Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Claire McEachern (essay date 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 269-90.

[In the following essay, McEachern examines differences in Much Ado about Nothing and King Lear as compared to their original sources and contends that the changes Shakespeare made reflect his questioning of patriarchal authority and his desire to examine its root causes.]

The collaboration of critical methods suggested by the title of this essay might appear a rather unlikely, even forced, proposition. Source study and feminism are a strange pair: the first is largely interested in finding in Shakespeare verbal echoes of earlier texts, the second committed to discovering in Shakespeare a foreshadowing of particular political identities. Certainly, in considering “Shakespeare's feminism” (a debatable, and surely anachronistic, construction), the prospect of looking to Shakespeare's sources for the origins of any political understanding of “the woman's part” seems to offer little promise; behind the critical assertion that finds Shakespeare's portrayals of women remarkable lies the unarticulated suspicion of the rare if not unprecedented quality of his cultural voice. In other words, the assumption of Shakespeare's uniqueness presupposes a differentiating context, and it is in relationship to the conception of source as cultural context that I would like to consider Shakespeare. Traditionally the relationship between Shakespeare and his literary sources, which source study examines, has been imagined as linear and determinative, an empirical matter of subtractions and additions, in which Shakespeare finds and rejects or accepts details of plot structure, character, or style. I would like to re-imagine this relationship less as a transference of formal ingredients, with sources as sites of mere borrowings, than as a culturally determined reading by Shakespeare of contexts that he found provocative—or not provocative enough.

Curiously it is this sense of a source as merely a site of borrowing that feminist criticism has unwittingly adopted in its effort to stake some ideologically consistent claim to Shakespeare. Until recently, feminist criticism of Shakespeare divided itself—and Shakespeare—into two seemingly incompatible ideological camps. Pioneering feminist forays into Shakespeare's canon, while seeking to “compensate for the bias in a critical tradition that has tended to emphasize male characters, male themes, and male fantasies” as well as to develop a uniquely feminist criticism capable of searching out “the woman's part,” discovered in Shakespeare an apparent commitment to the portrayal of liberated female characters, strong in voice and action.1 Shakespeare here becomes a proto-feminist, testifying either to the Renaissance's general cultural emancipation of women, or to Shakespeare's own ahistorical transcendent genius, his freedom from his culture's assumptions.

Subsequent feminist approaches, confronted by a revision of the Burckhardtian thesis of the Renaissance emancipation of women, rejected this image as a naive idealization of Shakespeare, preferring instead to concentrate on exposing the patriarchal assumptions and structures that govern his drama and marginalize or contain its female energies.2 Shakespeare here appears as “the patriarchal bard,” an early modern author incapable of subverting patriarchal structures, able only to promulgate and reinforce a cultural ideology invested in subordinating women: as Kathleen McLuskie puts it, “Feminism cannot simply take ‘the woman's part’ when that part has been so morally loaded and theatrically circumscribed.”3 For these critics, Shakespeare is not free of his culture, but locked within it, its collaborator.

Advocates of both a proto-feminist and a patriarchal Shakespeare have posited a mimetic/deterministic relationship between art and society—the text is either an innocent mirror of cultural process or the no-less-idealized agent of patriarchal ideology. Most proto-feminist advocates, chiefly “psychosexual” in their approach to “the aesthetic, historical, and genre contexts”4 of a play, have found in Shakespeare's women, particularly in the comedies, evidence of his culture's incipient challenge to the patriarchy that, according to their reading, the text mirrors. Advocates of patriarchal Shakespeare, aligning themselves with the historical revisionism that ascribes to the Renaissance an increased suppression of women, have pointed to inconsistencies between the “feminist Shakespeare” and feminist ideology: again to quote McLuskie, “when a feminist accepts the narrative, theatrical and intellectual pleasures of this text she does so in male terms and not as part of the locus of feminist critical activity.”5 Critics who find Shakespeare less subversive than supportive of patriarchal culture, especially in the tragedies, sharpen the focus of their feminist critique and consider how best to subvert the power of the patriarchal structures he reproduces. Both approaches attempt to gauge Shakespeare's relationship to his culture (to which they seem to attribute a monolithic coherence), yet the conflict itself seems to posit either an ideologically inconsistent or incoherent text.

More recent feminists have sought to escape the proto-feminist/patriarchal polarity, and have turned to an investigation of the often contradictory, competing play of cultural texts that generates it. In complicating the mimetic model of literary genesis, exploring the interconnections of text and context, and revealing the discrepancies between various cultural definitions of the woman's place, such work has revealed patriarchy to be hardly a monolithic, coherent entity speaking with one—either liberating or oppressive—voice, but composed of, indeed founded in, ideological contradictions, inconsistencies, and incongruities.6 As a consequence, it would appear that the woman's part, and the man's, are hardly essential and stable categories of identity but contestable and changeable social constructs. Without themselves historicizing notions of gender, these critics have made manifest and urgent the necessity of doing so. They have also made apparent the need for feminism to foreground and further problematize the relationship of text to context, moving beyond the mimetic model of literary production congruent with essentialism.

The construction of social categories and cultural contexts is of interest not only to feminists but also, of course, to the critical movement in Renaissance studies known as new historicism; certainly the resolution of the polarity that some feminisms pursue would be of interest to new historicists, who are concerned with the dynamic that exists between cultural ideology and cultural fictions—with, in Jonathan Dollimore's words, “the interaction between State power and cultural forms.”7 Both critical schools share an understanding of literature as a social text. Yet if the great discovery of feminism may be that the personal is political, and that power operates even—if not foremost—on the level of the family, new historicism has tended to consider gender primarily in relation to the court. New historicism, however, does move beyond a strictly mimetic version of the text-context relationship to offer a more comprehensive (if not fully articulated) sense of a text's location in history; and it is this commitment to history from which feminism might profit. If in new historicism's often nostalgic fantasy of a totalized culture, change (indeed history, oddly enough) seems foreclosed, feminism's construction of gender from ego-psychology seems itself unresponsive to the reality of historical change.

To work towards an historicized notion of gender, to gauge progress and difference in how we envision ourselves as gendered subjects, would, I suggest, create a feminism more responsive to the historically specific ideological operations of a text and would also point the way toward our understanding a Renaissance culture in which the subversive impulse of a play (or a person) is not always re-subjugated to the orthodoxy of power, but is instead an agent of change. At the same time, the conception of a text as involved in the production of historical differences rather than in the unwitting or complicit replication of ideology not only leaves behind the mimetic model of literary production (and the delimiting conception of a source) but points to the possibility of a literary text as a significant intervention into history. If the problematic of Shakespeare's relationship to patriarchy—and of a feminist's relationship to Shakespeare—is to be clarified, Shakespeare's relationship to his cultural context must first be made the problem.

I propose to investigate Renaissance patriarchy through a study of fathers and daughters, using both Shakespeare's literary fathers and those fathers and daughters that he presents in his plays. Instead of constructing a deterministic, linear, and purely literary transaction between Shakespeare and his pre-texts, I wish to examine Shakespeare as reading, in his sources, his culture. Literary forebears here are not merely sources of plot and character, but themselves cultural inscriptions and registers of a patriarchal ideology. In studying Shakespeare's investigation of cultural documents, I wish to inquire into the causality and logic that motivates his reaction to their assumptions, a reaction that I see as historicizing both patriarchy and the roles of individuals within it. In a source study—a traditional, even patriarchal, critical method—we can take the measure of Shakespeare's difference from his patriarchal culture in his examination of it.

Shakespeare's experience and understanding of the pressures that patriarchy exerts upon its members enabled him to write plays that interrogate those same patriarchal systems. He developed this understanding by engaging with his artistic fathers and the cultural authority they represent and embody. In order to empower his own writing, Shakespeare rebels against the archetypes he inherits. His refusal to replicate the assumptions of patriarchy—while obviously not part of any specifically feminist agenda—originates in his inquiry into the nature of power, particularly as it is manifested in the imitative pressures of patriarchy. In revising his sources he recasts and demystifies the role of the father, and, mimicking the action he presents, Shakespeare, in the rebellious but also revisionary act of rewriting, questions the power of fathers, a power that demands replication for the perpetuation of the patriarchal system.

In the plays of Shakespeare that depict a father-daughter relationship, the issue of a woman's relationship to patriarchy inevitably gains a special kind of prominence. Marriage becomes the focal point. As Gayle Rubin's analysis in “The Traffic in Women” demonstrates, marriage enacts the exogamous valuing of women and thus exposes the patriarchal forms by which women are controlled: “If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them who are linked, the woman being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it.”8 Needless to say, the emotional needs of individuals are not always congruent with the demands of a political system constituted in and by exogamy. The marriage of a daughter is a difficult moment for a father, especially if he lacks a wife. He must move from the center of his daughter's world to the circumference and must watch another take his place. Lynda E. Boose points out that marriage is inherently subversive of a father's authority in requiring that the daughter leave the father's control: “If she is classified as the family's most expendable member, it may be because she is actually its least retainable. To an institution that fears loss, the daughter's presence constitutes a threat to its maintenance of closed boundaries.”9 A daughter's departure through marriage marks the end of paternal control, although a measure of control persists in the father's choice of his daughter's husband; and Boose suggests the emotional logic behind a father's relation to his daughter's marital partner: “Faced with the inexorable loss of something emotionally valued, individuals need to devise some way to reimagine loss as benefit or at least equal exchange. Losing one's daughter through an exchange that the father controls circumvents her ability ever to choose another man over him. …”10 For Rubin, exogamy creates a political order among men; for Boose, exogamy entails a loss of paternal authority that demands an elaborate compensation.

At the heart of patriarchy is the conflict between the emotional integrity of the family and the demands of a political order that requires the severing of filial bonds in order to perpetuate itself. Patriarchy is, in fact, composed of two principal systems of affective loyalties: the family, over which the father rules, and a social/political system founded on male alliance, in which the father is invested. These two systems of authority, and the divergent commitments that they represent for the father, are conflated under the rubric of “patriarchy,” and they are imagined as compatible parts of a coherent whole, and even used analogously (by James I himself: “Kings are compared to fathers in families: for a King is truly parens patriae, the politic father of his people”11); in effect, however, these systems are hardly versions of each other but are in radical competition. When we look at daughters, we see that they, unlike sons, must violate the integrity of the family to forge the political bonds that constitute the greater social order; fathers must sacrifice one authority in order to uphold another. Patriarchy, then, is not seamlessly monolithic, as some fathers would have us believe, but rather is founded in a profound contradiction; it is this contradiction that Shakespeare explores, focusing on the moments of the intersection of political and familial loyalties, and examining our attempts to resolve or reject the conflicting demands that patriarchy imposes upon us.

In dramatizing the difficulty of marriage, then, Shakespeare dramatizes the difficulty of negotiating between the rival demands of patriarchy. Though The Book of Common Prayer specifies that “for this cause [marriage] shall a man leave father and mother, and shall be joyned unto his wife”12 (emphasis added), the departure of a daughter can prove far more disruptive to a Shakespearean world. In Much Ado About Nothing, the plot turns on “the niceties of matrimonial law,”13 and in King Lear, Lear's tragedy originates in the necessity of Cordelia's departure;14 central to both plays, and absent from their sources, is a problematic emotional climate that nurtures the bond of father and daughter. Shakespeare's sources would elide the bifurcated structure of patriarchy to present a coherent ideology, creating fathers who carry out their social function successfully. Shakespeare's modifications of his sources foreground both the emotional complexity of the family order and the price at which ideological coherence is acquired.


A complicated father-daughter bond is built subtly into Much Ado About Nothing through Shakespeare's deviation from his principal sources: Book V of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Bandello's story of Timbreo and Fenicia. In both sources the relation of father and daughter is in large part dictated by the economic and political logic of their two worlds. Both Ariosto's King of Scotland and Bandello's Lionato de Lionati of Messina love their daughters, but their selves are far less invested in their love than is that of Shakespeare's Leonato. While apparently preserving the narrative structure of its sources, Shakespeare's version of the story of the slandered daughter is regulated not merely by public patriarchal concerns but by private and emotional ones as well.

Bandello's tale and Shakespeare's Much Ado show especially marked differences. Messer Lionato de Lionati is the central protagonist in the story of his daughter's marriage; in Shakespeare's comedy, Hero as lover takes precedence. For Messer Lionato, the anxieties occasioned by the impending marriage are social and economic. His responsibilities as the father of a daughter are clear; he is the possessor of a marketable commodity. In keeping with the etiquette of this world, the offer of marriage from Fenicia's suitor is addressed to him. The source of the offer surprises Messer Lionato, who did not expect “that the knight would condescend to ally himself to him.”15 The benefits of exogamy have been shown at the highest social level of this patriarchally ordered world, with the King of Arragon exploiting those benefits by subduing the island of Sicily on the grounds that it “belonged to him as husband of Costanza, daughter of King Manfred” (p. 112). Messer Lionato recognizes a similar bond in the making when Sir Timbreo requests Fenicia as his own, and “knowing Sir Timbreo's power and worth he … showed by a gracious reply how pleased he was that the knight would condescend to ally himself to him” (p. 114). Messer Lionato scarcely mentions his daughter in his negotiations, nor is it made apparent whether he is aware of her attraction to Sir Timbreo; instead, we get the simple statement that “on his return home he informed his wife and Fenicia about the promise he had given to Sir Timbreo” (p. 114). “Agreeable to both” (p. 114), this marriage is an economic alliance between two men, one generous, the other deserving. It is transacted in keeping with the warrant of exogamous exchange to “[confer] its quasi-mystical power of social linkage.”16 The news of the intended marriage “gave general pleasure to the Messinese, since Messer Lionato was a gentleman rightly loved as one who sought to hurt nobody but to help all as much as he could; so people expressed great satisfaction at the proposed alliance” (p. 114).

The world in which Shakespeare's Leonato receives a similar offer from Claudio is not so simply regulated, and Hero is not so easily dropped out of the male transaction. Unlike his prototype in Bandello, Claudio has no clear advantage of social class or fortune to recommend him to an indulgent father; his inquiry about Hero's inheritance—“Hath Leonato any son, my lord?” (I.i.282)17—suggests that he is not a wealthy man. After shrewdly ascertaining that Hero is Leonato's sole heir, he plans to propose directly to Hero—albeit through the gratuitous agency of Don Pedro, who, disguised as Claudio, will “take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of [his] amorous tale,” and, after “to her father will [he] break” (I.i.312-14). Leonato, informed of a coming marriage proposal, says that he will reply through his daughter: “I will acquaint my daughter withal, that she may be the better prepar’d for an answer” (I.ii.19-20). Hero says that she “will be rul’d by [her] father” (II.i.47-48), yet she and her affections are recognized as party to the marriage negotiations in a way that Fenicia, and Fenicia's feelings, are not. Fenicia, if genteel, is also poor, and Sir Timbreo's social position is argument enough for his marriage proposal to appeal to Messer Lionato. In contrast, Hero's status as heiress requires that Claudio garner some support for his proposal from Hero herself. Hero's acquiescence contrasts with the insubordination of the fatherless Beatrice (II.i.49-52), and Leonato gives her to Claudio with “Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes. His Grace hath made the match, and all grace say Amen to it” (II.i.288-90).

This marriage, as in Bandello, involves male identity and male honor, and to that extent it models exogamous exchange. Claudio and the Prince invite Leonato, through the transfer of Hero, to join their own privileged company. For his part, Leonato gives his daughter, “and with her my fortunes,” to a man on whom “Don Pedro hath bestow’d much honor” (I.i.9-10). Yet Shakespeare complicates the simple protocol that expresses Messer Lionato's responsibility towards his daughter. He replaces it with a contract whose ambiguities and problems will be revealed in the reaction of Leonato to his daughter's slander. Shakespeare confounds the relationship between social and psychological realities, moving beyond economic or civic rhetoric to expose the potentially destructive emotional logic of patriarchy.

Bandello's unambiguously male and property-oriented world permits a relatively mechanical resolution of the obstacle to comic process that is posed when Sir Timbreo rejects Fenicia. Despite his initial pleasure upon hearing “that the knight would condescend to ally himself to him,” when he is served notice to “‘find another son-in-law’” (p. 118), Messer Lionato repudiates the knight and his “‘injurious accusation of whoredom’” (p. 118). Messer Lionato's faith in his daughter and the quality of her upbringing translates into a genuine knowledge of her worth on the Sicilian marriage market:

“It is indeed true that all things are possible, but I know how my daughter has been reared and what her habits are.” … The good father, never having found his daughter anything but honest, thought that the knight had been seized with disdain at their poverty and present lack of worldly success.

(pp. 118-19)

Messer Lionato can believe in Fenicia in a way that Shakespeare's Leonato is incapable of emulating. Explaining Sir Timbreo's disdain by his own lack of financial worth, Messer Lionato is able to phrase his defense of his daughter in the economic and exclusively male terms that have governed the transaction throughout. We sympathize with Messer Lionato and his daughter as victims of class prejudice rather than emotional cruelty, for Fenicia's moral character is never at issue in the minds of those who matter to her: “it is enough for [her] that before the just tribunal of Christ [she] shall be known innocent of such baseness” (p. 120). The economic mores that regulated Fenicia's exchange from one man to another now protect her from blame of promiscuity.

In Shakespeare's version, the social status and concerns of father and suitor no longer completely dictate their behaviors or define their roles. Unlike their counterparts in the source, Leonato and Claudio are social equals, and therefore Claudio's wish to marry Hero does not breach class hierarchies. Leonato is richer; Claudio, better connected. Thus economic considerations do not explain his rejection of Hero. Bereft of this explanation, Leonato reveals an investment in Hero more complicated than Messer Lionato's in his daughter. Shakespeare's Leonato is a father too ready to disown his Hero, and too ready to believe her suitor's accusation. When he hears of Hero's “misgovernment” (IV.i.98), Leonato judges her to be guilty as her accusers do. Believing Claudio's report of “a ruffian at her chamber-window” (IV.i.90), Leonato believes—contrary to every indication of her character—that Hero has committed this breach of both his emotional and exogamous authorities, choosing a sexual partner without regard to his interests and without his consent or knowledge. Leonato is certain that he has misplaced his trust in her, and, much like Brabantio in Othello, feels that the “fatherly and kindly power” (Much Ado, IV.i.73) he exercises is subverted, and that Hero, like Desdemona, has “made a gross revolt” (Othello, I.i.136). Yet the revolution of Much Ado is less Hero's than Shakespeare's.

Denied the benign economic explanation of Claudio's refusal that Messer Lionato has access to, the benevolently paternal response of Messer Lionato is unavailable to Leonato. Leonato must construct a response to Hero's presumed betrayal of his authority unaided by any clear cultural logic. As he is apparently bereft of his alliance with his daughter, the only response immediately available to Leonato is to attempt to imitate Claudio's action. Claudio refuses Hero as damaged goods, citing the code of exogamy: “There, Leonato, take her back again. / Give not this rotten orange to your friend” (IV.i.30-31). But although Leonato tries to imitate Claudio's rejection, he cannot. Leonato has not only taken the expedient of allying himself with his daughter as a route to male alliance but has also taken the risk of loving her. With Claudio's rejection of Hero, Leonato's identity in the male world becomes incompatible with his identity as a father, and this comedy verges on tragedy as Shakespeare confronts the ideological confusion of the patriarchal system.

These contradictions inform Leonato's attempted repudiation of Hero. In its last paternal exercise, his authority has been flouted; to regain his social power among men, Leonato paradoxically must disown her. If Hero were merely a commodity to be exchanged, Leonato would suffer a loss of male pride and property, but Leonato's response betrays a deeper suffering and betrays the power of his love for his daughter: “Hath no man's dagger here a point for me?” (IV.i.108). Shakespeare divests patriarchy of its disinterested political aspect to reveal its radical investment in the affective order of the family. Leonato's regard for Hero reveals itself in a vocabulary of possession that is shockingly narcissistic:

But mine, and mine I lov’d, and mine I prais’d,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her … 


Contrary to the expectations of exogamy, Hero here is no mere commodity to be exchanged in a male marketplace, but an aspect of Leonato's identity. The confrontation with Hero's sexuality that Claudio's accusation forces means that Leonato must also recognize his daughter's identity as separate from his own. With the loss of male alliance, the benevolent political rhetoric of patriarchy gives way to a poetics of desire. Patriarchy—potentially a simple political order—has been powerfully rephrased in psychological terms.

As Leonato realizes the implications of disowning his daughter, the conflict between his fatherly love for Hero and his social need for male honor reveals itself in his response to Hero's physical self. As seen in happier times, “Truly, the lady fathers herself. Be happy, lady, for you are like an honorable father” (I.i.105-7). Hero's physical resemblance to her father guarantees her mother's fidelity, and with it, her father's honor. Yet once Hero's own honor appears “but … sign and semblance” (IV.i.32), Leonato abruptly rejects the testimony of physiognomy. Obsessively exploring the taint of sexuality, he now wishes Hero derived “from unknown loins” (IV.i.134), for she

                                        is fall’n
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again,
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!


When Hero faints and is believed dead, Leonato responds almost thankfully: “O Fate, take not away thy heavy hand! / Death is the fairest cover for her shame” (IV.i.114-15). Leonato's perverse resolve to sever himself from his blood results in an inability to recognize that blood. The Friar, viewing Hero's blush, instinctively recognizes her innocence:

                                        I have mark’d
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
And in her eye there hath appear’d a fire
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth.


Leonato, in contrast, believes that, as Claudio claims, “Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty” (IV.i.41), and he interprets this evidence accordingly:

                                        Friar, it cannot be.
Thou seest 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?


It is as if Hero's very body is marked by the competing demands of patriarchy. Only the fictional death of her offending flesh will allow Hero to escape the contradiction to assume the only role this system permits her: “One Hero died defil’d, but I do live, / And surely as I live, I am a maid” (V.iv.62-63).18 Leonato's rejection of Hero testifies to his radical possession of her, a possession inappropriate to comedy and exogamy alike, however psychologically understandable. In order for the play to conclude in marriage, Leonato must become a father again in a less possessive way and acknowledge the necessity of granting his daughter's alterity.

Shakespeare's source in Ariosto supplies a model for Leonato's transformation. The father in Book V of Orlando Furioso has a daughter whose fate is similar to that of both Fenicia and Hero, yet his reactions are even more strictly defined by patriarchal law than are those of Messer Lionato. This father, though “sore … grieu’d to heare these newes” (V.66.1), submits to his own law in the treatment of his slandered daughter; for

… on this point the lawes are so expresse,
Except by combat it be proou’d a lie
Needs must Geneura be condemn’d to die.(19)

The determination of Genevra's chastity rests not on personal judgment or knowledge but on trial by combat: an imposition of a formal, stylized, arbitrary—above all, impersonal—arbitration of Genevra's sexual behavior: all that Leonato's tortured outburst has not been. The patriarchy of Ariosto urges an even greater distance between father and daughter than in the Bandello, where both the insistence on marriage as an alliance between men (rather than as separation of parent from child) and the social determinants of economic convention preempt the confrontation of the father or the text with the emotional content of the father-daughter bond. Ariosto's King of Scotland acts not as a father but as a king, and the regulation of Genevra's sexual behavior is a public issue: the private, affective space of the family does not exist, or is made irrelevant by the public domain of patriarchy (although it is to his credit that the king does not doubt Genevra's chastity, despite his lack of any explanation for the slander. Perhaps if you are king, you have fewer anxieties about male bonding).

In fact, at issue in Ariosto is less the marriage of a daughter than the barbarity of a double-standard that condemns women alone for adultery: it is significant that Rinaldo defends Genevra (and justice) sight-unseen and anonymously: “If fair Genevra had her friend or no. … The law, I say, is partial and nought” (IV.51-54.401-25). His chivalry provides an attitude, a certain generosity and judicious impartiality that Leonato needs in order to regain his fatherly qualities and make the emotional transition that the marriage of his only daughter requires of him. In the distant, idealizing stance of the chivalric champion, Leonato can love Hero and learn to release her, chivalry gracefully mediating her loss, while the “macho” aspect of the challenger allows him to recover the social honor and identity that Claudio's rejection of Hero and exogamous alliance has called into doubt.

In Bandello's Messina, the reconstituting of exogamous alliances contrasts significantly with Shakespeare's psychological reconstitution of Leonato's identity. Messer Lionato's recourse is that of a man aware of his social responsibilities as father of a marriageable daughter. He resolves to “send the maiden out of Messina. … Then, having restored the girl … until she had regained her former beauty and strength … he might marry her off in two or three years under another name” (pp. 121-22). He designs his plan with confidence in his daughter's recuperative abilities and with a shrewd business instinct. When Sir Timbreo discovers Fenicia's innocence and suggests by way of recompense that Messer Lionato “must make use of me and mine as if the alliance had taken place,” Messer Lionato requests that “since ill fortune has made [him] incapable of an alliance by marriage” (p. 127) he be allowed to provide Sir Timbreo with a wife should he choose to marry, and thus to sustain the alliance no longer directly available through exogamy. Once Fenicia is restored to health, her father “decide[s] to delay no longer in putting his plan into effect. … Then and there in so many words [he] wed[s] his Fenicia” to Sir Timbreo (pp. 127-28).

Leonato arrives at this culturally and comically desired goal by a significantly different route, one that derives from Ariosto. The King of Scotland is prevented by his own law from the defense or guardianship of his daughter's chastity, and it is this distance that Shakespeare collapses and then cultivates. When Benedick simultaneously defends the “very bent of honor” of Don Pedro and Claudio yet allows the possibility that “their wisdoms be misled in this” (IV.i.185-86), he suggests to Leonato the opportunity for the recovery of both his honor and his love for Hero. As Benedick is part of the male world Leonato would join, his endorsement of the possibility of Hero's innocence allows Leonato to retract his rejection of his daughter and to permit himself access to the emotional knowledge of her character (and his own) that he thought he needed to suppress. Now his “soul doth tell [him] Hero is belied” (V.i.42), and he exchanges the vocabulary of narcissism for that of a chivalric protector. While Leonato's subsequent defense of Hero employs the rhetoric of the lover, it is a rhetoric that represses any overt suggestion of sexuality in its attitude towards the loved one.

“If they wrong her honor” (IV.i.190), Leonato declares, he will be her most formidable champion. His response transcends the call of Messer Lionato's simple duty. Leonato is that which Ariosto's King of Scotland wishes for: he “that will in armes defend his daughter deare, / And prove her innocent in open fight” (V.68.3-4). Leonato defends Hero with a chivalric righteousness and challenges Claudio as an equal, despite his age:

I speak not like a dotard nor a fool,
As under privilege of age to brag
What I have done being young, or what would do
Were I not old. Know, Claudio, to thy head,
Thou hast so wrong’d mine innocent child and me
That I am forc’d to lay my reverence by
And, with grey hairs and bruise of many days,
Do challenge thee to trial of a man.


Her knight, he acts to rescue Hero's honor, and his own. In the stylized posture of the knight—a nostalgic image of an innocent patriarchal culture—Shakespeare provides Leonato with a model for expressing love for his daughter, a model that edits the suggestion of incestuous possessiveness while simultaneously allowing him to defend his male honor in the exogamous system. Leonato becomes, quite literally, a courtly old gentleman, and the archaism of the formal vocabulary is ironically adequate to his own aged “reverence.”

Leonato's appropriation of a courtly rhetoric allows him to enact the process of comedy in which fathers are made archaic. Having paid for his excessive, obsessive doubt of Hero's virtue with a more than fatherly effort to defy her slanderers, Leonato is saved from certain defeat at the hands of Claudio by the ubiquitous Dogberry. Leonato regains the composure of his role only after Shakespeare allows us to view the extremes of his love for Hero, exposing the simple patriarchal regulations of his sources as controlling mechanisms for the emotional turmoil inherent in the father-daughter relationship. As Leonato changes from jealous slanderer to chivalric champion, he resurrects Hero, who changes from cast-out whore with “foul-tainted flesh” (IV.i.141), to “my Lady Hero … falsely accus’d” (V.ii.90-91). The proprietary and proper patriarchs of the sources have given way to a father who expresses the depth and character of his love for his daughter—a potentially destructive love—in a vocabulary that is inconsistent with the images of fathers that his culture propagates. Shakespeare, then, re-idealizes the patriarchal system; yet he does so in terms so highly artificial that they make us conscious of their presence and the emotional logic they would dissemble.

