Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 28, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

Much Ado about Nothing

Much Ado about Nothing has been described by critics as an enjoyable but problematic play. Attempts to categorize it have yielded varied assessments: C. L. Barber (1967) called it a festive comedy because it ends in a celebration; Northrop Frye (1965) identified it as a "green-world" comedy, focusing on Hero's death and rebirth; and Leo Salingar (1974) cited the broken nuptials when labeling Much Ado about Nothing a problem comedy. Scholars have also argued about the structure of the play; Ralph Berry (1971) observed that critics "do not agree on the number of plots, on the identity of the 'main' plot, or on the relevance of the Dogberry scenes." Although commentators have presented contrasting viewpoints on many aspects of Much Ado about Nothing, they have consistently analyzed the relationship of the Beatrice-Benedick subplot to the Hero-Claudio story, the importance of gender roles in the society of Messina, and the theme of appearance versus reality.

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. Larry S. Champion (1970) has praised the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, stating that they "are presented as realistic human characters, who with credible motivation develop in their attitude toward love during the course of the play." 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 that, when all of the principal characters are on stage together, the major interest of the audience is not the love-at-first-sight which develops between Hero and Claudio, but rather the "merry war" occuring 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. B. K. Lewalski (1968) has observed that Beatrice and Benedick act out the pattern of rational lovers, "attracted by physical beauty but regarding the inner qualities of the soul more highly, basing love on genuine knowledge, and accepting it not in terms of mad passion but by conscious choice," which results in a heightened perception of reality. However, John Dover Wilson (1962), while acknowledging that Beatrice and Benedick "are actually the outstanding figures of the play," 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."

The importance of gender roles in the society of Messina has also attracted significant critical attention. Commentators have explored the role of bawdy language in Much Ado about Nothing in establishing sexuality as a central component of marriage and in emphasizing male power and female weakness. Many critics agree with Carol Thomas Neely's assessment (1985) that while women fear submission to men's aggressive sexual power, men, likewise perceiving sexuality as power over women, fear its loss through female betrayal. Scholars have consistently noted the emphasis on cuckoldry and the imagery of horns and wounds in cuckold jokes told by the men in the play, as well as its importance in establishing sexual and social power. Carol Cook (1986) has observed that the men of Messina fear cuckolding because they believe that in becoming a cuckold, a man relinquishes his dominant role and falls instead to the woman's position as the object of jokes; by telling cuckold jokes, the men retain their power and return the women to silence.

The theme of appearance versus reality has been...

(This entire section contains 931 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

deemed central to the play's structure and tone. Reflecting on the numerous instances of deception inMuch Ado about Nothing, Lewalski has observed, "mistake, pretense, and misapprehension are of the very substance of life in Messina," and 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." All of the main characters deceive or are deceived by others at some point during the play. The first instances occur at Leonato's party, as Don Pedro woos Hero in Claudio's name and Don John, pretending to take Claudio for Benedick, convinces Claudio that Don Pedro has won Hero for himself. In Act 2, scene 3, Benedick overhears his friends discussing Beatrice's undying love for him; shortly after, Beatrice eavesdrops on a similar conversation and eventually each professes true love for the other. In Act 3, scene 3, Borachio tells Conrade that Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John observed him and Margaret in Hero's chamber, and that Claudio, mistaking Margaret for Hero, believes that he has been betrayed. The next day, at the wedding, Claudio denounces Hero for her alleged infidelity, then is later told that Hero died from embarrassment. Claudio, seeking forgiveness, agrees to marry Hero's cousin, and Leonato, introducing his own deception, presents a masked Hero as the bride. While critics have often noted that the theme of appearance versus reality is articulated in most of Shakespeare's plays either by an external force imposing some incorrect perception of reality on the characters which is rectified as the plot proceeds, or by some characters voluntarily creating deceptions that impel the plot and demonstrate the importance of distinguishing appearance from reality, Elliot Krieger (1979) 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."


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22971

John Dover Wilson (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Much Ado about Nothing," in Shakespeare's Happy Comedies, Northwestern University Press, 1962, pp. 120-40.

[In the following essay, Dover Wilson explores structure and characterization in Much Ado about Nothing, defending the merit of the Hero-Claudio plot, detailing the "hide and seek" pattern of the play, and praising the characters Beatrice, Benedick, and Dogberry.]

[Much Ado about Nothing] has two main plots: (i) the Hero-Claudio plot, belonging to the tragi-comedy type of The Merchant; and (ii) the Beatrice-Benedick plot, belonging to the comedy of wit, exemplified in Love's Labour's Lost. The dramatic dovetailing is carried out with Shakespeare's usual tact in such matters, but most critics appear to agree that, as we find them declaring in the case of the casket-plot and the bond-plot of The Merchant, there is to their thinking some dissonance of tone. Sir Edmund Chambers, for example, premising that Beatrice and Benedick are creatures of 'pure comedy', while the story of Hero, Claudio and Don John is 'melodrama', writes [in his Shakespeare: A Survey]:

Benedick and Beatrice may be structurally subordinate to Claudio and Hero. This does not prevent them from being a very living man and a very living woman, and as such infinitely more interesting than the rather colourless lay figures of the melodrama.… The plane of comedy … is far nearer to real life than is the plane of melodrama. The triumph of comedy in Much Ado about Nothing means therefore that the things which happen between Claudio and Hero have to stand the test of a much closer comparison with the standard of reality than they were designed to bear.… Before Beatrice's fiery-souled espousal of her cousin's cause, the conventions of melodrama crumble and Claudio stands revealed as the worm that he is, and that it should have been the dramatist's main business to prevent the audience from discovering him to be. The whole of the serious matter of the last Act fails to convince. Don Pedro and Claudio could not, outside the plane of melodrama, have been guilty of the insult of staying on in Leonato's house and entering into recriminations with him. Claudio could not have complacently accepted the proposal to substitute a cousin for the bride he had wronged. Hero could not have been willing to be resumed by the man who had thrown her off on the unconfirmed suggestion of a fault. Such proceedings belong to the chiaroscuro of melodrama; in the honest daylight which Benedick and Beatrice bring with them, they are garish.

Here indeed is much ado! And, since Sir Edmund is only the spokesman of many, scarcely about nothing.

It would take too long in this [essay] to answer all his points, though I think a reply might be found for every one. I must deal with them in general terms only, thus:

(i) I do not think that the 'garishness' which Sir Edmund sees in reading the play in his study is visible on the stage. On the contrary, Much Ado, when I first saw it acted, took me almost as much by surprise as Guthrie's Love's Labour's Lost had done. And, having seen it now several times and played by companies of very different calibre—amateur, first-rate companies, and second-rate ones—I have come to the conclusion (a) that Much Ado is a capital stage-play, indeed a better one than either As You Like It or Twelfth Night; and (b) 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.

But these are only personal impressions, and carry no weight. Speaking, then, by the book, the criticisms of the Hero-Claudio story appear to be based partly upon misapprehension, partly upon forgetfulness of different social customs which reigned in Shakespeare's day, and partly upon failure to observe the pattern of the play.

Let me take up these matters in order. Surely, Shakespeare never intended Claudio to be a hero, any more than he does Bertram in All's Well, who is in many ways Claudio over again, or that other Claudio in Measure for Measure, who is also cast in the same mould. All three are young noblemen, with plenty of physical courage (at least two of them have), an attractive presence, and very little judgment or experience, Claudio's youth is much insisted upon—'he hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion'; to Don John he is 'a proper squire' and a 'very forward March-chick'; Leonato speaks of

His May of youth and bloom of lustihood

and his inexperience of the ways of woman is surely proved by the fact that Don Pedro no sooner hears that his mind is on Hero, than he offers to do the courtship for him. He is no 'worm', only a rather foolish boy.

As for his belief in Borachio's story of Hero's infidelity, there are several things about it which are generally overlooked:

  1. Claudio is not only very youthful but of an abnormally jealous disposition. A youthful Leontes, he gratefully accepts the Prince's offer to woo Hero in his name; but the suggestion is no sooner put to him that Don Pedro is really trying to steal the young lady for himself than he believes it and goes off and sulks. 'Alas, poor hurt fowl,' exclaims Benedick, 'now will he creep into sedges.' It is true that Benedick also thinks Don Pedro has been courting Hero on his own account; but he knows nothing of his offer to act as Claudio's proxy. Claudio's suspicions of his Prince are unpardonable—and having doubted the good faith of a friend well known to him, he will hardly continue to believe in that of a girl, whom he scarcely knows at all, and this in the face of what seems to be ocular proof of her treachery.
  2. Shakespeare deals a little carelessly with the incident of Borachio and Margaret at Hero's window, which was probably more consistent and clearer at some earlier stage of the play's history. But both Claudio and Don Pedro watch a strange man climbing into Hero's bedroom and received lovingly by a woman dressed in Hero's clothes. They could not see her features in the dark, but they had every excuse for assuming her to be that which she pretended.
  3. If Leonato, Hero's father, is at Claudio's revelation in the church ready at first to believe her guilty, is it surprising that Don Pedro and Claudio have done so? Women were easier of access in those days, and morals generally were looser. Critics have been too ready to assume that the household of Leonato was a Victorian one.

A fairly recent editor of Ado [G. Sampson] has declared:

There is scarcely a rag of credibility in a story that causes a king and a count to conduct themselves like a pair of ill-bred and overstimulated brawlers.

Surely this is the very ecstasy of misinterpretation.

Sir Edmund Chambers is at once more subtle and more cautious. But his objection to the proceedings of the last Act seems to me no less misguided. Don Pedro is a king; he has done Governor Leonato, who is not even of noble birth, the signal honour of accepting his hospitality. Is he to move into meaner quarters because the old man's daughter is not as honest as she might be? Would any monarch of the period have done so? So far from regarding the continuance of his stay as an 'insult' he would think of it as a favour. And if he stayed on, Claudio would have to do likewise. Shakespeare does not say all this; he didn't need to, for it would never have occurred to him that his spectators might question it.

Similarly, Claudio had done Leonato honour by asking the hand of his daughter; he, a count, was a great match for a gentleman's house. The least he can do, then, in restitution, when he discovers that his suspicions are baseless, is to agree to marry the cousin of the supposedly dead girl, in order that Leonato may not lose his match. Marriage in those days was first a matter of business, and only secondarily (if at all) a matter of love. The mood in which Claudio goes to this second marriage is evident in V, iv, 38: 'I'll hold my mind,' he declares, 'were she an Ethiope.' He is sacrificing himself for the old man's sake. The story of Hero and Claudio is no more melodrama than that of Ophelia and Hamlet, to which as a matter of fact it bears some resemblance.

Finally, a word may be said in defence of Don John, not as a man but as a dramatic character. Here again there may be some obscurity owing to revision. But his villainy is surely not of the melodramatic kind of Richard Crookback, who was a villain only because, as he says,

I am determinéd to prove a villain.

Nor does the melancholy of the bastard suffice to account for it. The matter is not, I say, as clear as it might be, but he tells us that Claudio, 'that young start-up, hath all the glory of my overthrow' (I, iii, 62), and when we remember the glory that Claudio had won in the late 'action', of which we hear at the opening of the play, is it not at least plausible to suppose that Don John had been fighting against his brother, Don Pedro, in that action, and being overthrown had perforce become 'reconciled to the prince' (I, i, 148)? To suppose so would, at any rate, go far to explain his actions, and make a man of him, instead of the 'thorough-paced villain of the deliberate Machiavellian type dear to the Elizabethan imagination' as Sir Edmund Chambers labels him.

But though I think the tone and significance of the Hero-plot have been badly misjudged by modern criticism, I am not claiming it as more important than Beatrice and Benedick. Their plot is simple, so simple as hardly to be a plot at all, while the story of Hero is an intricate one. But in dramatic perspective there is no doubt which is the more prominent. From the very outset Beatrice and Benedick take the centre of the stage, and though 'structurally subordinate to Claudio and Hero' in the sense that the story of the latter determines their actions and explains their movements, they are actually the outstanding figures of the play.

And they are more interesting and more alive than the younger lovers, not because they belong to 'pure comedy' and the others to 'melodrama', but because Shakespeare intended them so to be and gave them far more to say. Apart from the scene where Beatrice lies hid in the pleached arbour, a scene in which Hero of necessity leads the dialogue, the latter has less than fifty lines to speak in the whole play. She does not even speak a word when she is formally betrothed to Claudio in Act 2—it is Beatrice who covers her natural shyness with 'Speak, cousin, or if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss, and let him not speak neither.' (II, i, 290-1.) Similarly, though Claudio has of course more to say than Hero, because the action demands that he should, he does not even play second fiddle to Benedick. For between the two stands Don Pedro, who woos for his young favourite; and so leads him by the hand throughout the play, that we cannot overlook the latter's subordinate position.

All this is, without question, quite deliberate on Shakespeare's part. In The Merchant he had two plots, a love-story and a revenge-story, of almost equal weight. They were cleverly linked together, but he only just kept the balance, and so saved the play. In Much Ado, the comedy that followed, he ran no such risks. Once again, he had two plots—this time combining love and revenge into one, and reverting to Love's Labour's Lost for the other. But he kept the former in strict subordination to the latter, and so created what was, in my opinion, structurally a more shapely play.

Furthermore, he imposed, as I have said, his own pattern, a special pattern peculiar to Much Ado, upon the texture of plot and character. The Merchant of Venice, for all its excitement and its beauty, does not really hang well together, and, apart from the grey thread of the melancholy Antonio, no pattern runs through it.

Much Ado, on the other hand, possesses a very definite pattern of its own, at once pretty and amusing; and though no modern critic, I believe, has ever noticed it, that does not prove that generations of spectators have not unconsciously derived much pleasure from it. Indeed, in my view, it contributes very materially to the life and interest of the play, though it does so more certainly in the theatre than in the study.

When one watches Much Ado on the stage, does one not feel somehow as if one were looking on at an elaborate game of Hide and Seek? Shakespeare himself suggests it at one point, when he makes Claudio describe Benedick lurking in the arbour as 'the hidfox'. Whether the children's game of 'Hide-fox' in Shakespeare's day was exactly the same as the modern Hide and Seek, I do not know. In any case, he is thinking in Much Ado of it rather from the point of view of the hidden person than of those who seek. The hid-fox lurks unseen and listens to the other children as they move about and talk—sometimes of him.

In a word, the pattern is partly made by eavesdropping, of which there are no fewer than half a dozen instances in the play.

  1. A serving-man in a 'thick-pleached alley' of the orchard overhears the Prince and Claudio talking of the intended courtship of Hero, and misapprehending what he has heard, reports to Antonio, the brother of Leonato, that Don Pedro proposes to win her for himself.
  2. Next Borachio, Don John's spy, from behind the arras in a room overhears the Prince and Claudio still discussing the same project and reports likewise to his master, this time however getting the facts correctly.

These two eavesdroppings we are told of but do not see on the stage—they introduce the theme as it were, to use a musical term. The next two are enacted before our eyes, viz.:

  • and Benedick and Beatrice are in turn lured into the pleached arbour in the orchard in order that they may overhear their friends in talk and so come to imagine that each is in love with the other.
  • This time not seen on the stage, Claudio and Don Pedro are similarly led to believe Hero unfaithful by eavesdropping outside her bedroom window.
  • Lastly, the Watch overhear the scoundrels Conrade and Borachio talking under a penthouse, and after much misunderstanding and delay, this leads to the discovery of the plot against Hero's honour.

Closely connected with this eavesdropping motif, though not identical with it, is a subsidiary design of the familiar disguise variety. Thus Borachio gains access to the room in which he spies upon the Prince and Claudio, disguised as a fumigator. There is a masked dance in Act II, very similar to that in Love's Labour's Lost, in the course of which Don Pedro, pretending to be Claudio, woos Hero, and after which Don John, addressing Claudio as if he were Benedick, persuades him that the Prince is acting treacherously. Margaret again disguises herself as Hero for the scene at the bedroom window. And finally Hero herself, masked once more, poses as Leonato's niece in the last scene.

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. It is simple enough, once the matter is explained: it is dependent upon stage-effects rather than upon poetic construction, and Shakespeare was to improve in subtlety upon it later. But this spying and hoodwinking give the play its special atmosphere, an atmosphere which is reproduced for tragic purposes, though by similar devices, in Hamlet.

In Much Ado about Nothing, however, it is all a game. The children skip in and out of their pleached alleys and arbours, and the hid-fox is fitted with his penny-worth. Shy little Hero gets put into the corner unjustly for a while; jealous young Claudio misdoubts her, insults her, repents and hangs his little verses upon her empty monument; the melancholy Don John does his worst and then flees.

But our main interest lies neither in this background nor in the patterned framework; what we remember when the play is done are three figures which stand out in front of it all, and for the exhibition of whom most of what I have been hitherto speaking of was designed by the dramatist—I mean Beatrice, Benedick and the immortal constable, Master Dogberry. The rest of this [essay] belongs to them by right.

The first thing to note about them is that they all talk prose; in this dramatic composition poetry belongs to the romance which forms the background, prose to the foreground. The Constables would talk prose in any case; it is their element as it is that of Bottom and Lancelot Gobbo. It is a new thing however in Shakespearian comedy for characters who sit above the salt, as it were, to speak anything but verse. But Shakespeare had been at school since he wrote The Merchant of Venice, he had learnt to write the raciest, supplest, most delicately articulate prose in English dramatic literature, a prose that speaks itself and is so constructed that it is as easily committed to memory as blank verse, and is therefore perfectly adapted to the theatre, I mean, of course, the prose of Falstaff, and the Falstaff scenes. For an example of the rhythm of it, take part of his Apologia pro vita sua:

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned; if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins; but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company; banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

(I Henry IV, II, iv, 461-70)

Having forged a steel of that temper, Shakespeare was not the man to lay it lightly aside. He fashioned a couple of bright rapiers from it and placed them in the hands of Benedick and Beatrice for the duel of sex.

There can be little doubt that Benedick was played by Richard Burbadge, the leading actor in Shakespeare's company. We may see him also in Berowne, the Bastard of King John, Petruchio the shrew-tamer, Mercutio, the taciturn Bolingbroke, and probably Henry V. To judge from the description of Cœur-de-Lion's bastard son, Burbadge possessed a large frame and a roistering manner; and we have records of his taking vigorous action in private life. In any case, all these characters possess much in common and were clearly modelled upon the same actor. They are bluff soldiermen, rough wooers or whimsical rudesbies in turn, or two of these combined.

There is nothing, therefore, very new in the character of Benedick, who may be described, I have said, as a Berowne with a touch of Petruchio about him. What is new is his speech, to which I have just referred, and the fact that his love civilizes him, for when he comes to the business of courting he does it with a grace far beyond anything within the scope of Berowne, or even Henry V.

The case of Beatrice is different. We have found a shadowy foretaste of her in the mocking wenches of Love's Labour's Lost, and at times we may be reminded of Petruchio's shrew, but to all intents and purposes she is a new creation, something Shakespeare had never before dreamt of, but a something that was to be imitated time and again down the centuries. There is no one in the Histories in the least like her, not even Lady Hotspur, and which character in the Comedies so far written can be set beside her? None except Portia, and Portia, though not lacking in a sprightly wit, is of a different cast—at once tenderer and wiser, and yet less completely realized.

Beatrice is the first woman in our literature, perhaps in the literature of Europe, who not only has a brain but delights in the constant employment of it. She is not without beauty; if Benedick in his scornful days is to be believed, she exceeded Hero 'as much in beauty, as the first of May doth the last day of December'. But it never occurs to her to use that in her dealings with men. On the contrary: 'I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.' She does not want to catch men at all; what interests her in them is not their person but their intelligence, of which she generally holds a poor opinion. She knows enough about marriage to dread it.

For hear me, Hero—wooing, wedding, and repenting, is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace; the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the wedding mannerly-modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes Repentance, and with his bad legs falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.

It is a sorry sequence—though many a twentieth-century Marriage Guidance Council would endorse it—and so she is at God upon her knees every morning and evening for the blessing of having no husband, and 'will even take sixpence in earnest of the bearward, and lead his apes into hell' (II, i, 36-7)—the fate of old maids who could not lead children into heaven.

'Well, then,' asks her uncle ironically, 'go you into hell?' 'No,' retorts Beatrice,

'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 St. Peter: for the heavens, he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.'

How Sir Thomas More would have delighted in that speech!

Her heaven is with the bachelors, because she sets her wits against theirs and beats them at their own game. 'In our last conflict' she reports of Benedick before he appears,

four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one. (I, i, 61-3)

This is not intended, of course, to be taken seriously, and is only uttered that it may be reported to Benedick again; but it shows that her chief delight in life was—not hunting men for capture, but shooting at them her barbed arrows and watching them quiver, as she smites between the joints of the harness.

And she delights especially in Benedick, because he is as impatient as she is with all this sex-business, and in their wit-skirmishes can give as good as he gets, or rather as good as 'a piece of valiant dust … a clod of wayward marl' can be expected to give.

For note that Benedick, brave face as he puts upon it, always comes a little halting off from one of their encounters. The trouble is that his male vanity cannot quite concede to her the equal rights which the conditions of the game demand and so he never wounds her and she always gets past his guard. 'She told me', he complains,

that I was the prince's jester, that I was duller than a great thaw—huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me, that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me.… She speaks poniards, and every word stabs.

And he acknowledges his defeat in what follows:

Don Pedro. Look, here she comes. Enter Beatrice.

Benedick. Will your grace command me to any service to the world's end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes that you can devise to send me on: I will fetch you a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia: bring you the length of Prester John's foot: fetch you a hair off the great Cham's beard: do you any embassage to the Pigmies—rather than hold three words' conference with this harpy. You have no employment for me?

Don Pedro. None, but to desire your good company.

Benedick. O God, sir, here's a dish I love not—I cannot endure my Lady Tongue. Exit.

This is not all banter; it conceals a real wound. The hurt fowl creeps into his sedges. His vanity is touched to the quick partly because his heart is already engaged without knowing it.

The Prince, who is too high a mark for shooting at, and whose heart is free, sees her more clearly than Benedick does. He offers to find a husband for her.

Beatrice. I would rather have one of your father's getting; hath your grace ne'er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands if a maid could come by them.

Don Pedro. Will you have me, lady?

Beatrice. No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days—your grace is too costly to wear every day.… But I beseech your grace pardon me, I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.

Don Pedro. Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you, for out o'question you were born in a merry hour.

Beatrice. No, sure, my lord, my mother cried—but then, there was a star danced, and under that was I born.

And presently, after she goes out, the Prince remarks to her uncle:

Don Pedro. By my troth, a pleasant-spirited [i.e. jocose] lady.

Leonato. There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord. She is never sad [i.e. serious] but when she sleeps, and not even sad then: for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.

This light-hearted merriment, this apparent indifference to suitors, might be qualities of a coquette. And if that be not too hard a word for Rosalind, we find them again in her, and even more so in Cleopatra, and Congreve's delightful transformation of Cleopatra, Millament. But for Beatrice's intellectual gifts, for her sheer pleasure in talking men's talk on terms of equality, and without the undertones of sentiment, we have to wait until modern times for parallels—for the women of George Meredith, and George Bernard Shaw.

Her merriment is without a spark of malice, and she is quite unconscious of the depth of the wounds she inflicts—

Deals she an unkindness, 'tis but her rapid  measure, Even as in a dance.

She notes, and rejoices in, Benedick's wincings; but she thinks it is only annoyance at being worsted in word-play.

He'll but break a comparison or two on me, which peradventure, not marked or not laughed at, strikes him into melancholy—and then there's a partridge wing saved, for the fool will eat no supper that might.

Yet, though without malice, she in her turn has her little vanities. Her very blindness to the pain she gives is proof of them. When, therefore, she hears herself taxed by Hero in these terms:

But nature never framed a woman's heart Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice: Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes, Misprizing 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—

there is just enough truth in the calumny, deliberate caricature though it be, to make her feel mighty uncomfortable. Intellectual pride might easily have been her undoing, but for the revelation of the 'pleached arbour'. And no woman on earth, however much she may profess to scorn love, will endure being told she is incapable of it.

Benedick is also accused of pride by his orchard critics, but what touches him is not that, so much as the salve to his wounded vanity when he learns that she has been half-dying for love of him all the time. And so, both are brought to realize the love which had been implicit in their intellectual attraction from the beginning.

The garden-scenes are first-rate sport, of the kind Shakespeare excelled in. But the device, after all, is simple enough; and far more skill is shown in the dramatic setting of the declaration which follows. It was indeed a master-stroke to combine this with the defamation of Hero, so that the two plots intersect, as it were, at their most crucial points. The situation calls out the full manhood and womanhood of each: we feel, for the first time in the play, that they are deeply serious; and Beatrice's sudden appeal to him to avenge her cousin's honour comes upon us with an almost overwhelming force, after the previous scenes of gaiety; with an effect indeed not unlike that produced by the news of the French King's death towards the end of Love's Labour's Lost.

Benedick. Lady Beatrice, have you wept all    this while?Beatrice. Yea, and I will weep a while longer.Benedick. I will not desire that.Beatrice. You have no reason, I do it freely.Benedick. Surely I do believe your fair cousin   is wronged.Beatrice. Ah, how much might the man   deserve of me that would right her!Benedick. Is there any way to show such   friendship?Beatrice. A very even way, but no such   friend.Benedick. May a man do it?Beatrice. It is a man's office, but not yours.Benedick. I do love nothing in the world so   well as you—is not that strange?Beatrice. As strange as the thing I know not.   It were as possible for me to say I loved   nothing so well as you—but believe me   not—and yet I lie not—I confess nothing,   nor I deny nothing—I am sorry for my   cousin.Benedick. By my sword Beatrice, thou lovest   me.

Beatrice. Do not swear and eat it.Benedick. I will swear by it that you love me,   and I will make him eat it that says I love   not you.Beatrice. Will you not eat your word?Benedick. With no sauce that can be devised   to it—I protest I love thee.Beatrice. Why then God forgive me—Benedick. What offence sweet Beatrice?Beatrice. You have stayed me in a happy   hour, I was about to protest I loved you.Benedick. And do it with all thy heart.Beatrice. I love you with so much of my   heart, that none is left to protest.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.Benedick. Tarry sweet Beatrice.He stays her.

… Here we have the leading lady bidding her lover kill his 'sworn brother' in order to vindicate the honour of her cousin. We have travelled a long way from the finale of The Two Gentlemen in which the leading man is prepared to hand over his lady to the friend who has just attempted to violate her before his eyes, in order to prove his unselfish devotion to friendship. The journey has been from Convention to Life, from an attempt to give dramatic form to an ideal accepted from others to one which succeeds in combining dramatic illusion with a situation which is felt by dramatist and audience to be real.

How long did Shakespeare take over Ado? If The Merry Wives occupied two weeks, Ado can hardly have taken two months. The source of the plot, the main Hero-Claudio plot, is well known, viz. a novella by Bandello probably read in the French version by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques which also contained the Hamlet story. But clearly, I think, Shakespeare was not concerned with this in 1598. He was working over an old play, his own or some other's. There are a number of little clues in the text pointing to revision which it is unnecessary to speak of here. It is enough perhaps to note two points:

  1. In the stage-directions of the 1600 Q, but not elsewhere in the text, Hero is provided with a mother called Innogen, a name which crops up again in Cymbeline in the form of Imogen.
  2. I find it impossible to read III, i (the scene in which Hero persuades the hidden Beatrice that Benedick is in love with her) without being convinced that the verse is older than that of most of the rest of the verse in the play. And what a strange Beatrice it is who emerges from the arbour at the end of the scene:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?  Stand I condemned 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 requite 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.

'Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand'! The Beatrice we know is incapable of such a thought even in soliloquy: it is some primitive puppet who speaks, perhaps a sister to the Shrew Katherine after her taming. And—'No glory lives behind the back of such'! What a line! It is inconceivable for Shakespeare in 1598. Indeed, I find it hard to believe he can ever have been capable of it. The speech is patently from a drama of the early nineties; what Shakespeare did in 1597 therefore was to revise an old play. And in his rehandling he tightened up and abbreviated the original Hero-Claudio story so as to push it into the background in order to bring forward Beatrice and Benedick, rewriting and greatly expanding their dialogue or almost all of it. It is possible that he rewrote and expanded the Dogberry scenes at the same time, for it is at least conceivable that the original Dogberry was a small part, one corresponding with the part of Constable Dull in Love's Labour's Lost. But this contingency is connected with the theory that the unrevised Ado can be equated with Love's Labour's Won.

But however long the reshaping may have taken, Shakespeare produced an excellent theatre piece in the process which gave something for everyone at the Globe.

  1. It provided excellent parts for the leading men—Dogberry for Kempe, Benedick for Burbadge, and Beatrice for the leading boy:
  2. it had a good story with strong situations, which all parts of the audience could appreciate;
  3. the Beatrice and Benedick scenes would appeal to the noble patrons in the 'lords' room, the gentlemen and the critics:
  4. and Dogberry would fit the groundlings with far more than their pennyworth.

I once tried Dogberry upon a typical Elizabethan audience: I had been asked to lecture on Shakespeare to 288 male prisoners in Lincoln gaol, but learning from the chaplain that 60 per cent of them were illiterate, instead of a lecture I read them the Dogberry scenes, and at once had the whole prison roaring with laughter over the antics of the constable. The medieval crowd had likewise roared over the antics of the Devil—that universal constable. They knew the Devil might (many of them knew he must) get them in the end; but it was some satisfaction to be able to watch him bamboozled in play. Shakespeare knew that his rascals on the floor of the Globe would get the same kind of satisfaction from Dogberry, Verges and the rest.

'O, that I had been writ down an ass!' (IV, ii, 84-5). How the pothouses after the play must have rung with the laughter over that jest!

But Shakespeare did not write only for Burbadge, the gallants, and the groundlings; he wrote for himself and his artistic conscience. For he had a conscience, though Ben Jonson didn't think so, because it was so different from his own. Shakespeare's conscience was not of the kind that set up before it an ideal of artistic perfection, derived from previous masterpieces, or what students thought were the laws previous masters had observed, and strove to attain it. Shakespeare's was of a more adventurous type. He was always trying new things, new forms, new possibilities, and having once begun on a new line, to better his experiment. And when he felt he had gone as far as he could in a certain direction, he tried a new tack. Romeo and Juliet marks a final stage—he never tried to better that, though Antony and Cleopatra was in a sense (a maturer sense) a return; Richard II marks another stage; and Falstaff (in Henry IV) was yet a third, though his creator had to fake a spurious image of him in The Merry Wives and kill him definitely off in Henry V before he could escape from him.

Was his artistic conscience satisfied with Ado? He was surely pleased with one thing—the Beatrice-Benedick business, and that he had succeeded in fitting it into his romantic pattern. But the rest—it is not good enough!

I fancy he underlined Nothing in the title. He felt there was an emptiness in the play. He could do better than this, much better. As an afternoon's entertainment Ado makes, I said, a shapelier stage-play than As You Like It, but As You Like It is in every way riper and more golden; the harvest was still to come.

William G. McCollom (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Role of Wit in Much Ado about Nothing," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring, 1968, pp. 165-74.

[Here, McCollom studies the role of wit in Much Ado about Nothing in terms of its influence on characterization and its contribution to the theme of the "triumph of true wit over false wisdom."]

Much Ado About Nothing is very popular with audiences but somewhat less so with critics. Although it is conceded to be very witty, it is felt to be lacking in that profounder quibbling that characterizes Shakespeare's later work. In her book Shakespeare's Wordplay, M. M. Mahood gives a chapter to The Winter's Tale but not to Much Ado About Nothing. One may feel too that the play is less serious than Shakespeare's witty sonnets—for example, in its exploration of love. So far as the verse is concerned, it does not lead one to think of the play as a poem. It has a good deal of rather elementary rhetoric, as in Leonato's lamentations, and, although there are passages of charm and delicacy, perhaps no one would maintain that as poetry the writing ever equals the opening of Twelfth Night or Viola's "Make me a willow cabin". In fact, one of the most successful verse passages in the play—Hero's satire on the "lapwing" Beatrice—has the salience of wit rather than the ambience of poetry. The main plot of the play is certainly not the chief interest, and the central characters in this plot would never stimulate an A. C. Bradley. Moreover, the three main strands of action do not at first seem very well joined. The sudden appearance of Dogberry and his men in Act III, for example, comes as quite a jolt on the path of the action. The role of Margaret is mysterious, to say the least; only by straining can we think of her various activities as congruent.

William Empson once remarked that the greatness of English drama did not survive the double plot. Partially under Empson's influence, recent Shakespearian criticism is in general looking for Shakespeare's unities not in plot or character, or even characteristic action, but in theme. Actually, the theme of a play, if dramatically significant, is worked out in action, and conversely a particular action can be translated into theme. If you say, as does John Russell Brown [in Shakespeare and His Comedies, second edition, 1962], that the theme of Much Ado is love's truth, the governing action (the activity guiding the characters) could be formulated as the search in love for the truth about love—though where this would leave Dogberry is a bit hard to say. In a keen study of the comedy ["Much Ado About Nothing", Scanning, XIII, 1946], James Smith found pride or comic hybris the binding agent in an action presenting a shallow society whose superficiality is finally transcended by Benedick and Beatrice. The analysis is illuminating, but I believe it pushes the comedy too far in the direction of satire and understates the role of wit, which in both its main senses drives the play.

During a performance of a Shakespearian comedy one sometimes notices that his neighbors are laughing at a line before the point has been made, or in ignorance of the exact meaning of the sentence, unless they have been studying footnotes. (This assumes that witticisms and jokes have exact meanings—not always a safe assumption.) One may feel a slightly superior sympathy for such an audience—they are so eager to enjoy what their piety has brought them to witness.

Yet this solicitude may be misplaced. For a witticism may be delightful and funny even if understood in a sense slightly different from that advanced by Kittredge or Dover Wilson. When Beatrice says that Benedick "wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block", the audience laughs though it may not know whether "block" is a hat-block, a fashionable hat-shape, a blockhead, or some combination of these. Secondly, if the actor has been advised to "throw away" the line as highly obscure and to create instead a visual and musical impression of wit, the audience can hardly be expected to laugh for the "right" reason. And finally, if Susanne Langer is right, the point of the line is not primary anyway; for Mrs. Langer advances the interesting idea that when an audience laughs, it does so not at a particular joke or witticism but at the play. In Much Ado, at any rate, wit is organic.

The wit of Shakespeare's play informs the words spoken by the characters, places the characters themselves as truly witty and intelligent, inappropriately facetious, or ingeniously witless, suggests the lines of action these characters will take, and, as intelligence, plays a fundamental role in the thematic action: the triumphing of true wit (or wise folly) in alliance with harmless folly over false or pretentious wisdom. I will further suggest that the comedy itself is a kind of witticism in the tripartite form often taken by the jests.

As language, the wit has a variety of functions. From the first it creates the tone of "merry war" which will resound through so much of the comedy, though the timbre will change as the scenes or speakers change. The merry was is primarily between Benedick and Beatrice, but in the opening scenes Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio, and even Hero participate in the skirmishing. Even before Don Pedro arrives with his party, we find Leonato experimenting with word-play. Hearing that Claudio's uncle has wept at the news of the young man's martial exploits, Leonato remarks: "a kind overflow of kindness.… How much better it is to weep at joy than to joy at weeping" (I.i.27-28). It is as if he knew that some witty friends were coming to visit and he had better try out a pun and an antimetabole—a rhetorical figure popular in the earlier nineties. Since there has been no question of taking pleasure in tears, one tends to downgrade the speaker for this verbal flourish. But he may be more shrewd than this when, a bit later, he chides Beatrice for ridiculing Benedick: "Faith, niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not" (11. 44-45). Since "meet" and "mate" were pronounced alike, Leonato is not only referring to Benedick's powers of retaliation, but predicting the happy and voluble ending.

After establishing his fundamentally witty tone in the first three acts, Shakespeare almost destroys it in the church scene. But notice the language in which Claudio rejects Hero and Leonato responds to the scandal. There is the outburst of Claudio—

O what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they  do!                               (IV. i. 18-19)

—a rhetorical display so hollow as to bring on this burlesque from Benedick: "How now? Interejections? Why then, some be of laughing, as, ah, ha, he!" As the scene progresses, Claudio's speeches rely more and more on the verbal tricks recorded in the rhetorical texts of the time. His half-ridiculous, half-pathetic pun "O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been" is a parody of the wit crowding the early scenes. When he says:

… fare thee well, most foul, most fair,  farewell; Thou pure impiety and impious purity.…                               (IV. i. 102-103)

the idiom is of the kind that Shakespeare will overtly ridicule at the turn of the century. Leonato's response to the rejection is equally conventional:

But mine, and mine I loved, and mine I   praised, And mine that I was proud on, mine so much That I myself was to myself not mine.…                                  (IV. i. 135-137)

The tone is precariously balanced between seriousness and levity. I believe that the scene has to be played for what it is worth and should not be deliberately distanced; otherwise the grief and anger of Beatrice will be unfounded; but if the dialogue is recognized as a distortion of wit, the scene becomes a grim sequel to the opening scenes and not an absolute break with them.

It is often difficult to separate style for tonal effect from style for characterization. But to put the matter in Renaissance terms, the decorum of the genre will sometimes take precedence over the decorum of the speaker. Critics like Stoll and Bradbrook have shown that the Elizabethans were frequently ready to drop consistency of characterization for tonal or other reasons. Margaret seems to illustrate the point. She is a witty lady-in-waiting, on excellent terms with both Hero and Beatrice, but the plot demands that she play her foolish part in the famous window scene that almost destroys Hero. After the rejection of her mistress, we see Margaret enjoying herself in a bawdy dialogue with Benedick, for all the world as if we were still in Act I. It is true that Hero has just been exonerated, but presumably Margaret does not yet know this. At the end of the preceding scene (V. i), Borachio has assured Leonato of Margaret's innocence of treachery to her mistress, but Leonato wants to know more. The men leave the stage, whereupon Benedick and Margaret enter for a set of wit. It is well played. But if we are trying to make sense of Margaret, we are puzzled. As she must be aware, her foolishness has been a main cause of all the distress, and she supposedly does not know of the happy solution brought about by Dogberry's men; if she does know, she also realizes that her role at the window is now revealed. Is she so indifferent to what has happened? Apparently we are not supposed to raise this question. Margaret asks Benedick if he will write a sonnet to her beauty.

Benedick. In so high a style, Margaret, that no   man living shall come over it; for in most   comely truth thou deservest it.

Margaret. To have no man come over me!   Why, shall I always keep below-stairs?                                    (6-10)

Margaret is here a representative of wit from the lady-in-waiting, and her quibble is related to her earlier wit but not to her earlier substantive behavior. Her wit at this moment is a bit crude. When Beatrice comes in a minute later, she will reveal a continuing concern for Hero along with a continuing mental agility. We can say that the two women represent two varieties of wit, though Beatrice is also clear as a character.

One has to distinguish between the seemingly ill-timed roguishness of Margaret and the really insensitive banter of the Prince and Claudio in Act V. Margaret makes no reference whatever to Hero, Leonato, or the painful episode of Act IV. But in V. i, after Leonato and his brother Antonio have quarreled with Claudio and Don Pedro over Hero and left the stage, Benedick enters, whereupon Claudio remarks, "We had liked to have had our two noses snapped off with two old men without teeth" (11. 115-116). This is bad enough. Then, in view of Hero's supposed death, his cheery "What though care killed a cat" is one of his worst gaffes. When Benedick challenge his friend and tells him he has killed Hero, Claudio promises that in the duel he will "carve a capon". As the scene continues he and the Prince struggle to revive the tone of Act I. As word-play, their language is much the same as ever, but neither Benedick nor the reader is in the mood for jocose references to "the old man's daughter", as if Hero were still happy. Stage directors and audiences seem ready to go along with the struggling wits at this point, but the reader's judgment is the right one: the scene makes a sardonic comment on the Prince and his young friend and gives supporting evidence of the ineptitude previously manifested. The wit in this context downgrades the two lords.

Apart from placing the characters, the play of wit indicates in advance the way the action will go. Where the repartee is not clearly out of place, the wittier speakers will prefigure in language the wit or intelligence of their acts. Benedick and Beatrice are the shrewdest in speech and with the Friar are the first to reject the rejection of Hero. What of Claudio's jests? At first they seem technically equal to Benedick's, but, on closer inspection, we notice that Claudio tends to repeat in somewhat different words the jests of the Prince. If Don Pedro heckles the amorous Benedick with "Nay, 'a rubs himself with civet. Can you smell him out by that?", Claudio will add, "That's as much as to say the sweet youth's in love" (III. ii. 48-51). There may be a groundswell of laughter in the second line, but its point hardly differs from the other. If Don Pedro says that Beatrice has been ridiculing Benedick and then sighing for him, Claudio will chime in: "For the which she wept heartily and said she cared not" (V. i. 172-173). This echolalia illustrates the lack of independence which will cause him to swallow the slander of Don John and mirror the response made by the Prince. "O day untowardly turned!" says Don Pedro; and Claudio: "O mischief strangely thwarting!" (III. ii. 127-128). Language is here the perfect expression of action, or rather of action descending toward comic automatism.

When Shakespeare was writing Much Ado, wit as mental agility or liveliness of fancy had rather recently come to supplement wit as intelligence. (A passage from Lyly is the first listing in N.E.D. of the newer use.) Both senses occur frequently in the play, and there are examples of overlapping. It seems clear, for example, that in the following dialogue,

Dogberry.… We are now to examination   these men.Verges. And we must do it wisely.Dogberry. We will spare for no wit, I warrant   you; here's that shall drive some of them to   a non-come.                                       (III. v. 57-60)

Dogberry is preening himself not only on his intelligence but on a handling of language so ingenious that it will drive the accused out of their minds. Benedick and Beatrice are witty and are described as witty and wise by their peers, and again both ideas are comprehenced in the word "witty".

The word wit (or witty) occurs over twenty times, and one-third of these examples cluster in V. i, the scene in which Don Pedro and Claudio are flogging the dialogue. According to Benedick the wit does no more than amble in spite of the whip. As the scene progresses, one becomes weary of the verbal effort. After Benedick leaves, the Prince comments on his uncooperativeness: "What a pretty thing is man when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit" (V. i. 198-199). Here the word suggests that for the idle nobility wit is a fashionable accessory you put on for lack of something else to do. In no other scene does this sub-sense (or Mood of wit, in Empson's terminology [in The Structure of Complex Words, 1951]) make itself felt.

In the drama, a particular witticism has three dimensions: the character's motivation for the speech, the technique, and the effect in context. A full criticism of a particular mot would have to consider all three. As Freud points out in his study of wit, a joke may be far more powerful than an examination of its technique would reveal: it may be poor in technique but strong in motive or "tendency". In a play, if a character's motive is strong, it may justify, in dramatic terms, what would be merely crude. Or if we share his animus, we will give way to hard laughter. In Act I Beatrice sometimes attacks Benedick in terms so unsubtle as to amaze—unless we realize that the insults express a half-conscious anger over his past treatment of her. At such moments we see the "wild" spirit of the "haggard of the rock" (III. i. 35-36), in Hero's phrase for her. The effect of a joke emerges in part from motive and technique but may extend far beyond these. After Beatrice has given a satiric picture of marriage, we have this:

Leonato. Cousin, you apprehend passing   shrewdly.Beatrice. I have a good eye, uncle; I can see   a church by daylight.                                         (II. i. 80-82)

Leonato's speech is a mild rebuke but also an appreciation. The power of her unforgettable reply is remarkable, considering the simplicity of the technique, ironic understatement; but apart from the doubt whether she is speaking modestly or proudly, the line looks back to her own hardly masked fears of spinsterhood and forward to marriage in general and Hero's illomened ceremony in particular, when Beatrice will not only see the church but see better than most what is really happening there.

