, sarcasm, and double entendres. Their conversations with the other characters in the play are quick and full of one-sided jokes; however, when talking with one another, their communication becomes a battle of wits. Beatrice and Benedick use words as weapons with one another. This is a subtle hint by Shakespeare that, even though both Beatrice and Benedick are adamant that they are destined to be alone in life, they are, in fact, a perfect match.
In addition, a good part of the play is about the characters eavesdropping and misinterpreting what is overheard, or about knowledge learned through gossip. For example, Hero and Claudio work together to trick Beatrice and Benedick into overhearing that the other is secretly in love with them. Through this deceit, Beatrice and Benedick become enamored with one another and finally express their love.
Last, in several instances in the play Shakespeare has included comments on romance that are not intended for the characters in the play. Audience members who are as quick as Beatrice and Benedick are able to catch the hidden jokes within the text. For example, in Act 2, Scene 3, Benedick makes the following statement after eavesdropping on Claudio, Leonato and Don Pedro.
They say the lady is fair. ‘Tis a truth, I can bear them witness. And virtuous—’tis so, I cannot reprove it. And wise, but for loving me. By my troth, it is no addition to her wit—nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her.
The background of this passage is that Benedick has just heard a fabricated conversation conducted by his friends to attract him to Beatrice. Benedick's speech, quoted above, is indicating that Benedick is falling in love with Beatrice simply by learning about her love for him. The statement that he will be horribly in love has a significant underlying meaning. It would be a horrible thing to fall in love based on miscommunication or intentional deceit, yet in this play, it is exactly the way that the two main characters fall in love. In this way, Shakespeare gives his side comment about much ado about “noting.”
I think the number one role of miscommunication in Beatrice and Benedick's relationship is dramatic irony. I see their miscommunication in the same way that I see that sort of thing in modern day romantic comedies. They are fun to watch, but so predictable. Those movies start off with two people that claim they do not like/love each other. They hurl insults at each other or constantly trip over each other and say things that don't quite come out right. The characters are clueless for most of the movie that they are falling in love, but it is clear as day to the audience that the two protagonists are in love with each other. Some film examples: "Along Came Polly," "The Proposal," "The Breakup," or "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." Even "10 Things I Hate About You" works in this regard. It's even based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.
Beatrice and Benedick function in the same manner. They constantly bicker with each other and compete to outdo each other with their verbal wit. It's funny. There is no doubt that they are some of the main comedic elements in the play. But I don't think that is the main role of their miscommunication with each other. The audience can clearly see that they love each other. The audience can clearly see that they are perfect for each other, but Beatrice and Benedick are blind to it.
Take these lines spoken by Beatrice for instance:
"As strange as the thing I know not. It were as
possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you,
But believe me not, and yet I lie not, I confess
nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my
Benedick has just finished professing his love for her, but instead of responding in kind, Beatrice stumbles over her words. She doesn't admit that she is in love with Benedick, but she doesn't deny it either. Talk about mixed signals for Benedick. Now he doesn't know what to think of her feelings, but the audience definitely knows. It's dramatic irony.