As if testifying to the impossibility of Leonato's giving away a daughter who is “mine so much / That I myself was to myself not mine,” Shakespeare has Antonio, Leonato's brother, give Hero in marriage. Antonio has no such investment in Hero—his affection is, quite simply, avuncular, and he can thus comply with the conventions of exogamous exchange without further ado. Antonio “must be father to [his] brother's daughter, / And give her to young Claudio” (V.iv.15-16). Disguised, and given in marriage by her uncle, Hero is safely removed from Leonato; the father is doubly replaced: first by Antonio, and finally by Claudio. Leonato is relegated to spectator, and it is Antonio who, this time, says to Claudio, “I do give you her” (V.iv.53). Like the resolution of this comedy, Leonato's arrival at the posture of the patriarch is labored and highly ironic, requiring a suggestion of tragedy that can never be fully dismissed by the high artifice of a happy ending. Only with the symbolic death of his daughter—a death he once wished for in earnest—can the objectives of both comedy and exogamy be achieved, and in the macabre fantasy of Hero's death, Shakespeare insists upon the costs of constructing and maintaining his patriarchy.

King Lear probes even more deeply into the emotional content of the father-daughter bond. Here, the incestuous aspects of the relationship between father and daughter are more explicit and, in the context of tragedy, less easily redeemed and purified than in comedy. Again the catalyst of emotional disclosure is marriage. Leonato's dilemma exposes the emotional costs of patriarchy; in Shakespeare's rendering of Lear's story, another aspect of patriarchy—i.e., its consuming nature—is revealed in Lear's attempts to engineer a version of exogamy that will disguise—if only rhetorically—the loss that marriage entails. Leonato may be confused about how to choose between conflicting patriarchal commitments, but Lear tries impossibly to fuse familial and political authorities, to combine the impulse to conserve the integrity of the family with the social demands of exogamy. Leonato slanders his daughter only after others have declared her undesirable; Lear's slanders are unprompted, and he defames Cordelia in the hope that “Dow’r’d with [his] curse,” others will refuse her (I.i.205).

As Much Ado transforms Bandello's simplicities, King Lear transforms its sources to create more problematic patriarchal relations. Most significantly, both in Holinshed's account (1587) and in the anonymous play The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir (1605), Leir's behavior is clearly motivated by the question of political succession. In Holinshed, Leir's preference for Cordeilla is made explicit: he loves “specially Cordeilla the yoongest farre aboue the two elder.” Logically enough, Leir wishes to “preferre hir whome he best loued, to the succession ouer the kingdome.”20 As stressed in the anonymous play, there is no “heyre indubitate, / Which might have set upon [Leir's] royall throne … by [whom] we might have peace.”21 Leir must confer his kingdom on his daughters, and the question remains: how best to protect “our state … ’gainst all forrayne hate” and “so establish such a perfit peace” (p. 338; King Leir, I.i.55-68). Leir's solution is to marry off his three daughters to three political successors “by whose united friendship, this our state / May be protected” (p. 338; King Leir, I.i.54-55). Since Gonorill and Ragan have already been spoken for, the youngest daughter's engagement is all that remains to be negotiated.

In the anonymous play, Leir knows and appreciates that his youngest daughter loves him best. So, with unabashed manipulative intent, he seeks to secure her profession of love in order simply to assure his own choice of a political successor. Just as, in Bandello, Messer Lionato's interest in his daughter was innocently benevolent, so Leir's is naively coercive. By demanding the public profession of love from all three daughters, Leir hopes to disguise his attempt to manipulate the youngest through her love for him. In the play, Leir frankly, even gleefully, admits his scheme and its use of Cordella's love. The three sisters of this play are not competing for dowries so much as for the husbands a dowry would insure. Leir wishes to manipulate his daughters' dependence upon dowries in order to force Cordella to abandon her desire for a love-match—“No liking to a Monarch, unlesse love allowes” (p. 338; King Leir, I.i.62)—to his own desire for a marriage of convenience:

                     … they joyntly shall contend,
Eche to exceed the other in their love:
Then at the vantage will I take Cordella,
Even as she doth protest she loves me best,
Ile say, Then, daughter, graunt me one request,
To shew thou lovest me as thy sisters doe,
Accept a husband, whom my selfe will woo.

(p. 339; King Leir, I.i.81-87)

Leir does not want to minimize loss here, but to maximize gain—of the “heyre indubitate.” He views Cordella's love for him as his one advantage over her resolve, and intends to exploit this for his own ends: “to match her to some King within this Ile” (p. 338; King Leir, I.i.66). He anticipates, as he schemes, his victory:

Although (poore soule) her sences will be mute:
Then will I tryumph in my policy,
And match her with a King of Brittany.

(p. 339; King Leir, I.i.89-90)

The reasons for King Lear's staging of the dowry pageant in Shakespeare's play are not so simple or self-evident, nor so safely hinged upon politics. Lear faces two problems at the beginning of Shakespeare's play: the threat to the coherence of the English nation, compounded by, even contingent upon, the threat that exogamy poses to the integrity of Lear's authority over his family. In Lear's attempt to meet these threats, Shakespeare explores the emotional conservatism of patriarchy (literally, the desire to conserve the order of the family), which Lear converts into a tyrannical legislation of affective bonds.

Shakespeare removes a concern with political succession from the list of Lear's declared priorities. “The division of [his] kingdom” (I.i.4) seems to be a foregone conclusion that poses few problems for all concerned. As Coleridge notes,

It was not without forethought, nor is it without its due significance, that the division of Lear's kingdom is in the first six lines of the play stated as a thing already determined in all its particulars previously to the trial of professions. …22

Lear seems to have no patrilineal regrets about the parcelling of his isle; he is not looking to choose a sole male successor. Indeed, as Harry Jaffa remarks, Lear seems never to have had any intention of relinquishing his kingdom:

Lear divided his kingdom into “three” but the parts are not mathematical “thirds.” Cordelia was not only to be situated in the middle, but to have the richest portion of the realm. … Living on as king with Cordelia, with Albany and Cornwall acting as his deputies in regions which he could not control without their loyalty anyway, does it seem that Lear was giving up anything that he could in any case have kept to himself much longer?23

In Shakespeare's dramatization, the general acceptance that greets the division of the kingdom may well signal that this unusual gesture will have little impact on power relations; Harry Berger, Jr., observes that Lear “formally renounces power and property primarily with the intention of keeping informal control over them.”24 But if the division is merely ceremonial, why the need for a public display?

The need arises, I would argue, out of the fact that Shakespeare has created not only a political but also a personal set of pressures as motivations for the dowry division. The urge to preserve his authority over his family, no less than over his kingdom, complicates Lear's actions. This desire is threatened in the marriage of Cordelia, Lear's favorite. Her marriage signifies the final dissolution of the Lear family and the Lear empire, and painfully emphasizes the irrevocable passage of time, which all of Lear's authority cannot counteract. Lear is concerned with parental succession; to whom must he cede Cordelia, to whom shall he render up “rule … interest … and cares” (I.i.49-50) of his youngest daughter?

Unlike his literary predecessors, Lear already possesses two sons-in-law. In keeping with the tone of his relationship with his elder daughters, Lear claims a filial and perfunctory relationship with both “our son of Cornwall, / … our no less loving son of Albany” (I.i.41-42). The two dukes are natural choices as sons-in-law, each occupying strategic extremities of Lear's kingdom. In both sources, Cordelia's prospective husband is absent from the court at the moment corresponding to Shakespeare's dowry distribution. In Holinshed it is only after Leir divides the kingdom in halves between his two eldest daughters that “one of the princes of Gallia … hearing … of the said Cordeilla, desired to haue hir in mariage” (p. 13). Similarly, in the source play the Gallian king first appears in his native land, planning a voyage to Britain, blithely unaware that Leir has already divided his “Kingdome … / ’Twixt [Cordella's] two sisters to their royall dowre” (p. 345; King Leir, I.iii.318-19).

In Holinshed Leir cares little who or if his daughter marries: “answer was made [to Aganippus], that he might haue his daughter, but as for anie dower, he could haue none” (p. 13). In the anonymous play Leir's attitude to her marriage is different but equally straightforward: he is deeply interested in Cordella's choice, and he schemes to force her into a politic marriage. Both play and chronicle sources lack the pressure of the expectant France and Burgundy attending on Lear's decision; both France and Burgundy pose significantly different marriages—different both from each other and from the source play—in terms of the power relations the exogamous exchange would construct. In Shakespeare's version neither foreign suitor presents as stable a political bond as might “some King within this Ile.” They have furthermore been “long in our court”; Lear must answer them. The prospect of losing his daughter is much more immediate and is highlighted as the concern of the play. But if Holinshed's king is indifferent to his daughter's marriage, and the source play's father quite the opposite, the attitude of Shakespeare's Lear is difficult to characterize.

The sources do not present the dowries as objects for rivalry among the sisters. In Holinshed's account Leir simply asks “how well she loved him” without informing his daughters of the reason for his request; furthermore, it is not clear in the text whether the demand is meant to solicit rivalry or merely to confirm Leir's favoritism: “he thought to understand the affections of his daughters towards him, and prefer hir whome he best loued, to the succession ouer the kingdome” (p. 12). In the source play, the evident stakes are husbands, with dowries only as the necessary route to matrimony. But Leir does not disclose this condition, and his request is phrased rather ingenuously:

Resolve a doubt which much molests my mind,
Which of you three to me would prove most kind;
Which loves me most, and which at my request
Will soonest yeeld unto their fathers hest.

(p. 343; King Leir, I.i.232-35)

In Shakespeare's version the stakes are not husbands but dowries, and the conflict of the scene is Cordelia's marriage alone, the choice of her suitor the ostensible end. With this in mind, Lear announces the dowry contest; his purpose and phrasing are bald:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most,
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge?


As Goneril and Regan are already married to ducal power and property (if Jaffa is correct, the assets they perfunctorily flatter for are the ones they are already married to), with no fears of impoverished spinsterhood to motivate their flatteries, Lear must be speaking to Cordelia alone. For his purposes, it is not “Our daughters' several dowers” (I.i.44) that are at stake, but Cordelia's only.

Given the prominence of Cordelia's imminent departure, her removal through the necessity of exogamy, King Lear's elaborate divestment of authority could be construed as a way to ease his pain at her loss. The ceremony of the division of the kingdom may be a way for Lear to formalize his loss and thereby minimize his pain. If the division of the kingdom and the division of Lear's family are inextricably linked, perhaps Lear resolves to divest himself of his kingdom, hoping that, by signing away his worldly goods and titles, he will find it easier to accept the loss of Cordelia. “Conferring [all] on younger strengths” (I.i.40), specifically those of France or Burgundy, he will be able to relinquish Cordelia as he parts with his lesser possessions, and perhaps the loss of “our joy” (I.i.82) will be less to him among the loss of all. Lear assembles the members of his court in order to persuade himself, under public pressure, to relinquish Cordelia to that “lord whose hand must take [her] plight” from him (I.i.101).

More likely, however—given the purely formal nature of his divestment of political authority—Lear never intends to relinquish Cordelia. Or rather, he wishes both to give her away and to keep her, to marry her off and yet “to set [his] rest / On her kind nursery” (I.i.123-24). (In practical terms, this desire suggests that Lear's probable intention is for Cordelia to marry Burgundy, both remaining in Cordelia's third of England, it being unlikely that the king of France would move to England, or the king of England to France.) Lear hardly wishes to divest himself of either of his patriarchal positions of authority, but rather to combine them in a fantasy of absolutism, which reveals itself as such in the contradiction of Cordelia's both going and staying. His perversion of the dowry ceremony reveals his desire to prevent its consummation, to conserve and combine his emotional and territorial authorities in a monolithic whole.

Though Lear knows he must fulfill the public responsibilities of patriarchy in exogamous exchange, the demands of exogamy are at odds with political and emotional needs, and the pressures of the latter subvert his rhetoric of policy. Lear's insistence that his daughter flatter him for her dowry is ostensibly his last act of ownership over her, but it is designed to retain control. He makes no mention of maintaining the patriarchal prerogative to choose a husband, a prerogative that would compensate him for his loss of parental authority. Rather, he wishes Cordelia to buy from him, with her capacity to love, her right to marry.

The custom of exogamous exchange, however, does not normally demand that the daughter buy her right to marry. Indeed, it is the father who buys, with his offer of a dowry, his daughter's right to marry from another man whom he will choose. Lear wishes to reformulate this exchange. Where the Leir in the anonymous play hopes to make his daughter buy the husband of his choice with her need of a dowry, Lear wants Cordelia to buy her dowry with the very capital she herself must use to marry: her love. Unlike his predecessor, the last thing Lear wishes is that Cordelia “shew thou lovest me as thy sisters doe”; he has no desire that Cordelia prove her love by marrying his choice of suitor. In fact, any mention of Lear's choice of suitor is conspicuously absent: France and Burgundy “are to be answer’d” (I.i.48), but presumably by Cordelia. The relationship under negotiation here is not between two men but between father and daughter. Lear's wish is to secure a pledge of love that, as the rhetoric of Lear's ultimatum urges and as Cordelia implies, would make her marriage impossible (I.i.82-86, 95-104).

Lear appropriates the public patriarchal terms that his predecessors exercised conventionally in the sources, but he misunderstands their use. Their use of custom is unselfconsciously coercive and conventionally exogamous. Lear, in contrast, wishes to force the two contravening orders of family and state into a metaphorical relationship with each other, and he strives to make the order of his kingdom dependent upon the coherence of his family. Cordelia, however, points out the ideological inconsistencies in Lear's monolithic designs, exposing the contradiction upon which he has built his absolutist fantasy. Whereas the Leir of the anonymous play hoped to silence Cordella's recalcitrant wish for a love match, Shakespeare's Lear finds Cordelia's resolve to “Love, and be silent” (I.i.62) subversive of his plan. Her denial of her father's authority responds to his own perversion of patriarchal power and repudiates his claim to such power over her. Cordelia's refusal to “draw / A third more opulent than [her] sisters'” (I.i.85-86) exposes the all-consuming greed of Lear's request, and this criticism, coupled with the disproportionate rage that it provokes, reveals the qualitative difference of Lear's emotionally confounded power from the merely manipulative political authority of his predecessors.

Cordelia never claims, as Cordella does, that she will only marry for love: on the contrary, she is perfectly willing to comply with her father's choice of suitor. Her subversion, as she herself points out, is no rebuke to patriarchy: “No unchaste action, or dishonored step, / … hath depriv’d me of your grace and favor” (I.i.230-31). Cordelia reminds her father—and us—of the emotional loss he would deny, or would configure as merely political or economic. She is sensitive to the “necessity” of patriarchal custom but more so to the emotional logic it would gloss; as far as exogamy is concerned, she is perhaps Shakespeare's most conservative daughter.

Cordelia's answer to Lear points out the totalizing structure of his request, and she reminds him that political structures are built by the limiting of affective bonds. If her answer is callous, it is so only in response to the greater insensitivity of Lear's question. As he wishes to know “Where nature doth with merit challenge” (I.i.53), she answers him in terms of her natural duty: “According to my bond, no more nor less” (I.i.93). Cordelia's reply is meticulous in its calculation of filial duty, much like Desdemona's reply to her father:

                                        My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter. But here's my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.

(Othello, I.iii.182-91)

Ironically, it is Cordelia alone, in refusing Lear's monolithic desire to retain her within his emotional and geographic boundaries, who insists throughout upon the exogamous definition of marriage. In this play, it is the father who subverts the conventions of patriarchy in defying its demand for male alliance through marriage. Unlike Leonato, who is eager to contract male alliance through marriage, Lear's terms demand an alliance with his daughter in spite of marriage. In Much Ado, Leonato thinks that Hero has chosen another over his choice, and he reacts accordingly. Cordelia's behavior, however, is completely consistent with the terms of exogamy, and thus Lear's response is bewildering in a way that Leonato's is not. In the comedy, Leonato's repudiation of his daughter hinges on the unclear circumstances of Claudio's rejection. We understand the source of Leonato's response even if we condemn it, attributing his credulity to the power of the male word in a patriarchal world. In King Lear, we need more to help us make sense of Lear's response, for he himself has tampered with the logic of patriarchy. His anger and pain are “irrational” in a way that Leonato's are not. In disowning Cordelia he testifies to the desires that inform his request: his love for her, his fear of losing her, his need to mitigate the pain of her departure. In this scene, rather than simply presenting a patriarch's control over a woman, Shakespeare investigates the incestuous possessiveness that exogamy counteracts; in demystifying the public forms that govern the exchange of women, he reveals the conservative emotional logic of those forms.

Shakespeare explores both the willful nature of political power and the politics of the family. Confronted with the emotional truths that Cordelia will not suppress, Lear continues to abuse his power as a king to protect his emotional investment as a father; as Coleridge puts it, “the inveterate habits of sovereignty convert the wish [to enjoy his daughter's violent professions] into claim and positive right, and an incompliance with it into crime and treason.”25 Lear has tried to phrase concerns of state in the disarming and beneficent terms of affective loyalty; conversely, in his rage he de-mystifies the nature of fatherly power to reveal its coercive, tyrannical potential. His last proprietary act as father over Cordelia is defied, and Lear's shaky acceptance of her marriage is undermined. He disowns her with the ruthlessness of a despot. As Cordelia has made it impossible for him now to “rest / On her kind nursery” (I.i.123-24), Lear acts swiftly to insure that no other enjoys it. He tries to remove her from the reach of the two princes, his “Great rivals in our youngest daughter's love” (I.i.46). Paradoxically, to keep Cordelia he must discard her, as the contradictions of patriarchy assert themselves once again.

Cordelia will take truth alone for her dower (I.i.108), and she will marry pride (I.i.129). Lear hopes that if she will not marry on his terms, she will not marry at all. Lear's slanders recall Leonato's, yet they are more powerful in their originality: “thou my sometime daughter … here I give / Her father's heart from her” (I.i.120-26). Doing his best to make her unattractive, “her price … fallen. … / … Unfriended, new-adopted to our hate, / Dow’r’d with our curse, and stranger’d with our oath” (I.i.198-205), Lear hopes to discourage Burgundy and France. Predictably, he succeeds in convincing Burgundy of her undesirability, but not France. Burgundy, confused by Lear's sudden violation of the social codes that should govern marital exchange and political alliance, demurs: “Pardon me, royal sir; / Election makes not up in such conditions” (I.i.206-7). Knowing that exogamy is an alliance between men, Burgundy knows that Cordelia “with [her father's] displeasure piec’d” (I.i.200) is an inappropriate conduit to such a relationship, and he cannot respond to Lear's terms: “I know no answer,” he says (I.i.202). He wins Lear's favor by refusing to become his son-in-law: “Come, noble Burgundy” (I.i.268). France, on the other hand, accepts Lear's unorthodox terms and responds in kind: “Thee and thy virtues here I seize upon, / Be it lawful I take up what’s cast away” (I.i.254-55). In terms of exogamy, France's action is not lawful, since Cordelia, “this unpriz’d precious maid” (I.i.261), is no gift, but a cast-off.

At the play's conclusion, stripped of his political authority, Lear also exchanges his public relationship with Cordelia for the private inclusive one his terms had urged:

… Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies. … 


Lear has found a metaphor and rhetoric properly expressive and has left the constraint of patriarchal forms behind. He greets Cordelia with “… as I am a man, I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia” (IV.vii.71-72); she is both lady and child, he both man and father, and in his bewildered conflation of roles he enunciates the emotional complexity of the father-daughter bond.


To identify the place of women in Shakespeare is frequently to describe the controlling artistic and patriarchal forms. Women are celebrated (if domesticated) in comedy; marginalized (if excused) in history; empowered (if destroyed) in tragedy—and are a subversive presence in each mode. A feminist critique, exploring the politics of gender, may also expose something about the politics of genre and reveal the implicit similarity between the authority of literary forms and the power of the cultural forms they represent. One of feminist criticism's greatest strengths is its ability to identify and analyze the workings of power structures—both the literary and the more overtly political—that define the roles of women in a culture. Lynda E. Boose notes that the subversive aspect of the daughter's role within the patriarchy of the family (in her necessary departure from the domain of the father) may be a lesser threat to patriarchal structures than the father's incestuous wish to retain his daughter in defiance of the cultural demand for exogamy:

Patriarchal ideology has always imagined that women—and especially the unstructured daughter—pose the ultimate threat to the maintenance of its control. But the real threat to patriarchy may not be the imputed female enemy at all. It may instead be the fathers themselves. To quell the menace of paternal behavior deviating from the authoritarian ideal, the cultural mythmaking apparatus seems to have continually needed to reify patterns of dictatorial, resolutely unsentimental fatherhood modelled into father-Gods and God the Fathers. By insinuation, the model is divinely sanctioned. The greatest menace to patriarchy would be the threat of the fathers rebelling against the archetypes they inherited. …26

In this formulation the culture's glorification of the father forecloses his potential for threatening exogamy and thus patriarchy. And if the real threat to patriarchal political structures, as Boose and Shakespeare's plays suggest, is the father's desire to contain the daughter within the parental family, then a critique of patriarchal power would be most effective in exposing the labelling of woman-as-subversive-agent, as an instrument engineered to idealize the father. Consequently, much of feminist criticism locates the sanctification of the father inscribed in various cultural texts, including Shakespeare's.

I am, however, arguing that Shakespeare himself works against this sanctification; his portrayal of fathers refuses to authorize patriarchal power. Shakespeare's fathers have a real difficulty (verging on inability) accepting their replacement by another in their daughters' affections, and as a result they abuse their political power over their daughters, confusing political and emotional needs, behaving coercively and destructively. It is a fairly simple (and by now unremarkable) activity of feminist criticism to discover the ways in which patriarchy is produced and reproduced in literature and in the world; it is, however, more difficult and perhaps more rewarding to move beyond identification of the ideological structuring of experience—as I believe Shakespeare does—to explore the emotional logic in human relations that generates such structures.

Kathleen McLuskie's “The patriarchal bard” attacks Shakespeare's collaboration with received cultural authorities. Her source study of King Lear finds that “the folk-tale of the love-test provides an underlying pattern in which harmony is broken by the honest daughter and restored by her display of forgiveness. The organization of the Shakespearean text intensifies and then denies those expectations so as once more to insist on the connection between evil women and a chaotic world” (p. 102). She assumes a mimetic relationship between play and world, although she does posit an incoherent patriarchal culture accessible to feminist criticism: “the text was produced within the contradictions of contemporary ideology and practice and … similar contradictions exist within the play” (p. 104). McLuskie finds a role for the feminist critic in searching out and exposing those contradictions in the play. For her, however, Shakespeare remains an adversary of the feminist project, neither questioning nor resisting the patriarchal culture from which he draws his plots. For her, then, literary production remains an imitative rather than an interrogative process.

Ironically, this assumption of Shakespeare's unproblematic relationship to his cultural sources recalls the patriarchal and essentialist model of literary transmission advanced by Harold Bloom, whose theory of poetic influence excuses Shakespeare from the battle of father-to-son poetic inheritance. Bloom argues that both the nature of his dramatic form and his lack of a strong precursor liberated Shakespeare from the anxiety that was to plague poets from Milton to the present. Shakespeare, rather, achieves “the absolute absorption of the precursor”;27 literary influence remains a process of (male) strife, in which an author's inevitable choices are either collaboration with the father or competition resulting in patricide, both of which re-engender (and re-gender) the oepidal configuration. Yet while Shakespeare's response to his literary predecessors may exhibit ingenuousness, clearly he is not exempt from or ignorant of the weight of literary precedent. Must the response to cultural authority be located in a combative, self-perpetuating totality that disallows the possibility of change? Shakespeare is not, by some quirk of literary history, free of anxiety, but rather he frees himself from it. Shakespeare makes this influence his subject, interrogating the power of patriarchy instead of guilelessly imitating it.

Like the daughters in his plays, Shakespeare defies the control of patriarchy, separating and individuating his own identity from that of his literary authority. This is not to say that Shakespeare stands as a daughter to his literary fathers; he does, however, strike an analogous relation to patriarchal influence to which the metaphor permits us access. In the daughters he creates and in the stormy necessity of their removal from the control of their fathers, he forges a critical perspective from which to view patriarchy, a perspective that need not replicate patriarchy's self-characterizations innocently or idealistically. If Prince Hal, while in Eastcheap, may be “sworn brother to a leash of drawers, and can call them all by their christen names” (1 Henry IV, II.iv.6-7), he nonetheless realizes that he must be reinscribed within the patriarchal order and the order of the family. Upon his father's death he assures his brothers “I’ll be your father and your brother too. / … Yet weep that Harry's dead, and so will I; / But Harry lives …” (2 Henry IV, V.ii.57-60). While oedipal conflict demands a challenge of patriarchal authority, it is a temporary tension, for the son always becomes the father: if Oedipus kills his father, it is only to marry his mother and to take his father's place in the family order. Patriarchy demands, at least of its sons, its replication; its pressures are those of imitation. Daughters, on the other hand, must leave the control of the father and the emotional system of the family, limiting, as Cordelia does, the love that would contain them within family bounds, separating and differentiating themselves. In the departure of the daughter, Shakespeare realizes the limitation of the omnipotence of a certain kind of cultural authority, and thus provides us with the possibility of its revision.

In Much Ado, Shakespeare creates in Leonato a father whose authority we question. We see him caught in the inconsistency at the heart of patriarchy, and Hero's passivity serves only to accentuate his ambiguous position. Her very subservience works to de-idealize Leonato's fatherhood: she cannot bear the weight of the accusation directed against her, and, fainting, defies any attempt to paint her as a subversive presence in order to preserve Leonato's honor. Our knowledge that Hero did not in fact contravene her father and suitor's bond forces us to censure Leonato's belief in Claudio's accusation with, at the very least, indignation: he is unjust, disloyal, and too ready to sacrifice his love for his daughter to the ideal of male alliance. The omniscient and innocent patriarchal power, fully operative in the source, is de-idealized in Shakespeare's version and shown to be incapable of sustaining the emotional toll of exogamy.

King Lear works in a similar way to call into question our own assumptions about patriarchal authority, especially as it is manifested in the omnipotent form of monarchy. If anything, Lear is more manipulative than his prototypes, and, disowning Cordelia, he uses political power to further emotional ends. The misappropriation of one rhetoric for another reveals the coercive nature of a power that would represent itself as disinterested, innocent of desire and of emotional bias. Cordelia's denial of her father's request and her refusal to accept blame demystify Lear's glorification of his own omnipotence. What in the source is mere manipulation made explicable, if not excusable, by political circumstance becomes a power comprehensible only in terms of a tragic willfulness born of fear, of anger, and of a complicated love. Lear, like Leonato, abuses his authority. Shakespeare, in letting us see him make such a mistake, undermines our confidence in the power that we invest in kings and fathers.

Much like Cordelia, Shakespeare exposes and investigates the coercive pressures of patriarchy. Shakespeare does not become another patriarchal bard. He responds to his sources in a way that consciously rebukes and revises patriarchal authority; he does not transpose, unaltered or unjudged, the cultural propositions that generate the sources' unremarkable conclusions. And while he struggles to subvert his fathers, he does not do so only eventually to replace them in propagating their assumptions, because the form of his rebellion is not so much a categorical rejection of forms as an inquiry into our need for their construction. He does not replicate ideology; rather, he exposes its assumptions, forcing us to examine their emotional content, their source in human desire, and the loss and vulnerability they would work to prevent or deny. Shakespeare rewrites patriarchy, resisting its conclusions, revealing its idealized images of fathers as fictions constructed against the complexity of human desire. What perhaps made him attractive to his culture, and what continues to make him attractive to our own, is his interrogation of cultural orders. Shakespeare defies his literary fathers as the women of his drama resist patriarchy, and his subversion of cultural authority empowers their own.