The technique of wit in Much Ado may be classified under four main heads: (1) verbal identifications and contrasts including puns, quibbles, and sharp antitheses; (2) conceptual wit including allusive under-statement and sophistical logic; (3) amusing flights of fancy; (4) short parodies, burlesques, etc. The first begins with the pun, as where it is said that Beatrice wrote to Benedick and found them both "between the sheets". Claudio calls this a "pretty jest", but Shakespeares uses the pun rather sparingly in this play. Much more frequent are the quibbles wherein a speaker deliberately mis-takes a word for his own purposes. Typically, a word used metaphorically is suddenly given a literal sense: the Messenger says that Benedick is not in Beatrice's "books", and she replies, "No. And he were, I would burn my study" (I. i. 76). One is reminded of Bergson's principle that it is comic to introduce the physical where the spiritual is at issue. At the opposite extreme from the pun is the sharp antithesis, as in Don John's assertion, "Though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain" (I. iii. 28-30). Here, of course, the wit includes paradox.

I would suggest that, in comedy at least, the pun is a sign of harmony, the quibble or mis-taking is a ripple on the surface of social life, and the antithesis an index of separation or selfishness. The pun is obviously social and in comedy is seldom bitterly satiric. Even Claudio's silly "what a Hero hadst thou been" is a sigh after vanished good relations. Or one could cite Margaret's use of the pun as coquetry in her scene with Benedick. The quibble may be petty, but it is heavily dependent on what has just been said and may tacitly accept it. When Don Pedro declares that he will get Beatrice a husband, she replies that she would prefer one of his father's getting. The new meaning does not reject the old but merely improves it. The antithesis of Don John, on the other hand, flatly rejects the concept of "honest man", for like Goethe's Mephistopheles, John is the spirit that always denies. Since Much Ado is neither a jolly farce nor a morality play, it fittingly emphasizes mis-taking as opposed to puns and antitheses.

Freud's category of conceptual jokes or wit includes the play of ideas and playfully false logic. The joke in Gogol, "Your cheating is excessive for an official of your rank", is conceptual, but it would become more abstract if transposed into the key of La Rochefoucauld as follows: "If a man appears honest, it is merely because his dishonesties are fitted to his position in life." Obviously the latter form is too abstract for Much Ado, though not for the tragedies. But in the mercurial world of Much Ado, Shakespeare infiltrates ideas less directly:

Don Pedro.… I think this is your daughter.Leonato. Her mother hath many times told me   so.Benedick. Were you in doubt, sir, that you   asked her?Leonato. Signior Benedick, no; for then were   you a child.                                        (I. i. 100-104)

Leonato's first pleasantry is standard social chit-chat, and no more critical than Prospero's "Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter" (Tmp. I. i. 56-57). But Benedick's rude interruption, a quasi-quibble, pricks the complacencies of a cliché-ridden society. If his question is liberal, Leonato's reply is conservative: except for a few men like you, life in Messina is eminently respectable.

A good example of false logic in the service of true wit appears in Benedick's great soliloquy, which he speaks after hearing that Beatrice loves him. Faced with his own absolute opposition to marriage, he is capable of this: "Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said that I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married" (II. iii. 236-240). Previously he had boasted that he would never decide to marry. Deserting that premise, he now pretends that the anticipated decision to marry can be taken as a mere occurrence happening to a thing innocent of choice. Involved in the complexity of the thought, however, is the speaker's awareness that to fall in love is to become a thing—an accident to which he gracefully acknowledges himself liable. The soliloquy promotes Benedick from social critic to self-critic. He is now ready to appreciate the maxime of La Rochefoucauld: "C'est une grande folie de vouloirêtre sage tout seul." It is a crucial moment in the play.

At moments, Beatrice or Benedick will launch into an extended flight of fancy that moves distinctly away from its environment, particularly because the play is dominated by prose. Benedick will describe a series of fantastic expeditions to escape Beatrice, or Beatrice will picture herself in a private harrowing of hell. Beatrice's comparison of wooing, wedding, and repentance to a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinquepace is halfway between the conceptual wit just described and Shakespeare's more densely "tropical" style. Each of the dance steps is characterized as if it were a dramatic person, and all three encourage the actress to demonstrate. Like poor Yorick, Beatrice is a creature of "gambols", "of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy".

Outright burlesque or parody is used infrequently but significantly. When Beatrice asks Benedick if he will come to hear the news of Hero, he replies: "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" (V. ii. 100-102). This good-natured burlesque of the Petrarchan tradition affirms what we already knew, that Benedick will never make a conventional lover. Beatrice parodies Petrarchanism with deeper ironic effect:

Don Pedro. Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.

Beatrice. 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.

(II. i. 273-279)

In this moment she moves close to the atmosphere of the more somber Sonnets. The exploitation of the "usury" of love and of the dialectic of hearts recalls some of the opening Sonnets as well as the more intense poems to the Dark Lady.

Although the technique of wit in Beatrice's speech is good, it seems unimportant except as a revelation of motive or "tendency", in Freud's language. Nowhere else does Beatrice reveal so much of the reason underlying her war with Benedick, merry on the surface but now clearly shown to be serious underneath. If the seriousness were not there, she could scarcely keep her place as the wittiest of Shakespeare's characters. Beatrice had given her heart to Benedick as interest for his, but at the same time he received his own back again. But clearly there was another occasion when Beatrice felt she had been deceived into uncovering too much affection for him. In the nineteenth century such a motivation would bring on a suicide; in Shakespeare's play, it deepens the wit.

Seen as character, wit in Much Ado is awareness and the ability to act discerningly. As is already obvious, the awareness is largely the property of the talkative lovers. Such wit proves to be an Erasmian sensitivity to one's own folly. I have already referred to Benedick's increasing knowledge of his own limitations. Beatrice understands herself earlier. In the first scene she says to the Messenger: "[Benedick] set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid and challenged him at the burbolt" (11. 37-40). Dover Wilson thought she might be referring to a jester appearing in an earlier version of the play, but David Stevenson makes the excellent suggestion that the fool is Beatrice herself [in his introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, The Signet Classic Shakespeare, 1964]. Other details strengthen the idea. Beatrice recalls the loss of her heart to Benedick. At another moment she names this heart a "poor fool". She fears that if she yields to Benedick, she will prove the "mother of fools". On which side of the family does she discern the folly? After entertaining the Prince with her merriment, she apologizes by saying: "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter." If she were a professional fool, she would not need to apologize.

Once Benedick and Beatrice have understood themselves, they are ready to act appropriately in the affair of Claudio and Hero. In the marriage scene Benedick immediately senses something deranged in Claudio's heroics, and when Hero faints under slanderous attack, Beatrice immediately reveals her judgment: "Why, how now, cousin, wherefore sink ye down?" (1. 109). Whereas Leonato is completely convinced by the evidence, Beatrice is certain that Hero has been "belied".

Only after Beatrice has spoken out does the Friar join the defense of Hero. He has accurately read her character in her face.

           Call me a fool; Trust not my reading nor my observations, If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here.…                                   (IV. i. 163-168)

At this moment he alone shares the wit of Benedick and Beatrice. Significantly, he is ready to be called a fool.

If wit marks the style and characterizes the dramatic persons in varying degrees, it is also the key to the "action"—taking this word in the Stanislavskian sense as that focussed drive which unites all the larger and smaller activities of the play. From this point of view, the action of Much Ado is the struggle of true wit (or wise folly) in alliance with harmless folly against false wisdom. Don John, Borachio, Don Pedro, Claudio, and even Leonato represent in very different ways the false wisdom which deceives others or itself; Benedick, Beatrice, and the Friar embody the true wit which knows or learns humility. If we group the characters in this way, the conclusion of the play becomes more than the discovery of the truth about Hero followed by the double marriage but includes the triumph of true wit over false wisdom. The dominant tone of the play, however, finally softens the dichotomy I have suggested. The stupidities of the fine gentlemen are half-forgotten in the festive spirit of the close.

This interpretation of the basic action throws light on moments which might otherwise seem weakly articulated. One of these is the apparently rambling recital of Borachio to Conrade, as the Watch listen. These men, of course, stand for harmless folly as Borachio represents false wisdom. It was he who devised the entire plan to destroy Hero and who said, "My cunning shall not shame me" (II. ii. 55). His long digression under the penthouse emphasizes that although fashion—here equated with appearance—"is nothing to a man" (III. iii. 119), young hotbloods will be deceived by it as Claudio had been deceived by Margaret's disguise. Borachio is shrewd enough to see the shallowness of the Claudios whom he can deceive but not wise enough to avoid boasting of his success.

Various references to fashion constitute a minor theme related to the theme of wisdom true and false. Preoccupation with fashion is a sign of immaturity or lack of wit. The unconverted Benedick is laughed at for being over-conscious of fashion, but in the climactic scene Beatrice flays the Claudios of society for their superficial and chic manners; "manhood", she says, "is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too" (IV. i. 317-319). In his quarrel with Claudio, Antonio makes the same point. Antonio, who is often seen as a farcical dotard, strongly attacks "scambling, outfacing, fashionmonging boys" (V. i. 94). Properly read, the speech puts this old man on the side of wit as opposed to shallowness and takes its place in the not always obvious hierarchy of wisdom and folly.

A good play, like a good witticism, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Much Ado is not only like wit; it can be seen as a witticism in tripartite form—the joke, of course, is on Claudio. In Freud's study of wit, there is a classification called "representation through the opposite". Like many other kinds of wit, this kind has three parts. It makes an assertion, seems to reaffirm it, but then denies it. A good example occurs in the following exchange from Henry IV, Part I:

Glend. I can call spirits from the vasty deep.Hot. Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for   them?                               (III. i. 53-55)

Other witty exchanges can be reduced to the form: no, maybe, no—as here:

Leonato. You will never run mad, niece.Beatrice. No, not till a hot January.                                             (I. i. 89-90)

Beatrice agrees, seems to have doubts, then agrees doubly. Many other examples of this tripartite form could be cited. I shall merely refer again to the comparison of wooing, wedding, and repentance to three dance steps. Here the witty sketch is a three-act play in little.

In the examples just given, the final proposition is not, of course, a simple denial or affirmation of the first. If the wit is to succeed, the climax must gain power through an obliquity which deceives expectation. The same method appears in some of the more ingenious Sonnets. Sonnet 139, "O call not me to justify the wrong", has the following structure: (1) The lover asks the Dark Lady to refrain from wounding him by her straying glances. (2) He argues that she is kind in looking aside since "her pretty looks have been mine enemies". (3) He concludes that since her eyes have almost slain him already, they might as well kill him "outright" by looking straight at him. The conclusion returns to the opening, but with a crucial variation.

The beginning, middle, and end of Much Ado are not hard to name. The beginning is the successful wooing of the pure Hero. The middle is Claudio's conviction that she is impure: "Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it" (IV. i. 55). The end is the exoneration of Hero; but notice the words of Claudio:

Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear In the rare semblance that I loved at first.                                  (V. i. 252-253)

By this time the audience is convinced that the fashionmongering boy will never penetrate the reality lying beyond semblance. This is the joke on Claudio. He and his bride do not see the point, but the audience can hardly miss it.

As the play draws to its festive close, one may ask whether the friendship between Benedick and Claudio has essentially altered. The last scene would hardly be the place or time to say so. But in a final exchange, Benedick says: "For thy part, Claudio, I did think to have beaten thee; but in that thou art like to be my kinsman, live unbruised, and love my cousin." He must know that it will take some wit to do so.

Ralph Berry (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Much Ado about Nothing: Structure & Texture," in English Studies, Vol. 52, No. 3, June, 1971, pp. 211-23.

[In the essay below, Berry separates the situations in Much Ado about Nothing into three categories"those arising from practice, from chance, and from the necessities of life "and assesses how these situations relate to the "exploration of the limits and methods of humanly-acquired knowledge."]

Much Ado About Nothing serves as well as any play tomark the useful limits of analyses confined to imagery. On Much Ado, Clemen has nothing to say; and [Caroline] Spurgeon, whose abstractions of iterative imagery so often initiate fruitful trains of thought, points to the images of swift movement, of sport, and of nature [in her Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935]. Now these observations add up to a perfectly fair critical comment, that the play's atmosphere suggests sparkling contention in an essentially outdoors and reassuringly normal environment. But this comment does not provide a clue to the play's mechanism. It offers no real start to the question: what is Much Ado about? The approach to Much Ado through language is, seemingly, closed or inhibited by Ifor Evans' verdict [in The Language of Shakespeare's Plays, 1952]: ' … Much Ado has thus no new approach to language, in the verse, nor any of that continuity of intention in the imagery, discovered already in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and in A Midsummer Night's Dream …'

But a linguistic approach other than through imagery or verse/prose analyses is possible. The publication of the latest concordance to Shakespeare [A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, edited by Martin Spevack, 1968] serves to remind us of the immense resources now available to support an enquiry. These now include a computerized record of every word—with Act, scene, line references—in the canon, broken down into plays and into characters. And the simplest way to use this massive auxiliary is to consider the words most frequently used in a play, and to follow the train of thought thus initiated.

In the case of Much Ado, we can make the usual eliminations. We can dismiss words that have purely the status of syntactical necessities—'have', 'shall', and so on. A couple of very common words—'man', and 'good'—need not detain us. We then arrive at what is generally understood, that the most frequently used significant word in Much Ado, as in the comedies generally, is 'love'. Since love is the subject matter of all the comedies, and has been extensively analysed by John Russell Brown in his book on Shakespeare's comedies [Shakespeare and his Comedies, 1962], I pass by this word without more comment. We then arrive at what is not generally understood, that the second most frequently occurring of the significant words is the verb 'to know'.

'Know', in all its forms ('knowest', 'know', and so on) occurs 84 times in Much Ado. Granted that this is a common enough verb, and that characters on the stage will always be asking each other questions as 'Knowst thou this man?', eighty-four seems still an excessive number. And this impression is confirmed if we check with the plays immediately preceding and succeeding Much Ado in the canon. Midsummer Night's Dream has 31; the Merchant of Venice 60; Henry IV Parts I & II, 55 and 48; Henry V 61; the Merry Wives of Windsor 65; and As You Like It 58. At this period of his life, Shakespeare's use of the word reaches a peak in Much Ado. The conclusion is inescapable; 84 references denotes no mere statistical curiosity, but indicates an important area of Shakespeare's concern in Much Ado. The simple word 'know'—so banal, so profound—is a major part of the play's verbal texture, and the key to the structure of Much Ado. I now propose to relate this element of the verbal texture to the structure, so far as it can be discerned, of the play.

'Structure' is always, in Shakespeare, a difficult concept. This is apparent if one tries to apply the concept in the crudest possible way, by analysing the plot of Much Ado. Even on this primitive matter, the critical consensus breaks down. For example, John Dover Wilson [in Shakespeare's Happy Comedies, 1962] sees the play as having only two plots, Hero-Claudio and Benedict-Beatrice. He has virtually nothing to say of the Dogberry Scenes, and sees them simply as comic business, not plot. This is the position of M. C. Brad-brook [Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, 1964], also a believer in 'two plots' plus 'straight comic relief.' But John Wain [The Living World of Shakespeare, 1964], while seeing the play as starting out with two plots, regards them as Hero-Claudio and Dogberry-Verges. For him, the central plot then emerges as Benedict-Beatrice, 'that make[s] the operatic main plot seem absurdly unreal, and thus makes the Dogberry plot curve away into its own isolation. The play falls into three pieces'. Such a view, rejecting the thematic unity of Much Ado, is not A. P. Rossiter's. While insisting on the presence of three plots [in his "Much Ado About Nothing", in Shakespeare: The Comedies, edited by Kenneth Muir, 1965], he detects the essential relevance of the Dogberry scenes: 'But misprision and misapprehension are present here too, in a different guise'. On the whole J. R. Brown is in agreement: while speaking of 'the twin stories of Much Ado About Nothing', he recognizes that 'the introduction of Constable Dogberry and the men of his watch, also contributes to presenting and widening the underlying theme of the whole play'. In sum, the critics quoted do not agree on the number of plots, on the identity of the 'main' plot, or on the relevance of the Dogberry scenes. Those who claim a structural relevance for the Dogberry scenes (and this is the view I accord with) are obliged to view the play's structure as a theme which is articulated in all three of the actions, and which is thus advanced in nearly all of the scenes.

On this line of approach, then, we must think of the play's structure as manifest in a series of episodes, or rather situations, which have the status of variations on a theme. But what is the nature of these 'situations', and how can we characterize them? Bertrand Evans' line is at first attractive: the essential device for him, is the 'practice', and he notes [in Shakespeare's Comedies, 1960]: 'All the action is impelled by a rapid succession of "practices"—eight in all …' . My objection to this is not that it is untrue, but that it is misleading. Mr. Evans' approach emphasizes the importance of the 'practice', and de-emphasizes or ignores those parts of the play that have nothing to do with 'practice'. A practice is a deliberate attempt to foster error. But an important part of Much Ado consists of gratuitous falling into error; and another important part is the correct assessment of truth, some of which process is embodied in quite minor passages. 'Error', whether provoked or not, will simply not cover the activities of Much Ado. Suppose, then, that we conceive of the theme of Much Ado as an exploration of the limits and methods of humanly-acquired knowledge. Such a conception allows us to shift the emphasis from the motives and techniques of instilling error, to the reactions of the dramatis personae in assessing those phenomena. It enables us to seek the principle of the play's unity in a number of very varied scenes. In all this the word 'know' acts as a small, insistent reminder of the target of the play's probing.

We can conveniently consider the play's 'situations' (this is much better than 'scenes') as falling into three groups: those which originate from 'practice', those which afford without previous direction a source of error or revelation of truth, and those which dramatize a sifting of evidence, an assessment of appearance and reality.

  1. The eight practices in Much Ado are best regarded as stimuli to provoke interesting reactions. They are not, in themselves, interesting events; and the most notable of the practices, the deception of Don Pedro and Claudio, takes place off-stage. Moreover, Shakespeare develops no study of the motivation of the practices. The practices are of two sorts, benevolent and malevolent. The benevolent ones have as motive the tautology of well-wishing; there is no more to say. The malevolence of Don John is a study deferred, for some half-dozen years, until Iago can provide a suitable dramatic focus. In this play Shakespeare declines to be drawn into a prolonged analysis of evil, and presents Don John purely as a sketch: 'it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain' (II, i, 32-4), To speak, therefore, of the quantity of 'deceit' in Much Ado is misleading. 'Deceit' is an active word, and the dramatic interest lies elsewhere than in the activators of deception.

The point need not be laboured, but some important illustrations are worth citing. Thus, Claudio's reaction to Don John's report that Don Pedro is enamoured of Hero is typical:

Claudio. How know you he loves her?Don John. I heard him swear his affection.Borachio. So did I too …Claudio. Thus answer I in name of   Benedick, But hear these ill news with the ears of   Claudio. '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 …                                   (II, i, 176-88)

Naturally this exchange reveals Claudio's uncertainty and inclination to jealousy. But there is an underlying point. Claudio asks for the sources of knowledge, and is told: the senses, the ear. He then abjures all intermediaries and places his faith in sensory knowledge—a means of knowledge which, as we shall see, is quite inadequate. This is fully demonstrated in the practice played upon Benedick by Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro. The three discuss in Benedick's hearing Beatrice's love for him. Benedick, stupefied, hears every word clearly. There is no question of sensory deception. He must assess the situation. His first reaction is that old men are unlikely to play tricks—'I should think this a gull, but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it' (II, iii, 132-3). Later he refers to the verisimilitude of the charade: 'This can be no trick: the conference was sadly borne' (II, iii, 239-40). Beatrice indeed, puts up even less resistance in the parallel scene. She, and Benedick, are both right and wrong. Their judgment of the overheard conversations, a matter primarily of the senses, is at fault; their underlying grasp of the truth of the report is surely sound. As it happens, both have excellent intuitive judgment—a fact borne out elsewhere. But in this specific instance, their senses have certainly misled them.

And this is at the heart of the play's central error. Don John, laying charges against Hero's honour, offers to provide 'evidence' of the senses: 'If you will follow me, I will show you enough; and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly'. Claudio responds on the same level, emphasizing (as before) the eye: 'If I see any thing tonight why I should not marry her tomorrow, in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her' (III, ii, 124-30).

This position leads Claudio logically to his denunciation of Hero. Preceded by a tremolo on 'know'—the Friar, by virtue of his office, asks the question that launches 'know' on a minor flurry of repetition—Claudio delivers his speech on 'seeming' (IV, i, 30-42). And his affirmation of knowledge comes down to 'Are our eyes our own?' (IV, i, 72). In this he is backed up by Don Pedro: 'Myself, my brother, and this grieved court, / Did see her, hear her …' (IV, i, 90-1). The senses, without judgment, are seen to be useless.

The point is underlined by Leonato's behaviour. He takes her profusion of blushes as evidence of guilt:

Could she here deny The story that is printed in her blood?                                    (IV, i, 123-4)

Beatrice's absence from Hero's bedchamber evokes 'Confirm'd, confirm'd!' (IV, i, 152). And finally, his judgment rests on the standing of other people:

Would the two princes lie?                                     (IV, i, 154)

His method of confirming evidence is grossly at fault, and is at odds with his cool and sceptical reception of the servant's news in Act I, Scene 2.

The true value here is provided by the Friar. He, like the others, has used his eyes, 'By noting of the lady' (IV, i, 160). But he relies not only on his senses, but on his experience of life. His judgment is sounder; and better still, he has a sounder method, for the matter will need to be put to further tests. Hence his key statement of the knowledge-method:

Trust not my reading nor my observations, Which with experimental seal doth warrant The tenour of my book; … If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here Under some biting error.                           (IV, i, 167-9, 171-2)

'Experimental seal' is the touchstone of knowledge. And this thought is allowed to penetrate even the following passage, the coming together of Beatrice and Benedick. The heart of it is

Benedick. I do love nothing in the world so   well as you: is not that strange?Beatrice. As strange as the thing I know not.                                         (IV, i, 271-3)

How, indeed, can Beatrice 'know' in the full sense what her instinct assures her to be the truth? Her own version of the 'experimental seal' follows shortly: 'Kill Claudio' (line 294). Several points converge in this terse imperative other than the purely theatrical. It is a version of ' If you love me, then prove it …'. Moreover, the issue is symbolic. 'Kill Claudio' is to kill the Claudio in oneself—to kill the force of distrust. It is to yield to the value of trust, formed on a sufficient appraisal of another, and implicit faith. Enfin, it is to love. Beatrice will accept nothing less, and Benedick—after a decent hesitation—is right to grant it.

The practices, then, initiate a series of situations in which the victims regularly co-operate in their own gulling. Their senses play no tricks; but reliance on the senses, without reference to the controls of judgment, experience and method simply defines a limit of knowledge.

  • Certain situations arise in which error, or revelation of truth, occur without being consciously provoked. These extend the range of tests to which the dramatis personae are exposed. Such a test occurs in the play's second scene; really it is two situations compressed into a tiny, but important episode. First, there is the servant's overhearing of the Claudio-Don Pedro conversation. He reports that the Prince has confessed his love for Hero. The man, plainly, has heard perfectly correctly—as a glance at the preceding scene demonstrates. A line such as 'And in her bosom I'll unclasp my heart' (I, i, 333) is, taken in isolation, extremely suggestive. But the man has heard only a fragment of the conversation, taken out of context, and thus has totally misconstrued it. The second situation is the contrasted reaction of Leonato and Antonio. Antonio is inclined to lend the report some credence, but willing to wait upon the event; Leonato is more sceptical, demanding corroboratory evidence:

Antonio. But, brother, I can tell you strange   news that you yet dreamt not of.Leonato. Are they good?Antonio. As the event stamps them: but they   have a good cover; they show well outward.Leonato. Hath the fellow any with that told   you this?Antonio. A good sharp fellow: I will send for   him; and question him yourself.Leonato. No, no; we will hold it but a dream   till it appear itself …                                    (I, ii, 4-9, 18-23)

Leonato's sceptical attitude here is at variance with his later behaviour. And his unwillingness to interrogate (brought out in the Church scene, and his refusal to preside over the examination of Conrade and Borachio) fixes a standard of improper conduct. This points, subtly but unmistakably, towards a favourite Shakespearean technique: a model of human behaviour is located among clowns and rustics.

The following scene (I, iii) between Don John and his minions provides a neat inversion of the theme. Error has been allowed to grow into proven truth, or no: now truth—Borachio has heard the Claudio-Don Pedro dialogue quite correctly—is promoted to foster error. Leonato, … 'no hypocrite, but prays from his heart' (I, i, 158-9), now yields place in the patterned manoeuvring to Don John, 'I cannot hide what I am … I am a plain-dealing villain' (I, iii, 14, 33-4). But the situation is grasped and developed with a malignant competence. Knowledge in Much Ado is largely the property of the villains and clowns. The intelligent sophisticates miss it most of the time.

The clowns receive their windfall in III, iii. Since Borachio and Conrade expose themselves fully to the listeners, there is no question of mishearing or misinterpretation. The actual process of revelation of truth proceeds without obstacle. Apart from the clothes-imagery of the Borachio-Conrade exchange ('Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak, is nothing to a man', III, iii, 124-5) which classically embodies the idea of appearance-reality, there is little interest attached to the content of the actual revelation-episode. The real point has emerged earlier, in the discussion of methods of detection employed by the Watch. This has to come before. It is useless afterwards, because there is no problem of comprehension involved in the drunken babbling of Borachio. The methods employed by the constabulary will certainly survive scrutiny, if their command of language will not. We can note the chain of tests.

  1. Challenge any suspicious character: upon which, as Verges correctly observes, 'If he will not stand when he is bidden, he is none of the Prince's subjects' (III, iii, 32-3).
  2. 'Make no noise in the streets' (III, iii, 35-6): that is, a sort of plain-clothes technique in which trouble is allowed to raise its head.
  3. As for drunks, order them off to bed. If they are incapable 'let them alone till they are sober: if they make you not then the better answer, you may say they are not the men you took them for' (III, iii, 48-51).
  4. In the case of suspected thieves, the procedure is 'Softly, softly …'. The Second Watchman has raised the key issue with the question containing the key word: 'If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay hands on him?' And Dogberry's answer is a model of detective's circumspection: 'Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they that touch pitch will be defiled. The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is, to let him show himself what he is and steal out of your company' (III, iii, 58-64). In analysis, if not in performance, we should not allow ourselves to be taken in by the superb comedy of the trouble-shunning Watch and their majestic leader. In truth, a model procedure is outlined before us in the Watch's catechism. The logic of the procedure for detection is impeccable. In their system, a hypothesis must be checked against a sufficient body of confirmatory data. It is the true counterpart of the Friar's 'experimental seal'. Their procedures make the Watch cousins-german to the man who, as T. W. Craik correctly observes [in 'Much Ado About Nothing', Scrutiny, XIX, 1953], is the 'new point of reference' in the play. It is clear that the Watch's social superiors make a basic error in detection and apprehension: that of striking too soon.

In fine, the Watchmen's discovery of Borachio and Conrade rounds off a series of three casual and unforced overhearings. Knowledge has been supplied to the sophisticates, the villains, and the clowns. This, in two of the three instances, has served as peg for disquisitions on the methods of securing knowledge, of confirming likely hypotheses. These discussions link the situations with those provoked by the practices. And the true model for these occasions emerges from Dogberry's words (as, from the practices, it emerges from the Friar's). Malapropism is not a comic extravaganza, it is a central verbal device for advancing the play's theme. Dogberry's language is a burlesque of truth, but not a denial of it. His Watch, for all their naiveté and incompetence, have the root of the matter in them. They precisely counterpoint their betters in command of words and situations.

  • The eight practices and three overhearings provide a series of situations in which discussion of truth is, as it were, a formal necessity. These situations compose the framework of the plot. They would, in themselves, justify the assertion that a main area of the play's interest lies in the dramatized exploration of the verb 'to know'. But these situations do not yield the total of the play's structure. Much Ado contains, in addition, several passages which lightly and flexibly extend the theme which has been uttered; and two set-pieces (the masque and the examination) which provide an emblem or symbol of the play's business. The extension of the play's concerns into the informal and emblematic reveals, I believe, Shakespeare's techniques even more clearly than the product of the foregoing analysis.
  1. We can perfectly well begin with the opening line of Much Ado: Leonato's 'I learn in this letter …'. It is Shakespeare's habit to strike to the heart of the play's concerns as rapidly as possible. (For example, Harry Levin's study of Hamlet [The Question of Hamlet, 1961] is based on the idea that the play's conceptual structure, a question, is revealed in the opening line 'Who's there?'). One cannot, obviously, make too much of the necessary question-and-answer that speed an exposition. The news of the battle, and the status of the visitors, must be transmitted to the audience as soon as possible. Still, the opening lines suggest the underlying theme very well. The initial talk is of learning, of assessing people and faces (lines 24-9). Benedick's opening line presents theme-through-jest (the same technique that we have observed in the Dogberry scenes): 'Were you in doubt, Sir, that you asked her?' (lines 110-11). The opening episode ends with Don Pedro accepting the invitation to stay as genuine, since he judges Leonato to mean his words: 'I dare swear he is no hypocrite, but prays from his heart' (lines 158-9). In short, the opening passage has moved rapidly from the communication of factual knowledge to the problem of knowing people.
  2. The matter is then developed into the colloquy between Benedick and Claudio, which follows immediately. The two friends have considerable difficulty in deciding how serious the other is. Claudio asks for Benedick's opinion of Hero, and receives an offhand jesting answer. Claudio, misconstrued, says: 'Thou thinkest I am in sport: I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her' (I, i, 185-6). Benedick cannot decide the issue at all: 'But speak you this with a sad brow or do you play the flouting Jack … ?' (I, i, 190-2). The problem of knowing when one's friend is in earnest is, for the moment, too much for these two.
  3. The arrival of Don Pedro complicates and intensifies the discussion. The conversation now turns on the difficulties of assessing one's own feelings, as opposed to those of others. The distinctions are delicately separated.

Claudio. You speak this to fetch me in, my   Lord.Don Pedro. By my troth, I speak my thought.Claudio. And in faith, my Lord, I spoke   mine.Benedick. And by my two faiths, and troth,   my Lord, I spoke mine.Claudio. That I love her, I feel.Don Pedro. That she is worthy, I know.Benedick. That I neither feel how she should be loved nor know how she should be worthy, is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me …                                  (I, i, 233-42)

The alignment of 'knowing' and 'feeling' is the axis of the crucial scenes in Act IV. Intuition (sound) governing knowledge is the standard advanced later by Benedick and Beatrice; intuition allied to a proper experimental approach to knowledge is the even better synthesis proposed by the Friar. Claudio has no judgment and no method. The opening passages, then, reveal him ominously prepared to accept 'love' as consequent upon the opinion of others; and as ominously, scattering the word 'liked' in the midst of his talk of 'love' (I, i, 309, 310, 315, 324). To sum up hereabouts, the play's opening passages parse the difficulties of knowing one's own feelings, and those of others. The key words are 'know', 'feel', 'opinion', 'think'. This dialogue (I, i) is the clou of the play.

  • The masque episode, as in Love's Labour's Lost, presents a central symbol. The mechanics of the masque are organized to different ends, however. The earlier comedy exhibits, in the masque, a consistent scheme of the perceptive ladies penetrating the disguise of the men; the fantasists are effectively unmasked by the realists. This scheme, equally, is apparent in the scene's core of language, conceit exposed by what we should today term Johnsonian criticism. Now in Much Ado, the masque reveals a pattern of penetrated disguises, but no longer reflecting a simple male-female opposition. The centre of interest is the key word 'know', used eight times in this short passage. Thus, Ursula and Antonio play an elegant variant on the tune:

Ursula. I know you well though; you are   Signor Antonio.Antonio. At a word, I am not.Ursula. I know you by the waggling of your   head.Antonio. To tell you true, I counterfeit him.Ursula. You could never do him so ill-well,   unless you were the very man. Here's his   dry hand up and down: you are he, you are   he.Antonio. At a word, I am not.Ursula. Come, come: do you think I do not   know you by your excellent wit? Can virtue   hide itself?                             (II, i, 118-30)

Hypothesis yields to experimental confirmation. This badinage presents the stuff of the play as plainly as the better-known passages in the 'big' scenes. And Claudio, confronted by Don John, twice touches the telling word—once as a lie, once as a question directed towards a lie:

Don John. Are you not Signior Benedick?Claudio. You know me well; I am he … How know you he loves her?                         (II, i, 169-70, 176)

Reduce the masque to its verbal core, and it resolves into two simple syntactic units; the statement, 'I know you', and the question, 'How do you know?' The texture of the dialogue,—light, repeated references to 'know'—suggests unmistakably the concept dominating the scene.

  • The raillery of Act HI, Scene ii, keeps the theme going. Don Pedro and Claudio twit Benedick on his outward signs of love—his clothes, his melancholy, his beardless face, and so on. The talk is all of identifying Benedick's sickness from outward signs:

Claudio. If he be not in love with some   woman, there is no believing old signs:                                  (III, ii, 40-1)

And the matter is virtually formalized into the expected constellation of 'knows':

Claudio. Nay, but I know who loves him.Don Pedro. That would I know too: I   warrant, one that knows him not.                              (III, ii, 65-7)

On the entry of Don John, the word becomes a trill—it is almost operatic:

Don John. Means your Lordship to be   married tomorrow?Don Pedro. You know he does.Don John. I know not that, when he knows what I know.                                      (III, ii, 91-5)

And he goes on to give his reasons. In this scene as elsewhere, 'knowledge' is defined empirically—the concept is studied through the means of defining it.

  • The mirror image of the Don Pedro-Claudio examination of Benedick occurs in III, iv. Beatrice is quizzed by Margaret on the import of his 'sickness'; and Margaret correctly diagnoses a state for which Carduus Benedictos is the cure. The conspirators, like their male counterparts, are in the know and have no difficulty in reading the signs. Psychologically these two passages form a welcome relief from the situations in which the dramatis personae make much heavier weather of the business of assessing truth.
  • Yet again, the problem of assessing people concerns a minor but perfectly congruent passage. Benedick, convinced by Beatrice of Hero's innocence, comes to deliver the challenge to Claudio. Almost any other dramatist here would have made Benedick deliver the challenge briskly, concentrating on the powerful effect of the actual challenge speech. But not Shakespeare. He positively loiters over the passage, allowing Benedick a hundred lines between entrance and exit. (V, i, 108-201). The passage is lengthened out to provide a quite different sort of interest; eventually it is a prolonged test by Claudio and Don Pedro to discover if Benedick be in earnest or not. A series of maladroit jests, embarrassing in their oafishness, evoke only the same iron response from Benedick. The climax of the passage occurs not in the delivery of the challenge, but the unwilling realization of the jesters that Benedick really means it: Don Pedro's simple, deflated 'He is in earnest' (V, i, 202) acknowledges the truth that appearances (for once) do not deceive. Thus, the dialogue is constructed not so much to make an immediate dramatic point, as to extend further the fabric from which Much Ado is woven.
  • The examination of Borachio and Conrade by Dogberry and his minions is a set-piece that re-states and synthesizes the play's concerns. It blares forth with a stridency of brass and provocation of bassoon the theme of Much Ado. But take away the glorious inanities of Dogberry and we are left with, in essence, a model procedure. It is for the Watch to do the work neglected by their betters. Leonato, failing in this as in other business, has left his functions to be delegated to Dogberry. The Watch—with intelligent help from the Sexton and Verges—pull their superior through. It is precisely this—the marshalling of evidence and formation of proper judgment—that the Watch succeed in, and the others fail in. To speak of these scenes as 'comic relief' is to misjudge entirely Shakespeare's design. Borachio can see the point: 'I have deceived even your very eyes:' (so much for evidence based solely on the senses) 'what your wisdom could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light' (V, i, 243-5).

The transposition of theme from serious to comic is, as always, a basic Shakespearean technique. The Dogberry Scenes provide a remarkable instance of Shakespeare's easy command of material, that is, his capacity to pursue an idea throughout a play across scenes varying very widely in mood, dramatis personae, and (apparently) situation. It may well be, as many critics have suggested, that a vital stage in Shakespeare's development was marked by the arrival of Robert Armin with the company. In other words, the wise fools of the later comedies—Touchstone and Feste—depended for their creation on an actor of intelligence and distinction capable of projecting these demanding roles. This may well be, but I point out that such a step is perfectly implicit in the comic work in Much Ado. The difference between Dogberry (a part that does not demand an actor of intelligence) and Feste is one of consciousness. Feste knows his own significance to the main action, Dogberry does not. But that is the only difference. Shakespeare has planted Dogberry among the Messinans with a full awareness of his relevance: a parodic point of reference, a Friar's zany.

We have, in sum, a number of passages, not directly connected with the practices or with the eaves-droppings, that relate the same fundamental situation. The situation poses always the question: how do I know? How can I be sure that A. is telling the truth, that B. is a villain, that C. loves me, that D. is lovesick? How can intuition be confirmed? These variants of the central question are exhibited, with complete formal mastery, in virtually every scene in Much Ado.

Elliot Krieger (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Social Relations and the Social Order in Much Ado about Nothing," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 32, 1979, pp. 49-61.

[In this essay, Krieger examines the two social codes of Messina—domestic and militaryand contends that "one of the primary motivations in Much Ado is to combine the two codes into a more comprehensive aristocratic ideal."]

The distinction between appearance and reality is articulated as a theme in Shakespeare's comedies in two distinct ways: (1) fortune, or some other external force, imposes on the characters some incorrect perception of reality, and, as the plot proceeds, that misperception rectifies itself (e.g. Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night's Dream); or (2) some characters voluntarily create deceptions that impel the plot, initially by deceiving other characters about reality and ultimately by demonstrating the necessity of distinguishing appearance from and achieving useful knowledge about reality (e.g. Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, Measure for Measure, The Tempest). 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. The characters adopt superficial attitudes toward what, in other dramas, might have been metaphysical crises; their overt considerations never become epistemological, as will those of Hamlet, Troilus, and Othello—the latter two at least involved in similar plots but in radically different societies. In short, although philosophic problems of 'noting' and 'knowing' can be abstracted from the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, the characters, when viewed in relation to the plot, are marked by their exceptional lack of concern with the philosophic implications of their series of deceptions. The crucial question about Much Ado, then concerns not how the characters learn to perceive reality and to see beyond deception, for it is not at all clear that they can do so even at the play's 'festive' conclusion, but what about the society of Messina both allows its inhabitants to create deception as a continual menace and at the same time leaves them unable to recognize and to forestall the deceptions with which they are confronted.

The significant aspect of deception in Messina is its casual mundanity, its normalcy. The catastrophes of Much Ado differ in degree but not in kind from its society's accepted social diversion; in fact, the kind of crises in which the characters find themselves are not the totally fantastic and unique confusions such as in Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night, but are only exaggerations of the way the social relations of this play's world are normally developed. For example, the central crisis of the play is that which concerns Hero's chastity (IV, i ff), but the audience is forestalled from seeing it as a crisis because it follows on the heels of a similar disaster that had merely concerned her fidelity. In addition, there follows the double-trap set for Beatrice and Benedick, and the trick of Hero's 'death' set to win back Claudio, both deceptions that, through their supposedly benevolent plotting, help to frame—and thus to distract apprehension from—the play's central misperceptions.

The incorporation of all kinds of deception into the everyday life of Much Ado emphasizes the way in which the social relations of Messina can 'naturally' lead to crises, and explains the failure of the characters to consider the most serious personal accusations and disasters as anything more than factors that will alter their social relations. The society of Much Ado is prevented from becoming philosophically absorbed in the epistemological problems raised by the denunciation of Hero because this exact sort of event has been quite typical of its daily life. Characters shift loyalties and relations throughout Much Ado with a fluid ease, quite different from the radical jolts of alignment or rigid loyalties that typify characters in other Shakespearian comedies. The difference is that here the characters are attentive to the surface of their situations, and do not care much about the deeper ramifications of feeling. Claudio falls in love quickly but not deeply; Beatrice and Benedick can easily have their strongly held attitudes modified when they are made to perceive slight changes in the matrix of attitudes in their society; Leonato is ready to denounce very quickly his own daughter; and so on. Messina is a world in which 'appearances.… are necessary to the social solidarity'.

In a world so dependent on appearance, and on conformity, it is small wonder that the determining and most significant relation for the inhabitants is not that between appearance and reality, but between different appearances. The continual deceptions of Messina have a social explanation—appearance can continually deceive only in a society that does not question the worth and the validity of appearances. To achieve their social ends the Messinians do not search behind appearances for a 'truth', but attack and manipulate appearances, attempt to get their society into new configurations.

Claudio, in his denunciation of Hero at the altar, could be cited as the exception to this behavioral dictum, for he does launch out on two supposedly powerful declarations against the dependence upon appearance (IV, i, 55-60, 99-107). But both of these 'outbursts' are almost painfully conventional, the first with its arch classical references:

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 …

the second with its precious quibbling and outrageous farewell to love:

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! For thee I'll lock up all the gates of love.…

The whole denunciation scene, especially when one considers Don Pedro's cueing line (28), has about it the air of a set-up. Moreover, there is something more than a little grating about a denunciation of observation that results from a completely superficial and distanced observation of an event. It is not that Claudio's outrage is implausible; it is only that he adopts the argument to make his own appearance look good—he has not achieved any knowledge, as his continuing superficial behavior throughout the rest of the play testifies.

Appearances in Much Ado are measured for their 'correctness' against two separate social standards or codes of decorum: the domestic and the military codes. The domestic code is concerned with demonstrations of social status, and is represented in the play by the natives of Messina—Leonato, Antonio, and their households—who take pains to appear 'in great haste' (I, ii; HI, v) and who delight in contriving masked entertainments or formal ceremonies (II, i; V, iii). The military code, represented by the returned soldiers whose 'war thoughts have left their places vacant', becomes exaggerated by its contrast with the predominantly domestic concerns of Messina. Whereas the domestic code is concerned with social status, the military code is concerned with personal status, with honor as manifested in loyalty and in fidelity. Occasionally the military code is asserted in jocular good humor, as when Benedick asks to be commanded:

Don Pedro. What secret hath held you here,   that you followed not to Leonato's?Benedick. I would your Grace would   constrain me to tell.Don Pedro. I charge thee on thy allegiance.Benedick. You hear, Count Claudio; I can be secret as a dumb man, I would have you think so; but on my allegiance, mark you this, on my allegiance, he is in love.            (I, i, 176-82; see also )

but also, especially later in the play, in harmful configurations, as when Don Pedro, Don John, and Claudio ally themselves in a dubious camaraderie (in IV, i), or when Claudio and Don Pedro consider so carefully their own reputations upon discovering that their accusations of Hero were unjustified:

Claudio.   I know not how to pray your patience,   Yet I must speak. Choose your revenge   yourself;   Impose me to what penance your invention   Can lay upon my sin; yet sinn'd I not   But in mistaking.Don Pedro.                  By my soul, nor I.…                                       (V, i, 257-61)

The potential for the military code to dominate the domestic code is diminished, however, as the military standards are abused by one of the play's excluded characters, Don John. The easily enough threatened system of loyalty among the soldiers is shown by juxtaposition to be only a step away from the service that Don John exacts from his men for a fee (II, ii, 48).

The two social codes remain separate, and one of the primary motivations in Much Ado is to combine the two codes into a more comprehensive aristocratic ideal, not o test either code, or to measure one code against the other. The need to combine the two codes without ethical exploration of either, symbolized and actualized in the play by the marriages between members of the two separate aristocratic groups whom the two codes represent, further distinguishes Much Ado from Shakespeare's other comedies: whereas most of Shakespeare's comedies are initiated by an enforced separation of subject from object (lover from beloved, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream; heir from inheritance, as in Twelfth Night; ruler from domain, as in Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure, or The Tempest; or all three separations, as in As You Like It), in Much Ado the separated groups form naturally complementary parts, and the separation of the two, at least until well into the play, is presented as an etiology, but not as a problem. The initial assumption seems to be that since the two groups form sexual complements—the one group being eligible bachelors and the other fathers and their eligible daughters—separation will be overcome through the natural process of sexual attraction and its ritual acceptance in matrimony.

