Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12040
[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 contrast, a world rather for "working-days" than for "Sundays"; a world that is as formal, and potentially as harsh, as the comic world that probably preceded it, that of The Merchant of Venice. But the moneyed, legalistic, and formal world of Venice resolves at last into moonlit Belmont, from which one can see
the floor of Heaven
Thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.
The equally and beautifully formal Portia, in whom "The will of a living daughter is curbed by the will of a dead father" ceases to be a "Daniel come to judgment" and becomes a Diana in love, her homecoming heralded by Lorenzo and Jessica with lyrical myths and fables, and herself drawn into a dream from which she "would not be awaked."
Much Ado About Nothing is a play cut off from such pleasant natural resources. It is essentially "inland bred," and relies only on the natural forms of a great house where
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn.
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.
"Nature lovers" are offered only the flowers of rhetoric, the pleached arbour of wit, and the "dancing star" of human individuality. Not only the courteous, but the customary, matters in this play: not only the urbane, but the mundane: in fact, it is the unusual fusing of these into one world that is one of the individual characteristics of the play. The chief fact that makes this play unusual and individual (though there are other characteristics, which I shall discuss later, that develop straight out of earlier comedies) is the manner in which "time and place" do not "cease to matter," but matter very greatly.
It is not merely that the props of an urban or domestic existence—the window, the arras of a musty room, the church, the tomb, the wedding dress, the night-watchmen's staves, even the barber's shop—are important "props" in the world of this play. Nor is it merely that "time and place" have a crucial importance in the action:
What man was he talked with you yesternight
Out at your window betwixt twelve and one?
Now if you are a maid, answer to this.
It is rather that the play concerns itself with what can only be called the most mundane or "local" fact in that world of love, in all its forms, that the comedies create: that is, that men and women have a notably different character, different mode of thinking, different system of loyalities, and, particularly, different social place and function. Not only this; but this is the first play, I think, in which the clash of these two worlds is treated with a degree of seriouseness, and in which the woman's world dominates.
This is a rash generalisation and objections spring to mind. . . .
Since The Merchant of Venice is the first play in which there appears a comic heroine who is also a great lady, one watches with interest to see what part the dominating Portia will play, how she will handle her subjection to the "will of a dead father," and whether she will prove to "fit her fancies to her fathers will" better than does Hermia. She and Bassanio equally "give and hazard all they have"; but it is, at least nominally, a man's world that they give themselves up to:
her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine to your and yours
Is now directed.
Portia is the salvation of the play; her wealth, her wits, and her pleading of a feminine quality of mercy—deeply Christian in its language and connotation, but allied too to that quality of compassion that is reserved for the women in the comedies—defeat the harshly logical and loveless intellectualism of Shylock. But they do so in masculine disguise, in a masculine court of law, and at the service of a chivalric friendship between men whose values Portia and Nerissa gaily, but seriously, at the end of the play. They lose, as women, the rings they have gained as men; the loyal and unhappily solitary friend Antonio is the peacemaker, being "bound again, His soul upon the forfeit" for the marriage, and is still in some sense master of the play.
It is here that the world of Much Ado About Nothing begins. There is no symbolic Antonio to keep the balance; the situation works itself out on its own resources. It does this by the characteristic of the play which has been sometimes regarded as a most happy accident of careless genius—the displacement of Claudio and Hero by Benedick and Beatrice as the play's dominating figures, in the course of what is "logical and necessary" in its action. This is brought about by allowing, more distinctively and fully than in any earlier comedy, a dance and battle—(a "merry war" in which not every "achiever brings home full numbers") of two worlds, which it is a gross, but serviceable, generalisation to call the "masculine" and the "feminine" worlds. And this in itself is achieved by the creation of a peculiarly social and domestic context—rarified, formal, and elegant, but still suggesting a social reality that makes the character of the sexes distinct. The sense of place, in its importance to the play, I have mentioned earlier; the sense of time has also an unusual function. One need only reflect on the obvious difference of age between Claudio and Hero, and Benedick and Beatrice—who play lightly with the idea of an obstinate, and therefore time-tried, celibacy; and ask oneself in what earlier comedy there is any differentiation other than that of Youth and Age. One can contrast, also, the references to past and future time that occur in earlier comedies with those in Much Ado About Nothing. "'A killed your sister," in Love's Labour's Lost, or Helena's memory of "schooldays' friendship, childhood innocence", or Titania's memories of the sport on the Indian shore— all quoted above—have all, to varying degrees, an exquisite stylisation, an emblematic quality, that prevents their giving another temporal dimension to the play; they are an inset, not a perspective; an intensification of or contrast with the present, not an evocation of the past. But the causal, continual and colloquial harking-back in Much Ado About Nothing has a quite different effect.
O, he's returned, and as pleasant as ever he was . . .
He set up his bills here In Messina, and challenged Cupid at the fight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscrib'd for Cupid, and challenged him at the birdbolt . . .
They never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them . . .
In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off ...
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one...
I have heard my daughter say she hath often dreamt of unhappiness, and waked herself with laughing . . .
One can, if one likes, play the same game with references to the future, contrasting Love's Labour's Lost's
You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches . . .
with Much Ado About Nothing's
O Lord, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad. . . .
I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes; and, moreover, I will go with thee to thy uncle's. . .
This easy, humorous, and conversational manner, that refers to a past and future governed by customary event and behaviour, and that carries a sense of habitual reality in a familiar social group, gives the play the quality that it would be certainly unwise to call "realism"; it is an atmosphere easier to feel than to define. It is one of ennobled domesticity, aware of, touched by, and reflecting events in the outside world, but finally providing its own rules and customs: it is, in fact, a world largely feminine in character.
Into this world, at the beginning of the play, come the warriors, covered with masculine honours, cheerful with victory, and heralded importantly by a messenger. They even bring their own style of figured public rhetoric with them:
He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion. . . .
The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it. . . .
I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace; and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. . . .
The "most exquisite Claudio," the "proper squire," is the flower of such a world; the plot that concerns him, and that seems at first to dominate the play, can be seen as the survival of all that is most formal, and least flexible, in the earlier comedies: a masculine game of romantic love with a firm—and sensible—business basis, the whole governed by an admirable sense of priorities in duty:
I look'd upon her with a soldier's eye . . .
But now I am return'd, and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I lik'd her ere I went to wars. . . .
If modern sentimentalism makes one dislike the foundation to Claudio's case—female good looks plus paternal income—it is as well to remember that it is an attitude embedded in all the comedies to date, whenever they touch on realism, and shared not only by Bassanio but—even though half-mockingly—by Benedick: "Rich she shall be, that's certain . . . fair, or I'll never look on her."
The beginning of the play, then, presents, in a social context, a company of young bloods, headed by the noble Don Pedro, who all hold together with a cheerful masculine solidarity. The "sworn brothers" are companions-in-arms, and if one deserts, there is cause for lamentation: "I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armour, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet." If Claudio dramatically distrusts Don Pedro at first-
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood. . . .
then the discovery of his mistake only strengthens his later trust in, and solidarity with, Don Pedro; and this trust is implicit even in the terms of his first doubt, which still postulates a male world of "negotiation" and "agents," against the hypnotic and possibly devilish enemy, Woman. Claudio's world, and Claudio's plot, are never "reformed"—in a dramatic, or moral sense—because they neither can nor need be changed; the simple course of loving, mistaking, and winning again, written from a specifically masculine point of view (again using the word masculine in its idiosyncratic sense here) that is half romance and half business, is a necessary backbone to the play, and holds the comedy together:
Look, what will serve is fit: 'tis once, thou lovest;
And I will fit thee with the remedy.
And though Hero is in the course of it "killed, in some senses," as Dogberry might have said, she also gets her place in the world, and all is well. A comedy of romance needs something stable, limited, and circular, in which ends match beginnings, and in Claudio it gets this:
Sweet Hero, now thy image does appear
In the rare semblance that I loved it first . . .
Nothing certainer. . . .
But, if this world is not "reformed," it is to a large extent displaced; and the moment of that displacement is not hard to find:
Don Pedro: Myself, my brother, and this grieved Count
Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night
Talk with a ruffian at her chamber window . . .
Exeunt Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio.
Benedick: How doth the lady?
Left on stage we have a fainting and dishonoured girl; her wholly doubting and wretched old father, held to her only by paternal obligation; a wise and detached old Friar; and the dishonoured girl's cousin, in a rage of loyal devotion that is familial, sexual, and instinctual. One cannot help asking what the young, witty and independent soldier Benedick is doing in that gallery. He has broken the rules of the game, and entered upon a desertion far more serious than Claudio's ever appeared: he is crossing the boundaries of a world of masculine domination. How serious the desertion is, is indicated by his comic—but only partly comic—exchange with Beatrice, at the centre of their professions of love, that follow immediately on the church scene:
Benedick: Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Beatrice: Kill Claudio.
Benedick: Ha! Not for the wide world.
Beatrice: You kill me to deny it. Farewell.
"Kill Claudio" has become such a famous line that perhaps something of its importance, underlying its comic gesture of an unfeasible rage, has been lost. A pacific, sensible and level-headed bachelor is being forced toward a decision of alarming significance; and he accepts it. Beatrice's taunt "You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy" colours the whole of the end of the play, and produces the peculiar dramatic and psychological complexity of the sense of the challenge. In it, three characters, once a joint group of young men exchanging cheerful and witty backchat, begin to speak and think in two different worlds. Don Pedro's and Claudio's return to the old game between themselves—perfectly in place an hour earlier—becomes curiously embarrassing by the degree to which it can take no account of the dramatic change in Beatrice and Benedick's status, their siding with what the audience knows to be truth, or rather, a truer game than Don Pedro's and Claudio's:
Don Pedro: But when shall we set the savage bull's horns on the sensible Benedick's head?
Claudio: Yea, and text underneath, there dwells Benedick the married man?
Benedick: Fare you well, boy: you know my mind. I will leave you now to your gossip-like humour; you break jests as braggarts do their blades, which God be thanked, hurt not. My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet; and till then, peace be with him. (Exit).
Don Pedro: He is in earnest . . . What a pretty thing man is when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit!
It is not sufficient to say simply that this effect is gained by some "change" in Benedick's—the witty Benedick's—character. It is rather that our own attitude has changed in the course of the play, so that something developing under the agency of the "important" characters has relieved them of their importance. Certain qualities, certain attitudes that have been found, in the earlier comedies, mainly confined to the women's and fools' parts, have here come into their own.
The plays have such artistic continuity that it is almost impossibly difficult to distinguish certain attitudes and feelings, and call this a specifically "feminine" attitude, or that, one belonging to a "fool" or "clown"; and the more mature the play, the more danger of falsifying there is. Perhaps it is merely possible to indicate certain speeches of Beatrice which do cohere into an attitude that utilises a "fool's" uncommitted wit and detached play of mind, together with a clown's grasp of earthy reality, yet committed in such a new way that they are given the effect of a female veracity against a masculine romanticism or formality.
Yes, faith; it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy, and say 'Father, as it please you.' But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please me.'
The whole game of romantic passion was never glossed more conclusively than by her foreboding "I can see a church by daylight"; nor the silliness of romantic jealousy than by her sturdy description of Claudio as "civil as an orange, and something of that jealous complexion"; nor the game of formal, courteous and meaningless proposals—(Don Pedro's "Will you have me, lady?") than by her: "No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your Grace is too costly to wear every day." (Certainly, Don Pedro does prove to be a costly guest, since he all but causes the death of his host's daughter.) The beautiful and formal scene that the men have arranged for the uniting of Claudio and Hero—"his Grace hath made the match, and all Grace say amen to it!" begins to be disarranged by Beatrice's detached sense ("Speak, Count, 'tis your cue") and she hastily has to give her "merry heart" the fool's harmless part in the play: "I think it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side of care." But the rising flight of her impertinence, which provokes Leonato to bustle her off the scene ("Niece, will you look to those things I told you of?") is not unacquainted with "care" Don Pedro's kindly and polite.
out of question, you were born in a merry hour
is met by her
No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then
there was a star danced, and under that was I born.
However light the reference, one goes back to the lamenting Adriana, out of place in a play of brisk farce; or the surprising seriousness of the reference in Love's Labour's Lost to Katharine's sister-
He made her melancholy, sad and heavy,
And so she died . . .
or the equally surprising seriousness of Titania's loyalty:
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die . . .
And for her sake I will not part with him. . . .
The liaison of Claudio and Hero draws the "fools" Benedick and Beatrice into the play; and it is Beatrice who first here begins to show in her apparently detached wit, only partially revealed in her sparring with Benedick, the depth that the occasion demands. Marriage is seen here not as a witty dance of "wooing, wedding and repenting," but as the joining of Beatrice's "cousins," and her remarks have greater and more dangerous point. It is not surprising that on her exit Don Pedro sets afoot his second piece of matchmaking, since Beatrice patently needs a master. "We are the only love-gods."
It is only at the crisis of the play, in the church scene, that this dogged, loyal, and irrational femininity that characterizes Beatrice comes into its own. The still hesitating and just Benedick is swept into her degree of belief simply by her obstinate passion of loyalty:
Is 'a not approved in the height a villain that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What! bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour— O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.
Certainly her storms are comic; nevertheless our own sense at the end of the play of the limitations of the romantic background, and critics' unanimous conviction that Benedick and Beatrice "take over the play," is largely summed up by her own "Talk with a man out at a window! A proper saying!" and the comparative shallowness of the romanticism of the main plot very neatly and adequately summed up in her voluble harangue:
Princes and Counties! Surely, a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect; a sweet gallant, surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
This is simultaneously a remarkable picture of a woman in a state of outraged temper, and an excellent piece of dramatic criticism. For Benedick, this is "Enough. I am engaged." The fools of the play have become the heroes.
To use the word "fools" is perhaps incautious: since, for one thing, Benedick's and Beatrice's speeches are characterised by a degree of sophistication and self command; and for another, the play itself has an excellent collection of clowns who do, noticeably, help to bring about the denouement and save the day. But if one is attempting to explain the feeling of maturity and development that Beatrice and Benedick bring into the play, then it becomes apparent that a part of their strength comes from Shakespeare's drawing on resources or feeling expressed, in earlier comedies, as much by witty jesters and innocent clowns, as by the kind of sophisticated commentators that one finds in Berowne and Rosaline. The sense of wisdom that they give is best glossed, perhaps, by Blake's "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. . . ."
Benedick and Beatrice are a delightful lesson in how the fool can "Serve God, love me, and mend." This they do by "persisting in their folly," in order to "become wise."
Their attitude at the beginning of the play is the comic stance of self-consciousness. Both gain dignity by an intellectual independence—by "sitting in a corner and crying Heigh-ho!" while they watch "everyone going to the world." This intellectual independence is largely a full and mocking knowledge—especially, at first, on Beatrice's side—of the physical realities underlying romantic aspirations. "But, for the stuffing . . . well, we are all mortal." Over and over again, "my uncle's fool" takes the place of Cupid. "Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen . . . ." Mars as well as Cupid falls: the heroic warrior, who has done good "service" is "a very valiant trencherman; he hath an excellent stomach . . . (and is) a good soldier—to a lady." Yet the very intellectual detachment that gives a jester his dignity is the power to see general truths; and what is true of "mortals" must therefore be true also of Benedick and Beatrice, who are intellectually and dramatically joined to the hero and heroine of the main plot, by being friend and cousin to them, and by understanding—therefore sharing—their folly. Benedick's ubi sunts for bachelors derive their humour from the steadily-increasing knowledge that he is, like Barkis, going out with the tide: "In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of three score again? . . . Like the old tale, my lord: It is not so, nor 'twas not so, but indeed, God forbid it should be so!" Like Falstaff, Benedick is comic by being both actor and critic, and knows which way "old tales" go; and though he may cast himself as bachelor, "he never could maintain his part but in the force of his will." Benedick and Beatrice are "fooled" and "framed" by the dramatist even before they are "fooled" by the trick played on them by Don Pedro and the others; their detached intelligence is, by definition, an understanding of the way their "foolish" desires will go. "Shall quips and sentences and the paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? No: the world must be peopled."
Thus, when Benedick and Beatrice do "run mad," they suffer—like Falstaff in love—a loss of dignity the more marked by contrast with their intellectual detachment earlier. Benedick searching for double meanings, and Beatrice nursing a sick heart, a cold in the head, and a bad temper, are as "placed" within the others' play as are the clowns in Love's Labour's Lost or A Midsummer Night's Dream, attendant on the critique of their superiors. It is, of course, the church scene, and all that follows, that changes this, and shows their double "folly" coming into its own. Beatrice is loyal to Hero simply by virtue of an acquaintance with common sense physical realities—"Talk with a man out at a window! A proper saying!"—and by a flood of intuitive, irrational, and "foolish" pity and love, that instinctively recognizes the good when it sees it—good in Benedick, or in Hero; and Benedick is drawn to her, here, through very similar feelings. "Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?" In the professions of love that follow Benedick's opening, there are touches of great humour; but the scene is a serious one, nevertheless. Both Benedick and Beatrice gain a new and much more complex equilibrium and dignity; both pledge themselves by their "soul" to Hero's cause, and hence to each other. To be intelligent is to be aware "that we are all mortal"; and to be mortal is to be a fool; and therefore intelligent men are most fools; but to be a fool, in a good cause, is to be wise. This is an old paradox that echoes through and through Shakespeare's comedies, and after.
Because Beatrice and Benedick are "too wise to woo peaceably," they continue to bicker comfortably through the rest of the play, as though enjoying the mutual death of their individuality:
Two distincts, division none.
Like Theseus' hounds, the quarrels of all the players grow, finally, into:
Such gallant chiding . . .
So musical a discord . . .
Matched in mouths like bells, each under each.
An unlyrical play grows into a new and interesting harmony, as all the forms of folly in the play find "measure in everything, and so dance out the answer":
Come, come, we are friends. Let's have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels.
We'll have dancing afterwards.
First, of my word; therefore play, music.
Though the play can be summed up by the image of the dance, it is also a battle, in which certain things are lost. Hero's "death" is an illusion, but other things do seem to die out of the comedies: part of an old romantic ideal, and a sense of easy loyalty between young men. Rosalind's "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love . . ." and Antonio's bitter, though mistaken, reflections on friendship, both represent a kind of feeling that can be seen to emerge with some clarity in Much Ado. Some more important things take the place of what is lost, all perhaps developing out of the sense of that loss; a wisdom, balance, and generosity of mind and feeling, largely expressed through the women's roles.
This paper has itself probably been unwise, unbalanced and ungenerous in all that it has omitted. I have concentrated only on certain elements in Much Ado About Nothing that interest me, and may have distorted them in the process. My intention has not been to present Shakespeare as an earnest—though early—leader of the feminist movement, but only to suggest the development, through the comedies, of certain feelings and attitudes which are a constituent part of the plays as a whole, but which do tend to be most clearly expressed through the women in them. In Messina, Arden, and Illyria the expression of humane principle, of generous and constant feeling, comes principally from the women—whether we choose to see them as symbols merely of an area of the mind possessed by both sexes in common, or whether we see Shakespeare creating a world in which some kind of distinctively female rationale is able to have full play, and to dominate the action. When, in tragedy, the action moves on to the battlements of civilisation, and beyond, the difference of the sexes becomes of minor importance, and the role of the women diminishes; they become little more than functions of the hero's mind, barely aware of the area in which that mind operates. Ironically, the heroic qualities which make the woman's stature minor by comparison can be seen as developing through and out of qualities confined largely to the women in the "mature" comedies; the values that are proved by their success in the comedies come to stand the proof of failure in the tragedies. Something of the tragic heroes' passionate constancy and painful knowledge, and something of the sane and honourable happiness that is felt most sharply in the tragedies by its absence, is first developed in the secure limitations of the "mature" comedies, and is chiefly expressed through the talkative and intelligent women who guide events and guard principles. So Much Ado About Nothing can be seen to have a certain aptness of title. The small world that it presents with such gaiety, wit, and pleasurable expertise, is perhaps relatively a "nothing" in itself; but a certain amount of the interest and delight it produces comes from the awareness that much can be held in little, and that in "nothing" can "grow . . . something of great constancy."