  1. The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), Introduction, p. 4. See also Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976).

  2. See Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore (London: Phaidon, 1950), p. 240 ff.; and Joan Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” in Women, History, and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 19-50.

  3. “The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: new essays in cultural materialism, eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 88-108, esp. p. 102. See also Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983). The development of Shakespearean feminism is also delineated by Carol Thomas Neely in her article “Feminist modes of Shakespearean criticism: Compensatory, Justificatory, Transformational,” Women's Studies, 9 (1981-2), 3-15.

  4. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 9.

  5. “The patriarchal bard,” p. 98.

  6. See, for example, Coppélia Kahn, “‘Magic of Bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, 38 (1987), 34-57; Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985); Marilyn Williamson, The Patriarchy of Shakespeare's Comedies, (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1986); and Rewriting the Renaissance: the Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986). Also exploring these issues were the papers presented at the session “Shakespeare and the New Feminisms,” held at the Shakespeare Association of America's 1987 meeting, chaired by David Scott Kastan, who, in his opening remarks, described this “New Feminism” as “seeking to locate difference in the cultural and textual densities they explore, and … to disrupt the binary that has been constructed between feminism's largely psycho-social concerns and the historical political focus of (what seems to me an equally inadequately theorized) new historicism. The new feminisms reveal that gender and politics are reciprocally tied, each at least partially responsible for the other, and literature is recognized as a significant cultural locus for the production and reproduction, the articulation and interrogation of these constructs” (“The Cell and the Beehive”).

  7. Political Shakespeare, Introduction, p. 3. Also see essays in English Literary Renaissance, 16 (1986) by Jean E. Howard, “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,” 13-43, and Louis Adrian Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies and the Subject of History,” 5-12. For one assessment of the recent relations between feminism and new historicism see Peter Erickson, “Rewriting the Renaissance, Rewriting Ourselves,” SQ, 38 (1987), 327-37.

  8. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Towards An Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157-210, esp. p. 174.

  9. “‘The Father's House and the Daughter in It’: The Structures of Daughter-Father Relationship,” in Daughters and Fathers, eds. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, forthcoming). See also David Scott Kastan, “Shakespeare and the ‘Way of Womenkind’,” Daedalus, 3 (1982) 111, 115-30, esp. pp. 128-29.

  10. Daughters and Fathers, forthcoming.

  11. Cited in Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 15. See pp. 12-17 for a discussion of the Renaissance analogy between familial and political patriarchies.

  12. The Book of Common Prayer 1559, ed. John E. Booty (Washington, D.C.: Folger Books, 1976), p. 297.

  13. Margaret Loftus Ranald, “‘As Marriage Binds, and Blood Breaks’: English Marriage and Shakespeare,” SQ, 30 (1979), 68-81, esp. p. 73.

  14. For further discussion of Lear's proposal, as well as an analysis of the ritual structure of Shakespearean marriage, see Lynda E. Boose, “The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare,” PMLA, 97 (1978), 325-47.

  15. La Prima Parte de le Novelle del Bandello in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), Vol. II, 114.

  16. Rubin, p. 174.

  17. All Shakespeare citations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1980).

  18. Carol Thomas Neely's suggestive discussion of this and other “deaths” of Shakespearean heroines concludes with a recognition of the significance of the “death” as a public event: “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” (Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays, p. 53).

  19. Orlando Furioso, trans. Sir John Harington (London: Richard Field, 1591), V.66.6-8. This translation of Orlando Furioso, Book V, also appears in Bullough, Vol. II, 82-104.

  20. Raphael Holinshed, The Firste and Second Volumes of Chronicles (London: 1587), p. 12; also printed in Bullough, Vol. VII, 316-19.

  21. Bullough, Vol. VII, p. 338 (King Leir, I.i.44-48).

  22. In Shakespeare Criticism, ed. D. Nichol Smith (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1916), p. 285.

  23. “The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act I, scene i,” in Shakespeare's Politics, Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa (New York: Basic Books, 1964), pp. 123-24.

  24. King Lear: The Lear Family Romance,” Centennial Review, XXIII (1979), 348-76, esp. p. 356.

  25. Shakespeare Criticism, p. 286.

  26. Daughters and Fathers. Rubin also points out that Levi-Strauss argues that “the incest taboo should best be understood as a mechanism to insure that such [exogamous] exchanges take place between families and between groups” (“The Traffic in Women,” p. 173).

  27. The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 11.

Robert Ornstein (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Much Ado about Nothing,” in Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, University of Delaware Press, 1986, pp. 119-40.

[In the following essay, Ornstein introduces Much Ado about Nothing by examining the characters and changing moods of the play and comparing it to Shakespeare's other comedies.]

If Much Ado is not the most genial of the comedies, it is perhaps the most satisfying in form and substance. It is warm as well as witty, and compassionate in its view of human frailties and limitations. Its chief characters, Beatrice and Benedick, are the most attractive pair of lovers in the comedies—the only ones perhaps who are equally matched in intelligence, humor, and humanity. Except for the morose Don John, the other characters are engaging enough to win an audience's affection. None is as coarse as Gratiano or as ignorant of self as Antonio or as shallow as Jessica. Because all are capable of kindness and some measure of nobility, the community of Messina can be forgiving of rashness. It does not close ranks against an outcast but rather tolerates the turncoat Don John in its midst, and it welcomes back at the close a Claudio who has mistreated Hero but who deserves a second chance at happiness and acceptance among those who gather in Leonato's household. At the same time Much Ado is as unsparing as The Merchant in its revelation of the obtuseness and cruelty with which the self-righteous can act. Its “trial” scene is uglier in its way than the one in The Merchant because it results in the condemnation of the innocent Hero and discloses something about conventional attitudes that we would prefer never to have known.

The rage in this scene is stunning because the early scenes of Much Ado are almost untouched by rancor or discord. Their easy informality and relaxed atmosphere are unique in the comedies, which more often than not open with a strain of antagonism or sorrow: a severe law threatens an old man's life, a would be suitor is held back by a lack of funds, a father would coerce his daughter into a loveless match. In contrast, the first scenes of Much Ado promise nothing but homecoming celebrations, good conversations, and perhaps a marriage or two. A war has ended and the victorious general and his officers are about to return to cordial reunions in Messina. The only threat to public tranquillity is the malcontented Don John, who was defeated in the war and now scowls and mutters of revenge. He is too grumpy, however, to seem very dangerous and he is known to be untrustworthy. The only plots that seem destined to succeed are those that are inspired by friendship and love, and they will unite rather than divide the citizens of Messina.

Although the slandering of Hero is a page out of romantic melodrama and her marriage as a veiled bride to Claudio is a page out of fairy tales, Much Ado has been called the most realistic of the comedies because it comes closest to mimicking the give and take of casual conversations and the daily routine of life in Leonato's household.1 Here a love match can be arranged without the intervention of goblins, without a choice of caskets, and without the renunciation of monastic vows. The spontaneity of these scenes is both artful and paradoxical, however, because on the one hand the illusion is created that the audience is eavesdropping on conversations that were never planned or rehearsed; on the other hand, these seemingly improvised moments are ingeniously patterned by symmetries and repetitions so that as we eavesdrop on the characters, they eavesdrop and spy on one another—sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally, sometimes lovingly, sometimes maliciously. There is not only much ado about “noting,” but also in this most realistic of comic plots, the acceptance of improbable fictions as undeniable truths by characters who are more sensible, skeptical, and wary of self-delusion than almost any others in the comedies. This is possible only because the twin orchard scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice are hoodwinked are at once gloriously exaggerated and utterly convincing as revelations of their emotional and psychological natures.

One comes away from a performance of Much Ado with a vivid recollection of Beatrice and Benedick, who dominate much of the play, and with fainter impressions of Hero and Claudio, who have less interesting and colorful personalities but are the central figures in the drama of slandered innocence and false accusation that is the main plot of Much Ado. While it is inevitable that Beatrice and Benedick should engross the attention of audiences, it is unfortunate that critics sometimes suggest that the unhappy love of Hero and Claudio is merely a utilitarian scaffolding for the witty badinage and prickly courtship of Beatrice and Benedick. If this is so, the plotting of Much Ado is somewhat peculiar and even a bit fumbling because Shakespeare, who transformed the base metal of Il Pecorone into the gold of The Merchant, failed to place the most interesting and important characters at the center of his dramatic fable. Can we assume, moreover, that Shakespeare merely used the story of Hero and Claudio as dramatic scaffolding when he restages this drama of betrayed innocence and mistaken revenge in Othello, again in Cymbeline, and once more in The Winter's Tale? Those who think Claudio and Hero do not really matter may also find that they are shallow and conventional because, unlike Beatrice and Benedick, they fall in love quickly and easily. But if to love at first sight is to love too easily, God help Romeo and Juliet, Rosalind and Orlando, and Ferdinand and Miranda.2

The problem of responding to Hero and Claudio is similar to the problem of responding to Bassanio, who seems so much blander and less interesting than Portia and Shylock or even Gratiano. Just as Antonio and Portia's love of Bassanio demands that we recognize his quiet virtues, Beatrice's devotion to Hero and Benedick's affection for Claudio deny the possibility that they are superficial or ordinary. Shakespeare could have made the relationship of Beatrice and Hero as one-sided as that between Antonio and Bassanio by depicting the stronger Beatrice as the protector of her more timid cousin. But there is not the slightest intimation that Beatrice is used to guarding Hero against the blows of life or that Hero requires such protection. It is sometimes suggested that if Hero were more like Beatrice she would not be incapable of defending herself when accused by Claudio, but Beatrice is there when Hero is brutally denounced and like Hero she is too stunned to rebut the false accusations. Critics also suggest that if Desdemona were more like Emilia she would not be so easily victimized by Othello, but they forget that Emilia is unable to defend Desdemona's honesty and life; indeed, she is unable to protect herself against her abusive husband, who murders her when finally she insists upon speaking out. In the four plays that deal with sexual jealousy the emphasis falls, not on the heroines' lack of courage, but on the vulnerability of the heroes to vicious insinuations and prurient fantasies.

A character like Mariana in Measure for Measure can be little more than the jilted maiden of romantic fables who remains loyal to the man who rejected her. We do not know why Mariana continues to love the mean-spirited Angelo, and pleads for his life when he shows not the slightest sign of affection for her or remorse for his mistreatment of her. Because Mariana is a minor character, it is enough if an audience pities her forlorn existence. Because she is a central figure in the dramatic action of Much Ado, Hero's emotional responses are crucial to the resolution of the play. Her acceptance of Claudio as husband is as important to the denouement of Much Ado as Imogen's forgiveness of Posthumus and Hermione's forgiveness of Leontes are important to the denouements of Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. The first scenes of the play, however, do not lead us to believe that Hero will play a significant role. She speaks just one line in the first scene and not a word to Claudio, although they must be very aware of each other's presence. Indeed, she does not speak to Claudio on stage until Don Pedro announces that she has agreed to be Claudio's wife. Is this not the quintessence of docility: a shy, unspoken girl who obeys her father in listening to Don Pedro's suit and who accepts Don Pedro's proxy wooing for Claudio without a word to her future husband? But Hero and Claudio have no love scene together, not because she is too timid and retiring, but because he is too uncertain and hesitant to woo for himself, and she would never take the romantic initiative. Unlike her cousin Beatrice, she is content for the most part to remain in the background of a conversation, to listen rather than speak. Although not a talker like Beatrice, she can speak out when the occasion demands speaking out; and when she does, she shows her self-confidence and keen perception of others. With a visor to hide behind, she matches wits with Don Pedro at the ball in a way that suggests a readiness to follow her own inclinations in love, not her father's commands. Although primed by her father to encourage Don Pedro's courtship, she does not flutter her eyelids or turn coy at his approach:

Don Pedro. Lady, will you
walk about with your friend?
Hero. So you walk softly, and look
sweetly, and say nothing, I am yours for the walk, and especially when I walk
Don Pedro. With me in your company?
Hero. I may say so when I please.
Don Pedro. And when please you to
say so?
Hero. When I like your favor, for
God defend the lute should be like the case!

(2.1. 86-95)

These are not the responses of a shrinking violet; Hero does not lack wit but her sallies are gentler-edged than Beatrice's, more likely to elicit a smile than a tart reply.

Hero's qualities are more fully revealed in the orchard scene that is intended to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. Hero takes the leading role in the charade that Beatrice overhears, and demonstrates her understanding of her cousin and her willingness to risk Beatrice's anger by speaking plainly of her vanity. Her description of Beatrice's behavior is penetrating and just, and somewhat sharp in its rebuke:

… nature never fram’d a woman's heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.
Disdain and scorn ride sparking in her eyes,
Misprising what they look on, and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak … 
                                         … I never yet saw man,
How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featur’d,
But she would spell him backward … 
So turns she every man the wrong side out,
And never gives to simple truth and virtue that
Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.

(3.1. 48-70)

Shocked by Claudio's brutal denunciation on her wedding day, she is unable to defend herself; she can only simply and directly declare her innocence, and that is not enough to convince even her father. But it would not matter what she said because Claudio and Don Pedro have already made up their minds about her guilt and are prepared to believe nothing except a confession of lewdness. After the denunciation scene, she does not appear again on stage until the final scene, in which she enters as Claudio's veiled “second” bride. When she reveals herself to him, she speaks just a few telling lines:

… when I liv’d, I was your other wife,
And when you lov’d, you were my other husband.

(5.4. 60-61)

Should there be more anger or recrimination? Should she demand an abject apology from Claudio before she accepts him again as her husband? The answer depends upon our view of Claudio, and more largely on the way in which the moral and emotional drama of Hero's betrayal is unfolded by Shakespeare so that a happy ending is not only possible but the only appropriate conclusion. At no time in the play is Claudio contemptible or mean-spirited.3 When he denounces Hero he is fully convinced that he has been terribly wronged and has the right to denounce her in public. If he is a gullible fool too easily duped by Borachio and Don John, so too is the noble Don Pedro, who is completely taken in by Borachio's contrivance and volunteers to join Claudio in exposing Hero on her wedding day.

Claudio enters the play a hero celebrated for his gallantry, who has earned the paternal affection of his general Don Pedro. Finding himself drawn to Hero, he discreetly inquires about her prospects, showing the same sensible concern about marrying well that Benedick does when he decides in soliloquy that the woman whom he will marry shall be rich—“that’s certain.” Claudio's questions are not those of a fortune hunter but of a young man uncertain of his judgment of women, and it is his lack of confidence that will make him vulnerable to Don John's insinuations as well as intensify his rage at being duped by an innocent-seeming wanton. Before he declares his love of Hero, he asks Benedick if he has noticed Hero and if she is “not a modest young lady.” Despite Benedick's gibes, he persists in asking for his opinion of Hero. Don Pedro is delighted to hear of Claudio's affection for Hero. “Amen,” he says, “If you love her, for the lady is very well worthy.” Even this commendation does not assure Claudio. “You speak this,” he says, “to fetch me in, my lord.” Claudio's need for assurance seems perfectly genuine; if he does not fear the commitment that love demands, he fears being made a fool by love, and he therefore qualifies almost every statement he makes about Hero. “In mine eyes,” he says, “she is the sweetest lady that I ever looked on”—“that I love her, I feel.” That “I feel” speaks volumes of his inexperience in love and fear of misjudging his own emotions as well as Hero's nature. Although he asks Don Pedro's aid and advice, he does not use his commander to gain an heiress. It is Don Pedro's idea to act as Claudio's proxy and to speak to Hero and Leonato on Claudio's behalf.

Annoyed by Claudio's defection from the ranks of smug bachelorhood, Benedick goes out of his way to rag him. When Claudio asks his opinion of Hero, he jokingly replies, “Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?” This blunt-edged joke is not inspired by any crassness on Claudio's part. It displays the wit of one who by custom is “a professed tyrant” to women and who is both amused and irritated by Claudio's interest in Leonato's daughter. Convinced that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself at the masked ball, Claudio tries to hide his misery by saying, “I wish him joy of her.” Benedick replies, “Why, that’s spoken like an honest drovier. So they sell bullock.” This wrenching of Claudio's words is not amiable or meant to be; it is spoken when Benedick is still smarting from an unpleasant encounter with Beatrice. After being ridiculed and insulted by Lady Disdain, he is ready to enjoy Claudio's misery and add to it. Claudio is a perfect target for such wisecracks because he has no aplomb as a suitor and it took an effort of will to speak of his feelings to others. He tells Don Pedro that before the war, he looked on Hero “with a soldier's eye, / That lik’d, but had a rougher task in hand / Than to drive liking to the name of love” (1.1. 298-300). A fear of surrendering to emotion is implicit in his need to “drive” (that is, deepen) liking to the name of love and makes him susceptible to the nasty insinuation that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. But he is not more gullible in this respect that Benedick, who reached the same conclusion about Don Pedro's behavior without Don John's slanderous remarks.

When he is convinced of the seriousness of Claudio's interest in Hero, Benedick is generous in his praise of her. Because he has no romantic illusions or anxieties, he is capable of seeing women clearly and can appreciate their qualities. He enjoys most of his encounters with Beatrice and is very conscious of her attractiveness, but he also enjoys the freedom of his bachelorhood and, less sentimental than some critics, he does not mistake Beatrice's barbed remarks for Cupid's arrows. He knows the difference between tenderness disguised as witty banter and a cutting remark that is intended to draw a little blood. Some critics assure us that Beatrice and Benedick are in love with one another from the start and need only the slightest pretext to abandon their pose of independence and confess their true affections. But one can as justly say that the French Princess is in love with Navarre from the beginning of Love's Labor's and needs only the excuse of her sudden departure to discard her pose of satiric mockery. The close parallels between the masking-dancing-wooing scenes of Much Ado and Love's Labor's leave little doubt that Shakespeare was thinking of his earlier comedy as he wrote Much Ado, especially since he uses an eavesdropping scene in both plays as an occasion in which love is openly declared, and in both plays apparent scoffers betray their true affections by the writing of love poems. Beatrice is more like the French Princess than any other romantic heroines; she takes pleasure in her role of Lady Disdain and she abandons it only with great reluctance. Indeed, it is because Beatrice almost sacrifices her love of Benedick to her rage at Claudio that their meeting of minds and hearts in the final scene is so deeply satisfying.4

Although Benedick speaks several times of Beatrice's beauty, it is only after Claudio turns lover that he begins to think about marriage and to wonder how long his good sense will protect him from the irrationality of passion and the dullness of married life. He will make a fine husband because he is warm-hearted, gentle, and can laugh at himself; yet he is not, like Romeo or most of the heroes of the romantic comedies, born to sigh and eager to embrace the adventure of love. He could, one suspects, live as happily without a wife as with one, provided that he had enough bachelor friends and occasional invitations to dinner from his married ones. Beatrice is a kindred soul with a sharper satiric tongue. She likes men and she is well aware of Benedick's attractiveness; but she prides herself on her independence and self-sufficiency. Although her society assumes that she must marry to have a place in the scheme of things, she has no need of a man to protect her and she cannot imagine treating any man as her lord and master.

If Beatrice secretly desires Benedick's love, she keeps that desire well hidden and it does not prevent her from making him the butt of stinging remarks. Questioning the messenger about the returning heroes, she makes repeated sneers about “Signior Mountanto's” incompetence as a soldier and swears to eat all the enemies he has slain. Her joking about Benedick's good service at the officers' mess is amusing enough, but she will not admit that her mockery of his valor is a jest, and she refuses to credit the messenger's report of his bravery. Her impatience to have at Benedick is such that she rudely breaks in on the conversation the men are engaged in and gratuitously insults him: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick; nobody marks you.” Refusing to play the demure maiden, she will trade jests, even off-color ones, with men to call attention to her unconventionality, yet even as she rejects the gentility and propriety that are second nature to Hero, she takes advantage of her femaleness to make the kind of remarks to Benedick that would be intolerable from a man. Thus she has her cake and eats it too; she is a free spirit, emancipated from the conventions of a male-dominated society, who depends on the chivalry of men to license her sarcastic sallies. Her quick wit instinctively looks for a target, but she is not a willing target of other people's jests. She has a thin skin and will not laughingly accept from Benedick the kind of remark that she makes at his expense. She does not feel oppressed by the conventions of her society, and she does not feel superior to her more conventional cousin. She does not urge Hero to rebel against her father's dictates; she would have her insist only that the suitor her father approves be “a handsome fellow.” No railer against marriage as Benedick is, she delights in Hero's betrothal and prompts Claudio to seal it with a kiss. Although she pretends to sigh over her impending spinsterhood, she is not eager for a wooer and finds it hard to imagine herself as a wife. A beardless youth, she remarks, would not do for her because he would be too easily mastered; a Petruchio would appall her. Her idea of heaven is not a rose-covered honeymoon cottage for two, but an eternity spent trading quips with bachelors. Like Benedick she is too gregarious and too fond of good conversation to yearn for the intimacy of marriage.

Don John, not Beatrice, is the malcontent of the play, a creature so tart that his very appearance gives her heartburn. A perpetual scowler, he has a bastard's natural sinistral bent and relishes his role as killjoy, the very death's-head at the feasts of Messina. He tells himself that he would like to play Marlowe's Barabas and poison the whole city; but he is an uninspired villain who requires his henchman's aid to play Iago to Claudio's Othello. Since his treachery is known, he does not make a serious effort to appear a good fellow, and though on parole, he does not pretend to be repentant. His first attempt at creating mischief by slander fails when Don Pedro proves to be a loyal friend of Claudio. His success in defaming Hero depends upon the ingenious “ocular proof” of her wantonness that Borachio conceives and executes. Hardly a masterful poisoner of minds, he is a vain misanthrope, pedantic in thought and speech, who is addicted to slightly comic euphuisms. Advised by Conrade to accept his lot with patience, he announces his credo of sullen “honesty”:

I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man's jests; eat when I have stomach, and wait for no man's leisure; sleep when I am drowsy, and tend on no man's business; laugh when I am merry, and claw no man in his humor.

(1.3. 13-18)

While other residents of Messina are warmly interested in the welfare and happiness of their friends and relations, Don John is interested only in his sour ruminations; like Jonson's Morose, he has no taste for anyone else's conversation but is infatuated with his own Lylyan turn of phrase:

I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in [Don Pedro's] grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdain’d of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this (though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man), it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.

(1.3. 27-32)

He proudly describes himself as an ill-tempered dog who is trusted only with a muzzle “and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage.” Although his metaphors are somewhat mixed, his intentions are clear: “If I had my mouth,” he continues, “I would …” He would what? shout? rail? No, he would “bite.” He is no snarling cur; he is the tyrant of the nursery school, the kind of spoiled sulky child who terrorizes babysitters. He makes a peacock display of his malcontent but will not let his followers have a share in it; it is, he remarks, for his use alone. Even so his small band of trusty knaves swear to assist him in his wickedness “to the death.”

The touch of absurdity in Don John's speech and manner anticipates that his success as a conspirator will be short-lived. He plays a small role in the denunciation scene and never appears again on stage. His ability to destroy for a time Claudio and Hero's happiness does not testify to his evil genius but rather to the vulnerability of Claudio and Don Pedro to lies that touch their sense of honor and self. Since Shakespeare has the artistry to stage the twin orchard scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick are duped, he could no doubt have staged a window scene that would be convincing to an already anxious Claudio and Don Pedro. (Iago stage-manages a similar moment with Cassio for Othello to spy on.) But an audience does not need proof of Borachio's ingenuity because it understands why Claudio and Don Pedro are able to think the worst of the innocent Hero. Although they know that Don John is not to be trusted, they cannot reject out of hand his sneering insinuations of Hero's looseness, for he dares them to see for themselves, a dare that engages their manhood. Uncertain before of his judgment of women and tormented now, Claudio listens to Don John and asks, “May this be so?” The older, steadier Don Pedro replies, “I will not think it,” as if he were unwilling to contemplate the possibility of her lewdness but not convinced of her chastity. They have to agree to witness Hero's lasciviousness because it would seem cowardly to refuse; in other words, it would take more courage and confidence in their own judgment than either possesses to laugh at Don John.5 They are not the only ones in the play who lose their good sense when their egos are threatened. Angered by Benedick's denigration of her wit at the masked ball, Beatrice describes him as a mere buffoon:

Why, he is the Prince's jester, a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy, for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in the fleet; I would he had boarded me.

(2.1. 137-43)

This portrait is not witty; it is grossly unfair and insulting. Beatrice does not speak her mind about Benedick; she strikes back because her self-esteem has been wounded.

If Claudio and Don Pedro are to be despised for believing what they think they see, what shall be said of the sensible, skeptical Beatrice and Benedick, who without ocular proof accept the most outrageous and transparent fictions about each other? Scholars who do not appreciate Iago's brilliance as a deceiver and manipulator of others hypothesize an Elizabethan dramatic convention to explain his corruption of Othello, but their appeal to convention does not explain how Othello is able to move audiences who have never heard of Elizabethan dramatic conventions. What we witness in the orchard scenes is not ingenious hoodwinking or absurd credulities or complaisant self-deception. Common sense dictates that Beatrice and Benedick cannot swallow the preposterous stories they hear about each other's secret passion, and yet they do not turn to the audience with a knowing wink and pretend to believe what they have overheard because they have always desired to confess their hidden love for each other. They listen carefully, weigh what they have heard, and credit it because those who “gull” them know them intimately.

In the first orchard scene, Benedick enters musing over the way love has transmogrified Claudio. He wonders if love can convert him from a talkative scoffer to a silent idolatrous oyster. With Claudio running a fever, he is no longer certain of his immunity to love's infection, and, preparing for the worst, he mulls over the choice of a wife. He does not desire the moon—she need only be rich, wise, virtuous, fair, noble, and mild—not one of Beatrice's chief qualities. She must also be a fine conversationalist and an excellent musician. This shopping list of female excellencies does not bespeak a longing for romantic ecstasy but rather a desire for the enduring companionship of a happy marriage. Siding with the Owl rather than the Cuckoo, Benedick imagines long winter evenings before the fire, not the excitement of Maytime trysts. His friends begin their angling casually and obliquely, first setting the mood with the music he loves but here pretends to find tiresome. They do not appeal to his vanity in having won the heart of a glorious woman who may die of her unrequited passion; they appeal to his decency, which will not allow him to be responsible for another's suffering. Shall his failure to love cause Beatrice to commit some desperate act upon herself? Must she languish in undisclosed misery because she fears to express her love lest he sneer? What makes the scene irresistible is the earnest description of Beatrice's sleepless nights spent pacing her chamber and writing Benedick's name over and over again on papers that she then rips to shreds: “Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs, beats her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses: ‘O sweet Benedick.’ God give me patience!” (2.3. 146-49). Benedick should suspect a device because two of the speakers are Claudio and Don Pedro, who swore not long ago that he would someday see Benedick a lover. The other, however, is Leonato, and Benedick will not stoop to suspect the motives of a reverend, white-bearded householder.

When the playacting is over, Benedick does not step out of hiding to declare that he has always loved Beatrice and is happy now to admit it. What he reveals is his sensitivity to the charge of unkindness:

Love me? why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censur’d; 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; happy are they that hear their detractions, and can put them to mending.