The sexual attraction is, however, subsumed by a more general social attraction between the soldiers and the Messinians. Both see in each other a perfected and ennobling reflection of themselves. The Messinians feel graced and honored by a visit from the brave warriors; the soldiers feel graced and honored to be treated with such respect and deference. They write a mutual fiction by which either group finds its own value—reflected in the opinions of its counterpart—caught in a spiralling inflation. The egotism of the soldiers derives from the superficiality of the Messinians—the offer of the luxury of absorption in games of courtship and domestic intrigue is a great compliment to the soldiers. The two conclusions that they can draw from their heroic reception are that their martial labors were great enough to earn them the leisure of 'at the least a month' (I, i, 127) in which they might fleet the time carelessly, and that the role of soldier does not have military victory as its only, or even as its primary, end. The impression given in this play is that war is fought entirely to increase one's honor, and thus to increase one's eventual standing in domestic society; war is fought for domestic ends.

The love and eventual marriages that might result from this reflective egotism could have drastic consequences (cf. Othello), for the love is narcissistic, is based on concern for the self rather than for the beloved. As the two groups unify in their plans for marriage, there develops an increasing isolation of both groups from any ethical standards or even value-judgments that might be shared by any or all excluded groups, classes, or individuals. The aristocracy creates within itself its own standards of decorum and desire. The aristocrats find it more and more impossible to believe that any, particularly any of their cohorts, could dissent from their code of behavior. Their egotistical blindness can thus leave them wide open to attacks of villainy and, as we see very early in this play, usually deaf to villainy's exposure.

Formal and elegant marriage becomes the pinnacle of achievement for both the domestic and the military sections of society. For the former it incorporates a semblance of military dynamism into their otherwise relatively static society. (The sense of a leisure class springing into activity upon the arrival of guests is very precise in act I.) For the soldiers, use of military 'honor' in amorous pursuits gives them the illusion of having a goal that derives from but transcends their 'everyday' existence. By devoting themselves to thoughts of marriage, they give their mundane society what appears to be a teleology—they simultaneously apotheosize themselves and make a heaven of hell, for, as Don Pedro wistfully declares, 'we are the only love-gods' (II, i, 349).

Playing 'love-god' becomes the only respectable occupation in Messina, as the equilibrium of the society begins to depend on the successful matches being achieved and consummated. The characters pretend to be diverting themselves—with dances, songs, jests, and plots—whereas in fact they are openly courting. In this respect Much Ado About Nothing is again quite different from such comedies as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, for here the society demands marriage among its youth as an emblem of its stability. The initial problem is how to bring the two aspects of the aristocracy together most publicly, not the escape by the young lovers from public ritual. In Much Ado the disguises are really revelations, and the intrigues are really declarations of intent. The whole society pretends to be working in secret, but its true goal is public manifestation of love—and concurrently of the aristocracy's lavish wealth and power.

In Much Ado we are faced with the familiar illusion of the double-plot as analysed by William Empson [in his Some Versions of Pastoral, 1950], although here we do not see two 'levels' of society and thus suspect that we have seen the 'entire' society; rather, we see a social class divided into two sections, and thus we have the illusion that the one class composes the entire society. The more public demonstrations the aristocracy gives of its wealth and wit, the more secure—to them and to us—does its domination of society appear. The appearance of course is what the Messinians want, for theirs is a society where the ocular proof is all that is necessary—no one cares to go much deeper.

Messina is the aristocracy's ultimate vision of the second world, the forest brought home. The escape to the forest has never been an escape to nature—the penalty of Adam has been one of the hardships willingly endured by noble exiles. The attraction of the forest has been its (supposed) freedom from conflict and care. Yet none would doubt that, could the same freedom be achieved by the aristocracy in its native society, the opportunity would have been seized—the ultimate goal of the 'golden world' comedies has been to return 'restored' to the society with which the play began. Much Ado About Nothing, with its dramatic focus on the public occasions during which the reconciliation of the separated components of the ruling class occurs, is a play about exactly the kind of problems by which the aristocracy enjoys being confronted—the problems of arranging entertainments and marriages, of assuring chastity and penance, all of which confirm rather than challenge the power and authority of those whom the problems involve.

This sense of control and of domination—of equanimity—pervades the mood of the play: the sense of having built an ideal from one's own society is different from that of having left home to find an ideal. The latter situation, that of the exiles in As You Like It, for example, creates a mood of tenuous poise. Here the society, although less fantastic, is also less threatening, and the aristocratic poise becomes consequently more secure. Action is cushioned not with the desperate antinomies of verse—as in Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream—but in the easy repartee, as A. P. Rossiter says [in Angel With Horns, 1961], of equivocation.

Equivocation is a further way of solidifying the aristocracy, for it gives all of its participants 'equal voice', while completely excluding those who will not or cannot join in the 'skirmish of wit'. The language of Much Ado is marked particularly by the in-joke and doubleentendre, never by raucous humor or outright bawdy punning. It is a language that has been appropriated by a privileged group of people, so that they can demonstrate to each other their confederacy—that they can understand each other across great distances. As it is used here, 'wit', as G. K. Hunter writes [in William Shakespeare: The Late Comedies, 1962], 'is a weapon for the strong', only those with the 'poise to remain balanced and adaptive' can have the privilege of the comic vision.

Of course since the ability to talk naturally in equivocations is a way of demarcating the ruling class, the inability to do so is a way of isolating those who are not members of this privileged group. The classic instance is the riotously malapropriate language spoken by Dogberry, who, in aspiring to emulate the gentry in their speech as in other things (IV, ii, 74-80) over-reaches his own vocabulary. Dogberry speaks with just the opposite of the aristocratic use of double-entendres—his roughshod use of fancy speech cramps completely unrelated or only phonetically related words into the same meaning. Dogberry seems to enjoy his own speech, but of course its humor escapes him. Even if he were 'as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina … and a rich fellow enough', his failure to use language dextrously would exclude him from the Messinian aristocracy.

In fact, for several characters in Much Ado the use of language determines their degree of proximity to the aristocracy. Don John, who is excluded above all because of his dubious lineage, and who additionally excludes himself by his anti-social actions throughout the play, is, in the first scene, marked as different from his companions by his refusal to engage in artful use of language: 'I thank you; I am not of many words, /But I thank you' (lines 134-5), his response to Leonato's welcome, are his significant first words. In a play in which words are such an important method of social discrimination, his cursory attitude immediately sets him off as aberrant.

Hero's attendant Margaret does quite well at imitating her 'betters' with language. Both Beatrice and Benedick are surprised at the arrival of this newcomer to the aristocracy's formerly exclusive domain of wit:

Beatrice. O, God help me! God help me!   How long have you profess'd apprehension?Margaret. Ever since you left it.…                (III, iv, 59-61; see also )

They react as though their personal, or at least their class, privileges had been encroached upon. It is probably the general respect Margaret has earned through her wit that allows the aristocracy to accept her as sort of an equal and to think the best of her, insofar as they allow her to escape the whipping that she thoroughly deserves. Another minor character, the Messenger of the first scene, also makes a good impression by his elegant use of aristocratic language; his speech gives the opening moments a serene quality rather than the mechanical fumbling by which Shakespeare's typical messenger-setting-the-scene passages are usually beset. That this Messenger cannot keep pace with Beatrice's wit is surely no strike against him.

Yet for all the talk of those who disqualify themselves from being Messina's 'leading lights' by their insufficiently witty language, and, conversely, for all the praise of the wit that exists in Much Ado, I am sure that I am not alone in finding the brilliant language spoken for the large portion of the play not particularly useful as a source for illustrative quotation. It may be a rash generalization, but it seems to me that those who write on Much Ado quote from the text less than do those writing on other Shakespearian dramas. What's more, a large percentage of passages ##ted from the text are selections from Claudio's outbursts against Hero, moments whose linguistic tone is really at odds with the tone of the balance of the play. Claudio, at the altar, is striking out against the integration of his society, and his denunciation speeches, in their derivative way, are exceptional—but they are so particularly as set against the integrated aristocratic language of the rest of the play. As much as the subtleties of wit on display here help to define subtle differences and distinctions between characters, seldom does any one bit of dialogue, when lifted out of dramatic and placed into a 'critical' context, seem any more important than the next. The wit and intelligence for which the characters of Much Ado are so well known are not traits that they employ to help them think.

This is not meant to detract from the intelligence made manifest in the aristocratic speech, but to indicate that the intelligence is operating on only one level of concern. The speech of Much Ado About Nothing is used neither for discussion nor for the exploration of ideas; rather, it centers upon the two related fixed ideas of proving self- (and social class-) value and of courtship—wit makes one more desirable and hence more eligible. Even the soliloquies—such as Benedick's in II, iii:

… but til all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen her (and so on, 11. 8-32),


I hear how I am censured: they say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her; they say, too, that she will rather die than give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud; … (an excerpt from 11. 201-23)

are concerned with self-image and with courtship in a most pragmatic way, and are not at all probing or metaphysical. The aristocracy, in its achieved complacency, does not need or wish to use its hair-splitting linguistic abilities to explore the moral antitheses of situations, but only to arrange for its youth suitable marriages with all of the attendant rituals and public displays of wealth.

The actions of the play, of course, do not afford the characters opportunity for moral exploration until quite late, until Claudio rejects Hero at the altar. It is only then that the separation of the two social groups and their attitudes—one world of military decorum and masculine loyalties and the other of domestic merriment and warmth—is presented as an opposition instead of as a symbiosis. The whole play had been moving toward unification of the two groups, symbolized by the marriage ceremony, for which the differences between the groups and their codes presented a necessary and a positive set of counterpoised elements. When Hero is rejected and the two groups separate, each exaggerates its differences from the other so that what had seemed complementary now becomes irreconcilable. Don Pedro and Claudio assume and assert an implicit military loyalty and jovial masculine camaraderie. They take their leave of Leonato, fully expecting him to treat them with all due courtesy, even to acknowledge that they had acted honorably in denouncing his daughter (V, i, 45-109). (Don John, who had none of their illusions about class solidarity, had by that time already fled from Messina.) Moreover, they find it nearly impossible to believe that one of their own fellow-soldiers could hold their 'honorable' actions against them on any moral grounds, as Claudio jokingly dismisses Benedick's challenge of him, and as he and Don Pedro try to bring Benedick into their coterie again, prodding him for a misogamist response with their barracks humor (V, i, 155-177), while letting him know that he has them to thank for his recent success in love (11. 172-173). They suspect, in short, that Benedick is being so sullen with them not out of any positive moral principle, but entirely 'for the love of Beatrice' (1. 188).

At the same time Leonato, whose original instinct was to take the masculine side and to join with the soldiers in denunciation of his daughter:

Hath no man's dagger here a point for me?

O Fate, take not away thy heavy hand! Death is the fairest cover for her shame That may be wish'd for       (IV, i, 108, 114-16; see also )

shifts back to the domestic world and becomes a strong advocate of reputation and family honor. I think that we are meant to feel that his unconsolable grief (V, i, 3-32) and his challenge of Claudio (1. 66) are excessive under the circumstances; he knows that Hero is still alive, and that he and Antonio are seeking revenge for their family's scandalized reputation, not for Hero's life. (By the same score, Claudio's rejection of the challenge, 'Away! I will not have to do with you', is haughty and presumptuous, as he thinks that his denunciation of Hero was fatal.)

Both aristocratic groups react to the crisis by assertion of their social codes, their separate ideals, but each assertion is mechanistic, the two reactions are purely reflexive. The comedy here approaches a comedy of humors and of received ideas, although Shakespeare's treatment of the situation is decisively nonJonsonian, in that the mechanistic actions of the characters are not given sufficient play to lead them into folly—or into anything else. Within the same enormously active scene Claudio is twice challenged, the plot against Hero is discovered and she is vindicated, Claudio and Don Pedro are reconciled with Leonato, a final deception is devised against Claudio, and once again plans are established for a wedding. It is in part this curtailment of the severance of the ruling-class components and of the hostilities and misunderstandings that suddenly surface among the characters that gives the drama its insulation from 'inquisitions into values,' which Rossiter first observed. But I think that Rossiter was wrong in his explanation of this insulation; it does not occur because 'serious … situations' are 'handled "lightly"'. Serious matters in Much Ado are handled seriously and realistically—but by Shakespeare, not by his characters. We can rectify Rossiter's observation if we keep this distinction in mind. The play is an inquisition into the values of a society that refuses to question its values.

The mechanistic refusal to question convention that dominates the action of the play is counterpoised by two reactions to the play's scandalous catastrophe that are separated from the society's usual concern for appearances and for decorum, and that, by contrast, emphasize the lack of perception that characterizes the aristocratic society in Messina. The Friar—an outsider, neither soldier nor family—calms the hysteria after Hero is rejected. He does so, as he says, by observing Hero in order to comprehend the deeper significance of her appearances; he uses appearance as a way to attain knowledge about reality (IV, i, 157-72). As it happens, his empirical 'observations' of Hero correctly discern her innocence; his psychological observations and speculations, however, are not proven accurate, for his plan to win Claudio back to Hero through her feigned death goes completely by the board:

She dying, as it must be so maintained, Upon the instant that she was accused, Shall be lamented, pitied, and excused Of every hearer. For it so falls out, That what we have we prize not to the worth Whiles we enjoy it; but being lacked and lost, Why, then we rack the value, then we find The virtue that possession would not show us Whiles it was ours. So will it fare with  Claudio.                                     (11. 216-24)

There the Friar is completely wrong; Claudio loves Hero (and even then not convincingly) when she is proven innocent, not before. The Friar's separation from the ultimate aristocratic realignment emphasizes the difference between simple deception, the manipulation of appearances, and perception, examining appearances for a deeper psychological understanding of reality.

The other counterpoised non-conventional reaction to the wedding crisis is that of the society's licensed non-conformists, Beatrice and Benedick. Although their outward scorn of the society's obsession with marriage might lead us to expect they would adopt a fashionably cynical attitude toward chastity and fidelity—così fan tutte—nothing prepares us for the force with which they go directly against the moral codes of their society. Barbara Everett [in 'Much Ado About Nothing', Critical Quarterly, 3, 1961] may be right in singling out Benedick's 'How doth the lady?' (IV, i, 112) as the most important line of the play; his turning toward the woman instead of with his cohorts indicates his willingness to challenge society's standards and expectations (to the point of incredulity: see Don Pedro and Claudio's jovial reaction to Benedick's 'earnest' challenge, V, i, 197-206), in an attempt to act upon what he believes to be, rather than to appear to be, right. Similarly, Beatrice's call for revenge against Claudio does not come from a predetermined convention (literary or social) but from her revulsion against the trivial attitudes and the social codes in her society:

Manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment, and men are only turn'd into tongue, and trim ones too.

(from 11. 312-20)

But this incipient moral inquisition, like the Friar's rudimentary psychological exploration, is never resolved, it is dis-solved by the chain reaction of discoveries and events that abruptly brings the play to its conclusion.

Several readers have pointed out that the trivial vulgarity and sexual snobbery with which Claudio finally accepts marriage:

I'll hold my mind were she an Ethiope.
Which is the lady I must seize upon?

Why, then she's mine. Sweet, let me see your face.                                      (V, iv, 38, 53, 55)

undermine the expected harmony of the comedy's conclusion. I think it is important to realize that it does so not because of a moral deficiency in Claudio's character, but because it deflects the two moral inquisitions that the crisis had initiated. The Friar, despite his final protestations, is directly shown to have been quite ignorant of Claudio's character:

Friar.   Did not I tell you she was innocent?Leonato.   So are the Prince and Claudio, who accused   her   Upon the error that you heard debated.                                    (V, ii, 1-3)

Claudio's arrogant hostility toward Hero's 'memory' before her restoration to grace does not matter. Similarly, Benedick's challenge of Claudio, initiated by Beatrice's will, is transformed from a challenge of the social standards on which Claudio bases his honor into a challenge merely caused by a circumstantial event; the circumstances having changed, the challenge fades into subject for boisterous jocularity:

For thy part, Claudio, I did think to have beaten thee, but in that thou art like to be my kinsman, live unbruised and love my cousin.

(11. 115-18)

Further, Benedick relinquishes his unconventionally hostile attitude toward marriage, and, now that they are to be a respectably married couple, he (symbolically, I assume) 'stops' Beatrice's mouth with a kiss (1. 98).

It is usually out of place to speculate subjunctively about the plots of Shakespeare's comedies, but I cannot help wondering what Much Ado would be about if Hero were slandered much earlier in the play instead of well into the fourth act. We might, in such a play, expect a drama with a specifically moral component—moral in the Bradleyian (via Hegelian) sense. Surely the germ of a moral tragedy is evident in Benedick's challenge of Claudio—the 'good' in a society (compassion and love) challenging the 'evil' (egotism) that is produced by the same society, yet in the process of the challenge threatening certain associated aspects of the 'good' (the standards of brotherly loyalty, or the wit and chiding on which this society thrives). No such dialectic develops in Much Ado; the challenge, which at first isolates the moral vacuum of the society, is later itself reabsorbed into the society once the counterpoised parts of the society's codes are rebalanced. In addition, since the catastrophe of misperception is preceded by the lengthy series of voluntary and relatively inconsequential deceptions, we are made to feel that the crisis at the altar differs only in degree from the normal social behavior in the world of the play. Consequently, Benedick's challenge of Claudio, as a reaction to an event that exaggerates without distorting the social norm, is portrayed as itself abnormal; Benedick's perception and Beatrice's vengeful morality appear as socially deviant behavior, which the concluding events of the comedy must reabsorb into its appearance of harmony.

In part this interpretation implies that the behavior of the characters during the play's conclusion is superficial and that Much Ado raises more problems than it can resolve save on the level of plot, an interpretation that incorporates both Rossiter's theory about the play's insulation and similar theories that emphasize the superficial devotion to appearances characteristic of life in Messina. The play itself, however, is not 'insulated' from inquisitions into values, for it is designed so as to off-set and defuse the epistemological inquiries that develop directly from the dramatic events. Moreover, having taken the important step beyond Rossiter's theory and determined that the insulation is within and not around Much Ado, and is self-imposed, I still find it inadequate to conclude that therefore Much Ado is a play about trivial and egotistical people whose concerns will remain superficial because of the quality of their personalities. In Much Ado About Nothing, as throughout Shakespeare, personality is a function of social status, and the emptiness of the aristocratic personality in Much Ado is a function of the lack of opposition that the aristocracy faces as a class, the absence of difficulty in delineation of social boundaries. The triumph over deception that marks the harmonic conclusions of Shakespeare's other comedies is simultaneously a triumph over a challenge to the social order; similarly, epistemology becomes thematically paramount in Shakespeare's tragedies because the protagonist's knowledge about his situation within society is severely challenged by the social and political circumstances within that dramatized society.

In Much Ado the challenges to the social order—Dogberry's and Don John's—are deliberately excluded, as buffoonery and cardboard villainy, in the terms of the dramatic action, for no social superiors accept the 'honor' of Don John in place of the deposed family honor of Leonato, nor do they accept Dogberry's perceptions as competent in place of their own failures at apprehension. Dogberry and Don John propel the plot, but their actions do not affect the qualities of the protagonists' characters. The oppositions through which character is forged in Much Ado are neither the social order and its antithesis, nor reality and mere appearances, but are those between the two distinct socially accepted aristocratic standards against which appearances are measured and whose reconciliation in marriage is the play's final assertion of aristocratic hegemony. In this idealized version of what constitutes a dramatic problem or conflict (could this, after all, be what Rossiter meant in calling Much Ado 'a fantasy of equivocal appearances'?) Shakespeare presents his clearest dramatic statement of the difficulty a ruling class faces in its attempt to isolate itself from inquiry into the traditions and appearances on which it has constructed its scale of values, and of the qualitative loss—on the level of morality and of character—that such an isolation entails. Perhaps this sense of loss is the 'nothing' of the play's title.

Appearance Vs. Reality

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16831

Peter G. Phialas (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Much Ado about Nothing," in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies: The Development of Their Form and Meaning, University of North Carolina Press, 1966, pp. 172-208.

[In the following essay, Phialas explores the use of deceptive appearances in Much Ado about Nothing to advance the romantic action of the two plots and unify the overall structure, theme, and tone of the play, and also assesses the play's attempt to elicit complex reactions from its audience.]

Of the three "joyous" comedies Much Ado About Nothing has been called the least perfect by reason of its alleged failure to integrate successfully the two stories which make up its plot. Strangely enough in this particular point it is thought to be less perfect than The Merchant of Venice, although in truth it far surpasses that play in excellence of structure and unity of tone, as well as in the relative emphasis it places upon the love story and the antagonistic motive represented by Don John. In The Merchant of Venice, … unusually heavy emphasis is placed on that part of its plot which deals with strife and conflict, that is, with the absence of love in human relationships, a theme Shakespeare made indispensable in his comic structure. But in the proportion of that emphasis the romantic theme of the play seems to suffer relative neglect. For instance there is wooing in The Merchant of Venice but the only extensive instance of it occurs in the opening of Act V, and by that time Lorenzo has won the heart of Jessica; for that reason their scene in the gardens of Belmont, though one of wooing, has the air of recapitulation. If we now turn to the Bassanio-Portia love story we shall find something very similar to this. Their wooing consists of a brief encounter before Bassanio addresses himself to the caskets. In the whole scene Portia's role is completely passive, while Bassanio's great speech preceding his choice has the air of semi-formal definition. It is true that in addition to defending the choice of the leaden casket the speech extends the idea of Nerissa's song and thus suggests the nature of true love. But in truth Bassanio's own courtship has scant occasion to mature an external attraction into the ideal attachment which, as he says, is based on inner beauty and worth. What is crucial here is Bassanio's reason for his choice. And although the speech further insists that in love also choice should be based on something more than external beauty, the idea is not made part of Bassanio's own experience of falling in love with Portia. Bassanio wins her without wooing her, and although she had given him "fair speechless messages," there is a cold, almost mechanical quality in his winning her. In short, she is not won through wooing, and this in a romantic comedy must be accounted a deficiency. But it is a deficiency the dramatist will not allow us to notice in the acting of the play, for he engages our interest in absorbing action of one sort or another, including an elopement, which in a love comedy is a great asset.

Now love based on external attraction only is taken up in Much Ado About Nothing and made part of the Claudio-Hero story, where Claudio, having seen Hero, wishes to make her his wife but is unwilling to woo her and instead enlists Don Pedro to do his wooing for him. And here it appears we have yet another motive which one would find alien to the spirit of romantic comedy. But there is wooing enough in the play, though of a special sort, in the love affair of Benedick and Beatrice. The point here made is that Much Ado About Nothing has rather strong and intriguing connections with The Merchant of Venice, at least with its romantic action. Furthermore, we may note that the play takes up a theme attempted in Love's Labour's Lost but here given a fuller treatment both in scope and quality. This is the rejection or pretended rejection of romantic love and wedlock by Benedick and Beatrice, a theme repeated in Phoebe's attitude in As You Like It and Olivia's in Twelfth Night. It is indeed a fundamental, an indispensable, motive of Shakespearean romantic comedy, and its absence in The Merchant of Venice is a further deficiency of its romantic action. Finally, Much Ado About Nothing carries further than any other comedy before it the attempt to elicit from its audience highly complex responses to its stage action, something Shakespeare had achieved in good measure in The Merchant of Venice.…

First we should note that the play deals with the fortunes of two love affairs, and though the two pairs of lovers differ significantly—they are deliberately contrasted—their stories run a rough and slow course: one leads to quick union, then separation, and then reunion; the other is slow and deliberate from beginning to end. Both stories are obstructed, prevented from swift and happy conclusion, by the errors of mere seeming, by the deception of appearance. And this circumstantiality of seeming threads the two stories together in both action and thematic significance. We shall note also that as visual and more significantly "oral" appearance is the means of obstructing love in the play, its technical or stage agency for advancing the action is over-hearing, accurate or inaccurate, and eavesdropping. We shall see that appearances are either put on by characters themselves, as Benedick and Beatrice do, or are created by others, as those practiced by Don John and Don Pedro. What results from this is an action made up of a series of deceptions. For a short while Don Pedro's initial intrigue to woo Hero for Claudio deceives nearly everybody, including Antonio, Leonato, and Benedick. And Don John, likewise misled, convinces Claudio, whom he pretends to take for Benedick, that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself. But the two brothers, incorrigible intriguers that they are, attempt further deceptions, again the one aiming to unite lovers, the other to sever them. Don Pedro directs his intrigue against Benedick and Beatrice, whereas Don John mounts his against Claudio and Hero. It should be noted here that both intrigues depend upon the deception of appearances. In the scene witnessed by Don Pedro and Claudio it seemed that Hero received a lover at her window; in the other, Benedick and Beatrice are informed that though they seem to dislike each other, they are in truth in love. In the church scene after the accusation Hero seems dead, which leads to the Friar's intrigue aimed to deceive Claudio and Don Pedro; and in the final scene Leonato introduces his own little deception by presenting a masked Hero as a cousin.

In addition to this series of deceptions which bind the two stories and advance their action, we should note two points not sufficiently stressed by critics. First, we must remember that in both plots circumstantial appearances, false or otherwise, have to do with love; and second, Benedick's reason for eschewing marriage is his pretended belief that no wife is faithful, that every husband is a cuckold. But this, it turns out, is what Don John seems to believe also and attempts to demonstrate in his intrigue against Hero.

The play opens with Leonato receiving news through a messenger that he will soon be visited by Don Pedro of Arragon, accompanied by his brother Don John and two Italian lords, who, we are told, have done "good service" during a recent military campaign. Of the two Italian lords Claudio, the Florentine, is seriously described as having "borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion." This report of Claudio's achievement, besides indicating his youth and valor, associates him with tears of joy, tears shed by his uncle in Messina upon learning of his nephew's military accomplishments. In addition Claudio's description contrasts him with Benedick, his friend and companion, to whom the earliest allusion, made by Beatrice, is as disparaging as the messenger's reference to Claudio is laudatory. Beatrice calls Benedick "Signior Mountanto," that is, "Signior Duellist," and adds that he is anything but heroic: in truth "a very valiant trencherman," a braggart and a coward. "I pray you," she asks the messenger, "how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed, for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing" (I, i, 42-5). As is appropriate to the content of her speeches, Beatrice's tone is mocking, but without bitterness, indeed gay, and that tone, together with Leonato's comment thereon, precludes overhasty judgment on our part. Claudio and Benedick are thus contrasted in the earliest allusions to them: the one is brave, heroic, associated with tears, honored by Don Pedro; the other is said to be a braggart, unheroic, with scarcely "wit enough to keep himself warm." The one portrait is romantic, the other satiric. The episode shows, furthermore, Beatrice's interest in Benedick, though ostensibly her reason is to heap ridicule upon him.

After the indirect introduction, through the messenger and Beatrice, of Claudio and Benedick, the play brings these two on the stage, together with Don Pedro and Don John the Bastard. During this episode Claudio is not given a single speech, and the actor must of course indicate his interest in Hero, who likewise remains silent in the course of the episode. Their silence is emphasized by the clever and witty dialogue of Benedick and Beatrice, who now take the stage, resuming their unfinished skirmishes of old, and protesting a "dear happiness" that they are not in love with each other. Before leaving the episode we should note two important details. First, the irony in Leonato's protestation to Don Pedro: "Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your Grace, for trouble being gone, comfort should remain; but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave" (I, i, 99-102). Second and far more important, Shakespeare introduces through Benedick the important theme of conjugal infidelity in this early episode. To Don Pedro's question if Hero is his daughter, Leonato replies: "Her mother hath many times told me so." Benedick, unable to resist the opening, asks: "Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?" This is, of course, a brief reference to the theme, but though brief it is the first in a long series of allusions to it by Benedick, for, as noted earlier, he gives his fear of wifely infidelity as the reason for his pretended aversion to the opposite sex, love, and wedlock. This then is the first note, struck early in the play, to be followed by Benedick's comic elaboration, which in turn leads to Don John's making infidelity the basis of his intrigue against Hero. For Don John seems to believe what Benedick pretends to believe about the woes of marriage. What is of note here is that Benedick and Don John are concerned with the same idea, though their attitudes toward it differ. But their concern with the same motif contributes its share towards the play's thematic as well as structural unity.

The third movement of the long opening scene extends and establishes more firmly the contrast between the romantic and satiric attitudes towards love and wedlock as represented by Claudio and Benedick. Having seen Hero twice, Claudio has fallen in love with her though he has evidently exchanged no words with her. He has chosen "by the view," and on her appearance alone he has begun to idealize her. What might have been a more passionate expression of his love for her is held down to hesitant acknowledgment by Benedick's strictures on such matters. It should be noted here that Benedick makes the revealing admission that though he can speak with "simple true judgment" about women, his custom is to be "a professed tyrant to their sex." In the face of this, Claudio is content to call Hero first a "modest young lady," then a "jewel," the "sweetest lady" that he ever looked on. Hero, says Benedick, may be handsome, but Beatrice "exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December." But this is not the reason he tries to dissuade Claudio from marriage. The reason is that a husband is surely a woeful, a pitiful thing. "Is't come to this? In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion? Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again? Go to, i' faith, an thou wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays" (I, i, 199-204).

Even when Don Pedro returns to the stage a moment later, Claudio retains his timidity and guarded expression of his love for Hero, for he is not certain of Don Pedro's attitude. Later on when, left alone with him, he is assured of the latter's more sympathetic response, Claudio breaks out into a much freer account of his feelings and does so in blank verse, the first in the play. But while the three are together on the stage, he is an easy target for the aroused Benedick, who with an assumed tolerance for his friend's infirmity accuses Claudio of being in love. And on his side, Benedick vows, he "will live a bachelor," for although a woman conceived him, none will deceive him: "… that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bungle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none" (11. 242-46). It is his strongest protest against wedlock, what we may call his comic error anticipating his later capitulation which is likewise forecast by Don Pedro's conviction:

I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love.

And a line or two later he adds:

In time the savage bull both bear the yoke.

But Benedick insists on his choice and the reasons for it: "The savage bull may; but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead." Even Claudio adds his own allusion to horns in saying that, if after all this Benedick should take a wife, he would be "horn-mad."

The episode deals in the main with Benedick's over-protesting both his own heresy towards love and his disapproval of Claudio's surrender to it. For this double offense against Cupid he will pay dearly, and all this is ironically anticipated. But of great significance is Benedick's persistence upon the theme of cuckoldry, an idea made part of the general atmosphere of the play. For in accusing all womanhood of infidelity he is introducing the very basis of Hero's later undoing, though ironically Benedick is one of only three characters who are convinced of her innocence. Not only this, but we should note that in the concluding episode of the play Claudio fears Benedick himself would be a "double dealer" if Beatrice "do not look exceedingly narrowly" to him.

As we noted above, when he is left alone with Don Pedro on the stage in the concluding movement of this scene, Claudio leaves no doubt of his love for Hero. This is indicated by the use of verse but more clearly by Claudio's avowal that upon his return

        war-thoughts Have left their places vacant, in their rooms Come thronging soft and delicate desires, All prompting me how fair young Hero is…                                  (11. 303-6)

Don Pedro, fearing that Claudio will be like a lover and "tire the hearer with a book of words," offers to help, to which Claudio responds in the accents of the lover indeed:

How sweetly you do minister to love, That know love's grief by his complexion!

Having presented a timid Claudio as the romantic lover in love with one he knows little about, Shakespeare introduces in the space of a half dozen lines the first instance of deception, the stage device which will propel and control the action of both stories in the play. Don Pedro will assume Claudio's part, will woo and win Hero for him. With this, the long opening scene comes to a close.

Don Pedro's plan to woo Hero for Claudio yields at least two by-products, both ultimately ineffectual, or rather rendered so by the discovery of the error of appearances. The first unforeseen result of Don Pedro's deception is recorded in the brief second scene with Antonio's report to Leonato that a man of his had overheard Don Pedro's plan to woo Hero for himself. The second outcome of Don Pedro's plan to woo Hero in Claudio's name occurs a little later in Act II, scene i, where Don John, pretending to take the masked Claudio for Benedick, tells him that Don Pedro woos for himself. Both of these episodes are brief and their effects are checked later in the same scene when Don Pedro, having won Hero, gives her to Claudio. But these two instances of the errors in seeming serve significant ends; they show how easy it is to be deceived by appearances, visual or oral. Antonio and Leonato are convinced that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, and later so does Benedick. But what is far more important, Claudio, who knows Don Pedro's plan, likewise believes the report of the latter's betrayal of him. Now the fact that three other characters are deceived along with him is intended to mitigate but lightly Claudio's error, for unlike the others he is in on Don Pedro's secret. More significantly the episode lays emphasis on the general ease with which appearances can deceive and anticipates the later and much graver deception of Claudio and Don Pedro by Don John.

The opening scene of Act II, besides Don John's abortive plan to vex Claudio, which occurs at the end of the masked ball, includes Beatrice's own comic hamartia which parallels Benedick's, the masked ball, the union of Claudio and Hero, and Don Pedro's announcement of a second plan in Cupid's behalf: "to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection the one with the other." And he plans to do it through deception.

The scene opens with Beatrice recording her instinctive distrust of Don John and commenting upon his tart looks and excessive reticence. And she adds that a combination of Benedick, who tattles evermore, and Don John, who is "like an image and says nothing," would result in a handsome husband. And when she is told that if she remains shrewish and "too curst," she will never get a husband, she replies:

I shall lessen God's sending that way; for it is said, "God sends a curst cow short horns;" but to a cow too curst he sends none.

Leonato. So, by being too curst, God will send you no horns.

Beatrice. Just, if he send me no husband; for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening. Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face! I had rather lie in the woolen!

(II, i, 23-32)

Her protestation, aside from ironically anticipating her later conversion and thus paralleling Benedick's, resumes and maintains before us his insistence upon cuckoldry. Presently the revellers enter, all masked, and soon they move in sequent pairs within hearing of the audience. In each pair there is pretense of hidden identity, and Benedick and Beatrice, taking advantage of that pretense, ridicule each other without mercy: he by saying that she has had her "good wit out of the 'Hundred Merry Tales'"; and she by calling him the prince's jester, whose gift is in devising "impossible slanders." As with the theme of cuckoldry so the idea of slander is introduced early, to be repeated again and again by different characters until the very air of the play is filled with it. It is after this that Don John tries his initial and briefly successful assault upon Claudio, to be followed by Benedick's concurrence, both to be put aside shortly by Don Pedro's explanation.

Before concluding, the scene records two brief episodes of interest concerning the reluctant lovers. In the midst of his complaints to Don Pedro against Beatrice's ridicule of him during the ball, Benedick suddenly exclaims: "I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgress'd." Equally revealing is Beatrice's own surprising allusion, a moment after Hero and Claudio are united, to her own single state, hitherto by her own description a state of "dear happiness": "Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry "Heighho for a husband!" (11. 330-32) Having heard both, Don Pedro concludes the scene by proposing his second scheme, to undertake one of "Hercules' Labours," to "practice" on Benedick and Beatrice so that they shall fall in love.

In the following scene Don John under Borachio's prompting initiates the parallel intrigue aimed at separating Claudio and Hero even as Don Pedro's aims at uniting Benedick and Beatrice. Both intrigues are to employ appearances, visual and oral, and in both the victims are gulled by being made to believe they have the advantage over those on whom they are eavesdropping.

Don Pedro's intrigue aiming to unite Benedick and Beatrice commences in Act II, scene iii, opening and closing with long and important soliloquies by Benedick, who is the subject of the episode. In his opening soliloquy he states in somewhat formal fashion his comic hamartia, and in attacking love and Claudio's romantic metamorphosis he anticipates a similar attack upon his own later change; at the end of the scene he will be another Claudio. Aside from this structural function the passage is of the greatest significance in that it defines Claudio's change through his love for Hero, a subject upon which much has been written. It is true that Benedick cites no long list of conventional lovers' maladies visited upon Claudio, but he nevertheless isolates pointedly certain details in Claudio's deportment which leave no doubt as to his change and the reasons for it. So far as Benedick is concerned, Claudio's falling in love is both incredible and intolerable: "I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviours to love, will, after he hath laugh'd 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) What Benedick stresses here is not merely that Claudio has fallen in love but that, like himself, he had earlier scorned and laughed at the folly of it in others. Claudio had been quite different, then, before seeing Hero. "I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walk'd ten mile a-foot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake, carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turn'd orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes." (11. 12-22) Unless we accept these lines as expressing the facts in Claudio's behavior, the speech can possess no significance. Professor [Charles T.] Prouty has argued [in The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing, 1950] that "such tirades are a part of Benedick's humor as an enemy of love and are not necessarily true." But if these things are not true, why is Benedick so deeply concerned with them and why does he rehearse them in a soliloquy? As we have noted above, the point to bear in mind is that Claudio is here presented as another Benedick, laughing at lovers and scorning love: and now look at him, Benedick says. He has become "Monsieur Love"! (1. 37) But what really convinces us that Claudio has indeed suffered a lover's changes is Benedick's question: "May I be so converted, and see with these eyes?" It is inconceivable that Benedick should ask if he could "be so converted," that is, as Claudio has been, if he knew all the time that Claudio had not been converted at all. The point is that, in spite of his protestations, Benedick is not certain that he can long resist love, for he answers his own question thus: "I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster; but I'll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me, he shall never make me such a fool." (11. 23-28) It is true that thus far he has resisted love, yet the possibility of his submission is clearly implied in his conclusion: "… till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich shall she be …, virtuous … mild …, noble …, of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God." (11. 30-37) Thus in addition to pointing to his own imminent change in his censure of Claudio, Benedick's soliloquy announces his readiness for such change. For it would not do for Shakespeare to show Benedick suddenly and unexpectedly admitting his love for Beatrice. The soliloquy suggests a psychological state in him which is appropriately receptive to the revelations soon to be made of Beatrice's love of him.

At this point Benedick sees "Monsieur Love" approaching, accompanied by Don Pedro and Leonato, and Balthasar with a lute. And of course Benedick, in hiding in the arbor, does precisely what they want him to do. In the episode which follows, the introduction of music is of the greatest significance, not simply thematic but psychological as well. And yet Balthasar's song has been curiously misunderstood by critics, some of whom make scant allusion to it. As is his habit Shakespeare associates music with love and wooing, and music has become an indispensable symbol of harmony in the plays. And in addition the introduction of music here enables Shakespeare to write a light dialogue between Balthasar and Don Pedro, with much talk of wooing and wooers and noting-nothing, which critics have tended to overinterpret. In passing, it may be noted also that the "atmospheric" term "slander" drops casually from Balthasar's lips (1. 47), doubtless intended for our subconscious. Furthermore Balthasar's lute music elicits Benedick's appropriately anti-romantic, irony-laden response: "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."

But what of the song itself? Although its lines are addressed to "ladies," the words are really meant for Benedick, but its general meaning reaches beyond him and touches the others on the stage, particularly Claudio and Don Pedro:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever.…

Not only Benedick, then, but others as well have deceived or are about to deceive their loving ladies, for men "were deceivers ever," to "one thing constant never." How fittingly ironic that Benedick, who has hitherto made it his duty to question ladies' fidelity, should be addressed with such lines! And presently those on the stage will hint that his hard heart has brought Beatrice close to acts of self-violence! Such men are unworthy, the refrain sings, of ladies' tears.

Then sigh not so, but let them go.…

The second stanza, more clearly than the first, not only alludes to men's deception generally and to the one aimed at Benedick in particular, but also pointedly anticipates Don John's fraud aimed at Hero:

Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,   Of dumps so dull and heavy; The fraud of men was ever so,  Since summer first was leafy.

It cannot be maintained that Balthasar's song converts Benedick, but on the other hand it is clear that it creates a distinct impression, if not directly upon Benedick, certainly upon his subconscious, and indeed our own as well. Its content, then, is relevant both in its allusions to episodes, past and future, and also in creating the right psychological context which puts Benedick on the defensive, so to speak. Furthermore its refrain, with its strongly anticipatory "sounds of woe," forecasts also a comic resolution by asking ladies to convert such sounds into "Hey, nonny, nonny." Finally, the two stanzas with their refrain contribute to the play's over-all unity of tone and atmosphere by placing the two stories in the same thematic and psychological context.

The song having in a sense helped prepare Benedick for the deception, Don Pedro, in an anticipatory note, requests Balthasar to prepare "some excellent music" to be sung "tomorrow night … at the Lady Hero's chamber-window." And then Don Pedro and his two associates turn to the attack. The general tone they create is a master-stroke of psychology which convinces Benedick that Beatrice is indeed enamored of him. Benedick's first response is that "this is a gull," but he then dismisses the thought since so old and grave a "reverence" as Leonato could scarcely practice such "knavery." But Benedick's dismissal of any suspicion has already been determined, so to speak, by the three practicers. Two of them pretend that Beatrice may merely "counterfeit" her passion for Benedick, but Leonato's answer is proof enough: "O God, counterfeit! There was never counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it." (II, iii, 109-11) Benedick is satisfied. Furthermore, their allusions to him, alternating between censure and praise, between his "contemptible spirit," and his "good outward happiness," have such an air of casual and incontestable truth about them that he is put completely at his ease, and disarmed thus he believes all he "overhears."

Benedick's soliloquy which follows the deception balances his opening speech by answering some of its questions. He may, indeed, be "so converted" and by a lady fair and virtuous, two of the attributes he had stipulated in the earlier passage. In the face of Beatrice's imaginary tears, Benedick capitulates, and he records his response to her love in an exquisitely jesting, half-hearted effort at self-deception: "I may chance to have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me, because I have rail'd so long against marriage; but doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.… No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married." (11. 244-52) The passage is one of the most significant in the entire play, for it records with Benedick's individual humor the recognition of his comic error. What must be borne in mind when treating the matter of the play's unity is that Benedick's comic error is precisely what Claudio's had been, for he too, we have seen, had scorned love and its cares in favor of the more becoming occupation of the soldier. Benedick's submission to love follows Claudio's and is in turn followed by Beatrice's. The long scene comes to a close with the entry of Beatrice upon the stage to bid Benedick come to dinner. And suddenly Benedick can "spy some marks of love in her," and can also detect "a double meaning" in what she says. This is so and not so. Beatrice may be enamored of him but there are no marks of love in her, nor does he interpret accurately her double meaning, though her speech may not always reveal her feelings towards him. Certainly she "seems" and "sounds" different to him, but he is deceived!

The opening scene of Act III spreads the same net for Beatrice that has caught Benedick, with Hero leading the hunt. In place of the song with its emotional and psychological contribution, the present scene is written entirely in verse, and it includes the first instance of Beatrice's speech in that medium. Like Benedick, she is made to think that she is eavesdropping whereas she is merely intended to overhear what Hero and Ursula are saying. Their talk is of Benedick's love for her, and they praise his worth while censuring her pride, her wit and scorn. And as they pretend to believe that Beatrice would doubtless flout Benedick if she knew of his love, Hero resolves not to tell her of it.

No; rather I will go to Benedick And counsel him to fight against his passion; And, truly, I'll devise some honest slanders To stain my cousin with.                                         (III, i, 82-85)

The passage parallels much of the earlier scene with Benedick, and Hero's pretense at "slander" not only repeats Balthasar's earlier use of the term before his song, but also intensifies the irony of her own imminent calumny. In brief, Beatrice, who was not unprepared for the change, forswears pride and scorn, and vows to requite Benedick's passion, adding the significant "To bind our loves up in a holy band." Don Pedro's practice upon the reluctant lovers has succeeded in revealing to them their love for each other, and in this there is a fine sense of irony since the trick played upon them had little to do with causing them to fall in love. In other words, there is a kind of self-deception in Don Pedro's notion that bringing Benedick and Beatrice "into a mountain of affection" would be one of "Hercules' labours."