SOURCE: "Much Ado about Nothing," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1961, pp. 319-35.
[In the following excerpt, Crick offers a general discussion of Much Ado, focusing upon the characters, theme, and language of the play. He depicts the play as one concerned primarily about the potential for evil existing in people who have become self-absorbed in a society that reflects and supports that self-absorption.]
"The fable is absurd," wrote Charles Gildon in 1710, and most of us would agree. Yet there is the effervescent presence of Beatrice and Benedick and the engaging stupidity of Dogberry and Verges to assure us that all is not dross. Coleridge was convinced that this central interest was Shakespeare's own, his motive in writing the play, and the "fable" was merely a means of exhibiting the characters he was interested in. This may have been the attitude of audiences in Shakespeare's time: as early as 1613, the play was referred to as "Benedicte and Betteris." Can we summarize the play in this way: a few good acting parts standing out against the unsatisfactory background of a preposterous Italian romance? I think not.
Most of the play's critics have seized on the apparent absence of any unifying dramatic conception: the play fluctuates uneasily, it is said, between tragedy, romance, and comedy and never establishes a convincing dramatic form for itself. In these circumstances there are too many inconsistencies of plot and character and, in particular, in the presentation of Claudio and Hero: they begin as the hero and heroine of a typical italianate romance and, under the growing dominance of Beatrice and Benedick in the play, become—rather unconvincingly—the perpetrator and victim respectively of a nearcriminal act. Beatrice and Benedick throw the play off its balance.
It is a truism criticism should be concerned with what a work of art is, and not with what it ought to be. In the case of Much Ado, however, it is one worth remembering, for preconceptions about form, plot, and character, and the other components of a play, have so often obscured what is unmistakably there, and shows itself in the very first scene of the play: the precise delineation of an aristocratic and metropolitan society. This is done with a thoroughness and depth which is beyond any requirement of a romantic fable in the tradition of Ariosto and Bandello, and beyond the demands of a plot merely intended to exhibit the characters of Beatrice, Benedick, Dogberry and Verges, in the way that Coleridge suggested.
The opening scene of the play establishes for us the characteristic tone of Messina society. Don John's rebellion has been successfully put down and the victors are returning to Messina with their newly-won honours. It is significant that, in spite of the fact that Don John still exists to cause trouble, there is no serious discussion of the reasons for or consequencies of the rebellion. War is regarded as something that might deprive society of some of its leading lights—Leonato asks the messenger "How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?"—and enhance the status of others. The messenger informs us that no gentlemen "of name" have been lost, and Claudio and Benedick have fought valiantly and achieved honour. War is a gentlemanly pursuit, a game of fortune—nothing more.
This first conversation of the play has a studied artificiality which seems to bear out this reading of the situation. The language is sophisticated and over-elaborate, as if it has been cultivated as an end in itself, and not as a vehicle for the discussion of serious matters. Leonato's sententiousness may be that of an old man; yet it fits naturally into the play's elaboration of words:
A victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers. A kind overflow of kindness: there are no faces truer than those that are so washed. How much better is it to weep at joy at weeping!'
Even the messenger—a person of humble origin, we presume—has caught the infection and uses euphuistic phraseology:
He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion: he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how.
I have already delivered him letters, and there appears much joy in him; even so much that joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness.
This initial impression—of ornate language as the normal conversational mode in upper-class Messina society—is confirmed by the rest of the play: there is an abundance of antitheses, alliterations, puns, euphuisms, repetitions and word-patterns. The imagery has a similar artificiality and tends to consist of the prosaic and the conventional, rather than the striking. Prose, rather than verse, is the natural medium for conventional talk and ideas, and it is therefore not surprising that there is far more prose in Much Ado than is normal in a Shakespearean comedy.
In such a society, Beatrice and Benedick are naturally regarded as prize assets. They, too, relish talking for effect—although they do it with far more wit and vigour than the others, whose speeches are usually lifeless and insipid. If Don John's rebellion has not been taken seriously, as we suspect, it is probably because the "merry war" between Beatrice and Benedick is of far more interest to a fashionable society which, as such societies do, regards a war between the sexes as a subject of perennial fascination. Beatrice, as Benedick says, "speaks poniards" and "every word stabs"; and yet no harm is done. No Messina gentleman is likely to be deprived of his life by "paper bullets of the brain." Yet, one of the play's ironies is that it leads us to doubt this: considerable damage is done by the mere power of words. (It is another of the play's ironies that Beatrice's "Kill Claudio"—an unusually straightforward command—is motivated by charitable feelings.) Hero—the main victim—comments on this power: "one doth not know How much an ill word may empoison liking. . . ."
Where Messina conventions are fallible—and Beatrice as a woman, in a predominantly masculine ethos of courtship, games and war, is particularly qualified to speak here—is in questions of love, marriage, and the relationship between the sexes. Beneath her raillery, Beatrice shows a realistic and discriminating attitude to the subjects. She won't accept the choice of others for a husband, ironically remarking, "Yes, faith; it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please you.' But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy, and say 'Father, as it pleases me'"; she rejects romantic notions of the opposite sex—"Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face"; and, by implication, she won't accept a business marriage. (Benedick's attitude to marriage is similarly realistic—"the world must be peopled"). Hers is a sane perspective on events, an application of generosity and sympathy in a society dominated by ultimately inhumane standards. Her feminine charity triumphs, as Portia's mercy does in The Merchant of Venice. Benedick becomes acceptable to her when he symbolically joins his masculine qualities to her feminine principles by taking up, however reluctantly, her attitude to Claudio, and thus shows himself to be, in her eyes, of a finer "metal" than the average Messina male. Ironically, the plotting which separated Claudio and Hero brings them together, their true feelings breaking through their conventional jesters' roles, and it is Beatrice's clear-sightedness which triumphs over all the pattern of misunderstandings, deceptions, and self-deceptions which make up the play. (This patterned and stylized aspect of the play is very marked in the plot, characterization, and language: consider, for example, the balancing of the two scenes in the church; the characterization in pairs: the artificiality of the masque and the mourning scene; and the rhetorical devices of most of the language.)
The incapacity of Messina society is also exposed, at another level, by Dogberry and Verges. Dogberry, like his superiors, adopts the mode of language and behaviour he conceives to be fitting to his position. When it comes to a real-life drama, he is as patently useless as Claudio. He displays condescension towards Verges and all the pompousness of authority: "I am a wise fellow, and, which is more, an officer, and, which is more, a householder. . . ." Claudio, too, has "every thing handsome about him." Dogberry has caught the Messina infection of pride and self-centredness, that self-centredness which makes Leonato—the perfect host at the beginning of the play—wish Hero dead because of the way in which she has shamed him. (Isn't there something more than just a resemblance of name between him and Leontes and Lear?)
Essentially, the play is, I believe, about the power for evil that exists in people who have become self-regarding by living in a society that is closely-knit and turned in on itself. The corruption is usually that of town and city life. (Significantly, Shakespeare's story does not fluctuate between town and country as Bandello's does.) A moral blindness is generated that, if not evil itself, is capable of evil consequences. The agency of evil in this play is not outside, but within. The ostensible villain of the piece—Don John—is a mere cardboard figure who, excluded from a world of flatteries and courtesies, has resorted to "plain-dealing" villainy. He may be an early sketch for Iago and Edmund but he lacks their intelligence and flair, and Shakespeare has wisely kept him within the narrow bounds appropriate for comedy. The real orgin of the crime is not jealousy, sexual or otherwise, but blind, consuming egotism which expresses itself in a studied artificiality, and at times flippancy, of both language and attitude. Later, Shakespeare was to take the same theme and mould it into tragedy. In the world of Othello, Lear, and Gloucester, the consequences of pride and self-centredness are catastrophic. The ultimate is perhaps King Lear—another "much ado about nothing"—where Lear, like Claudio, could say "Yet sinned I not but in mistaking."
SOURCE: "'Much Ado About Nothing,'" in The Use of English, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 223-27.
[In the following excerpt, Muir offers a general historical and literary assessment of Much Ado.]
The date of Much Ado About Nothing can be fixed with unusual accuracy. It was performed while Kemp (who played Dogberry) was still a member of Shakespeare's company, but too late for Francis Meres to know of its existence when he listed Shakespeare's plays in Palladis Tamia. So 1598 was the date of its first performance; and it was printed, probably from Shakespeare's manuscript, two years later.
It is hardly anyone's favourite comedy and it is not so frequently performed as As You Like It or Twelfth Night, doubtless because the main plot is so much less interesting than the underplot. The Hero-Clau-dio plot, written mainly in verse, is combined with the Beatrice-Benedick plot, written mainly in prose. In our degenerate days it is natural for audiences to prefer prose to verse, but it is possible that Shakespeare, towards the end of the sixteenth century, went through a phase when he thought that the increasing subtlety of his actors demanded a style nearer to colloquial speech—some of Shylock's best speeches, all of Falstaff's, most of Beatrice, Benedick and Rosalind are in prose.
The plots are linked together in various ways. The bringing together of Beatrice and Benedick is a means of passing the time between the day of Hero's betrothal and her marriage; Benedick is chosen by Beatrice to avenge her cousin's honour; and Benedick is a close friend of Claudio's, so that Beatrice's demand poses a favourite problem—posed earlier in The Two Gentlemen of Verona—of Love versus Friendship.
The play is also unified by imagery. As in Macbeth, the dominating image is one of clothes, and the most frequent figure of speech is antithesis. Clothes are used as a symbol of the difference between appearance and reality, and hence of hypocrisy. In the first scene, for example, Beatrice says that Benedick "wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat"; Benedick calls courtesy a turncoat; in the second act Benedick says that Beatrice is the infernal Ate in good apparel; and Beatrice asks if Pedro has a brother since "Your Grace is too costly to wear every day." Benedick contrasts the amorous Claudio with the man as he used to be:
I have known when he would have walk'd ten mile afoot to see a good armour, and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. (II.iii.I8ff.)
Pedro has a speech in Act III on Benedick's fancy for strange disguises. Borachio has a long dialogue with Conrade, apparently irrelevant to the matter in hand, on the subject of fashion:
Borachio: Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak is nothing to a man.
Conrade: Yes, it is apparel.
Borachio: I mean the fashion.
Conrade: Yes, the fashion is the fashion.
Borachio: Tush, I may as well say the fool's the fool. But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is ... Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is, how giddily 'a turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five and thirty, sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh's soldiers in the reechy painting, sometime like god Bel's priests in the old church window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club?
Conrade: All this I see; and I see that the fashion wears out more apparel than the man. But art not thou thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou hast shifted out of thy tale into telling me of the fashion?
Borachio: Not so neither.
The climax of the many references to appearance and reality is the scene in church, when Claudio repudiates his bride. Hero is compared to a rotten orange, "but the sign and semblance of her honour," blushing like a maid, although she is immodest:
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid
By these exterior shows? But she is none.
Out on thee! Seeming! I will write against it:
You seem to me as Dian in her orb,
As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
In a later speech Claudio drops into the favourite figure of antithesis, a figure most apt for the contrast between appearance and reality:
O Hero, what a Hero hadst thou been,
If half thy outward graces had been placed
About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart!
But fare thee well, most foul, most fair!
Farewell, Thou pure impiety and impious purity!
The two plots are linked together in another way. It has often been observed that the over-all theme of the play (as Masefield put it) is "the power of report, of the thing overhead, to alter human destiny." It is true that the complications of the play are all due to overhearing, although it could be argued that Claudio might, even without the detective work by the watch, have learnt his mistake, and Beatrice and Benedick might have allowed their unconscious love for each other to rise into consciousness. But there are at least seven examples of rumour in the course of the play:
1. In the second scene Antonio tells Leonato:
The Prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached orchard, were thus much overheard by a man of mine: the Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter, and meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance.
In this case, the servant had misheard, for Pedro had offered to pretend to be Claudio, to woo Hero for him.
2. In the next scene Borachio has overheard, correctly, that Claudio hoped to marry Hero, and that Pedro was going to woo for him.
3. In the scene of the dance there are a whole series of misunderstandings, partly owing to the fact that
the characters are masked:
(a) Hero, instructed by her father, apparently thinks that Pedro is wooing for himself, but it is not explained what her reactions are when he pretends to be Claudio, as this takes place off stage.
(b) Don John, for reasons which are never explained, thinks that Pedro woos for himself.
(c) Benedick thinks that Beatrice does not recognize him, and she calls him the Prince's Fool.
(d) Borachio pretends that Claudio is Benedick, and tells him that Pedro is wooing Hero for himself; and
this, in spite of their previous arrangement, is forthwith believed by Claudio.
(e) Benedick, who is not aware of the arrangement between Pedro and Claudio, naturally believes that
Pedro has wooed for himself.
The purpose of all these confusions—and their improbability is not so apparent in performance, is to soften up the audience, so that they are willing to accept as plausible Don John's deception of Pedro and Claudio.
4. In the third scene of Act II, Benedick overhears that Beatrice is dying of love for him, and he promptly decides that her love must be requited.
5. In the first scene of Act III, Beatrice hidden by the woodbine coverture, overhears that Benedick is in love with her. She forthwith decides to return his love:
What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And Benedick, love on; I will require thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand;
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band;
For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.
(III. i. 107-16)
She uses, as Petruchio does, the image of the tamed hawk.
6. Borachio is overheard making love to Margaret, whom the watchers think is Hero; and Borachio,
telling the tale of his deception of Pedro and Claudio to Conrade, is overheard by the Watch. This leads to his arrest, and the acquittal of Hero.
7. On the Friar's advice, a report is circulated that Hero is dead, so as to cause Claudio to feel remorse.
This remorse becomes overwhelming when it is proved that she was falsely accused. But it is typical of Claudio's self-centredness that when he hears that Hero was innocent he is more concerned about his own feelings than about her supposed death. And when he agrees to marry her cousin he has the significant lines:
I do embrace your offer; and dispose
For henceforth of poor Claudio.
The plots, then, are linked together structurally, imagistically and thematically, so that complaints about lack of unity have little justification. There remains the feeling of many readers that the two plots don't really harmonize since the main plot is largely conventional—depending on the convention employed by Shakespeare in Othello and Cymbeline that the calumniator of female chastity is always believed, though in real life he would not be—and the sub-plot is much more realistic. Moreover, Hero is a nonentity and Claudio is a cad; whereas Beatrice and Benedick (though absurd) are attractive figures to whom an audience warms.
There are several possible answers to these complaints. The first answer is one that has to be made over and over again to Shakespeare's armchair critics: that his plays were meant to be acted, not read, and that the test we should apply should be a theatrical one— Does it work in the theatre? The convention of the calumniator believed always does seem to work. We may think Claudio is a credulous fool, but Pedro's equal credulity prevents us from having too harsh an opinion of him.
Nor is it unusual in Shakespeare's plays for him to present his characters on different levels of reality. It has often been noticed that Katherine and the scenes in which she appears are much more vital than those relating to the wooing of Binaca. Just as in painting, an artist will relegate some figures to the background, and just as a photographer will keep his central theme in sharp focus, while the rest of his composition may be comparatively blurred, so the dramatist can vary his treatment of characters in the same play.
The characters in this play range from the purely conventional to the purely human. Don John (for example) announces himself as a villain, a true example of motiveless malignity, who does evil for the sake of evil. Although we could (I suppose) ascribe his villainy to the results of his bastardy, it is not really possible to regard him as anything but a conventional stage villain. Or consider Margaret. At one point in the play she is apparently the mistress of the debauched Borachio, who for some unexplained reason is willing to pretend she is Hero, and call Borachio Claudio (unless this is a textual error). At another point in the play, she is a witty lady-in-waiting, on almost equal terms with Beatrice and Hero. She cannot be present in the church scene—if she had been she would have exposed Borachio's plot-though it is quite unnatural that she should not be present. When Leonato says that Margaret was hired to the deed by Don John, Borachio protests that she is completely innocent:
No, by my soul, she was not;
Nor knew not what she did when she spoke to me,
But always hath been just and virtuous
In anything that I do know by her.
In the next scene, she engages in a witty exchange with Benedick; and at the end Leonato says (in relation to the slander of Hero)
But Margaret was in some fault for this,
Although against her will, as it appears.
Leo Kirschbaum, in Character and Characterisation in Shakespeare, argues that psychologically the two Margarets are completely incompatible. She is a flat character; but in the course of performance we do not notice the discrepancies, and Shakespeare was not troubled by the difficulties his readers might encounter.
Hero and Claudio are more realistically presented, but they are still conventional figures, and this prevents us from being too involved emotionally at Hero's distresses. Indeed, the audience is never in doubt that things will come right in the end. The very title of the play Much Ado About Nothing tells them as much. The chief song has as its refrain,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into hey nonny-nonny.
Borachio, moreover, has been arrested by the watch before the church scene; and it is only the loquaciousness of Dogberry which prevents the slander from being exposed before the marriage scene. So the audience knows that Hero's name will eventually be cleared.
Dogberry is, indeed, a masterly character, one which is beautifully functional, but which is much more than functional. He has to be pompous, loquacious, fond of long words, very much on his dignity, semi-literate, and a bungler; otherwise he would get at the truth much sooner, and Leonato would not hasten to get rid of him on the morning of the marriage. On the other hand, he has to have some glimmerings of intelligence, or he would not have eventually arrived at the truth. On this functional basis, Shakespeare creates a wonderful portrait of a Jack-in-office, much less competent than Verges, whom he bullies and despises. He is the true ancestor of Mrs. Malaprop, but much more plausible than her, who having been brought up as a lady would not be likely to make such absurd mistakes. All Dogberry's mistakes, taken individually, are the sort of mistakes one still hears from local politicians in England. Dogberry uses desartless for deserving, senseless for sensible, decerns for concerns, odorous for odious, aspicious for suspicious, comprehended for apprehended. Shakespeare may have known such a man; but he had probably read a book by his acquaintance William Lambard, on the duties of constables, so that one gets a curious mixture of Elizabethan practice with the wildest fantasy. Funny as the Dogberry scenes are, they are best played without too much farcical business; for as with all the best comic characters, there is an element of pathos about Dogberry, as when he is called an ass by one of his prisoners:
Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it not be written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow; and, which is more, an officer; and, which is more, a householder; and, which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina; and one that knows the law, go to; and a rich fellow enough, go to; and a fellow that hath had losses; and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass! (IV.ii.69ff.)
For a modern audience, the rejection of Hero in church makes it difficult to retain any sympathy for Claudio. Prouty seeks to defend him by suggesting that it was merely a marriage of convenience. Since Hero was not a virgin, her father had broken a contract, and a public exposure was therefore permissible. This is all very well. But there is one line only in Claudio's part to suggest that he was thinking of Hero's dowry. His first question to Pedro, when he reveals that he is thinking of the marriage is "Hath Leonato any son, my lord?" Otherwise Claudio is presented as an abnormally shy, sentimental lover.
Shakespeare had to have a public repudiation. There were theatrical necessities for it—one has only to think what the play would be like without this climactic scene. There were also perfectly good dramatic reasons for a public repudiation. Claudio's action has to seem so atrocious that Benedick—his bosom friend— is willing to challenge him to a duel. The repudiation, and the following scene between Beatrice and Benedick, are a means of showing the innate good sense of Beatrice, her warm-heartedness and intuitive understanding; and they are a means of precipitating the confession of love.
The Mueschkes make the good point that the theme of the play is Honour: "Honour is the warp of the three hoaxes [perpetrated in the course of the play], hearsay is the weft, and illusion spins the web." They go on to suggest that
The repudiation scene, examined with the courtly code or honour in mind, is much more than a coup de theatre. In terms of Renaissance mores, it is a scene of poignant disillusionment and despair. In the conflict between appearance and reality, between emotion and reason, tension increases when lover turns inquisitor and father turns executioner. Here, in a conflict between good and evil, truth clashes with error in a charged atmosphere of contradictory moods and shifting relationships while the outraged moral sense oscillates between absolute praise and absolute blame. Here, when malice triumphs, shame so submerges compassion and slander, mirage, and perjury are accepted as ocular and auditory proof. Incensed by defiled honour, men argue in absolutes shorn from any rational mean, and under the aegis of the courtly code act and react with prescribed cruelty.