(2.3. 224-30)

Agreeing that the lady is fair, virtuous, and wise but for loving him, he decides that he “will be horribly in love with her”—a stunning penance. He knows that any sign of love will make him a target of gibes because he was so long a scoffer, but he is undismayed, for he knows that he remains true to his individuality and idiosyncratic bent. Although he now joins the mainstream of those who love, he sees himself as marching to his own drum. Benedick's appreciation for the comedy of his situation is endearing. He believes most of what he says and at the same time is as zany in his rationalizations as Launce is in his complaints about his incontinent hound. Although friends may jeer, he is determined to follow his “humor” and to prove that his aboutface is forward march: “When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.” Able now to perceive the loving affection that lurks in Beatrice's sallies, he can espy marks of love in her brusquest responses, whereas Claudio will soon be able to see only signs of luxury in Hero's blushes.

Benedick takes an active role in his orchard scene; he opens and closes it with lengthy soliloquies and he comments in asides on the speeches of his friends. In the second orchard scene, Beatrice silently eavesdrops until Hero and Ursula exit, and her response consists of just sixteen lines of formal, rhymed verse. Thus the emphasis falls, not on Beatrice's responses to the charade she witnesses, but on the rehearsed conversation between Hero and Ursula. They do not invent a tale of Benedick's love-lorn suffering; they speak of defects of character in Beatrice that trouble those who love her best. Where Benedick's friends play on his generous sympathy, Hero dwells on the pride and disdain that prevent Beatrice from loving Benedick or even acknowledging his virtues. Where Benedick responds to his friend's hyperboles with a whimsical determination to be horribly in love, Beatrice is too pained by the frank recital of her faults to joke about herself:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.

(3.1. 107-10)

Benedick will become a comic casuist to save a sweet lady's life; Beatrice is dismayed by Hero and Ursula's criticism of her arrogance. It is especially painful that they condemn the clever ripostes that she thinks are her chief ornament. Unlike Benedick, she does not welcome the role of lover or give herself wholeheartedly to it. He jokes when he says that he will be horribly in love; she is absolutely serious when she says that she will requite him, “Taming [her] wild heart to [his] loving hand.” Her words suggest that it will take a conscious effort on her part to stoop to any man's embrace. Her commitment, moreover, is somewhat conditional; if he loves, she says, her kindness will encourage him to win her for his wife. She will not drop her handkerchief when next he walks by, but at least she will not tell him again that she takes as much pleasure in seeing him “as you may take upon a knife's point and choke a daw withal.”

Immediately after the second orchard scene, Don John invites Claudio and Don Pedro to witness an exhibition of Hero's lewdness, and in the very next scene, the Watch apprehends Borachio and Conrade. Thus the crime is discovered almost as soon as it is committed and before the denunciation of Hero at the altar. Yet the denunciation takes place and is watched by an audience which knows that before long the truth of Hero's innocence will be known by all. Earlier scenes juxtaposed the vicious deception of Claudio and Don Pedro against the loving deceptions of Benedick and Beatrice. Now the merciless denunciation of Hero is juxtaposed against the incompetent but very polite and scrupulous interrogation of Borachio and Conrade by Dogberry. Unlike Bottom, who convinces us that he has the energy and ambition to be a successful weaver, Dogberry and Verges seem rather odd pillars of the community. They may own property and pay taxes; they may even have suffered commercial losses, but if they succeeded in any kind of business it was despite a magnificent inability to concentrate on the matter at hand. With the aid of Verges, Dogberry raises maundering to the level of art and is apparently unable to put together two sentences without savaging the king's English. His command of proverbial sayings and pointless ejaculations does not breed confidence in his acuity, but it does signify his tolerant acceptance of things as they are—of human frailties and infirmities. His truisms celebrate the patient forebearances and petty compromises that make civility possible. Afraid that Verges, who is far more capable of direct communication than he is, will seem simple to Leonato, Dogberry explains:

A good old man, sir, he will be talking; as they say, “When the age is in, the wit is out.” God help us, it is a world to see! Well said, i’ faith, neighbor Verges. Well, God's a good man; and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind.

(3.5. 33-37)

An original like Bottom, Dogberry is a mixture of ignorance and sagacity, self-importance and unself-consciousness. Where others in the play are busy noting, espying, eavesdropping, and interfering in the lives of friends and enemies, Dogberry and Verges take a Jeffersonian approach to the problem of keeping the peace; they believe that the least watch is the best watch. They know better than Borachio that it is wiser to sleep than to talk, and while their sworn duty is to safeguard the city, they are realistic about their limitations as an amateur constabulary. They would avoid the presence of rogues lest they be defiled—would that Claudio and Don Pedro were of the same mind! If they are lucky, they will have a quiet night; if it is raucous, they will not add to the noise and uproar by attempting to arrest drunks and vagroms. They are too shrewd to waste their time with anyone who does not recognize their authority. It is only by accident that they overhear Borachio gloating over his wicked success as they sit on the church bench waiting for their tour to end, but they are experienced watchmen who know how to sleep without having their weapons stolen, the true and ancient art of standing sentry.

It is a great pity that Dogberry does not come to the point and tell Leonato what the watch learned the night before, yet who would have him talk less, especially when he is concerned that Leonato be patient with Verges, whose wits are not as blunt as Dogberry would have them. Kindly himself, Dogberry inspires kindness in others. Although he is very busy preparing for his daughter's wedding, Leonato takes time to hear the constables, and after apologizing for not being able to join in the interrogation of Borachio, he bids them drink some wine before they leave his house. Inevitably the examination of Borachio and Conrade is a masterpiece of irrelevancies, interjections, and pointless digressions. It is also courteous and fair-minded, almost too much so. Dogberry would discover the better nature as well as the criminal acts of his prisoners. “Masters,” he asks, “do you serve God?” “Yea, sir, we hope,” they answer. “Write down that they hope to serve God,” Dogberry tells the sexton. His inclination to take Borachio and Conrade's word for their innocence unnerves the sexton, and his bumbling manner exasperates Conrade, who calls him an ass. Although wounded by this insult, Dogberry speaks more in sorrow than in anger of this discourtesy:

Does thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down as ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass; though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be prov’d upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to, and a rich fellow enough, go to, and a fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns, and every thing handsome about him.

(4.2. 74-86)

Dogberry is never more appealing than in his earnest desire to be writ down an ass. Claudio's display of indignation in the preceding wedding scene is repellent, however. He too publicly declares that he was made an ass—that is, duped by the cunning whore of Messina whom he almost married. Dogberry expresses a heartfelt sense of wrong; Claudio's denunciation of Hero is self-righteous and premeditated, not a spontaneous outcry from the heart. As soon as he hears Don John's sneering accusation of Hero, he thinks of taking his revenge: “If I see anything to-night why I should not marry her, to-morrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her” (3.2. 123-25). Galled by the possibility that he wooed a trollop for his noble friend, Don Pedro says he will join with Claudio in disgracing Hero if he sees proof of her lewdness. The outrage at being victimized is understandable; the manner of the denunciation is appalling. They never think of accusing Hero privately, and they give no warning that her wedding will become a public inquisition. Since they have no doubt of Hero's guilt, they need not scruple about their methods, for what they intend is not a trial but rather a public whipping, the appropriate punishment for a whore, especially one who dared pretend to be a modest virgin. With astonishing speed an adored woman becomes an object of scorn and abuse here as in Othello, and neither Claudio nor Othello questions whether he has the right to take a cruel revenge on the woman who wronged him because both assume that they are defending the cause of public morality, not soothing a tormented ego. It may not be quite fair to humiliate Leonato, whose only crime is a confidence in his daughter's virtue and a desire to have a brief wedding ceremony, but perhaps Leonato deserves a few lashes too, for if Hero is a common stale, Leonato may be unscrupulous enough to try to palm off what he knows is damaged goods as first-class merchandise.

Like many who lack spontaneity of feeling or are afraid of it, Claudio melodramatizes his outrage. When Leonato makes the innocent mistake of declaring that there is no impediment to the marriage known to Claudio, Claudio seizes on his words as if he has caught the old man red-handed: “O, what men dare do! What men may do! / What men daily do, not knowing what they do.” This strained attempt at irony merely puzzles Benedick, who does not see the point: “How now? Interjections?” Claudio's desire to play the satiric scourge of villainy falls flat, and he approaches the ludicrous when he refuses to accept Hero as his wife:

There, Leonato, take her back again.
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.

(4.1. 31-32)

Claudio's gift of phrase reduces his outrage to that of a shopper who finds that he has paid good money for spoiled fruit and wants the grocer pilloried.

Shameful as Claudio's behavior is, it does not condemn him as singularly brutal or insensitive. Every statement he makes is silently approved or actively seconded by Don Pedro, who, when asked to speak by Leonato, says:

                                        What should I speak?
I stand dishonor’d, that have gone about
To link my dear friend to a common stale.

(4.1. 63-65)

Don Pedro and Claudio have seen the proof of Hero's lewdness. Leonato's belief in his daughter's innocence quickly disintegrates when she is accused by two noble gentlemen. He is not outraged by Claudio's attack on Hero, and he does not respond with angry denials and counteraccusations. His first thought is that Claudio wishes to reject Hero after having seduced her, a behavior not unknown to gentlemen. If so, Hero may well be damaged goods, but Claudio is the one who tampered with her and therefore he should marry her. This possibility does not alter Leonato's view of Claudio, whom he addresses as “dear my lord,” because one expects men to be men. After all, it is a virgin's responsibility to deny her lover's importunities and her own sexual desires until her wedding night. In a reasonable conciliatory tone, Leonato tries to salvage the marriage as best he can. Hero, Beatrice, Benedick, and the Friar are too stunned to say very much. Nothing that could be said, however, would change Claudio and Don Pedro's minds. They do not give Hero a chance to defend herself; all they offer is an opportunity to confess her guilt. What man, they ask, did she speak with last night at her window? If she admits that she spoke with a man, she stamps herself a whore: if she denies she spoke with a man, she proves that she is a lying whore. Her denials settle the issue for Don Pedro: “Why, then are you no maiden.” Unlike the interrogation of Borachio and Conrade, the trial of Hero is without civility, and yet it is what honorable men think appropriate to her treachery. This offense cuts deep; it insults a man's offer of love and makes him an object of contempt to other men, who might find his gullibility amusing but would feel justified in behaving exactly as he behaves. In this matter, men take their stand with other men against women.

If Hero had been seduced and abandoned, Leonato would feel compelled to seek satisfaction from Claudio. When it appears that she has deceived him as well as Claudio by being a cunning wanton, he abandons her because he feels the wound to his reputation as deeply as Claudio and Don Pedro do. Indeed, the blow to his honor erases all pity for Hero. When she faints, he wishes her dead, for he sees, as do her accusers, the very proof of her guilt in her maiden blush:

Do not live, Hero, do not ope thine eyes;
For did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life … 
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirched thus and mir’d with infamy,
I might have said, “No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins”?
But mine, and mine I lov’d, and mine I prais’d,
And mine that I was proud on … 

(4.1. 123-37)

Leonato's self-dramatization is similar to Claudio's; obsessed with his shame, he has no compassion for Hero, who just before had been his most prized possession—five times in the last four lines quoted above he speaks of her as “mine.” Even when Benedick voices his disbelief and Beatrice explains that every night except the last one she was Hero's bedfellow, Leonato is unmoved. It stands to reason that Hero would lie about her lewdness, but “would the two princes lie?”

As he abuses his once-beloved daughter, Leonato blusters in the manner of Capulet browbeating Juliet when she refused to marry Paris. The echo of Romeo and Juliet grows more immediate as the Friar steps forth to play Friar Lawrence's role by offering a solution that involves the heroine's seeming death. Where the timid Lawrence evades his responsibility by refusing to reveal Juliet's secret marriage to Romeo, the Friar in Much Ado is courageous enough to take Hero's part. His is a welcome voice of sympathy and reasonableness after so much emotional and rhetorical extravagance. He points out what should be obvious to all, Hero's speechless anguish and innocence. Leonato still mutters but the tide turns when Hero recovers and swears her innocence. Benedick, who never doubted her, shrewdly guesses at Don John's villainous part in all this, and Leonato, who just before was ready to strike his guilty daughter down, is ready to revenge her, to which end he pledges his blood, invention, means, friends, “strength of limb and policy of mind” in a bragging Polonian speech. Once again the Friar must intervene to bring Leonato back to reason. His cautious pragmatism opposes any violent action, any challenge to conventional attitudes, even any public defense of Hero's innocence. Such a course would probably not succeed and only spread the scandal more widely. Since Claudio and Don Pedro's accusations have mortally wounded Hero's reputation, the Friar would counter the false report of her lewdness with a false report of her death. Given the way of the world, it does not really matter that Hero is chaste; the only hope now is that Claudio, believing she is dead, will regret his actions and realize what he has lost. In any event, Hero's death

Will quench the wonder of her infamy.
And if it sort not well, you may conceal her,
As best befits her wounded reputation,
In some reclusive and religious life,
Out of all eyes, tongues, minds, and injuries.

(4.1. 239-43)

Although the Friar does not accept Claudio's view of Hero, he implicitly agrees with Claudio that she is damaged goods and unmarriageable unless Claudio will have her.

Benedick thinks the Friar counsels well; Beatrice is not satisfied by this solution, however. Enraged by Claudio's behavior, she wants the kind of satisfaction one man can have of another in a duel. She weeps out of frustration because she feels incapable of striking back:

O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover’d slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.

(4.1. 303-7)

Even here Beatrice is not a rebel who storms against the hypocrisies of her society. She is enraged by men who are unmanly—that is, unchivalrous, ungentle in their treatment of women. Instinctively, she seeks a man to champion Hero's cause, one who will use his strength and valor to prove her cousin's innocence and punish those who have defamed her. Since Beatrice never pretended to scoff at romance, she does not seem to step out of character when she becomes the quintessential romantic of the play, one who wants a knight in shining armor to avenge her cousin's shame. When Benedick declares his love, she is so absorbed in her anger that she cannot think of him or of how she feels about him, although she half-confesses her love. Exhilarated by her declaration, Benedick would have her command some service of him; without hesitation, she tells him to kill Claudio and when he draws back in shock, she does not allow him to renege on his offer.

Her rage at Claudio is as blind and unreasoning as Claudio's treatment of Hero. She ignores the fact that Benedick did not take Claudio's side and remained behind when Claudio and Don Pedro left, even though they are his closest friends. She does not see the terrible unfairness of her demand that Benedick kill Claudio to gain her love. Before this, the apprehension of Borachio by the Watch seemed to set limits on the tragic consequences of Don John's schemes; after Claudio's actions in the wedding scene, and after Beatrice's fury, one is no longer certain that all will be well. Very soon Hero's innocence will be proved, but the question will remain whether Claudio deserves to be forgiven because Beatrice insists he does not deserve to live, and she will not be satisfied until Benedick matches swords with him.

The change in the emotional weather of Much Ado from its first genial scenes to the furious passions of the wedding scene is astonishing. As in The Merchant, the outpouring of hate is counterbalanced by the triumph of love: the perversion of Hero's nuptial by the coming together of Beatrice and Benedick. But in Much Ado all will not be well when the villain is defeated because the ugliness of the wedding scene and its aftermath of bitterness must be dealt with before a happy ending is possible. Since Beatrice's reaction is as excessive as Claudio's, Shakespeare could have resolved the conflict by having one or the other retreat from his extreme position, but neither does. Claudio does not walk out on stage to regret his fury; Beatrice does not withdraw her demand that Benedick kill Claudio. When she next appears on stage, she does not speak of Claudio to Benedick, and need not speak of him, because Claudio, stunned by Borachio's confession of guilt, has already put himself into Leonato's hands and the denouement is at hand.

The happy ending of The Merchant demands that those who return to Belmont put out of mind all that happened in the Venetian courtroom. The denouement of Much Ado is more profoundly satisfying because nothing that is painful is forgotten; on the contrary, the resolution of anger and conflict comes through the reenactment of the wedding that had turned into a heartless denunciation of Hero, so that even as Hero and Claudio are reunited in love and marriage, all who are present at the ceremony and who watch in the audience must remember the pain of the aborted wedding. The Friar predicted that all would be well when Claudio's heart softened toward the “dead” Hero, but Leonato, who assented to the Friar's plan, finds it humiliating to have to wait for a change of heart in the man who mistreated his daughter. Reliving the bitterness of the aborted wedding, he rejects his brother Antonio's counsels of patience because he finds no comfort in platitudinous consolations. Like Claudio, he takes pleasure in being aggrieved, and his sense of outrage is the greater when he imagines Hero as not only defamed but also robbed of life by vicious slander. Confusing fiction and fact, he tells Claudio that he has

                                        belied mine innocent child!
Thy slander hath gone through and through her heart,
And she lies buried with her ancestors—
O, in a tomb where never scandal slept,
Save this of hers, fram’d by thy villainy!

(5.1. 67-71)

Having heard the false report of Hero's death, Claudio and Don Pedro do not want to speak to Leonato and Antonio. They are embarrassed and regretful, however, not stricken with remorse. In response to Leonato's accusations, Don Pedro replies:

My heart is sorry for your daughter's death;
But on my honor she was charg’d with nothing
But what was true, and very full of proof.

(5.1. 103-5)

Perhaps this reply is a bit facile, but Leonato's indignation is not entirely noble; he must know that these soldiers will have to bear his taunts and insults because they could not accept a challenge from an aging man. Before long, Antonio, the voice of patience, is swept up in Leonato's passion; he is ready to second his brother in a duel and, carried away on the tide of his invective, he shouts that Claudio and Don Pedro are

Scambling, outfacing, fashion-monging boys,
That lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander,
Go anticly, and show outward hideousness.

(5.1. 94-96)

At this point, it is Leonato's turn to restrain Antonio, who also speaks of Hero as “slandered to death by villains.” If it is not quite fair for old men to challenge those who cannot defend their honor against them, there is nevertheless a rough justice in the denunciation of Claudio and Don Pedro, who denounced the helpless, defenseless Hero.

Once the heroes of Messina, Claudio and Don Pedro are now its outcasts. They rejoice in Benedick's entrance, thinking he will take their side and laugh with them about their aged adversaries. They cannot believe his pale-faced anger and readiness to draw his sword. He too accuses them of killing a sweet lady and promises that her death will fall heavy on Claudio. Thus the self-appointed preservers of public morality find themselves publicly denounced for a murder that never occurred. Their nadir comes when the Watch brings in Borachio, who remorsefully confesses all. Although stricken, Claudio and Don Pedro do not openly admit or perhaps even recognize how shamefully they treated Hero. They erred, they say, only in “mistaking.” Claudio's speeches hint, nevertheless, of a deeper sense of guilt, because he offers himself as a sacrifice to Leonato's anger:

                    Choose your revenge yourself,
Impose me to what penance your invention
Can lay upon my sin.

(5.1. 272-74)

As Benedick put himself in Beatrice's hands by asking her to command some service of love, Claudio puts himself in Leonato's hands, bidding him impose a penance fit for his sin. Leonato's response is nobler than Beatrice's in that the only satisfaction he demands of the man he just before maligned and challenged is to marry his “niece,” a maiden as fair as Hero was and heiress now to two family fortunes. This sudden reversal is not at all perplexing because Leonato's anger was strained and hyperbolic. He is by nature kindly, hospitable, and considerate of others, a leading householder who will invite the officers of the Watch to take a cup of wine. He may indulge his sense of wrong but he will not sacrifice his daughter's happiness to satisfy his personal honor. Thus the customary civilities of Messinian life exert their influence. Just as Claudio expresses his confidence in Leonato by putting himself in his accuser's hands, Leonato expresses his confidence in Claudio's nature by a willingness to accept him as Hero's husband despite all. Borachio also wants to do the right thing and make certain that Margaret is not blamed for her part in the deception at the window.

With the crisis past, Benedick has the opportunity to enjoy his role of lover. He can trade greasy jests with Margaret and try his hand at love poems. He can also wear his heart on his sleeve when he speaks to Beatrice. They do not dream of eternal Petrarchan bliss; they look forward to years of mutual affection and loving raillery. Benedick is his old self again, or rather he is his old self with a tincture of Dogberryan sagacity. His parting to Beatrice, who claims to feel ill, is “Serve God, love me, and mend.” With the prospect of a lifetime with Beatrice before him, Benedick cannot pay much attention to the news that Don John's villainy has been uncovered. His universe, Donne would say, is contracted to his love of Beatrice. “I will live in thy heart,” he tells her, “die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.”

Benedick's high-spirited amorousness contrasts with the solemn ritualism of Claudio and Don Pedro's pilgrimage to Hero's “tomb.” The mourning scene is brief and the epitaph and song conventional because the true act of penance is to come on the morrow when Claudio will take as his wife a woman he is not allowed to see before the ceremony. This denouement will leave an unpleasant aftertaste if marriage seems to become a form of expiation or indeed of punishment, as it does in the last scene of Measure for Measure. Claudio, of course, believes that he is sacrificing his chance of happiness in marriage and expects the worst. Everyone else (except Don Pedro) knows that his marriage to a bride he is not allowed to see is, like the gulling of Beatrice and Benedick, a loving practical joke as well as a proper humbling for one who wrongfully rejected his first bride at the altar. If Claudio is to deserve a second chance at love and happiness, he must be able to trust, where before he was too ready to doubt; he must also keep his word however fearful he is of what his bride is like behind her veil. His situation is that of the folktale hero who, having sworn to marry the ancient hag who helped him, discovers on his wedding night that his bride is young and beautiful.

Claudio comes to the wedding grimly determined to marry even an Ethiope. When he tries to relieve his misery by some broad jokes about Benedick's impending fate as a cuckold, he is stung by remarks about his own bovine ancestry. When he asks which of the veiled ladies he must seize on, he is told he cannot see his bride's face until he has sworn to marry her. The testing of Claudio is only a ritual, however, because he has already been approved by Leonato. Like her father, Hero does not demand the satisfaction of humiliating Claudio as he humiliated her. She is content to make clear that she is not “another Hero.” Claudio, she says, was her “other husband” when he loved her. Their reconciliation, like their falling in love, is expressed in silent looks and embraces, not in words. The lovers' dialogue belongs to Beatrice and Benedick, who express their mutual affection with mock dismay and teasing questions and answers. They will not admit that they love “more than reason” or other than “in friendly recompense,” but they cannot deny the evidence of the sonnets they wrote about one another. Reluctantly Benedick agrees to marry because he pities Beatrice, and she will become his wife, she says, to save him from a reported consumption. Benedick is glad not to have to duel Claudio for Hero's sake; and Claudio is relieved that Benedick did not jilt Beatrice because he was ready to play her champion. Over Leonato's objections, Benedick decrees dancing before the weddings are solemnized, and he promises to devise brave punishments for the captured Don John. One doubts, however, that he will find the necessary thumbscrews and strappados in Messina.

In different ways Much Ado and The Merchant deal with the relationship between a society and those it makes its outcasts: a fallen woman, a disgraced hero, a money-lending Jew. The difference between Leonato and the Venetian Antonio is that between a man who treats all with simple courtesy and one who is convinced that he has the right to spit on Shylock's beard. While Much Ado reveals the obtuseness of conventional attitudes, it also reaffirms the preciousness of very ordinary virtues. When an assumption of moral superiority can lead to contempt for others and acts of cruelty, there is much to be said for unassuming decency, even when it is as bumbling as Dogberry's.


  1. The social realism of Much Ado is discussed by Barbara Everett, “Much Ado About Nothing,” 319-23, and by David Stevenson in the introduction to the Signet Classic Shakespeare edition (New York: New American Library, 1964) xxii-xxv.

  2. Among those who emphasize the conventionality of the portraits of Claudio and Hero are Leggatt (Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, 157-58), and Nevo, who suggests that theirs is a “courtship of convenience” that produces a counterfeit match (Comic Transformations, 164-66).

  3. Critical revulsion at Claudio reaches a climax in Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 80-86.

  4. There is a close parallel between Beatrice's stunning response to Benedick's request, “bid me do anything for you,” and Rosaline's stunning response to Berowne's request, “Impose some service on me for thy love.” Shakespeare, it would seem, had the moment in Love's Labor's in mind when he wrote the later scene—an intimation of the possible connection he made between Beatrice and Rosaline, a connection broken by Beatrice's willingness to give up the pleasure of baiting Benedick. See Nevo's comments on the parallels between Much Ado and Love's Labor's (Comic Transformations, 92).

  5. Palmer's usual appreciation of the psychological realism of Shakespeare's portrayal of character does not extend to Claudio and Don Pedro, who he thinks are sacrificed as characters to allow the melodrama of the denunciation scene (Comic Characters, 113).

Karen Newman (essay date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Mistaking in Much Ado,” in William Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988, pp. 123-32.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Newman explores the mingling of comedy and tragedy in Much Ado about Nothing, and compares it toMeasure for Measure.]

Many readers of Much Ado about Nothing have remarked that its tragicomic pattern sets it apart from Shakespeare's other romantic plays and links it with the so-called problem comedies. I want to turn finally to Much Ado because it brings us full circle to Measure for Measure. Unlike the threatened tragedy of Measure for Measure, however, the tragedy of Much Ado is apparent rather than real. Things appear to happen; all the characters at one moment or another are seduced into believing in appearances, and its two plots are linked by this common theme of credulity and self-deception. Readers of both plays have been troubled by the uneasy union of vehement and lifelike passions with the conventions of comedy, in Much Ado in 4.1, and in Measure for Measure in the shift from the first three acts to the last two. Of Much Ado, J. R. Mulryne complains that “the unlovable Claudio is too vividly and realistically portrayed (in the manner of a figure in tragedy).” Tillyard argues of Measure for Measure that the change to the conventions of comedy from the “more lifelike passions is too violent” and that the bed trick is not “a case of modern prudery unaware of Elizabethan preconceptions but of an artistic breach of harmony.” Shakespeare's persistent use of substitution, disguise and the language of mistaken identity in both plays establishes from the outset comic expectations in the audience which are ultimately fulfilled, but as Jean Howard has recently argued of Measure for Measure, the play

Strains and distorts a comic paradigm Shakespeare had used many times before, and in so doing calls attention to the way in which any set of conventions, generic or otherwise, can betray its basic function of mediating between audience and author to create lifelike illusions and becomes instead a sterile mechanism inadequate to its task.

She goes on to claim that Measure for Measure is an experiment in which Shakespeare attempts to escape from conventional comic formulas without losing his audience's “power to comprehend.” Though I find this view persuasive, I would like to qualify it by suggesting that the “problem” of Measure, and that of Much Ado as well, is not so much the inadequacies of art and its conventions “to create a satisfactory illusion of lifelike complexity,” but the uneasy union of the traditional comic plot designed to call attention to artifice, coincidence and wonder, with the conventions of realistic characterization, particularly the rhetoric of consciousness. In Much Ado, 4.1, and in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare uses such conventions so forcefully that our willingness to accept the artifice of their comic plots is undermined. Instead of extending the metaphorical power of mistaken identity by shifting its emphasis from plot to character, from external to psychological or internal mistaken identity, Shakespeare undermines our comic expectations by exaggerating the conventions of lifelike characterization in these plays. In Much Ado, Claudio is presented as a type common to Shakespeare's comedy, the courtly lover, but in 4.1, Shakespeare endows him with an inner life which conflicts with the type. So also in Measure for Measure the conventions of realistic characterization Shakespeare uses in portraying Angelo and Isabella conflict with the duke's intrigue plot. The “problem” of the two plays is not real passions versus comic conventions, as is so often claimed, but two kinds of opposing conventions, one which calls attention to itself and its artifice, the other which conceals itself by seeming “real.”

There are, of course, obvious differences between the two plays which make the labels romantic comedy and problem play appropriate. Much Ado does, after all, have the strictly comic plot of Beatrice and Benedick, which embraces rather than disapproves of sexuality; it has Dogberry and the watch strategically placed to assure us that all will be well instead of the problematic Duke whom Lucio slanders and whose improvisations with Ragozine's head seem uncomfortably forced. And Much Ado ends with the marriage of its lovers, not with a judgment scene in which the Duke calls for and administers an Old Testament vengeance to Lucio and proposes marriage to the silent Isabella. But we need to look first at Shakespeare's portrayal of Claudio before we can compare Much Ado and Measure for Measure and assess their similarities and differences.