In the following scene of Act III Benedick's conversion into a lover is presented as identical with Claudio's and this of course confirms the parallel between the two men which we noted above. Claudio's strange metamorphosis, so stoutly ridiculed by Benedick earlier in the play, is precisely the change Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio now ridicule in him. He is sadder than he was wont to be, though Don Pedro explains the cause thereof as want of money. But there are other symptoms: he has a "fancy … to strange disguises," affecting a variety of costumes. He "brushes his hat o' mornings," "the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis-balls," "he rubs himself with civet," he washes his face, and paints himself. He must be in love, they conclude, and "the greatest note of it is his melancholy." For "his jesting spirit … is new-crept into a lute-string and now governed with stops." Are not these the very changes Benedick had bewailed and ridiculed in Claudio? The notion that Benedick's tirades against Claudio are not true finds no support here, for the very changes Benedick attacks in Claudio are visible symptoms in himself. His dress, the loss of his beard, his assumed gravity, his reticence—all these we see on the stage, and they are all attributes of the lover. It was certainly necessary for Shakespeare to show these matters in only one of them, and of the two Benedick is the right choice, for he is conceived in a comic vein whereas Claudio is not. And the mocking of the mocker is part of the comic idea of the play. Thus Benedick, who earlier in the play had heaped scornful mockery upon Claudio's love, in the present episode loses his perspective completely. And it is surely the height of comedy to hear his affectedly laconic speech to Leonato: "Old signior, walk aside with me. I have studied eight or nine wise words to speak with you.…" Alas, Benedick the lover has no idea how ridiculously serious he looks and sounds!

Benedick and Leonato having retired to consider Benedick's "eight or nine wise words," Don John enters the stage and accuses Hero of infidelity and offers Don Pedro and Claudio proof "tonight." Since Benedick, in spite of his earlier thrusts at wifely infidelity, would probably reject the accusation—and he does when he hears it in the church scene—he is kept ignorant of the charge against Hero, Don John's "proof," and Claudio's plan to disgrace her at the altar. Furthermore, his exclusion makes it easy for Benedick to align himself with Beatrice in Hero's behalf. And he not only agrees with her and the Friar that there "is some strange misprision in the princes," but divines the cause. "The practice of it," he says, "lives in John the Bastard."

But conviction that Hero is innocent cannot clear her good name. That is done by Dogberry and his fellows created by Shakespeare for that purpose, perhaps with hints from Lyly's Endymion. And what should be noted is that they overhear Borachio describe his slander of Hero. That the watch should accidentally penetrate to the truth while some of the clever ones are duped carries its own simple ironies. But what is far more important is that the watch fails to reveal their discovery before the wedding scene. Thus our suspense and anticipation are maintained, albeit on a lower pitch now since we are most certain that Dogberry will come out with the truth. The scene reveals to us both Borachio's success and Claudio's vow to shame Hero "before the whole congregation," as well as Borachio's apprehension by the watch.

While these matters are thus proceeding, Hero, aided by her maids, makes ready for the wedding. Scene four of Act III is in two parts: the first half deals with Hero's preparation, suddenly clouded by a strange premonition which is soon relieved by Margaret's bawdry; and the second half takes up the teasing of the love-melancholy Beatrice by Hero and her maids, an episode intended to balance the earlier taunting of Benedick by his friends. The final scene of Act III, one of the most ironic in the play, brings Dogberry and Verges to Leonato's house, but though they are possessed of the truth they fail to communicate it to Leonato, for they are tediously deliberate and he is preoccupied and inattentive, and he is shortly called away from them by a messenger who reports the wedding is at hand. That the watch are at least attempting to reveal the truth reduces our anxiety and keeps it on a manageable level, both here and in the wedding scene which follows. Though the emphasis here is upon the comic incongruousness between the inherent ridiculousness of the watch and their assumed dignity, the scene nevertheless anticipates the ultimate righting of Hero's wrong in Leonato's request that Dogberry take the examination of the culprits himself and bring it to him later. Whereupon Dogberry commands his associate to get him "to Francis Seacoal, bid him bring his pen and inkhorn to the gaol.…"

The wedding scene is the most difficult in the play and it has caused much controversy among the critics. Some defend Claudio's role while others find it utterly inexcusable. And more serious than that, most students of the play discover here the division in tone and atmosphere to which E. K. Chambers alludes in his essay on the play [in Shakespeare: A Survey, 1925]. Is it true that the play's "harmony of atmosphere," as he puts it, suffers from the fact that the Claudio-Hero story moves in a melodramatic plane while the story of Benedick and Beatrice moves in a comic plane? Is this distinction between the two stories valid? An examination of the scene refutes Chambers' contention. And although in the foregoing analysis of the play thus far we have seen a blending of the two stories in terms of both theme and structure, the wedding scene is a crucial test of the notion that the play does indeed possess "unity of atmosphere." By way of introduction to our analysis, let us note that the scene presents episodes in the two stories dealing with the same melodramatic motive: Claudio is said to have killed Hero with his accusation, and Benedick, commanded by Beatrice, vows to kill Claudio. And Benedick will come no closer to killing Claudio than the latter comes to killing Hero. That this melodramatic theme is common to both stories is incontestable; yet the fact seems to have escaped those critics who see a fatal division in the atmosphere of the play The initial episode of the scene presents Claudio, in a somewhat self-dramatizing attitude, rejecting Hero before the altar, asserting that she is "but the sign and semblance of her honour." For Claudio, having himself engaged in an action wherein things were not what they seemed—the deception of Benedick—fails to consider that the scene at Hero's window may have been another instance of that same "truth." Aside from the irony inherent in this lapse on his part as well as Don Pedro's, what is of great significance here is the fact that Claudio, though he has fallen in love with Hero, knows nothing about her. There had been no courtship, and he had chosen "by the view" alone: "by the view" he chose Hero and "by the view" he rejects her. No doubt Claudio deserves censure for both choosing and rejecting Hero merely on the basis of externals. And as we noted earlier, this motif relates the play with The Merchant of Venice, wherein Bassanio, as well as Nerissa's song, had insisted upon an understanding of inner worth as the basis of a happy union. For love based on show alone is but fancy "which alters / When it alteration finds." But the injunction not to "choose by the view" does not imply that appearances need be deceptive, and certainly Hero is as true and loyal and innocent as she appears.

Claudio is no doubt an easy mark for Don John's aim, yet Shakespeare provides that our censure of him must not be too severe, for he must not appear utterly undeserving of Hero. To that end Shakespeare makes the evidence against Hero of such strength that not only is Claudio convinced but Don Pedro also and for a while even Leonato. And this last, though it does not completely justify Claudio's conduct at the altar, surely explains much of it. Furthermore, the fact that the cause of the conflict is the work of Don John takes much from whatever force there may be in the charge that Claudio is irresponsible, callous, and cruel. For it must be kept in mind that he is the target of Don John's devilish scheme. Claudio, though not quite the "slandered groom," is nevertheless the one whose happiness is undermined by the slander of Hero.

What Shakespeare is clearly pursuing here is a complex emotional response by the audience. Though we are made unhappy by the rejection of Hero we know that the whole matter will be made right soon, and though we feel that Claudio is somewhat hasty and an easy gull, yet we see two others being gulled with him, and one of them, Leonato, should know—he should certainly feel—that Hero cannot be guilty. The point, then, is a simultaneous experience of conflicting, though not mutually cancelling, emotions on our part. The very same conflict of emotions makes up our response to Beatrice's instant rejection of the accusation and particularly her command to Benedick to kill Claudio. We approve of her vehemence against Hero's accusers and especially Claudio, but we do so knowing all along that the truth is even now being taken down by the officious Dogberry. We know that although Hero has been struck a fearful blow by the rejection, she is not dead; we respond to Beatrice's spirit and her flaming words in defense of Hero; yet we at no time subscribe to her call for Claudio's death. In her command "Kill Claudio!" there is the same melodramatic note which characterizes the rejection of Hero at the altar. And surely Claudio's "sad invention" and Balthasar's song sung over a tomb which the audience knows is empty are no more melodramatic than Benedick's challenge to Claudio in order to avenge Hero's death. In both there is a strong undercurrent of the comic beneath the seeming gravity of appearances.

This complexity of our emotional response to the scene is maintained to the end and particularly in Benedick's deliberate acceptance of Beatrice's command. Though the audience wishes Benedick to challenge Claudio, the knowledge that Hero is alive and that she will soon be vindicated modifies our feelings so that instead of grave apprehension we experience the double pleasure of first having Benedick do what we want him to do—that is to challenge Claudio—and also of knowing that all will be well.

Our controlled anxieties are further relieved by the action of the second and final scene of Act IV, for here the imperious Dogberry, in the company of Verges and appareled in the robes of office, examines Conrade and Borachio, and their deposition reassures us that Hero was indeed wrongfully accused, and adds the very important note that Don John "is this morning secretly stol'n away."

The opening scene of Act V is in three parts, the first two presenting challenges issued to Claudio and the third cancelling these by its revelation of the truth concerning Hero. Nevertheless the first two episodes maintain the complexity of our emotions, for they present first Antonio and Leonato and then Benedick challenging Claudio to a duel. Our response to the challenges is maintained at the level of immediate stage interest rather than of serious apprehension, and there is in both episodes an element of comedy. This is particularly true of Benedick's challenge, wherein he resumes, or rather maintains, his highly self-conscious gravity and laconic speech, both of which present an amusing contrast to his customary ways. To those earlier ways of his, allusion is made in the taunts of Don Pedro and Claudio, who insist that love has "transshaped him" and who threaten to "set the savage bull's horns on the sensible Benedick's head." Their speech, in content and form, contrasts sharply with Benedick's and throws into sharp relief the change love has wrought in him. In all this the intention is to create a comic impression which overlays the apparent gravity of the challenge, and to that impression is added again the casual note that Don John has fled from Messina. The result is that the two episodes elicit the same complexity of emotions to which we alluded earlier, and then with the entry of Dogberry and the watch with their two prisoners our chief anxiety is at long last completely dissipated. But while this is the effect of Borachio's confession upon our feelings, the effect upon Don Pedro's and Claudio's is quite the reverse, for they are now deeply shocked by the knowledge that Hero died innocent. Although there has been an important change in the emotions of both characters and audience, Shakespeare maintains a balance between the apparently serious and the comic. Leonato with apparent gravity requests of Claudio two acts of expiation, the singing of an epitaph over Hero's tomb and the promise to marry Antonio's daughter in lieu of Hero. To Leonato's assumed gravity Claudio adds his own, but of course the scene is kept from becoming maudlin by Dogberry's presence and also by the fact that the audience as well as most of the characters on the stage know that Hero is alive.

Scene iii of Act V extends the favorable turn of events in the preceding scene and points to the happy resolution of the plot. It opens with a colloquy between the irrepressible Margaret and Benedick, who sounds almost like his old self again in the bawdy exchange with her. Their brief episode is followed by a halting song and comment thereupon by Benedick. And here we should notice that Shakespeare is presenting us a somewhat different Benedick. He is in love, he cannot compose or sing love songs, he suffers much more pain than ever Leander did. But Benedick is a lover with a difference, and of course so is Beatrice. Here in his soliloquy he reveals something of Shakespeare's intention, namely to present Benedick as one in love who like Berowne before him is capable of seeing more than the romantic side of love. In other words Benedick is the sort of lover in whom the romantic attitude does not replace what had earlier seemed like an anti-romantic point of view. Instead, the two attitudes are juxtaposed in him. Surely only such a lover would rehearse his ill success in writing sonnets as Benedick does: "I can find out no rhyme to 'lady' but 'baby,' an innocent rhyme; for 'scorn,' 'horn,' a hard rhyme; for 'school,' 'fool,' a babbling rhyme; very ominous endings." (V, ii, 36-39) We should note that Benedick is in love, that he wants and tries to compose a love sonnet but finds it beyond his poetic capabilities. The notion that Benedick yields to the convention only on the surface since he is unable to write a sonnet cannot be accepted. Although he finds the writing of love poems difficult, he persists, and in the closing scene there is reported a

… halting sonnet of his own pure brain, Fashion'd to Beatrice.

In this he is not very different from other lovers, who, though possessing greater facility, produce less than perfect love poems. Certainly such are Orlando's ditties to Rosalind, and Hamlet himself is by no means happy with his "numbers." What matters is not the merits of these lovers as love poets but the fact that they attempt love poetry, and the attempt is an incontestable attribute of the romantic lover. The comic tone of the episode is briefly interrupted by the entry of Beatrice and Benedick's report to her concerning his challenge of Claudio, but it is resumed by Ursula's intelligence that "my lady Hero hath been falsely accused … and that Don John is the author of all.…" And the scene closes appropriately with Benedick's bawdy reply to Beatrice's request that he accompany her to hear further of "this news": "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."

The play's penultimate scene takes us to the churchyard and Leonato's monument for Claudio's mourning rites over Hero. The episode, as we said above, bears some analogy to the challenges offered Claudio earlier in the play particularly in a sense of emptiness occasioned, in both cases, by the fact that Hero has only seemed dead. Furthermore the brief scene in the churchyard, while ostensibly concerned with Hero's memory, is actually a prelude to the happy conclusion now at hand. And this is suggested by Balthasar's song and later by Don Pedro's description of day-break:

The wolves have prey'd; and look, the gentle   day, Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about Dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey.                                (V, iii, 25-27)

The concluding scene of the play begins with Leonato and Benedick expressing their relief at Hero's vindication, and when presently Claudio and Don Pedro enter the stage, Benedick and Claudio extend the feeling of ease and merriment by their bawdy exchange, which, be it noted, reverts for its humor to the cuckold's horn. The ladies are led on stage masked, Claudio takes his bride's hand who then unmasks and shows herself as the real Hero. To their union is then added that of Benedick and Beatrice, both of whom pretend to take each other for pity. But their assumed reluctance is defeated by the evidence of verses which they have composed for each other. Indeed Benedick proves a most philosophic lover when he contemplates his earlier apostasy, alluded to by Don Pedro: "In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it, for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion." (V, iv, 104-9) Benedick's "conclusion" is one of the great utterances in Shakespearean comedy. But lest that moment of gravity should linger overlong, Shakespeare mixes it with the lighter satiric note in Claudio's charge that Benedick may prove a double-dealing husband. And Benedick on his side insists on merry-making, music, and dance before the marriage ceremony. Finally upon spying Don Pedro alone he offers him words of wisdom. "Prince, thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife. There is no staff more reverend than one tipp'd with horn." Much comfort in that staff, yet Benedick is in love and about to be married. The ironic juxtaposition of attitudes is maintained to the very end.

The foregoing analysis of Much Ado About Nothing shows that its two stories are closely related in structure as well as theme and tone, particularly the last, since this aspect of the play has been seriously questioned. Not only are the two stories concerned with the same idea, that is, the effect of appearances on the fortunes of lovers, but also the working out of the several episodes in the two plots is so managed that our responses to them are the same. For instance, we have noted that our general attitude toward certain scenes, and indeed to the play as a whole, is a complex one. And this is particularly true of the way we respond to the deportment of the chief characters. We may approve of Beatrice's defense of Hero but of course we are never at ease with her command that Benedick kill Claudio. Similarly, we are relieved to hear Benedick accuse Don John of responsibility for Hero's abuse, and we are happy to see him align himself with Beatrice; yet we are not quite at ease with his melodramatic resolve to challenge Claudio, especially since he appears convinced that someone else is to blame. Our feelings are complicated further by another matter: though on the moral side we disapprove of Benedick's challenge, our disapproval is greatly dissipated by two details. First, we are never in doubt that all will be well, and second we enjoy Benedick's comic metamorphosis through love, for it is most amusing that this "professed tyrant" to the female sex should now take arms against Claudio, and all for love.

This complexity of response to the story of Benedick and Beatrice is the same as our response to the story of Claudio and Hero, and particularly to the actions and words of Claudio and Leonato. The characters in both plots exhibit ambiguous attitudes and through them elicit complex responses on our part. Claudio is duped by Don John into believing what seems true, yet the way in which he accuses Hero is such that he seems her slanderer. And both the manner and the simple fact of his accusation justify in part Beatrice's vituperation. The same complexity appears in Leonato's response. His attitude towards Hero is mixed, combining easy credulity, despair, and vengefulness. He grieves over Hero's alleged misconduct, yet he is angered by it into wishing her dead indeed; and at the same time he longs to avenge her disgrace.

Whether revealed through direct speech or action or both or obliquely through the incongruity of style in a particular passage, ambiguity or complexity of effect is certainly an incontestable feature of Much Ado About Nothing. In the broadest terms, this complexity of effect, present in both stories and identified as a mixture of the comic and melodramatic, is responsible for a single pervasive tone, the most effective and most subtle means of achieving far greater unity than most critics are willing to admit.

The question of the play's unity of atmosphere is by far the most serious one, but there are other problems concerning Much Ado About Nothing which have a just claim upon our interest. One of these is Professor Prouty's interpretation of the Claudio-Hero story and its relationship to the Benedick-Beatrice plot. The foregoing analysis of the play has, either through direct allusion or by implication, dealt in part with Professor Prouty's view that the Claudio-Hero union is a marriage of convenience, that is, a realistic, non-romantic affair, and that Benedick and Beatrice, another pair of realistic lovers, "are not really enemies of love: they are enemies of the dreary conventions." According to Professor Prouty, we have here "two couples completely opposed to the romantic tradition and these two couples are, in turn, representatives of opposite ideas: for the one, love is a real emotion, for the other, a business arrangement."

Although Claudio early in the play inquires of Don Pedro if Hero is Leonato's only heir, he makes no other reference to the matter, and in the remainder of the play no episode can be cited which supports the view that Claudio is seeking a marriage of convenience. It is true that Claudio does not woo Hero in person, but this is a necessary detail showing that he is in love with Hero without really knowing her. Furthermore, we should note that although Claudio does not woo Hero himself, she is wooed in his person by Don Pedro. But wooed Hero is, and Don Pedro promises Claudio that he will do it in the romantic manner:

I know we shall have revelling to-night. I will assume thy part in some disguise And tell fair Hero I am Claudio. And in her bosom I'll unclasp my heart And take her hearing prisoner with the force And strong encounter of my amorous tale.                                (I, i, 322-27)

And in the next line Don Pedro makes clear that the union will not be one of convenience, for he will broach the subject to Leonato after the wooing, after Hero has been wooed and won:

Then after to her father will I break.…

In addition to this, it is clear from a number of passages that Claudio's feelings are indeed engaged. Certainly the lines describing Hero's attraction have nothing to do with a "business arrangement":

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.…

And when Don Pedro shows the sort of compassion Benedick had refused Claudio, the latter adds:

How sweetly you do minister to love, That knows love's grief by his complexion!

Furthermore that Claudio is indeed in love is shown by the strange changes in him, for according to Benedick he has become a different man: his speech, his dress, his taste in music—all these have changed. And this cannot be one of Benedick's tirades against love and therefore false. If what he says were not true, Benedick would have no reason to rehearse Claudio's changes in a soliloquy, and, more important, he would never ask if he, too, might so change. And of course Benedick does change, and in that particular he repeats Claudio's experience. What both do is first scorn love and lovers, then become lovers themselves, and precisely the same is true of Beatrice. Neither she nor the other two ever attack the conventions of romantic love; they attack love and the opposite sex. And although Claudio's reasons for scorning love are not given in detail, they are said to be those of Benedick, and these are certainly underscored. For the latter, the chief deterrent to marriage is the fear of being cuckolded, which is made as explicit as Shakespeare can make it, and it is one of the themes connecting the two plots. Nor is Beatrice really concerned with the dreary conventions. She makes no allusion to them, and she insists that she is grateful to God for sparing her, not from the conventions, but from a husband.

It is true, of course, that Benedick and Beatrice maintain to the end their negative attitude towards the fashionable code of love-making; in this they do not change. But that attitude is not dramatically exciting, and it is not shown in conflict with any action within the play itself. For instance, such an attitude would be dramatically effective and meaningful if it were contrasted with the attitude represented by Claudio and Hero. But these two are nowhere in the play given the extravagant hyperboles of such lovers as the sonneteering lords of Love's Labour's Lost. The reason is that Shakespeare's concern here is with something else about their love and its contrast with that of Benedick and Beatrice. What is central to the thought of the play is the approach or attitude toward love of the two pairs and the way that attitude changes in the course of the play. For Claudio and Hero love, first swift and superficial, and based entirely on "the view," is slowly and after much pain matured into something of inner worth and permanence. In contrast, Benedick and Beatrice begin by scorning love and each other and they end by falling in love. Thus both pairs of lovers are shown developing, though differently: Claudio and Hero grow towards understanding each other, while Benedick and Beatrice grow towards understanding themselves.

The chief event in the play, then, is the achievement by the lovers of self-awareness and a mature attitude towards love and each other. And the emphasis on this change is yet another step in the evolution of Shakespearean romantic comedy. For here the inner development of the lovers, especially Benedick and Beatrice, is made much more explicit than in both earlier as well as later romantic comedies. In Love's Labour's Lost, for instance, the change in the king and his lords is merely projected rather than achieved at the conclusion of the play. On the other hand, having fully dealt with the theme in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare allows it far less scope in Phoebe's conversion in As You Like It and Olivia's in Twelfth Night. But in these plays he creates Rosalind and Viola who are already possessed of the self-awareness and mature view of love which Beatrice achieves at the conclusion of her play. The psychological exploration of Beatrice's character leads to the conception of the other two heroines, a conception presupposing and transcending her own.

B. K. Lewalski (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Love, Appearance and Reality: Much Ado about Something," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 235-51.

[In the essay below, Lewalski discusses the influence of Neoplatonic and Christian concepts on Shakespeare's treatment of appearance vs. reality in Much Ado about Nothing and the notion of love's ability to distinguish between the two.]

The titles Shakespeare gave to his great romantic comedies—Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or What You Will—suggest that the works are mere divertissements, light entertainments. Naturally enough, Shakespeare's own unassuming pose has often been taken at face value. Critics have been quick to pay tribute to the charm and sheer delightfulness of these works—the witty, graceful, loveable heroines, the atmosphere charged with music and song, the wise humaneness of Shakespeare's perspective—but they have also been quick to invoke the supposed non-serious purpose of these plays to account for their alleged looseness of structure, incredible action, and mingling of realistic and flat characters.

Much Ado especially has elicited such a response. While everyone is enamored of Shakespeare's original characters—Beatrice and Benedick, Dogberry, Verges, and the "Watch"—much disparaging commentary and facile apology has been directed toward the derived Hero-Claudio plot. Even critics who find important unifying motifs in the imagery of deceptions, eavesdroppings, and masques, often argue that the substance of the play is indeed "much ado about nothing," that the love tangles are "all a game." John Russell Brown [in Shakespeare and his Comedies, 1957] is one of a small minority who find serious thematic elements in the play:

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.

Recognition of such concerns in no way denies or undermines the gaiety and lightheartedness of the play, but only suggests that the comic gaiety has a firm underpinning of thematic and intellectual richness. This observation should seem less remarkable now that Northrop Frye [in "The Argument of Comedy," from English Institute Essays, 1948, 1949, reprinted in Leonard F. Dean, Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, 1957] and others have accustomed us to discern the profoundly serious ritual patterns of struggle, death, and rebirth which underlie comedy as a mode. Much Ado sets forth, I believe, a complex theme concerning the various levels of knowledge and love in relation to the confusions of appearance and reality in this world. The theme is grounded in neoplatonism, fused, as was usual in the English Renaissance, with Christian concepts. Such ranges of meaning are evoked through patterns of action, structural contrast, language, and visual image, giving the play both intellectual vigor and structural cohesion.

One important fact sharply distinguishes the comic world of Much Ado from that of Shakespeare's other great romantic comedies: it does not make use of what Frye has happily termed the "green world" or the "second world"—a locale which in some respects suggests the original golden age and which therefore provides a perspective from which to judge the real world. A Midsummer Night's Dream displays the fairy world of the forest; As You Like It has the forest of Arden; Twelfth Night is set entirely in the land of Illyria; The Merchant of Venice presents Belmont as an idealized contrast to the sordid commercial world of Venice. Much Ado, however, like the problem comedies, takes place entirely in the "real world." Messina emphatically does not take on the character of an ideal haven and place of festivity for Don Pedro's victorious forces, as it rather promised to do at first, but instead it remains quite recognizably the real world of intrigues, "practices," confusion, calumny, malice. Yet unlike the problem comedies Much Ado has a kind of "second world" which is a spiritual state rather than a place: the principal characters in both of the plots arrive, after some false starts, at the "state" of true love, and in that idealized condition achieve the heightened perception needed to dispel error and to reorder the confusion rampant in their world.

As several critics have recognized, the predominant feature of life in the world of Messina is the inability to distinguish between appearance and reality, illusion and truth, seeming and being. The wise and the witless, the prudent and the foolish, the rational and the passionate, the good and the bad are alike liable to misapprehension and mistaking, and alike engage in deliberate duping and pretense. This condition of life, knitting together the Claudio-Hero plot, the BeatriceBenedick plot, and the Dogberry-Verges action, is displayed especially in the four central masque or playacting sequences.

The first of these, the masquerade revels at the house of Leonato, takes place in Act II, Scene i, but has been in presparation throughout the entire first act; its primary function with reference to theme is to involve almost all the characters in the problems of pretense, deception, and faulty apprehension. When Don Pedro early in the play promises Claudio that he will woo and win Hero for him in Claudio's disguise, the mere voicing of the plan touches off a chain reaction of misapprehension. Leonato's brother Antonio receives a garbled account of it from an eavesdropping servant to the effect that Don Pedro himself loves Hero and plans to propose to her; Antonio passes on his misinformation to Leonato, who in his turn passes it on to his daughter. The villain Borachio has "whipped him behind an arras" while the plans were being discussed and then tells his erroneous version to Don Pedro's jealous Machiavellian brother Don John, to the effect that Don Pedro plans to "woo Hero for himself, and having obtained her, give her to Count Claudio" (I.iii.55-56). The masquerade then presents successive vignettes of masked dancers in various postures of pretense, disguise, and misinterpretation: Hero pretends that she does not recognize Don Pedro; Margaret and Benedick do not recognize each other; Beatrice pretends not to know the disguised Benedick and he is taken in by the pretense. This atmosphere establishes the condition for Don John's deliberate lie telling the masked Claudio (whom he affects to mistake for Benedick) that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, and for Benedick's similar warning to Claudio based upon his misinterpretation of the tête-à-tête of Hero and Don Pedro during one of the masquerade dances. Though this contretemps is easily resolved when Don Pedro makes up the match between Hero and Claudio, it has been graphically shown that mistake, pretense, and misapprehension are of the very substance of life in Messina.

The second masquerade, or more properly, play-acting, consists of the two scenes acted by the friends of Benedick and Beatrice to cause those witty scorners of love to fall in love with each other, by convincing each one of the other's passion. Ironically, neither the well-meaning gullers nor the principals themselves realize that the deception is based upon a truth, that Benedick and Beatrice have already revealed more than casual feeling for each other. The third masquerade is the nocturnal impersonation by Margaret and Borachio of Hero bidding farewell to a lover on the night before her wedding. Margaret was evidently deceived as to the import of her role, thinking perhaps that she was simply impersonating the "bride of tomorrow" in an innocent pretense which according to folk superstition would bring luck to her own affair with Borachio. This scene is not dramatized but related: by a brilliant stroke the audience hears Borachio brag to Conrade of the plot's success in deceiving Claudio and Don Pedro, and at the same time sees the feckless "watch" eavesdropping and so discovering the treachery—though their witlessness points up the fact that in the world of this play even overt statement of the truth brings no guarantee that it will be understood or will prevail. The fourth masquerade, Hero's pretended death and restoration, is in three parts: first, the wedding pageant in which Don Pedro and Claudio play the roles of persons intending to participate in a wedding ceremony but then cast off these roles and denounce the bride's supposed unchastity; second, the pretense of Hero's death, culminating in the ceremony of mourning carried forth by Claudio at her supposed tomb; third, the new wedding pageant at which Claudio accepts a veiled lady whom he believes to be Hero's cousin but who is of course Hero herself.

Obviously in Messina the conditions of perceiving and knowing are inordinately complex. They are, moreover, inextricably linked to conditions of loving, and as I suggested above, the "state" of true love provides an ambiance in which heightened knowledge of reality can be obtained. These are neoplatonic commonplaces, similar to those which John Vyvyan [in Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty, 1961] finds in some other Shakespearean comedies and cogently analyzes in terms of such Renaissance neoplatonic discourses on love as Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, Spenser's An Hymne in Honour of Beautie, and especially [Baldassare] Castiglione's [The Book of the Courtier, translated by Sir Thomas Hoby, 1561]. Also, although the question of direct sources hardly matters in dealing with neoplatonic Renaissance commonplaces Vyvyan has shown the strong possibility that Shakespeare knew The Courtier directly.

I hope to demonstrate that several of the concepts set forth in Bembo's classic discourse on love in the fourth book of The Courtier provide surprisingly apt categories for analyzing the various levels of action in Much Ado. One such concept is Bembo's relation of kinds of loving or longing to ways of knowing:

Love is nothing else but a certain coveting to enjoy beautie: and for so much as coveting longeth for nothing but for things known, it is requisite that knowledge go evermore before coveting.… Therefore hath nature so ordained that to every vertue of knowledge there is annexed a vertue of longing. And because in our soule there be three manner waies to know, namely, by sense, reason, and understanding: of sense there ariseth appetite or longing, which is common to us with brute beastes: of reason ariseth election or choice, which is proper to man: of understanding, by the which man may be partner with Angels, ariseth will.

A second important concept is Bembo's observation that "most deepe errours" attend the modes of knowing and loving most usual with the young, who tend to be principally attracted to physical beauty and to rely for knowledge chiefly upon the "judgement of sense." Also relevant is Bembo's view of the ascending scale of perfection in knowledge and love which the wise and mature man may climb. Such a man will begin as all lovers do by an attraction and devotion to the physical beauty of some one woman; at the next stage he will be able to recreate his lady's beauty wholly in his imagination, needing thus to rely less on her physical presence; then he will achieve an apprehension of and devotion to all physical beauty conceived as a unity; next he will awaken to the higher beauty of mind and spirit which can be seen only with the eye of the mind; at length he will love this inner beauty and will be led by this loftier love to a higher mode of knowledge, intuitive understanding: "And therefore burning in this most happie flame, she [the soul] ariseth to the noblest part of her which is the understanding, and there no more shadowed with the darke night of earthly matters, seeth the heavenly beautie." The remaining two stages of the scale comprise the lover's apprehension of and fusion with absolute beauty, or God.

Though these neoplatonic commonplaces have offered Shakespeare a framework for developing the themes of the play and for the articulation of its structure, I do not believe that the play becomes a quasi-allegorical treatment of the neoplatonic scale of love, such as Vyvyan finds, for example, in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Rather, in Much Ado (and I think also in the other plays where they are relevant) Shakespeare uses the neoplatonic commonplaces with a radically different emphasis. The neoplatonic focus is upon the progression from the love of particular beauty to apprehension of the universal concept of beauty and finally to union with absolute Beauty itself, whereas Shakespeare always focuses upon the dramatic microcosm. The difference may be demonstrated in the passage in which Benedick relates himself to but also reverses Bembo's stage three. While still a scorner of love Benedick insists that all the excellencies he has hitherto seen in various women must be united in one woman before he will love, and then he discovers to his amazement that they are already so united in Beatrice: instead of forming an abstract concept which will draw together all varieties of beauty into one as Bembo advises, he finds that universal embodied in a living woman. Shakespeare's characters may thus represent stages of or attitudes toward love and knowledge which approximate some of the neoplatonic distinctions, and they may be involved in a progression from less to more perfect modes of loving and knowing, but Shakespeare normally incarnates the ideal states in the "real" characters and cosmos of the drama. Also, as I will argue later, the allusion to Christian archetype at the climax of the play at once points to the ultimate pattern for the incarnation of the ideal in the real, and also suggests the source of those other categories of knowing and loving which are seen in the play to supplement, and in a sense to transcend, the neoplatonic levels.

The clowns are not affected by love but they are part of the knowledge pattern of the play. They occupy a level below, or at least beside, the neoplatonic levels of reason and sense, for they do not attain to knowledge by either path. They cannot apprehend the obvious meanings conveyed to them through hearing and seeing, to say nothing of the higher processes of wit and reason, as their own speech makes clear. Dogberry selecting Seacole to take charge of the watch commends him with a delightfully apt malapropism as "the most senseless and fit man for constable of the watch" (III.iii.21-33), and he also describes Verges, in terms which Leonato turns back upon himself, as one whose "wit is out" (III.v.33). After overhearing a full account of the plot against Hero the watch cannot "make sense" of it; they can only seize upon isolated words and worry them about, as when out of a casual interchange between Borachio and Conrade about the "deformed" fashions of the day they create for themselves that notable character, the thief "Deformed." And their constant malapropisms further confuse the little knowledge they do have when they seek to communicate it to Leonato and others.

Their discovery of the plot and seizure of the villains is in fact a matter of sheer instinct—a true instinct somehow miraculously granted to fools in the very throes of their folly. That this is the level they occupy is evident when they suspect Borachio and Conrade of treachery before anything at all suspicious has been said or done: Borachio's first innocuous remark to his companion, "Stand thee close then under this penthouse, for it drizzles rain, and I will, like a true drunkard, utter all to thee," provokes the watch to immediate, instinctive judgment, "Some treason, masters" (III.iii.97-100). Fools though they are, it is given to them to be in spite of themselves the discoverers and ultimately the revealers of the truth: As Borachio puts it, "What your wisdom could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light" (V.i.220-221).

Beatrice and Benedick endeavor to come to terms with the world through wit, intellect, reason: both are frequently described by their friends as wits, and they engage in constant skirmishes of wit between themselves. As witty, sophisticated rationalists both consider that love produces foolish, mad, fantastical behavior which is quite unworthy of them. Leonato thinks that his niece Beatrice will "never run mad" with love (I.i.85), she herself lays claim to "cold blood" (I.i.120), and she delights in piercing the illusions of romantic love with such realistic comments as the following:

Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig (and full as fantastical); the wedding mannerly modest (as a measure), full of state and ancientry; and then comes Repentance and with his bad leg falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.


Similarly Benedick professes himself a "tyrant" to all the female sex (I.i.157), claims that he will never "look pale with love" (I.i.227), and declares that he will never be brought by love to such foolish and absurd behavior as Claudio displays:

I do much wonder 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.… He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose (like an honest man and a soldier) and now he is turned orthography: his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster, but I'll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me he shall not make me such a fool.


But despite all claims to clear sight by the avoidance of folly and passion, Benedick mistakes and misrepresents Don Pedro's conversation with Hero at the masquerade; both Benedick and Beatrice are taken in by each other's exaggerated railing and scorn; and most important, both are in danger of failing to see the whole rich reality of love, being put off by its foolish appearances.

Beatrice and Benedick are awakened to love through the play-acting of their friends. In the skits acted for their benefit each is told that the other is nearly mad with passion for him, and on the basis of this belief is moved to self-condemnation for the harshness of his own wit and to pity for the other. These allegations are false, for neither Benedick nor Beatrice is ever the slave of passion: love does not turn either of them into an oyster. Yet the falsehood reveals an important truth to each of the lovers—the fact that, despite appearances, the other party does indeed love. Even more important, the skits demonstrate to each that the other party is a rational object of choice for one laying claim to wit and rationality.

The development of these two lovers reflects in general terms but with some significant variations the scale of love and knowledge ascended by Bembo's wise and rational lover. Though preserved by his wit from the usual responses of the sensual lover, Benedick had in fact entered unawares upon the first stage of love, the attraction to his lady's physical beauty above all others: at the outset of the play he testifies that Beatrice exceeds Hero "as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December" (I.i.178-179). Just before the play-acting scene Benedick jestingly offers his revised version of the third stage of the scale as his excuse for not loving any particular lady, declaring that he will not love until he finds one possessed of all the excellencies now scattered among several: she must be rich, wise, virtuous, fair, mild, noble, of good discourse, an excellent musician, and must not dye her hair (II.iii.23-30). This catalogue includes inner qualities as well as external graces, especially in the stipulation that the lady be "wise" and of "good discourse." Benedick has testified his unwillingness to begin by loving one particular lady having only some elements of beauty in the normal neoplatonic way, and he certainly does not expect to find a lady who is the embodiment of all. But in their play-acting Don Pedro and Claudio describe Beatrice as having just the traits Benedick has mentioned, especially emphasizing that she is "exceedingly wise" (II.iii.150). Benedick, reflecting, agrees to every point, not only on the basis of their opinion but by reference to his own very considerable knowledge of her: "I can bear them witness" (II.iii.210-211). Thus immediately upon recognizing that he is in love Benedick is brought to a higher love based chiefly upon the inner qualities, and he promptly affirms this love as a conscious choice based on knowledge: "I will be horribly in love with her" (II.iii.213). Beatrice's development follows the same general pattern. In their playacting her friends accuse her of "Scorn," "Disdain," and self love, declare that these traits have kept her from recognizing true worth in others, and then praise Benedick as just the person who should approve himself to her intelligent choice:

She cannot be so much without true judgment, Having so swift and excellent a wit, As she is prized to have, as to refuse So rare a gentleman as Signior Benedick.                                  (III.i.88-91)

On reflection Beatrice condemns her past conduct, agrees that she knows Benedick's desert herself "better than reportingly" (III.ii.117), and determines to love by conscious choice: "And Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, / Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand" (III.ii.112-113).

Benedick and Beatrice have thus acted out the pattern of Bembo's rational lovers, attracted by physical beauty but regarding the inner qualities of the soul more highly, basing love on genuine knowledge, and accepting it not in terms of mad passion but by conscious choice. This higher love immediately results, as Bembo declared it would, in a new mode of knowledge, a heightened perception of reality. First of all the lovers display an expanded and humanized self-knowledge and knowledge of human nature: though they strive with delightful comic effect to uphold the old raillery and rational standard, and though even at their wedding each declares that he loves the other "no more than reason" (V.iv.76), the bad sonnets that they have tried to write to each other testify that they do indeed love on another plane than that of reason. Convicted, Benedick explicitly renounces foolish consistency, and his observation that "man is a giddy thing" (V.iv.108) signals the lovers' new affirmation of the whole range of human life and activity. Love also enables them to gain a heightened understanding of the confusions of appearance and reality in their world. Specifically, having learned of the deceptions of appearance in their own affair, they are ready to affirm Hero's innocence against all the supposed evidence of the senses. Schooled by the love of her cousin and of Benedick, Beatrice seems to attain in this case to the level of intuitive understanding which in Bembo's categories is above reason; the language of the play alludes to this knowledge as a certitude located in the soul rather than in the reason or the senses. Very soon after Claudio's accusation of Hero and before anyone else queries the judgment Beatrice declares, "On my soul, my cousin is belied" (IV.i.145). Later, when Benedick asks, "Think you in your soul that Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?" she answers instantly, "Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul" (IV.i.324-326).

Benedick must act in this case in terms of faith rather than of intuitive insight (after all he does not know Hero well). But through the medium of faith he also attains to the truth hidden to most of the others. Shortly after the accusation he tells Beatrice, "Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged," and his love of Beatrice is made the medium for firmly establishing his faith, for she commands him just after his first open avowal of love to "kill Claudio" in a duel in defense of Hero's innocence. He agrees at length, relying firmly and explicitly on Beatrice's declaration of her "soul-knowledge" against the ocular evidence attested to by his good friends; the earlier description of Benedick as one hesitant to fight a duel further emphasizes the strength of this faith. Though the challenge to the duel is not permitted to become serious (we know that the Watch have already made their discoveries) yet Benedick by this gesture shows his readiness to risk himself totally, as well as his friend, in the service of an unproved inner certitude revealed to intuition and faith and wholly opposed to the seeming evidence of the senses.

Claudio and Hero approach knowledge and love in terms of the evidence of the senses. The focus is upon Claudio: Hero is little more than an object for his affections at the beginning of the play, and at the end she is a means by which Claudio's education in love is completed. Nevertheless her "silence" paralleling that of Claudio (II.i.281-286) and her evident eagerness to be married at once (III.i.101) suggest that she is also a lover acting primarily in terms of sense and passion.

Claudio fits the pattern of Bembo's typical "young" lover who acts primarily in terms of sense knowledge rather than reason, and is moved by desire and passion rather than the higher love—one who, in short, does not advance beyond the first stage of the scale. The language of the play identifies Claudio quite precisely as such a figure. In him the irascible and the desiring portions of the soul (to invoke Plato's terms) are especially developed: he has just returned from the war where he did the "feats of a lion" (I.i.15) and he is attracted to Hero chiefly in terms of the beauties apparent to his eye, "In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on" (I.i.174-175). He terms his attraction to her "my passion" (I.i.201); his comment, "That I love her, I feel" (I.i.210), indicates that the attraction is located in feeling rather than in knowledge; and his hesitancy to use the word "love" to describe his feeling, preferring rather to speak of his liking and his desires, is evident in his explanation to Don Pedro:

       O my Lord, When you went onward on this ended action, I looked upon her with a soldier's eye, That liked, but had a rougher task in hand Than to drive liking to the name of love; But now I am returned, 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 liked her ere I went to wars.                           (I.ii.272-280 [italics mine])

At length, when the marriage is arranged, Claudio appeals to his "silence" as evidence of his love (II.i.277-280), though the marked contrast of this behavior to the constant speech of Benedick and Beatrice suggests that the silence is appropriate to feeling grounded in sense rather than in reason. He also uses the term "dote," suggestive of the force of his passion, though his declaration, "I give away myself for you" suggests a basis which might develop into true love. The strongest evidence that Claudio is propelled chiefly by desire is the answer he immediately blurts forth to Don Pedro's question as to when the marriage shall take place: "Tomorrow, my lord. Time goes on crutches till Love have all his rites" (II.ii.322-323). In striking contrast to Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio does not know his Lady's inner qualities and obviously feels no need to discover them through discourse of reason; significantly, he neither suspects nor expects his lady to be wise. Rather, he simply assumes that the fair exterior connotes and images forth her inner beauty and virtue.

His language makes clear that Claudio is propelled by desire and sense attraction, that he is not simply making a "mariage de convenance" as Charles T. Prouty suggests [in The Sources of Much Ado]. Yet Claudio is not naive: if reliance on sense knowledge leads him on the one hand to passion and desire (with all the errors which may attend these states) it leads him on the other hand to a prudent testing of the appearances to assure himself that they are indeed what he thinks them to be. Thus he solicits Benedick's opinion of Hero's modest demeanor and fairness, inquires delicately of Don Pedro regarding her wealth, and welcomes Don Pedro's good offices in speaking for him to Hero and Leonato.

But this alliance of desire and prudence carried forth on the basis of sense knowledge leads not to true love and true knowledge but to constant mistaking and misapprehension. Claudio mistakes and mistrusts Don Pedro on the basis of Don John's lie and Benedick's mistaken impression at the revels. And both Claudio and Don Pedro are taken in by what appears to be the clear evidence of their own eyes when Borachio and Margaret masquerade as Hero and a lover. Accordingly, the greatest irony of the play as well as a precise statement of its problem is carried in Don John's speech as he prepares them to mistake that masquerade: "If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know.… When you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly" (III.ii.105-108). In the world of this play, precisely what one dare not do is to trust the evidence of the senses and to proceed on the assumption that sense perception is true knowledge.

The interrupted wedding ceremony displays the bankruptcy of sense knowledge. Claudio thinks that he has now repudiated appearances and seemings, but in fact he only substitutes belief in one appearance (the scene supposedly showing Hero's infidelity) for belief in the "appearance" of her virtue as imaged in her physical beauty, to which he originally gave credence. His thoughts now run constantly on the opposition of seeming and being: "She's but the sign and semblance of her honor. / Behold how like a maid she blushes here! / O what authority and show of truth / Can cunning sin cover itself withal" (IV.i.31-34). Or again, "Would you not swear / All you that see her, that she were a maid / By these exterior shows? / But she is none" (IV.i.36-38). Or yet again, "Out on the seeming! I will write against it. / You seem to me as Dian in her orb, / … But you are more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus" (IV.i.54-58). He ends with a complete repudiation of external beauty as an evidence of virtue and renounces all trust in sense as a means to understanding: "For thee I'll lock up all the gates of Love, / And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang, / To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm, / And never shall it more be gracious" (IV.i.103-106). But ironically, for all his repudiations he is now more seriously confused than ever by appearances, since the external appearances of beauty and virtue in Hero are indeed a sign of true inner beauty. And he compounds his mistakes by interpreting Hero's silence and her swooning at his accusation as further indications of guilt, and by his ready belief in the false report of her death. Don Pedro is also taken in by all the errors: the alliance of desire and prudence judging in terms of sense knowledge can find no way out of the impasse of the confusing appearances.