In other words, Shakespeare's aim is to criticize the accepted code of honour; and (it may be argued) when Beatrice demands that Benedick should challenge Claudio she also is enslaved by the conventional code. For if Benedick kills Claudio, it will prove only that he is a more accomplished swordsman; and if Claudio kills Benedick it will do nothing to prove the guilt of Hero. It is the dim-witted watch, and the pompous self-important Dogberry who restore Hero's reputation. As St. Paul says: "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are."
The behaviour of Claudio—and, indeed, of Pedro—in the scene of the challenge exhibits once again the limitations of the code. Their treatment of Leonato is bad enough, but their light-hearted ragging of Benedick shows a callousness to the memory of Hero, and cannot quite be expiated by the ritual mourning which follows the revelation of her innocence.
Beatrice and Benedick are obviously the two characters who are most vital and real—the ones who are the least conventional. Least conventional in a double sense: in the way they are drawn, and in their reacting against the romantic conventions of the society in which they live. They alone, of the characters in the play, are three-dimensional.
Superficially, it might seem that Beatrice and Benedick who detest each other are tricked into loving each other by overhearing that each is dying for love of the other. But it is fairly obvious that they are in love with each other from the start: that is the reason why they are continually attacking each other. Beatrice and Benedick have several reasons for not admitting to their love. Both (it is clear) are unwilling to make themselves ridiculous, and they are too intelligent and unsentimental to indulge in the gestures of conventional romantic love. It is possible (as Prouty suggests) that they are equally in revolt against marriages of convenience. Beatrice, moreover, thinks of Benedick as a philanderer. When Pedro says "you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick," Beatrice replies:
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one; marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.
The speech is rather obscure; but it seems to imply that Benedick at one time had made love to Beatrice, and she felt his intentions were not serious. Both are proud and apparently self-sufficient. Benedick boasts, not very seriously, of the way women fall in love with him; but he declares to others that he will die a bachelor, and to himself:
One woman is fair, yet I am well, another is wise, yet I am well, another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace.
Beatrice similarly says:
He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man I am not for him. Therefore I will even take sixpence in earnest of the berrord, and lead his apes into hell.
Leonato: Well, then go you into hell?
Beatrice: No; but to the gate, and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say "Get you to heaven Beatrice, get you to heaven; here's no place for you maids." So deliver I up my apes and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.
It was speeches like this that so shocked Gerard Manley Hopkins that he called Beatrice vain and unchaste. Beatrice does not talk like a mid-Victorian lady, but there is not the faintest suggestion in the play that she is unchaste, and few will agree with Hopkins's epithet "vile." Nor, I think, is Beatrice vain; but she is proud. It has been suggested that Hero's lines describing her cousin—
Nature never framed a woman's heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.
Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on; and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared—
are based on a character representing pride in The Faerie Queene. But we must remember that Hero is deliberately exaggerating, as she knows that Beatrice is overhearing her. The lines cannot be taken as an accurate portrait. Yet both Beatrice and Benedick are absurd in their self-sufficiency. Much Ado About Nothing may be regarded as a subtler version of The Taming of the Shrew, transposed from farce to high comedy—and, of course, Benedick needs to be tamed as well as Beatrice. As we have seen, Kathenna's violence is at least partly due to the fact that she hates equally the artificialities of romantic love and the humiliations of marriages of convenience, in which she is bound to suspect that the suitor is after her fortune—as indeed Petruchio admits from the start. But the struggle between the Shrew and her tamer is carried out in terms of farce. In Much Ado, Beatrice, instead of being physically violent, is aggressive with her tongue, and she chooses as her victim the man she really loves. She is cured and tamed, not by physical violence and semi-starvation, but by hearing the truth about herself, and about Benedick. The irony is that Hero and the others who talk about Benedick's love for her think they are lying, although they are telling the truth; and Pedro and Claudio think they are lying when they speak of Beatrice's love for Benedick.
By the end of the play we realize that all the characters in the play, except the Friar, have been laughed at: the watch for their stupidity, Dogberry for his self-important illiteracy, Leonato for being more concerned with his own honour than with his daughter's life, Claudio and Pedro for their credulity in being deceived by an obvious villain, for the cruelty of their code of honour, and for their failure to recognize that Beatrice and Benedick are in love; Beatrice and Benedick for their pride and self-sufficiency. It is not only Dogberry who should ask to be writ down as an ass.
Bernard Shaw has pointed out how much the witty repartee depends on style. The passage occurs in a review of a performance of the play in 1898:
Shakespear shews himself in it (sc. Much Ado) a commonplace librettist working on a stolen plot, but a great musician. No matter how poor, coarse, cheap, and obvious the thought may be, the mood is charming, and the music of the words expresses the mood. Paraphrase the encounters of Benedick and Beatrice in the style of a bluebook, carefully preserving every idea they present, and it will become apparent to the most infatuated Shakespearean that they contain at best nothing out of the common in thought or wit, and at worst a good deal of vulgar naughtiness...Not until the Shakespearean music is added by replacing the paraphrase with the original lines does the enchantment begin. Then you are in another world at once. When a flower-girl tells a coster to hold his jaw, for nobody is listening to him, and he retorts, 'Oh, youre there, are you, you beauty?' they reproduce the wit of Beatrice and Benedick exactly. But put it this way. 'I wonder that you will still be talking, Signoir Benedick: nobody marks you.' 'What! my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?' You are miles away from costerland at once. When I tell you that Benedick and the coster are equally poor in thought, Beatrice and the flower-girl equally vulgar in repartee, you reply that I might as well tell you that a nightingale's love is no higher than a cat's. Which is exactly what I do tell you, though the nightingale is the better musician.
Shaw, of course, exaggerates, because he was campaigning for Ibsen. It was only in his later years, after all his plays had been written, that he confessed that his own masters were Verdi, Mozart and Shakespeare; and by a curious irony his own plays are being performed now, not for their ideas, bur for their style.
In all love comedies the union of the hero and heroine must be delayed by obstacle of one kind or another-'The course of true love never did run smooth.' The obstacles can be external, as for example the opposition of parents who have other plans for their children. Or they may be psychological, the unwillingness of one or other to marry. In Congreve's masterpiece, The Way of the World, Millamant is afraid that (as so often in her society) marriage will destroy his love for her. And when she is finally cornered, she tells her lover:
I shall expect you shall solicit me, as though I were wavering at the gate of a monastery, with one foot over the threshold...I should think I was poor if I were deprived of the agreeable fatigues of solicitation.
Then she lays down an elaborate list of conditions for her surrender, including the provisos that she shall not be called such names as 'wife, joy, jewel, spouse, sweetheart, and the rest of that nauseous cant in which men and their wives are so fulsomely familiar...Let us be very strange and well bred, as strange as if we had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.' Millamant, like Beatrice, uses her wit as a shield, because she is in fact very vulnerable and sensitive. In a great modern comedy, Shaw's Man and Superman, it is the woman who chases the man, chases him halfway across Europe in a motorcar; in Much Ado both the hero and the heroine apparently wish to remain single, and the marriage at the end is a satisfactory one because it fulfills their unconscious wishes. A modern dramatist has written a sequel to Much Ado in which Beatrice and Benedick, after their marriage, continue to fight each other as they had done before. But the continuation of the merry war (as Shakespeare calls it) does not mean that their marriage would not be a success. They will enjoy the wise-cracks, and us them as a private method of courtship, long after Claudio and Hero have exhausted the pleasures of romantic hyperbole. (Indeed, if one were to treat the matter realistically-and it would be perverse to do so-one could imagine Hero reminding Clausio too often of the way he repudiated her in church.)...
The Climactic scene in the play is the one in which Benedick and Beatrice first confess their love for each other. Hero has been repudiated in church by the man she was to marry. Hero faints. In this situation the behaviour of Beatrice and Benedick is contrasted with that of the other characters. Whereas Leonato behaves like an hysterical old fool, first believing that Hero is guilty and wishing that she would die, and later uttering threats against the Prince and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick are concerned for Hero. Beatrice knows instinctively that she is innocent, and Benedick asks some of the questions which the audience are waiting to be asked. (No one, however, seems to realise that Don John's story of a thousand secret enounters can scarcely be true, since Beatrice and Hero, until this last night, have shared a bed.) The Friar puts forward his plan of pretending that Hero has died, and suggest that the wedding-day is but postponed. Benedick naturally suspects that Don John is at the bottom of the plot to defame Hero, since Claudio and Pedro are honourable men. Everyone leaves the church, except Benedick and Beatrice, who is still weeping for her cousin.
Since they learned that they were loved by the other, Beatrice and Benedick have not met in private, and the audience have been waiting for their meeting for about half an hour of playing-time. In the scene which follows, Benedick is forced to choose between love and friendship. After he has promised to do anything in the world for Beatrice, and she asks him to kill Claudio, he first exclaims 'Not for the wide world.' When John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft appeared on Broadway, one of the critics regarded the production as a failure-though it was the best I have ever seen-because the audience laughed at this point. The critic thought the audience laughed because it was obvious that Gielgud's Benedick would not hurt a fly, let alone his friend. But although the scene as a whole is a poignant and dramatic one, there are several lines which are intended to be funny, and this is surely one of them. It is right that the audience should laugh when Benedick offers to do anything that Beatrice wants and refuses the very first thing she asks.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5211
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 out-of-balance self-image in Much Ado, a work in which the individual who insists upon self-autonomy—Don John—is defeated by the allied "forces of social stability," represented by Dogberry, Verges, the Watch, Hero, and her friends.
In essays on Much Ado, the term "love's truth," or "love's faith," refers to the ability of a lover's imagination to transform the surface appearance of a loved one's words or character to recognize and embrace the true inner being. Of the scholars who have written about love's truth in the play, John Russell Brown has written one of the key short studies. Brown and other scholars—notably Charles Cowden Clarke, Harold C. Goddard, Walter N. King, Janice Hays, and Arthur Kirsch—have written extensively about the common device Shakespeare uses for presenting a lover's imagination, the "play-within-a-play"; in Much Ado this device is used several times. Several notable deceptions are carried off in these plays-within-a-play, including the false conversations by Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro which lead Benedick to believe Beatrice is in love with him; and the meant-to-be-overheard conversation between Hero and Ursula which leads Beatrice to believe Benedick loves her. In both of these cases, there is "much ado" in straightening out the tangled misperceptions each lover holds for the other; but, as Brown demonstrates in the excerpted essay below, "to those who are engaged in the quest for love's truth, the longest course is often the only one which seems possible to them. It will ever be 'Much Ado.'"
John Russell Brown
[In the following excerpt of his commentary on "love's truth," originally published in 1957, Brown argues that one major idea—the ability of a "lover's imagination" to "amend" mere appearances and "recognize inward truth and beauty"—informs and controls the separate plots, characterizations, and relationships of Much Ado. Significantly, in light of this central theme, Brown reconsiders Claudio as not a weak character, but one who "is interesting—and actable—in his own right." He adds that "unless we 'imagine no worse' of Claudio than he is represented as thinking of himself. . . Much Ado will never be for us the lively and human comedy which Shakespeare intended."]
Shakespeare's ideas about love's truth—the imaginative acting of a lover and the need for our imaginative response to it, the compulsion, individuality, and complexity of a lover's truthful realization of beauty, and the distinctions between inward and outward beauty, appearance and reality, and fancy and true affection—are all represented in Much Ado about Nothing; they inform its structure, its contrasts, relationships, and final resolution; they control many of the details of its action, characterization, humour, and dialogue. Indeed, in fashioning these elements into a lively, dramatic whole, Shakespeare achieved his most concerted and considered judgement upon love's truth.
His device for presenting a lover's imagination, the play-within-the-play, is used repeatedly in Much Ado; almost every development of the action involves the acting of a part and an audience's reaction to it. The relationship of Benedick and Beatrice (the outstanding characters by whose names the play was sometimes known) is radically altered by two such play-scenes. First Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio simulate a concern for Beatrice whom they represent as pining for love of Benedick, and then Hero and Ursula "play their parts" (III. ii. 79), simulating a like concern for Benedick and his "cover'd fire" (III. i. 77) of love for Beatrice. These two performances are far from convincing to our eyes—at one point Leonato seems to "dry" in his performance—but nevertheless they convince their intended audiences. At the close of the first, Benedick seriously announces "This can be no trick," and brings our laughter on himself (II. iii. 228-9); we have seen Claudio's amused relish in his own performance, and yet to Benedick "the conference was sadly borne" (II. iii. 229). Beatrice, likewise, feels a "fire" in her ears, and believes the fiction "better than reportingly" (III. i. 107-16). The "shadows" have been accepted as "truth" because they have had audiences whose imaginations were ready to "amend" them.
This response is surprising to the characters concerned and perhaps to their audience, for hitherto Shakespeare has presented Benedick and Beatrice as gay, light-hearted critics of every illusion. Benedick delights in being an "obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty" (I. i. 236-7) and when Claudio affirms that Hero is the "sweetest lady," he coolly replies:
I can see yet without spectacles and I see no such matter. (I. i. 191-2)
Beatrice likewise takes pleasure in distinguishing good parts from ill in Benedick, Don John, the prospect of Hero's marriage, and in marriage itself; and when she is complimented for apprehending "passing shrewdly" she thanks her own wit:
I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight. (II. i. 85-6)
Both are convinced of the folly of love on proof of their own observation; for Beatrice men are clearly made of earth and it is therefore unreasonable to "make an account" of oneself to a "clod of wayward marl" (II. i. 62-6), and for Benedick man is clearly a fool when he "dedicates his behaviours to love" (II. iii. 7-12).
But there are some signs which might prepare us for the double volte-face. Although Beatrice professes to scorn Benedick, he is the first she inquires after when news comes of the soldiers' return, and in the masked dance they are drawn together, recognizing each other behind visors. For his part, Benedick is strangely insistent about the outward beauty of Beatrice; if she were not 'possessed with a fury' she would excel Hero as the "first of May doth the last of December" (I. i. 193-5), and again, using clothes as a symbol for mere appearances, she is the "infernal Ate in good apparel" (II. i. 263-4). To say truth, these wise ones—in spite of sharp eyes and shrewd tongues, in spite of challenging Cupid and scorning matrimony—these wise ones have failed to see or understand their own inward qualities. To see everything except the force of a lover's imagination, to understand everything except the reason why women will make account of themselves and men will become fools, is to be blind in the affairs of love; without this insight, a good eye, even if its owner distinguishes outward from inward beauty, can only see love as the "silliest stuff."
After the two play-scenes, Shakespeare causes the seemingly irrational power of their imaginations to be manifested beyond all doubt. The eyes, understanding, and tongue of the "sensible" Benedick are all affected; he no longer thinks that Beatrice is possessed of a fury but sees "marks of love" in her manner and "double meanings" in her curtest message (II. iii. 254-71). When he is taunted by those to whom he had previously boasted of his wisdom, he finds that his tongue dare not speak that which his "heart thinks" (III. ii. 14 and 73-5); his old role will not answer the truth of his newly awaked imagination. Beatrice also feels that she is out of all good "tune," but the mere name of Benedick can cause her to disclose, unintentionally, her heart's concern (III. iv. 43 and 77-8). At the beginning of the play we may have laughed with Benedick and Beatrice at their own witticisms and the absurdities of other people; now we laugh at Benedick and Beatrice themselves, at the same time as we feel for them; we laugh at their over-confidence and subsequent surprise and discomfiture.
The pattern of the play as a whole becomes clearer when these two lovers are compared with Claudio and Hero. Whereas Benedick thinks he sees and understands everything, Claudio is afraid to trust his judgement and must, to his own embarrassment, ask others for confirmation. Conditions are against certainty; he had noticed Hero on his way to the wars but it is only when he sees her for a brief moment on his return that he feels "soft and delicate desires," all prompting him "how fair young Hero is" (I. i. 299-307). His "liking" is sudden and seems to be "engender'd" solely "in the eyes," to be "fancy" and not the affection of "true" love. Because of the attraction of Hero's outward beauty he can say "That I love her, I feel," but since he can only guess at her inward beauty he is unable to add "That she is worthy, I know" (I. i. 230-1). Hero is to be a "war bride"; Claudio must trust his eyes and sudden intuition.
His lack of certainty is not only contrasted with Benedick's confidence but also with Don Pedro's; although he scarcely knows that Hero is Leonato's daughter, this prince forcefully affirms her worth and readily—perhaps too readily, for he is not asked to do so much—offers to assume Claudio's part in "some disguise" and woo her in his name. Immediately after this proposal, Claudio's uncertainty is still further contrasted with Antonio's ready certainty; this old man quickly concludes, from events that merely "show well outward" (I. ii. 8), that Pedro intends to woo on his own account.
Pedro's wooing of Hero in Claudio's name is another of the "plays" within this play, and those who overhear it react in significantly varied ways. Benedick is convinced that Pedro woos for himself—he has not yet felt the force of a lover's imagination and could not be expected to distinguish true from false fire. And on the malicious suggestion of Don John and his followers, Claudio comes to think so too. If he had relied on his own eyesight he might have distinguished Pedro's assumed manner from "love's truth," but his uncertainty leads him to accept another's interpretation and to give way to his fears:
'Tis certain so; the prince wooes for himself. . . .
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues;
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood . . .
(II. i. 181ff.)
By means of this play-scene Shakespeare has ensured that, when Pedro drops his disguise and the matter is cleared up, we know that Claudio realizes the deceitfulness of appearances and yet dares to marry Hero on the evidence of his eyes alone.
At this stage we know as little about Hero as Claudio does, but at their betrothal it seems as if her modesty matches his. Unlike Benedick, Claudio will not readily trust "mere words," and so when Beatrice urges him to speak his happiness, he excuses himself with:
Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but
little happy, if I could say how much (II. i. 316-18).
Hero, likewise, needs to be prompted by Beatrice, and then speaks in private to Claudio alone.
The contrast between the two pairs of lovers is now clear: Benedick and Beatrice think that they know everything and consequently misjudge in the affairs of love; Claudio and Hero believe they know very little and consequently they are hesitant. Claudio's fears have caused him to misjudge once, but nevertheless he is prepared to venture.
Immediately this main contrast has been established, the action of the comedy quickens and yet another play-within-the-play is prepared. In the wars which had brought the young men to Messina Don Pedro had defeated his bastard brother, Don John, and now one of John's followers, Borachio, conceives a plan to dishonour the victor. The plan is approved and Borachio undertakes to persuade Margaret, Hero's waiting-gentlewoman, to impersonate her mistress and talk with him at the bride's chamber window-
there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero's disloyalty that jealousy shall be called assurance and all the preparation overthrown. (II. ii. 49-51)
We do not see this played upon the stage but we know that Claudio must witness Hero's "chamber-window entered, even the night before her wedding-day" (III. ii. 116-17). He will not know that it is Margaret's for he is only sure of the outward beauty of Hero and this Margaret may simulate by her clothes. Nor can he judge the performance by the "truth" of its action, for the situation it portrays presupposes that Hero does not know a lover's imagination; Margaret's action will be convincingly false. Against such testimony Claudio knows no defence; it answers his worst fears and seems to offer outward proofs where most he lacked them.
When he is assured that Hero will be proved dishonest he swears
If I see any thing to-night why I should not marry her tomorrow, in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her. (III. ii. 127-30)
He chooses to denounce her at the wedding ceremony because there mere words are to stand for deepest thoughts and bridal garments for inward beauty: it will enable Claudio to say effectively that which he can scarcely think. His choice is not due to heartlessness as Beatrice too readily assumes, but to the uncertainty he had always striven against, to the purity of his ideal, and to the blind, destructive rage of his disappointment in which he can pity but not feel for Hero.