In Much Ado, Claudio mistakes Hero's true nature, discovers his error, and believing it has caused Hero's death, must atone for his “sin.” Mistaken identity provides the means whereby both the mistake and Claudio's subsequent development is communicated to the audience. Like so many comic heroes, Claudio must lose in order to find. This fundamental pattern, which we have seen elsewhere, is juxtaposed with Beatrice and Benedick's parallel discovery of their mutual love.

Claudio's character, like Angelo's, has always seemed to trouble readers of Much Ado. Cynics claim he woos Hero for her money; romantics counter that his query about Leonato's family stems from timidity and embarrassment. It is perhaps anachronistic to fault Claudio because he asks about Hero's financial expectations, for even the cynical Benedick believes his friend's devotion is real. But our discomfort with Claudio's repudiation of Hero in the church scene is less easily dismissed. Before we consider 4.1, however, we need to look at how Shakespeare introduces Claudio and establishes the romance plot.

The play's first lines present Claudio as the courtly ideal: “he hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion: he hath indeed better bettered expectation” (1.1.12-15). His falling in love with Hero is equally conventional. Before she utters a word, he loves her, and though not at first sight, from the moment of seeing her after his return from the wars. His language is that of the courtly lover: “In mine eye, she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” (ll. 174-75). He asks “Can the world buy such a jewel?” (l. 168), and as his verb suggests, he betrays a mercantile attitude toward love. Claudio needs assurance that others value his “jewel of price” and seeks confirmation of his love from Benedick.

Don Pedro's offer to woo Hero for Claudio triggers the first “suppose” of the play. A servant overhears this conversation, reports it to Leonato, who then believes Pedro woos Hero for himself. Claudio in turn believes Don John's tale of Pedro's love for Hero so that the action of the masked ball, as many have noted, prepares for the villain's intrigue by demonstrating Claudio's credulity and lack of self-confidence. His excessive idealism, untempered by compassion or by the sense of play which characterizes Beatrice and Benedick, explains how he can be duped by Don John's disguise plot. Though he participates in the game of gulling the two would-be lovers, he hasn’t the imagination to include play in his own lovemaking.

John Anson argues that the balcony scene is a fantasy enactment of Claudio's own fears and subconscious desires which he displaces onto the object of his idealized passion. Just as Don Pedro indulges Beatrice and Benedick in a fiction which corresponds to his own secret wishes, so his brother Don John indulges Claudio in a vision of his ambiguous desires: a lustful Hero whose sexuality both attracts and repels. The vehemence of Claudio's public slander, his “public accusation” as Beatrice condemningly calls it, testifies to that same excess of passion which made him idealize his beloved. Claudio has no sense of human weakness and therefore responds with selfish cruelty to the disappointment of his imagination. His world is an imaginative construct which has encompassed reality by halves—only its romance and none of its frail humanity. His sense of self is so dependent on his imagined ideal vision of love that when that vision is disappointed, his own identity is threatened. We in the audience are doubly aware of his lack of human compassion because we know Hero is falsely accused. Her “sin” endangers him because on some level it corresponds with his own repressed desire.

Neither the historical argument that the Elizabethans expected such a public repudiation, nor the attempts to excuse the count's behavior at the church on the grounds of a lofty idealism and disgust toward sexuality, exonerate Claudio. Most readers agree with Chambers that “Claudio stands revealed as the worm that he is.” His rejection of Hero is somewhat roundabout, a combination, it would seem, of his own desire for a shocking revelation and the bystanders', particularly Leonato's ignorance. Shakespeare casts the opening interchange into the “plain form of marriage” so that Claudio seems to comply with a code even in his repudiation. When the friar asks if he comes “to marry this lady,” the count says no, but he is interpreted by Leonato to be quibbling over the way in which Friar Francis poses the question. Claudio lets this interpretation stand. After another such exchange, he takes over from the friar and proceeds with the ritual forms himself, but his questions are as misleading as his earlier responses. His ambiguous question at 4.1.26-27, with its ironic reference to Hero as “this rich and precious gift,” and Pedro's similarly deceptive response, allow Leonato once again to misinterpret his intentions. Finally, Claudio openly repudiates his bride, but his compliance with the ritual forms of the ceremonial occasion confirms our sense of the count's character as bounded by conventional codes.

Having returned Hero to her father, Claudio's anger and passion break forth. The emphasis shifts from the ceremonial occasion and its ordained participants—priest, father, bride and groom—to Hero herself. The demonstratives (“this rotten orange, that blood, these exterior shows”) and the appeals to the audience (“Behold,” “all you that see her”) bespeak the count's determination to achieve an effect. Again Leonato misinterprets Claudio's words, for he believes the young man himself to have “made defeat of her virginity.” Claudio's claim of bashful sincerity and comely love brings Hero's innocent but unfortunate reference to “seeming,” which prompts his passionate denunciation. Critics have noted the similarity between Claudio's language here and that of Hamlet and Othello:

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.


Claudio focuses in these lines on Hero rather than the assembled audience, a change which makes his feelings seem more intensely personal and less determined by forms and codes. Shakespeare uses the rhetoric of consciousness to endow Claudio with an inner life that breaks the confines of literary convention and ceremonial decorum. Instead of the courtly lover of the previous action, he becomes an individual of psychological complexity whom we both pity and despise. His description of Hero is based on the paradoxical contrast between what she seems and what he knows she is: “Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty” (4.1.41). The irony is that the opposite is true, for what “seems,” is, and what he “knows,” is false. As in earlier speeches in which we find such rhetoric creating an inner self, paradox and antithesis represent Claudio's divided mind. Though addressed to Leonato, the series of questions beginning at line 69 are rhetorical and establish the pronomial contrast between “I” and “you.” They also situate Claudio firmly in the moment and the real world, a necessary feature of dialogue. The count makes of Hero two persons, a Diana and a Venus, “most foul, most fair” (l. 103), and this divided Hero represents in language the poles of his own divided self. His lament, “O Hero! What a Hero hadst thou been” betrays genuine emotion. Here he is oblivious to family and friends, preoccupied with feelings, not forms. From an excess of idealism in love, Claudio is transformed into a suspicious misogynist who knows himself no better than before. Until he learns how he has been deceived, he cannot know himself, recognize his failures, and love properly.

Friar Francis restores sanity and reason to the impassioned scene of denunciation by recognizing Hero's honesty and by proposing still another “suppose,” her feigned death. He argues the fundamental comic perspective of losing to find:

                                        for it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d 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 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—


The friar understands that Claudio has loved the idea of Hero; when the count learns of his mistake, he says “Sweet Hero! Now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I lov’d it first” (5.1.245-46, emphasis added). Friar Francis expects to transform Claudio's imagination and lead him to a more just judgment of Hero, but the “idea of her life” never has time to “sweetly creep / Into his study of imagination.”

Immediately following the scene in which Claudio learns of Hero's death, Benedick gives his challenge. Critics have been disturbed by the jesting in this scene, but Claudio's callousness would not claim our attention had Shakespeare not set up expectations for his development which are never met. Friar Francis's prediction that the count will mourn Hero “though he thought his accusation true” leads us to expect a repentance like Flamminio's in Gl’Ingannati where Lelia's beloved condemns his past behavior even before he learns of her love and loyalty. Even more important, our sense of Claudio's inner life, of his passionate disappointment, genuine emotion and divided mind, leads us to expect a different, more feeling response to the news of Hero's death. Though there are sound theatrical reasons for delaying Claudio's response to the more dramatic moment of confrontation with Leonato after Borachio has confessed the crime, the count's heartlessness is troubling because it fails to fulfill our expectations for the comic plot.

If we compare Shakespeare's presentation of Claudio with that of Beatrice and Benedick, we can see how he extends the convention of mistaken identity to add depth and interest to their characters, but without transgressing the carefully defined limits of their comic plot. In Benedick's soliloquy in 2.3, immediately preceding the eavesdropping scene, Shakespeare presents a character already aware of love's transforming potential. Speculating on Claudio's transformation, Benedick remembers how his friend had once “no music with him but the drum and the fife, and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe” (ll. 13-15). He questions his own identity, wondering whether he may, “be so converted and see with these eyes?” “Yet I am well,” he repeats, trying to convince himself. The modal verbs he uses are shall and will, not should and would, future rather than subjunctive; his language betrays his openness to loving Beatrice.

Pedro, Leonato and Claudio present Benedick with the strong evidence of Beatrice's attachment he needs to admit his love. The deceivers spend very little time talking of Benedick's scorn. Instead, they recount the signs of Beatrice's love: she is up twenty times a night to write to him, beats her heart and tears her hair. Hero even fears she may do herself harm. They wish Benedick “would modestly examine himself, to see how much he is unworthy so good a lady” (2.3.200-201). And that is exactly what he does. The ease with which Benedick is “converted,” or in the language of the play, “caught,” makes it clear how close to the surface his love has been: “Love me? Why, it must be requited” (ll. 215-16). In his previous soliloquy he asks “can I be so converted”; here he has been converted indeed. Benedick is willing to change: “Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending.” His vision altered by knowledge of Beatrice's love, Benedick now begins to interpret her differently. What was once judged quarrelsome is now thought loving. His notion of himself and of her has changed, and consequently her words have different meanings.

Despite this change, his character still conforms to the broad outlines of a comic stereotype, the miles gloriosus. His boasting of success with women and his martial reputation connect him to the miles tradition just as Claudio's language and actions have connected him to the tradition of the courtly lover. After the slander of Hero, when he and Beatrice admit their love, Benedick's avowals imply his martial talents: “By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me,” (4.1.272) and “I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.” But unlike the Plautine braggart, Benedick is truly a martial hero and his engagement to Beatrice to fight Claudio is real. In Benedick Shakespeare has created an individual character who is also a comic type, a talent for which we should remember Donatus and other commentators praise Terence.

The deceit of Beatrice presents a very different fiction. Hero and Margaret emphasize not Benedick's love, but Beatrice's disdain. They exaggerate her scorn for the opposite sex, describe her derision of a man's love and compliment Benedick's worth and valor. Their fable portrays a Beatrice whose wit protects her from emotional involvement. The deceits perpetrated by the other characters satisfy the individual needs of each other: Benedick's fragile ego needs the safety of Beatrice's love in order to admit his own; Beatrice's fear of male domination makes her scorn love. Her soliloquy, like Benedick's, is filled with rhetorical questions, paradox, and the juxtaposition of past, present and future, all features of dialogue. But there are significant differences in the two lovers' speeches. Beatrice speaks in verse, and the shift to poetry, the first she uses in the play, marks the liberation of her desire. Whereas Benedick wonders whether he can change and love Beatrice, she questions whether or not he loves her. Their individual responses bear out the differences in the way they are gulled: Benedick through his self-love; Beatrice through her “wild heart” which makes her fear domination by men.

Even with these visions of the other's affections, however, it takes the heightened emotion of the church scene, an impossible moment for their usual self-protective repartee, for Beatrice and Benedick to let down their defenses and admit their mutual love. When Leonato tells them they were “lent eyes to see,” he telescopes the way in which the play juxtaposes mistaken identity with mistaken insight. Mistaken identity, role-playing and alternate identities are therapeutic instruments which lead the characters to self-knowledge, for these comic devices are not simply tools for developing plot, but springboards for experimentation whereby men and women escape from self-delusion to the self-understanding which enables them to live and love.

Comic decorum, which dictates the lovers' conversion to love, also prohibits Claudio's being made into a tragic figure who undergoes a psychologically “real” development. He cannot, argues M. C. Bradbrook, be “allowed more than a pretty lyric by way of remorse.” Critics have claimed that Claudio's behaviour can best be understood within the context of a Decameron-like story, but as we have seen in 4.1, Shakespeare endows him with a psychological complexity in excess of what such a plot requires. No reading of the play can excuse the brutality of his treatment of Hero, but the conventional comic action does demand that he be forgiven. When he learns of his mistake, Claudio asks of Leonato, “Impose me to what penance your invention / Can lay upon my sin; yet sinn’d I not / But in mistaking” (5.1.267-69). But for Shakespeare, mistaking is enough; the play asserts that the sins of ignorance and credulity have consequences as dire as Don John's sins of will. Claudio's explicitly religious penance at Hero's tomb, though only sketched, is a conventional means of dramatizing his movement through sin and confession to repentance and self-knowledge. Though certainly a “pretty lyric,” Claudio's lines also unite Much Ado with the dark comedies and late romances in their emphasis on ritual forgiveness.

Much Ado about Nothing richly deserves the frequently drawn comparison with Measure for Measure. Just as the intensity of Angelo's appetite for Isabella and her vehement rejection of her brother's plea to live threaten our sense that comic conventions are adequate to our experience of that play, so Claudio's repudiation of Hero in the church scene, and his untractable unwillingness to conform to Friar Francis's comic vision of losing to find, trouble our satisfaction with Much Ado's comic resolution.

In both Much Ado and Measure for Measure, the careful balance between the conventions of comic plotting and those of lifelike characterization which Shakespeare maintains in his earlier comedies is upset. The rhetoric of consciousness which he employs adds depth and complexity to his comic characters and to the convention of mistaken identity, extending it from a plot device to a means of representing character development on stage. This inner life receives an emphasis more characteristic of tragic than of comic drama. In the criticism of tragedy, comic intrusions were once called “comic relief,” but both the pejorative term itself and its correspondingly reductive view of such scenes in tragedy have been rejected in favor of a larger claim for the tragic vision, its expansiveness and complexity. A similar prejudice has troubled the criticism of Shakespeare's comedies, and to a limited extent those of his predecessors. Too often, critics have judged his use of a deliberative mode of comic characterization as a kind of bumbling intrusion of the tragic into comedy, whether in terms of Renaissance readers and audiences such as Sidney and Johnson, who labeled such plays “mongrel tragicomedy,” or modern Shakespeareans who criticize Claudio's outburst in the church scene, or the problematic generic status of Measure for Measure.

Angelo is, of course, more interesting and complex a poetic creation than Claudio. In part this difference can be explained in simple quantitative terms—Angelo has a much greater portion of the lines and share in the action of Measure for Measure than Claudio has in Much Ado, in which the displacement of the main plot maintains our sense that the “ado” is about “nothing.” But there are more significant differences. Shakespeare's portrayal of Claudio as courtly lover is less interesting than that of Angelo as ascetic and judge. Angelo is not bound by the conventions of type character which Shakespeare found so useful in creating Claudio and making his gullibility believable. Most important, of course, is Angelo's self-consciousness, the recognition of his own shortcomings and failures which Shakespeare renders so vividly in the soliloquies in 2.2.167ff. and later in 2.4.1-30. By making Angelo self-conscious about his desire for Isabella, by having him debate its merits and consequences, Shakespeare creates a complex comic character who arrests our imaginations.

Generic complexity is a feature of Shakespeare's dramatic practice, and as Rosalie Colie has argued, of Renaissance habits of reading and writing generally. Many have remarked that the comedies and romances contain within them tragic actions; recently, Shakespeareans have identified comic matrices in the great tragedies. I have argued that the generic boundaries of characterization are as flexible in Shakespeare's dramaturgy as those of plot and structure; because he often uses deliberative strategies common to tragic characterization within the dramatic boundaries of his romantic comedies, we perceive his comic characters as complex and lifelike.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Much Ado about Nothing

One of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, Much Ado about Nothing combines a cheerful mood with an intricate series of deceptions and miscommunications. As Richard Ornstein (1986) summarizes, the play “is warm as well as witty, and compassionate in its view of human frailties and limitations.” The play focuses on the conflict between Beatrice and Benedick, whose relationship takes place as a subplot within the narrative of Claudio's courtship, rejection, and rejuvenated love of Hero. The unconventionality of Beatrice and Benedick's relationship, which is based on an apparent mutual dislike, delight in wordplay, and the conspiratorial matchmaking of their family and friends, has frequently captured the interest of contemporary critics and modern audiences. Feminist critics of the late twentieth century have been drawn to the play’s themes related to the feminine ideal and patriarchal authority. Other critics have focused on the misuse of political power and of ineptitude on the part of authorities in the play, as well as the seriousness of the “nothing”—triviality, silences, scenes unseen, and nonsense.

Beatrice's character, who is depicted as Benedick’s equal in intelligence and will, has drawn the attention of feminist critics. Her well-known exclamation, “O that I were a man … !” and her assertiveness mark her difference from Hero's conventional femininity. Kathleen L. Carroll (1990) looks to how Beatrice’s character was portrayed in two nineteenth-century productions of Much Ado about Nothing in order to find “insight into the conflicting perceptions of femininity on the American stage.” Claire McEachern (1988) contends that the play reflects Shakespeare’s questioning of patriarchal authority and his desire to examine its root causes. McEachern argues that Much Ado about Nothing dramatizes the conflicts and tensions within a patriarchal structure, particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between Hero and her father. Contesting this reading, Roy Battenhouse (1991) claims that Leonato's response to Claudio's rejection of Hero is absurdly overdrawn, and plays into the spirit of the comedy, rather than providing serious social critique. He argues that the play is best understood through Christian conceptions of redemption and resurrection, expressed in the Friar's advice to Hero: “Die to live.” Recent feminist criticism has increasingly focused on the subtleties of Hero's characterization. Some critics have read Hero's treatment at the hands of her father and Claudio as Shakespeare’s critique of feminine conventionality and the weakness of the feminine ideal in Elizabethan culture. Mark Taylor argues that Hero's silence at Claudio's declaration of love can be performed either as a momentary modest pause, or as an “implied ellipsis” that disturbs the conventionality of her role.

The tension in the play between the order established by authorities and the disorder constantly threatening this stability implies, as some scholars conclude, a different kind of cultural critique—that of the corruption or inefficiency of the political authorities of Shakespeare's time. The ineptness of Dogberry and the Watch, who ultimately do unravel Don John's scheme to undermine the marriage of Claudio and Hero, serves as a farcical subplot to the main dramatic action. Phoebe Spinrad (1992) contends that they bring order to the stage and affirm the general stability and political health of Messina. Gavin Edwards (1991) suggests that Shakespeare's attention to the temporal order of the play reinforces the impression that the audience is intended to see the intertwining of order and disorder. Ornstein comments on the mercurial change in the emotional tenor of the play's scenes as a reflection of the chaos—emotional and social—brought on by the human weaknesses of deceitfulness and gullibility. Claudio's character in particular reveals the difficulty of the comedy: his enactment of the “tradition of the courtly lover,” as Karen Newman remarks (1985), brings him to repudiate Hero without arousing the loathing of the audience, so that he can redeem himself fully at the second wedding. Newman claims, “Mistaken identity, role-playing and alternate identities are therapeutic instruments which lead the characters to self-knowledge. …”

Several recent critics have attempted to articulate the significance of the title of the play: the role of what seems trivial, absurd, or unspoken. In addition to Hero's silences, the plot is confused by what have been termed “problematic” elements: the history of the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, Claudio's callousness and subsequent regret, and why Hero cannot provide an alibi when she accused of being “but the sign and semblance of her honour.” David Ormerod examines how the word “fashion” functions as an alias for the word “nothing” in certain instances in the play, and contends that fashion “is the real villain of the play, and that its destructive function is recognised to a greater or lesser extent by many of the play's characters.” Stephen Dobranski (1998) elaborates on the hints in the text regarding Beatrice’s emotional history with Benedick, and suggests that the “nothing” of the title includes an “imagined lost child that haunts their relationship.” The ellipses, missing scenes, and trivialities that complicate the drama are, according to these writers, intimately bound up with its significance, and enrich its portrait of human interaction even as they interrupt any simple determination of genre.

David Ormerod (essay date 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Faith and Fashion in Much Ado about Nothing,Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 25, 1972, pp. 93-105.

[In the following essay, Ormerod examines how the word “fashion” functions as an alias for the word “nothing” in certain instances in the play, and contends that fashion “is the real villain of the play, and that its destructive function is recognised to a greater or lesser extent by many of the play's characters.”]

Most critics who have written on the subject of Much Ado about Nothing seem agreed that the play must take its place in Shakespeare's incessant debate about the conflict between appearance and reality, and the difficulties which beset an individual when he attempts to make a right choice, particularly in love, between superficial seeming and inner truth. Few readers, I imagine, would quarrel with the following verdict:

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 realization of beauty, and the distinctions between inward and outward beauty, appearance and reality, and fancy and true affection—all are represented in Much Ado about Nothing; they inform its structure, its contrasts, relationships, and final resolution; they control many of the details of its action, characterization, humour, and dialogue. Indeed, in fashioning these elements into a lively, dramatic whole, Shakespeare achieved his most concerted and considered judgment upon love's truth.1

I agree with this reading, and would like to attempt to amplify it by using a methodology pioneered by Miss Dorothy Hockey.2 Taking her stand upon Helge Kökeritz's treatment of Richard Grant White's suggestion that the play's title may contain a pun upon ‘Nothing’ and ‘noting’,3 Miss Hockey reads the play as an extended treatment of the implications of this pun, and examines in detail all the occasions during the play when attention to the act of ‘noting’, of eavesdropping and observing, enhances our understanding of the play's structure and morality.4 I do not wish to quarrel with Miss Hockey's conclusions.5 Rather, I would like to draw attention to an occasion in the play when Shakespeare makes an explicit identification of the word ‘Nothing’, and then to follow the appearances of ‘Nothing’s' alias throughout the play. Here, in a scene of central importance for the resolution of the story, and at almost the exact centre of the play's extent in time, we hear Conrade and Borachio in earnest discussion. They are talking about the conspiracy directed against Hero and Claudio; they are also choosing to talk about it, very incongruously, in terms of fashion.

Borachio. … Thou knowest
that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak, is nothing to a man.
Conrade. Yes, it is apparel.
Borachio. I mean the fashion.
Conrade. Yes, the fashion is the
Borachio. Tush, I may as well say
the fool's the fool.
But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is?
(2 Watchman. I know that Deformed,
a’ has been a vile thief this seven year, a’ goes up and down
like a gentleman: I remember his name … 
Borachio. Seest thou not, I say,
what a deformed thief this fashion is? how giddily a’ turns about all
the hotbloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty? sometimes fashioning them
like Pharaoh's soldiers in the reechy painting, sometime like god Bel's
priests in the old church window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the
smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club?
Conrade. All this I see, and I see
that the fashion wears out more apparel than the man … But art not
thou thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou hast shifted out of thy
tale into telling me of the fashion?
Borachio. Not so neither … 

(III, iii, 114-39)6

Several facts strike us. Borachio insists that the plot against Hero is intimately linked with the idea of fashion, and firmly repudiates Conrade's suggestion that, by invoking the machinations of fashion, he is digressing. We note, in passing, that fashion is associated with the decline of Hercules (see below, pp. 96-7, 99-100, 104-5). And, again, the Watch, in its own fumbling way, immediately recognises the villainous role which fashion plays in society, and elevates it to the stature of some Spenserian allegorical figure. An attentive reading of the play fully confirms Borachio and the Watch in the importance they attach to fashion. This essay contends that fashion, in its guise of Deformed, the vile thief, is the real villain of the play, and that its destructive function is recognised to a greater or lesser extent by many of the play's characters.

According to Bartlett, Spevack, and the Oxford Concordance, the word ‘fashion’ occurs nineteen times in Much Ado About Nothing; ‘fashions’, ‘fashioned’, and ‘fashioning’ each occur once. The only other plays in which the word figures at all prominently are Hamlet and Julius Caesar, with seven occurrences each. In Much Ado, Shakespeare has used the word in a number of senses, all of which are pejorative, and which seem to encompass the following meanings, as given by the OED.

As a noun—

1. The action or process of making. Hence, the ‘making’ or workmanship as an element in the value of plate or jewellery.

2. Make, build, shape. Hence, in wider sense, visible characteristics, appearance.

7. Conventional usage in dress, mode of life, etc., esp. as observed in the upper circles of society; conformity to this usage. Often personified, or quasi-personified.

10. The fashion: a. The mode of dress, etiquette, furniture, style of speech, etc., adopted in a society for the time being.

And, in a verbal sense—

3b. To counterfeit, pervert.

[OED here cites Much Ado, I, iii, 27]

Just as Othello's Venice (and Shylock's Venice, too) provides us with an icon of a society totally given up to gross commercial criteria, a society which assess human beings in terms of money, jewels, and outward appearance, so Messina is ruled by fashion, and the individual must learn to distinguish between externals, which are misleading and often downright vicious, and the internal truth. So, Beatrice, in her search for a husband, is in a dilemma—how is she to see through the fashionable exterior in order to attain a true assessment of the real man beneath? In antithesis to ‘fashion’, which must be recognised and shunned as a corrupting force, the play establishes the opposing entity of ‘faith’.7 This is, of course, but one aspect of Shakespeare's perennial love-ethic, which relies closely on the faculty of independent choice.

Things base and vile, holding no quantity
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind … 

(MND, I, i, 232-4)

In Much Ado, faith and mind seem to be synonymous, in contrast to appearance, which deceives. This motif is too well recognised to need elaborate development, but we will immediately think of Desdemona's unselfish and virtuous love (she ‘saw Othello's visage in his mind’ (I, iii, 253)), of Cressida's lament upon the fickleness of women, easily led astray by the evidence of their eyes,8 and of the aphoristic treatment of the doctrine in The Merchant of Venice

So may the outward show be least ourselves
The world is still deceived with ornament.

(III, ii, 73-4)

Faith is judgement and eyesight supplemented by imagination, so that we can ‘apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’ (v, i, 5-6). The opposite, romantic love,9 is ultimately bestial: Venus urges Adonis to adopt the ethic of his horse, and Titania becomes a sort of Pasiphae—in the midst of a labyrinthine wood (there is even a character called Theseus) we encounter a monster with a human body and an animal's head.

So, ‘the fashion of a doublet … is nothing to a man’—appearances don’t count. The man, not his clothes, is what matters. But Claudio is deceived by Margaret's disguise, for fashion, which deforms, is a thief, and Margaret disguises herself to steal Hero's honour. As Hero is deceived by Don Pedro's disguise, Claudio is deceived by the disguises which the ladies adopt at the end of the play.10 Don John, in accordance with his role of ‘plain-dealing villain’, is not fooled by disguise, but rather, he employs disguise—hence he pretends to be duped by Claudio's disguise at the masked ball, in order to confide a secret to him. Fashion is a sinister conspiracy. Don Pedro's plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together—‘I would fain have it a match—and doubt not but to fashion it’ (II, i, 344-5)—counterpoints Borachio's plot to alienate Claudio and Hero—‘… I shall so fashion the matter, that Hero shall be absent, and there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero's disloyalty, that jealousy shall be called assurance, and all the preparation overthrown’ (II, ii, 43-6). The sinister aspect of the word is amply conveyed by Don John, for ‘… it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any …’ (I, iii, 27-8)—yet, in a sense, this is just what he does.

To step outside the criteria of the fashionable world is to invite its censure. So, for instance, Hero speaks critically of Beatrice's contempt for her foppish suitors—

Ursula. Sure, sure, such carping
is not commendable.
Hero. No, nor to be so odd and from
all fashions,
As Beatrice is, cannot be commendable.