Claudio's instruction in the better ways of knowledge and love is in two stages, both developing from the Friar's proposal that Hero feign death. The Friar himself, it ought to be noted, is not deceived by appearances, but neither does he totally repudiate them: as a good Platonist he takes the lady's physical beauty as a sign of her inner virtue, and regards her blushes and tremors as evidence of her innocence, but he interprets these external signs not merely at their face value but in the perspective provided by his age, his studies, his long experience, and his religious calling. The Friar's expectation as regards Claudio is stated in rather specific Platonic terms, to the effect that his brooding upon Hero's reported death will aid his advance along the scale of love. The Friar expects that this brooding will bring "into his study of imagination" not the false appearances of Hero's guilt but rather what he really knows of her "if ever love had interest in his liver," namely, the true Platonic form or essence of her virtue, "the Idaea of her life" which was imaged forth in "every lovely organ" of her physical beauty. And he expects that Claudio will finally come to see this not with physical sight or even with imagination but with "the eye and prospect of his soul" (IV.i.222-232). Something like this neoplatonic process of coming to recognize the inner reality does seem at length to work upon Hero's father Leonato, who believed her guilty at first but later affirms her innocence on the basis of heightened "soul-knowledge," declaring, "My Soul doth tell me Hero is belied" (V.i.42). He is ready to fight a duel to prove this, and is joined in the gesture by Antonio, who presumably has come to a similar insight. Claudio, however, can come to his Platonic recognition of the true "Idaea" of Hero's interior and exterior beauty only after the discovery of the deception: "Sweet Hero now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I loved it first" (V.i.238-239). At this point he awakens, albeit belatedly, to the higher love.

But although he at last becomes a more perfect lover, with his eyes directed to the inner beauty, Claudio cannot advance to the higher stages of perception and love directly, because his former reliance on sense has led to "sin" which, though deriving from a "mistake" is yet culpable. His offer to Leonato clearly states his recognition of that fact, "Choose your revenge yourself; / Impose me to what penance your invention / Can lay upon my sin. Yet sinned I not / But in mistaking" (V.i.259-262). As these lines suggest, Claudio's advance in the ways of true knowledge and true love must now proceed through repentance, penance, and faith, and his new insight must be tested. Leonato's conditions and the new marriage constitute that penance, that advance, and that test; the many critics who complain of Claudio's insensitivity or shameful conduct in agreeing to the new marriage so soon after Hero's supposed death have not, I think, fully understood the thematic and symbolic function of these incidents.

Leonato's conditions seem surprisingly easy: Claudio is to clear Hero's reputation, to spend a night mourning at her tomb, and then to marry her cousin who is "almost the copy" of Hero and heir to a yet larger fortune. But in fact the conditions are aptly suited to the "sin." Claudio has relied heretofore solely on the knowledge of the senses; his desire for Hero had been grounded upon her external beauty, and he has wholly mistaken her nature because of such reliance and such focus. He must take the "new" lady wholly on faith, with no sensory confirmation of or prudential inquiry into the truth of Leonato's promises. His language shows that he recognizes the test for what it is: he offers to "dispose" of himself wholly in accordance with Leonato's wishes (V.i.282), and resolves to carry through the marriage "were she an Ethiope" (V.iv.38). He is offered, however, not an Ethiope but a veiled lady whose face he may not see until after he has promised to wed: the senses are not to be mortified but are to be superseded by the gesture of faith involved in accepting the veiled lady. This gesture brings Claudio to true knowledge and the reward of his now perfected love when the lady stands revealed as Hero herself.

Hero's agonizing trial, her "death" and restoration may represent her own education in the higher love and knowledge, but this motif is not developed. Rather, here as almost always throughout the play she functions chiefly as an object for Claudio's response. Her feigned "death," the ceremony of mourning at her tomb, her reappearance under a veil, and her final revelation in all her former loveliness constitute a sequence of events to which Claudio must relate by a gesture of faith and which become thereby the means for his reclamation and growth in love. The Friar had earlier suggested something of the significance of this masquerade: "Come, lady, die to live" (IV.i.252), and again, "But on this travail look for greater birth" (IV.i.212). At one level Hero's masquerade would seem to incorporate an allusion—an allusion simply; we are not in the realm of allegory—to Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, displaying thereby to Claudio the meaning of his own experience in terms of its ultimate archetype. Christ's death and resurrection presents the archetype of sacrificial love for the restoration of others, and of divine reality veiled in human form so as to be wholly invisible to sense perception and revealed only to faith.

This allusion, at this climactic moment, underscores the fact that the neoplatonic scale has been modified in the play by the addition of other categories which make it more relevant to the human condition of sin, weakness, and error. Now at the apex of the ladder of love is the concept of love as redemptive sacrifice (imaged forth in Hero); and intersecting with the Platonic categories of knowledge are two other levels—the true instinct granted to the foolish Watch, and the faith exhibited by Benedick and Claudio. Only because of these new terms—love as redemptive sacrifice and knowledge as faith—is the Platonic ascent possible to such as Claudio. These terms receive illumination not from Bembo but from St. Paul:

For the … cross is to them that perish foolishness, but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.…

God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.

(I Cor. i:18-19,27)

Beatrice And Benedick

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11083

Larry S. Champion (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Comedies of Identity," in The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy: A Study in Dramatic Perspective, Harvard University Press, 1970, pp. 60-95.

[In the following essay, Champion asserts that the "merry war" between Beatrice and Benedick is the central action of Much Ado about Nothing, contending that "the Hero-Claudio affair functions as a veil of fiction which maintains the clarity of the viewer's comic perspective on Benedick and Beatrice."]

In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick, Beatrice, and Don John are depicted on the level of identity. The personality of Don John … does not alter in the course of the play, but the action results in exposing him to the surrounding characters for the hypocrite and would-be villain that he is. On the other hand, Benedick and Beatrice do develop; at the outset both consider themselves impervious to love—indeed their greatest pleasure is in mocking the opposite sex—and each regards marriage as the most purgatorial experience conceivable. The action of the play humorously mocks them from this unnatural position, and, although there is no basic transformation of spiritual values such as will occur in the final comedies, the result is nonetheless a development or growth in self-knowledge. Each, convinced he is the object of the other's adoration, chides himself for prideful disdain and, though not without some difficulty, accepts the affection and amazingly finds himself reciprocating.

To be sure, Shakespeare has previously capitalized upon the humor of love's mocker becoming love's victim. But … the characters of the earlier comedies, like Valentine and Biron, for example, are maneuvered from a position of antilover to that of Petrarchan fawner or from a posture of fawning fidelity to one of crass infidelity in such broad and rapid fashion as to discourage any credibility of characterization. With no credible motivation, the emphasis is upon the humor of the situation; the characters are merely pawns whose changes in attitude are peremptorily announced, not lived through. Moreover, in the cases of Ferdinand, Biron, Longaville, and Dumain, the drastic alteration in their attitude toward romance is not immediately accepted by the opposite sex, though by implication it will be reciprocated one year later; the unnatural pledge of social abstinence for one year sworn by the king for the sake of love at the end of the play is, after all, only two years less ridiculous than a similar unnatural pledge for three years against love at the beginning. In any event, if there is indeed a growth in social wisdom which is ultimately to make the lords and ladies compatible in love, it is, as implied by the ladies, a character development which will occur outside the play during the year's penance, after which each lady will accept her lover if he has remained true to his vow. The effectiveness of the play again arises from the stylized inconsistencies of one-dimensional characters who are funny because of the situation in which they are placed.

Benedick and Beatrice, however, are presented as realistic human characters, who with credible motivation develop in their attitude toward love during the course of the play. Instead of creating broad comedy at the expense of plausible characterization, the playwright dramatizes the stages of their social maturation, and the humor arises from character rather than from action.

In the opening scene, the "merry war" between these two mockers is clearly established as the dominant theme. Certainly before tacitly accepting Hero and Claudio as the main characters of the play, we should reconsider the centrality of Benedick and Beatrice to the plot. For one thing, Shakespeare specifically introduces the theme of the sparring mockers before the theme of melodramatic romance. Nowhere else does he give such primary emphasis to a "subplot"; obviously, when all principals first come on stage together, our major interest is not in the love-at-first-sight which develops between two relatively pallid characters, but in the development of the "merry war" between the witty sparks. For another thing, it is Benedick and Beatrice who sustain our dramatic interest through the mid-portion of the play; once their comic traps are set, we as spectators merely bide our time for the next private encounter of Benedick and Beatrice as we observe the fortunes and misfortunes of Hero and Claudio. And, quite frankly, it is their fate which much more viably concerns us than that of the gullible "hero" and the passively victimized "heroine."

Beatrice's first words mock her male adversary and squarely establish the comic foundations for their subsequent verbal parrying. As a messenger informs Leonato, Governor of Messina, of the imminent arrival of the Prince of Arragon and his forces, she mockingly inquires: "I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return'd from the wars or no? … I pray you, how many hath he kill'd and eaten in these wars? … for indeed I promised to eat all of his killing" (I, i, 30-31, 42-45). Obviously her tilt with this "very valiant trencherman," this "stuff'd man" (51, 58-59), antedates the play. In their last encounter, she reports, "four of his five wits went halting off … if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left to be known a reasonable creature" (66, 67-71). " … not till a hot January" will she ever abide him or any other man! When Benedick comes on stage, her railing tongue is quick to continue the attack. He has no more than opened his mouth when she blurts: "I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you" (117-118). Such is his personality that "Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if [he] come in her presence" (123-124). With ominous bluntness she proclaims herself an antilover: "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me" (132-133).

Benedick is no less adept with the insulting barb. Expressing surprise that "my dear Lady Disdain" is still living, he mocks her for hiding her romantic interest in him and pompously avers that, for the sake of the ladies, "I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart" (127-128); though "loved of all ladies … truly, I love none." A few moments later, asked by Claudio to comment on Hero's beauty, Benedick seizes the opportunity to broaden his attack upon the fatuity of love: "Is't come to this? 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? … Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor" (199-202, 244-248). Should he ever fall victim to love, he proclaims that the bull's horns are to be set on his head and that he is to be placed on exhibit with the appropriate placards: "Here is good horse to hire … Here you may see Benedick the married man" (268-270).

While the actual skirmish between the antilovers is brief, Benedick and Beatrice have clearly revealed that they have far more than a casual interest in one another but that their pride will never allow them to admit it. Act II provides repetition and intensification of this theme just prior to the central exposure scenes. Each antilover appears to restate his convictions to a friend who is contemplating marriage, and again a momentary encounter adds spice to their charges. Beatrice, chiding Hero as love's fool, asserts that she thanks God morning and evening that he has sent her no husband. She can "not endure a husband with a beard on his face" (II, i, 30-31), yet a youth without a beard is too young for her. By remaining a maid she will avoid hell and gain heaven. Not until men are made of something more valiant than dust and not until she is convinced that a man, descended like her from Adam, is not her kindred will she be "fitted with a husband." As a realistic and pragmatic person, she prides herself on being able to "see a church by daylight" (85-86): "wooing, wedding, and repenting, is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque pace; the first suit is hot and hasty, like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the wedding, mannerly-modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance and, with his bad legs, falls into the cinque pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave" (76-83). As for Benedick, smarting from Beatrice's remarks during a masked ball that he is "the Prince's jester, a very dull fool" (142), he would not marry this "infernal Ate in good apparel" (263), "though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgress'd" (258-260). He would undertake any mission "rather than hold three words' conference with this harpy … I cannot endure my Lady Tongue" (279-280, 283-284).

The playwright, in effect, has provided both antilovers sufficient rope to become totally ensnared in their unnatural postures. Yet he applies the slip knot in such a way as to make their victimization by Cupid thoroughly plausible. Each thinks the other dotes on him and suffers as a consequence of the unrequited passion; hence, each, gratifying his own ego, is able to justify through reason the attitude to which passion is leading him. At least for the moment, neither is forced to swallow his pride whole cloth. Benedick overhears that Beatrice "loves him with an enranged affection" (II, iii, 104-105); she is up "twenty times a night" falling, weeping, sobbing, beating her heart, tearing her hair, praying, cursing: "O sweet Benedick! God give me patience!" (154-155). Beatrice, in turn, over-hears that Benedick loves her "entirely"; he is "Consume[d] away in sighs, waste[d] inwardly" (III, i, 37, 78). She hears herself branded "self-endeared," hardhearted, disdainful, and scornful (49-56). With her "carping" she

  turns … every man the wrong side out, And never gives to truth and virtue that Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.                                      (68-70)

Both profit from the net prepared for them. Forced to admit their stubborn pride to themselves, they for the first time can recognize affection for what it is. As Benedick exclaims in soliloquy: "Love me! why, it must be requited … I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending … I will be horribly in love with her … When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married" (II, iii, 232, 236-238, 243-244, 250-252). So likewise Beatrice in soliloquy proclaims:

Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so   much? Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride,  adieu! … And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.                    (III, i, 108-109, 111-112)

If the spectator is to be convinced of the validity of this change in attitude, the verbal warriors must successfully overcome two obstacles: the next confrontation with their friends, who can be expected to mock them mercilessly, and their next private meeting, in which for a critical moment each will probe for signs of affection in the other while his own wit will be poised for self-defense. Benedick's first test comes almost immediately, and, in the face of his companions' laughter, his forthright intentions to reveal all ("Gallants, I am not as I have been" [III, ii, 15]) wither to a transparent subterfuge ("I have the toothache" [21]). But he swallows his pride and by submission admits the truth as his friends mock his new clothes, his combed hair, his shaved and scented face, and his subdued wit, "which is now crept into a lute-string and now govern'd by stops" (60-61). Beatrice, too, bites her tongue and her pride a few scenes later. Claiming that she is "out of all other tune," "exceeding ill," "stuff'd" (III, iv, 43, 53, 64), she must abide the mocking prescription that she obtain "distill'd Carduus Benedictus, and lay it to your heart. It is the only thing for a qualm" (73-75).

Shortly thereafter, their brash cynicism gone, they are able, albeit clumsily and hesitatingly, to declare their mutual love: "I will swear by it that you love me; and I will make him eat it that says I love not you" (IV, i, 278-279); "You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you" (285-286). Beatrice's sudden command that Benedick prove his love by killing Claudio signals more than the spectator realizes at first glance: having escaped his egotistical shell in which wit was literally a defensive weapon, each is able for the first time to act compassionately on behalf of another—Beatrice, in giving the command, on behalf of the wronged Hero; Benedick, in finally accepting it, on behalf of Beatrice, who has become painfully convinced of Claudio's villainy. Heretofore, the spectator has viewed only the sharply disdainful sides of both mocking warriors. Now Beatrice reveals a sensitivity and concern for her cousin which points significantly toward those finer qualities of spirit with which love is allied. So, too, Benedick's acceptance in all seriousness of the charge to kill Claudio, erstwhile his best friend, graphically indicates the surrender of his previous values to a new control.

To be sure, the merry warriors are trained for combat, not romance, and their wooing is at times woefully inept. Benedick, for instance, attempting to pen his affection for his mistress, can produce only doggerel. In utter frustration he exclaims: "Marry, I can not show it in rhyme. I have tried. I can find out no rhyme to 'lady' but 'baby,' an innocent rhyme; for 'scorn,' 'horn,' a hard rhyme; for 'school,' 'fool,' a babbling rhyme; very ominous endings. No, I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor I cannot woo in festival terms" (V, ii, 35-41). And both would willingly disown the epistles produced by their companions in the final moments of the play—the "halting sonnet of [Benedick's] own pure brain, / Fashion'd to Beatrice" (V, iv, 87-88) and "another / Writ in [Beatrice's] hand, stol'n from her pocket, / Containing her affection unto Benedick" (88-90). To the last the lovers continue their verbal sparring. But the words no longer have a sting; instead the quip—that is, the form of dialogue which is second nature to them—serves as a device for the final personal and public declaration of their love:

Bene. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.

Beat. I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.

Bene. Peace! I will stop your mouth.

[Kissing her.]

(V, iv, 92-99)

Benedick has the apposite concluding remarks. If he is not the man he was at the beginning of the play, "Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion" (108-109). If the fidelity of woman is an uncertain factor, at least "There is no staff more reverend than one tipp'd with horn," so "get thee a wife, get thee a wife" (124-126).

In short, Benedick's and Beatrice's recognition of their true nature as normal, healthy lovers is credibly experienced in the course of the play. The humor arises from the character development which reveals their true identity to themselves. As in The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, Shakespeare's concern is to create a dramatic structure which will enhance the comic potential of the romantic self-revelation and at the same time will prevent moments of sentimentality from blurring the spectator's comic perspective—in effect, a comic vision which will successfully accommodate character development on the level of identity. To this end, he surrounds the "merry war" with a melodramatic plot so stylized that it is virtually impossible for the spectator to become emotionally involved with any part of the action. In effect, the Hero-Claudio affair functions as a veil of fiction which maintains the clarity of the viewer's comic perspective on Benedick and Beatrice. Then, too, several minor figures, such as Leonato and Don Pedro, function sporadically as comic pointers to direct our laughter upon these mockers of love. Finally, in Dogberry and Verges, the playwright creates the bumbling constables who, like the keystone cops later, delight us even while they unwittingly disrupt the law they represent.

The stylized melodramatic action is established immediately following the first skirmish in the "merry war." In the face of Benedick's mockery of love, Claudio peremptorily announces to his friend his romantic interest in Hero ("a jewel" [I, i, 183], "the sweetest lady that ever I look'd on" [189-190]), whom he desires to be "my wife" (198). This passion he relates to Don Pedro who for no ostensible reason proclaims that he will woo her for him by "assum[ing] thy part in some disguise / And tell[ing] fair Hero I am Claudio" (323-324). Into this fantastic scene now stalks Don John announcing that he was "born under Saturn … I cannot hide what I am … I am a plain-dealing villain … seek not to alter me" (I, iii, 12, 14, 33, 39). Welcoming "any model to build mischief on" (48-49) which "may prove food to [his] displeasure" (67-68), he leaps at the least opportunity for evil. The lovesick swain, the pliant and submissive heroine, the proxy wooing, the arrant villain for whom "Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med'cinable" (II, ii, 4-5), each performing a role for which there is no credible motivation—Shakespeare has indeed taken the kingdom of melodrama by storm.

Furthermore, this material is structured so as to provide maximum comic distancing at significant moments in the Benedick-Beatrice action. Specifically, the two major points of melodramatic complication, occurring as needed to offset any tendency on the part of the spectator to react sentimentally to the young sparrers, fantastically mock the misprisions, the observations, the notings, which direct them first to the height of their disdain, then to the height of their passion. As previously described, both Benedick and Beatrice make two appearances early in the play in which they verbally flail each other with increasing intensity. The second of these appearances involves a masked ball with each, behind the disguise of a vizard, leveling his most telling insults (II, i, 134-136, 142-148); not realizing that his assailant is actually within earshot, each assumes he cannot defend himself with the verbal retort, smoulders over the charges, and swears he will get revenge one way or another. As by deception and misprision their merry war reaches its fever pitch, so by misprision Don John makes his first melodramatic attempt to destroy Claudio's happiness. Learning of Don Pedro's intention to woo Hero for Claudio by proxy, he determines to practice upon Claudio by reporting that Don Pedro actually woos for himself, indeed that the intention is to "marry her to-night" (II, i, 176-177). The playwright makes the confusion all the more fantastic for the spectator through the "honest" misrepresentation of Antonio, who by eavesdropping learns of the wooing, but assumes the prince is to woo for himself (I, ii) and so reports his news to Leonato. Even though Don John knows nothing of this misreporting, he is able, despite his saturnine temperament—which is clearly apparent to all—to lead the gullible Claudio to condemn his friend with incredible rapidity:

'Tis certain so; the Prince wooes for himself. Friendship is constant in all other things Save in the office and affairs of love.                                       (181-183)

Both Claudio's suspicion and Don John's intended villainy melodramatically come to nought, as, a few lines later, Don Pedro blithely proclaims: "Here, Claudio, I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won … Name the day of marriage, and God give thee joy!" (309-312). Shakespeare, by obviously ignoring plausible motivation, has stylized the action and thereby provided a kind of comic insulation against the spectator's emotional reaction to the intensity of the wit combat being waged by Benedick and Beatrice.

As by "noting," Benedick and Beatrice in the mid-section of the play become convinced of the other's passionate affection, and through the remainder of the action come haltingly to recognize a reciprocal emotion within themselves, the playwright again uses the subplot for comic distancing. Indeed, Don John's second attack upon Claudio is more obviously stylized than the first. Both the lovesick swain and Don Pedro lend a willing ear to the rogue's slanderous charges against Hero and unquestioningly accept as ultimate proof of her guilt a nocturnal scene which they "note," obviously from such a distance that they cannot determine her facial features. By confronting her with her "shame" at the altar and, with Don John's aid, verbally attacking her with pharisaical gusto, they deny her any reasonable opportunity for self defense. That Claudio would choose to shame her by publicly impugning her character at the altar, that the fair Hero would swoon away into such a deep trance that for a time she was presumed dead, that her own father would likewise condemn her peremptorily and pray that she "not ope thine eyes" for fear that he himself would "strike at thy life," that Beatrice would not expose the inconsistency between the charge that Hero is guilty of "vile encounters … a thousand times in secret" and the fact that "until last night, / [she has] this twelvemonth been her bedfellow," that Margaret should not clear up the whole confusion: all such features combine to make the action sheer absurdity by any measure of plausibility. But just such exaggeration of action and neglect of motivation is, of course, the key to successful melodrama. The bewildering bevy of events which follows provides a fitting capstone to this action: Hero's feigned death, the seriatim challenges to a duel which confront Claudio, his maudlin contrition which leads him to serenade her at the tomb, Leonato's incredible request that since Claudio cannot marry his daughter he marry his niece, the almost bizarre production of "another Hero" at the second altar.

Surrounded by this action, the spectator, however much he becomes interested in Benedick and Beatrice as they quite credibly experience the youthful joys and agonies resulting from ego's conflict with romance, is never permitted to lose his comic perspective or detachment. As we have seen, the transition from love's mocker to love's victim clearly is sincere and gradual and not without those occasional moments of personal frustration arising from a character's being forced to eat his words, to recognize and admit his faults of pride and spite, in short, to expose his vulnerability at the very point of his erstwhile strength. It can hardly be a mere coincidence of revision that Shakespeare in this section of the play has so carefully bolstered the comic perspective through the stylized postures of Hero and Claudio.

Apparently for the same reason, Dogberry and Verges are introduced in the last half of the play. If Shakespeare can be criticized for rather clumsily and peripherally thrusting these characters into the action at such a late stage, as is the case later with Autolycus, the results are not debatable. He gets away with it because the bumbling constables, living virtually in a world of their own, comically endear themselves to the spectator through their general stupidity and through Dogberry's specific linguistic ineptness. This material bears upon our present approach to Shakespeare's artistry in two primary ways. First, the buffoons are introduced precisely at the crucial moment at which Benedick and Beatrice begin to experience their self-revelation; their four appearances in the play span the period during which the jesting warriors must make their initial comments of self-recognition and must individually bear up under the taunting gibes of their companions who are responsible for the earlier eavesdropping scenes. By the time the constables make their final exit (V, i), Benedick and Beatrice are well on their way to becoming lovers as they attempt to pen their affection in lyric form only to find themselves virtually as inept as Dogberry in the use of the King's English. In effect, then, Shakespeare has further reinforced the dramatic perspective during this significant portion of the play. Both the high melodrama of Hero-Claudio and the clumsy antics of Dogberry-Verges create the detached comic veil through which we observe the humanization of character without a consequential loss of comic rapport. Second, Dogberry and Verges, through the verbal misprision that prevents their conveying information concerning Don John's dastardly deeds, create another layer of the mis-noting which prompts much of the action of this play, and which, for example, has earlier served as a romantic catalyst for Benedick and Beatrice. As the end result of one misprision is ultimately to transform Benedick's mockery of love into an admission of love, so the other is to maneuver Borachio from freedom to prison, as he, from sheer frustration at having been arrested and tried in such inarticulate fashion, voluntarily admits his guilt rather than endure any longer the sheer fatuity of his captors. By the time the bumbling constable departs, however—with his malapropian gems, his smug assurance that, in calling him "tedious," Leonato has paid him the highest of compliments, and his furious incredulity that anyone would have the gall to call him an "ass"—he has endeared himself to all in the playhouse save his prisoner.

In addition to these narrative layers, Shakespeare utilizes minor comic pointers who help to focus and to guide the spectator's laughter upon Benedick and Beatrice. No single character serves this function, and the result is an only partially successful scattering of comments from minor characters who at one moment are obviously to be accepted as comic pointers and at another moment as stylized caricatures. Specifically, though, Leonato, Don Pedro, Claudio, Hero, Margaret, and Ursula sporadically provide significant comments as they share with the spectator a practice upon the merry warriors.

In the first portion of the play leading to the eaves-dropping scenes, Leonato and Don Pedro are the comic pointers. Leonato, for instance, caught up at the outset in Beatrice's gibes about Benedick, explains: "There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her. They never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them" (I, i, 62-64). He is quick to remind her that, when Benedick returns, she will have met her match (46-47) and later he avers that, despite her shrewd tongue, "I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband" (II, i, 60-61). In similar fashion, Don Pedro taunts Benedick as "an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty" (I, i, 236-237) and tartly prophesies that "I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love … [I]f ever thou dost fall from this faith, thou wilt prove a notable argument" (249-250, 257-258). Leonato and Don Pedro, then, clearly set the personalities for the spectator. And, appropriately, it is they who implement the scheme by which the mockers will be transformed. Beatrice, who "mocks all her wooers out of suit" (II, i, 364-365), "were an excellent wife for Benedick" (366-367): "O Lord, my lord, if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad" (368-369). Thus Don Pedro is led to devise the plan as difficult as "one of Hercules' labours": "to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection the one with the other … I will teach you how to humour your cousin, that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps, will so practise on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice" (380-383, 395-400).

The additional pointers begin to function at the time of the actual deceptions. Though Leonato and Don Pedro provide most of the conversation which feeds Benedick's passion, Claudio inserts occasional asides to sharpen the comic flavor: "stalk on, stalk on; the fowl sits … Bait the hook well; this fish will bite … If he do not dote on her upon this, I will never trust my expectation" (II, iii, 94-95, 113-114, 219-220). Similarly, as Don Pedro has instructed, Hero and Ursula pour Benedick's adoration into Beatrice's willing ears. Hero observes wryly, "Cupid's crafty arrow … wounds by hearsay … Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps" (III, i, 22-23, 106). And Ursula, like Claudio, provides sporadic progress reports: "The pleasant'st angling is to see the fish … greedily devour the treacherous bait … She's lim'd, I warrant you. We've caught her, madam" (26, 28, 104). Each group pointedly mocks its victim on the next appearance for the alterations in personality which belie the passion of love, Margaret joining with Hero and Ursula for this purpose (III, ii; III, iv).

The major function of the pointers in the play, then, is to maintain the proper comic perspective while establishing the young mockers as antilovers and then arranging and executing the scheme by which their mockery will be tamed and eventually transformed. Once the practice is applied and each victim humorously derided, the pointers as such are removed from the stage, returning in this guise only briefly in the late moments of the action, mockingly to produce love poems as irrefutable evidence that Benedick and Beatrice love each other just prior to their final acceptance of and acknowledgment of love:

Leon. Come, cousin, I am sure you love the   gentleman.Claud. And I'll be sworn upon't that he loves   her; For here's a paper written in his hand, A halting sonnet of his own pure brain, Fashion'd to Beatrice.Hero.         And here's another

Writ in my cousin's hand, stol'n from her pocket, Containing her affection unto Benedick.                                  (V, iv, 84-90)

In sum, while the pointers and the low-comedy characters of Much Ado about Nothing lack the total thematic integration which Shakespeare is to achieve in Twelfth Night, these devices, along with a stylized, melodramatic subplot, do serve to block the spectator's emotional involvement and thereby to provide him a detached perspective through which to enjoy the humanization of two delightful—if brash and egotistical—young people who pay the price for defying love's powers.

Michael D. Friedman (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "'Hush'd on Purpose to Grace Harmony': Wives and Silence in Much Ado about Nothing," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3, October, 1990, pp. 350-63.

[In the essay below, Friedman argues that Beatrice, upon marrying Benedick, "ultimately sacrifices the verbal mastery which constitutes her power in exchange for a hushed existence as Benedick's wife" and suggests a stageable alternative to the play's conclusion.]

In Act II, scene 3 of Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio describes to his liege Don Pedro the twilight's quiet mood as they prepare to hear the singer Balthasar: "How still the evening is, as hush'd on purpose to grace harmony!" (II. iii. 38-39). Claudio means, of course, that the stillness of the evening is the perfect setting for the melodious sounds which are to follow, for the ideal listener blesses the musician with silent attendance. But the harmony represented by music in Much Ado is a marital, as much as a musical, concord. When Benedick calls for pipers to strike up a dance at the end of the play, the harmony produced is, as A. R. Humphreys has noted [in the Arden edition of Much Ado About Nothing, 1981], the "symbol of happy marriage" (218n), a union which I will contend would seem all the more agreeable to the men of Messina if their female partners (particularly Beatrice, "she who blesses") remained "hushed on purpose" to grace the harmony of the relationship.

One can easily imagine the reticent Hero fulfilling this subdued role in her marriage to Claudio, but the talkative, aggressive Beatrice seems, at first glance, to be temperamentally unsuited to such submission. Most studies of Much Ado therefore assume that Beatrice will remain indomitable in marriage, finally achieving a truce with Benedick without relinquishing her self-determination. However, feminist critics recently have begun to point out that in Shakespeare's plays, female power, such as that wielded by Beatrice, often paradoxically serves "to consolidate the status quo of male hierarchy." For example, the power displayed by Shakespeare's comic heroines is almost routinely surrendered to their husbands when they marry, for, as Lynda E. Boose has observed [in "The Family in Shakespearean Studies; or—Studies in the Family of Shakespeareans; or—The Politics of Politics," Renaissance Quarterly 40, 1987], female roles are "invariably qualified by Shakespeare's overriding conviction that social harmony requires male control." Indeed, the restoration of patriarchal forces at the end of Much Ado coincides with the culmination of a gradual process of muting which Beatrice undergoes on her way to becoming a married woman. I will argue that Beatrice, far from preserving her autonomy, ultimately sacrifices the verbal mastery which constitutes her power in exchange for a hushed existence as Benedick's wife.

The contradiction between the eloquence of Beatrice's original subversive position and the play's representation of the eventual stopping of her mouth creates a tension which is seldom communicated effectively in performance. In fact, almost all major stage productions of Much Ado have endeavored to romanticize the reconciliation of the witty lovers and to suggest that any problematic aspects of the conclusion reside in the isolation of Don Pedro, not in the taming of Beatrice by Benedick. Pamela Mason's examination of post-World War II revivals of Much Ado at Stratford-upon-Avon ['Much Ado ' at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1949-76, 1976] revealed that the most common staging of the play's final moments spotlights Benedick and Beatrice dancing alone, slowly deserted by the rest of the company, while the unmarried Prince looks on forlornly from a distance. The 1982 RSC production directed by Terry Hands followed this pattern and ended the sequence with a fadeout on the dancing pair miming an animated discussion ending in a kiss. Such a conclusion leaves the viewer with the impression that Beatrice and Benedick will live out their married lives embroiled in one long, highly-entertaining battle of wits interrupted only periodically by affectionate truces. As emotionally appealing to modern audiences as this projected outcome is, however, the theatrical signs which convey this notion are wholly the product of Hands's directorial elaboration of the brief stage direction "Dance" at the end of the play.

The relative terseness of stage directions in Shakespearean texts gives a director considerable leeway to refashion the plays in light of contemporary social and political concerns. This procedure results in what Kathleen McLuskie [in her "The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure," in Political Shakespeare: New essays incultural materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, 1985] calls "constructed meaning," or "the social meaning of a play [which] depends upon the arrangements of theatrical meaning." Scholarly treatment of this aspect of drama

foregrounds the theatrical devices by which an audience's perception of the action of the play is defined. The focus of critical attention, in other words, shifts from judging the action to analysing the process by which the action presents itself to be judged.

Such an approach necessarily emphasizes the range of choices available to a director for staging a particular sequence and the effect any individual selection has on the constructed meaning of the text.

This shift in the object of scholarly attention is clearly exemplified in Harry Berger's recent reformulation of the text-versus-performance controversy epitomized by his critical dialogue with Richard Levin [Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page, 1989]. While Levin has maintained [in "Performance-Critics vs. Close Readers in the Study of English Renaissance Drama," Modern Language Review 81, 1986] that any interpretation of a Shakespeare play that "cannot be conveyed on the stage could not have been intended by the author and so must be rejected," Berger has countered [in "Text Against Performance in Shakespeare: The Example of Macbeth," Genre 15, 1982] that the meaning gleaned from central interpretive operations, such as the comparison of widely remote speeches, "cannot be adequately conveyed or picked up" in the theater; thus, performance provides an insufficient representation of the full import of the text and should not constitute a test of critical validity. Although Berger has professed that the psychological limitations of theater audiences need not regulate the complexity of textual readings, in his latest work he redefines his approach to the text as a "literary model of stage-centered reading," which "proceeds by a process of correction toward performance, or at least toward performability, taking account of theatrical circumstances but ignoring the constraints imposed by actual playgoing." In this movement "toward performability" in textual analysis Berger reconsiders the assumption, which he once shared with Levin, that certain readings are by their nature unstageable. As Berger now claims,

Stage-centered critics often seem to underestimate the good actor's ability to work up and/or stage complex interpretations, and they often ignore the influence of particular styles or traditions of acting on what counts as an actable interpretation.

In response to Berger's revised position, I offer the notion of a reading's performability as a topic in itself worthy of critical inquiry. Given a textual interpretation, the critic profitably may investigate the historical and theatrical conditions, as well as the performance choices, that might contribute to (or detract from) the expression of such a reading. As an illustration of this approach, I detail in the rest of this essay a stageable alternative to the usual staging of the conclusion of Much Ado based on textual evidence that suggests Beatrice renounces her scathing verbal wit as she approaches marriage.

In the opening scene Beatrice demonstrates the strength of her sharp tongue by emerging victorious in her first "skirmish of wit" with Benedick (I. i. 57-58). The vanquished soldier retreats from this initial encounter only to attack again later from behind the shield of his disguise at Leonato's masque. In an attempt to shame Beatrice into curbing her banter, Benedick rumors that a certain gentleman has accused her of deriving her disdainful wit from the Hundred Merry Tales, a collection of vulgar comic stories. This slander backfires, however, for Beatrice recognizes Benedick and launches a devastating barrage of wit against him. As he later describes the onslaught to Don Pedro, "I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs" (II. i. 230-232). Here, as elsewhere in the play, wit is metaphorically depicted as a piercing weapon. Most often it is a dagger or sword, as when Benedick answers Claudio's request that he display his wit with, "It is in my scabbard, shall I draw it?" (V. i. 125). Through its association with penetrating blades, wit is specified as a uniquely masculine weapon which Beatrice has no business brandishing. As Carol Cook has pointed out [in "'The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor': Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing, " PMLA 101, 1986], Hero's comment on Margaret's verbal thrusts at Beatrice—"There thou prick'st her with a thistle" (III. iv. 71)—suggests that wit retains its phallic, masculine character ("prick'st") even when appropriated by women. Benedick later echoes this notion when he "claims swordlike phallic wit as a masculine prerogative that women wield only through usurpation":

Benedick: And so I pray thee call Beatrice; I   give thee the bucklers. Margaret: Give us the swords, we have   bucklers of our own. Benedick: If you use them, Margaret, you   must put in the pikes with a vice, and they   are dangerous weapons for maids.                              [V. ii. 16-21]

Nevertheless, for the first half of the play, the "vocal Beatrice refuses the subjection of femininity … by placing herself among the men and wielding phallic wit as aggressively as they."

Leonato warns Beatrice that this constant raillery will deter all prospective suitors: "By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue" (II. i. 16-17). Even her future mate Benedick "cannot endure" her when she plays "my Lady Tongue" and tears his masculine ego to shreds (II. i. 257-258). His perfect woman, as he paints out her qualities in the long soliloquy before his gulling scene, is not only "Rich," "wise," virtuous," and "fair," as Beatrice clearly is, but also "mild," which she undoubtedly is not (II. iii. 30-33). Benedick can appreciate female speech in a pleasant and innocuous form, as his additional requirement that his paragon be "of good discourse" indicates (II. iii. 33), but he cannot abide the acute, unrestrained voice of an assertive woman. Margaret Loftus Ranald remarked [in Shakespeare and His Social Context: Essays in Osmotic Knowledge and Literary Interpretation, 1987] with some surprise that Benedick's hypothetical quintessence of womanhood resembles Hero more closely than Beatrice, but this anomaly is easy enough to explain: both Benedick and Claudio would prefer a spouse who understands her subservient position and knows how to modulate her voice in the presence of her husband. Although Hero by habit speaks kindly to men and only when spoken to, Beatrice must be slowly trained to moderate her speech before she can become a congenial wife.

Beatrice's resistance to marriage is based in part on her knowledge of the unequal balance of power between the genders which prevails within it:

Leonato: Well, niece, I hope to see you one   day fitted with a husband. Beatrice: Not till God make men of some   other metal than earth. Would it not grieve   a woman to be overmastered with a piece of   valiant dust, to make an account of her life   to a clod of wayward marl?                                  [II. i. 53-58]

This remark is often taken as evidence of what Carol Thomas Neely has called [in her "Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Comedies," in Shakespeare's "Rough Magic": Renaissance Essays in Honor of C. L. Barber, edited by Peter Erickson and Coppélia Kahn, 1985] Beatrice's "apprehensiveness about the sexual and social submission demanded of women in marriage," but Beatrice does not question that wedlock, if she chooses it, requires such subservience. She laments that there are no men of superior substance, by whom she could be "overmastered" without considering it an insult and to whom she could "make an account of her life" without being debased. The sharp irony of Beatrice's comments on matrimony reveals that she harbors a genuine longing for the type of inclusion in society which marriage allows, coupled with resentment that a wedding ring is a prerequisite for such inclusion. For example, when Hero and Claudio are first betrothed, Beatrice cries, "Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry 'Heigh-ho for a husband!'" (II. i. 299-301). Speaking this passage, an actress may utilize the self-deprecating humor of this lament to expose Beatrice's fear that her habitual disdain of men may someday condemn her to lonely spinsterhood. As Neely has suggested, "Beatrice's aggressive, witty resistance to men and marriage … poignantly reveals her desire for both."

Don Pedro's plot to make Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other resolves the conflict in Beatrice's mind between her desire for marriage and her anxiety over the subjection it involves. Jean Howard has demonstrated [in "Renaissance antitheatricality and the politics of gender and rank in Much Ado About Nothing," in Shakespeare Reproduced, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, 1987] that the Prince's conspiracy not only brings to the surface the witty combatants' concealed mutual affection but also completes "their successful interpolation into particular positions within a gendered social order." Whereas the male conspirators, speaking to be overheard by Benedick, dwell on Beatrice's lovesick torment in an effort to persuade him to become her master and protector,

the conversation staged for Beatrice only briefly focuses on Benedick's suffering. He is presented as the good man any woman would be a fool to scorn, but most of his attention focuses on how unnatural her pride, her wit, and her independence are.

Hero, a bit censorious of her cousin's easy volubility in mixed company, opens the gulling scene by asking Margaret to draw Beatrice away from her conversation with the Prince and Claudio to eaves-drop in the orchard. There Beatrice hears herself faulted for the excessively critical view she takes of her male suitors and the verbal license with which she mocks them:

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.                                  [II. i. 514]

Ursula adds that Beatrice's wit must be "without true judgement" (III. i. 88) because she so often turns it against the rare Signior Benedick, preferring the sport of derision to the appropriate appreciation of his excellences, Once Hero and Ursula convince Beatrice that "Signior Benedick, / For shape, for bearing, argument, and valour, / Goes foremost in report through Italy" (III. i. 95-97), she seems more than willing to abandon her pride and scorn and acknowledge him as the man of superior substance by whom she will allow herself to be overmastered: "And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, / Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand" (III. i. 111-112).

Here Beatrice characterizes herself as a domesticated bird, in Hero's phrase, a "haggard of the rock" (III. i. 36), a female hawk broken to her captor's will after having reached maturity in the wild. This epithet clarifies the difference between the two types of subdued spouse favored by Benedick and Claudio, respectively. Just as some falconers prefer the contained fierceness of the haggard, in spite of the difficulty of training it, to the relative docility of a nestling raised in captivity, some men would rather marry a woman like Beatrice, whose independence makes her harder to subdue but who is more spirited within the bonds of wedlock than a domesticated maid like Hero. Benedick's predilection for the more belligerent of the two women aligns him with a group of Shakespearean comic heroes, including Petruchio and Theseus, who battle, conquer, and eventually marry rebellious females. Such men take pleasure in the combative nature of this courtship; as the Duke of Athens proudly reminds his bride, "I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries" (Midsummer Night's Dream I. i. 16-17). Similarly, Benedick may at one point celebrate the contentious quality of his lovemaking with Beatrice—"Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably" (V. ii. 67)—and yet later feel a self-satisfaction akin to Petruchio's at the thought that his now obedient wife has allowed him to tame her.

Beatrice's confession of her readiness to yield to Benedick's "loving hand" provides the rationale for a shift in the tone of her later comic exchanges with him. After the gulling scenes, Beatrice appears to forsake the piercing wit she used in their earlier caustic skirmishes and move toward a playful, less pointed style of delivery:

Benedick: Sweet Beatrice, wouldst thou come   when I called thee? Beatrice: Yea, signior, and depart when you   bid me. Benedick: O, stay but till then! Beatrice: 'Then' is spoken; fare you well now.                                                 [V. ii. 41-45]

At this point in the play, Beatrice has not said a word since her violent call for revenge against Claudio and her equally vehement condemnation of Benedick's reluctance to undertake it. Following Benedick's resolution to make the challenge which secures their engagement, Beatrice speaks no more "poniards" to stab and wound her lover; instead, she adopts a teasing, deferential attitude formerly reserved for Leonato and the Prince. Although Beatrice might appear to converse mildly in this exchange, as Benedick wishes, her affected courtesy merely masks her subversive but literally obedient manipulation of her future husband's language. Such subversion is one of the few forms of verbal power left open to the woman who forgoes wielding pointed wit.

Upon Beatrice's retirement from the fray, as Ray L. Heffner, Jr. has observed [in "Clues in Much Ado About Nothing," in Teaching Shakespeare, edited by Walter Edens et al., 1977], the role of Messina's female fencer passes to Margaret, who "steps into [Beatrice's] shoes as witty commentator" on the follies of lovers. The transfer of this office occurs on the morning of the wedding, when Hero's gentlewoman baits Beatrice for her unconvincing attempt to pass off her lovesickness as a head cold:

Beatrice: I am stuffed, cousin, I cannot smell. Margaret: A maid, and stuffed! There's goodly  catching of cold. Beatrice: O, God help me, God help me, how  long have you professed apprehension? Margaret: Ever since you left it. Doth not my  wit become me rarely?                                  [III. iv. 59-65]

Now that Beatrice has abandoned her barbed humor, Margaret takes it up and turns it against her, employing a jest very similar to the one Beatrice breaks upon Benedick in Act 1, when she refers to him as "no less than a stuffed man" (I. i. 53). Margaret also flaunts the quickness of her newfound wit near the end of Act III, scene iv by launching a long, breathless burst of wordplay against Beatrice, who asks, "What pace is this that thy tongue keeps?" "Not a false gallop," answers Margaret (III. iv. 87-88). This riding metaphor recalls Benedick's ironic admiration of the swiftness of Beatrice's wit during their first hostile encounter: "I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer" (I. i. 130-131).