In the event Claudio can scarcely bring himself to say the necessary words. When he is asked by the friar if he comes "to marry this lady," he can only answer "No," and he does not say even this forcefully; Leonato takes it as a jest and lightly corrects the friar, "To be married to her: friar, you come to marry her." The ceremony proceeds and, when Hero has formally avowed her intention, the friar asks an inescapable question:
If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoined, I charge you, on your souls, to utter it. (IV. i. 12-14)
But once more Claudio evades the issue with "Know you any, Hero?", and when Hero replies "None, my lord" he still hangs back. The friar has to ask directly "Know you any, count?", and even then Claudio is silent. At this impasse Leonato speaks for him: "I dare make his answer, none," and with confident assertion Claudio breaks his reserve and blurts out his passion, exclaiming not against Hero, but against treacherous appearances and false confidence. So haltingly and indirectly he comes, with Pedro's support, to his true theme, and in quickly enflamed language renounces and shames Hero:
. . . Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none;
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
He is hardly to be understood and Hero asks how she had ever "seem'd" otherwise than sincere and loving. On this cue Claudio is more explicit, exclaiming on the outward beauty that had deceived him:
Out on thee! Seeming! I will write against it:
You seem to me as Dian in her orb,
As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamper'd animals
That rage in savage sensuality.
He catechizes Hero only to receive further proof of her guilt and he leaves the church resolving never to listen to imagination and never to think that outward beauty can betoken grace.
To examine Claudio's denunciation in detail is to realize part of the judgement lying behind this play. It is basically the same as that presented with tragic intensity in Othello's denunciation of the "fair devil," Desdemona; both lovers know the "chaos" which comes when they may no longer look for agreement between inward and outward beauty, and as Othello's forced politeness breaks down in a cry of "goats and monkeys," so Claudio only finds his voice to denounce the hidden, "savage sensuality" (IV. i. 62). But not having Othello's confidence in his own power, Claudio does not wish to destroy Hero; he leaves her in impotency and sorrow. The details of Claudio's denunciation—the fearful hesitancy with which he begins, and the remembrance and honour for Hero's outward beauty with which he continues and concludes—are surely meant by Shakespeare to be signs of his great inward compulsion and of his sorrow; it is strange and "pitiful" to see a lover helplessly vilifying the "Hero" whom he loves.
When Hero swoons even her father believes that she is guilty, but Beatrice, who in friendship trusts inward promptings, and the Friar, who is greater in experience and wisdom, both believe her innocent. At length they all agree to hide her away from "all eyes" (1. 245), and, saying that she is dead, to maintain a "mourning ostentation." The Friar believes that by these means Claudio's intuitions of her inward beauty will grow in power and outlast the mere "fancy" engendered by her outward beauty:
When he shall hear she died upon his words,
The idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell'd in more precious habit,
More moving-delicate and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul,
Than when she lived indeed; . . .
(IV. i. 225ff.)
If Claudio has truly loved, he will, in due time, believe this inward vision, even against firm outward evidence of her guilt.
In order to compare the two stories of this comedy still further Shakespeare boldly followed these scenes with a dialogue between Benedick and Beatrice. When these lovers are alone together they do not abate one jot of their accustomed sagacity and wit; they are, as they learn to say later, "too wise to woo peaceably" (V. ii. 73-4). Benedick avows his love for Beatrice and in the same breath asks if that is not "strange" (IV. i. 269-70). Beatrice likewise confesses that she is stayed in a happy hour for she was "about to protest" that she loved him (11. 285-6). But words, even riddling ones like these, are the easier part of their love. Beatrice, believing that Hero has been wronged, takes Benedick's offer of service at face value and bids him "Kill Claudio." She makes this terrifying request in few words but when she is refused she vents her scorn of mere words in many:
. . . manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too: ... (11. 321ff.)
At length Benedick can put a solemn question, asking
Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
and he receives as solemn an answer:
Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul. (11. 331-3)
If Benedick truly loves he must—as Claudio must— believe his lady's "soul" against all outward testimony; he had called her inward spirit a "fury," but, if he has truly looked upon her with a lover's imagination, he will have seen the beauty of that spirit and will now trust and obey—and will challenge Claudio. The twin stories of Much Ado about Nothing turn on the same point; the very wise and the very uncertain must both learn to trust inward qualities, mere nothings to some other eyes; through a lover's imagination each must recognize inward truth and beauty, and must speak and act from a convinced heart.
These scenes in the church might have been unbearably pathetic had not Shakespeare already informed us that Borachio's plot had already been discovered. The device used to this end, the introduction of Constable Dogberry and the men of his watch, also contributes to presenting and widening the underlying theme of the whole play. Dogberry is a great respecter of words—of long words, defaming words, and the phraseology of official regulations—but he respects them only with respect to himself; he interprets the regulations for his own peace of mind and uses words for the little that they mean to himself not for what they mean to others. His watch are "most senseless and fit" men (III. iii. 23), self-respecting like himself but without his pretensions. By a stroke of irony Shakespeare has directed that Borachio, "like a true drunkard," tells all to Conrade within their hearing. There is no play-acting in this scene; Borachio tells how the "fashion of a doublet ... is nothing to a man" (11. 125-6) and how the "appearance"of Hero's guilt has deceived the prince and Claudio. When hidden truth is made so plain, the action of the play must seem as good as over, but Dogberry goes with the news to Leonato, and between the one's busy concern to prepare for his daughter's wedding and the other's happy concern to speak in polite and noble words, the message is never truly delivered. It is still further delayed when Leonato asks Dogberry to act as Justice of the Peace and examine the villains in his place. The Constable's pleasure in his new and elevated role almost perverts justice, but the sexton prompts him in his part and is soon running to inform Leonato.
The comedy moves towards its close but several threads of its pattern are yet to be drawn into place. In his grief Leonato protests that counsel is "profitless As water in a sieve" (V. i. 4-5); a man who has suffered inwardly as he has suffered must needs rage in his grief, although at other times he may have "writ the style of gods" (V. i. 37). When Don Pedro and Claudio enter, he and Antonio pretend that Hero is dead indeed and so over-act their parts—it is a fiction they come close to believing—that they nearly involve themselves in a duel. But the prince and Claudio wish to avoid all speech and contact with them; they do not rage in their grief, but having lost all hope and confidence are "high-proof melancholy." They welcome Benedick's company so that his wit may beat away their care, but witty words no longer "suit" their thoughts and the jests go awry, and, before leaving them, Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for Hero's honour. When Dogberry enters with his prisoners Pedro has the patience and assumed good humour to hear him, but he is cut short by Borachio's confession:
I have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light. . . . (V. i. 238ff.)
At this point the focus returns to Claudio. Borachio's words run "like iron" through his blood; he is silent as he remembers Hero's true beauty, but his heart is overcharged and must be uttered in soliloquy:
Sweet Hero! now thy image doth appear
In the rare semblance that I loved it first.
This image springs to his mind from the knowledge of Hero's innocence, not from the sight of her outward beauty, but it is important to notice that the image is identical with the beauty he had seen at first. Dramatic interest is forcefully focused on Claudio by his silence and then by his abrupt soliloquy; by these means Shakespeare emphasizes an important turning-point in the action of the play; Claudio realizes that his love for Hero had been true affection all the time, not mere fancy.
Claudio still believes Hero is dead and when he is again confronted by Leonato he knows "not how to pray his patience"; yet he "must speak," asking penance for his sin which lay entirely in "mistaking" (V. 1. 281-5). He is asked to write an epitaph for Hero and next morning to marry Leonato's niece. Here again Shakespeare introduces a daring contrast, for Benedick is also writing verses—to Beatrice. He who had been so sure of his tongue is now at his wits' end to fit his lover's imagination to the "even road of a blank verse" (V. ii. 34). On the other hand, Claudio now seems uncritical of his own utterance, presenting his finished, but not very polished, verses at Hero's tomb, and trusting that they will speak for him when he is "dumb" (V. iii. 10).
The comedy is now at its end. Claudio is so hopeless of seeing beauty in love again that he swears to accept the "penance" of his unseen bride "were she an Ethiope" (V. iv. 38), and is thereupon, beyond all his hopes, reunited with Hero. Benedick and Beatrice, at the very door of the church, are unwilling—be it through shame or lack of confidence—to assume their "unreasonable" roles in public. But when Beatrice is shown verses written by Benedick, and Benedick others written by Beatrice, the unreasonable imagination of their love is made evident; their own handwritings appear as strange evidence "against" their hearts (V. i. 91-2). To prevent yet more ado, Benedick "stops her mouth" with a kiss; he is now confident in his new role:
since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; . . . for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion. . . . (11. 106-11.)
The joy of the lovers is so complete that it must be expressed forthwith in the harmony of a dance, before the marriage ceremony, and certainly before they spare a thought for Don John, whose deceit was the occasion of so much of their trouble.
Much Ado has been more adversely criticized for its structure than any other of Shakespeare's comedies. This has been largely due to critics who, judging by the "humanity" of individual characters, have thought that Shakespeare lost interest in the Claudio-Hero story in order to enjoy creating Benedick and Beatrice. But Much Ado is, in fact, the most intellectually articulated of the comedies and will not betray its secret to this piece-meal criticism. Its structure depends almost entirely on one central theme, a theme which had already influenced parts of earlier comedies, that of appearance and reality, outward and inward beauty, words and thoughts—in short, the theme of love's truth. When this theme is recognized, the relationships and contrasts between the two main stories, which Shakespeare has been at pains to establish, are at once apparent and the play's structural unity vindicated. Then Claudio is seen as a purposeful contrast to Benedick and a character who is interesting—and actable—in his own right.
The theme of Much Ado may be simply stated, but its presentation is so subtle that the width and wisdom of Shakespeare's vision can only be suggested. This may best be done, in this comedy as in others, by relating the various characters to each other as the action of play directs. Leonato is one who ordinarily is "no hypocrite, but prays from his heart" (I. i. 152-3), but he is not always patient enough to disentangle the words and actions of others, and, in sorrow, becomes ludicrously pathetic as the man who can only talk. Margaret, the young waiting-woman, is one who takes pleasure in assuming more apprehension than her experience can lay claim to. Don Pedro is rightly confident in judging Hero's inward worth, but his readiness to speak for Claudio is misjudged and his confidence in assessing the scene acted by Margaret and Borachio is probably culpable, for only a lover who could recognize Hero's inward qualities could possibly judge rightly. Dogberry's self-concerned respect for mere words and for his new and dignified role painfully prolongs the misunderstandings of others; yet he has the wit not to "like" Borachio's look (IV. ii. 46-7) and blunderingly justice is done. The watch discover the malefactors by chance, but their simple good sense not to trust the words of those who have confessed themselves to be villains—they command them "Never speak" (III. iii. 188)—prevents still further deceit. Benedick and Beatrice, trusting their eyes, judgements, and power of speech too much, are taught, through the good offices of their friends, to recognize and give sway to their imaginations; so Benedick is "converted" (II. iii. 23) and finds beauty where he had previously seen a "fury" and Beatrice learns to look as "other women do" (III. iv. 92). But even when they are brought, through mutual trust of their own "souls," to admit their love to each other, it again needs the offices of friends before they will admit the folly of their love to the world. Claudio, fearing, with good enough reason, to trust his eyes alone, is an easy prey to his prince's enemies, and accepts outward proof of inward guilt. In so doing he brings suffering on his lady and on himself, but in the end their love is justified by his imaginative recognition of the "sweet idea" of Hero's true beauty. Both pairs of lovers take a long road to the same conclusion; in retrospect easier ways recommend themselves, but it is part of Shakespeare's wisdom to suggest that, to those who are engaged in the quest for love's truth, the longest course is often the only one which seems possible to them. It will ever be "Much Ado."
It is, perhaps, also a part of Shakespeare's wisdom that the success of Much Ado should depend largely on the way in which we receive it, that it should be capable of different, and sometimes destructive, interpretations. The acceptance of "love's truth" always depends on the imagination of its audience, and the "truth" of this play is no exception. Even the realization of the main theme of appearance and reality can only explain the dramatic structure, it cannot ensure the play's success. Unless we "imagine no worse" of Claudio than he is represented as thinking of himself, unless we have the readiness and imagination to "amend" the shadows of love's truth which are presented on the stage, Much Ado will never be for us the lively and human comedy which Shakespeare intended. But given this imaginative response, the implicit judgement of the play and the wisdom of the ideals informing it will, even in our delight, shape our own beings and bring to them something of the life-enhancement inherent in this work of art.
SOURCE: "Love's Truth and the Judgement of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Much Ado About Nothing, in Shakespeare and His Comedies, Second Edition, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 82-123.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5586
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 Encounter in 1957, Auden (a major twentieth-century poet) demonstrates how Balthasar's song in Act II, Scene iii of Much Ado contributes to the dramatic structure of this work in two ways; by marking the moment when Claudio's "pleasant illusions about himself as a lover are at their highest"; and by suggesting to Benedick, through the song's message, an image of Beatrice as well as a dark sense of "mischief" ahead.]
The called-for songs in Much Ado About Nothing . . . illustrate Shakespeare's skill in making what might have been beautiful irrelevancies contribute to the dramatic structure.
Much Ado About Nothing
Act II, Scene 3.
Song. Sigh no more, ladies.
Audience. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick (in hiding).
In the two preceding scenes we have learned of two plots, Don Pedro's plot to make Benedick fall in love with Beatrice, and Don John's plot to make Claudio believe that Hero, his wife-to-be, is unchaste. Since this is a comedy, we, the audience, know that all will come right in the end, that Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio and Hero will get happily married.
The two plots of which we have just learned, therefore, arouse two different kinds of suspense. If the plot against Benedick succeeds, we are one step nearer the goal; if the plot against Claudio succeeds, we are one step back.
At this point, between their planning and their execution, action is suspended, and we and the characters are made to listen to a song.
The scene opens with Benedick laughing at the thought of the lovesick Claudio and congratulating himself on being heart-whole, and he expresses their contrasted states in musical imagery.
I have known him when there was no music in him, but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. . . Is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?—Well, a horn for my money when all's done.
We, of course, know that Benedick is not as heart-whole as he is trying to pretend. Beatrice and Benedick resist each other because, being both proud and intelligent, they do not wish to be the helpless slaves of emotion or, worse, to become what they have often observed in others, the victims of an imaginary passion. Yet whatever he may say against music, Benedick does not go away, but stays and listens.
Claudio, for his part, wishes to hear music because he is in a dreamy, lovesick state, and one can guess that his petit roman as he listens will be of himself as the ever-faithful swain, so that he will not notice that the mood and words of the song are in complete contrast to his daydream. For the song is actually about the irresponsibility of men and the folly of women taking them seriously, and recommends as an antidote good humor and common sense. If one imagines these sentiments being the expression of a character, the only character they suit is Beatrice.
She is never sad but when she sleeps; and not even sad then; for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dream'd of happiness and waked herself with laughing. She cannot endure hear tell of a husband. Leonato by no means- she mocks all her wooers out of suit.
I do not think it too far-fetched to imagine that the song arouses in Benedick's mind an image of Beatrice, the tenderness of which alarms him. The violence of his comment when the song is over is suspicious:
I pray God, his bad voice bode no mischief! I had as lief have heard the night-raven, come what plague could have come after it.
And, of course, there is mischief brewing. Almost immediately he overhears the planned conversation of Claudio and Don Pedro, and it has its intended effect. The song may not have compelled his capitulation, but it has certainly softened him up.
More mischief comes to Claudio who, two scenes later, shows himself all too willing to believe Don John's slander before he has been shown even false evidence, and declares that, if it should prove true, he will shame Hero in public. Had his love for Hero been all he imagined it to be, he would have laughed in Don John's face and believed Hero's assertion of her innocence, despite apparent evidence to the contrary, as immediately as her cousin does. He falls into the trap set for him because as yet he is less a lover than a man in love with love. Hero is as yet more an image in his own mind than a real person, and such images are susceptible to every suggestion.
For Claudio, the song marks the moment when his pleasant illusions about himself as a lover are at their highest. Before he can really listen to music he must be cured of imaginary listening, and the cure lies through the disharmonious experiences of passion and guilt.
SOURCE: "Music in Shakespeare," in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, Random House, Inc., 1962, pp. 500-27.
Paul N. Siegel
[In the following essay, Siegel illustrates the affinities between Much Ado and "a formal dance in which couples successively part, make parallel movements and then are reunited." The critic demonstrates how love itself, within the context of this play, might he likened to a dance, in which there is an unending succession of dancers who complete their movements with each couple united as they ought as the musicians strike up music for a new dance, the wedding dance.]
Much Ado About Nothing is like a formal dance in which couples successively part, make parallel movements and then are reunited. Although some of the figures performed in this dance have been noted, the dance as a whole, with its various advances, retreats, turns and counter-turns, has not been described.
As the music strikes up in the dance scene of the second act, Beatrice says to Benedick, "We must follow the leaders," but she adds, "Nay, if they lead to any ill, I will leave them at the next turning" (II. i. 157-160). Beatrice and Benedick repeat the steps of Hero and Claudio in the dance of love which Beatrice describes with light-hearted gaiety (II. i. 72-84), but with variations of their own. Don Pedro not only presides over the dance and directs it, but he also offers to woo Hero for Claudio and suggests the stratagem to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other. If they succeed in this stratagem, he says, "we are the only love-gods" (II. i. 403). His brother Don John, however, is an opposing force which seeks to get in the way of the dancers and to disturb the harmony of the dance. As Don Pedro leaves the stage, telling Leonato, Claudio and Hero how he will bring about the match between Benedick and Beatrice, Don John, sick with hatred in the presence of the happiness of Claudio and Hero, about to be married, enters and says to his tool Borachio, "Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be medicinable to me. . . . How canst thou cross this marriage?" (II. ii. 4-8). Although both Don Pedro and Don John use the language of plotters—they will "practice on" Benedick, says Don Pedro to his confederates (II. i. 399), and Don John tells Borachio (II. ii. 53-54) "Be cunning in the working this"—Don Pedro's plot is benevolent while Don John's is malevolent.
Each succeeds, but there is a greater force at work which reunites Claudio and Hero in a strengthened unity at the conclusion of the play, when they join Benedick and Beatrice—ironically brought together by Don John's plot as well as by Don Pedro's—in the dance that signalizes the close. Don John's plot not only fools Don Pedro and Claudio but almost causes bloodshed when Leonato and Benedick disregard Friar Francis' wise advice. Instead of letting time and remorse work on Claudio, as this man of God suggests, they challenge him; it is not until foolish Dogberry exposes Don John and his accomplices that they realize their error. In setting right their blunders, Dogberry furthers the purpose of nature, which is itself animated by love—the love of God pervading creation—and which is engaged in a cosmic dance.
