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Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

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Which character is the fool who reveals a truth in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing?

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In all of Shakespeare's plays, there are only three true "fools": Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It, and the Fool in King Lear. These are characters who are employed by a personage of high standing—like a Lady (Feste), Duke (Touchstone), or King (the Fool)—not only to entertain them but also to "speak truth to power." Shakespeare's fools are thoughtful, witty, well-spoken, and invariably the smartest person in the room.

Shakespeare's "clowns," on the other hand, are simple and often simple-minded characters, not particularly well-spoken, and "a little rough around the edges." Clowns aren't particularly astute or perceptive, and they only occasionally, sometimes purely accidentally, speak truth to power. Shakespeare's clowns are the funniest person in the room but not the smartest.

Shakespeare's fools are self-aware. They know they're smart, and they know their worth to their masters. Shakespeare's clowns aren't self-aware but are, more often than not, blissfully unaware of the world around them and of the importance of any insightful remarks they make. Clowns might think they're smart, or they might have an inflated opinion of themselves and their worth to society, but they're simply fooling themselves.

Shakespeare's fools add intellectual and philosophical depth to his plays, whereas his clowns simply add comedy.

It's not a coincidence that Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and King Lear were written in 1600 or later, which coincides with the time that Robert Armin (c. 1563–1615) joined Shakespeare's acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, replacing Will Kempe (c. 1560–1603) as the lead comic actor. Will Kempe was essentially a rough-edged, purely comic actor who played characters like Peter in Romeo and Juliet, Costard in Love's Labor's Lost, Lancelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and possibly Falstaff.

Some scholars believe that Shakespeare replaced Kempe with Armin because Kempe had too great a tendency to overact and improvise his lines beyond what Shakespeare had written for Kempe's character. (Hamlet's "advice to the Players" in act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet might well have been directed at Kempe.) Robert Armin was a more refined comedian who could sing and dance very well, as Feste is required to do in Twelfth Night. Armin played more intellectual, philosophical, and "wordly-wise" characters than did Kempe, but Armin could also play the rougher comic characters like the Porter in Macbeth.

Dogberry, the "master constable" in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, is often referred to as a "fool," but he's not. Dogberry is foolish, yes, but Dogberry is a clown. Dogberry is a role for Will Kempe, not for Robert Armin.

Nevertheless, Dogberry occasionally reveals incontrovertible truths in Much Ado About Nothing through his malapropism-filled dialogue.

DOGBERRY. Why then, depart in peace and let the child wake her with crying; for the ewe that will not hear her lamb when it baes will never answer a calf when he bleats. (3.3.63-65)

Dogberry also uncovers...

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Don John's plot against Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero, but he and his fellow constables are too bumbling and inept to reveal the truth about Don John's plot to Leonato in time to prevent Hero's utter disgrace at her wedding. Dogberry's discovery of Don John's evil plot and his eventual revelation of the plot to Leonato have a significant effect on the play, but this result is purely accidental.

All the while, Dogberry is much more concerned with the fact that Conrade called him an "ass."

DOGBERRY. (to Leonato) Moreover, my lord, which indeed is not under white and black, this plaintiff here, the offender, did call me ass. I beseech you let it be remembered in his punishment. (5.1.296-298)

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Shakespeare's fools are used for comic relief, but it also turns out that the fools are actually far more enlightened than the other characters of the play. The fool in Much Ado About Nothing is Dogberry. Dogberry is enlightened despite his stupidity because he is the only character in the play who has enough sense to capture and bring Don John and his comrades to justice, which brings the play to its resolution. Dogberry is also the most enlightening character because he reveals Shakespeare's theme of appearances vs. reality by showing us that none of the city's leaders actually are what they appear to be, especially himself.Dogberry is an excessively vain and proud character. He is very proud of his role as Constable even though he does it very poorly. We see him perform his job very poorly when we first meet Dogberry in the third act, and he encourages his watch to "comprehend all vagrom," meaning to apprehend all vagrants, and to let go any man who will not stand in the prince's name (III.iii.22-25). He also encourages his watch to sleep rather than to talk as he "cannot see how sleeping should offend" (34, 37). Finally, he also tells his men to let thieves "steal out of [their] company" in order to tell that they are thieves (54-55). While Dogberry seems to stand alone as a character, in actuality all of Messina's leaders possess the same vain excessive pride and care more about appearances than what is actually real. Governor Leonato is the one who was stupid enough to put Dogberry in his position as Constable, showing us just how foolish Leonato actually can be. Also, prince Don Pedro is still allowing his brother Don John to remain in his company even though Don John tried to overthrow his throne, which shows us just how foolish Don Pedro can be. Both of these decisions seem to have been made with the object of making their society seem, or appear, to be peaceful and strong, when in reality, their society is actually full of corruption. Since Dogberry resembles the other characters in foolishness and excessive pride, showing us the theme of appearance vs. reality, it makes Dogberry the most enlightening character as well as the most enlightened.Despite the fact that Dogberry does his job poorly, he is actually the only one who discovers Don John's plot and brings Don John and his men to justice. Due to Dogberry, we witness Borachio confess to Claudio his fraudulent crime, saying:

I have deceived even your very eyes.What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light, who in the night overheard me confessing to this man, how Don John your brother incensed me to slander the Lady Hero. (V.i.221-226)

Since Dogberry is the only character that rights wrongs in the play, it makes Dogberry the most enlightened character, as Borachio points out. The irony is that neither Dogberry nor his men actually meant to apprehend any criminals that night. The irony of the situation shows us that Dogberry is not only a fool, but a very enlightened fool.

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