Benedick reenacts his initial duel of wits with Beatrice later in the play against a new opponent when he and Margaret square off in the opening segment of Act V scene ii:

Benedick: Thy wit is quick as the greyhound's  mouth, it catches. Margaret: And yours as blunt as the fencer's  foils, which hit, but hurt not. Benedick: A most manly wit, Margaret, it will  not hurt a woman.                               [V. ii. 11-16]

John Wain claimed [in "The Shakespearean lie-detector: Thoughts on 'Much Ado About Nothing,'" Critical Quarterly 9, 1967] that "this scene is entirely without function except in so far as Benedick asks her to go and fetch Beatrice and she agrees to do so," but in this assertion he failed to perceive that when Margaret assumes the role of quick-tongued adversary she becomes "an explicit surrogate for Beatrice" in the exercise of penetrating wit. This substitution serves its ultimate purpose in the final scene, when Leonato takes Margaret to task for her participation in the plot to defame Hero. Whether she knew of the conspiracy or not, Margaret is still guilty of exceeding the boundaries of acceptable female intercourse by speaking with Borachio at night at Hero's chamber window. Interestingly enough, the woman who is charged with one kind of speech infraction has also committed another; like Beatrice, she has appropriated masculine wit to puncture the pride of men. Beatrice is never overtly faulted for this offense, but her surrogate undergoes a public chastisement for violating the proprieties of feminine discourse. Margaret silently and quickly fades from view, and the verbally transgressive woman as a type is effectually chastened.

Even though the "shrewishness" has already been purged from Beatrice's discourse, she must undergo a final verbal subjugation before she can become the ideal nuptial partner for the protagonist. Benedick subdues her once and for all when their love sonnets to each other are produced, thereby "proving" their reciprocal attachment:

Benedick: A miracle! Here's our own hands  against our hearts. Come, I will have thee,  but by this light I take thee for pity. Beatrice: I would not deny you, but by this  good day I yield upon great persuasion, and  partly to save your life, for I was told you  were in a consumption. Benedick: Peace! I will stop your mouth.                                 [V. iv. 91-97]

The staging of this climactic moment raises an interpretive issue with implications for the significance of the sequence in performance. Both editors and directors commonly call for Benedick to kiss Beatrice after speaking the final line of the passage, but Edward Berry [in Shakespeare's Comic Rites, 1984] has drawn attention to a textual crux that allows an alternative to the traditional blocking of the exchange. Pointing out that both the Quarto and Folio assign the speech, "Peace, I will stop your mouth," to Leonato, not Benedick, Berry asserted that Leonato should step in and initiate the kiss that brings the two lovers together, just as another third party, Beatrice, gives directions for Hero and Claudio's kiss at their betrothal: "Speak, cousin, or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and let not him speak neither" (II. i. 292-293). Berry also argued that since Beatrice has already finished speaking, the "mouth" referred to must be Benedick's, but the fact that Beatrice has completed a sentence does not exclude the possibility that she is about to begin a new one when her uncle interrupts her and gestures for Benedick to silence her with a kiss. Leonato's intervention endows Benedick with the patriarchal power to manage his wife's tongue, and the act of accepting this control makes him into a husband. Immediately, Don Pedro asks, "How dost thou, 'Benedick, the married man'?" (IV. ii. 98).

After Benedick kisses her, Beatrice does not speak another word for the remaining twenty-nine lines of the play. The way viewers interpret this silence, if they notice it at all, will depend largely upon the director's staging of the kiss itself and its aftermath. If the lovers melt into a mutual embrace and later, as in Hands's production, they mime a dialogue, spectators will be unlikely to see any major significance in Beatrice's short period of stillness. Such a staging relies, however, on a textual interpretation that privileges the sharp tongue Beatrice wields throughout the first four acts of the play over the muted voice with which she speaks in the fifth. Boose noted the prevalence of such a critical preference when she wrote,

When feminist critiques looked at the marriage structures evoked at the end of comedy, for instance, they tended to focus on the subversively liberating actions that had led up to the conclusion rather than on the hierarchical subordination and the silencing of the comic heroine that often accompany the reimposition of institutions at the end of those same comedies.

An alternative reading might be that Shakespeare clearly gave Beatrice an expressive and compelling voice with which to object to the subservience of the female sex but that in so doing he set up a formidable "straw-woman" whose mouth he stopped in the final scene. When Beatrice, who once advised Hero to contradict even her father's wishes in the choice of a husband, yields willingly to male control, this surrender indicates that masculine domination is "natural," "correct," and "necessary" after all. As Lisa Jardine stated [a Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, 1983], "Misrule is set to rights by astute sleight-of-hand. Beatrice charmingly capitulates."

What Jardine called "sleight-of-hand" is the method through which the potentially disturbing aspects of Beatrice's surrender coincide with and are therefore masked by the happiness the audience feels at her reconciliation with Benedick. Conversely, Kate's long speech at the end of The Taming of the Shrew places the issue of wifely subservience squarely at the center of attention and forces a director to enter into the ideological conflict over the duties of wives in marriage. The conclusion of Much Ado, however, lacks an overt enunciation of this question and only partakes in this discourse if a modern director recognizes the symbolic possibilities of requisite stage actions, such as the kissing of Beatrice, and chooses to use them to foreground the controversy over verbal license in married women. Such a staging would highlight one of the most immediately relevant aspects of the comedy for contemporary spectators.

The Quarto and Folio provide the basis for one such approach to the question of wives and silence in the performance of Much Ado through the possibilities they present for the treatment of Leonato's spouse. According to both texts, two figures in the play's first entrance are "Leonato Governor of Messina" and "Innogen his wife" (I. i. s.d.). The phrase "his wife" then recurs in the list of entering characters for Act II, scene i, but in neither of these scenes, nor anywhere else in the play, does Innogen speak. The first editor to omit her entirely from the play, Theobald, in 1733, gave the following rationalization [quoted in Much Ado About Nothing, New Variorum Edition, edited by Horace Howard Furness, 5th ed., 1899]:

I have ventured to expunge [this name]; there being no mention of her through the play, no one speech addressed to her, nor one syllable spoken to her. Neither is there any one passage, from which we have any reason to determine that Hero's mother was living. It seems as if the poet had in his first plan designed such a character; which, on a survey of it, he found would be superfluous, and therefore he left it out.

Succeeding editors generally have followed Theobald's reasoning in deleting Innogen from the cast of characters, but the claim that there is "no mention of her through the play" is inaccurate, for there is a reference to her in the play's first scene:

Don Pedro: [Looking at Hero] I think this is  your daughter. Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me  so. Benedick: Were you in doubt, sir, that you  asked her? Leonato: Signior Benedick, no, for then you  were a child. Don Pedro: You have it full, Benedick; we  may guess by this what you are, being a  man. Truly the lady fathers herself.                                [I. i. 95-102]

Don Pedro's comment that Hero "fathers herself compliments both Leonato and his wife, for, as Claire McEachern has noted [in "Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism," Shakespeare Quarterly 39, 1988], "Hero's physical resemblance to her father guarantees her mother's fidelity, and with it, her father's honor." Innogen appears as the embodiment of wifely chastity, a quality made all the more apparent by Benedick's comically failed attempt to raise humor in the questioning of it.

This passage also provides a rejoinder to another argument often put forward by scholars in favor of omitting Innogen. Furness, the editor of the Variorum Edition, asked, "But how was the audience to know that she was 'the mother of Hero' or her aunt, or her grandmother, if she neither spoke one word herself nor a single remark was made to her by others?" This question assumes that the meaning of the play is transmitted to an audience wholly in verbal terms, but it is quite easy onstage to indicate a figure's relationship to other characters by visual means alone. For example, as Leonato speaks the line, "Her mother hath many times told me so," he may turn toward Innogen and smile at her. If she then meets his eyes, smiles, and nods in agreement, the audience will have no trouble identifying her as the mother of Hero, despite the fact that the line is not directed to her.

The final justification for the deletion of Innogen stems from the assumption that she was originally conceived as a speaking character, but that, in the words of the New Cambridge editor [F. H. Mares, 1988], "Shakespeare found no use for her as the play developed with his writing. A mother might have mitigated the pathos of the rejected Hero in 4.1, and must surely have had something to say in her daughter's defence." In its pursuit of Shakespeare's original intent, this line of reasoning fails to consider the possibility that a modern director may utilize Innogen as a perpetually mute character, silent even at a time when any "normal" mother, as seen from a twentieth-century perspective, would certainly have voiced strong objections. If Innogen does hold her tongue and conspiciously supports Leonato when he turns against his daughter in the church scene, she will then have shown herself to possess all the characteristics of the virtuous Elizabethan wife: chastity, obedience, and silence.

Brought up by such a mother, it would not be surprising that Hero also should defer obediently to men in all aspects of conversation. In fact, Hero is unable to refute convincingly Claudio's impeachment of her virginity in the church scene precisely because she allows the Count to limit her verbal power to defend herself. He first calls upon Leonato, by "that fatherly and kindly power" that he has over his daughter (IV. i. 74), to enjoin Hero to answer truthfully a question that Claudio will put to her. Hero submits to this paternal command, but she cannot exonerate herself through the circumscribed speech that Claudio's inquiry reduces her to employing, since any answer will prove her guilt:

Claudio: What man was he talk'd with you   yesternight, Out at your window betwixt twelve and one? Now if you are a maid, answer to this. Hero: I talked with no man at that hour, my   lord. Don Pedro: Why, then are you no maiden.                               [IV. i. 83-87]

In order to prove her maidenhood, Hero must name the man with whom she allegedly spoke, but to do so would in itself constitute an admission of immorality. Moreover, when she denies having conversed with any man at all, the Prince seizes this "falsehood" as evidence that Hero is "no maiden."

Don Pedro's connection of "untruthfulness" to unchastity suggests an association between women's verbal license and sexual promiscuity. As Peter Stallybrass has pointed out [in "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson et al., 1986], the writers of Renaissance conduct books for women commonly equated "the closed mouth" with "the enclosed body" and condemned the open mouth as a sign of wantonness. For example, R. Toste wrote in a marginal gloss to his translation of Benedetto Varchi's The Blazon of Jealousie:

Maides must be seene, not heard, or selde or  never, O may I such one wed, If I wed ever. A Maide that hath a lewd Tongue in her head, Worse than if she were found with a Man in  bed.

In Much Ado, the actual crime which Don Pedro claims that he, his brother, and Claudio witnessed Hero commit was that she did "Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window" (IV. i. 91), the same offense for which Margaret is later publicly chastised. As for Beatrice, her freedom of discourse can be condoned, even enjoyed, while she is single; as the Prince tells her, "Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you" (II. i. 312). But Don Pedro may take pleasure in Beatrice's "merry" wit only because he has never felt its sting. Benedick, who has, takes care to stop her mouth at the moment of her marriage, and her speech conforms to the guidelines of wifely modesty for the short duration of the play.

Innogen typifies the woman on the other side of the matrimonial altar from Hero and Beatrice: the chaste, obedient, verbally deferential wife, which both young women become once harmony has been fully established. In order to communicate this idea more forcefully in performance, the focal point of the closing moments of Much Ado can be shifted away from the traditional spotlight on Beatrice and Benedick or slow fade on Don Pedro alone and unmarried to a focus on the situation of the wives of Messina, including Innogen. Her presence at the marriage of her daughter in Act V, scene iv can make a significant contribution to an emphasis on the enforced subservience of wives in the play's final scene.

After Benedick silences Beatrice, he calls for a dance, the stage action which represents the wedded state. This dance may be choreographed so that the men and women are divided into two parallel lines, with the partners facing each other across a short distance. This arrangement not only pairs off the couples about to be married but also preserves the bonds among the males and the females, which the play suggests are as important, if not more important, than the ties across sexual lines which the characters are preparing to celebrate. The dance concluded, all of the men and single women may rush to congratulate Benedick and Claudio, leading them offstage to the chapel with much commotion. On the opposite side of the platform, Innogen may come forward to embrace both Hero and Beatrice, and the three of them may keep the stage, watching silently as their husbands make their exit. Through this staging, a director may exploit the power of tableau to associate Beatrice and Hero with the play's paragon of wifely virtues and thus to imply their own acceptancof the subservient role she represents.

Although the majority of spectators may interpret this staging in a similar manner, there may be less agreement in their emotional reactions to it. While some viewers may find nothing objectionable in the idea that Beatrice will become Benedick's submissive wife, others may be disturbed by this suggestion and complain about being deprived of the unproblematic happy ending they may feel is essential to comedy. This second reaction is precisely the effect a production that seeks to examine the question of wives and silence might strive to provoke. Granted that Beatrice and Benedick seem perfectly matched and destined for an affectionate marriage, in order to achieve it, Beatrice suppresses, at least temporarily, the indomitable spirit and verbal mastery which modern audiences have found her most attractive and distinctive attributes. This suppression, if clearly expressed, introduces a sense of loss which can balance in performance the audience's pleasure in witnessing her joyous union with Benedick. If spectators find an equal emphasis on Beatrice's capitulation to the male hierarchy troubling, the alienation produced by this unexpected focus can give them the detachment to perceive that such submission is not necessarily "correct" and "natural" after all.

Modern directors who object to the subordination and silencing of the comic heroine at the end of a Shakespearean play may deal with this circumstance in either of two ways. On the one hand, they may cut critical passages and use elements of stagecraft to contradict whatever evidence of the heroine's subjugation occurs in the dialogue. This strategy effectively avoids the theatrical reproduction of the sexist values underlying her enforced submission, but it also sacrifices an awareness of the social forces which prescribe her ultimate surrender. The other option, which is to foreground and problematize the notion of wifely subservience, both reveals the ideological conditions which constrain the behavior of female characters and draws upon the dramatic tension these limitations create. Admittedly, such an approach may not elicit the emotional satisfaction which traditional conclusions to comedies like Much Ado have routinely produced, but it does offer the pleasure of a fuller understanding of the play's internal ideological conflict.

Gender Issues

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25817

James Smith

SOURCE: "Much Ado about Nothing: Notes from a Book in Preparation," in Scrutiny, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Spring, 1946, pp. 242-57.

[In the following excerpt, Smith discusses the characterization of relationships between the citizens of Messina.]

It will be remembered that 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 viceversa … 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. Antecedently, 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 shear 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 dear '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 shine … 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. I is 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 piece 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'.…

The few adjectives we have had occasion to apply to Claudio—prim and shallow—suggest this; and so far, we have not studied Claudio with any closeness. Nor as he time yet come to do so; we can however note how everything about his wooing confirms the propriety of adjectives of this kind. His leaving, not only the wooing of Hero, bu the falling in love with her until circumstances are convenient, and

 … warre—thoughts Have left their places vacant

his abandoning that love once it appears the Prince contemplates asserting an opposing claim; his preliminary enquiry

Hath Leonato any sonne my Lord? No childe but Hero, she's his only heir,

and so on: his conduct is of a piece—is conduct, we may add, fitting for a 'Count Comfect', as Beatrice calls him; conduct directed in the first place to the setting up of appearances. Yet it is conduct that, recommending itself to Leonato, earns his emphatic approval. for though he arrogates to himself a merit for forgiving Claudio for an insult which, as yet, everyone assumes to have had fatal consequences, he is careful not to exaggerate this merit. In his eyes, it does not justify him in offering, as a pledge of forgivement, the hand of a niece whom he has not previously declared to be, not only as beautiful, but as rich as Hero. Indeed, she is richer:

… My brother hath a daughter … And she alone is heir to both of us.

Marrying off the young before they have time to get into mischief, and so ruin appearances—

Wisdome and bloud combating in so tender a body, we have ten proofes to one, that bloud hath the victory.

taking care to do so however in such a way that 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 acknowledgment 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 canvass'; 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', be 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.

Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Comedies: Much Ado about Nothing," in Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, Yale University Press, 1985, pp. 24-57.

[In this essay, Neely discusses the influence of the concept of marriage on the themes and structure of Much Ado about Nothing, particularly its effect on the social and emotional relations between the sexes.]

Marriage, no one doubts, is the subject and object of Shakespeare's comedies, which ordinarily conclude with weddings celebrated, recelebrated, or consummated. But throughout these plays broken nuptials counterpoint the festive ceremonies, revealing male and female antagonisms and anxieties that impede the movement toward marriage.

Leo Salingar [in his Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy, 1974] finds broken nuptials the distinctive feature of a number of Shakespeare's plays that have Italian novelle as sources. I extend the implications of the expression, using it to refer to all of the parodic, unusual, or interrupted ceremonies and premature, postponed, or irregular consummations that occur in nearly every comedy from Love's Labor's Lost's deferred weddings to Measure for Measure's premature consummations. The centrality of the motif is reinforced by the fact that Shakespeare added broken nuptials when they are absent from his sources and altered and enlarged those he found there, imbuing them with more complex and wide-ranging functions and significance than they originally had.

Love's Labor's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream lack sources for the plays as a whole, and there are no clear-cut antecedents for the deferred weddings of the one or the Titania-Bottom union of the other. In The Taming of A Shrew, the source/analogue to Shakespeare's play, there is no farcical wedding ceremony, although Ferando, the Petruchio figure, is "basely attired" (scene vii, 1.27) and drags Kate home before the wedding feast. Merchant of Venice's postponed consummation is absent from its primary source, the first tale of the fourth day of Ser Giovanni Fiorentino's II Pecorone, in which the lover, in order to win the lady, "bestow[s] on her the bliss of holy matrimony" and then enjoys her for several months more after the marriage before the bond expires and he must leave for Venice. The ring precipitates only a minor incident when it is given to Portia's analogue, who returns it quickly to her husband without any emphasis on its symbolic value or reconfirmation of the wedding vows. The mock wedding ceremony in As You Like It's source, Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde, is a one-sentence joke initiated by Aliena and Rosalynde: "and so with a smile and a blush, they made up this jesting match, that after proovde to a marriage in earnest." Touchstone and Audrey and their aborted ceremony by Oliver Martext are missing altogether from Lodge's romance.

Where broken nuptials are present in the source, their significance is emphasized and complicated by Shakespeare in his plays. The interrupted ceremony of Much Ado About Nothing, the precipitous marriage of Olivia and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, and the bedtrick consummations of All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure derive from important plot incidents in the sources: Bandello's novella 22, "Timbreo and Fenicia"; the anonymous Gl'Ingannati; the ninth story of the third day of Boccaccio's Decameron; the fifth of the Eighth Decade of Cinthio's Hecatommithi, "The Story of Epitia"; and George Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra. Claudio's violent disruption of the wedding ceremony itself is missing in Bandello, where Timbreo merely sends a friend to Fenicia's house before the wedding to announce the breakingoff of the match. In Gl 'Ingannati, the wedding between the Olivia and Sebastian figures is undertaken with comical haste because Isabella, locked in a room with Fabrizio, has received conclusive proof that he is not a woman in disguise: "before he gave her the ring, my young mistress had given him something too!" Although in the sources of All's Well and Measure for Measure broken marriages and premature comsummations are as central as they are in the plays, Bertram's and Helen's single dark consummation is an event blithely repeated numerous times in Boccaccio's tale, while in none of the sources of Measure is there a surrogate for the Isabella analogue or a bedtrick. Shakespeare appears to have been drawn to sources that contain broken nuptials; he multiplies instances of the motif, heightens its importance, and complicates its significance.

The existence of the motif has implications for study of the comedies' connections, continuity, and development. The pervasiveness and patterning of the motif may provide a way of looking at them as useful as those provided by C. L. Barber's implicit distinction between festive and other comedies [in Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 1963], Sherman Hawkins's division between green-world comedies of extrusion and closed-heart comedies of instrusion [in "The Two Worlds of Shakespearean Comedy," Shakespeare Studies 3, 1967], and Salingar's categories of farcical, woodland, and problem comedies. Exploration of the motif will show that the most important impediments to comic fulfillment lie within the couples themselves and not, as Northrop Frye has influentially argued [in "The Argument of Comedy," English Institute Essays, 1948, edited by D. A. Robertson, Jr., 1949], within the blocking figures, repressive laws, and humor characters of an anticomic society in need of transformation. Senex figures in Shakespearean comedy are marginal, weak, or altogether absent, as in Love's Labor's Lost and Twelfth Night. The fathers in Two Gentlemen of Verona and As You Like It are peripheral to the matchmaking. Attempts by Leonato in Much Ado and the King in All's Well to arrange marriages go awry. Even Portia's father's will, which Frye takes as an example of a repressive law, actually preserves her from unwelcome suitors and selects the desired one. The fathers who deny their daughter's wishes and try to control their matches—Egeus in Midsummer Night's Dream, Baptista in Taming, and Page in Merry Wives—are easily thwarted and ultimately compliant. Shylock, the play's most clear-cut and ruthless senex figure, is powerless to prevent Jessica's elopement and is only an indirect impediment to the marriage of Portia and Bassanio.

Humor characters are more numerous and more important than senex figures. They rarely hinder matches but sometimes reflect in exaggerated form the rigidities, anxieties, and defenses of the lovers themselves. Armado is even more absorbed in his own wit than the lords are in theirs; Malvolio's "love" for Olivia is more fantastical than Orsino's. But often the humor or subplot characters not only parody their betters' affectations but abandon them sooner. Armado gets Jaquenetta pregnant while the lords are still writing sonnets. Bottom acquiesces in his enchantment by Titania more easily than the lovers do in theirs. Gratiano expresses the sexual aspect of marriage more vigorously than Bassanio does, and Parolles's letter to Diana forthrightly exposes both Bertram's intentions and his own. The couples in the plays must overcome their own anxieties, not the blocking mechanisms of a restrictive society. But their inner anxieties of course reflect society's formulaic and constricting attitudes toward male and female roles, sexuality, and the structure and function of marriage.

The broken nuptials express these anxieties and are one means of achieving the release of emotion moving toward clarification which C. L. Barber has explored in the festive comedies. I shall argue, extending Barber's insights, that release of emotion is necessary in all of the comedies, as is some transformation of released emotion, although not precisely the sort that Barber finds characteristic of the late romances. Within the continuity of the comedies which the motif manifests, overall development is likewise apparent. In earlier comedies, irregular nuptials identify and release conflicts, engendering their resolution. In later comedies in which conflicts are severe and anxieties deeply rooted, nuptials are more severely disrupted and resolutions increasingly strained.

In Shakespearean comedy, if wooing is to lead to a wedding ceremony and consummation of the marriage, separation from family and friends must occur, misogyny must be exorcised, romantic idealizing affection must be experienced and qualified, and sexual desire must be acknowledged and controlled. Only then can romance and desire be reconciled in a formal social ceremony. Resistance to marriage is variously manifested and mitigated and is different for men and women. Women often bear a double burden. Once released from their own fears, usually through the actions of other women, they must dispel men's resistance and transform men's emotions.… I will focus on the central instance of broken nuptials in Much Ado About Nothing, showing how this thematically pivotal comedy extends earlier uses of the motif and anticipates its darker configurations in the problem comedies and contemporaneous tragedies.…

Much Ado About Nothing contains the most clear-cut example of broken nuptials—Claudio's interruption of his wedding ceremony to accuse Hero of infidelity. Poised at the center of the comedies, the play looks both backward and forward. Its tensions and its poise are achieved by the interactions of its two plots, its two couples. None of the other comedies includes two such sharply contrasted, subtly interrelated, and equally important couples. While, despite some uneasiness about the issue, critics are generally in agreement that the Claudio/Hero story is the main plot and the Beatrice/Benedick story the subplot, they also concur that the subplot couple is rhetorically richer, dramatically more interesting, and psychologically more complex than the mainplot couple. Discrepancies in the sources, the tone, and the nature of the two plots have generated charges of disunity that have been countered by claims that the two are unified by one or another theme: giddiness, moral complacency, the deceptiveness of appearances. Varied, hesitant, or inadequate attempts to categorize the play, focusing usually on one plot or the other, also suggest that the relationship between the two plots has not been fully understood and confirm and illuminate Much Ado's affinities with both festive and problem comedies.

C. L. Barber implies at a number of points in Shakespeare 's Festive Comedy that Much Ado is like a festive comedy with a holiday world in which Beatrice and Benedick experience festive release; but the absence of an extended discussion suggests that it does not fit easily into his category. Sherman Hawkins, likewise emphasizing Beatrice and Benedick, includes the play with Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night as a closed-heart comedy based on "sexual antagonism" in which men and women must overcome internal obstacles to love; but his description fails to account for the Hero/Claudio plot. Northrop Frye, when attending to Beatrice and Benedick, likewise identifies the play as a humor comedy (like Love's Labor's Lost and Taming) in which the witty couple and Claudio must discard the humors that are impediments to love. But elsewhere Frye [in A Natural Perspective, 1965], focusing on Hero's death and rebirth, groups the play with All's Well as an extension of the ritualistic "green-world" comedies—Two Gentlemen of Verona, Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor. Other critics who emphasize the Hero/Claudio plot have also noted Much Ado's connections with later plays. R. G. Hunter, in Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness [1965], by stressing Claudio's error, contrition, and our forgiveness of him, is led to place the play at the beginning of a line stretching through All's Well to Cymbeline and The Tempest; but this forgiveness is only peripheral in Much Ado. Leo Salingar … places Much Ado in his category of problem comedies along with Merchant of Venice, All's Well and Measure for Measure; although Much Ado manifestly includes broken nuptials, the distinguishing mark of the category, the other characteristic features—the complex of the judge and the nun, the trial scene, and the conflict between justice and mercy—are attenuated or altogether absent, and the Beatrice/Benedick story does not fit the pattern. A. P. Rossiter, focusing on the themes and tone of the play rather than its plots [in Angel with Horns, 1961], explores most fully and persuasively Much Ado as an immediate precursor of the group that he designates "problem plays" or "tragi-comedies"—Henry IV, Part II, Troilus and Cressida, All's Hell, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, and Othello. He finds Much Ado balanced neatly on a tonal frontier between comedy and tragicomedy just before the "point at which a sense of humour fails" and is replaced by "cynicism"—"where the attitudes I called 'hardness' (self-defensive) and 'farce' (offensive, debunking) combine to 'place' love, honour, truth, only to devalue them."

As these various explorations suggest, Much Ado About Nothing combines elements from almost all of the other comedies in a unique mixture. It is linked with both the romantic comedies and the problem comedies by virtue of the interactions of its two couples, its two plots. In the Claudio/Hero plot, the anxieties and risks underlying the conventions of romantic love are expressed and contained by the broken nuptials, Hero's vilification and mock death, and Claudio's penitence and acceptance of a substitute bride, motifs that are developed further in All's Well, Measure for Measure, and the late romances. In the Beatrice/Benedick plot, the mutual mockery, double gulling, and Benedick's acceptance of Beatrice's command to "Kill Claudio" function, as do the mockery, trickery, parody, and tamings of the festive comedies, to break down resistance and to release desire and affection. The Beatrice/Benedick plot protects the Hero/Claudio plot by ventilating and displacing it and by transforming its romance elements. In turn, the impasse of the Hero/Claudio plot generates movement in the Beatrice/Benedick plot and, by permitting the witty couple the expression of romantic affection, initiates the transformation of their "merry wars" into a witty truce. Together the two plots release and control elements that will generate greater uneasiness and distrust in the problem comedies. Together they maintain an equilibrium between male control and female initiative, between male reform and female submission, which is characteristic of the romantic comedies but is disrupted in the problem comedies. In this play, wit clarifies the vulnerability of romantic idealization while romance alters the static, self-defensive gestures of wit.

The two plots are played out against a backdrop of patriarchal authority, which is protected by the extensive bawdy, especially the cuckoldry jokes, and contained by the ineffectuality of the men's exercise of power, especially when exaggerated in the Dogberry subplot. The play's lighthearted, witty bawdy expresses and mutes sexual anxieties; it turns them into a communal joke and provides comic release and relief in specific ways. It manifests sexuality as the central component of marriage and emphasizes male power and female weakness. Its clever, inventive innuendo emphasizes the anatomical "fit" between the sexes: "Give us our swords; we have bucklers of our own" (V.ii.19).

The bawdy persistently views sex as a male assault on women. Men "board" (II.i.138) women, "put in the pikes" (V.ii.20), and women cheerfully resign themselves to being "made heavier … by the weight of a man," and "stuff'd" (III.iv.26, 62-63). The women counterattack by mocking the virility that threatens them: the "blunt foils" (V.ii.14), "short horns" (II.i.22), and "fine little" wit (V.i.161) of the men. They do not, however, see their own sexuality as a weapon. They joke about female "lightness" (III.iv.36, 43, 45) to warn each other against it, not to threaten men; even the term itself identifies women with weakness rather than strength.

But women's proverbial "lightness" is also a source of power. Women fear submission to men's aggressive sexual power. Men, likewise perceiving sexuality as power over women, fear its loss through female betrayal. They defend themselves against betrayal in three ways: they deny its possibility through idealization, anticipate it through misogyny, or transform it, through the motif of cuckoldry, into an emblem of male virility. As Coppélia Kahn shows [in Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare, 1981], cuckoldry is associated with virility through the horn, which symbolizes both. The reiterated motif "In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke" (I.i.254) emphasizes the bull's potency as well as his submission to dull domestic life and inevitable cuckoldry. Similarly, to be "horn-mad" (I.i.262) is to be both furious with jealousy and sexually voracious; both halves of the pun imply aggressiveness. The defensive function of these jokes is especially apparent in the extended one that precedes the couples' pledge to marry. In it the scorn due the cuckold is ingeniously swallowed up in the acclaim awarded the cuckolder for his "noble feat" by which he attains power over both the woman and the husband:

Claudio. Tush, fear not, man! We'll tip thy   horns with gold, And all Europa shall rejoice at thee, As once Europa did at lusty Jove When he would play the noble beast in love.                                [V.iv.44-47]

All rejoice with the woman. The cuckold is crowned, the cuckolder is noble, and even the illegitimate calf will be proud of, if intimidated by, his father's virility—and may even inherit it.

Benedick. Bull Jove, sir, had an amiable low. And some such strange bull leaped your  father's cow And got a calf in that same noble feat Much like to you, for you have just his bleat.                                  [V.iv.48-51]

Here Benedick implies that Claudio, like his putative father, may become a cuckolder, and Claudio subsequently jokes that Benedick, too, may be a "double-dealer" (V.iv.114). Cuckoldry has thus been deftly dissociated from female power and infidelity and identified instead with masculine virility and solidarity, which are emphatically reasserted on the eve of the weddings.

Marriage and cuckoldry, both potentially threatening to male bonds and power, have become assurances of them. But male authority in the play remains lame and diffused. Leonato is a weak father; Claudio, a passive protaganist; Don John, a conventional villain. Don Pedro is potentially the most powerful man in the play by virtue of his age, rank, and multiple connections with the others. But this potential remains subdued. He phases himself out of the plots he initiates, is moved from the center of the action to the periphery, and is curtailed as a rival suitor. His illusory competition with Claudio for Hero is abruptly dropped, and what could become a courtship of Beatrice—"Will you have me, lady," (II.i.314)—when politely dismissed by her as a joke, is immediately abandoned in favor of the project of uniting her with Benedick. The men's rivalry evaporates, and their violence is defused. First Leonato's and Antonio's attempts to avenge Hero are comically presented, and then Benedick's challenge is laughed off.

Male power in the play also remains benign because it is blunted by its ineffectuality and rendered comic by Dogberry's parody of it. Most of the men's schemes—Pedro's to woo Hero, the Friar's to reform Claudio, Don John's and Leonato's to get revenge, Benedick's to kill Claudio, the Watch's first to "offend no man" (III.iii.80) and later to bring wrongdoers to justice—are botched, backfire, or fall apart. But though none of the schemes works as it is supposed to, they all achieve their goals. Dogberry's bungling attempts to arrest Borachio and Conrade on some charge or other mirror and parody the inept strategy and good luck of the other men. Whereas at the end of the church scene Beatrice and Benedick transcend melodrama and create witty romance, in the following scene (IV.i) Dogberry transforms melodrama downward into farce, parodying the perversions inside the church. The arraignment precedes any examination of the evidence, malefactors and benefactors are confused with each other, and judges as well as accused have charges brought against them. When, at the end of the scene, Dogberry defends himself, he becomes a comic spokesman for his betters. He endearingly articulates the men's testy response to insults real or imagined, their reliance on conventions—of dress, rank, wit, institutions—to protect and confirm their self-importance, and the potential for assininity that goes along with their desires for swaggering and safety:

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.


The play's presentation of male power is further symbolized by the sheerly linguistic invention, "the Prince's officer Coxcomb" (IV.ii.72), whose denomination suggests deference and pride, elegant arrogance and assinine folly, but also embodies comfortable security. Such security is threatened by those outsiders who wish to usurp legitimate authority and who are perhaps symbolized by Coxcomb's antithesis, the "thief Deformed": "'a has been a vile thief this seven year; 'a goes up and down like a gentleman" (III.iii.125-27). Yet in spite of the men's rivalry, ineffectuality, and silliness, all of the play's plot-generating deceits and revelations are controlled by them, and it is they who fit women with husbands. Their authority and solidarity are confirmed in the play's conclusion, which reconciles male power and alliances with marriage.

But first conflicts disrupt both the male bonds and the two couples. The Claudio/Hero alliance is thinly sketched as a conventional one in which the functions of romantic idealization are made clear. Claudio protects himself from Hero's sexuality by viewing her as a remote, idealized love object who is not to be touched or even talked to: "she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on" (I.i.183). Patriarchal marriage customs conveniently coalesce with romantic rhetoric, enabling him to maintain Hero as an object of social exchange and possession: "Lady, as you are mine, I am yours," he cautiously vows (II.i.296). He lets Don Pedro do his wooing for him. He scarcely acknowledges Hero's sexual attractiveness, and his only reference to his own desires seems oddly passive and gynocentric in a play crammed with aggressively phallic innuendo: "But now I am returned and that war-thoughts / Have left their places vacant, in their rooms / Came thronging soft and delicate desires, / All prompting me how fair young Hero is" (I.i.294-97). Claudio thus alleviates his anxieties about marriage by viewing it both as a romantic ideal and as a conventional social arrangement that will occupy the time between battles. Once married, he intends to go off to Aragon immediately with Don Pedro, their companionship uninterrupted (III.ii.3).

Hero's willingness to be the passive object of her father's negotiations, Don Pedro's decorous wooing, and Claudio's low-keyed proposal provide her with a parallel defense against sexuality. She is as unforthcoming as Claudio at their first exchange, and perhaps she welcomes his silence, for she asks Don Pedro as he begins his wooing to "say nothing" (II.i.83). Her own uneasiness about sex is suggested in her unhappiness on her wedding day, and the one bawdy innuendo that she contributes to the banter, "There, thou prickest her with a thistle" (III.iv.74) is as tentative as Claudius's allusion. Hero is the perfect object of his "delicate" desires: modest, chaste, virtuous, silent.

The witty verbal skirmishes comprising Beatrice's and Benedick's "merry wars" explicitly express the anxieties about loss of power through sexuality, love, and marriage that lie beneath Claudio's and Hero's silent romanticism. Their verbal wars fill up the silence of the Hero/Claudio plot and reveal the fundamental asymmetry of the battle of the sexes. Benedick expressly equates loving with humiliation and loss of potency; he imagines it as a castrating torture: "Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad maker's pen and hang me up at the door of the brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid" (I.i.243-47). He likewise fears being separated from his friends by marriage and loss of status with them if he must "sigh away Sundays" or, feminized, "turn spit" like Hercules (I.i.196; II.i.244). He defends himself against a fall into love and marriage and against fears of female betrayal by distrust of women—"I will do myself the right to trust none" (I.i.237). Distrust, coupled with the claim that all women dote on him, allows him to profess virility without putting it to the proof. Mocking Claudio's romantic idealization, he is similarly protected by misogyny; the parallel function of the two poses is evident in Benedick's admission that, could he find an ideal woman, he would abandon the pose: "But till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come into my grace" (II.iii.27-29). As he continues his description of the ideal woman, it is clear that she, like Claudio's Hero, meets the conventional prescriptions for a suitably accomplished and submissive wife: "Rich she shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen her; fair, or I'll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician" (II.iii.29-33). Benedick's misogyny puts him in a position of unchallengeable power; his wit is consistently belligerent, protective, and self-aggrandizing. But his bawdy incorporates, as romantic rhetoric does not, the aggressiveness and urgency of desire even while defending against it.

Instead of defensively asserting power and certainty, Beatrice's sallies often directly reveal weakness and ambivalence; her wit, in contrast to Benedick's, is consistently self-deprecating. Her mockery of marriage and men poignantly reveals her desire for both. The fear of and desire for women's roles that generate her merry mask are suggested in her description of her birth and her mother's response to it—"No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born" (II.i.322-23)—and in Leonato's similarly paradoxical description of her—"She hath often dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing" (II.i.333). Her repartee, like that of the others, embodies anxiety about being unmarried, as it does about being married: "So, by being too curst, God will send you no horns" (II.i.23). She does not mock Hero's marriage plans as Benedick does Claudio's but only urges her to marry a man who pleases her. Hero's engagement does not engender smug self-satisfaction in her but a sense of isolation: "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!'" (II.i.306-08). Even her allusion to "living as merry as the day is long" in heaven "where the bachelors sit" shows her desire to continue to share equally in easy male camaraderie rather than a desire to remain single (II.i.45-47).

Beatrice's ambivalence about marriage is rooted in her fear of the social and sexual power it grants to men. Her bawdy jests manifest both her desire for Benedick and her fear of the potential control over her which her desire gives him. In the first scene it is she who quickly shifts the play's focus from Claudio's deeds of war to Benedick's deeds of love. She refers to him as "Signior Mountanto," suggestively initiates dialogue by asking, "Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such food to feed it as Senior Benedick?" (I.i.29, 117), and from behind the safety of her mask admits to Benedick (of him)—"I would he had boarded me" (II.i.137). But her jesting about the unsuitability of husbands with beards and those without them both mocks Benedick's beard and reveals her ambivalent attitude toward virility: "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" (II.i.34-37). Because she is apprehensive about the social and sexual submission demanded of women in marriage and wary of men's volatile mixture of earthly frailty with arrogant authority, Beatrice does not want a husband:

Till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I'll none. Adam's sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.


Neither hating nor idealizing men, she does not wish to exchange kinship with them for submission to them. Given the play's dominant metaphor of sex as a male assault, the subordination demanded of Renaissance women in marriage, and the valiant cloddishness of many of the men in the comedies, Beatrice's fear of being "overmastered" seems judicious. But her anxieties, like Benedick's, grow out of pride and fear of risk as well as out of justified wariness.

Beatrice and Benedick, both mockers of love, cannot dispel these anxieties or admit to love without intervention. The asymmetrical gullings perpetrated by their friends (the "only love-gods" in this play, II.i.372) resemble the ceremonies mocking men and the attacks on female recalcitrance already examined. These garrulous deceits follow upon and displace Hero and Claudio's silent engagement and confront anxieties there left unspoken. As male and female anxieties are different, the two deceits are contrasting. The men gently mock Benedick's witty misogyny while nurturing his ego. Their gentle ribbing of Benedick's "contemptible spirit" is tempered with much praise of his virtues; he is proper, wise, witty, and valiant "As Hector" (II.iii.180-87). They alleviate his fears about Beatrice's aggressiveness by a lengthy, exaggerated tale of her desperate passion for him: "Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs, bears her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses—'O sweet Benedick! God give me patience!'" (II.iii.148-50). The story dovetails perfectly with his fantasy that all women dote on him (and presumably it gratifies the other men to picture the disdainful Beatrice in this helpless state). The men also reassure Benedick that Beatrice is sweet and "out of all suspicion, she is virtuous" (160-61). The gulling permits Benedick to love with his friends' approval while remaining complacently self-satisfied. Even these protective assurances of his power win from him only a grudgingly impersonal acknowledgment of his feelings: "Love me? Why, it must be requited" (II.iii.219). This he must justify by relying, like Claudio, on friends' confirmations of the lady's virtue and marriageability, and by viewing marriage not personally but conventionally as a social institution designed to control desire and ensure procreation: "the world must be peopled" (236).

The women's gulling of Beatrice is utterly different in strategy and effect. They make only one unembroidered mention of Benedick's love for her, and even that is interrogative—"But are you sure / That Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely?" (III.i.36-37). They praise his virtues, not Beatrice's. Instead of treating sex with detachment, as the men do with their joke about "'Benedick' and 'Beatrice' between the sheet" (II.iii.139), the women include an explicit, enthusiastic reference to it: "Doth not the gentleman / Deserve as full as fortunate a bed / As ever Beatrice shall couch upon?" (III.i.44-46). Throughout most of the staged scene, they attack at length and with gusto Beatrice's proud wit, deflating rather than bolstering her self-esteem. The men emphasize Beatrice's love whereas the women emphasize her inability to love as a means of exorcising it: "She cannot love, / Nor take no shape nor project of affection, / She is so self-endeared" (54-56). Beatrice, accepting unabashedly the accuracy of these charges—"Contempt, farewell! And maiden pride, adieu!" (109)—is released into an undefensive and personal declaration of love and of passionate submission to Benedick: "Benedick, love on; I will requite 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" (111-14). She views marriage not as a social inevitability but as a ritual expressing affectionate commitment. Benedick's "love" will be requited with "kindness," not merely with the production of "kind." And, unlike Benedick, she trusts her own sense of his worth more than her friends' praise: "For others say thou dost deserve, and I / Believe it better than reportingly" (115-16).

The effect of the gullings is to engender parallels between the two women and the two men and to emphasize differences between the men and women, manifesting in this way the connections between the two plots. Hero asserts herself for the first time during the gulling of Beatrice. She zestfully takes the lead in the mockery, parodying Beatrice's contemptuous wit and scorning her scorn; her vehemence perhaps reveals some resentment of Beatrice's domination and shows her own similar capacity for aggressiveness, realism, and wit. In their next scene together on her wedding day, Hero for the first time expresses her own apprehensiveness about marriage by being heavy of heart and refusing to join in the sexual banter of the other women. Like Hero, Beatrice is now "sick" with love, and her wit is out of tune. Claudio welcomes Benedick's lovesickness even more gleefully than Hero does Beatrice's. During the gulling, his comic descriptions of the doting Beatrice and the valiant Benedick are caricatures of his own romantic ideals, while his description of Beatrice dying for Benedick (II.iii.173-77) hints at the violence, anxiety, and desire for female submission that lie beneath the romantic veneer. Benedick in love is, like Claudio, "sadder"; his wit is curtailed ("governed by stops"), and he has shaved off his beard, marking his new vulnerability (III.ii.15, 56). Claudio, with the other men, takes advantage of him, reiterating his tale of Beatrice's "dying."

The anxieties about sexuality and submission that are the source of the men's lovesickness then erupt violently in Don John's slander. It is ironically appropriate that, though Hero has never talked to Claudio at all and he had "never tempted her with word too large" (IV.i.52), he should immediately accept Don John's report that she "talk[ed] with a man out at a window" (IV.i.308) as proof of her infidelity. Though he does not "see her chamber window ent'red" (III.ii.108), this imagined act transforms defensive idealization to vicious degradation, as will occur later with Angelo, Troilus, Hamlet, Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes. His former cautious, silent worship inverted, Claudio denounces Hero at their wedding with extravagantly lascivious, but still conventional, rhetoric:

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.                                        [IV.i.55-60]

He perverts the ceremony that had seemed to protect him and seeks from friends confirmation of her corruption, as he had formerly needed proof of her virtues.