Benedick and Beatrice have followed in the steps of Claudio and Hero in falling in love, but in their preliminary estrangement they have also set a pattern. The "skirmish of wit" (I. i. 64) in which they engage in the masked dance scene causes some real wounds. Probably since Hero, informed of Don Pedro's intention to woo her, knew him despite his mask and since Ursula recognized Antonio as well, Margaret and Beatrice, in keeping with the method of repetition so noticeably employed in the play, should also be portrayed as recognizing the masked gentlemen speaking to them in much the same way that the queen and her ladies are aware of the identities of the masked gentlemen in a similar scene in Love's Labor's Lost. When Beatrice is informed by Benedick that a gentleman whom he refuses to name has charged her with being disdainful and with having borrowed her wit from a collection of humorous tales, she surmises that the unnamed gentleman is Benedick. When her interlocutor professes not to know Benedick, she replies, it would seem with veiled irony, "I am sure you know him well enough" (II. i. 138) and charges Benedick in turn with being the Prince's fool, with his only gift consisting of "devising impossible slanders" (II. i. 142-143). This gift of devising impossible slanders seems to be an allusion to what he has just said about her. So Benedick also tells himself a little later that her statement that he is the Prince's fool is a slander emanating from "the base (though bitter) disposition of Beatrice" (II. i. 214-215). In the fencing match between them, that is, the sword dance which is a feature of this masque, each is wounded by an identical thrust. Jest as Benedick may, he has been hurt: "She speaks poniards, and every word stabs" (II. i. 255-256). The hurt inflicted by the words of each is a prefiguration of the much more grievous hurt inflicted by Claudio, who "killed" Hero "with his breath" (V. i. 272). "Sweet Hero, she is wronged, she is slander'd, she is undone," bitterly exclaims Beatrice (IV. i. 314-315), bidding Benedick fight her "enemy." So Don Pedro tells Benedick after the dance, "The Lady Beatrice hath a quarrel to you. The gentleman that danced with her told her she is much wronged by you" (II. i. 243-245). Benedick is later to act as Beatrice's champion in her quarrel with Claudio, but now he announces, "I would not marry her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed" (II. i. 260-262). So Claudio publicly refuses to marry Hero, the heiress of her wealthy father, returning to Leonato what he calls with bitter irony the "rich and precious gift" (IV. i. 27) he has received from him. Following the suggestion of Don John that "it would better fit your honor to change your mind" (III. ii. 118-119), Claudio is revenging himself by this public disgrace of Hero; similarly Benedick, ruminating over Beatrice's slur upon him, had exclaimed, "Well, I'll be revenged as I may" (II. i. 217-218).
Claudio's misapprehension that Hero has been unfaithful to him has been prefigured by his misapprehension that the Prince has deceived him by wooing Hero for himself; both false appearances and the instigation of Don John have misled him in each instance. His first misapprehension comes in the masked dance scene, his brief separation from his partner coinciding with the disengagement of Benedick and Beatrice. Benedick jests at the sulking of the jealous Claudio—"Alas, poor hurt fowl! Now will he creep in sedges" (II. i. 209-210)—but immediately reveals his own hurt: "But, that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me! The Prince's fool! Ha!"
When Claudio, however, rejoins Hero after his brief separation from her, Benedick and Beatrice remain apart. "Come, lady, come," says Don Pedro (II. i. 285-286), as Benedick leaves upon Beatrice's entrance, you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick." "Indeed, my lord," replies Beatrice, "he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for a single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it" (II. i. 287-291). Her words have been mystifying to the commentators. Is she saying that Benedick had once wooed her and gained her heart? This would be contrary to everything we learn of the two of them in the play, for the whole point of Don Pedro's efforts to make a match between them is that it seems impossible that they fall in love with each other. Is she merely speaking "all mirth and no matter" (II. i. 344)? It would appear that her joking must have some subject. Perhaps the suggestion that she is referring to a game played with cards and dice is the most acceptable.
In any event it is significant that her reference to a previous exchange of hearts, however lightly uttered, parallels Claudio's recital of how taken he was by Hero before he went to war and is echoed immediately afterwards in Claudio's statement that Hero has whispered to him that he is "in her heart" and in his words to her, "Lady, as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange" (II. i. 319-320). The repetition of motifs is continued in the conversation which follows. When Beatrice, looking at the happy couple, gayly exclaims, "Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes everyone in the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry 'Heigh-ho for a husband!'" Don Pedro responds in the same vein, "Lady Beatrice, I will get you one." So had he got Hero a husband. When Beatrice turns his statement around with "I would rather have one of your father's getting. Hath your Grace ne'er a brother like you?" Don Pedro replies, "Will you have me, lady" (II. i. 330-338)? His question, laughingly asked to minister to her wit, repeats his wooing of Hero on behalf of Claudio, which had been mistaken for a wooing for himself.
Don Pedro does get Beatrice a husband. Benedick and Beatrice go as goes everyone in the world, more specifically as Claudio and Hero have gone. In response to Benedick's question in the opening scene "But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?" Claudio had replied, "I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn the contrary, if Hero would be my wife" (I. i. 197-198). Benedick retorted with a scoff at those who give up their bachelorhood, but he himself, although he indeed swore the contrary, came to do the same. In his very scorn for Claudio's blindness, he revealed the inclination which, like Claudio, he had felt before going to the wars, but which he is resisting: "There's her cousin, and she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December" (I. i. 192-195).
The comedy lies in Benedick's repeating Claudio's behavior immediately after he laughs at it. "I do much wonder," he says (as we await with gleeful expectation the plot against him) "that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love; and such a man is Claudio" (II. iii. 7-12). Undoubtedly, he is to make a marked pause after the phrase "falling in love" so that the audience may mentally supply his name before he applies his observation to Claudio. He mocks at Claudio, who had previously enjoyed only martial music, for being entranced by the music of the lute— "Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?" (II. iii. 59-60)—but he himself will soon yield to the sweet harmony of love, composing songs, albeit, since he was "not born under a rhyming planet," (V. ii. 40-41) halting ones. So too he follows Claudio's behavior in paying new attention to his personal appearance and in mooning about in the melancholy induced by love.
Repetitive as their behavior is, however, there is variation. Claudio is the tongue-tied, timid lover who needs the Prince to do his wooing for him. There are no love scenes between him and the demure Hero. Each can speak well enough with others, Claudio engaging in repartee with Benedick and Hero joining in the fun at the expense of Beatrice, but in each other's presence they are mute. When Don Pedro informs Claudio that he has won Hero for him, Claudio can only say "Silence is the perfectest herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much" (II. i. 318-319). Beatrice pushes the overwhelmed Claudio and the modest Hero into their proper positions. "Speak, Count, 'tis your cue," she tells Claudio and then, having elicited from him his few fervent words of love, she turns to Hero, saying, "Speak, cousin; or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kiss and let not him speak neither" (II. i. 316, 321-323).
Benedick and Beatrice, a highly loquacious pair, do not love in this fashion. Benedick, who, after having been taken in by Don Pedro's plot, resolved "I will be horribly in love with her," (II. iii. 244) is as extravagant in his professions of love as he had been in his professions of misogyny. Beatrice, for her part, is as witty as ever, although now she fences with a buttoned foil. Her progress of love parallels his. As he had revealed an inclination toward her, she had revealed an inclination toward him in her eagerness to make him the subject of conversation and in her Freudian slip in the dance scene, "I am sure he is in the fleet; I would he had boarded me" (II. i. 148-149): "board" not only means "accost," with the implication that she would have repulsed him, but is also capable of a sexual significance. She, as he did, eavesdrops on a conversation whose participants tell each other gleefully in asides that the plot is working and make use of the same figures of the trapped bird and the hooked fish. With comic repetition, each, formerly high-spirited, becomes woebegone in the pangs of love, he pretending to the Prince and Claudio that he has a toothache, she pretending to Hero and Margaret that she has a cold. "I shall see thee, ere I die," Don Pedro had said to Benedick, "look pale with love" (I. i. 249-250). It was more true than Leonato's "You will never run mad, niece" after Beatrice had said of Benedick, "He is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad" (I. i. 87-88). "No, not till a hot January," had replied Beatrice. She might better have said not till the springtime, the season for the madness of love, that "ecstacy" (II. iii. 157) from which Leonato is to state she is suffering.
Beatrice duplicates not only Benedick's behavior. Just as Benedick repeats Claudio's actions, she repeats those of Hero, who, lessoned by her father, had replied to Don Pedro's wooing in proper decorous fashion, making light of it, as a lady should, only to accept the suit he had pressed on behalf of Claudio. So Beatrice, after keeping up her defenses, permits herself to be won, although protesting to the end that she is unwounded and unyielding. Margaret, it may be said, takes Beatrice's place in the dance. Struck by Margaret's jests, flying thick as arrows, Beatrice asks her caustically how long it has been that she has professed herself a wit. "Ever since you left it," retorts Margaret. "Doth not my wit become me rarely?" (III. iv. 69-70). Thus the dance of love is an unending succession of dancers in which the erstwhile jester becomes the subject of fresh jests by one who is as yet heart-whole and able to cavort gaily around the disconsolate lover.
As Beatrice is in the dumps, Hero is getting dressed for the marriage ceremony. Unexpectedly, however, Beatrice has the company of Hero in her melancholy, as Benedick had found himself hurt at the same time as Claudio. "God give me joy to wear it," says Hero of her wedding gown, "for my heart is exceeding heavy" (III. iv. 24-25). Her heaviness of spirits is a premonition, such as is Antonio's melancholy at the beginning of The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet's misgivings before the duel, of the blow she is about to receive. Unknown to her, Don John's plot has succeeded, just as, unknown to Beatrice, Don Pedro's plot has succeeded.
There are a number of echoes from one plot to the other. "I pray God his bad voice bode no mischief," says Benedick sourly of Balthasar's song, which has just won Don Pedro's commendation (II. iii. 82-84). "I had as live have heard the night raven, come what plague could have come after it." Mischief is indeed afoot, for Don Pedro and Claudio are about to practice their deception on him. We are reminded, however, of the kind of genuine disaster supposed to be presaged by the raven's cry that is to be brought about by another enacted deception when Don Pedro says immediately after, "Dost thou hear, Balthasar? I pray thee get us some excellent music; for tomorrow night we would have it at the Lady Hero's chamber window" (II. .iii. 86-89). Benedick, wondering if he has been tricked, is dissuaded of it by the gravity of Leonato's demeanor: "Knavery cannot, sure, hide himself in such reverence" (II. iii. 24-25). "Knavery" is a word that is more readily applied to the other plot. The deception of Benedick successful, Don Pedro and Claudio congratulate themselves and eagerly await the outcome of the deception of Beatrice. "Hero and Margaret have by this played their parts with Beatrice," says Claudio (III. ii. 78-79)—and just then Don John, who is using Margaret to play another part, enters to tell him that his Hero is "every man's Hero," that she has been playing a part with him. And when Margaret is teasing Beatrice as Hero is preparing for the wedding, she remarks on Beatrice's observation that she cannot smell Hero's perfumed gloves because she is "stuffed," that is, has a head cold, "A maid, and stuffed! There's goodly catching of cold" (III. iv. 64-66). The jesting allegation contained in the double entendre "stuffed" is shortly to be made with deadly earnestness about Hero.
With the marriage ceremony disrupted, it is now Benedick and Beatrice who are united and Claudio and Hero who are separated. Benedick and Beatrice, on overhearing how their pride was condemned, had learned their lessons and sacrificed their egoism to give themselves to each other. As Benedick said "Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending" (II. iii. 237-238). So Claudio does "penance" for his "sin" (V. i. 282-283). It is a venial sin, for he sinned only in "mistaking." Yet, in not trusting to the heart's promptings but to the false knowledge of the senses, he has sinned against love. Beatrice, strong and loyal in her friendship, trusts despite all evidence to what her heart tells her: "O, on my soul, my cousin is belied!" (IV. i. 147). To Benedick's question "Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?" she replies, "Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul" (IV. i. 331-334). Beatrice's heart-felt conviction is sufficient for Benedick, believing in her as he does. Claudio, however, has to learn how to give himself wholeheartedly without regard to the impressions of the senses.
This he does in the final scene, when he atones for the wrong he had done Hero by keeping his contract with Leonato and marrying her supposed cousin without seeing her face. The final scene, which may be regarded as a highly patterned wedding masque, is a repetition of the previous marriage scene, to which Claudio and Don Pedro came pretending that they were in earnest before they threw off the mask to unmask, as they thought, the guilty Hero. So Leontes and Antonio come to the second marriage ceremony "with confirmed countenance," (V. iv. 17) with steady faces in pretended earnest, as they play out their little fiction that the disguised Hero is Antonio's daughter. When his bride removes her mask, Claudio finds to his joy that she is Hero herself—or rather, "another Hero," (V. iv. 62) the Hero of his false imaginings, "every man's Hero," having died. So too Beatrice, in response to Benedick's "Which is Beatrice?"—an echo of Claudio's "Which is the lady I must seize upon?— removes her mask to reveal herself. In this masquerade, unlike the dance scene of the second act, which the scene recalls, every one finds his true love.
Before the happy union of both couples is completed, however, there is a final turn by Benedick and Beatrice which repeats in a lighter, quicker tempo the previous turn by Claudio and Hero: it seems for a moment as if the marriage between them that was about to have taken place is not going to take place after all, as the two continue their fencing until the end, with each thrust being parried and met by an answering thrust.
Benedick. Do you not love me?
Beatrice. Why, no; no more than reason.
Benedick. Why, then your uncle, and the Prince, and Claudio
Have been deceived—they swore you did.
Beatrice. Do not you love me?
Benedick. Troth, no; no more than reason.
Beatrice. Why, then my cousin, Margaret, and Ursula
Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.
Benedick. They swore that you were almost sick for me.
Beatrice. They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.
Benedick. 'Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?
Beatrice. No, truly, but in friendly recompense.
(V. iv. 77-83)
The revelations that have just taken place are here lightly glanced at: Leonato and the Prince and Claudio, says Benedick, were deceived in believing that Beatrice loved Benedick (just as they were deceived in believing that Hero did not love Claudio); it was given out, says Beatrice, that Benedick was well-nigh dead (just as it was given out that Hero was indeed dead). From this it seems that, having been talked into love, Benedick and Beatrice may talk themselves out of it although their repartee may also be taken as the teasing of two people who are sure of each other. However, Claudio produces a love sonnet that Benedick has written and Hero produces a love sonnet that Beatrice has written. "A miracle!" exclaims Benedick. "Here's our own hands against our hearts" (V. iv. 91-93). It is a miracle rather less wonderful than the resurrection of Hero. The near-rejection of Beatrice is linked with the repudiation of Hero when, Benedick stating to Claudio that he had thought to have beaten him but, since they are about to become kinsmen, will let him live unbruised, Claudio retorts, "I had well hoped thou wouldst have denied Beatrice, that I might have cudgeled thee out of thy single life. ... " (V. iv. 114-118).
Here we have an amusing turn-about: Benedick had acted as Hero's champion out of love for Beatrice and Claudio now would act as Beatrice's out of love for Hero. Just as in the concluding fencing between Benedick and Beatrice, there is a moment in the final scene when it seems as if the exchange between Benedick and Claudio may become serious. Claudio having made a jest about the prospect of horns for Benedick, Benedick replies with a taunt about the horns of Claudio's father implying that Claudio is both a calf and a bastard. Claudio's "For this I owe you" (V. iv. 51)—that is, I will repay you for this—is an echo of Benedick's statement immediately before expressing pleasure that he will not have "to call young Claudio to a reckoning" (V. iv. 9). But the proposed duel turns into an exchange of wit, and the threats become pleasant banter. In the final harmony love and friendship are reconciled. "Come, come, we are friends," says Benedick. Beatrice at the beginning of the play had said of Benedick, "He hath every month a new sworn brother. ... He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block" (I. i. 73-77). Ironically, Benedick is to quarrel with his friend Claudio as a result of his love for Beatrice. Benedick's calling Claudio a villain is the counterpart of Claudio's calling Hero a wanton. Benedick's inconstancy in friendship illustrates the truth of the conclusion to which he comes in justifying his change of mind about marriage: "man is a giddy thing" (V. iv. 107-108). To be sure, this inconstancy is the result of his admirable wholeheartedness in love, but his initial recoil in dismay after his lover's offer to do any thing at all for Beatrice is answered by her curt "Kill Claudio" and his plaintive entreaty "Beatrice," (IV. ii. 291-315) five times overborne by Beatrice's furious tirade (the last time he is not even allowed to complete the second syllable), have their comic aspect as an exhibition of the power of love. The vagaries of love induce the most ridiculously inconsistent behavior; men are, as Balthasar sings just before Benedick is made to turn to Beatrice and Claudio is about to be made to turn away from Hero, "One foot in sea, and one on shore,/ To one thing constant never" (II. iii. 66-67).
When Benedick challenges Claudio, neither Claudio nor Don Pedro believe that he can be serious but at length perceive that he is really in earnest: "As I am an honest man, he looks pale. Art thou sick, or angry?" (V. i. 130-131). Early in the play in response to Don Pedro's "I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love," Benedick stated: "With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord, not with love" (I. i. 251-252). Don Pedro did indeed live to see the merry Benedick look pale, first with love-melancholy and then with anger, but, as Claudio says (V. i. 199), "for the love of Beatrice" in each case.
Benedick's challenge came just after Claudio had been challenged, first by Leonato and then by his rather comically irate brother Antonio, who, after having counseled patience to Leonato, outdid him in his fury. Wearied by the effort he had made to exercise forbearance with the two fuming old men and dejected by this sequel to his repudiation of Hero, Claudio welcomed Benedick, thinking that his wit would raise his spirits. Instead, he was greeted with another display of anger and another challenge. The scene falls within the pattern formed by a number of scenes in which Benedick mocks Claudio first when he is lovelorn and then when he is jealous and next Claudio in turn mocks Benedick when Benedick himself becomes lovelorn. When one's spirits are low, the other's are high. In the challenge scene, although Claudio is shaken up by his encounter with Leonato and Antonio, he is determined to be merry and meets Benedick's equally determined quarrelsomeness with sallies of wit. It is only at the end that they are in tune with each other, each happy in his approaching marriage. The turns have been completed, each couple is united and the two couples are joined together in love and friendship, as the pipers strike up the music for the dance that precedes their joint marriage.
SOURCE: "The Turns of the Dance: An Essay on Much Ado About Nothing," in Shakespeare in His Time and Ours, University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp. 212-26.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2748
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 sets-of-wit between the two mockers." Nevertheless, what Kenneth Muir has written of Beatrice and Benedick is undeniable: "They alone, of the characters in the play, are three dimensional." Bernard Shaw would disagree though, for he found them—contrary to widespread critical judgment—to be repellent individuals who use their wit indiscriminately. Shaw adds that they are perceived as charming only because of Shakespeare's inflated reputation and skillful use of language. Scholar Denzell S. Smith perceives the two as essentially realistic individuals whose personalities change during the course of the play; he explains why Beatrice's command to kill Claudio is important, concluding that it marks the play's high point in the development of the characters of Beatrice and Benedick. For additional commentary on the character of Beatrice, 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 Benedick's character, see the Crick and Brown essays.
[In the following review, originally published in the Saturday Review (London) on February 26, 1898, Shaw (an Irish dramatist and critic who regularly attacked what he considered Shakespeare's inflated reputation as a dramatist) focuses upon Beatrice and Benedick as figures who are—contrary to popular perception—coarse individuals who use their wit indiscriminately. Shaw adds that they are perceived as charming only because of Shakespeare's enchanting language. Shaw's remarks upon the musical nature of the play coincide with remarks made by W. H. Auden in 1957 on Much Ado.]
Much Ado is perhaps the most dangerous actor-manager trap in the whole Shakespearean repertory. It is not a safe play like The Merchant of Venice or As You Like It, nor a serious play like Hamlet. Its success depends on the way it is handled in performance; and that, again, depends on the actor-manager being enough of a critic to discriminate ruthlessly between the pretension of the author and his achievement.
The main pretension in Much Ado is that Benedick and Beatrice are exquisitely witty and amusing persons. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. Benedick's pleasantries might pass at a sing-song in a public-house parlor; but a gentleman rash enough to venture on them in even the very mildest £52-a-year suburban imitation of polite society today would assuredly never be invited again. From his first joke, "Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?" to his last, "There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn," he is not a wit, but a blackguard. He is not Shakespeare's only failure in that genre. It took the Bard a long time to grow out of the provincial conceit that made him so fond of exhibiting his accomplishments as a master of gallant badinage. The very thought of Biron, Mercutio, Gratiano, and Benedick must, I hope, have covered him with shame in his later years. Even Hamlet's airy compliments to Ophelia belore the court would make a cabman blush. But at least Shakespeare did not value himself on Hamlet's indecent jests as he evidently did on those of the four merry gentlemen of the earlier plays. When he at last got conviction of sin, and saw this sort of levity in its proper light, he made masterly amends by presenting the blackguard as a blackguard in the person of Lucio in Measure for Measure. Lucio, as a character study, is worth forty Benedicks and Birons. His obscenity is not only inoffensive, but irresistibly entertaining, because it is drawn with perfect skill, offered at its true value, and given its proper interest, without any complicity of the author in its lewdness. Lucio is much more of a gentleman than Benedick, because he keeps his coarse sallies for coarse people. Meeting one woman, he says humbly, "Gentle and fair: your brother kindly greets you. Not to be weary with you, he's in prison." Meeting another, he hails her sparkingly with "How now? which of your hips has the more profound sciatica?" The one woman is a lay sister, the other a prostitute. Benedick or Mercutio would have cracked their low jokes on the lay sister, and been held up as gentlemen of rare wit and excellent discourse for it. Whenever they approach a woman or an old man, you shiver with apprehension as to what brutality they will come out with.