(III, i, 71-3)

It is most appropriate that the bride Hero should condemn the unfashionable Beatrice in such jargon, for, to the frivolous characters of the play, marriage is equated with a fashionable garment. Leonato wishes to see Beatrice ‘one day fitted with a husband’, which, if we discount the lewd joke, is tantamount to saying that a man is no more than the clothes he wears. Beatrice peremptorily dismisses this attitude when she rejects Don Pedro's jocular offer of marriage—‘your grace is too costly to wear every day’ (II, i, 307-8). This discussion is paralleled quite soon by the discussion which Hero and her attendants have on the subject of her approaching marriage, for their attention is concentrated, not upon the institution itself, but upon an external—

Margaret. I like the new tire
within excellently if the hair were a thought browner: and your gown's
a most rare fashion i’faith. I saw the Duchess of Milan's gown
that they praise so—
Hero. O, that exceeds, they say.
Margaret. By my troth's but
a night-gown in respect of yours—cloth o’gold and cuts, and laced
with silver, set with pearls down sleeves, side sleeves, and skirts, round
underborne with a bluish tinsel—but for a fine quaint graceful and excellent
fashion, yours is worth ten on’t.

(III, iv, 12-22)

Hero's wedding preparations (‘… I’ll show thee some attires, and have thy counsel / Which is the best to furnish me tomorrow’ (III, i, 102-3)) should prepare us for the tragic and violent outcome of the wedding day, as should the words of Don Pedro to Claudio when the latter offers to escort him to Aragon immediately after the ceremony, for Pedro, too, speaks of marriage as a garment: ‘Nay, that would be as great a soil in the gloss of your marriage, as to show a child his new coat and forbid him to wear it’ (III, ii, 5-7). Claudio and Hero are entirely creatures of the eye, not of the mind. Claudio can mistake Margaret for Hero because the latter is only a dressed-up nothing, identifiable only by her clothes. Hero's name (which does not occur in any of the sources)11 is pathetic—the devoted Leander is contrasted with the fickle Claudio. As we might expect, Claudio is a slave to fashion, and Benedick elaborates on this:

… I have known when he would have walked ten miles afoot, 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 he is turned orthography—his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes. (II, iii, 12-21)

In the terminology of the play, this is very strong condemnation indeed, and serves to lead us to a discussion of a minor but insistent motif—the function of the frequent allusions to Hercules and Blind Cupid, whom I take to be the tutelary deities associated with faith and fashion respectively. Hercules is, of course, synonymous with courage, manliness, and honesty, and Beatrice laments that the society of Messina will not tolerate the Herculean virtues, but speedily corrupts them. The virtuous Hercules was, of course, an iconological figure which was instantly recognisable to Shakespeare's audience. ‘In the Renaissance Hercules was one of the two or three best-known mythological personages, the subject of paintings, tapestries, engravings, drawings, sculptures, plays, poems, learned treatises, emblems, adages, schoolboy essays, and countless incidental allusions.’12 The immediate significance of the Hercules allusions is obvious, and springs from his association with the Twelve Labours.13 So, when the characters of Much Ado point out that Hercules is an unpopular deity in Messina, they are also indicating that the values associated with him are in desuetude. Borachio has pointed out that in Messina the cod-piece of ‘shaven Hercules’ takes precedence over his club, but it is Beatrice who indicates the reason for this decline.

Princes and counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect—a sweet gallant surely. O that I were a man for his sake!14 or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valour into complement, 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 …

(IV, i, 314-21)

The speech is crucial. Perhaps, as Benedick indicates, Claudio was once a Hercules—at the beginning of the play, after all, we hear of him ‘doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion’ (I, i, 14-15)—but Messina has proved his Omphale. Dressed in elegant, fashionable clothes, the young men of Messina have been metaphorically castrated, their former valour metamorphosed into trivial social accomplishments; fashion, the thief, has deformed them. As Omphale clad Hercules in feminine garments and set him to spin amongst her women, so has Messina unmanned her warriors, and Beatrice in search of a husband finds herself surrounded by effeminate boys.15 Such a one is of no use to her—‘What should I do with him? dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman?’ (II, i, 31-2). She has no desire herself to play Omphale,16 for ‘he who has no beard is less than a man,’ and such a one is Claudio. Benedick so taunts him to his face—‘My Lord Lackbeard’ (IV, i, 187). We note that when the plan, conceived by Pedro and Claudio, to bring Beatrice and Benedick into ‘a mountain of affection’ seems to be succeeding, the conspirators discuss Benedick's alleged symptoms in terms of appearance, clothes, fashion, disguises, and the shaving off of beards (III, ii, 29-45).

But effeminacy and fashionableness are not just trivial lapses from grace—they are heinous sins, and from the fashionable syndrome can come bloody events. In the play, this is conveyed partly by the antagonism between generations. While Leonato and Antonio share in the general moral decline, there is yet a sense in which they are not as far gone in triviality as is Claudio himself; it is the younger generation which has most completely succumbed to the temptation to pursue the fashionable, which is, by definition, ephemeral and mutable. Leonato, for instance, sees himself, however waywardly, as embodying older, simpler, and more virtuous modes of conduct. Hence, when he challenges Claudio to a duel, and derides his ‘nice fence’, he is not only being contemptuous of the new-fangled rapier (a young man's weapon), but is taking the two contrasting styles of fencing to embody a moral antithesis. Antonio develops this line of thought:

Leonato. If thou kill'st
me, boy, thou shalt kill a man.
Antonio. He shall kill two of us,
and men indeed—
… Win me and wear me! Let him answer me.
Come follow me, boy, come sir boy, come follow me.
Sir boy, I’ll whip you from your foining fence … 
Content yourself, God knows I loved my niece,
And she is dead, slandered to death by villains,
That dare as well answer a man indeed
As I dare take a serpent by the tongue.
Boys, apes, braggarts, Jacks, milksops! … 
Hold you content. What, man! I know them, yea,
And what they weigh, even to the utmost scruple—
Scambling, out-facing, fashion-monging boys,
That lie, and cog, and flout, deprave and slander,
Go anticly, and show outward hideousness,
How they might hurt their enemies, if they durst,
And this is all.

(V, i, 79-99)

It is significant that Antonio identifies Claudio's treachery directly with his subservience to fashion; he is capable of slandering a woman to death in this cowardly way, but loth to fight real men, precisely because he is a ‘fashion-monging boy’. The same phrase is used to identify moral turpitude with fashion among the young when Mercutio denounces Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet:

The pox of such antic lisping affecting fantasticoes, these new tuners of accent! By Jesu a very good blade—a very tall man—a very good whore! Why, is not this a lamentable thing, grandsire, that we should thus be afflicted with these strange flies, these fashion-mongers, these pardon-me's, who stand so much on the new form that they cannot sit at ease on the old bench?

(II, iv, 28-35)

And the fashionable fantasticoes are ubiquitous—Claudio has many of their accomplishments. Challenged to a duel by Benedick, Claudio paraphrases his acceptance in a peculiar jargon ‘… 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 nought’ (V, i, 151-3)—for presumably he prides himself on his ability to carve intricately at table, another fashionable accomplishment. The orchard, in which so much of the eavesdropping and conspiring takes place, is ‘pleached’, recalling the Spenserian and Shakespearian commonplace of the moral antagonism embodied in the nature versus art antithesis, almost as if we can see, in the pleached branches, a faint analogy to the Bower of Bliss, with its rejection of nature for artifice; to the artificial court of Leontes rejecting the pastoral simplicity of Bohemia, and so on. Don Pedro says something in much the same vein when he commends Leonato for his hospitality, for ‘… the fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it’ (I, i, 92-3), and the fashion of the world (presumably at least in part the dictates of contemporary social mores) is opposed to hospitality and solicitousness. Don Pedro continues to harp on the difference between seeming and being when he asserts his belief in the sincerity of Leonato's wish that something should occur to prolong the visit to Messina—‘I dare say he is no hypocrite, but prays from his heart’ (I, i, 144-5).

Yet the play provides a polar opposite to the vices of shallowness, triviality, pettiness, volatility, and wrong choice embodied by fashion. This antithesis is contained in the word ‘faith’. To distinguish between faith and fashion is the task which Beatrice has imposed upon herself, and her initial inquiries about Benedick indicate that she is seriously concerned to discover whether he is a man of fashion or a man of faith, for, if he is the latter, he is worthy of her regard and her love. The deep commitment with which she undertakes this dialectical search contrasts dramatically with the opportunistic and trivial questions with which Claudio initiates his own courtship. Thus she questions the Messenger concerning Benedick in the following way: ‘… 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. … He is a very valiant trencherman, he hath an excellent stomach’ (I, i, 36-49). She wishes to know if Benedick is a braggart soldier, a fashionable fop who only pretends to be manly. How is one to know the real man from his words? She goes on to accuse Benedick of fickleness in friendship, and introduces the fashion image in one of its most important guises by making it synonymous with inconstancy:

Beatrice. … Who is
his companion now? he hath every month a new sworn brother.
Messenger. Is’t possible?
Beatrice. Very easily possible. He
wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat, it ever changes with the next

(I, i, 67-72)

This is obviously an important passage. Benedick, she alleges, equates faith and fashion. This he should not do. In the play's moral framework, it is a very grave offence. A man of faith is a moral Hercules; so, when Benedick professes his friendship for Beatrice after the church scene, she is quick to turn the conversation into the channel already discussed:

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.

(IV, i, 262-5)

For manhood is melted into curtsies; by her gibes, Beatrice attempts to spur Benedick into manly action—to prove he is no Count Comfect. Benedick himself seems to realise the import of Beatrice's order to ‘Kill Claudio’, for when events absolve him of his promise to fight Claudio, he regards the challenge, in retrospect, as a very basic test:

Antonio. Well, I am glad that
all things sort so well.
Benedick. And so am I, being else
by faith enforced
To call young Claudio to a reckoning for it.

(V, iv, 7-9)

Fashion implies wrong choice; faith implies the ability to thread one's way through the moral labyrinth and to attain to right choice. The process, though, is a difficult one. It is hence doubly appropriate that the party of faith should owe allegiance to Hercules, for, although Hercules was important to the Renaissance as a result of the moral glosses traditionally applied to the Twelve Labours, his main importance stems from the story of Hercules's Choice (The Hero at the Fork in the Road).17 The tale was a commonplace in Shakespeare's day; Cicero's popular De Officiis contains a reference to Xenophon's version of the Choice (I, 118),18 and was a widespread school Latin text. Nicholas Grimald's translation was printed nine times between 1553 and 1600.19 Geoffrey Whitney's A Choice of Emblems represents Hercules's dilemma graphically,20 and ‘The plainness of Lady Virtue and the gaudiness of Lady Vice led to allegorical interpretations of the two figures beyond their obvious significances'.21 The story was originally derived from Hesiod's Works and Days,22 which adumbrates the idea of two roads in life. The addition of making the roads cross, placing the hero at their intersection, and providing each road with its advocate, was effected by the sophist Prodicus, and Socrates's account in Xenophon's Memorabilia presents Vice and Virtue in contrasting robes.23 Athenaeus goes so far as to elevate the choice of Hercules to the level of the most famous of such dilemmas.24 But the most appropriate version of the story for our purposes, emphasising the garb of Hercules's suppliants, is provided in the third century by Philostratus. ‘You have seen in picture-books the representation of Hercules by Prodicus; in it Hercules is represented as a youth, who has not yet chosen the life he will lead; and vice and virtue stand on each side of him plucking his garments and trying to draw him to themselves. Vice is adorned with gold and necklaces and with purple raiment, and her cheeks are painted and her hair delicately plaited and her eyes underlined with henna; and she also wears golden slippers, for she is pictured strutting about in these; but virtue in the picture resembles a woman worn out with toil, with a pinched look; and she has chosen for her adornment rough squalor, and she goes without shoes and in the plainest of raiment, and she would have appeared naked if she had not too much regard for feminine decency.’25 Ben Jonson, in Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, presents the demi-god's choice simply and didactically—

First, figure out the doubtfull way, 
at which, a while all youth shold stay,
where she [i.e., Pleasure] and Vertue did contend,
which should haue Hercules to frend.(26)

The issue of making a correct choice in such complex matters is hence central to the play's morality; Beatrice, for instance, initiates her courtship by denigrating Benedick with the object of finding out what inner qualities he possesses. Claudio opens his courtship of Hero by inquiring after, and remarking upon, her external qualities. For instance, he has ‘noted’ the daughter of Leonato. Benedick ‘noted her not, but I looked on her’ (I, i, 155-6)—a reproach, which he amplifies in answer to Claudio's further queries: ‘Would you buy her, that you inquire after her’ (I, i, 171). Claudio significantly betrays his materialism in his reply, ‘Can the world buy such a jewel?’ (I, i, 172). He goes on to praise Hero in sinister language—‘In mine eye, she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on’ (I, i, 178-9)—an outrageous remark in Shakespeare's world, where love should look not with the eyes but with the mind. Since Claudio is the acme of fashion, which, by definition, stands for all that is ephemeral, then his love will be subject to Time's ravages, and he confesses as much—‘If my passion change not shortly’ (I, i, 207). Again, in the same vein, Claudio announces ‘That I love her I feel’ (I, i, 216), but this is inadequate. He should know, not feel. Don Pedro replies ‘That she is worthy I know’ (I, i, 217), but Benedick reproves them both when he implicitly points out that neither is as yet in any position to make such sweeping statements; ‘That I neither feel how she should be loved, nor know how she should be worthy, is an opinion that fire cannot melt out of me—I will die in it at the stake’ (I, i, 218-20). In other words this opinion is, metaphorically, an article of faith for which he is prepared to suffer martyrdom. Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro all lack faith in Hero, and can therefore believe her to be unfaithful to Claudio. Beatrice and the Friar, on the contrary, are paragons of faith, and adhere to a belief in Hero's innocence when the evidence points to the opposite. Claudio, too, easily loses faith in his leader over the business of the courtship, for he is a creature who knows only the outward appearances of things. He can talk of Hero's ‘show of truth’—‘you seemed to me as Dian …’ or ‘If half the outward graces had been placed …’ Claudio often mixes semblance and reality. Hero was fair and virtuous ‘in my semblance’; from this she can speedily degenerate to ‘but the sign and semblance of her honour’. Claudio's remark to the effect that ‘I love her I feel’ is a great self-indictment. A man who makes such a remark asks others to confirm his judgement and to act for him; appropriate in view of the man of fashion's subservience to the dictates of society. He provides a great contrast to Benedick, who requires no official imprimatur from society to sanctify his intentions:

… since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to
any purpose that the world can say against it.

(V, iv, 103-5)

Against this sturdy pronouncement we might set Claudio's vacillatory and crab-wise approach to the same truth:

Let every eye negotiate for
And trust no agent: for beauty is
a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth
into blood

(II, i, 165-7)

culminating in his eventual determination to honour his vow to marry an unknown bride: ‘I’ll hold my mind, were she an Ethiope’ (V, iv, 38—my italics).

The Shakespearian virtues do not reside in princes' courts. Guiderius and Arviragus grow up in naive but robust innocence in the harsh pastoral of the Welsh hills; the exiled Duke of As You Like It finds the winter pastoral of Arden more conducive to virtue than the court he has lost, and Sicily, the traditional home of pastoral, is blighted by the suspicions of Leontes and becomes a wasteland, only to be renewed by the Bohemian pastoral figures of Perdita and Florizel. There is no pastoral scene in Much Ado to provide an antidote to the sterile and fashionable court, no setting for the vita contemplativa to which the characters can retire in order to understand themselves better. Instead, we have the laughable but laudable simplicity of the Watch. These people may be unlettered, but their unfashionable uncouthness, their upside-down euphuism, ensures that they keep the basic virtues intact. As Borachio realises bitterly: ‘What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light’ (V, i, 226-9). Fashionable people are less perspicacious than the Watch, who are fully informed of the machinations of Deformed, the fashionable thief, and who are introduced at the first line of their appearance by Dogberry's question, ‘Are you good men and true?’ and by Verges's affirmative ‘Yea’ (III, iii, 1-2). Their simplicity is echoed by the Friar, who is a visual icon of faith, refusing to be deceived by appearances. In his home-spun raiment, the Friar provides a simple visible exemplum of the abjuration of fashion, and his religious faith parallels the more secular faith of Beatrice. We think of the Duke-as-Friar of Measure for Measure, repairing Angelo's broken faith with Mariana. The Friar and Claudio, faith and fashion, stand over the prostrate Hero like some emblem graphically representing sagacity and credulity. The whole image is a fitting culmination to the plot which Borachio concocted, a plot held together by the recurring words ‘appear … paint … show … seem … seeming truth’. The very language of the play embodies this urgent dichotomy. ‘The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments …’ (I, i, 268-9), for truth is disguised with elegant rhetorical fol-de-rols, just as Claudio is ‘turned orthography’. Hence the often noticed contrast between the masculine strength of the play's prose, and the strained, feeble nature of the verse.

We have constantly attempted to identify faith and its attendant values with the mythological figure of Hercules. Fashion also has its patron deity, and it is hardly surprising for the student of Renaissance iconology that this should be Blind Cupid. Don Pedro and Claudio at one point taunt Benedick that he will one day be in love, despite his protests. But they predicate of love all the symptoms of the Petrarchan madness: ‘I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love’ (I, i, 233). Benedick retorts that if ever he is in such a state, then ‘hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of Blind Cupid’, for to him the passion they champion is associated with brothels and Blind Cupid. ‘According to the standards of traditional iconography … the blindness of Cupid puts him definitely on the wrong side of the moral world.’27 The love which Claudio and Don Pedro recommend must therefore be accorded its place in the whole Renaissance pageant of illicit love for which Blind Cupid is the patron, and which is most vividly represented by Spenser's ‘Masque of Cupid’. The debate is a constant one in Shakespeare; Claudio and Don Pedro are the allies of one of the poet's earliest creations, the Venus who attempts to convert the chaste Adonis to her metaphysic of lust. Don Pedro even seems to give a grudging approval to Benedick's stand: ‘… if ever thou dost fall from this faith, thou wilt prove a notable argument’ (I, i, 240-1). It is appropriate that Claudio should ask if Leonato has a son. He is told that Hero is Leonato's only heir, and indulges in words reminiscent of Gloucester (who was literally deformed) at the beginning of Richard III: ‘War thoughts / Have left their places vacant … in their rooms / Come thronging soft and delicate desires, / All prompting me how fair young Hero is …’ (I, i, 279-89). We do not hear the lascivious pleasings of a lute, but Claudio has unconsciously elaborated on Benedick's gentle denunciation. He lusts after Hero's body, and will marry her for her fortune—lust and money, Blind Cupid and brothels. Soon Claudio is the embodiment of the state which has been maliciously predicted for Benedick, and in his Petrarchan attitudinising he remarks that Don Pedro is one of those ‘that know love's grief by his complexion!’ (I, i, 296). And Don Pedro is as blind as his protégé. ‘If Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice, thou wilt quake for this shortly’ (I, i, 255-6), he threatens Benedick, locating his deity firmly in the city of commerce and courtesans. Don Pedro's matchmaking is a fashionable pastime—Blind Cupid's love-in-idleness, to borrow an attitude from Venus and Adonis—and he wishes to bring Beatrice and Benedick into ‘a mountain of affection’ (II, i, 343), just as Claudio ‘affects’ Hero. Indeed, Don Pedro goes so far as to hope that he surpasses his deity—‘If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer … for we are the only love gods' (II, i, 361-3).

Claudio's headlong and precipitate rush into a fashionable marriage is the sort of conduct we would expect from a devotee of Blind Cupid:

And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind
Nor hath love's mind of any judgment taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguil’d … 

(MND, I, i, 235-9)

Cupid is traditionally alatus et caecus, and Claudio and Benedick must be associated with ‘blind’ and ‘clear-sighted’ love respectively, with Eros and Anteros.28

Yet Eros and Anteros are aspects of the same personality. Panofsky cites a representation (by Lucius Cranach the Elder) of Blind Cupid removing his own blindfold—passing from moral blindness to enlightenment. In this representation, Cupid is standing, very significantly, upon a large volume labelled Platonis Opera.29

Platonic thought was familiar with the concept of two loves, one base, the other admirable, and in the Symposium Plato, through the words of Pausanias, describes these under the guise of two Venuses. ‘The elder one, having no mother, who is called the heavenly Aphrodite—she is the daughter of Uranus; the younger, who is the daughter of Zeus and Dione—her we call common, and the love who is her fellow-worker is rightly named common, as the other love is called heavenly.’30 Iconologically, there was a precedent for depicting the higher goddess as nude, to denote not eroticism, but freedom from vanity.31 The lower goddess could be depicted as clothed in opulent, fashionable garments, to denote her involvement with the passing vanities of this world. ‘… the clothed Venus is the Venere vulgare or Aphrodite Pandemos, whom Plato and the Platonists opposed to the Aphrodite Urania (Venere celeste) …’32 Yet the two goddesses are not polar opposites. Rather, man can ascend to the higher love through the agency of the lower. Being distracted by the beauty of garments is itself a Platonic metaphor denoting preoccupation with the body (the soul's garment) at the expense of the soul. Hence Claudio, who must rise above considerations of flesh and fashion, pursues within the confines of the play a process of initiation commonplace in Platonic thought, and most accessibly described in Castiglione's The Courtier or Spenser's Platonic Hymns. The aspiring lover must learn to spurn amore bestiale, transcend amore umano, and attain the heights of amore celeste (to borrow the terminology of Pico della Mirandola). So, the first two steps up the Platonic ladder, as described by Bembo, constitute a transition from the purely physical craving for the beloved object, to a realisation of the beloved's image in the mind's eye:

To avoide therefore the torment of his absence, and to enjoy beautie without passion, the Courtier by the helpe of reason must full and wholy call backe againe the coveting of the bodie to beautie alone, and (in what he can) beholde it in it selfe simple and pure, and frame it within in his imagination sundred from all matter, and so make it friendly and loving to his soule, and there enjoy it, and having it with him day and night, in every time and place, without mistrust ever to lose it: keeping alwaies fast in minde, that the bodie is a most diverse thing from beautie, and not onely not encreaseth, but diminisheth the perfection of it … And beside, through the vertue of imagination, hee shall fashion with himselfe that beautie much more faire than it is in deede.33

Hence, the Friar's plan takes on a new significance:

When he [i.e. Claudio] 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 apparelled in more precious habit,
More moving-delicate and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul,
Than when she lived indeed … 
Let this be so, and doubt not but success
Will fashion the event in better shape … 

(IV, i, 222-34)

Thus the play's scheme proposes that out of the evil of fashion should be brought forth the good of a higher faith, and the two entities whose antagonism we have scrutinised eventually meet to work in conjunction. We reached this synthesis through an examination of the forces accumulating around the figure of Blind Cupid, but we could perhaps equally well have done so by examining the Hercules-motif in greater detail, for as Wind observes,

Voluptas is appointed to tempt the hero with her specious allurements, while Virtue acquaints him in all her austerity with the arduous prospect of heroic labours: and it may be expected of a reliable Hercules that he will not remain suspended between them. The choice is clear because the two opposites, having been introduced in a complete disjunction, obey the logical principle of the excluded middle: tertium non datur. It is the absence of any transcendent alternative which renders the moral so respectable; but although the humanists used it profusely in their exoteric instruction, they left no doubt that, for a Platonic initiate, it was but the crust, and not the marrow … In Ben Jonson's Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, a sequence of ‘knots’ is introduced by the dancing master Daedalus, who interweaves the two opposites in a perfect maze; and his labyrinthian designs are accompanied by a warning that while the ‘first figure’ should suggest the contrast of Virtue and Pleasure as in the Choice of Hercules, it is the purpose of the dance to ‘entwine’ Pleasure and Virtue beyond recognition:

Come on, come on! and where you go,
So interweave the curious knot,
As ev’n the observer scarce may know
Which lines are Pleasure's, and which not.(34)

I am not necessarily trying to contend that Much Ado is a neo-Platonic homily. I would simply like to suggest that the play may be profitably examined against the background of such modes of thought. In this way the faith-fashion antithesis may be seen as one aspect of the age's preoccupation with the conflict between eternity and mutability, and with the right resolution of this conflict, a resolution which Spenser has mapped in detail in Epithalamion, the ‘Garden of Adonis’, and the ‘Mutability Cantos’. This solution argues that, by loving chastely and wisely, man can conquer time, flux and mutability, and transcend them to attain a state wherein he will be, like Spenser's Adonis, ‘eterne in mutability’. Shakespeare's Ulysses, of course, has asserted that the arch-villain of the age, time, the Saturnian edax rerum, is ‘like a fashionable host’, but our investigation can perhaps be most suitably concluded by Hallett Smith's oddly apt assertion that, in the heroic poetry of the Renaissance, ‘the guiding and predominating motive was that of Virtue, pictured symbolically as the lady whose path Hercules chose to follow, as a kind of Venus-Beatrice of a neo-Platonic scheme’.35


  1. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and his Comedies (London, 1957), p. 109 [my italics].

  2. Dorothy Hockey, ‘Notes, notes, forsooth …’ Shakespeare Quarterly, VIII (1957), 353-8.

  3. Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, 1953), pp. 132, 233, 320.

  4. For a detailed examination of the ‘Nothing’ of the play's title, see P. A. Jorgensen, Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley, 1962), pp. 22-42.

  5. Her verdict that ‘The play … is a dramatization of mis-noting—a sort of dramatized, rather than verbal, pun’ (‘Notes, notes, forsooth …’, p. 354), seems to me impeccable.

  6. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (eds.), Much Ado about Nothing (Cambridge, 1923, repr. 1953), to which edition all subsequent citations refer. Quotations from the other plays are from Charles Jasper Sisson (ed.), William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (London, 1953).

  7. This semantic antithesis, upon which the remaining analysis of the play rests, was pointed out to me more than ten years ago by Mr E. L. Jones, of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I most gratefully acknowledge my debt to him. I would also like to thank Professor Jay L. Halio and Mr John Ingledew, who have read the manuscript with friendly severity.

  8. Ah poor our sex, this fault in us I find,
    The error of our eye directs our mind.
    What error leads, must err. O then conclude
    Minds swayed by eyes are full of turpitude.

    (V, ii, 109-12)

  9. I employ the term as it is understood, passim, by Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World (New York, 1956).

  10. There is a slight parallel with The Winter's Tale. Hermione and Hero feign death in order to awaken shame in the lovers who suspected them unjustly; Leontes and Claudio find reborn love and greater self-knowledge when they have supposedly learnt their lesson, and the awakening of Hermione's statue parallels the removal of Hero's mask.

  11. See Geoffrey Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London, 1958), II, 61-139.

  12. Richard Knowles, ‘Myth and Type in As You Like It’, E.L.H., XXXIII (1966), 3.

  13. ‘In the Renaissance Hercules’ physical power came to symbolize any other kind of heroic strength, whether moral, religious, or intellectual. This wide range of symbolic meanings had grown within the medieval tradition of allegorical commentary on pagan myths that culminated in the encyclopedic Ovide Moralisé and Pierre Bersuire's Ovidius Moralizatus. In the Renaissance, Ovidian commentaries by Raphael Regius and Georgius Sabinus, mythographical compendia by Alexander ab Alexandro, Lilio Giraldo, Natalis Comes, Vincenzo Cartari, and Cesare Ripa, and treatises like Coluccio Salutati's De Laboribus Herculis and Giraldo's Herculis Vita, not to mention the countless artistic treatments that these helped engender, represented Hercules as the supreme exemplar of moral fortitude … and of virtuous works, as typified by his twelve or more Labors' (ibid., pp. 14-15).

  14. In Ovid's Ninth Heroic Epistle, Deianira upbraids Hercules for allowing Omphale to steal his arms and masquerade as a man. ‘To her passes the full measure of your exploits—yield up what you possess; your mistress is heir to your praise. O shame, that the rough skin stripped from the flanks of the shaggy lion has covered a woman's delicate side!’ (Ovid, Heroides and Amores, trans. Grant Showerman [Harvard, 1921], p. 117.)

  15. ‘Largely because of Ovid's Ninth Heroic Epistle, well known in George Turberville's translation, Hercules brought from club to distaff … had become the proverbial example of the power and folly of love’ (Knowles, ‘Myth and Type’, p. 8).