When unanchored idealization turns to degradation here, nuptials are shattered more violently and irretrievably than in the other comedies. The possibility of future reconciliation is kept alive, however, by the Friar's scheme for Hero's mock death, by Dogberry and crew's knowledge of the truth about Don John's deceit, and by Beatrice's command to Benedick The slander of Hero tempers Beatrice's commitment to love. But Claudio's failure of romantic faith in Hero parallels and helps to rectify Benedick's lack of romantic commitment to Beatrice. Both men, along with Hero, must risk a comic death and effect a comic transformation to affirm their love. Although only Dogberry's revelation influences the plot, the three "deaths" function together to engender the play's comic reconciliations and festive release.

Hero's mock death, transforming the strategies of self-concealment through masking, disguise, or withdrawal practiced by women in romantic comedies, anticipates the development of the motif in later plays. The women in Love's Labor's Lost mask themselves, and they go into seclusion at the end; Kate plays shrew and Titania evades Oberon; Julia, Rosalind, Portia, and Viola are disguised. The literal masks of Beatrice and Hero at the ball mirror their defensive facades of wit and silence. But, unlike these festive disguises, women's mock deaths do not merely parody or postpone nuptials voluntarily; they are designed by the woman and/or her confidantes to mend nuptials shattered by the men. It is now not idealization of women which must be qualified but their slander and degradation which must be reformed. The mock death is both an involuntary, passive escape from degradation and a voluntary constructive means to alter it.

Hero's play death incorporates many of the elements found in later versions of the motif; the Friar, who engineers the death with Leonato's approval, outlines its constructive purpose and potential effects. The death—real or imagined—of the slandered woman satisfies the lover's desire for revenge while alleviating his fear of infidelity: "Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men" Oth, V.ii.6). Then relief and guilt working together will change "slander to remorse" (IV.i.210). Freed from the pain of desiring her and the fear of losing her, the lover can reidealize the woman, a process that is described in detail by the friar, walked through in this play, and dramatized more completely in All's Well That Ends Well, Hamlet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale.

                    For it so falls out That what we have we prize not to the worth Whiles we enjoy it; but being lacked and lost, Why then we rack the value, then we find The virtue that possession would not show us Whiles it was ours. So will it fare with  Claudio. When he shall hear she died upon his words, Th' idea of her life shall sweetly creep Into his study of imagination And every lovely organ of her life Shall come appareled 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.216-29]

Through the death—pretended or actual—of the corrupted beloved, the lover can repossess her, purified. In this way, the Friar hopes, the "travail" of restoring the image of the woman will culminate in a "greater birth" (IV.i.212), her death in life.

But for women the strategy is bold, painful, and risky. Whereas in earlier comedies, female disguise, control, and wit brought men to their senses, in later ones, more disturbingly, female submission generates male affection. Hero must put herself in the hands of the friar, practice patience, and accept, if the trick fails, chaste seclusion in a religious retreat—the fate Hermia is threatened with in Midsummer Night's Dream, Helen pretends to in All's Well That Ends Well, and Isabella desires in Measure for Measure. Women pretend to die of unrequited love as Beatrice is said to be doing; they "die" sexually, validating male virility as Helen and Mariana do in bedtricks whose deceit makes them a form of mock death; and they die, or pretend to, as retribution for their imagined betrayals; Juliet undergoes a double confrontation with death—her deathlike swoon induced by the Friar's potion and her interment with dead bodies in the Capulet monument—before she actually dies; Hermione must remain in seclusion sixteen years. In the tragedies women actually die. But the woman's pretended or real death, even when combined with the vigorous defense of her virtues by her friends—Beatrice, the Countess, Emilia, Paulina—does not by itself ensure penitence. Ophelia's and Desdemona's deaths do engender in Hamlet and Othello the penitent reidealization the friar describes. But Juliet's and Cleopatra's mock deaths kill Romeo and Antony. Claudio's and Bertram's penitence is perfunctory and coerced. Claudio seems utterly unaffected by the death until Borachio testifies to Hero's innocence (as Emilia will testify to Desdemona's and the oracle to Hermione's); then reidealization is instantaneous: "Sweet Hero, now the image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I loved it first" (V.i.250-51). Only Antony and Posthumus forgive the woman without proof of her innocence. Only in Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline does the mock death by itself lead to the guilt, penitence, and forgiveness predicted by the Friar. And only at last in The Winter's Tale does the death lead to penitence, transformation, and full reconciliation. Although the motif appears in all genres, playing dead can perhaps be seen as a female version of the tragic hero's literal and symbolic journeys. Its effect is not to transform the woman as the tragic hero is transformed, but to achieve the transformation of her image in the eyes of the hero and to alter and complicate the audience's view of her. The motif satisfies the male characters' fantasies of control and the audience's need to sympathize with the slandered women.

But in Much Ado the festive conclusion is not only made possible by Hero's mock death, Claudio's enforced penance, and Dogberry's apprehension of the "benefactors" who expose the deceit. Equally important is Benedick's willingness to comply with Beatrice's command to "Kill Claudio" (IV.i.88). Benedick's acquiescence signals his transformation and reconciles him with Beatrice. Although the gullings bring Beatrice and Benedick to acknowledge their affections to themselves, they have not risked doing so to each other. The broken nuptials provide the impetus for this commitment. The seriousness of the occasion tempers their wit and strips away their defenses. Weeping for Hero, Beatrice expresses indirectly her vulnerability to Benedick, just as Benedick's assertion of trust in Hero expresses indirectly his love for Beatrice and leads to his direct, ungrudging expression of it: "I do love nothing in the world so well as you" (IV.i.267). This reciprocates Beatrice's earlier vow to "tame her wild heart" for him. But the broken nuptials have encouraged Beatrice to be wary still; her vow is witty, and she asks for more than vows from Benedick, taking seriously his romantic promise, "Come, bid me do anything for thee." "Kill Claudio," she replies (IV.i.287-88).

Extravagant and coercive as her demand may be, Benedick's willingness to comply is a necessary antidote to the play's pervasive misogyny and a necessary rehabilitation of romance from Claudio's corruption of it. Benedick's challenge to Claudio, by affirming his faith in both Hero's and Beatrice's fidelity, repudiates his former mistrust of women and breaks his bonds with the male friends who shared this attitude. Because romantic vows and postures have proved empty or unreliable—"But manhood is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too" (IV.i.317-20)—they must now be validated through deeds. The deed Beatrice calls for is of a special sort. Male aggression is to be used not in war but for love, not against women but on their behalf. Beatrice calls on Benedick to become a hero of romance in order to qualify his wit and verify his commitment to her. Similar transformations are demanded by the women of other men in the comedies: the lords in Love's Labor's Lost must test their wit and prove their vows during a year of penance; Bassanio must relegate friendship to surety for his marriage; Orsino and Orlando are led to abandon silly poses for serious marriage vows. But while the grave estrangement of Claudio and Hero is displaced by Beatrice's and Benedick's movement into romantic love, the wits' love for each other is also protected by their commitment to the cause of Hero. Beatrice can weep for her friend as she does not weep for Benedick, and Benedick is "engaged" simultaneously to Beatrice and on behalf of Hero.

The scene of the challenge itself also deftly intertwines two tones—the romantic and the comic—and the two plots. Although it shows the bankruptcy of Claudio's wit, it also absorbs Benedick's challenge back into a witty comic context before actual violence can disrupt this context irrevocably. Benedick, having abandoned his wit, proposes to substitute a sword for it: "It [wit] is in my scabbard. Shall I draw it?" (V.i.126). Seriously challenging Claudio, he refuses to join in his friend's effort to use wit to transform swords back into jests, a duel to a feast, his adversary to a dinner: "he hath bid me to a calf's head and a capon; the which if I do not carve most curiously, say my knife's naught. Shall I not find a woodcock too?" (V.i.154-57). In fact, sword-play is absorbed back into wordplay when the slandering of Hero is revealed, Claudio guiltily does penance, and the challenge is dropped. Benedick's delivery of it releases him and Beatrice into the affectionate banter through which, "too wise to woo peaceably" (V.ii.71), they reanimate the conventions of romantic rhetoric as they did those of romantic valor: "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" (V.ii.99-101). The dynamics of the Beatrice/Benedick plot invert and counteract the dynamics of the Claudio/Hero plot. Whereas Hero must "die" in response to Claudio's misogynistic fantasies of her corruption in order to restore his romantic attachment, Benedick must agree to kill Claudio in compliance with Beatrice's demand in order to establish the replacement of witty misogyny by romantic affection.

At the conclusion, Claudio's and Hero's pat reaffirmation of their wedding vows ignores rather than transforming the conflicts which erupted through the broken nuptials. First Claudio performs a ritualistic but impersonal penance: "Pardon, goddess of the night, / Those that slew thy virgin knight; / For the which, with songs of woe, / Round about her tomb they go" (V.iii.12-15). Then he asserts his faith in women by agreeing to accept a substitute bride. But his willingness to "seize upon" any bride seems to suggest that the possessiveness and conventionality which fuel romance are not exorcised. When she unmasks, Claudio declares, "Another Hero," and it is Don Pedro who must assert the continuity between the two Heros, one "defiled" and destroyed, the other pure, a "maid": "The former Hero! Hero that is dead!" (V.iv.62-65). But there is no sense of rebirth. Claudio and Hero give no sign of establishing a new relationship or of incorporating desire. They move mechanically back into their former roles: "And when I lived I was your other wife / And when you loved you were my other husband" (V.iv.61). In the problem comedies, Bertram's and Angelo's repentance and acceptance of substitute brides is even less spontaneous; in them the crucial presence of two women at the endings—the one the chaste object of lust (Diana, Isabella), the other the substitute bride and enforced marriage partner (Helen, Mariana)—emphasizes the continuing division between idealization and degradation, between romance and desire, which is glossed over here.

In Much Ado, however, Beatrice and Benedick, displacing the Claudio/Hero plot one final time, create the festive conclusion. Disruptive elements continue to be expressed and exorcised in their bantering movement into marriage. Their refusal to love "more than reason" or other than "for pity" or "in friendly recompense" (V.iv.74-93) acknowledges wittily the fear each still has of submission and the desire each has that the other be subordinate. They are finally brought to their nuptials only by a wonderfully comic "miracle," (91) but one not dependent on removal of disguise, recognition of other kinds, or the descent of a god. The discovery of their "halting" sonnets signals their mutual release into the extravagance of romance and is followed by the kiss which, manifesting their mutual desire, serves as a truce in their merry wars. This kiss "stop[s]" Beatrice's mouth as she had earlier urged Hero to "stop" Claudio's at their engagement (V.iv.97; II.i.299). But while affirming mutuality in one way, the kiss ends it in another, for it silences Beatrice for the rest of the play. Similarly, other strong, articulate women are subdued at the ends of their comedies—Julia, Kate, Titania, Rosalind, Viola. This kiss, then, may be seen as marking the beginning of the inequality that Beatrice feared in marriage and that is also implicit in the framing of the wedding festivities with male jokes about cuckoldry, in the reestablishment of male authority by means of these jokes, and in Benedick's control of the nuptials.

This inequality is confirmed as Benedick presides over the play's conclusion, using his wit to affirm the compatability of manhood, friendship, and marriage. Through the cuckoldry motif, Benedick has transformed a potentially humiliating submission in marriage into a proof of power. He likewise transforms the women's "light heels" into a sign of joy, not infidelity (V.iv.l19). His final unifying gesture invites Don Pedro to join him and Claudio in marriage to alleviate his sadness, attain authority, and reestablish ties with his war companions: "get thee a wife, get thee a wife! There is no staff more reverend than one tipped with horn" (V.iv.122-25). Beatrice's and Benedick's sparring is transformed by the broken nuptials into romantic attachment, and Hero's mock death and the revelation of her innocence transform Claudio's degradation of her into a ritualistic penance. Throughout the comedies broken nuptials, even when initiated by men, give women the power to resist, control, or alter the movement of courtship. But with the celebration of completed nuptials at the end of the comedies, male control is reestablished, and women take their subordinate places in the dance.

While rejoicing in the festive conclusion of Much Ado we should perhaps remember Beatrice's acute satire on wooing and wedding—and their aftermath:

wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch, jig, a measure, and a cinquepace. The first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig (and full as fantastical); the wedding, mannerly modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes Repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinquepace faster and faster till he sink into his grave.


Beatrice's description, which sees marriage as a precarious beginning, not a happy ending, is anticipated by the many irregular nuptials of earlier comedies and is embodied in the troubling open endings of All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. In these plays the balance between wit and romance, between male authority and female power is lost. The culmination "fantastical" romance and "hot and hasty" desire in a "mannerly modest" ceremony does not preclude the repenting which follows in the problem comedies and tragedies. In the romantic comedies "the catastrophe is a nuptial," as Armado proclaims with relish in his love letter to Jaquenetta (LLL, IV.i.78), but later nuptials prove to be catastrophic in a sense other than the one Armado consciously intends. His own reversal of customary nuptials by getting Jaquenetta pregnant before the ceremony foreshadows a source of difficulty. And in Much Ado About Nothing there is one final nupital irregularity: the dancing begins even before the weddings are celebrated.

W. Thomas MacCary (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Much Ado about Nothing," in Friends and Lovers: The Phenomenology of Desire in Shakespearean Comedy, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 150-59.

[In the following essay, MacCary focuses on the orientation of sexual desire and the idealization of women in Much Ado about Nothing, noting how these reflect the worldview of the men of Messina.]

Much Ado About Nothing is a fascinating play, and finally satisfying if we allow our attention to shift from the romantic protagonists, Hero and Claudio, in the main plot to the narcissistic subordinates, Beatrice and Benedick. It is closer in tone and moral cast to Measure for Measure and All's Well than to the other comedies of this period. Like Measure for Measure it has a prince who messes about in the love life of his courtiers, and like All's Well it has an unregenerate hero. For our purposes, though—tracing the orientation of desire in the comedies, and noting how it reflects and informs worldview generally—the major interest is the correction made by the love match in the subplot of the love match in the main plot. Hero is completely passive and unimpressive; Claudio is first ineffective in love, then effusive, then offensive, and finally frivolous. There is a pattern to his behavior, a discernible consistency in his character, and it is that same self-imposed role of the warrior, ferocious in battle but clumsy in love, that so deforms Bertram and is the type against which Othello's unique tragedy is played. It is this same polarity between sex and violence that forces our attention on Beatrice and Benedick, because they not only articulate it precisely in their commentary on the romance of Hero and Claudio, but they mediate and transcend it through their wit.

It is clear that Beatrice is cast against the type of Katherina; Leonato and Antonio call her "shrewd" and "curst" (II.i.16-19), and she says of herself:

 And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.                                 (III.i.111-12)

Katherina is not clever, however, nor finally as self-willed. Beatrice has strong sexual appetites; indeed she develops the analogy between sex and food and expresses the violence in both loving and eating:

Beat. I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing. (I.i.38-40)

Beat. Is it possible disdain should die, while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signoir Benedick? (I.i.110-11)

Bene. By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me.Beat. Do not swear and eat it.Bene. I will swear by it that you love me, and   I will make him eat it that says I love not   you.Beat. Will you eat your word?Bene. With no sauce that can be devised to it.   I protest I love thee. (IV.i.273-79)

This last leads, of course, to Beatrice's demand, "Kill Claudio!" To understand the full significance of that, we must follow its preparation in all the attention to seeming and being, to men of fashion and men of action, to men of words and men of deeds, to men and women generally. We can note now, however, that several traditional identifications, important to the earlier comedies, come together here to create a new dimension of identity.

Beatrice and Benedick are at war with each other, their tongues being their swords, whereas the other men and women divide their libidinal and aggressive pursuits. Claudio, the conventional lover, gives us a conventional statement of the convention:

Claud. When you went onward on this ended  action, I look'd upon her with a soldier's eye, That lik'd, but had a rougher task in hand Than to drive liking to the name of love: 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.                                           (I.i.277-85)

It is fortunate for Claudio, who can speak no better than this, that he has Don Pedro to speak for him. Beatrice and Benedick can speak for themselves, in way of war:

There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.


In the last act there are several derogatory remarks about the confusion of witty tongues with swords: Antonio to Claudio (V.i.l24ff.) and Benedick to Claudio (V.i.l82ff.). Then in a brief exchange Benedick and Margaret supply the missing signifier:

Bene. Pray thee, sweet Mistress Margaret,  deserve well at my hands, by helping me to  the speech of Beatrice.

Marg. Will you then write me a sonnet in  praise of my beauty?

Bene. In so high a style, Margaret, that no  man living shall come over it, for in most  comely truth thou deservest it.

Marg. To have no man come over me? Why,  shall I always keep below stairs?

Bene. Thy wit is as quick as the greyhound's  mouth, it catches.

Marg. And yours as blunt as the fencer's  foils, which hit, but hurt not.

Bene. A most manly wit, Margaret, it will not  hurt a woman. And so I pray thee call  Beatrice; I give thee the bucklers.

Marg. Give us the swords, we have bucklers  of our own.

Bene. If you use them, Margaret, you must  put in the pikes with a vice, and they are  dangerous weapons for maids.

Marg. Well, I will call Beatrice to you, who I  think hath legs.

Bene. And therefore will come.                                            (V.ii.1-24)

We know tongues as swords in the battle of wits, but now the identification between swords and penises is made explicit. With the talk of blunt swords that will not hurt, and pikes (spikes) vised into bucklers (shields), we are forced to think of sexual intercourse as a violent encounter which men and women nevertheless take pleasure in. (If we think of this complex of associations in tragic rather than comic contexts, we see that Desdemona is both witty and courtly, as well as admiring, if not envious, of her husband's martial prowess; in Emilia we see wit as the means of expressing women's sexual desires, just as it is here with Margaret. Shakespeare then condemns women to death for their wit and desires in tragedy while he makes them triumphant in comedy. Portia, I think, is somewhere in between.) [In "Mature Love: Prerequisites and Characteristics," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 22, 1974, O.] Kernberg notes the importance of ambivalence in erotic relations; libidinal and aggressive impulses combine only if good and bad object-images are combined. He even insists [in "Boundaries and Structure in Love Relations," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 25, 1977] that satisfying heterosexual relationships involve some projection of homosexual desires:

It seems to me the normal love relationships include the following pre-conditions: first—at the level of actual sexual behavior—having the capacity for broadening and deepening the experience of sexual intercourse and orgasm with the expanded sexual eroticism derived from the integration of aggression and bisexuality (sublimatory homosexual identification) into the heterosexual erotic relationship; second, having developed an object relation in depth … third, having developed depersonification, abstraction, and individualization in the super-ego.

Certainly Margaret and Benedick summarize here the whole play's consideration of sexual roles. This is particularly important after Beatrice's outburst:

Beat. O that I were a man! (IV.i.302)

Beat. O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace. (IV.i.305-6)

Beat. 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. (IV.i.316-23)

Now this clearly fits the context of those other considerations of the seeming and being of men—Borachio's diatribe on fashion (III.iii.127-34) and the attacks on Claudio by Antonio and Leonato (V.i.45-109) and by Benedick (V.i.110-90). Indeed yet another masculine accoutrement enters into the discussion: we have heard of penises, swords, and tongues, but we also hear of beards. Beatrice thinks a man without a beard is not a man, but a woman or a boy (II.i.30-37); Benedick calls Claudio "lackbeard" (V.i.190); Antonio speaks of "fashion-mongering boys" (V.i.94). Shakespeare's sexual perspective then seems to be that boys are like women, but with the potential to become men, whereas women can wish to become men, as Beatrice does to avenge Hero, but must die—perhaps there is even a sexual suggestion here—as women.

As [G. K.] Hunter has shown [in John Lyly, 1962], it was first Lyly who introduced wit into dramatic love relationships and thereby freed women from the passivity imposed upon them by the medieval romance tradition. Shakespeare goes much further: by first identifying wit and warfare, and then giving women wit, he makes it possible for them to beat men at their own game. That, however, is a social issue; my concern is the erotic. What Shakespearean comedy shows again and again is that men want women to be like men, and Much Ado About Nothing makes the strongest statement of this so far in the corpus. Claudio and Hero follow the conventional pattern of love-relationships, and their union is disastrous; Beatrice and Benedick break all the rules and their union is perfect. It seems not to frighten Benedick that Beatrice wants to be a man; he has not Petruchio's fear of women. It seems that Theseus dominates Hippolyta; it seems that Rosalind dominates Orlando; Beatrice and Benedick are in perfect equilibrium. In Much Ado About Nothing the violence is sublimated. It is not with swords and genitals but with tongues that they fight. We see the preparation for the belligerent equality of Beatrice in the transvestism of Julia, and, of course, we see in Beatrice preparation for Portia, Rosalind, and Viola, those young women who will completely dominate the other comedies of this middle period. Why is that figure satisfying? How does she represent the fulfillment of men's desires? Again, Kernberg is suggestive:

In men, the predominant pathology of love relations derived from oedipal conflicts takes the form of fear of and insecurity vis-a-vis women and reaction formations against such insecurity in the form of reactive and/or projected hostility and guilt toward the maternal figure. Pre-genital conflicts, particularly conflicts around pre-genital aggression, are intimately condensed with genital conflicts.… In men, pre-genital aggression, envy and fear of women reinforce oedipal fears and feelings of inferiority toward them: the pre-genital envy of mother reinforces the oedipally determined insecurity of men regarding idealized women.

There can be no question that Claudio represents this pathology: he idealizes Hero, then loves her correspondance to an idealized image and not her actual being; because he still feels antagonistic toward both the pre-oedipal image of the mother as all-powerful, and the oedipal image as all-sexual, he readily mis-sees Hero as whore, and denounces her in the most scathing misogynistic terms.

Benedick, on the other hand, is reassured by Beatrice's assimilation to his type. She is aggressive, surely, but in such a way that he can fight back. Her threat is, as it were, up front: genital, lingual, martial. She is not the void of nonbeing that the pre-oedipal mother can seem, or the sexually insatiable oedipal mother. She is a clear and present danger, not a veiled threat. She is, indeed, his mirror image. Benedick finds in Beatrice the combination of friend and lover which previous Shakespearean comic heroes had pursued in separate objects. His union with her is then a restoration of the total self-referentiality of primary narcissism: he desires what he is and is what he desires. There is no other. His identity is in his tension with this mirror image of himself. Therein lies his being, not by some reference to an hypostasis of desire, an idealized object, a metaphysical constant. In this we see again the conjunction between Shakespeare's analysis of love and his whole worldview. Our overwhelming impression at the end of Much Ado About Nothing is of Benedick's superiority to the other male characters: he has achieved the most satisfying sexual union and with it complete self-knowledge. He is the secure center in a chaotic universe. The strongest statement of this occurs directly before the innocence of Hero is proved and therefore his duel with Claudio canceled. Benedick moves through three stages of identifying himself—first, as antagonist to Claudio:

But I must tell thee plainly, Claudio undergoes my challenge, and either I must shortly hear from him, or I will subscribe him a coward. (V.ii.53-56)

Then, as Beatrice's lover:

And I pray thee now tell me, for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me? … I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.… Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably. (V.ii.56-66)

And finally as a man who knows himself:

If a man do not erect in this age his own tomb ere he dies, he shall live no longer in monument than the bell rings, and the widow weeps.… Therefore, it is most expedient for the wise, if Don Worm, his conscience, find no impediment to the contrary, to be the trumpet of his own virtues, as I am to myself. So much for praising myself, who I myself will bear witness is praiseworthy. (V.ii.71-81)

Benedick has introjected Beatrice's image of a perfect man, loved her for making him see himself in that image—a kind of mutually narcissistic relationship, since she describes the man she would be, which becomes the man she loves—and now he sees himself clearly.

When Claudio and Don Pedro try to nag Benedick about his capitulation to love, he disdains even to answer, knowing they are incapable of understanding what he has discovered:

A college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour.… Since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion. (V.iv.99-107)

How do Beatrice and Benedick love each other? As reason itself (V.iv.74-77), and there is no higher authority. Note that here reason is not some sort of external force operating upon men's minds to shape their experience (as Descartes' passive acceptance of that force is the only way to self-knowledge), but rather reason is self-knowledge, which comes through a disparagement of the world and its expectations, and a fulfillment of one's own individual desire to recapture in one's own beloved the perfect, original image of oneself.

We must note also that the resurrection of Hero prefigures the resurrection of Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Both women have been wrongly accused of sexual crimes and their lovers made to lament their false judgement; thus, when they give themselves a second time to their husbands, this is the greatest grace and favor. Claudio accused Hero of seeming rather than being good, and she disputed him:

Claud. She's but the sign and semblance of   her honour. (IV.i.32)

Claud. I never tempted her with word too   large, But, as a brother to his sister, show'd Bashful sincerity and comely love.

Hero. And seem'd I ever otherwise to you?

Claud. 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.                                        (IV.i.52-61)

Claudio makes here the same kind of mistake that Berowne and his friends make:

The ladies did change favours, and then we, Following the signs, woo'd but the sign of  she.                                     (LLL V.ii.468-69)

But, whereas Berowne only confuses one lady for another behind the sign, Claudio actually confuses the sign for the lady, and then accuses her of making that confusion herself. He has an image of the perfect woman, the moon goodess, to which he will force Hero's assimilation. Needless to say, it is an idealized, desexualized maternal image, a denial of all those fears and loathings that we know prey upon him and keep him "infantile." Claudio rejoices in the restitution of this image after the revelation of Don John's deception:

Sweet Hero! Now thy image doth appear In the rare semblance that I lov'd it first.                                    (V.i.245-46)

It is much easier for Claudio to love a dead woman than a living, aging, changing woman, who in her cycles will fulfill and contradict all his fears and desires of the female.

There is a significant echo of Claudio's comparing Hero, in her supposed intemperance, to "pamper'd animals," in Hermione's description of herself and other women:

I prithee tell me: cram 's with praise and   make 's As fat as tame things: one good deed, dying   tongueless, Slaughters a thousand, waiting upon that. Our praises are our wages. You may ride 's With one soft kiss a thousand furlongs ere With spur we heat an acre.                                 (WT I.ii.91-96)

This adds fuel to the fire of Leontes' madness. The image is first of some guinea hen or rabbit being fattened for the table, but then these creatures breed in captivity, having nothing else to do. That is what Claudio and Leontes think of women, that they live "dully sluggardis'd at home" with nothing to do but think about sex. They are Othello's "goats and monkeys," Oberon's "love-in-idleness."

[In Shakespeare and the Experience of Love, 1981, A.] Kirsch has shown how Claudio's misperception of Hero is based on his idealization of her. He cannot see her properly, because he sees with other men's eyes, the mind of the past, the myth of women's infidelity and sexual insatiability. [In "Myth and Ritual in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream," in Textual Strategies, edited by J. Harari, 1979, R.] Girard compares Cervantes, Molière, and Dostoevsky on the hell of choosing love by another's eyes. We have already noted the resemblance to Don Quixote, where Cardenio misreads an actual scene and sees his fiancée marry another man. What these lovers lose is the actuality of their own experience: by insisting on reference to what they think are constant patterns in human experience, they are blinded to the present. Again, we might attempt to understand this both as a particular moment in the evolution of men's ways of looking at the world—Foucault's classical episteme: the representation of representation—and as a recurrent problem in psychosexuality. Claudio and Leontes, like Cardenio, have a preunderstanding of women, based on myth and romance; they impose it upon actual women, especially those they love. Shakespeare and Cervantes take an ironic view of this, showing us that men compulsively misread things, especially women. (Cervantes also, of course, shows us that Don Quixote's misreadings are sometimes right, and almost always more gentle and gracious (i.e., elevated and humane) than what actually occurs in the scene.) It seems to me that for Hobbes, and Lacan, and any serious thinker, the problem is language: it is our attempt to express in this alien structure imposed upon us, both to ourselves and to others—the distinction Hobbes makes between "marking" and "signifying"—what we see and what we feel. Desire is a function of the difference between what we actually need and the need we can express in language. Myths live in language, though they are thought to be preverbal: like words themselves they are arbitrary categories into which we organize our experience. This process of necessity short-circuits the connections between things (the real), our impressions of them (the imaginary), and our thinking and speaking about them (the symbolic): connections (necessarily false) are immediately made between things and words. By representing representation, Shakespeare restores the indirection of the original circuit, calling our attention to the genesis of false impressions. One consequence is that he is not so interested in presenting things as they are, but rather things as they appear to individual characters and the difficulty they have communicating these images to other characters. They all speak the same language, but they do not all have the same impressions.

When these phenomena are erotic, I argue, the images are largely self-images: love in Shakespeare, as in life, is not an idle entertainment, but a compulsive attempt to establish identity. The images, then, that we are projecting are of object-relations from our earliest childhood. If these have been consolidated into a substantial sense of self, then we can allow correction in them by the others they are projected upon. There are, however, two types of pathological projections which we know from life and from Shakespeare. There is the projection onto others of a grandiose self-image; this is pathological narcissism, which we see in Malvolio and Petruchio. Then there is the kind of splitting of the object we see in all those male characters who are obsessed with female sexuality; they deny it in their "ladies" and seek it in inferiors. This is Freud's distinction between idealization and debasement in object-choice, which Wheeler has applied so thoroughly and convincingly to the problem comedies that we need only refer to his work and pass directly on from the mature comedies to the late romances.

In this sense, too, Shakespeare produces a representation of representation: he forces us to see how characters without a consolidated sense of self force all their objects to fit archaic images of narcissistic and anaclitic object-choices. He shows us how characters learn to love and progress through the stages of such a consolidation, thereby creating a sense of self derived from early object-relations. Again we see, in a different way, the disastrous results of the "triangulation of desire": an immediate and complete correspondence is demanded between actual, experienced objects and those images of one's original objects, derived from one's own childhood or from the "childhood of man," which have solidified as symbols without any allowance for the mutual corrections which should take place in the relations between the real and the imaginary, on the one hand, and the imaginary and the symbolic, on the other.

Carol Cook (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor': Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing," in PMLA, Vol. 101, No. 2, March, 1986, pp. 186-202.

[Here, Cook traces the significance of differences that represent gender in Much Ado about Nothing, concentrating on the use of language to both mask and expose masculine fears about feminine power in the play.]

Much Ado about Nothing begins with news of an ending; a rebellious brother has been defeated in battle, and the victorious prince and his retinue are approaching Messina. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick return from one kind of conflict to enter another: before they set foot in Messina we hear of a "merry war," the ongoing "skirmish of wit," between Benedick and Beatrice (1.1.62-63). Responding to the centrality of sexual conflict in Much Ado, critics have sometimes read the play as a struggle in which humane feminine qualities ultimately supersede inadequate masculine values. Barbara Everett has written [in "Much Ado about Nothing," Critical Quarterly 3, 1969] 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 loyalties, 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 seriousness, and in which the woman's world dominates.

John Crick, after describing the limitations of Messina's "predominately masculine ethos" [in "Much Ado about Nothing," The Use of English 17, 1965], suggests that Beatrice's "feminine charity triumphs.… 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 …". Janice Hayes [in "Those 'soft and delicate desires': Much Ado and the Distrust of Women," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, 1980] borrows the psychological terms instrumental and expressive to characterize masculine and feminine modes of behavior and experience in the play. Contrasting "the traditionally male sphere of war, honors, and triumph" and "the private and potentially expressive world of Messina, a world whose functioning is communal and cyclical and whose heirs are women," Hayes sees the Claudio-Hero plot as a ritual action in which Claudio's "narcissistic instrumentality" is overcome in his symbolic penance at Hero's tomb and his acceptance of an unknown bride.

These readings find a resolution to sexual conflict in the play in a thematic movement that privileges the feminine and provides moral closure. In my view, however, whatever conversion or movement the play offers is notably incomplete, for while the sexual conflict points in an illuminating way to the question of gender differences and what is at stake in them, their relation to subjectivity and authority, the play cannot resolve its contradictions from within its own structures of meaning. My reading of Much Ado begins by tracing the signifying differences that produce or represent gender in the play, differences especially evident in the cuckold jokes of the opening scene, and suggests that what is at stake in these differences is a masculine prerogative in language, which the play itself sustains. I argue that the play masks, as well as exposes, the mechanisms of masculine power and that insofar as it avoids what is crucial to its conflicts, the explicitly offered comic resolution is something of an artful dodge.

The pervasive masculine anxiety that characterizes the play's Messina might be read psychoanalytically as castration anxiety; the imagery of horns and wounds in the cuckold jokes points rather insistently in this direction. But "castration anxiety" is not so much an answer to the play's questions about gender difference as another formulation of them that requires some further explanation, for the phallus and its loss only signify within a larger structure of meanings. Much Ado sets up a complex chain of association among the word, the sword, and the phallus, marking off language as the domain of masculine privilege and masculine aggression. The masculine, in the world of the play, is the place of speaking and reading subjects, of manipulators and interpreters of signs. The characters are much concerned with self-concealment and the exposure of others, with avoiding objectification by others, the abjection of which the cuckold's horn becomes the fearful sign. To read others in this play is always an act of aggression: to be read is to be emasculated, to be a woman. Masculine privilege is contingent on the legibility of women, and the ambiguous signifying power of women's "seeming" is the greatest threat to the men of Messina, who engage various defensive strategies against it, from the exchange of tendentious jokes to the symbolic sacrifice of Hero. The play itself is implicated in these strategies, insofar as the characters' plot to recuperate Claudio through the fiction of Hero's death is also the plot of the play: the stability necessary for comic closure requires the exorcism of a disturbingly polysemous image of woman. The strategy is only partially successful, however, for though the "false knaves," Don John and his henchmen, are ultimately revealed as the manipulators of misreadings, they function as scapegoats, deflecting attention from the unresolved anxieties about language and gender that have been responsible for the play's catastrophe.


We can learn a good deal about the place of gender difference in the life and language of Much Ado's Messina by looking at the most persistent theme in the witty discourse of the play's male characters—that of cuckoldry. The cuckold jokes begin when Leonato, asked whether Hero is his daughter, replies, "Her mother hath many times told me so" (1.1.105), and end with Benedick's closing advice to Don Pedro: "get thee a wife, get thee a wife! There is no staff more reverent than one tipp'd with horn" (5.4.122-24)—an absolute equation of marriage with cuckoldry. The tirelessness with which these men return to such jokes suggests an underlying anxiety that is present when the play opens and that has not been dispelled by the resolution of the plot's various complications.

The imagery of the play's cuckold jokes reveals much about the anxiety that motivates them. Leonato's casual remark about Hero's mother is a witty circumlocution of the sort that dominates the sophisticated small talk of Messina. In itself it is a trifle, a hackneyed joke that comes automatically to mind and rolls easily off the tongue. We are not to infer that Leonato is harboring serious doubts about the fidelity of his wife. The very conventionality of the comment, though, points to a larger cultural picture in which men share a sense of vulnerability because they have only a woman's word for the paternity of their children. A man may be a cuckold, it is suggested, and not be aware of his horns.

This anxiety about women's potential power over men is particularly apparent in Benedick's self-consciously misogynistic banter in the first scene, where he airs some of his antiromantic doctrine for the benefit of Claudio and Don Pedro:

That a woman conceiv'd me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise give her most humble thanks; but that I will have a rechate winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.


To submit oneself to a woman by loving and marrying her is to "have a rechate winded" in one's forehead—a trumpet blast blowing from one's forehead, announcing one's humiliation to the world. Marriage forces a man to "hang his bugle in an invisible baldrick." This somewhat obscure metaphor seems to be a concentrated expression of the masculine fears about feminine power in the play. The gloss given for this line in the Riverside edition runs as follows: "carry my horn not in the usual place on the usual strap (baldrick) but where no strap is seen (because none is present)—on my forehead" (335). As a symbol of man's betrayal and humiliation, the horn displaced from its rightful place to a wrong one must be read, it seems to me, in the light of the play's two metaphoric uses of the word horn, for horns are not only signs of cuckoldry but also phallic symbols. What Benedick's metaphor of the invisible baldrick suggests is that marriage emasculates a man and flaunts the evidence of his emasculation by displaying the displaced phallus in his fore-head. This theme is sustained in the lines that follow:

Bene.… Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker's pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel-house for the sign of blind Cupid.

D. Pedro. Well, if ever thou dost fall from this faith, thou wilt prove a notable argument.

Bene. If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapp'd on the shoulder and call'd Adam.

D. Pedro. Well, as time shall try: "In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke."

Bene. The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vildly painted, and in such great letters as they write "Here is good horse to hire," let them signify under my sign, "Here you may see Benedick the married man."


Benedick here offers in succession three versions of his fate if he becomes subjected to a woman, if he "ever lose[s] more blood with love than [he] will get again with drinking"—a loss of vitality and virility like "Th' expense of spirit" of sonnet 129, perhaps suggesting also the bleeding wound of castration. What makes these three statements (of what would happen "if") roughly parallel is their recurrent images of vulnerability, mutilation, and exposure as legible signs. In the first case, loss of eyes suggests the lover's mutilation—and, obliquely, castration—but also enforces the particular humiliation of denying the victim the ability to witness his own condition. Displayed publicly at the site of sexual degradation, the lover is fully objectified, seen but unseeing, subjected to the aggression of others' gazes. That the instrument of blinding is the satiric ballad maker's pen links the visual objectification through display with a textual objectification through language, as the emasculated cuckold is ridiculed and published in degrading fictions. In the second case, the lover is to be hung "in a bottle like a cat" and shot at by other men, who compete for the first hit. In his public exposure and vulnerability, the cuckold becomes the target for other men's "shots," their witty jibes. Finally, Benedick picks up Don Pedro's aphorism about the yoking of the savage bull. The bull's horns are the manifestations of its savagery, its undomesticated masculine power, and by extension an image of virility in general. Should the sensible Benedick ever submit to the yoke, he says, "pluck off the bull's horns"—that is, turn them from signs of potency to signs of emasculation—"and set them in my forehead." The displacement motif here recalls the invisible bald-rick, and again the emasculation of the lover is followed by public display—the sign designating the humiliated victim "Benedick the married man."

The cuckold joke partakes of all three categories of what Freud calls "tendentious jokes": the aggressive or hostile joke (the cuckold joke expresses masculine competition), the cynical joke (aimed at the institution of marriage itself), and the obscene or exposing joke. In discussing the last category, Freud makes a number of observations that are pertinent here. "Smut," he writes, in Jokes [and Their Relation to the Unconscious, translated and edited by James Strachey, 1960], or "the intentional bringing into prominence of sexual facts and relations by speech, is … originally directed toward women and may be equated with attempts at seduction." Such sexual talk "is like an exposure of the sexually different person to whom it is directed." If the woman does not respond sexually to the verbal overture—as is often the case at "the higher social levels," where sexual inhibitions are strongest—"the sexually exciting speech becomes an aim in itself" and "becomes hostile and cruel, and … thus summons to its help against the obstacle the sadistic components of the sexual instinct." Denied its original aim of seduction, the sexual joking will be directed to a new audience: "The men save up this kind of entertainment, which originally presupposed the presence of a woman who was feeling ashamed, until they are 'alone together'." The tendentious joke calls for three participants: "the one who makes the joke, … a second who is taken as the object of the hostile or sexual aggressiveness, and a third in whom the joke's aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled."

Freud's diachronic analysis of the origin of "smut" can be more usefully understood here as an account of the different aims that a joke may simultaneously fulfill. As such, his model turns out to illuminate the cuckold jokes in Much Ado. Freud's paradigmatic joke teller is a man, speaking to a male audience, with women as the silent, absent objects of the jokes. The tendentious jokes work on several levels of direction and indirection. Thus, when Claudio aims a cuckold joke at Benedick for the benefit of don Pedro ("Tush, fear not, man, we'll tip thy horns with gold …" [5.4.44]), the object of the joke is Benedick, imagined as a cuckold and hence as having lost his masculine status in the sexual hierarchy, but at another remove the object is also women, with their fearful power to cuckold men.

The cuckold joke expresses hostility and fear, but the relational structure of the joke-telling situation offers a compensation. Cuckoldry occurs as a triangular relationship that the cuckold joke revises—and perhaps revenges. In the act of cuckolding, which dominates the imaginations of Messina's men, it is the husband who is the silent and absent butt of the joke, while a woman takes the active and powerful role (comparable to that of the teller of a joke), in complicity with a third party in whom, as Freud puts it, the "aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled." The telling of cuckold jokes, then, restores the male prerogative: it returns the woman to silence and absence, her absence authorizing the male raconteur to represent her in accordance with particular male fantasies, and produces pleasure through male camaraderie.

Thus, Benedick's lines figure emasculation, or the loss of masculine privilege, in two ways: as a literal, physical castration and as a concomitant loss of masculine prerogative in language. In becoming a cuckold, a man relinquishes his role as the teller of jokes, the manipulator, reader, and subject of language, and falls instead to the woman's position as the object of jokes, the silent, legible sign. It is the place of the woman to be the object, or referent, of language, a sign to be read and interpreted; silent herself, she becomes a cipher, the target of unconscious fantasies and fears, and is dangerously vulnerable to the representations and misrepresentations of men, as the main plot of Much Ado bears out. The woman is therefore doubly threatening, both in her imagined capacity to betray and cuckold men and as an image of what men fear to become: paradoxically, her very vulnerability is threatening.

The social world of Much Ado's Messina seems rather precariously founded on a denial of its most pervasive anxieties, and its potential for violence is triggered when the repressed fear of the feminine, and all that woman represents, is forced into consciousness by Don John's machinations. Messina, the most sophisticated and urbane society in all Shakespeare's comedies, is also the most confined. No moonlit wood or forest of Arden offers escape from Messina's social tensions, and the characters' romantic and sexual roles are not relieved by opportunities for sexual disguise. Social and sexual roles are firmly established, and the inhabitants are acutely conscious of them.

To note the rigidity of this world is not to suggest that Messina lacks charm. Its aristocratic characters demonstrate the most elaborate courtesy; formality does not make their manners less genial, and they move through their elegant social patterns with an almost choreographic grace. Yet beneath their easy charm, their wit and conviviality, the characters are evidently anxious, edgy, afraid of betraying spontaneous emotion, afraid of exposing themselves to one another. Messina is much concerned with its carefully preserved surfaces. The characters talk a good deal about how they dress. We hear about "cloth o' gold … down sleeves, side-sleeves, and skirts" (3.4.19-21); about Benedick's metamorphosis in "strange disguises" (3.2.32-33); about "slops" (3.2.36), doublets, rabatos, gloves, and vizards; about Dogberry's two gowns; and about "the deformed thief, fashion"—the rhetorical figure overheard by messina's night watch, in whose minds "the thief, Deformed" takes on a remarkably vivid personality and criminal record (3.3.130-31). Just as the Messinans talk about dress, they talk about talking. They are highly conscious of verbal style. Benedick and Beatrice are known for their "skirmish of wit" (1.1.63); if they were married "but a week," Leonato predicts, "they would talk themselves mad" (2.1.353-54). We hear about the speed of Beatrice's tongue, about "quips and sentences and paper bullets of the brain," about the "ill word" that may "empoison liking," about Don John, who is "not of many words" (1.1.157).

Entering into the social intercourse of Messina entails dressing well and talking well, and in a way these modes of decorous behavior serve similar functions. Early in the play, Benedick withdraws from the banter of Don Pedro and Claudio saying: "Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your discourse is sometimes guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither" (1.1.285-87). Benedick here makes explicit a relation between discourse and dress that continues to be important throughout the play. The discourse of Claudio and Don Pedro (and perhaps of all the major characters except Hero) is guarded—that is, decorated (rhetorically) and also, in the now more common sense of the word, defensive. The characters use their wit to cover their emotional nakedness and to avoid exposure. Discourse in Messina is aggressive and witty; real wounds are dealt in the "merry war" between Benedick and Beatrice, in which Beatrice "speaks poiniards, and every word stabs" (2.1.247-48). Because of its capacity to inflict wounds, language— especially wit—is wielded both as weapon and as shield.Like Benedick, Beatrice adopts the role of "profess'd tyrant" to the opposite sex (1.1.169), satirizing masculine pretensions with agile wit. To Hero, she remarks tartly on paternal authority: "Yes, faith, it is my cousin's duty to make cursy and say, 'Father, as it please you.' But for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or make another cursy, and say, 'Father, as it please me'" (2.1.52-56). And, like Benedick, she makes cynical pronouncements on romantic love and marriage:

… wooing, wedding, and repenting, is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinquepace; the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig, and full as fantastical; the wedding, mannerly-modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance, and with his bad legs falls into the cinquepace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.