Precisely the same thing, in the tenderer degree of her sex, is true of Beatrice. In her character of professed wit she has only one subject, and that is the subject which a really witty woman never jests about, because it is too serious a matter to a woman to be made light of without indelicacy. Beatrice jests about it for the sake of the indelicacy. There is only one thing worse than the Elizabethan "merry gentleman," and that is the Elizabethan "merry lady."
Why is it then that we still want to see Benedick and Beatrice, and that our most eminent actors and actresses still want to play them? Before I answer that very simple question let me ask another. Why is it that Da Ponte's "dramma giocosa," entitled Don Giovanni, a loathsome story of a coarse, witless, worthless libertine, who kills an old man in a duel and is finally dragged down through a trapdoor to hell by his twaddling ghost, is still, after more than a century, as "immortal" as Much Ado? Simply because Mozart clothed it with wonderful music, which turned the worthless words and thoughts of Da Ponte into a magical human drama of moods and transitions of feeling. That is what happened in a smaller way with Much Ado. Shakespeare shews himself in it a commonplace librettist working on a stolen plot, but a great musician. No matter how poor, coarse, cheap, and obvious the thought may be, the mood is charming, and the music of the words expresses the mood. Paraphrase the encounters of Benedick and Beatrice in the style of a bluebook, carefully preserving every idea they present, and it will become apparent to the most infatuated Shakespearean that they contain at best nothing out of the common in thought or wit, and at worst a good deal of vulgar naughtiness. Paraphrase Goethe, Wagner, or Ibsen in the same way, and you will find original observation, subtle thought, wide comprehension, far-reaching intuition, and serious psychological study in them. Give Shakespeare a fairer chance in the comparison by paraphrasing even his best and maturest work, and you will still get nothing more than the platitudes of proverbial philosophy, with a very occasional curiosity in the shape of a rudiment of some modern idea, not followed up. Not until the Shakespearean music is added by replacing the paraphrase with the original lines does the enchantment begin. Then you are in another world at once. When a flower-girl tells a coster to hold his jaw, for nobody is listening to him, and he retorts, "Oh, you're there, are you, you beauty?" they reproduce the wit of Beatrice and Benedick exactly. But put it this way. "I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you." "What! my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?" You are miles away from costerland at once. When I tell you that Benedick and the coster are equally poor in thought, Beatrice and the flower-girl equally vulgar in repartee, you reply that I might as well tell you that a nightingale's love is no higher than a cat's. Which is exactly what I do tell you, though the nightingale is the better musician. You will admit, perhaps, that the love of the worst human singer in the world is accompanied by a higher degree of intellectual consciousness than that of the most ravishingly melodious nightingale. Well, in just the same way, there are plenty of quite second-rate writers who are abler thinkers and wits than William, though they are unable to weave his magic into the expression of their thoughts.
It is not easy to knock this into the public head, because 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. Englishmen are specially susceptible to this sort of flattery, because intellectual subtlety is not their strong point. In dealing with them you must make them believe that you are appealing to their brains when you are really appealing to their senses and feelings. With Frenchmen the case is reversed: you must make them believe that you are appealing to their senses and feelings when you are really appealing to their brains. The Englishman, slave to every sentimental ideal and dupe of every sensuous art, will have it that his great national poet is a thinker. The Frenchman, enslaved and duped only by systems and calculations, insists on his hero being a sentimentalist and artist. That is why Shakespeare is esteemed a mastermind in England, and wondered at as a clumsy barbarian in France.
SOURCE: "Much Ado About Nothing," in Shaw on Shakespeare: An Anthology of Bernard Shaw's Writings on the Plays and Production of Shakespeare, edited by Edwin Wilson, 1961. Reprint by Books for Libraries Press, 1971, pp. 141-58.
Denzell S. Smith
[In the essay below, Smith explains why Beatrice's command "Kill Claudio" is important, concluding that this command represents "the climax of the development of Beatrice's and of Benedick's character." He notes that, first, the command indicates that both Beatrice and Benedick have reached a point at which neither is as self-centered as they had been at the beginning of the play. Secondly, the command indicates that the two are no longer a pair of duelists in frothy wit, but have become more serious individuals. Thirdly, because it represents the union of Beatrice and Benedick, the command stands at the climax of the plot of Much Ado. Finally, the command emphasizes that honor and truth must be inextricably bound up with love. In commanding Benedick to kill Claudio, Beatrice causes the most confusion in the plot than has occurred to this point in the play.]
After each has been tricked into believing the other to be in love, Beatrice and Benedick do not confront each other privately until Hero has been slandered at the altar. Their confrontation results in a confession of love that, because of the slander, is at once followed by Beatrice's famous command "Kill Claudio" (IV.i.291). Nearly all critics of the play assert that the command is important, but the reason for its importance is seldom stated. Hardin Craig, for example, claims that the command is "a famous climax in both character and plot," but does not explain why. Several reasons can be offered.
First, the command shows Beatrice and Benedick as now less selfish than they were. Benedick's profession of love brings from her not a desire for her self-satisfaction, but rather a desire for satisfaction of Hero's wrongs. She subordinates her interests to Hero's, just as Benedick subordinates his desires to Beatrice's. Second, the command shows that Beatrice and Benedick are now more serious than they were. Rather than jest about serious problems as they did at the play's beginning, they now are engaged with them. Third, Beatrice's engagement with Hero's problem at once puts the new love relationship on a serious level—serious because the slander of Hero is serious, serious because of the possible outcome of a duel between two competent soldiers, and serious because both lovers regard the duel as a test of Benedick's love. Fourth, the command also shows the intensity of their love. Beatrice asks her newly-professed lover the utmost favor: to place his love for her above that of his long-established friendship with Claudio. Benedick is not only to prefer Beatrice to Claudio, but is to become the revenger who will place himself outside of God's law and outside of his country's law—the revenger who wreaks his vengeance even on his best friend. The extremity of the command is startling. Finally, the command shows Beatrice's acceptance of her womanliness, of the necessity for her at times to admit her physical weakness and to place her trust and confidence in Benedick. For these reasons we can say that the command "Kill Claudio" is the climax in the development of Beatrice's and of Benedick's character.
The command is also a climax of plot because it exemplifies the union of Beatrice and Benedick. Their story is traditionally comic. Two eligible and comely young people affectedly place themselves in the extreme position of flouting their natural desires, and the stock situation typically ends with the couple falling in love, thus exposing themselves temporarily to the ridicule of those who rightly thought their original position untenable. The extremity of the command, the trust Beatrice shows in asking it, and the choice of lover over friend that Benedick makes in accepting it show the real unity of the lovers. Second, the command is climactic for the plot because it links the major plot with one of the minor plots. Before the command, the actions of Beatrice and Benedick did not affect the Hero-Claudio story. After the command, Benedick's challenge entangles him with the main plot. That the duel does not take place does not detract from the entanglement. The command is climatic, third, because of its surprise. Who would expect that, at the first private meeting of newly professed lovers, such a command would be made and obeyed? Fourth, the command causes greater plot confusion than has occurred before in the play. At the play's beginning no one was estranged, but Don John and his henchmen soon estrange themselves and cause the estrangement of Hero from Claudio, of Hero from her father, of Don Pedro from Leonato and Antonio, of Claudio from Leonato and Antonio, and of Beatrice from Claudio and Don Pedro. Benedick is the only character of importance who is not estranged. After the altar scene he is concerned about Hero's well-being, but he suggests that Claudio and Don Pedro, otherwise honorable and wise, have been tricked. Beatrice's command estranges him from the two men who have his "inwardness and love" (IV.i.247). Only reconciliations follow this high point of confusion. Finally, one of the intents of the Beatrice-Benedick plot has been to show that love is necessary to life. The command makes clear that love is a powerful agent for virtue, since it works to secure honor and truth. If Beatrice is right in her conviction about Hero's innocence (and we as audience know she is), the trial by arms will result in the triumph of good over evil. Dishonor and misunderstanding destroy love; honor and truth foster it.
SOURCE: "The Command 'Kill Claudio' in Much Ado About Nothing," in English Language Notes, Vol. IV, No. 3, March, 1967, pp. 181-83.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8136
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 below, Wain (a prolific English author of contemporary fiction and poetry and a critic who beleives that in order to judge the quality of literature the critic must make a moral as well as an imaginative judgment) explains why and how, to his understanding, the Hero-and-Claudio plot failed to live, despite the craftsmanship of Shakespeare.]
Why did the Hero-and-Claudio plot go so dead on its author? The answer is not easy to find. Because it is not, per se, an unconvincing story. Psychologically, it is real enough. The characters act throughout in consistency with their own natures. Hero, her father Leonato and his brother Antonio, are all perfectly credible. Don John, though he is only briefly sketched and fades out early from the action, is quite convincing in his laconic disagreeableness, a plain-spoken villain who openly wishes others harm. Conrade and Borachio, mere outlines, are at any rate free of inherent contradictions; so is Margaret. None of these characters presents any major difficulty. It begins to look as if the trouble lay somewhere in the presentation of Claudio.
This young man, according to the requirements of the story, has only to be presented as a blameless lover, wronged and misled through no fault of his own; convinced that his love is met with deception and ingratitude, he has no choice but to repudiate the match; later, when everything comes to light, the story requires him to show sincere penitence and willingness to make amends, finally breaking out into joy when his love is restored to him. On the face of it, there seems to be no particular difficulty. But Shakespeare goes about it, from the start, in a curiously left-handed fashion. First we have the business of the wooing by proxy. Claudio confesses to Don Pedro his love for Hero, and Don Pedro at once offers, without waiting to be asked, to take advantage of the forthcoming masked ball to engage the girl's attention, propose marriage while pretending to be Claudio, and then speak to her father on his behalf. It is not clear why he feels called upon to do this, any more than it is clear why Claudio, a Florentine, should address Don Pedro, a Spaniard, as "my liege" and treat him as a feudal overlord. Doubtless we are supposed to assume that he is in Don Pedro's service. It is all part of the donnee. There cannot be much difference in age between them, and Don Pedro is represented throughout as a young gallant, of age to be a bridegroom himself.
The scene is perfunctory, and carries little conviction; it seems to have been written with only half Shakespeare's attention. Why, otherwise, would he make Claudio bring up the topic with the unfortunate question, "Hath Leonato any son, my lord?" as if his motives were mercenary. Don Pedro seems to fall in with this suggestion when he replies at once that "she's his only heir." This is unpromising, but worse is to come. Immediately after the conversation between them, we have a short scene (I, ii) whose sole purpose seems to be to provide the story with an extra complication—one which, in fact, is never taken up or put to any use. Antonio seeks out his brother Leonato; he has overheard a fragment of the dialogue between Claudio and Don Pedro, and evidently the wrong fragment, so that he believes the prince intends to woo Hero on his account. Leonato wisely says that he will believe this when he sees it; "we will hold it as a dream till it appear itself"; but he does say that he will tell Hero the news, "that she may be better prepared for an answer." Apart from confusing the story, the episode serves only to provide an awkward small problem for the actress who plays Hero. When, in the masked-ball scene in II, i, she finds herself dancing with Don Pedro, and he begins at once to speak in amorous tones, is she supposed to know who he is? Since she has been told that Don Pedro intends to woo her, she can hardly fail to guess that he will seek her out; presumably she is ready to be approached by him; does she intend to consent? There is no coldness or refusal in her tone, no hint of disappointment at not being approached by Claudio; she is merely gay and deft in her answers. It is a small, obstinate problem that is in any case hardly worth solving; on the stage, most producers cut out the scene where Antonio makes his mistake, and this is certainly what I should do myself. But it is hardly a good beginning.
Claudio is then convinced, by the unsupported assertion of Don John, that the prince has doubled-crossed him, that he made his offer merely to get Claudio to hold back while he went after the girl himself. If Claudio were a generous character we should expect him to put up some resistance to the story; he might say something like, "I have the prince's own word for it that he would act on my behalf; we have been comrades in arms, he wishes me well and I trust him; I know him better than to believe he would stoop to this." In fact, he believes the story straight away, with a depressing, I-might-have-known-it alacrity.
'Tis certain so; the Prince woos for himself.
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love;
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues.
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.
This is an accident of hourly proof,
Which I mistrusted not. Farewell, therefore, Hero.
Benedick, who has heard the rumour and sees no reason to disbelieve it, now enters and tells Claudio the unwelcome news again, in no very gentle manner; when Claudio goes off to nurse his grievance, Benedick looks after him with "Alas, poor hurt fowl! Now will he creep into sedges." This, though unconcernedly genial, is a contempt-image: Claudio has no more spirit than a dabchick.
At the next general muster of the characters (II, i) Claudio appears with a sour expression that makes Beatrice describe him as "civil [Seville] as an orange," an image that later recurs in his bitter speech of renunciation at the altar ("Give not this rotten orange to your friend"). When the misunderstanding is abruptly removed, and he is suddenly thrust into the knowledge that Hero is his after all, he is understandably speechless and has to be prompted by Beatrice, who, like Benedick, seems to have a slightly contemptuous attitude towards him.
Claudio is now launched on felicity, yet he has so far been given no memorable lines, has shown no gaiety or wit, and we know nothing about him except that he has a tendency to believe the worst about human nature. He has been brave in battle—offstage, before the story opens—but all we have seen is the poor hurt fowl creeping into sedges. Why Shakespeare treated him like this, when it was important to win the audience's sympathy for such a central character, I cannot say. But it is clear that, for whatever reason, Shakespeare found him unattractive. Already the altar scene, at which Claudio must behave with cold vindictiveness, is casting its shadow before.
The trick is played; the victims are planted, the charade is acted out, Don Pedro and Claudio believe that Hero is false and vicious. What, one wonders for the second time, would be the reaction of a generous young man, with decent feelings and a tender heart? There are several possibilities; he could seek out the man who had stepped into his place and challenge him to a duel; or he could take horse and gallop out of town within that hour, leaving the wedding-party to assemble without him and the girl to make her own explanations. What he actually does is to get as far as the altar and then launch into a high-pitched tirade in which he not only denounces Hero but sees to it that her father is made to suffer as much as possible.
In all this, there is no psychological improbability. Such a youth would in all likelihood behave just in this way, especially if he were a Renaissance nobleman, touchy about his honour. Claudio's basic insecurity, already well demonstrated in the play, would naturally come out in vindictiveness if he thought himself cheated. The story, qua story, is perfectly credible. The reason we do not believe it is simply that it is put into an artificial idiom. If Shakespeare had told this story in the same swift, concrete, realistic prose with which he presented the story of Beatrice and Benedick, it would be perfectly convincing. But he has, for some reason, written consistently poor verse for the characters to speak, mishandled the details (we will come to that in a moment), and in general made such a poor job of it that everyone feels a blessed sense of relief when Leonato, Friar Francis and Hero take their departure, and the stage is left to Beatrice and Benedick. How reviving it is, to the spirits and the attention, to drop from the stilted heights of Friar Francis's verse, full of lines like
For to strange sores strangely they strain the cure,
to the directness and humanity of
—Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?
—Yea, and I will weep a while longer.
The tinsel and the crape hair are laid aside with the attitudinizing and the clumping verse; we are back in the real world of feeling. Shakespeare obviously shares this relief. His writing, in this wonderful scene in which Benedick and Beatrice admit their love, has the power and speed of an uncoiling spring.
But to come back to Claudio. His vindictiveness towards Hero and her father is not in the least unconvincing; it springs from exactly that self-mistrust and poor-spiritedness which we, and some of the other characters in the play, have already noticed. The question is, why are they there? Why does Shakespeare give this kind of character to Claudio, when he could easily have made him more sympathetic?
The answer, as so often, lies in the exigencies of the plot. Claudio has to humiliate Hero publicly, has to strike an all but killing blow at her gentle nature, for the same reason that Leontes has to do these things to Hermione. In each case, the woman has to be so emotionally shattered that she swoons and is later given out as dead. So that Shakespeare had no alternative but to bring the whole party to the altar and let Claudio renounce his bride before the world. This, I believe, is the central spot of infection from which the poison pumped outwards. Having to make Claudio behave in this way, Shakespeare could feel no affection for him. And he had, as I remarked earlier, no gift for pretending. If he disliked a character, one of two things happened. Either, as in the case of Isabella in Measure for Measure, his pen simply ran away with him, providing more and more repulsive things for the character to say; or it refused to work at all. In Much Ado it was the second of these two fates that befell Shakespeare. As the play went on, he must have come to dread those scenes in which he would have to introduce Claudio. It became harder and harder to think of anything to make him say. Perfectly good opportunities presented themselves and were refused; he just could not try hard. The Shakespearean lie-detector was at work. Think, for instance, of the closing scenes of the play's last act. Claudio, however heartless he may have been, has here several golden opportunities to redeem himself. Shakespeare has only to show him as genuinely penitent, give him some convincing lines to say, and we shall begin to feel sorry for him, to look forward with pleasure to the time when his happiness is restored. In fact, nothing of the kind happens. In spite of the harm done to the play by Shakespeare's true opinion of Claudio, he cannot help showing that opinion. In the scene (V, i) where he and Don Pedro are confronted by Leonato and Antonio, he appears as having disengaged himself, emotionally, from the whole situation.
Don Pedro. Nay, do not quarrel with us, good old man
Antonio. If he could right himself with quarrelling,
Some of us would lie low.
Claudio. Who wrongs him?
An unfortunate question from one in his position; and it would be difficult, to say the least, for an actor to speak it in a tone of kindly innocence. It comes out inevitably with a hard, sneering edge.
That scene develops interestingly, bearing out the view that the story in itself was not repugnant to Shakespeare; he found plenty of interest in it. Antonio, a very minor character whose general function in the play is simply to feed the plot, suddenly comes to life in this scene. Leonato, knowing that his daughter is not really dead yet unable to keep down his anger at the sight of the two smooth young gallants who have brought such sorrow on his grey hairs, begins to rail at Claudio and the prince, whereupon Antonio, catching his mood and feeling it more deeply—for we have no reason to suppose that he is in the secret - begins to rage and threaten, becoming more and more beside himself while his brother, alarmed at the passion his own words have set in motion, plucks at his sleeve with "Brother—" and "But, brother Antony—." "Do not you meddle; let me deal with this," cries the enraged old gentleman. The whole tiny episode is splendidly alive and convincing. But that life does not reach as far as Claudio. He says nothing until the two old men withdraw and Benedick comes onstage. Then he at once begins his accustomed teasing. He has it firmly in his head that Benedick is there to provide sport, either by his own wit or by providing a target for the infinitely more clumsy jokes that occur to himself or Don Pedro. Lightly dismissing the grief and anger of the previous encounter with, "We had lik'd to have had our two noses snapp'd off with two old men without teeth," he challenges Benedick to a wit-contest, and in spite of Benedick's fierce looks and reserved manner, goes clumping on with jokes about "Benedick the married man" until he is brought up sharply by an unmistakable insult followed by a challenge. He can hardly ignore this, but his is a mind that works simply and cannot entertain more than one idea at a time. He can change, when something big enough happens to make him change, but he cannot be supple, cannot perceive shifts in mood. Even after Benedick has challenged him, he cannot get it clear that the time for teasing is over; he keeps it up, woodenly enough, right up to Benedick's exit. So unshakable is his conviction that Benedick equals mirth and Sport.
Psychologically this is exactly right. Shakespeare saw clearly what kind of person Claudio would have to be, if he were to behave in the way called for by the plot. What depressed him, inhibiting his mind and causing him to write badly, was the iron necessity of making such a man—cold, proud, self-regarding, inflexible—the hero of the main story in the play.