  16. Unlike Cleopatra, who clothed Antony in her own garments at one juncture (II, v, 17-21). Antony, of course, is closely identified with Hercules (I, iii, 84; IV, iii, 16; IV, xii, 43-4). See Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero (London, 1962), pp. 113-21. However, Benedick at one point fears that Beatrice, because of her shrewishness, may prove a very dynamic Omphale: ‘She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too … You shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel’ (II, i, 235-8).

  17. See Richard Knowles, ‘Myth and Type’, passim, and Hallett Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (Harvard, 1952), pp. 295-7.

  18. Cicero, De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller (London, 1913), p. 121.

  19. Smith, Elizabethan Poetry, p. 295.

  20. See Henry Green's reprint (London, 1866) of the Plantyn edition of 1586, p. 40.

  21. Smith, Elizabethan Poetry, p. 297.

  22. See Richard Hooper's edition of George Chapman's translation (London, 1888), I, ll. 449-63.

  23. See Xenophon, Memorabilia and Oecomicus, trans. E. C. Marchant (London, 1923), p. 95: ‘And there appeared two women of great stature making towards him. The one was fair to see and of high bearing; and her limbs were adorned with purity, her eyes with modesty; sober was her figure, and her robe was white. The other was plump and soft, with high feeding. Her face was made up to heighten its natural white and pink, her figure to exaggerate her height. Open-eyed was she; and dressed so as to disclose all her charms.’

  24. See Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, trans. C. B. Gulick (Harvard, 1933), V, 295: ‘And I for one affirm also that the Judgement of Paris, as told in poetry by the writers of an older time, is really a trial of pleasure against virtue … I think, too, that our noble Xenophon invented the story of Heracles and Virtue with the same motive.’

  25. Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. F. C. Conybeare (London, 1912), II, 33-5.

  26. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (eds.), Works of Ben Jonson (Oxford, 1941), VII, 488, ll. 257-60.

  27. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (Oxford, 1939, rev. ed. New York, 1962), p. 109. See esp. ch. IV, ‘Blind Cupid’, pp. 95-128. For a list of Shakespeare's allusions to this deity, see p. 112, n. 55.

  28. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, pp. 126-7.

  29. Ibid., p. 128.

  30. Irwin Edman (ed.), The Works of Plato (New York, 1956), pp. 343-4.

  31. Cf. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, p. 155: ‘Nuda virtus is the real virtue appreciated in the good old days when wealth and social distinction did not count, and Horace speaks already of nuda Veritas, though the Greek writers, characteristically enough, rather imagined Truth as dressed in simple garments.’

  32. Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London, 1958), p. 118.

  33. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. Sir Thomas Hoby (London, 1928), p. 317. Hoby's translation first appeared in 1561, and was re-issued during Shakespeare's lifetime in the editions of 1577 and 1588, of which the latter edition is trilingual in Italian, French, and English. It has, incidentally, been suggested (somewhat implausibly) that Benedick and Beatrice are modelled on two of Castiglione's characters, the Lord Gaspare Pallavicino and the Lady Emilia Pia. See Mary Augusta Scott, ‘The Book of the Courtyer: a Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice’, PMLA, XVI (1901), 475-502. Since the initial composition of this current essay, however, an important and convincing article on the relationship between The Courtier and Much Ado has appeared in the form of B. K. Lewalski's ‘Love, Appearance and Reality: Much Ado about Something’ (Studies in English Literature, VIII (1968), 235-51). Lewalski's conclusions substantially parallel (and, in my opinion, vindicate) my own, although she arrives at them by a different route. Noting the ostensible absence of the pastoral element in the play, Lewalski locates it in the higher area of consciousness described by Bembo in Book VI of The Courtier, and not, as I do, in the Watch, for whose activities she invokes I Cor. i 27 (‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise’). Lewalski identifies Claudio with Bembo's ‘young lover’ misled in love-judgments by ‘judgement of sense’ (p. 240), one who ‘acts primarily in terms of sense knowledge rather than reason, and is moved by desire and passion rather than the higher love’ (p. 246). Hero's epic death-and-rebirth pattern is seen as an image of Christ's passion and resurrection—‘the archetype of sacrificial love for the restoration of others' (p. 251), and the neo-Platonism is almost explicitly Christianised in the well-observed words of the Friar: ‘But on this travail look for greater birth’ and ‘Come, lady, die to live’ (idem). Lewalski's conclusion seems to me wholly admirable: ‘Only because of these new terms—love as redemptive sacrifice and knowledge as faith—is the Platonic ascent possible for such as Claudio.’

  34. Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, pp. 168-9. For our own purposes, an alternative passage from Jonson's masque (Herford and Simpson, Works of Ben Jonson, VII, 486-7, ll. 200-13) might be even more appropriate:

                        Pleasure, for his [i.e. Hesperus'] delight
    is reconcild to Vertue: and this Night
    Vertue brings forth twelue Princes haue byn bred
    in this rough Mountaine … 
    Theis now she trusts with Pleasure, and to theis
    she gives an entraunce to the Hesperides,
    faire Beuties gardens: Neither can she feare
    they should grow soft, or wax effeminat here,
    Since in hir sight, and by hir charge all's don,
    Pleasure the Servant, Vertue looking on.
  35. Smith, Elizabethan Poetry, p. 324. Don Pedro, the play's most ambivalent character, speaks with unconscious irony when he pronounces what might serve us as an alternative epigraph: ‘What a pretty thing man is, when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit’ (V, i, 194-5).

Stephen B. Dobranski (essay date 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Children of the Mind: Miscarried Narratives in Much Ado about Nothing,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 233-50.

[In the following essay, Dobranski traces the “undeveloped, fragmentary history” of the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, which inflects the light mood of the comedy with tragic elements.]

An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly
creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves ’cause
it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about
the universe.

—Woody Allen, Manhattan

When Beatrice first speaks in Much Ado about Nothing, she inquires after Benedick: “I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” (I.i.28-9).1 That her first concern is Benedick's welfare suggests an interest in him beyond their ongoing “skirmish of wit” (I.i.58). Like Benedick's assertion that Beatrice exceeds Hero “as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (I.i.178-9), her question looks ahead to their open acknowledgment of love and concluding nuptials. That Beatrice refers to Benedick as “Signior Mountanto” (I.i.28)—literally, “Lord Upward Thrust”—also implies, through a bawdy innuendo, the erotic nature of their “merry war” (I.i.56).

We thus meet Beatrice and Benedick in medias res, the two having already developed an antagonistic attraction: “I know you of old,” Beatrice cryptically apostrophizes (I.i.133-4). As they quarrel, compete, and court, their veiled allusions to the past do more than provide a context for their war of words. Suggesting images of sex, birthing, and loss, Beatrice's language—particularly in II.i—evokes possible causes for their mutual animosity and hints at ominous events from their past that lend depth to the play's comic tone. I want to posit a history for Beatrice and Benedick, a history to which the text alludes but always deflects. I further wish to suggest, in the second part of my reading, that such deflection is itself the subject of comedy: at the core of the play lies a haunting sense of loss that the characters, especially Beatrice, communicate obliquely.

This technique of alluding to an undeveloped, possible history represents a neglected strategy of Shakespeare's dramaturgy: he convinces us of the worlds that he creates by intimating suggestive details of his characters' past experience. I am not concerned whether Benedick and Beatrice actually lived the history that the text implies; rather, I think it important that Shakespeare contextualizes the fiction that he dramatizes by evoking another fiction that he does not.


Hinting at events that precede the play, the multiple allusions to Hercules in Much Ado about Nothing color Benedick's conversion from soldier to lover as his relationship with Beatrice progresses. To understand how these images may have been intended to influence our perception of his character, we need first to recall that Hercules was born when Zeus tricked the virgin Alcmene into sleeping with him.2 Enraged by another of her husband's infidelities, Hera tried to prevent Hercules' delivery by having the goddess of childbirth sit outside Alcmene's room with her legs and fingers crossed; when that plan failed, Hera attempted to murder the child by sending two serpents to strangle him in his crib.

The theme of infanticide recurs in the story of Hercules: struck by Hera with a fit of madness, Hercules murdered his own children, two of his nephew's children, and in some versions of the myth, his wife. He performed his twelve labors as punishment from the Pythia, the prophetess of Apollo at Delphi. To absolve himself, she stipulated that he must visit King Eurystheus and do whatever tasks the ruler demanded.

Hercules' reputation as a child killer later prevented his marriage to Iole, the daughter of another king, Eurytus. Eurytus had put up Iole as the reward in an archery contest, but after Hercules defeated the king and his sons, Eurytus reneged on his offer because of Hercules' past crimes. Hercules vowed revenge, and when Iphitus, the eldest son of Eurytus, requested Hercules' aid in searching for the king's missing horses, Hercules killed again. He flung Eurytus' son off the walls of Tiryns. As punishment, the gods inflicted Hercules with a disease, and so a second time he sought the Pythia's advice. She told Hercules that he could cure his malady and receive absolution if he were sold as a slave to Omphale, Queen of Lydia. According to some Roman authors, Hercules had to dress in women's clothes while in Omphale's service and tend to domestic chores, such as providing music and spinning yarn.

In Much Ado about Nothing, Benedick allies himself with Hercules by comparing Beatrice to Omphale. She is so unreasonable, he quips, that “She would have made Hercules have turned the spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too” (II.i.236-8). Initially he suggests a series of Herculean labors to escape Beatrice: when she enters with Claudio after the dance, Benedick frantically beseeches Don Pedro to send him away; he will do even the most absurd task—“the slightest errand” (II.i.248)—to avoid her company. Benedick's exaggerated request for permission, even when playfully performed, not only calls attention to Beatrice's independence in her ensuing rejection of Don Pedro, but also casts Benedick as a burlesque version of the Greek hero. He rattles off a list of pointless, Herculean labors: “I will fetch you a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia,” he offers, or “bring you the length of Prester John's foot” (II.i.250-2). Thus, as Beatrice enters, Benedick suggests that he would prefer this kind of futile activity so as to escape the consequences of his earlier gibes—or, in terms of the play's title, he introduces the idea of a great deal of work for nothing.

By the end of the play, however, Benedick offers to perform such labors on Beatrice's behalf. When Claudio slanders Hero at their wedding, Beatrice laments the decline of manhood by caustically observing, “He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it” (IV.i.320-1). Motivated in part by his own belief that Claudio has wronged Hero, Benedick accepts Beatrice's challenge, agreeing to “Kill Claudio” and thus defend Hero's honor (IV.i.288). He has moved from his own parody of a militant Hercules, eager to fetch Don Pedro “a hair off the great Cham's beard” (II.i.252), to a love-struck version of the over-achieving hero. For Beatrice, he will do anything; he pledges to “live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes” (V.ii.94-5).3

Although we cannot know what previously occurred between Beatrice and Benedick, the play's allusions to Hercules suggest the need for atonement: just as Hercules depends on the Pythia and must serve Omphale, Benedick eventually places himself in a woman's control to find forgiveness for his own past crime.4 Hinting at the nature of this crime, Beatrice explains that Benedick, like Hercules challenging King Eurytus, had attempted to rival “Cupid at the flight; and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt” (I.i.36-8). Although we do not know for certain the identity of her “uncle's fool,” Beatrice calls her own heart “poor fool” (II.i.295); and as Benedick's verbal adversary, she seems the likeliest candidate to have encountered him on Cupid's behalf. In addition to its association with the god of love, the phallic shape of a “bird-bolt,” a blunt arrow, implies a sexual challenge.5

The “flight” to which Benedick challenged Cupid during his previous visit presumably refers to the flight of an arrow, but “flight” also can denote an act of fleeing or an extraordinary display of something, such as fancy, or in the case of Cupid, love. Thus, in this one speech, Beatrice subtly justifies her hostility toward Benedick: she compresses into a whimsical narrative hints that he seduced and abandoned her, using one word, “flight,” to connote both. Beatrice conjures the image of Benedick striding into town, advertising his interest in love (“He set up his bills here,” I.i.35)—but taking “flight” at the first sign of her challenge. As Carol Cook notes, when the play opens Beatrice “already seems to be nursing wounds from some abortive romance with Benedick.”6 I will argue that the play is more suggestive than Cook describes, and that Cook's own diction—“nursing” and “abortive”—unconsciously echoes the text's allusions to Beatrice and Benedick's previous romance.


We get perhaps our best glimpse of Benedick and Beatrice's pre-history during Beatrice's conversation with Don Pedro. She explains that she puts Benedick down “[s]o I would not he should do me, … lest I should prove the mother of fools” (II.i.267-8). Just as she earlier alluded to Benedick's visit as a sexual encounter—a challenge “at the bird-bolt” (I.i.38)—the verbs “do” and “put down” also suggest a sexual conquest; her concern with becoming a “mother of fools” points to a real, potential outcome of letting down her guard. More subtly, the lack of punctuation in her remark signals a complexity that Beatrice's humor masks. Without a comma, the dependent and independent clauses collide: the sentence “So I would not he should do me” suggests, on the one hand, “If I did not insult him, he would put me down” and, on the other, “I insult him, so that he should not put me down.”7 Although both versions convey the same general meaning, the possibility that “not” can attach itself to the “I” clause or the “he” clause subtly obscures responsibility for putting down the other person. The negation of “not” acts as a hinge between Beatrice and Benedick, knotting them together while, as a negation, keeping them apart.

The full implications of this “not”/“knot” become clearer as Beatrice discusses “the heart of Signior Benedick”: she says that Benedick “lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it” (II.i.259-62). The word “use” can mean interest (as in usury), but it also denotes employment or maintenance for sexual purposes (as when “using someone” means having sex). Beatrice seems to say that Benedick temporarily loved her, and she responded to his advances.

We need to doubt, of course, that Beatrice and Benedick once had a sexual relationship, but her diction momentarily teases us into questioning what previously transpired. As Sandra Cavallo and Simona Cerutti note, a man's promise to marry a woman in early modern Europe—especially if he were a man of honor—was often enough to initiate a sexual relationship: “a woman pledged her sexuality, obtaining from the man, through his promise of marriage, the guarantee of a new condition that assured her a permanent state of honor.”8 The deception to which women were susceptible in this exchange “was so frequent and endemic” that it acquired a specific vocabulary in Italian: “dare la burla (to give the trick); gettare la burla (to throw the trick); or burlare (to trick or deceive in the sense of making a fool of).”9 A man had the power, in other words, to rescind a promise of marriage simply by turning it into a “trick” and thus mocking the woman and those with her who had foolishly believed him.

Balthasar alludes to this practice of false wooing when he sings about the “fraud of men” who “were deceivers ever” (II.iii.63, 72) and advises women to “sigh not so, but let them go, / And be you blithe and bonny” (II.iii.66-7). Such tricks also occur frequently in Shakespeare's other comedies. Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well breaks his promises to both Helena and Diana: he flees from Helena before consummating their marriage and abandons Diana after (apparently) seducing her. Similarly, in Measure for Measure, Claudio impregnates Juliet before their marriage, Lucio breaks his promise to marry Kate Keep-down after she becomes pregnant, and Angelo gives Mariana the trick “in chief / For that her reputation was disvalu’d” (V.i.219-20).

When Beatrice complains to Benedick that “You always end with a jade's trick, I know you of old” (I.i.133-4), she suggests a scenario in which Benedick “gave the trick” to negate a promise of marriage. Although Much Ado about Nothing could not support an explicit reference to this kind of deception, the hint of such duplicitous behavior, common as it was, is sufficient to darken briefly the comedy's light-hearted tone. Beatrice's words “always” and “of old” suggest that Benedick characteristically retreated when he felt threatened by her, as he does during the dance when she approaches with Claudio and as he does during their badinage after volleying a last insult.

Again and again, Beatrice conflates her feelings for Benedick with sex and pregnancy. Explaining to Don Pedro that she once gave Benedick “a double heart for his single one” (II.i.261-2), she conjures a metaphor of considerable intimacy. By “double heart” she may be referring to the union of her heart with Benedick's, or to the compounded interest that she earned on his borrowed affection. The metaphor carries the added implication that in return for Benedick's “single” heart, she could have given him two, hers and a child's. The “not” that ties her and Benedick together would then signify a miscarriage or abortion—that is, an absent child who remains unspoken, but nevertheless haunts her conversation about Benedick and marriage. The play's frequent references to Hercules, who murdered his children, his nephew's children, and King Eurytus's son, subliminally evoke, at least, the idea of lost children and the need for forgiveness. Although the predominant tone of the play cannot support more than this furtive suggestion, that suggestion is enough.

Even the title of Much Ado about Nothing subtly suggests as part of the play's metaphoric structure the idea of a lost child. In the seventeenth century, “nothing” could signify a nobody as well as something or someone destroyed or non-existent; according to the editors of the OED, Shakespeare established the first usage of several meanings of this world.10 We also ought to recall that Shakespeare would have likely been thinking about a dead child while composing the play, for he wrote it around the middle or later part of 1598, soon after losing Hamnet, his only son.11 The term “ado” in the title not only meant action or fuss, but also signified labor or work forced upon a person, as in Hercules' labors or the labor of childbirth; the editors of the OED identify its usage as “labour, trouble, difficulty” as early as 1485.12 Thus the phrase “much ado about nothing” includes among its various implications the tragedy of miscarriage or the death of an infant, for which a woman suffered much without producing a living child.13

In Beatrice's conversation with Don Pedro, her thoughts turn naturally from Benedick to childbirth. When Don Pedro presumes she must have been “born in a merry hour” because she is so “pleasant-spirited,” she takes him literally, responding with uncommon candor about the pain of birthing: “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried” (II.i.314, 320, 315).14 That Beatrice, too, has experienced such pain remains—and, to preserve the play's comic atmosphere, must remain—virtually impossible. Yet, she obscures the outcome of her and Benedick's previous romance:

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.


Although “it” signifies Benedick's heart in the first two phrases—“he lent it me” and “I gave him use for it” (II.i.261-2)—its subsequent meaning is less clear. Logically, “he won it of me” ought to refer to Beatrice's heart, which Benedick claimed under false pretenses (i.e., “false dice”). But grammatically we expect the antecedent to remain consistent and “it” to signify still Benedick's heart. Substituting “Benedick's heart” for “it,” however, makes little sense: once before he won his own heart from her? Beatrice may, of course, mean that Benedick had won his heart back from her, but the passage's ambiguity at least temporarily reunites Beatrice's and Benedick's hearts: her explanation grammatically re-creates the “double heart” that she describes.

Like the half-disclosed events that precede the play, Beatrice's antecedents are teasingly unclear; that the “it” signifying Benedick's heart becomes unstable insinuates that he was unfaithful to her. In the final phrase “I have lost it,” Beatrice may mean that she has lost her heart to Benedick or that she lost Benedick's heart. The ambiguity in the previous usage of “it” now allows a flood of possibilities to rush in. We can no longer say with certainty what Beatrice has lost from her past relationship with Benedick—his heart? her heart? her virginity? a child? Perhaps “it” means that she has lost the game of courting, the metaphor she introduces in the phrase “he won … with false dice.”

Beatrice's claim that “I am sunburnt” (II.i.300) suggests still another kind of loss. By sunburnt, she observes that, unlike the “fair Hero” (II.i.280-1), she is dark-complexioned and, therefore, not attractive enough to marry, according to Renaissance notions of beauty. “Burnt” in early modern England, however, also meant parched or dried up, as from a sexually transmitted disease.15 Beatrice specifically complains that she is “sick” when she learns that Benedick loves her. Margaret's punning prescription, “distilled carduus benedictus” (III.iv.68), refers to a general cure-all used during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that had a special application for women.16 The herbalist William Langham claimed that carduus benedictus “helpeth the matrix” and “provoketh … the termes,” and in his guidebook for midwives, Jacob Rueff notes the tradition that “If a woman take the juyce of Carduus, and shall cast it up againe being taken, it is supposed to be a certaine signe of conception.”17 Beatrice's complaint that “I am stuffed” (III.iv.59) thus warrants Margaret's remedy; like Benedick's sexually suggestive name, her diction has a sexual innuendo. Triggering a series of other bawdy puns—“prick'st,” “thistle” (III.iv.71)—the word “stuffed” and the reference to carduus benedictus together evoke sex and pregnancy, which, although not literally true, reveal how Beatrice thinks about a relationship with Benedick.

Throughout the play, Beatrice uses metaphors of disease to refer to Benedick. If she suffers, he is to blame, for she has caught “the Benedick,” a sickness that, she jokes, costs a thousand pounds to cure (I.i.81). Scorning his new friendship with Claudio, Beatrice playfully warns that Benedick “will hang upon him like a disease” and that Benedick “is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad” (I.i.78-80). Even at the wedding, Beatrice finally relents only because, she tells Benedick, “I was told you were in a consumption” (V.iv.96). Though couched in these humorous remarks, Beatrice's association of Benedick with disease suggests that their previous relationship has caused her considerable injury. The final allusion also recalls Hercules' relationship to Queen Omphale: just as the diseased Hercules obtains absolution by serving as Omphale's effeminized slave, Benedick, too, may be seeking forgiveness when he submits to Beatrice's charge.

Benedick is the one character who seems to recognize Beatrice's unhappiness perhaps because, the play suggests, he knows its cause. Whereas Don Pedro especially misunderstands Beatrice—he ignores her repeated attempts to change the subject to her cousin18 and overlooks her insulting reference to his bastard brother, “Hath your Grace ne’er a brother like you?” (II.i.304)—Benedick intimates that he and Beatrice know a great deal about each other.19 Referring to Beatrice's “base (though bitter) disposition” (II.i.193), for example, Benedick may be alluding to her hurt feelings from their previous encounter.20 Rather than implying a causal relationship between the two words—i.e., that Beatrice is bitter because of her poor quality—Benedick positions them as two contradictory facts, “base (though bitter),” as if the latter somehow restricted or qualified the former. The adversative phrase “though bitter” thus suggests that he sympathizes with Beatrice; while belittling her, he parenthetically acknowledges what no one else in the play realizes: she is nevertheless full of affliction.21

Similarly, as Benedick attempts to write Beatrice a poem, his poor rhymes create provocative word associations. Benedick keeps stumbling on “very ominous endings”: he “can find out no rhyme to ‘lady’ but ‘baby,’” and all he can think of for “scorn,” is the “hard rhyme” of the cuckold's “horn” (V.ii.35-9). His frustration not only implies the limits of conventional poetry, but also hints at the circumstances of some half-disclosed, failed affair.22 Just as Beatrice conflates her feelings for Benedick with sex, pregnancy, and disease, he thinks about their relationship in these “ominous” terms; when he tries to articulate his love, his mind immediately turns to images of a child, rejection, and unfaithfulness.

The couple's final rapprochement within a comic framework requires, however, that such grim events remain ambiguous. Any attempt to argue that Beatrice and Benedick had a child or that they once had a sexual relationship would be to push into literalism the characters' wordplay and metaphors—or, again in terms of the play's title, to make too much ado about nothing. On the contrary, Shakespeare teases us: the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, as predominantly drawn, could not have experienced the darker, more realistic history that their language implies. Beatrice affirms, after all, that she is still a virgin when she imagines the devil addressing her, “Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven, here's no place for you maids” (II.i.41-2). But when Beatrice envisions her death, she first goes, not to heaven, but to the gates of hell: “and there will the Devil meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his head” (II.i.39-40). With the placement of “like an old cuckold,” she could be describing the devil or comparing herself to a man whose wife has committed adultery. Once again, her language encourages us to question momentarily her sexual experience. When Beatrice says that she will “lead his apes into hell” (II.i.37), she refers, on the one hand, to the peculiar proverb that virgins escort apes in the underworld. On the other hand, at least one version of this proverb, the ballad “The Maid and the Palmer,” describes a maid who must “lead an ape in hell” as part of her penance for having buried her illegitimate children.23


This strategy of evoking a fragmentary, undeveloped history, which enriches the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, arises repeatedly in Much Ado about Nothing. Dogberry elliptically refers to the losses he has endured (IV.ii.82), Leonato's wife, Innogen, appears in only two scene headings (I.i and II.i), and Beatrice's parents remain absent and undiscussed. Leonato inquires after Antonio's son (I.ii.1) and claims that Claudio “hath an uncle here in Messina” (I.i.17), but neither character is incorporated into the play. We do not know against whom Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick have been fighting in their recent battle, nor can we explain with certainty whether Don John is their prisoner or a disgruntled ally. More information about Margaret's former relationship with Borachio might help us comprehend how she would agree to dress in Hero's clothes, stand in Hero's window, be addressed as Hero, and bid Borachio as Claudio “a thousand times good night” (III.iii.142-3).24 In an attempt to account for such inconsistencies, John Dover Wilson and Arthur Quiller-Couch have argued that the ambiguities in the text represent vestiges of an older play that Shakespeare was hurriedly revising. According to Wilson and Quiller-Couch, Shakespeare reworked the play into its surviving state by emphasizing the plot of Beatrice and Benedick, but retaining as much of the older version as possible.25

Regardless of its origin—Shakespeare's artistry or the traces of an unknown source-text—this technique of partial information characterizes Shakespeare's dramaturgy: the details of the characters' pasts hover on the periphery of the plays, spied from the corner of our eyes, but frustrating any attempt to specify what has previously transpired. We cannot pinpoint, for example, whether the ghost lies to Hamlet about Claudius's adultery; we are not even told why the crown passed to Claudius, and can only speculate about the exact nature of Hamlet's relationship to Ophelia before his father's death. In King Lear, the absent mother receives scant attention; in Othello, Iago inexplicably refers to Cassio's “fair wife”;26 and in The Winter's Tale, the events of Polixenes' nine-month visit to Sicily remain ambiguous as do the pressing matters that he cites when he tries to depart. In Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets are feuding—but why?

Such shadowy narrative contexts draw us into the dramas by tantalizing us with what has already occurred. We believe that the characters have a past because they do not enter with neat, packaged explanations of their previous experiences; the plays seem more realistic because the characters' lives exceed the boundaries of the stage. As Norman Rabkin argues, Shakespeare's artistic achievement lies in his ability “to create illusory worlds which, like the world we feel about us, make sense in ways that consistently elude our power to articulate them rationally.”27 According to Rabkin, we must understand the worlds of the plays intuitively because they “cannot be reduced to sense.”28 Writing on the Henry IV plays, John Rumrich also emphasizes this kind of “organic messiness” inherent in the “evocative idiom of the dramas”; he suggests that Shakespeare's play-making depends on its “life-like mingling of significance and irresolvability,” which often defies the restrictive categories imposed by a critical analysis.29

More specifically, the genteel world of Shakespeare's comedy cannot accommodate the volatile passions to which the characters allude. No one in Messina, for example, is able to confront the emotional events that precede the play: except for the messenger's terse account of Don Pedro's victory, we learn little about the recent battle, and the characters can only refer to painful memories covertly. Describing what she calls Messina's “sophisticated, graceful, almost choreographic social forms,” Carol Cook notes that its inhabitants often rely on humor to communicate their aggression; the “tight rein kept on emotions” makes “them difficult or dangerous to express.”30

Such dangerous emotions receive a fuller and more open treatment in Shakespeare's later comedies. If we doubt that he would have crafted such a cruel history for Beatrice and Benedick, we should recall that Shakespeare often built his comedies around tragic or potentially tragic circumstances. In Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus encourages his niece to become Troilus's mistress. In All's Well that Ends Well, Bertram callously rejects Helena, cruelly tortures his follower Parolles—and shows scant signs of repentance at the play's end. The third of the “problem comedies,” Measure for Measure, focuses on prostitution, capital punishment, and premarital intercourse.31 Claudio tries to escape execution by persuading his sister Isabella to gratify Angelo sexually, and Angelo covers up his sexual exploits by ordering Claudio's death.