Beatrice's ironic comments on men and marriage, and her passionate outburst against Claudio in the first scene of act 4, have led some critics to regard her as the champion of a "feminine principle" and as a kind of protofeminist. Yet Beatrice's ostentatious flouting of conventional sexual roles is often only a concession to them at another level, and instead of challenging Messina's masculine ethos, she participates in its assumptions and values. In the opening scene, she mocks Benedick's soldiership: "I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed, I promised to eat all of his killing" (42-45). On the messenger's remarking that Benedick is a "good soldier too, lady," she quibbles "And a good soldier to a lady. But what is he to a lord?" (1.1.53-55). But her insinuation that "Signior Mountanto" is effeminate does not question the machismo value of soldiership itself.

Beatrice tacitly accepts her culture's devaluation of "feminine" characteristics—of weakness, dependence, vulnerability—and sees conventionally masculine behavior as the only defense against them. She usurps the masculine prerogatives of language and phallic wit, speaking poiniards as an escape from feminine silence or inarticulate expression of emotion.

Beatrice's audacious speech might seem a serious violation of Messina's conventions of gender, but it is significant how little she actually threatens Messina's men, who regard her generally as rather a good fellow. Though Benedick professes a hyperbolical terror of "My Lady Tongue" (2.1.262-75) and Leonato rebukes her mildly ("By my troth, niece, thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue" [2.1.18-19]), she provokes nothing like the hysterical reactions to the quiet Hero's supposed transgressions against the social and sexual code. When Beatrice retracts a bit on her own impertinence—"But I beseech your Grace to pardon me. I was born to speak all mirth and no matter"—Don Pedro replies, "Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you …" (2.1.329-32). It is silence and the exposure of vulner-ability that are the real threats to Messinan men, painful reminders of the sexual difference that is really a mirror.

Beatrice is as aggressive and as guarded as the men in the play, and for the same reasons: she fears emotional exposure and vulnerability to the opposite sex. As the play begins she already seems to be nursing wounds from some abortive romance with Benedick, to which she alludes cryptically more than once. Beatrice vacillates uneasily between self-exposure and affected indifference; she chafes at times against the constraints of her ironist's role, which consigns her to isolation and detachment when part of her desires love, but recognizing her susceptibility, she clings the more tenaciously to her role. The long first scene of act 2 reveals her contradictory impulses. Leonato chides her for being "so shrewd of [her] tongue" and tells her "So, by being too curst, God will send you no horns." "Just," she replies, "if he send me no husband, for the which blessing I am at him upon my kness every morning and evening" (27-29). At Hero's betrothal, however, she speaks in a different key: "Good Lord, for alliance! Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry 'Heighho for a husband!'" (318-20). If the tone is mock lament here, the sense of exclusion is real; yet each of her tentative gestures of self-exposure is followed by a nervous reassertion of ironic detachment. She alternately challenges others' misreadings of her humorist's mask and encourages them to take her as she appears. When Don Pedro seems too readily to accept her as "born in a merry hour," she replies, "No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danc'd and under that was I born. Cousins, God give you joy!" (334-36).

Chafing at the reductiveness of Don Pedro's image of her as merely "merry," Beatrice offers a fleeting glimpse of a part of herself and a realm of experience that cannot be given expression in Messina, figured in the laboring mother whose only articulation is an ambiguous cry. But she compulsively banishes the image of the crying mother with that of the dancing star and quickly turns attention away from herself by congratulating her "cousins." She is thus perceived only as "a pleasant-spirited lady" (341) whose "merry heart … keeps on the windy side of care" (314-15). Leonato misses the significance of his own remark when he tells Don Pedro: "There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord. She is never sad but when she sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have heard my daughter say she hath often dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing" (342-46). Whatever unhappiness haunts Beatrice's dreams, her laughter is a conscious defense against it. She cannot in her waking moments articulate or address the conflicts inherent in her relation to her world.

Beatrice is a character of some complexity, a character whose contradictions, manifest in her own words and actions, we read as signs of interiority and ambivalence, as evidence of different levels of motivation. Hero presents another kind of problem. Here the contradictions consist of a tension between the manifest representation of her character (which is quite uncomplicated and one-dimensional) and her latent significance, which is evident in the effects she produces in others. Minimally drawn, with few lines, she is less a character than a cipher, or a mirror to the other characters. She is represented as conventionally feminine; meek, self-effacing, vulnerable, obedient, seen and not heard, she is a face without a voice. In the world of the play Hero's role is to meet or reflect others' expectations of what women are supposed to be (as Beatrice does not) and paradoxically, therefore, to represent a powerful threat.

Hero's status as a character and the mode of her representation are peculiar enough to require special consideration. Crick characterizes Hero as "nebulous," but he uses the word to dismiss rather than to analyze her. In fact, Hero's nebulousness is significant: she is the "nothing" that generates so much ado. The pun on nothing and noting in the play has frequently been remarked, but we might usefully pursue it in this connection. To note can mean to observe (to read) or to make note of (to inscribe); both involve acts of interpretation. A similar ambiguity arises in connection with the word mark. Benedick believes that he spies "some marks of love" in Beatrice once he falls in love with her (2.3.245-46). In the climactic church scene the friar, "by noting of the lady" (Hero), has "marked / A thousand blushing apparitions / To start into her face …" (4.1.158-60). Benedick's act of "marking" is clearly a projection, but the question then arises whether the friar's marking of Hero is not equally so.

Hero's nothing invites noting, her blankness produces marking, and the ambiguity of this action occurs not only in the play but also in the critical commentary. Marilyn French describes Hero this way [in Shakespeare's Division of Experience, 1981]: "As a noncharacter, the obedient and silent Hero exemplifies the inlaw [i.e., subordinate] feminine principle at its most acceptable: but like Bianca in Taming, she wears the disguise society demands of her, but harbors other thoughts under her impeccable exterior." The equation of Hero with Bianca, a conscious hypocrite who wears a "disguise" and harbors a subversive will, blurs the distinction toward which French seems to gesture with her initial suggestion that Hero is a "noncharacter." Without confronting her conflicting readings as a critical problem, French contradictorily treats Hero sometimes as a character whose hidden depths she can read and sometimes as a symbol that functions as pure surface; but in effect the play itself does the same thing. Ironically, the attempt to read Hero as a psychologically realized character, in this feminist approach to the play, leads French to adopt a notion of Hero's "seeming" that concurs with the one Claudio takes up in his most misogynistic moment (4.1). To avoid this difficulty, it seems to me, one must be willing to regard Hero as a kind of cipher or space, which other characters—and perhaps critics as well—fill with readings of their own.

In the opening scene, where the personalities, roles, and relations of the characters are largely established, Hero has only one line, seven words, and these are to explain a remark of Beatrice's. Though the actor playing the part has recourse to some nonverbal means of establishing the character for the audience (facial expressions, gestures, placement on stage, etc.), the text itself portrays Hero primarily through the effect she produces on Claudio. Typically, the exchange between Claudio and Benedick about Claudio's "soft and delicate desires" (303) reveals little about Hero but a good deal about the two speakers. Beside Benedick's energetic irony, Claudio's desires seem a little too delicate, his love a little bloodless. When he tremulously asks whether Benedick does not find Hero "a modest young lady" (165) and, gathering courage, pronounces her "the sweetest lady that ever I looked on" (187-88), his adjectives betray more propriety and sentiment than they do passion. When he demonstrates a penchant for romantic hyperbole ("Can the world buy such a jewel?" [181]), which Benedick neatly deflates, his extravagant praise expresses, not burning Petrarchan longings, but a kind of wistful acquisitiveness.

Benedick greets Claudio's desire to marry with a sardonic lament for the decline of bachelors: "hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion?" (197-99). It becomes clear, however, that Claudio does wear his cap with suspicion—and a good deal of it, too. The cautious reticence of his confession of his love is self-protective: a desire to assess the lady's merit and other men's opinions of it before betraying too ardent a regard for her. He is edgy about the whole business and wary of his friend's responses. "Didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato? … Is she not a modest young lady?" he asks Benedick; and he then exhorts him, "I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik'st her" (161-63, 165, 177-78). Even when told what he wants to hear, Claudio has misgivings. When Don Pedro assures him that "the lady is very well worthy" Claudio responds "You speak this to fetch me in, my lord" (221-23). Claudio further reveals his anxieties in the first scene of act 2: anticipating his later behavior by believing without question Don John's assertion that Don Pedro has won Hero, Claudio gives vent to his sense of betrayal in a brief, telling soliloquy:

'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!                                      (174-82)

Abdicating the use of one's own tongue, Claudio laments bitterly, leaves one vulnerable to treachery; to be represented by another is to be wounded. What is perhaps more revealing, though, is the way in which the speech subtly shifts the blame for the supposed betrayal from its ostensible object, Don Pedro, to the "witch," female beauty. Though not specifically accused, Hero is subsumed into an archetype of destructive female power—of the sorceress who deprives men of their wills and dissolves the solidarity of masculine bonds into the "blood" of passion and violence. Like Benedick, Claudio associates love with a loss of blood, not the woman's loss of hymenal blood but the loss a man suffers from the castrating wound love inflicts. Claudio's references to Hero here take on sexual over-tones wholly lacking in his earlier "noting" of her modesty and sweetness. He perceives her as a sexual being only in her capacity to betray and then perceives her as a powerful threat, suggesting that in his imagination he has desexualized the Hero he wishes to marry. When he learns that Don Pedro has, in fact, honored their agreement and that Hero is to be his, he reverts to his romantic perception of her. The pattern established in this early episode is repeated, as we shall see, in the catastrophe of acts 4 and 5.


The first three acts of Much Ado clearly establish the capabilities and limitations of Messina's aristocratic milieu: its sophisticated, graceful, almost choreographic social forms; its brilliant language and aggressive wit; and the tight rein kept on emotions, making them difficult or dangerous to express. Whether we are more charmed or put off by Messina's genteel artificiality, the violent outburst in the catastrophic church scene comes as a shock (4.1). We have, of course, seen trouble brewing. Don John's malicious intentions are revealed early (1.3), and we know from his first attempt at sabotaging Claudio's love that Claudio's distrust of the witchlike powers of female beauty is close to the surface and easily triggered. In a scene paralleling that earlier deception (3.2), Don John comes to Claudio with his accusation that "the lady is disloyal" (104). He offers ocular proof, and Claudio, who had earlier resolved to "let every eye negotiate for itself," swallows the bait: "If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her, tomorrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her" (123-25). It is not so much on Claudio's eye, however, as on his mind's eye that Don John practices deceit. Using subtly sexual language to describe what Claudio will see—"Go but with me to-night, and you shall see her chamber-window entered" (112-13)—Don John raises the figure of a witchlike, betraying, sexual Hero in Claudio's imagination, and the image of the "sweet" and "modest" Hero gives way before it. Claudio believes the ocular proof before he sees anything—"O mischief strangely thwarting!" he cries (132), as he goes off to spy on her window.

Critics dissatisfied with Much Ado have complained that its near tragic catastrophe violates the comic mood of the rest of the play. The naked emotions that erupt in act 4 among the hitherto highly civil characters are calculated, I think, to be startling. Yet what makes this behavior almost inevitable has been implicit from the first scene. The witty discourse that gives the play its vitality and the Messinans much of their charm consists mainly of tendentious jokes—covert expressions of aggression or sexual hostility. The polished behavior, the elegant courtesies, and the verbal sophistication of the characters have served through three acts of the play to cover or contain these energies. In the scene at the church, however, once the surface of decorous ritual has been stripped away, the violence of the emotion and the language, especially Claudio's, becomes explicit and shocking.

Though the manner Claudio displays here differs drastically from his reverence for Hero in the scenes of his courtship and betrothal, he is not inconsistent. The self-protective reserve and the conflicted perceptions of Hero underlying his earlier sentimental expressions now motivate his scathing castigation of her. Kerby Neill, writing an "acquittal" for Claudio [in "More Ado about Claudio: An Acquittal for the Slandered Groom," Shakespeare Quarterly 3, 1952], emphasizes Shakespeare's departure from his sources in "removing all trace of carnality from the hero's love." "If anything," he argues, "the bitterness of Claudio's denunciation of Hero shows an abhorrence of … carnality.… The … effect is to idealize Claudio even as he denounces the innocent Hero. He remains a good man, although deceived.…" Neill, in effect, takes Caludio at his own valuation—claiming that he "sinned not but in mistaking," as Claudio says of himself (5.1.273-74)—and in so doing accepts implicitly the dualism inherent in Claudio's view of Hero: it is his "abhorrence of carnality" that allows his romantic idealism to coexist with a powerful misogyny. In the first scene of act 4 the thought that, despite his caution, he was nearly taken advantage of kindles in Claudio a hot, self-righteous resentment. The "witch" female beauty, he thinks, almost made him the victim of her "exterior shows." This time he is well guarded with elaborate language, wittier in his cruelty than he had ever been in jest:

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!                                     (100-04)

Claudio's radically divided sense of Hero's identity is most fully apparent in this scene. When Leonato suggests that Claudio himself might, in a bridegroom's natural impatience, have "made defeat of her virginity," Claudio denies it with priggish distaste:

I know what you would say: If I have known   her, You will say, she did embrace me as a   husband, And so extenuate the 'forehand sin. No, Leonato, I never tempted her with word too large, But as a brother to his sister, show'd Bashful sincerity and comely love.                                       (48-54)

Either Hero must be the unthreatening sexless recipient of Claudio's "comely" fraternal love, or she becomes the treacherous beauty whose witch-like powers destroy men. But where Claudio had previously responded to alternative possibilities for Hero's identity, he now imagines the dichotomy to be one between her surface and her hidden nature. He is most outraged by what he takes to be her "seeming":

She's but the sign and semblance of her   honor. Behold how like a maid she blushes here! 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. She knows the heat of a luxurious bed; Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.                                      (33-42)

In a sense Claudio is correct in calling Hero "the sign and semblance of her honor." Her place in the world of this play is most apparent in this scene, where, nearly silent and finally subsiding into unconsciousness under the onslaught of abuse, she becomes in effect a sign to be read and interpreted by others. Claudio sarcastically rejects her "authority" to be preceived as she presents herself. He has, he thinks, the clue that allows him to read her true worth and nature. It is particularly the "blood" visible in Hero's face that is taken to signify the state of her soul. "Comes not that blood as modest evidence / To witness simple virtue?" he asks with the ironic jubilance of a reader onto the meaning of a text, the truth that her "blush is guiltiness, not modesty." His descriptions of the polarities of Hero's identify become more and more elaborate and literary, and he returns to the significance of her "blood" in this depiction of opposing female archetypes:

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.                                           (57-61)

Having found the key to reading women, Claudio suggests as he exits, he will know how to apply it in the future:

For thee I'll lock up all the gates of love, And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang, To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm, And never shall it more be gracious.                                       (105-08)

Leonato, thrown into an anguish of uncertainty by Claudio's outburst, charges his daughter to answer her accusers, but he hardly hears her simple denial. Quickly persuaded when Claudio's claims are seconded by Don Pedro, and by Don John, who hints darkly at the unutterable nature of Hero's crimes ("There is not chastity enough in language / Without offense to utter them" [97-98]), Leonato grasps Claudio's method of reading his child. He believes that her surface has been stripped away to expose the secret foulness of her sexuality; her silence is a horrifying nakedness. When the friar ventures to suggest that her accusers may be mistaken, Leonato rejects the possibility:

             Friar, it cannot be. Thou see'st that all the grace that she hath left Is that she will not add to her damnation A sin of perjury; she not denies it. Why seek'st thou then to cover with excuse That which appears in proper nakedness?                                     (170-75)

Leonato too rejects Hero's authority to voice her own nature, which he believes he can read. "[C]ould she here deny / The story that is printed in her blood?" he demands. In her blood he reads the story of "her foul tained flesh" and insists that "Death is the fairest cover for her shame / That may be wish'd for" (121-22, 143, 116-17). Ironically, thinking that they have exposed the "proper nakedness" of Hero's sin, her accusers expose only themselves.

It is in the wake of this scene of exposure that Benedick and Beatrice reveal their love for each other. Love, and the vulnerability that comes with it, has been a kind of exposure each has dodged through most of the play. Their resolutions to open themselves to love have been followed by physical illness (Benedick's tooth-ache, Beatrice's cold), which, whether real or feigned, suggests the anxiety such exposure produces. Distracted from their anxieties about themselves for a moment by their preoccupation with Claudio's denunciation of Hero, Benedick and Beatrice are able to talk to each other without persiflage. The intimacy of the situation (255-88) quickly leads to revelation, and for a moment we watch what appears to be an alternative to the kind of self-protective emotional display witnessed in Claudio. Benedick initiates it with his sudden, apropos-of-nothing, unprecedentedly literal confession: "I do love nothing in the world so well as you—is not that strange?" (268-69). And though Beatrice has to be teased out of her evasiveness, she is brought to respond in kind:

Beat. You have stayed me in a happy hour, I   was about to protest I loved you.Bene. And do it with all thy heart.Beat. I love you with so much of my heart   that none is left to protest.                                            (283-87)

The warmth and simplicity of the language are like nothing we have heard before in the play (as was Claudio's unmasked brutality), and we are apt to watch this exchange with relief. At last the masks seem to be dropped; at last two characters seem to confront each other "in proper nakedness." But the intimacy of the moment is volatile, and it leads to something for which we are unprepared. "Come, bid me do anything for thee," Benedick jubilantly exclaims. And Beatrice quite unexpectedly responds, "Kill Claudio" (288-89).

Benedick's Claudio-like hyperbole perhaps recalls to Beatrice the whole preceding scene of Hero's rejection and humiliation by the man in whose power she had placed herself, and Beatrice hastily retreats from her emotional surrender. Her demand that Benedick kill Claudio is a double defense, placing Benedick in an impossible position and covering her exposed tenderness with a display of ferocity. She is both magnificent and absurd in her vigorous denunciation of Claudio:

Is 'a not approv'd in the height a villain, that hath slander'd, scorned, dishonored 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 rancor—O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace!


Beatrice's explosion of moral outrage against Claudio is immensely satisfying, partly because it gives vent to our own frustrated sense of justice (the release of this pent-up emotion is also why we laugh at the scene). Her anger takes in not only Claudio but men in general—the "princes and counties" (315), and the fathers, who have united in persecuting Hero and against whom Beatrice is powerless to act.

The critics quoted at the beginning of this essay emphasize particularly this moment in designating Beatrice a champion of the "feminine principles" needed to correct the evils of Messina's "predominantly masculine ethos." John Crick praises her "feminine charity," her "generosity and sympathy in a world dominated by ultimately inhumane standards, as Barbara Everett does her "dogged, loyal, irrational femininity." Although Beatrice's outburst is extremely gratifying—the scene is constructed to make it so—it is important to recognize that her fury imitates what we might call the dogged, brutal, irrational masculinity just displayed by Claudio and Leonato: her rage is generated by her inability to "be a man with wishing" and to do what men do. She echoes the masculine revenge ethic voiced earlier by Leonato, who, brought finally to consider the possibility of Hero's innocence, had vowed to have his revenge on somebody (190-92). Far from proposing an alternative to masculine values, Beatrice regrets their decline and upbraids Benedick for his unmanly reluctance to exchange verbal aggression, which is common coin in Messina, for real violence:

O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend who would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into cursies, valor 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; and therefore I will die a woman with grieving.


The last line of her tirade raises the question of what might be an adequate "feminine" alternative to the "predominately masculine ethos" of Messina. Beatrice longs to take arms against a sea of masculine troubles but, by opposing, would only perpetuate them. The sole alternative that presents itself to her, however, is to follow Hero's model of conventional femininity and "die a woman" in silent grief.

The friar has proposed a somewhat different way of dealing with the crisis. "By noting of the lady," he has "marked" signs of her innocence and has produced a plan that he hopes will work changes in Claudio's poisoned imagination by means of a fiction:

    So will it fare with Claudio. When he shall hear she died upon his words, Th' 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 liv'd indeed. Then shall he   mourn, If ever love had interest in his liver, And wish he had not so accused her. No, though he thought his accusation true.                                      (222-33)

Many critics have seen the friar as the point of moral reference in the play and also as the instrument of its resolution. His sensible resistance to the false evidence that has fooled Don Pedro and Claudio, his opposition to their outbursts of violent emotion, his attentions to Hero, and his proposal to educate Claudio in Christian forgiveness—all these actions seem to place the religious father outside Messina's masculine ethos and to confer on him a special moral authority. The tendency to see him in this light, whether we attribute it to indicators in the text (the friar's speech is rhetorically impressive) or to a powerful desire to see moral coherence in Shakespearean comedy, has led otherwise careful critics into a simple error of fact: the friar's plan fails. The plan is specifically a response to Claudio's determination to "lock up all the gates of love" by hanging "conjecture" on his eyelids "To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm." The friar proposes to change the way Claudio sees, introducing a "moving" image of Hero "Into the eye and prospect of his soul" through the fiction of her death. The friar looks to do more than correct Claudio's "mistake" about Hero's virtue: he hopes that Claudio will change in a way that will induce remorse and love "though he thought his accusation true. " Shakespeare dramatized such a conversion much later in Cymbeline, when Posthumus, believing himself responsible for Imogen's death, laments his harsh judgment of her in a long soliloquy before he learns of her innocence (5.1.1-17).

The proposed resolution does not occur. Not only is Claudio not grief-stricken when we see him next (5.1), he is rather giddy. He shows no shame when Leonato accuses him of killing Hero through his villainy ("My villainy?" he asks indignantly [72]), and he describes the incident flippantly when Benedick arrives: "We had lik'd to have our two noses snapp'd off with two old men without teeth" (115-16). He then goads Benedick about Beatrice as though nothing had happened since the third scene of act 3. Don Pedro behaves with the same careless good humor, both of them apparently hoping that Hero's "death" will pass off as merely an unfortunate social awkwardness. It is not until he learns of her innocence that Claudio's feeling changes; the issue is no longer a matter of forgiveness now but only of getting the facts straight. Claudio does not question his behavior or his assumptions, contending that he "sinned not but in mistaking," and once in possession of the "truth" about Hero, he simply reverts to his initial image of her: "Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I lov'd it first" (251-52). The image of the witch is dispelled—and replaced by its opposite—but the sexual dualism that governs Hero's "image" is not displaced or questioned.

It would perhaps be tendentious to refer this outcome to some moral or tactical failure on the friar's part. The simpler explanation is that the plan to reform Claudio fails because his callousness makes him incapable of responding as predicted. Nonetheless, the friar's well-meaning intervention on Hero's behalf may in some sense undercut its own power to effect changes in the world of the play and may unconsciously reinforce the assumptions of which Hero is a victim. The friar's plea on behalf of the prostrate Hero reverses but also imitates the speeches of her accusers. Claudio had angrily denied the "authority" of her "semblance" and had read her blush as the sign of her guilt. Leonato too had insisted on his reading of "the story that is printed in her blood." The friar, in opposing these interpretations of what is seen in Hero's face, also emphasizes his authority to speak for the silent Hero:

Trust not my reading, nor my observations, Which with experimental seal doth warrant The tenure of my book; trust not my age, My reverence, calling, nor divinity, If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here Under some biting error.                                      (4.1.165-70)

The friar offers his own reading of Hero's blood:

     I have marked A thousand blushing apparitions To start into her face, a thousand innocent   shames In angel whiteness beat away those blushes …                                    (4.1.158-61)

The friar's plot to counter the "misprision" of Claudio and Don Pedro parallels in certain respects the plot by which Don John engineers the catastrophe. Don John, though "not of many words," is a master of representation in the play. Keeping aloof from the action himself, he commissions Borachio to stage the scene in which Claudio will read Hero's guilt. "I will so fashion the matter that Hero shall be absent," promises Borachio (2.2.46-47); and he then enlists Margaret to represent Hero by dressing in her clothes. The representation succeeds in replacing in Claudio's imagination the image of Hero as chaste Dian with that of her as intemperate Venus. The friar too intends to make Hero's absence the occasion for a "moving" representation of her (4.1): "Let her awhile be secretly kept in, / And publish it that she is dead indeed …" (203-04). When the fiction of Hero's death reaches Claudio, the friar predicts, her image will present itself to him "apparll'd in more precious habit, / … Than when she liv'd indeed." Claudio will then see Hero's "angel whiteness," which the friar believes to represent her true character, "her maiden truth" (164). Though the friar intends the image to be "More moving, delicate, and full of life" than her physical presence ("Than when she liv'd indeed"), death is its essential feature: this representation of Hero is cleansed of carnality, of the blood that has been read as the sign of sexuality and guilt; the friar can interpret Hero's blood as the blush of innocence because "a thousand innocent shames / In angel whiteness beat away those blushes"—leaving her bloodless, white, and corpse-like in her swoon. He will represent her as "delicate," like the "soft and delicate desires" that Claudio claims to be "comely" and asexual; "every lovely organ of her life" will come to Claudio to be anatomized and read as evidence of chastity, so that the fluid, vital, ambiguous text of her face will be replaced by a petrified monument to her virginity. The displacement is achieved when the penitent Claudio goes in obedience to Leonato, to "Hang an epitaph upon her tomb" that declares her innocent and glorified by death.


The ghost of Hero's ambiguity continues to haunt the play. In the scenes following Claudio's denunciation, her "death" has an uncanny force that far exceeds its limited status as a strategic fiction. Like the deformed-thief fashion, the fiction of Hero's death takes on a life of its own, independent of the circumstances for which it was invented. A striking peculiarity of the final act is the way in which the practicers seem taken in by their own device, becoming Hero's mourners and avengers in a plot that exercises a peculiar power over their emotions and imaginations: it is as though they—and somehow the play itself—need Hero to be dead for reasons that have nothing to do with Claudio.

Claudio's outburst against Hero has exposed the potential for cruelty and violence in Messina's masculine order so unequivocally that resolution would seem to depend on some kind of confrontation with the fears and assumptions of which Hero has been a victim. In the fiction of her death, however, the play finds a ritual resolution that reasserts Messina's stability without the need for painful questioning. Nonetheless, the play's attempt to move toward a comic conclusion and to evade what its plot has exposed places a strain on the fifth act, producing a peculiar shiftiness of tone and mode.

As the characters come under the sway of their fiction, they become increasingly enigmatic in a way that seems to mark a shift in the play's mode of representation. Act 5 begins with Antonio's grieving "counsel" and Leonato's formal lament:

I pray thee cease thy counsel, Which falls into mine ears as profitless As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel, Nor let no comforter delight mine ear But such a one whose wrongs do suit with  mine. Bring me a father that so lov'd his child, Whose joy of her is overwhelm'd like mine, And bid him speak of patience.…


Leonato's language, with its past-tense references to Hero, has the emotional impact of a father's lament for his dead child; it carries a weight, a dignity and conviction, which nearly overshadows our own knowledge that the death is a fiction. Somehow this fiction has become the governing reality of the play, a fantasy more real than the "truth."

Benedick too, acting on his pledge to Beatrice, challenges Claudio and, like Leonato, becomes formalized and enigmatic as he solemnly maintains Hero's death and appears ready to make it good with his sword: "You have killed a sweet lady, and her death shall fall heavy on you" (148-49). The characters no longer seem to be in the same play, and the resolution cannot come about until Claudio enters the more formalized dramatic world in which the governing plot is the fiction of Hero's death.

The scene at Hero's "tomb" (5.3) marks Claudio's and Don Pedro's entrance into the fictional world created by the other characters. This is the play's most highly formal scene, governed in both its action and its language by the conventions of ritual. Even the few lines of dialogue that are not read from Claudio's prepared text are noticeably conventional in style. Don Pedro's dismissal of the mourners is hardly a return to natural speech:

Good morrow, masters, put your torches out. The wolves have preyed, and look, the gentle   day, Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about Dapples the drowsy east with spots of gray.                                       (24-27)

Much of the critical worrying about Much Ado and its ending focuses on the question of whether this ritual signifies a change in Claudio sufficient to warrant his good fortune in the next scene, where Hero is restored to him. The question cannot be answered. The entire play has shifted its grounds in a way that makes such assessments impossible, if not irrelevant. Yet the ritual itself witnesses to the survival of the fundamental structures of Messina's masculine ethos—structures that the shift toward ritual has allowed the play to preserve.

As I have argued, the sequence of events in act 5 points explicitly to the practical gratuitousness of the fiction and the funeral. Early in the first scene the deception proves ineffectual as a means of softening Claudio, who remains unmoved by the news of Hero's death. Moments later Borachio confesses his crimes and clears Hero's name, leaving no effective reason why the characters cannot produce Hero and reveal her death as a lie. Instead, they complicate the fiction with details about a marriageable niece and engage Claudio to take part in mourning Hero. Hero's funeral is dramatically necessary as Claudio's ritual of expiation. Were Claudio not assimilable into the circle of Hero's family and friends, Messina would be confronted with a fundamental breakdown of its cultural assumptions, which Claudio reflects. Claudio's submission to the authority of Leonato, his agreement to lead Hero's obsequies and to take an unknown bride, permits the play to reach a kind of comic closure. The question is not whether Claudio is sincere—he is certainly that, insofar as a ritual mode allows for such a distinction. The question is what the ritual and Claudio's participation in it signify.

For the ritual itself is, if anything, a reassertion of Messina's old order in new terms. At this crucial moment Hero's exclusion is the condition on which Claudio's reintegration into Messina's social structure and the play's comic resolution depends. Hero's ambiguous blood has been purged away; she is now only "glorious fame" (5.3.8), a name placed unequivocally under the sign of chaste Dian, whose "virgin knight" (5.3.13) Hero is declared to be. The ritual exorcises the threat of Hero's body, whose intactness was so precariously in question, and the ambiguity of her face, which led to violently contradictory readings in act 4. When Hero becomes a monument, her signifying power is tamed. She is redefined so as to be reappropriated to the patriarchal order as a disembodied ideal: "the sign and semblance of her honor." Claudio's placement of the epitaph on her tomb explicitly dramatizes the silencing of the woman's voice, the substitution of the man's: "Hang thou there upon the tomb, / Praising her when I am dumb" (5.3.9-10). Claudio's text will always speak for Hero, even after Claudio himself is "dumb."

Besides the shift toward ritual, the play engages another strategy in moving toward its comic conclusion. This might be described as a centrifugal process that deflects emphasis from the central characters onto those who constitute the plot's machinery. Claudio's guilt is displaced onto Borachio and ultimately onto Don John, making it possible for Leonato to declare in the last scene that Claudio and Don Pedro are innocent, having accused Hero "upon the error" perpetrated by others (5.4.3).

The serviceable Borachio is most immediately behind Hero's undoing. It is he who first discovers Claudio's interest in Hero and relays the information to Don John (1.3). It is Borachio, again, who concocts the scheme to deceive Claudio with the amorous tableau at Hero's window. Borachio is also, in a sense, responsible for the denouement, as his confession reveals Hero's innocence and Claudio's "mistake." Autonomous as Borachio is in inventing and carrying out his plot, it is Don John who is the archvillain and the "author of all, who is fled and gone" (5.2.98-99). Don John remains behind the scenes, a shadow himself who causes Claudio to see in shadows the signs of Hero's guilt. Don John's motive is ostensibly resentment toward his legitimate brother; but just as guilt is transferred from Claudio to Borachio to Don John, so Don John's malice, aiming at Don Pedro, glances on Claudio but strikes Hero as its victim. As victim and villain, Hero and Don John serve Messina in the capacities of sacrifice and scapegoat, the one bringing about Messina's atonement through her death, the other carrying off its sins.

The ambiguity of Margaret's role in Borachio's plot has caused some consternation among critics. Logically speaking, Margaret must have known of the accusations against Hero and would inevitably recognize the source of error, that she herself had been mistaken for Hero as she talked with Borachio from Hero's window. Margaret does not disclose any of this, nor does she show any signs of concern or uneasiness during her witty exchange with Benedick in the second scene of act 5. In absolving Claudio and Don Pedro of their "error" in humiliating Hero, however, Leonato transfers part of the blame to Margaret—"But Margaret was in some fault for this"—while paradoxically suggesting that she participated "against her will" (5.4.1-5). The sequence of Leonato's lines suggests, if somewhat vaguely, that Margaret is being made to bear Claudio's and Don Pedro's guilt, that she is guilty in their place, while at the same time denying her conscious, voluntary complicity. Margaret is, in a sense, Hero's double, wearing her clothes, speaking from her window, answering to her name; and the ambiguity of her innocence or guilt points to an ambiguity about Hero, an ambiguity not "in" her character but, rather, in others' perceptions of her. The play simultaneously represents Hero as innocent and punishes her as guilty. Margaret both represents and carries off Hero's ambiguous taint.

"If you meet a thief," Dogberry instructs the watch, "you may suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be no true man; and for such a kind of men, the less you meddle or make them, why the more is for your honesty" (3.3.50-53). In a passing comment [in The Sexual Enlightenment of Children, edited by Philip Rieff, 1963], Freud compares Dogberry's counsel to that of physicians who "implore us for heaven's sake not to meddle with the evil things that lurk behind a neurosis." Freud finds in Dogberry a convenient figure for avoidance or repression of the unconscious and does not pursue the comparison with reference to Much Ado about Nothing, but perhaps we might take up Freud's analogy in considering Dogberry's function in the play. Despite the admonition not to "meddle or make with" unsavory characters, the night watch does "comprehend" (at least in Dogberry's sense) the "false knaves" Borachio and Conrade (4.2.21). Yet Dogberry and his men do serve the plot as a means of avoiding what might otherwise be the crux of the play: Claudio's intractability in the face of Hero's death. By producing the malefactors and getting their "villainy … upon record" (5.1.239-40), Dogberry shifts the play's focus away from this violent and unsettling misogyny and into a more legalistic vein. By providing villains against whom the law can proceed, Dogberry allows the play to move toward its comic resolution without meddling further with the tensions that triggered its catastrophe.

Besides functioning as an avoidance mechanism, Dogberry serves in another way to mimic larger processes at work in the play: he participates in and parodies the masculine concern with controlling signification, particularly that which relates to himself. We have seen this masculine anxiety most conspicuously in Benedick's fantastic fear of being marked by, even of becoming, a sign of the cuckold, of losing his status as a subject of language and becoming instead its object, its victim, its fool. Dogberry attempts to impress his authority on others by means of his ponderous language, the inflated diction that leads him from one malapropism to the next. Because he cannot master his own meanings, he is continually overmastered by a language that eludes his control and undercuts the authority he wishes to exert over it—and through it, over others.

The final scene restores something like the balance of formality and gaiety with which the play opens. Claudio and Don Pedro are absolved in a single line from Leonato, and our attention quickly turns to Benedick's mock-rueful request that the friar "bind [him], or undo [him]" (5.4.20) by marrying him to Beatrice. Benedick and Beatrice have left off the dangerous literalness of their mutual self-exposure in act 4; they resume their roles, knowing full well now how transparent they are, and their playfulness is perfectly winning. The critical consensus seems to be that this union of Benedick and Beatrice answers whatever dissatisfaction we continue to feel over Claudio and Hero, and in a sense this is right: we like these characters and the sense of euphoria their wit produces. But it is another question whether Benedick and Beatrice represent a challenge or an alternative to Messina's limitations. Different as they are in style from Claudio and Hero, Benedick and Beatrice are of a piece with their world; there is no world elsewhere in this play—even their irony cannot create one, for it participates in the assumptions that shape Messina.

In many ways the final scene reiterates what has been problematic from the play's beginning. The four ladies enter masked and remain, in effect, ciphers until called for by their betrothed husbands. (The text indicates no point at which Margaret or Ursula unmasks. Remaining perhaps a little behind Hero and Beatrice on the stage, the effaced women reinforce the status of women as ciphers until named by men.) In revealing herself and giving herself to Claudio, Hero repeats Claudio's dualistic notion of her identity: "One Hero died defiled; but I do live, / And surely as I live, I am a maid" (5.4.63-64). Her ritual death has purged Hero of intemperate Venus's sexuality, and she returns as Dian in her orb. Don Pedro's exclamation is telling: "The former Hero! Hero that is dead!" (65). Hero remains dead in her resurrection, as she is reappropriated to the mode of perception that killed her.

The circularity here is reinforced by the way this final scene repeats the play's beginning. Having avoided the violent confrontations that threatened to break out after Hero's "death," the male characters recur to their verbal aggression and particularly to their cuckold jokes (5.4.43-51, 121-22). That the jokes retain their original force indicates that Messina's masculine ethos survives unchanged. The play began with the defeat of Don John, and with his defeat it ends, leaving us to wonder, if we care to, when he will next escape.

The readings of Much Ado quoted at the beginning of this essay participate in the play's drive toward ritual transcendence—a movement invoked and sanctioned by the friar. To resist this movement, as my reading of the play does, is manifestly to read against the grain of the play's explicitly offered resolution: it is to recognize what the play's drive toward comic closure suppresses but simultaneously exposes. In his repeated exposure of the limits of his own authority, perhaps Dogberry suggests a way of reading the play as self-exposure: the play is partly the record of its own limitations. In presenting Hero as a kind of cipher, Much Ado reflects its patriarchal heritage; yet it is Hero's very blankness that allows the revealing explosion to occur. The play's explicit representation of masculine fantasy and delusion trades on, and partakes of, the process it explores. Or should we say it exposes the process it trades on? The mode of representation that makes possible the play's main plot—a mode in which women are ciphers—is implicated in that plot, obliquely revealing the underlying sexual values and assumptions that motivate the unfolding of the drama.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1046

Allen, John A. "Dogberry." Shakespeare Quarterly XXIV, No. 1 (Winter 1973): 35-53.

Argues that Dogberry, in his absurd pomposity and "splendid lunacy," functions as a comic parody of the egotistical self-love "which is endemic" to Messina.

Bryant, J. A., Jr. "Much Ado about Nothing." In Shakespeare and the Uses of Comedy, pp. 125-45. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1986.

Identifies the battle of the sexes, the difficulties of disposing of a marriageable young daughter, and the plight of an "ugly duckling" bachelor or spinster who is alienated from the community as three major concerns of Much Ado about Nothing.

Cook, David. "'The Very Temple of Delight': The Twin Plots of Much Ado about Nothing." In Poetry and Drama, 1570-1700: Essays in Honour of Harold F. Brooks, edited by Antony Coleman and Antony Hammond, pp. 32-46. London and New York: Methuen, 1981.

Approaches Much Ado about Nothing, particularly the character of Claudio, as a "judicious experiment in dramatic economy," emphasizing its stylization, symbolism, and ritual, and the fact that Claudio's "changing situation is expressed in a series of cameos."

Crick, John. "Much Ado about Nothing." The Use of English XVII, No. 3 (Spring 1966): 223-27.

Challenges the notion that Much Ado about Nothing is a play with "a few good acting parts standing out against the unsatisfactory background of a preposterous Italian romance," arguing instead that in Messina Shakespeare depicts a complacent society in which "the instincts of life are in danger of being drained away in small-talk."

Dawson, Anthony B. "Much Ado about Signifying." Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 22, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 211-21.

Contends that Much Ado about Nothing "subjects to comic scrutiny" the myriad implications of various messages and "the process of interpretation imposed by the delivery of messages."

Dennis, Carl. "Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado about Nothing" Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 XIII, No. 2 (Spring 1973): 223-37.

Maintains that the characters in Much Ado about Nothing move between two "modes of perception": that of wit, which relies on sensory evidence, prudence, and reason, and that of belief or intuition.

Gilbert, llan. "Two Margarets: The Composition of Much Ado about Nothing." Philological Quarterly XLI, No. 1 (January 1962): 61-71.

Examines Shakespeare's use of details from Bandello, Spenser, and Orlando Furioso in the plot and characterizations of Much Ado about Nothing.

Hart, John A. "Much Ado About Nothing: The Fashionable, Witty, Empty World." In Dramatic Structure in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies, pp. 53-79. Pittsburgh and London: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1980.

Explores the social environment of Messina. The critic finds that the society depicted is composed of conventional, respectable, but rather shallow citizens, and of soldiers, whose ranks are split by dissension, misunderstanding, and their inability to recognize proper objects of trust or of suspicion.

Howard, Jean E. "Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado about Nothing." In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, pp. 163-87. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Places Much Ado about Nothing in relationship to Renaissance antitheatrical discourse "as that discourse provides a mechanism for managing gender and class conflict," and disputes several modern readings which, "in moralizing the play's characters and events, ignore the political implications of its representations of gender and class."

Hunter, Robert Grams. "Much Ado about Nothing." In Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness, pp. 85-105. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Observes that, in order to resolve the romantic conflicts in his comedies, Shakespeare more than once invokes the Christian idea of repentance and pardon for sin.

Leggatt, Alexander. "Much Ado about Nothing." In Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, pp. 151-83. London: Methuen and Co., 1974.

Demonstrates that in Much Ado about Nothing Shakespeare sought to combine, through a skillful interplay of formality and naturalism, the "range and fluidity" of The Merchant of Venice with the "harmony of disparate elements" that distinguishes A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mares, F. H. "Comic Procedures in Shakespeare and Jonson: Much Ado about Nothing and The Alchemist." In Jonson and Shakespeare, edited by Ian Donaldson, pp. 101-18. Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Humanities Press, 1983.

Compares the use and development of comic procedures in Jonson's The Alchemist with those in Much Ado about Nothing and notes how these procedures affect the responses of the reader.

Ormerod, David. "Faith and Fashion in Much Ado about Nothing" Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 93-105.

Examines the negative connotations of "fashion" in Much Ado about Nothing, noting that this term frequently implies frivolity, effeminacy, opportunism, and inability "to thread one's way through the moral labyrinth and to attain to right choice."

Ranald, Margaret Loftus. "'As Marriage Binds, and Blood Breaks': English Marriage and Shakespeare." Shakespeare Quarterly 30, No. 1 (Winter 1979): 68-81.

Interprets Claudio's repudiation of Hero in terms of "the ramifications of English matrimonial law," maintaining that he "is merely acting in conformity with Elizabethan conventions and safeguarding his legal position."

Richmond, Hugh M. "Shakespeare and Modern Sexuality: Albee's Virginia Woolf and Much Ado." In Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy: A Mirror for Lovers, pp. 177-96. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971.

Clarifies Shakespeare's conception of love relationships, wit, and perception in Much Ado about Nothing by comparing it with Edward Albee's Virginia Woolf.

Siegel, Paul N. "The Turns of the Dance: An Essay on Much Ado about Nothing." In Shakespeare in His Time and Ours, pp. 212-26. Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Compares the intricately changing relathionships between Claudio and Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick, to the steps of a sixteenth-century formal dance, noting that it is only at the end, when the action resolves into a unified pattern of love and friendship, music and marriage,"that they are in tune with each other."

Taylor, Michael. "Much Ado about Nothing: The Individual in Society." Essays in Criticism XXIII, No. 2 (April 1973): 146-53.

Treats Much Ado about Nothing as a play whose principal concern is the relationship between nonconformity and social responsibility.

Westlund, Joseph. "Much Ado about Nothing: The Temptation to Isolate." In Shakespeare's Reparative Comedies: A Psychoanalytic View of the Middle Plays, pp. 37-67. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Regards "manipulation" as a significant theme in Much Ado about Nothing, arguing that in this comedy, a character's ability to mature is presented as depending on his or her response to "outer control," imposed in the form of tricks or commands or societal pressures.


Children of the Mind: Miscarried Narratives in Much Ado about Nothing


Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 55)