We see this more and more clearly as the last act unfolds. In Scene iii, when Claudio, accompanied by the prince and "three or four with tapers," comes to do penance at Hero's tomb, Shakespeare shies away from the task of putting words into his mouth. Instead, he makes the scene a short formal inset; Claudio recites a few stiff, awkward rhymes and then a song is sung. The song has merit; the scene, lit by tapers and with a dramatic solemnity, is effective on the stage; but Shakespeare has missed the chance of bringing Claudio nearer to a humanity that would help us to feel for him. It is too late for that; the case is hopeless.
The characters then go home (evidently they are no longer houseguests at Leonato's) and put on "other weeds" for the marriage of Claudio and the supposed daughter of Antonio, which he has agreed to with the words,
I do embrace your offer, and dispose
For henceforth of poor Claudio
Arriving there, they find Benedick waiting with Leonato. Incredible as it may seem, Claudio again begins his clumsy pleasantries about Benedick's marriage ("we'll tip thy horns with gold," etc. etc.). Neither the challenge, nor the sobering effect of the occasion, nor the fact that he is newly come from the tomb of Hero, can make him forget that Benedick's presence is the signal for an outbreak of joshing. Shakespeare knows that this is the kind of man he is, and with his curious compulsive honesty he cannot help sharing that knowledge with us, whatever it may do to the play.
The cost is certainly great. Antonio goes off to fetch the girls, and brings them in wearing masks. Here, obviously, is an excellent opportunity for Shakespeare to give Claudio some convincing lines. When he is at last confronted with the girl he is to marry instead of Hero, there is plenty that even the most ordinary writer could make him say. He can speak, briefly but movingly, about his love for the dead girl, and his remorse; he can declare his intention of doing everything in his power to bring happiness into the family that has been plunged into misery through his error; he can thank the good fortune that has made him happy, even in this misery, by uniting him to a girl closely related to his love and closely resembling her. Then the unmasking and the joy. It is not my intention to try to take the pen out of Shakespeare's hand and write the play myself; I give these simple indications merely as a way of showing that it is not in the least difficult to imagine an effective speech that Claudio might make at this point in the action—how he might, even now, show some saving humanity.
What Shakespeare actually does is to give him the one line,
Which is the lady I must seize upon?
This, coming as it does at a crucial moment, has a strong claim to be considered the worst line in the whole of Shakespeare. It is the poet's final admission that Claudio has imposed his ungenerous personality on the story and ruined it beyond repair. After that, there is nothing for it but to get the unmasking scene over as quickly as possible and hurry on to the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick. Hero unmasks, and Claudio utters two words, "Another Hero!" before the action sweeps on and everyone turns with relief to the sub-plot. . . .
The Hero-and-Claudio plot, we have now established at perhaps tedious length, is a ruin. And what ruined it, in my opinion, was the pull towards psychological realism that seems to have been so strong in Shakespeare's mind at this time. Certainly this made the character of Claudio unworkable, and once that was hopeless it was all hopeless. Because the plot demanded that Claudio should behave ungenerously to a girl he was supposed to love, because Shakespeare could not stick to the chocolate-box conventions but had to go ahead and show Claudio as a real, and therefore necessarily unpleasant, youth, the contradictions grew and grew until they became unsurmountable.
SOURCE: "The Shakespearean Lie-Detector: Thoughts on 'Much Ado about Nothing'," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 27-42.
[In the excerpt below, Crick addresses Hero and Claudio as a conventional hero and heroine in an unconventional society, a milieu in which Claudio's shortcomings are brought to the fore.]
Conventional people and societies often relish the unconventional as a safety-valve for repressed instincts. In a society such as Messina's, where the instincts for life are in danger of being drained away in small talk, Beatrice and Benedick offer this outlet. Their conventional role is to appear unconventional. Where the normal fashionable marriage is based on economic interests, and is ironically the end-product of romantic notions of love centred on physical appearance, a "partnership" of antagonisms and verbal bombardments will offer a vicarious satisfaction to onlookers. Beatrice and Benedick know this and, like court jesters, give society what it wants, until it has to be jolted out of its complacency when near-tragedy strikes. . . .
Against this background are presented the conventional hero and heroine—Claudio and Hero. It is untrue to say that Beatrice and Benedick steal the limelight from them because Claudio and Hero never hold it. Hero is far too nebulous a figure, and Claudio is made unattractive from the start. He is a typical young gentleman of Messina society—"a proper squire," as Don John says—with an ear and eye to fashion. His romantic notions of the opposite sex— "Can the world buy such a jewel?"—are grounded in a realization of the economic basis of fashionable marriages in Messina society—"Hath Leonato any son, my lord?"—(In Bandello, Leonato is poor). We are reminded of Bassanio's "In Belmont is a lady richly left And she is fair . . ." in The Merchant of Venice. The shallowness of Claudio's attitude to life is betrayed by his every action. He leaves the wooing of Hero to Don Pedro, and then abandons the courtship with inordinate haste, taking a mere eleven lines to convince himself of the truth of Don John's allegation against Don Pedro, even though the latter has "bestowed much honour" on him. He is merciless and revengeful when his pride has been wounded by the supposed betrayal, and punishes Hero and her father with sadistic exuberance in the "wedding scene"—"a rotten orange," he calls Hero. He refuses to abandon his normal flippancy when faced by an angry Benedick in the scene where the latter challenges him. Even when he knows he has done wrong, he refuses to admit his full guilt—"yet sinned I not but in mistaking." He is willing to accept another marriage offer without a moment's hesitation, perhaps spurred on by the knowledge that the girl is another heir; and his mourning for Hero is very formal and ritualistic, and couched in artificial terms and rhyming verse which has a false ring. Significantly, whereas Bandello emphasizes the hero's repentance, this is made a minor affair in Shakespeare, and I can see no evidence for W. H. Auden's view, expressed in an Encounter article, that Claudio "obtains insight into his own shortcomings and becomes, what previously he was not, a fit husband for Hero." Such a character is incapable of development for Shakespeare offers him as a postulate, a representative type.
In Claudio, therefore, the worst aspects of Messina society are revealed: its shallowness, complacency, and inhumanity. There is nothing absurd about Beatrice's "Kill Claudio"; in terms of the situation that has been revealed to us, the reaction is a natural one.
SOURCE: "'Much Ado about Nothing'." in The Use of English, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 223-27.
S. P. Cerasano
[In the essay below, Cerasano focuses on Claudio's treatment of Hero to illustrate how, during the course of Much Ado, "Shakespeare reveals that maintaining one's reputation is more complex than simply managing to avoid slander." The critic holds that the play "implicitly dramatizes the plight of women and slander within the actual legal structure." Cerasano also seeks to demonstrate that "the language of slander is shown to be a fabrication of the social and sexual values which are mirrored and married (literally and figuratively) in the cultured discourse of the play."]
In Act III, scene i of Much Ado About Nothing, Hero tries to encourage Beatrice's love for Benedick by staging a conversation with Ursula which she expects Beatrice to "overhear." During their discussion Hero dismisses the possibility of confronting Beatrice openly with Benedick's passion because Beatrice cannot be trusted to respond positively. She "turns every man the wrong side out," Hero decides; therefore, since the match between the would-be lovers cannot end happily, Hero teasingly suggests that Benedick should be encouraged to fight against his love and ultimately to reject Beatrice. In aid of this course of action Hero contrives a plot:
And truly I'll devise some honest slanders,
To stain my cousin with, one doth not know
How much an ill word may empoison liking.
(III. i. 84-6)
Hero's playful proposal to employ "honest slander" brings ironic repercussions for her later in the play, for it is the "dishonest slander" that poisons Claudio's affections, disrupts Hero's marriage, prompts Leonato's rejection of his daughter, and requires finally that Hero "die," only to return to marry the man who earlier mistakenly condemned her to death by destroying her reputation. In this way, the possibilities presented by Hero's love game initiate the makings of a more serious matter. In the course of the play Shakespeare reveals that maintaining one's reputation is more complex than simply managing to avoid slander. The private language of honest slander raised by women like Hero in order to unite lovers becomes, in the mouths of men like Don John, a publicized "dishonest slander" by which relationships and particularly the women involved in them, can be destroyed. Moreover, Much Ado implicitly dramatizes the plight of women and slander within the actual legal structure. Although several critics comment that the play seems to lack a final trial scene in which to absolve Hero and set things right (as, for example, occurs in Measure for Measure) the causes and circumstances of slander—namely, the use and abuse of language—are put on trial publicly in the church scene and tested implicitly throughout the play. Finally, the language of slander is shown to be a fabrication of the social and sexual values which are mirrored and married (literally and figuratively) in the cultured discourse of the play.
The adjudication of slander suits in the Renaissance has been described by some critics (Lisa Jardine and Valerie Wayne, for instance) as following a well-established procedure and offering the possibility for the offended party to find justice under the law. Although they do not imply, for a moment, that a slander suit was a pro forma matter, their examples, being drawn from records of the consistory courts (which were ecclesiastical courts), do not reflect the enormous changes in the way slander was conceptualized and adjudicated during the sixteenth century. Throughout the Middle Ages slander was construed by the Church courts as the telling of lies. It was treated as a spiritual offence and the guilty party was sentenced to do penance, which could take a variety of forms including "humiliating [public] apology." This conception of slander was consistent with the type of court which was addressing the offence, and the penalty was consistent with the sort of compensation that the Church courts could legally extract. Although slander was treated as a sin (capable of being ameliorated through holy acts), at some unspecified time before 1500 the courts began to allow a fee to be substituted for penance. Consequently, a blurring of the distinction between the spiritual and the civil spheres of redress occurred, and this confusion overshadowed the litigation surrounding slander suits throughout the sixteenth century.
A further move from spiritual to civil in slander cases occurred with the decline of the local and ecclesiastical courts in the first half of the sixteenth century. Slander thus became actionable in the common law courts. However, the common law courts had inherited the ecclesiastical precedent that slander was a "spiritual offence," which fell slightly outside the judicial domain that the civil law was best able to adjudicate. There was no debate among the courts at Westminster, all of which acknowledged that the telling of lies was morally wrong; but the courts were bound to specific modes of redress. [Slander could not be treated as an action of trespass in the common law courts unless 'damages' could be assessed.] Restricted to this criteria, the courts did not consider slander as assault, and they were reluctant to award damages for "evanescent or indirect harm," although that was the type of damage slander most often caused.
But the complications do not stop here. As a result of Henry VIII's break with the Church the ecclesiastical courts gradually began to vanish, and as they did slander suits lost their natural legal venue. In addition, there was a growing awareness that slander constituted not only a moral offence but a breach of the peace, sometimes instigating violence. In recognition of these realities the common law courts eventually found themselves in the unhappy business of trying to deal with slander in a purely civil context. By 1550 slander had become part of the everyday business of common law, in particular of the Court of King's Bench. Before long—and owing in part to the allegations of conspiracy frequently accompanying slander charges—the equity courts also became involved. The Court of Star Chamber, in which assault was integral to the pleadings, became steeped in slander suits. And because of its lower costs and its tradition of expediency, the Court of Requests started to deal with slander on a regular basis. By Shakespeare's day at least three major courts were forced to decide large numbers of cases, although the legal mechanisms through which they operated were ill-suited to deal with the charges at issue.
The judicial precedent established by the common law courts meant that the legal atmosphere was, in some ways, inhospitable to any claimant, and doubly inhospitable to claims by women. Perhaps the latter fact is not surprising, given the well-documented tendencies towards cultural misogyny, as well as women's general disadvantages under the law at the time. Women could not, for instance, plead for themselves without a male guardian. Yet the serious difficulty in adjudicating slander suits resided in the ephemeral nature of verbal assault. Proving that a statement was slanderous was contingent upon issues involving personal identity, and determining tangible damages caused further problems. Both factors were difficult to address and complicated to adjudicate. Then, as now, the textbook definition was clear enough. Slander was:
a malicious defamation ... tending either to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or the reputation of one who is alive, and thereby expose him to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.
Commonly, name-calling was the precipitating activity in slander suits, such as that exemplified in the case in which Thomas Lancaster told "diverse persons" that John Hampton was a "cosening knave." Given the necessity of showing that Hampton had somehow suffered damages, the outcome of the lawsuit depended upon evidence demonstrating that Lancaster had willfully spread false information about Hampton with the intention of destroying his reputation; and further, that damage to Hampton's professional or personal status (his marriage, for example) had ensued as a result of Lancaster's rumour. The usual insults for which people brought suit— "drunkard," "quarreller," "lewd liver," "notorious thief," "beggar" or "runnegate"—might be distasteful; but legal retribution was impossible without demonstrable evidence that harm had been done. And the legal process of proving that the verbal assault had taken place, such as Lancaster really calling Hampton "a cosening knave," was often circuitous. Unless the defendant had made some egregious comments in public or performed activities such as singing songs or reciting rhymes before a large audience of reliable citizens, showing that the slanderous situation had indeed transpired was difficult. Reliable evidence had to include a number of witnesses, frequently living at a distance, who could "document" a rumour as it spread.
Therefore, even a cursory reading of cases in a common law court, such as the Court of Requests, shows that it was easy to be violated by verbal abuse but difficult to succeed in pressing charges. Plaintiffs did sometimes manage to extract public apologies and monetary redress for their "damages." However, the law was fundamentally incapable of remedying losses to one's reputation. As a result, the courts do not seem to have been consulted because litigants could expect their public images to be restored through legal action. In part, the courts acted as verbal boxing rings, mediating the hostility between litigants and providing a stage whereon actors such as Thomas Lancaster and John Hampton could each audition for the role of victim, more sinned against than sinning. If, in the end, Lancaster was found guilty of slandering Hampton, then Hampton "succeeded" in court but also had to cope with any residual damage to his reputation. If, on the other hand, Lancaster was found innocent, then he had essentially been slandered by Hampton who, by bringing charges, had implied that Lancaster was a slanderer and a criminal.
Considering the propensity of Elizabethans to take charges of slander to court, this background would have been familiar to the audience of Much Ado About Nothing, even though it is almost entirely unfamiliar to most twentieth-century audiences. Likewise, it is important for us to understand that the subordinate position of women during the Renaissance made them especially vulnerable to verbal abuse. Women were expected to be "chaste, silent, and obedient," and the high social value placed upon women's chastity left them deeply susceptible to claims of whoredom. In fact, virtually all slander suits involving women called into question their sexual morality. A typical case occurred in rural Shropshire in the early seventeenth century; C.J. Sisson later identified it as a provincial version of The Old Joiner of Aldgate. In this situation two young men, Humphrey Elliot and Edward Hinkes, were charged with performing "scandalous and infamous libelous verses, rhymes, plays, and interludes" about Elizabeth Ridge, a young woman of the same village. According to Elizabeth's account the young men hoped to characterize her as "vile, odious, and contemptible" and, through social pressure, to force her to marry one of them. Moreover, Elizabeth laid the charge that the men conspired against her "out of a most covetous & greedy desire to gain" her father's sizeable estate, to which she was the sole heiress. Elizabeth Ridge's reasons for taking legal action centred upon the damage done to her reputation, as did Hampton's in the former example. However, the concept of reputation was complicated by gender issues. Like other women Elizabeth was concerned that once she was labelled a "fallen woman," no man would want to marry her. As a young woman in a small rural village she might well have perceived the opportunities for a suitable match to have been few and far between. Also, the close-knit nature of village life would have ensured that the slanderous rumours spread to most of the inhabitants of the village by the time the case came to trial. On top of these events—by which a young woman like Elizabeth Ridge would have felt violated anyway—there were the further harrowing experiences of undergoing the process of law and of demonstrating that harm had arisen. As a single woman she could not show loss of or damage to her marriage; as a young woman of her class, not engaged in meaningful work or a trade, she could not claim "damage" to her professional life; as a woman, denied full status as a citizen, she could not easily assert that her public presence had been "damaged." If a woman was called a "whore," she had little compensation to look forward to. Not surprisingly, given the personal costs involved, no woman felt that she could afford to ignore a public allegation such as slander. Even the young Elizabeth I about whom rumours circulated to the effect that she was pregnant by Thomas Seymour in 1548-9, felt obligated to set the record straight. On 23 January 1549 she wrote to the Lord Protector:
My lord, these are shameful slanders ... I shall most heartily desire your lordship that I may come to the court after your just determination that I may show myself there as I am.
At the same time women had to face the fact that the law was particularly inept to assist them in reclaiming such an intangible commodity as reputation, and that the potential consequences of slander for them were vastly different from those for men. The potency of language as it related to sexual status was clearly in the control of men like Elliot and Hinkes, and the process of the law favoured men, whether they were plaintiffs charging other men or defendants against complaints brought by women.
For Renaissance women, reputation, that which was synonymous with a "good name" or a "bad name," defined identity in an ideological, as well as in a legal, sense. A "fair name" was essential in order for a woman to maintain her "worthiness"; and as a woman was treated as the property of her father, husband or guardian, her name was treated as property which could be stolen, usurped or defiled. In As You Like It, for instance, Duke Frederick warns Celia that Rosalind "robs thee of thy name" (I. iii. 76). Related to the theme of property was an economic discourse that determined the value of a woman's name, and it was always the "fair name" that was stolen, for the "black name" could only be "bought" (suggesting prostitution): "she hath bought the name of whore, thus dearly" (Cymbeline, II. iv. 128). Moreover, reputation could be "disvalued" (see, for instance, Measure for Measure, v. i. 220). Nor was a woman's name her own property to "sell" as she thought fit. A woman's reputation belonged to her male superior, who "owned" her and to whom she could bring honour or disgrace. In so far as a woman was "renamed" when she was slandered and her identity thus altered, her husband lost his good name and was rechristened with abuse-slandered by association. If the characterization of a woman as "loose" was true, that was all to the worse. In articulating the dual sense of name, signifying both "reputation" and "a malicious term," and in describing his wife's effect on his reputation, Frank Ford rails to the audience of The Merry Wives of Windsor:
See the hell of having a false woman: my bed shall be abused, my coffers ransacked, my reputation gnawn at, and I shall not only receive this villainous wrong, but stand under the adoption of abominable terms, and by him that does me this wrong. Terms! Names! Amaimon sounds well; Lucifer, well; Barbason, well: yet they are devils' additions [names], the names of fiends. But cuckold? Wittol? Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name. (II. ii. 280-89)
The comic overtones of Ford's tirade are balanced, however, by the more severe associations of a bad name with prostitution. When Othello upbraids Montano, he remarks:
The gravity and stillness of your youth
The world hath noted, and your name is great
In mouths of wisest censure [judgement]: what's the matter,
That you unlace your reputation thus,
And spend your rich opinion [reputation], for the name
Of a night-brawler?
(II. iii. 182-7; emphasis added)
M. R. Ridley glosses "unlace" as "not the simple 'undo' . . . but the stronger hunting (and carving) term." The "undoing" of Montano is suggestive of a literal "gutting" of his personal value. Othello implies that his unwillingness to "unlace" himself and "spend" his rich opinion is a sign not only of Montano's weakness but of his sexual vulgarity. Montano loses his reputation to a "night-brawler," the disclosure of which costs him dearly in excess of what he has already "spent" for sexual favours. For the Elizabethans the rhetoric was pungent. Privileging "dishonour in thy name" makes "fair reputation but a bawd," and slander creates "the wound that nothing healeth" (The Rape of Lucrece, 11. 621-3, 731). The language of a sullied reputation—whether or not that reputation belonged to a man or a woman—was constantly associated with female sexuality gone amiss, as if no Montano would ever go astray were it not for the presence of a bawd to tempt him and rob him of his wealth.
