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 deemed central to the play's structure and tone. Reflecting on the numerous instances of deception in Much 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."