The church scene in Much Ado About Nothing is replete with just these sorts of legal and ideological associations. As its opening Claudio first breaks the terms of the pre-marital agreement that Don Pedro had arranged for him. He then explicitly rejects Hero and openly refuses to accept her as his property: "There, Leonato, take her back again" (IV. i. 30). After Claudio's dispossession of Hero he calls her "rotten orange" (IV. i. 31) and "an approved wanton" (IV. i. 44), but he waits until he has dissociated himself from her completely so that her reputation and moral state cannot sully his own. In a particularly brutal and unambiguous manner he states that he does not wish: "to knit my soul/To an approved wanton" (IV. i. 43-4). Claudio's choice of language identifies Hero with prostitution, a suggestion that acts as a powerful verbal cue inciting the other men in the scene to join in his abuse of her. Don Pedro casts her as "a common stale [whore]" (IV. i. 65). Leonato declares that she is "fallen" (IV. i. 139), her very flesh is "foul-tainted" (IV. i. 143), that her sin "appears in proper nakedness" (IV. i. 175). To destroy Hero's identity further, Claudio attempts to reduce her image, her very being to "nothingness":
Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
(IV. i. 37-40; emphasis added)
In Claudio's eyes Hero has dissolved from a facade of "seeming" to "none" ("no one"—that is, nothingness). The tactics that reduce Hero's status and deny her humanity creep in throughout Claudio's speech in this scene. His language becomes increasingly insidious as he first appeals to the others (primarily the men) to believe that Hero bears a false front, and then turns directly against Hero herself. Intriguingly, he tries to make her name potent and worthless at the same time:
HERO: O God defend me, how am I beset!
What kind of catechizing call you this?
CLAUDIO: To make you answer truly to your name.
HERO:Is it not Hero? Who can blot that name
With any just reproach?
CLAUDIO: Marry, that can Hero;
Hero itself can blot out Hero's virtue
(IV. i. 77-82)
While Hero seeks an explanation as to "who" ("what person") can blot her name with just cause, Claudio replies that "Hero itself" can stain her honour. On his rhetorical terms, she cannot possibly win. But whether he means that her tainted name "itself" can dishonour Hero, or whether she is being symbolically reduced to a genderless object ("Hero itself"), Claudio's response is tempered with the sexual values of his society. He would not call a man "wanton" because it is so explicitly a male term of opprobrium for a woman.
When Claudio slanders Hero in such an extreme manner his rhetoric has the effect of uniting part of the male community behind him, with the exception of Benedick (who, with Beatrice, stands outside the rhetorical and social codes to which Claudio and the others subscribe) and the Friar (who immediately takes steps to attempt to turn slander to "remorse") (IV. i. 211). Nevertheless, Leonato, Don Pedro and Don John all take an active verbal role in Hero's persecution, knowing that Claudio's slander could well lead to grievous injury. Leonato, in fact, demands Hero's extinction, even her death, as a justifiable retribution for her presumed digression and for jeopardizing his name. When Hero swoons, Leonato responds:
O Fate, take not away thy heavy hand!
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wished for. . . .
Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes;
For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would on the rearward of approaches
Strike at thy life.
(IV. i. 115-17; 123-7)
Slander and death are familiar bedfellows throughout Shakespeare's plays. The slandered victim, spoken of in terms that relate to discredit, sexual defilement and disease, was finally described as an outcast. Slander, popularly thought of as "the transient murderer," if not actually the cause of literal death, was thought to lead to public alienation and metaphorical death. As Antony succinctly points out concerning his political opponents:
These many men shall die; their names are prick'd.
He shall not live. Look, with a spot I damn him
(Julius Caesar, IV i. 1, 6).
The urgency of the Friar's proposal to turn slander into remorse recognizes the price Hero will have to pay for Claudio's slander. Her alternatives are to be reborn ("a greater birth": IV. i. 213) and to begin anew with a pure reputation (possibly to be slandered again at some future time) or to be hidden away "in some reclusive and religious life" (IV. i. 242). But finally, the Friar urges that death and resurrection is the best course—"Come, lady, die to live" (IV. i. 253)—regardless of the fact that Hero initially "died upon his [Claudio's] words" (IV. i. 223) and that Claudio makes no attempt to repair her shattered emotions at the end of the scene, simply going off and leaving her for dead.
In describing the violation of Hero as the conspiracy of "eyes, tongues, minds, and injuries" (IV. i. 243), Friar Francis reminds us of the other ways in which those in Messina are slandered and violated, and of the covert strategies that stand in the way of the characters' ability to negotiate meaningful interactions. Chief among these undercurrents is that presented by the atmosphere of Messina itself, an environment which revolves around tale-telling, eavesdropping and spying, all purportedly performed in the name of some legitimate purpose. From the opening of the play, where Beatrice asks for "news" of Benedick, the characters seem caught up in a web of gossip and surface appearances. Marriages are arranged by proxy, while men and women woo and wed behind masks—literal face-coverings and social expectations alike. This tendency towards doubling encourages naive young men like Claudio to cling to the traditional male sphere of war in public, and to accept the less-than-gratifying pose of Petrarchan lover in his private life.
As long as conversations are witty and frivolous, Messina's social code is attractive; but as soon as serious issues are at stake, the community opens itself up to misrepresentation and slander. As much as Hero is slandered by Claudio's words she is also slandered by his eyes, by his predisposition to distrustfulness, and by his need to spy on her in order to test her virtue. And because the men in Messina are so willing to accept what they (mis)perceive and (mis)hear, they easily become impulsive and abusive. Leonato and Claudio will trust each other through a process of male bonding, but they will equally trust impersonal and unsubstantiated "report." As a result, they condemn Hero on the basis of slight evidence without allowing her to defend herself. The natural tendency of the residents of Messina is towards gullibility, inconstancy, unpredictability and slander; and also towards giving short shrift to personal identity, individual circumstances or motivations, patience and constancy.
SOURCE: "'Half a Dozen Dangerous Words'," in Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, edited by S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992, pp. 167-83.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3395
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 characteristic" of Shakespeare, in accordance with which "the interest in the plot" in the latter's plays "is always in fact on account of the characters, not vice-versa . . . the plot is a mere canvass and no more." And he went on to exemplify:
Take away from Much Ado ... all that which is not indispensable to the plot, either as having little to do with it, or, at best, like Dogberry and his comrades forced into the service, when any other less ingeniously absurd watchmen and night-constables would have answered the mere necessities of the action;— take away Benedick, Beatrice, Dogberry, and the reaction of the former on the character of Hero,—and what remains?
The implication is nothing, or almost nothing; so that the play as a whole has no purpose-that it has no unity and, failing to show even a thwarted striving towards unity, is most conveniently for the critic resolved into its elements.
As Coleridge's sharp distinction between plot and character would now no longer be accepted, it becomes at least possible that his judgment on Much Ado should be modified—perhaps, indeed, reversed. Antecendently, this would seem probable; for whatever they have said or written, post-Coleridgeans have not, perhaps, ceased to enjoy the play as a whole: at least they have not been reduced to reading it as some of Dickens's novels are read, with a methodical skipping of scenes or chapters. Are they not to be held more justified in their practice than in their theory? The best way to attack this problem is perhaps to consider one by one the elements which Coleridge claims to have isolated from the plot and from each other, asking whether in fact they can be so isolated: whether they or the plot do not succumb to the operation or, if they survive it, whether they are not maimed thereby.
And first of Dogberry: though with regard to him, it is indeed difficult to maintain the detachment desirable in an analysis. Let us begin however by noting that, though he and his fellows are at times styled malaprops, the term is not altogether happy. Mrs. Malaprop is not a character who, on a second reading of The Rivals, gives any great if indeed any pleasure; for her pride in "the derangement of epitaphs" is a foolish pride that the reader, for discretion's sake, prefers to ignore. Mrs. Quickly of The Merry Wives, with her "alligant" and "alicholy," has perhaps something of the same pride—though having other things too, she does not prove quite so embarrassing on continued acquaintance; and in any case, rather than painfully aping, she is probably lazily echoing her superiors. As for the Mrs. Quickly of the historical plays, she is another person: with her "Arthur's bosom," she gives expression, as best she may, not to a selfish foolishness but to a charitable concern for souls—at least, for one soul; arriving in a moment of illumination, or perhaps at the end of a train of thought, at a striking conclusion about the state of the blessed.
Dogberry and his fellows, of from time to time the victims of syllables like Mrs. Malaprop, are more frequently and more significantly, like the second Mrs. Quickly, the victims of ideas. When Verges speaks of "suffering salvation body and soul," and Dogberry of being "condemned into everlasting redemption," it is impossible they are being deceived merely by similitude of sounds. Rather, they are being confounded by ideas with which, though unfitted to do so, they feel it incumbent upon themselves to cope. Such utterances are of a piece with Dogberry's method of counting; with his preposterous examination of Conrad and Borachio, in which condemnation precedes questioning; with his farewell of Leonato, to whom, in an endeavour to conserve both their dignities, he "humbly gives leave to depart"; with his desire "to be written down an ass," in which the same sense of his own dignity is in conflict with, among other things, a sense that it needs vindication. It is not Mrs. Malaprop, but rather Bottom, who comes to mind here: Bottom who, like Dogberry, is torn between conflicting impulses—whether those of producing his interlude in as splendid a manner as possible, while at the same time showing as much deference as possible to the ladies; or of claiming as his own the "most rare vision" which, as a vision, certainly had been his, while for its rarity it seemed such as could not rightly belong to any man.
In thus addressing themselves to intellectual or moral feats of which they are not capable, Bottom, Mrs. Quickly and Dogberry do of course display a form of pride. Given his attitude towards Verges:
a good old man, sir, hee will be talking as they say, when the age is in, the wit is out, God helpe us, it is a world to see ...
Dogberry's pride needs no stressing. It is however no longer a foolish pride; or if foolish, then not with the folly of Mrs. Malaprop, but rather of all the protagonists of drama, comic or tragic, who measure themselves against tasks which ultimately prove too much for them. Perhaps with justice it is to be classified as a form of hybris, a comic hybris; and if so, then some kind of essential relation between the Dogberry scenes and the tragically inclined scenes of the main plot is immediately suggested.
The suggestion is strengthened, once Dogberry's strength rather than his weakness, his triumphs rather than his failures, are considered. For he has established himself as Constable of Messina, not only to the content of his subordinates, but with the tolerance of his superiors. In this respect he is no longer to be compared with Bottom—who, it is to be feared, would never gain a firm footing, however humble, at the court of Theseus—but with Falstaff, a character of greater importance. Unlike Bottom, Dogberry and his companions have taken fairly accurate measure both of themselves and of those who surround them; so that, if swayed by hybris in a certain degree, they take care that this degree shall fall short of destructive. For example, they are quite clear "what belongs to a Watch": they will "sleep rather than talk"; rather than bid a man stand against his will, they will let him go and thank God they are rid of a knave; rather than take a thief, they will "let him shew himselfe for what he is," and steal out of their company. In short, they will exert themselves, or fight, no longer than they see reason: to adapt Poins's words. Indeed, in this matter they are more consistent than Falstaff, who, in dismissing Prince Henry as "a Fellow, that never had the Ache in his shoulders," is for once allowing himself to be puffed up by hybris. In his boasts to Shallow, Falstaff betrays not a little of a Bottom-like recklessness:
Master Robert Shallow, choose what Office thou wilt in the Land, 'tis thine . . . Boote, boote, Master Shallow, I know the young King is sick for mee . . .
And discomfiture of course follows. Whereas Dogberry has perfectly accommodated himself to those on whom he depends, making their ideals his own. His list of qualifications is revealing:
I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a peece of flesh as any in Messina, and one that knowes the Law, goe to, and a rich fellow enough, goe to, and a fellow that hath had losses, and that hath two gownes, and everything handsome about him.
It needs little acquaintance with the Leonato circle to realize that for them too it is a principal concern that everything, as far as possible, shall remain "handsome about them. . . ."
[Fortune] shall not be impaired, social position shall be safeguarded; this would seem to be the prime occupation of society in Messina. Obviously, it is an important occupation; but equally obviously, it has no claims to be considered as unique. To fill up the gap, war is allowed of as a diversion for males and, for both the sexes, games and small talk. Thus, though not active about things of great importance nor, it would appear, importantly active about anything, society in Messina manages to keep up the appearance of great activity.
Such a society has the merit of being a society, that is, a more or less stable organization of human beings for common ends; and ex hypothesi, it is charming on the surface. For appearances lie on the surface. Yet for that reason they may be hollow; and there is a danger that faculties, exercised exclusively on appearances, may incapacitate themselves for dealing with, or even for recognizing, substance, when on occasion this presents itself. Something of the kind would seem to have happened to Pedro, Leonato, Claudio and their like; who when faced with the substance of Hero's grief, display an incompetence as great as that of any Dogberry; give rein to a hybris which is, perhaps, greater. For it is inconceivable that any but the most pampered and therefore the most spoilt members of a society should, in circumstances of such distress, show themselves as immune as they do from self-questioning, as free from misgiving. Hybris on this scale is of course tragic; but, it may be suggested, hybris on this scale is also ridiculous—indeed, unless the ridiculous aspect is first acknowledged, the tragic may escape acknowledgement altogether. For human vanity alone constitutes a strong temptation to discount it as preposterous. The figures of Dogberry and his kind are necessary in the background, to reduce the figures in the foreground to the required proportions—to the proportions of apes (as Isabella says, in Measure for Measure), apes for whom no tricks are too ferocious, too fantastic. Coleridge's isolation of Dogberry from the main plot is perhaps the effective reason for his dismissal of that plot as a "mere canvas"; and if so, this of itself suggests that the isolation is not to be justified. But there is the further point: because of the same isolation, Coleridge dismisses Dogberry as "ingeniously absurd." Undoubtedly he is: but also, he is relevantly absurd—relevantly absurd to the main plot, and to life such as the main plot renders it. And finally, Dogberry is relevant not only for his absurdity, but for the limitations placed on this absurdity by his persistent if purblind prudence, but the steady if myopic eye which he keeps fixed on appearances—on his office as constable, on his comfort, on the main chance. This immediately establishes his commensurability with the figures of the main plot; who like him, take care not to prejudice what is comfort in their eyes.
Having perhaps established this point, we may allow ourselves to go even further than Coleridge in separating Dogberry and the rest from what he called the "mere necessities of the action." "Any other watchmen," he says, "would have served the latter equally well"; whereas now it would seem clear that, in all probability, they would have served it better. Few if any other watchmen would have taken stock of themselves as frankly as Dogberry; they would not therefore appear guilty of an inconsistency, as Dogberry's assistants seem to be, in arresting the swashbucklers Conrad and Borachio. For they have just declared an intention to attempt no such thing. Or perhaps this inconsistency is due, not to the watchmen, but to the swashbucklers; who indeed, from this point in the play onwards, show a remarkable meekness. But the matter is hardly worth discussing; nor, perhaps, whether the carelessness involved on the author's part is to be described as positive or negative.
SOURCE: "'Much Ado about Nothing': Notes from a Book in Preparation," in Scrutiny, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Spring, 1946, pp. 242-57.
Anthony B. Dawson
[Below, in an excerpt from a larger essay, Dawson examines Dogberry's role in interpreting and expressing messages. The critic also offers an interesting comparison of Dogberry with Bottom, from A Midsummer Night's Dream.]
Dogberry and Bottom make an interesting contrast. Bottom is involved in drama, he seeks to play all roles, he is transformed in the course of a metadrama which reflects the concern of A Midsummer Night's Dream with metamorphosis and the art of the drama. His blithe unawareness of the conditions and constraints of theatrical "reality" (in contrast to, say, Puck's very sharp awareness) is a large part of his humor. Dogberry, on the other hand, is involved in investigation, in seeking out the truth. His language is peppered with malapropisms, which distort language as, analogously, Bottom distorts dramatic conventions, and which reveal Dogberry's proud concern with language just as Bottom's theatrical bravado reveals his egotistical interest in the drama. Dogberry, again like Bottom, is blithely unaware of his humorous incompetence. Thus, at the very core of what makes each of them funny we can perceive the central concerns of the plays they inhabit.
The gap between Dogberry's professional involvement with investigation, with clues that lead to truth, and his evident failure to master the relations between reality as he perceives it and language (his malapropisms frequently mean the opposite of what he "means"), is central to the comic irony of the play as a whole. It is precisely gaps between modes of interpretation which give structure to the plot and fascinate both the characters and the audience. Language is central to interpretation, both as a model for it, and as the medium in which it is carried out. This double function is one of the sources of confusion and uncertainty in the play.
Dogberry's speech on being called an ass offers an illustration:
Dost thou not suspect my place? Does thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness I am a wise fellow; and which is more, an officer; and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina . . . Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass! (IV.ii.73-86)
The humor in the substitution of "suspect" for "respect," "piety" for "impiety," is itself a sign of insufficient control over the process of signification; but this failure of control becomes most explicit and most humorous in the play with the word and concept "ass" and the application of that word to Dogberry.
Again a contrast with Bottom is instructive. In keeping with the codes of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom is turned literally (or should we say, "theatrically," as part of the show) into an ass. Here, in order to bring out the analogous asininity of Dogberry, a linguistic rather than a theatrical code is invoked. In both plays, too, an ironic truth is discovered in asininity, in A Midsummer Night's Dream as a result of Bottom's dream (I am thinking of the underlying sense of value, of concord generated out of discord, that ultimately emerges from his dream and his hilariously confused discourse about it); in Much Ado as a result of the success of Dogberry's investigation. In the speech under discussion, Dogberry's syntax and the oppositions he creates ("I am an ass ... I am a wise fellow"), leave us momentarily uncertain whether he truly understands the word "ass." We know he does, but the syntax works against our accepting the fact—"yet forget not that I am an ass." Alternatively, one could say that the word Dogberry misunderstands in "am"; he uses it as if it could have only one kind of locutionary force, or only one tone (as in "So I'm an ass, am I?") or one meaning ("he says I am"). Just as we have to supply the right word in order to get the humor of "Dost thou not suspect my place," so we have to supply the right construction in the sentences that follow. In order to laugh, we have to remind ourselves of what Dogberry "really" means, and at the same time be aware of the appropriateness of what he actually says. Hence the simple correlation, ass-Dogberry, is complicated by a series of interpretative interventions on our part, a series which goes something like this: he is saying he's an ass; he doesn't mean what he says; this is not because he doesn't understand the word "ass" or the word "am," but because he lacks the linguistic power to achieve control over his meaning; nevertheless, what he is saying is true; in fact saying it shows him to be an ass. Thus the process of signification itself, so crucial to this play, is brought into humorous relief, exactly as in A Midsummer Night's Dream the process of dramatic representation is highlighted by Bottom's transformations.
The distinction between spoken and written language is another of Dogberry's concerns. The exaggerated respect of the unlettered for the written word is part of what is behind Dogberry's desire to be written. But beyond that, he alludes to the primacy of writing in the law, and by extension in culture in general. "It is written" is the mark of cultural validity. To become part of a text is to become official; to be writ down an ass would, ironically, fix Dogberry, making him an ass for all time. This, of course, is exactly what Shakespeare has done, though in a slightly different sense than that Dogberry has in mind when he seeks his own textualization.
The problem of the transference of messages is raised most cunningly within the play in the scene in which Dogberry comes with his report to Leonato just before the wedding. The audience cannot help feeling tantalized here, knowing the importance of Dogberry's message and yet becoming increasingly aware of the fact that Dogberry does not realize its importance, and is probably ignorant of what the real crime, and hence the real message, is. As we watch, we begin to realize that he will not be able to get the message across to Leonato in time to prevent the breaking of the nuptial—except by chance, through some random statement that Leonato will suddenly be able to perceive as significant. But the more Dogberry rambles on, the more likely Leonato is to dismiss him; as an audience we are thus caught in a squeeze, knowing that Dogberry has to be allowed to ramble in order to stumble into revealing the crime and yet realizing that Dogberry's vice of rambling is likely to lead to his quick dismissal. Wanting the message to come through, we are yet caught between the logic of that desire and our enjoyment of the comedy of misinterpretation. The difficulty of getting the message across thus enters directly into our response—we are teased, desiring the discovery and resisting it at once.
SOURCE: "Much Ado about Signifying," in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 211-21.
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