Although in Much Ado about Nothing Messina, like Beatrice, appears “pleasant-spirited” (II.i.320), it too harbors these darker sentiments. When Claudio, Leonato, and Beatrice successively release their pent-up hostility at the wedding, we momentarily witness the intense emotions that have been percolating beneath Messina's decorum.32 These feelings remain for the most part offstage, however, or lurk in the play's humor and imagery. Just as we do not know what has previously transpired, we must infer what will happen after the final act. Benedick tells Don Pedro not to think about the captured Don John “till tomorrow; I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him” (V.iv.125-6). He then immediately exclaims, “Strike up, pipers!” which is followed by the single stage-direction, “Dance” (V.iv.126). Such celebrating suggests a cathartic release, but it also represents an artful dodge: the inhabitants of Messina, in particular Benedick, make “much ado” so as to escape serious consequences. Benedick's promise displaces the torture of Don John, as if Messina could not tolerate such violence; the play cannot linger over his treachery for it to sustain its comic tone. Don John flees after Hero allegedly dies, Hero copes with her public humiliation by hiding, and Don Pedro assuages the pain of Beatrice's rejection by distracting himself with his elaborate match-making. Again and again, the characters turn away from difficult situations; they even brush aside Margaret's complicity, rationalizing that she helped Borachio “against her will” (V.iv.5).33

Benedick most consistently embodies the play's strategy of fleeing from serious consequences. He wears a mask to speak with Beatrice, for example, and cowers in the arbor to avoid Don Pedro and Claudio. He takes flight whenever he feels threatened—at the dance, during his conversation with Beatrice, and during his past visit to Messina. That Benedick should speak the final line is thus fitting: the play leaves us with the threat of violence—Don John's “brave punishments”—but just as the comedy persistently averts its attention from a sense of loss, these punishments remain deflected, put off indefinitely until a “tomorrow” that will never come.

In like manner, Beatrice and Benedick's past is there and not there, alluded to but absent. Rather than depict (or even fully explain) the couple's previous, failed relationship, Shakespeare constructs a parallel narrative with less emotionally complex lovers, Hero and Claudio, whose losses are visible and potentially more devastating than what Beatrice and Benedick have endured. Presumably, because this pair of lovers quickly recovers, so can Beatrice and Benedick. The plot of Hero and Claudio thus represents the present displacement of Beatrice and Benedick's earlier romance; like the jokes that the characters use to sublimate their passions, the story of Hero and Claudio furtively suggests the pain of Benedick and Beatrice. Within Hero's plot, a loss of virginity results in a child's death, and Claudio, like Hercules, must perform a series of prescribed tasks to achieve absolution: he must clear Hero's name, “Hang her an epitaph upon her tomb, / And sing it to her bones,” and then marry Leonato's fictitious niece (V.i.278-9). This plot does not entirely correspond to Beatrice and Benedick's; it refracts and compresses parts of the narrative I have been suggesting.34 Hero supposedly loses her virginity, for example, the “child” that dies is Leonato's, and, of course, Leonato only pretends that Hero dies. But these discrepancies render Beatrice's possible loss all the more poignant, for the play implies that she may have truly suffered what Leonato feigns and, unlike the fair Hero, she may have truly lost her virginity.

The irony lies in the play's title, “much ado about nothing.” It refers to the characters' strategy for denying serious consequences by occupying themselves with futile activity, and, as we have seen, it specifically describes Beatrice's suffering—she endured much ado and she has come away with nothing. The title applies to the relationship between Claudio and Hero because he creates a great deal of fuss over nothing: in fact, Hero has not lost her virginity and she only pretends to die.35 “Nothing” also means the absence of a “thing,” and “thing” in the Renaissance euphemistically signified a penis; this sense applies to the play in that Claudio makes a fuss about Hero's sexual organ. But Beatrice, too, has experienced a great deal of labor/ado because of her “no thing”—because of her womanhood and perhaps because of a lost child. Her emotional response to Hero's ostracism at the wedding becomes even more touching when we acknowledge that Beatrice may empathize with Hero. Beatrice, too, has suffered.

Throughout the play, we encounter metaphoric shades and echoes of “nothing,” such as Hero's virtual silence in the opening scene, the watch's orders to do essentially nothing (III.iii.25-80), and Don John's inability to devise any mischief without Borachio's prompting. In addition to its many instances of deflection, Much Ado about Nothing depends on trickery and lying (Don John's machinations, Claudio's false accusation, the ruse to bring together Benedick and Beatrice), words full of sound, veiling their characters' fury, and signifying not the thing that they pretend to represent. The absence of Benedick and Beatrice's child and, more generally, their shared past suggests another manifestation of this theme. By only glimpsing Benedick and Beatrice's previous romance, we can appreciate their “merry war” while remaining distanced enough to find their plight humorous. For us to laugh rather than sympathize, they must make much ado about “nothing”; the source of their pain must remain offstage, just beyond our comprehension.

The technique of implying an undeveloped, fragmentary history for Benedick and Beatrice corresponds to the imagined lost child that haunts their relationship: the details of their previous romance represent a miscarried fiction that complements the fully-conceived narrative, occupying the stage. “I was born to speak all mirth and no matter,” Beatrice explains to Don Pedro after rejecting his marriage proposal (II.i.310-1). She is pretending that she is light-hearted, but her explanation also implies that she cannot speak any “matter”: she suggests that, because she was born a woman, everything she says is interpreted as mirth. Or she may be hinting that as a woman she must cloak her real feelings with humor. The genre of comedy also demands that she speaks “all mirth” and that what “matters” to Beatrice be communicated in densely allusive language, which continually threatens to undercut the play's light-hearted tone, but can never be explicitly articulated.36


  1. William Shakespeare, the Arden Edition of Much Ado about Nothing, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Routledge, 1981). Future references will appear parenthetically in the text by act, scene, and line number. In all cases I have checked the text against the first quarto, Much adoe about Nothing (London, 1600), at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin (STC 22304; Pforz 819).

  2. This and all subsequent information regarding the myth of Hercules is taken from Edward Tripp, The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1970), pp. 275-95. I have also consulted Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry (New York: Pagent Book, 1957); and Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, trans. Barbara F. Sessions (New York: Pantheon Books, 1953).

  3. Ironically, Benedick resembles Hercules not through his feats of strength during the war, but in his acceptance of a woman's sovereignty. He appears most heroic when, at Beatrice's prompting, he severs his friendships with Claudio and Don Pedro, and thus resigns from the battlefield. The two kiddingly taunt Benedick to distract themselves from their “high-proof melancholy,” but he remains serious and reserved, gallantly thanking Don Pedro for his “many courtesies” and formally announcing that “I must discontinue your company” (V.i.123, 185-7).

  4. Accepting Beatrice's charge, Benedick, like Hercules under Queen Omphale, is made effeminate though still forceful. Beatrice claims that if she were married to a husband without a beard, she would “Dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting-gentlewoman” (II.i.30-1). After learning of Beatrice's love for him, Benedick complies—he shaves, and thus submits, at least symbolically, to her authority. Borachio explicitly refers to a “shaven Hercules” when he contrasts the clothes of “Pharaoh's soldiers” with “Bel's priests” and “the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club” (III.iii.130-4). This image seems to conflate the myth of Hercules with the story of Samson. By simultaneously evoking Hercules' virility and blind Samson's emasculation, the image captures the paradoxical nature of Benedick's changed status. After accepting Beatrice's love, Benedick is both cowed and potent: he shaves according to Beatrice's preference, but in complying with her command he bravely challenges Claudio and defends Hero's honor.

  5. Rather than choose the lance or long-distance arrow, Beatrice mocks Benedick's manhood by arming and countering him with this modest weapon.

  6. Carol Cook, “‘The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing,PMLA 101, 2 (March 1986): 186-202, 191.

  7. Neither the quarto nor the First Folio version punctuates this line.

  8. Sandra Cavallo and Simona Cerutti, “Female Honor and the Social Control of Reproduction in Piedmont between 1600 and 1800,” in Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, trans. Margaret A. Gallucci (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 73-109, 76, 77-8. For the frequency of prenuptial fornication, see Martin Ingram, Church Courts, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987). Ingram claims that the “[a]ttitudes to antenuptial fornication are best summed up as ambivalent but, especially before the end of Elizabeth's reign, tending towards tolerance” (p. 230). For example, the Duke in Measure for Measure (ed. J. W. Lever [London: Routledge, 1992]), claims that Mariana may sleep with Angelo, for “He is your husband on a pre-contract: / To bring you thus together ’tis no sin” (IV.i.72-3).

  9. Cavallo and Cerutti, p. 78. As Ralph A. Houlbrooke observes in The English Family 1450-1700 (London: Longman, 1984), such “private agreements or promises … might be highly informal” and therefore “could not be enforced at law” (pp. 81-2).

  10. For an example of the definition that I am applying here, see Lysander's comment during the rustic's play in A Midsummer-Night's Dream, ed. Harold F. Brooks (London: Routledge, 1991): “Less than an ace, man; for he is dead, he is nothing” (V.i.297). See also Cardinal Wolsey in King Henry VIII, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Routledge, 1991):

                        So looks the chafed lion
    Upon the daring huntsman that has gall’d him;
    Then makes him nothing.


    As an example of “nothing” meaning “a nobody,” see Imogen's outburst in Cymbeline (ed. J. M. Nosworthy [London: Routledge, 1991]):

    No court, no father, nor no more ado
    With that harsh, noble, simple nothing,
    That Cloten, whose love-suit hath been to me
    As fearful as a siege.


  11. We can only speculate how devastating Hamnet's death may have been for the author: as the biographer S. Schoenbaum notes, with Hamnet “died Shakespeare's hopes of preserving the family name according to the common way of mankind” (Shakespeare's Lives [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991], p. 12). From the parish records we learn that the twins Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare were christened on 2 February 1585, and that Hamnet was buried on 11 August 1596.

  12. In The Historie of the Pitifull Life, and Unfortunate Death of Edward the Fifth (London: William Sheares, 1641; Wing M2688A), Thomas More writes, for example, that “the Dutches had much adoe in her travell, that shee could not be delivered of him uncut, and that hee came into the world the feet forward” (B3v). Similarly, in Thystorye and Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete Kynge of Frauuce (1485; STC 5013), William Caxton writes “And made no more a-doo to bere hym, than dooth a wulf to bere a lytel lambe.”

  13. Based on the methods of delivery described in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century guidebooks, the woman whose child died in the womb experienced considerably more pain than the woman who had a “normal” delivery. In The Expert Midwife, Or An Excellent and most necessary Treatise of the generation and birth of Man (London, 1637; STC 21442), for example, Jacob Rueff recommends (and includes pictures of) scraping and pulling devices that appear more torturous than useful.

  14. Beatrice's reference to her mother's crying may imply, more generally, her cultural disappointment in giving birth to a daughter, especially such a strong-willed daughter as Beatrice proves to be. But we ought not to underestimate her literal meaning, given that no anesthetics were used during the Renaissance to alleviate the pains of birthing. In Child-birth, or The Happy Deliverie of Women (London, 1612; STC 12496), Jacques Guillemeau only recommends that the laboring woman, “as soone as she feeles her selfe stirred and prouoked with throwes and paines,” ought to “walke vp and down the chamber, and then lay herselfe down warm in her bed,” repeating this action until “the water bee gathered, and the Matrice be opened” (L4r).

  15. William Robertson cites the expression “a burnt whore” in Phraseologia generalis (Cambridge: Daniel Browne, 1693; Wing R1617A), p. 289.

  16. According to herbalist encyclopedias, carduus benedictus was used, among other applications, to assuage fevers, comfort the brain, prevent the plague, induce appetite, cure halitosis, improve the memory, relieve snakebites, and “strengtheneth all the principall partes of the bodie” (see Thomas Cogan, Haven of Health [London, 1584; STC 5478], G3v-G4r; and William Langham, The Garden of Health [London, 1597; STC 15195], E8r-F3r).

  17. Langham, E8v, F2r; Rueff, N6r).

  18. See II.i.268, 296, 317.

  19. In light of all the implications in Beatrice's speeches—sex, childbirth, disease, and loss—her rejection of Don Pedro, which may initially surprise readers, now seems logical. He proposes while she reflects upon the suffering she endured in her past relationship with Benedick and, more generally, the pain associated with being a woman. In this frame of mind, she would not likely accept any man, even a prince.

  20. I am following the punctuation of the first quarto, C1v. In the Arden Edition of Much Ado about Nothing, Humphreys uses commas to set off the phrase “though bitter.”

  21. Interestingly, the word “base” not only meant of poor quality, but also denoted illegitimacy, as in Edmund's soliloquy in King Lear (ed. Kenneth Muir [London: Routledge, 1991]): “Why bastard? Wherefore base?” (I.ii.6). Benedick's diction playfully suggests one possible explanation for Beatrice's missing parents. For this definition of “base,” see also Henry Cornelius Agrippa, The Commendation of Matrimony, trans. David Clapham (London, 1534), B8r: “For he is base borne, and is the sonne of the people, yea rather the sonne of no man, which is the chylde of a woman not laufully maryed.”

  22. Susan C. Shapiro in “The Originals of Shakespeare's Beatrice and Hero” (N&Q 25, 2 [April 1978]: 133-4), argues that Penelope Devereaux, the strong-willed wife of Lord Rich, served as a model of Beatrice. Reportedly Devereaux was so independent that she refused to live with her husband “except at odd intervals.” If we accept Shapiro's claim, Benedick's “halting sonnet” (V.iv.87) to his lover becomes that much more humorous, for Lady Rich served as the model for Sidney's “Stella,” and more generally, as a patron of literature, she often had poems addressed to her. That she bore five children by her lover Lord Mountjoy—which echoes Beatrice's nickname for Benedick, “Signior Mountanto”—suggests that the potential inspiration for Beatrice did not let the niceties of social expectations deter her, even in pursuing her sexual desires.

  23. Francis James Child, ed., “The Maid and the Palmer,” in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols. (New York: Folklore Press, 1956), 1:232. See also Humphreys, ed., Much Ado about Nothing, p. 111, for other references to this proverb. For the common problem of women abandoning or murdering their illegitimate children so as to avoid the severe consequences of bastardy, see R. V. Schnucker, “The English Puritans and Pregnancy, Delivery and Breast Feeding,” History of Childhood Quarterly 1, 4 (Spring 1974): 637-58.

  24. We learn the details of the deception piecemeal. I have combined here Borachio's original description of the plot (II.ii.33-50), his boastful conversation with Conrade (III.iii.139-47), and his confession to Don Pedro and Claudio (V.i.225-38).

  25. “The Copy for Much Ado about Nothing, 1600,” in Much Ado about Nothing, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 89-108.

  26. Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Walton-on-Thames, Surrey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997), I.i.20.

  27. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 13.

  28. Ibid.

  29. John P. Rumrich, “Shakespeare's Walking Plays: Image and Form in 1 and 2 Henry IV,” in Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, ed. John W. Velz (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996), pp. 111-41, 112, 113.

  30. Cook, p. 193.

  31. Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn ([Berkeley: Univ. California Press, 1981], pp. 2-3), neatly summarizes the various uses of the label “problem comedies.” Applying the term only to All's Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, Wheeler argues that these two plays “occupy a transitional place in Shakespeare's development of comic form” (p. 2).

  32. Responding to critics who have complained that Claudio's violent denunciation at the wedding mars the play's comic tone, Cook argues that this eruption of “naked emotions” is intended to startle us (p. 193).

  33. To account for Margaret's participation, Borachio claims that she “knew not what she did” (V.i.295), and Leonato offers the terse, unsatisfactory explanation that

              Margaret was in some fault for this,
    Although against her will, as it appears
    In the true course of all the question.


  34. We glimpse the difference between the two stories in the stringency of the two men's punishments: whereas Claudio's labor seems, by his own admission, “overkindness” (V.i.287), Benedick's labor requires that he “Kill Claudio” (IV.i.288). Beatrice's bluntness and alliteration emphasize the severity of what she asks.

  35. The word “nothing” also connotes something that is not very much, like a failed romance, which could apply equally to Claudio and Hero as well as Benedick and Beatrice.

  36. For advice and encouragement in the writing of this essay, I would like to thank Eric Mallin, Shannon Prosser, and John Rumrich.

Kathleen L. Carroll (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Americanization of Beatrice: Nineteenth-Century Style,” Theatre Survey, Vol. 31, No. 1, May, 1990, pp. 67-84.

[In the following essay, Carroll examines two nineteenth-century American portrayals of Beatrice and contends that each reflects a different idealization of femininity.]

To nineteenth-century theatre managers, who believed in the play as a commercial venture rather than an aesthetic one, portrayal of the modern American woman presented a dilemma. Sophisticated theatre-goers, familiar with the rhetoric of the women's suffrage movement, looked to female role models for direction on how to maintain a delicate balance between independence and subservience: to project strength of convictions without loss of femininity (traditionally measured by male desirability), and to remain dependent on the economic necessity of marriage (Ziff, 278-80). Speculative theatre managers found Shakespeare's comedies especially adaptable to modern audience's tastes because the plays lacked stage directions, required no royalty payments, were exempt from copyright laws, and centered on ambiguous female characters. American audiences, believing they were becoming cultured, supported Shakespearean revivals, and strongly applauded those plays Americanized by theatre managers. Two late nineteenth-century productions of Much Ado About Nothing, one in 1882 by Henry Irving, the other in 1896 by Augustian Daly, clearly demonstrate how each speculative manager, acting in the name of art, refashioned Shakespeare's text and interpreted Beatrice around his own ideal of femininity, an ideal each believed American audiences would endorse.

Charles Shattuck has said that, “During the last quarter of the nineteenth century and throughout the Edwardian era, society in America … experienced an extraordinary intensification of woman-worship” (II, 93). This phenomenon, running concurrently with the women's rights movement, contradicted feminist thinking. The fashions of the 1890s—“party gowns with exposed, glowing shoulders, conspicuous bosoms, constricted waists, swelling hips, and long sweeping trains”—demonstrate that “women were being dressed and paraded, coveted by men and envied by women, for their attractiveness as sex-objects” (Shattuck, II, 93). The Theatre Diary of Marie Elizabeth Jeffreys Hobart, a privately collected scrap book containing programs, photographs, and newspaper clippings, as well as private commentaries on the performances she and her contemporaries witnessed during the 1890s, confirms Shattuck's claim. Female stars and plays featuring these stars predominate the scrapbook's contents.

Mrs. Hobart witnessed both Irving's and Daly's Much Ado; the contents of her scrapbook reveal her preference for Daly's production, as well as her adoration of Ada Rehan. Living in an era when magazines and the theatre provided the basic reference source for feminine behavior, Mrs. Hobart and her companions religiously followed Ada Rehan's performances. Shattuck reports that “As public affection for Miss Rehan grew into almost a cult (and Daly's affection for her grew into a personal passion), Daly promoted her above everything else. His theatre became a temple where the people gathered to worship the beloved Ada, a secular Madonna” (95). Mrs. Hobart regularly attended Daly's “temple,” and her theatre diary reflects her interest in the stage portrayals of womanhood. Like other controlling theatre managers of his time, Daly, to suit his own commercial needs, shaped the image of femininity projected by Ada Rehan and adored by Mrs. Hobart and her companions. Within the annals of American theatre history, Augustin Daly holds a reputation as “autocrat of the stage” (Taubman, 114). To historians his reign, 1876 to 1899, symbolizes nineteenth-century theatre tradition: a theatre manager whose commercial ventures incorporated the American love of melodrama and popular character types; who endorsed the American practice of centering a play around a star; who Americanized foreign productions instead of encouraging native playwrights; and who firmly believed that in return for the “very large popular support [he] always received” his own generation deserved the opportunity of seeing the works of Shakespeare “in their best shape” (Felheim, 242, quoting Daly). Daly's critics have tended to deprecate his management style and his notions of stagecraft by insinuating that he modeled his theatre practices after those of Henry Irving (Felheim, 14). Although Daly denied these accusations in a letter to Winter, whom he commissioned to write the scripts for his Shakespearean revivals,1 he and Irving shared the common belief that they could stage Shakespeare better than Shakespeare himself.

To render Shakespeare into ‘his’ best shape, Daly (and Irving) rigorously inspected the texts to adjust “the decor to suit the poetry” and to eliminate all taints of bad taste—a standard determined “by an audience whose manners were dictated by fussy society editors” (Felheim, 234). To accomplish his goal, “Daly saw no harm in transferring speeches from one character to another” (Felheim, 236), meddling with lines and words, and rearranging scenes to give his featured performer stronger stage presence—a stage practice employed by Irving as well. These practices and beliefs justified Daly's 1896 production of Much Ado About Nothing, a rendition he announced would “secure from promptbooks the most approved rendering of the many disputed passages” (“Announcement of Daly's Opening,” 11). Daly's point of comparison was Irving's 1882 revival, a production that enjoyed three successful American tours in 1884, 1888, and 1894.

Since Shakespeare offers few explicit stage directions, theatre managers have traditionally taken the liberty of modernizing Shakespeare's characters into facsimiles of their own contemporary society. A comparison of the historical productions of Much Ado demonstrates this American (and British) practice and reflects the changing idealized view of femininity during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Staging Beatrice as either a strong-willed or a submissive woman determines audience interpretation of the play. How seriously Beatrice delivers her command to Benedick to “kill Claudio” as a sign of love for her determines whether the audience sees the play as a light-hearted comedy or a disturbing one, hinting at an underlying tragic tone. A half-serious, joking delivery of these lines would suggest that Beatrice is frivolous, flirtatious, and a submissive marriage partner; whereas, a strong, serious delivery would suggest a woman who believes in the power of her selfhood, one who will stand on equal footing with any man she marries. In the text Shakespeare cleverly balances the verbal exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice, distributing their verbal sparring equally between the two; and cleverly contrasts the Hero-Claudio marriage plot to that of Benedick and Beatrice. Female character strength or submission is determined by the performer's expressions, inflections, actions and gestures—the stage directions dictated by the manager to render his desired portrait of Beatrice.

Traditionally Much Ado was staged as a comedy, and Henry Irving's 1882 production was the most comic rendition of the day. Critics used this rendition as the standard against which they evaluated other productions. They measured the play's success by how convincingly the humorous verbal wit swept over the tragic elements, or what these theatre managers called “the disputed passages.” Although Augustin Daly's interest in rendering a different interpretation was primarily commercial, his refashioning of the play into a melodrama challenged Irving's ‘authoritative’ version. Each manager interpolated the original to attain his goal; ironically, each manager claimed he was giving his audience the most authentic interpretation of Shakespeare's text.

In 1882 Irving needed another Shakespearean production “to balance the programme for his forthcoming visit to America” and believed that Much Ado would “relieve the tragic gloom of the other plays he was taking with him” (L. Irving, 401). In this spirit, Irving included Much Ado in his repertoire and cast Ellen Terry as Beatrice. To effect the comic spirit, he “rejected entirely any suggestions of the capricious shrew” in Beatrice's character and rendered Ellen Terry/Beatrice into a “personification of a pleasant-spirited lady—all mirth and audacious mockery—a stranger to melancholy” (L. Irving, 401). He downplayed the image of Beatrice as a disdainful woman, diminished the sincerity of her request to “kill Claudio,” and consequently reduced the significance of the uncomic affair of Hero and Claudio. The 212 nights the play ran before full houses indicate the audience’s enthusiasm for the play. Irving wanted to make Beatrice's indignation rather comic. His promptbook demonstrates that he interpolated gestures and altered lines to maintain the image of Beatrice as a character lacking complexity—his “pleasant-spirited” lady is angry at Claudio, pities Hero, and hopes to win Benedick's affections.

When Irving arrived in America in 1884, he brought a production of Much Ado that required a company of celebrities, artistic scenery noted for its “beautiful scenic effects,” and a production whose musical arrangement required an orchestra, military band, an organ, and a full chorus. To intensify the merry effect Irving “made the comedy almost an opera.” He concentrated on the capricious and witty verbal exchanges between Benedick (played by himself) and Beatrice to draw many laughs from his audience. Irving delivered Benedick's jests with a “military bluntness”; he produced “strong comic effects when love leads Benedick to play the fop in his attire, and causes him to quarrel with Claudio.” Ellen Terry stressed Beatrice's femininity throughout the play. She delivered the comic scenes with “airy graces and charming coquetry” (Fiske, “Review-1884”).

Benedick and Beatrice's verbal exchange begins when he greets her with “Well my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” (I.i.119).2 Irving pencilled in his promptbook that at this moment, Benedick “kisses her hand.” This gesture diminishes Beatrice's disdainful manner, for few men would kiss the hand of a scornful woman. Irving strengthens this initial portrait by including “hoo's and Ah's” throughout the verbal sparring in Act I. These merry additions suggest the characters on stage do not take the bantering seriously; the audience takes their cue from the characters. In Act II, the masquerade scene, Beatrice delivers her barbs to Benedick in disguise “with an airy grace”; Benedick, in turn, omits the most scornful lines describing Beatrice in his “O, she misus’d me” speech. After Hero's defamation in Act IV, when Benedick asks: “Is there any way to show such friendship?” Benedick “takes Beatrice's hand and kisses it.” Irving's stage directions imply he wants the “kill Claudio” scene to serve as pivotal in the realization of their mutual love. Benedick responds to Beatrice's ultimatum with “HA! not for the wide world,” and then “seizes her hand.” Irving interpolates lines and gestures into this disengagement scene: he seals each of his pledges by “kissing her hand”; to Benedick's line “I will challenge him,” he adds “by your will, by your bright eyes I will”; to “I must say she’s dead,” he adds, “as sure as I’m alive I will”; and he omits “And so farewell.” Irving added this gag because “many actors felt this scene lacked vehemence, and Benedick needed a more forceful disengagement” (L. Irving, 403). Irving's addition strengthens Benedick's and Beatrice's commitment; their mutual agreement on Claudio's wrong becomes a reason to pledge their love. Irving manages to win the audience's approval of this love match with his “devouring eyes,” repeated embraces of Beatrice, and Beatrice's willing surrender to his approaches (Fiske, 1884). Their love continues to grow throughout the rest of the play. To remind the audience of their bond, Irving ends their exchange with Benedick's promise: “I will never love that which my friend hates.” At the end of the play, “Beatrice goes up stage to read and kiss his poetry and hide it next to her heart when the other characters move to the front for their final speeches” (Fiske, 1884). Irving's ending is complete; reviews highly praised the way he effected the happy ending.

American critics made Irving's 1884 production legendary. The Spirit of the Times stated: “We have not been accustomed to such complete representations of Shakespeare in this country; but having once seen them, our public will be satisfied with nothing else” (Fiske, 1884). The New York Times hailed the production as “one of the best dramatic achievements of its time” (Review of Much Ado, 14 November 1884). Reflecting the woman-worshiping terminology to which Shattuck refers, a critic for the New York Times extolled Ellen Terry's performance: “Superlatives have long been exhausted. In our judgment, it is one of the new impersonations which justify the use of superlatives … there has never been a more radiant, mirthful, sunny Beatrice than this one, so fair of person, so musical in her speech, so true to her womanhood in all the merry episodes of her love story” (“Review of Much Ado,” 12 March 1885). According to Laurence Irving, no critics detected Irving's interpolations in the church scene. “No doubt his delivery of the offending line (‘as sure as I’m alive I will’) was so forceful that Shakespeare, himself, might have been persuaded he had written it” (403). American critics continued to endorse this production as “one of Shakespeare's loveliest comedies” and as late as 1895 praised Irving's third American revival for “softening in effect the brutality of its central incident … with no loss of either truth or vigor” (“Review of Much Ado,” 5 December 1895). The laudatory American reviews determined that this British production established a standard for evaluating all other productions. Much Ado should be staged as a light comedy, and Beatrice should be feminine, flirtatious, loving, and submissive.3

Ellen Terry's memoirs note she never played Beatrice as she felt her. In these lectures on Shakespeare, she described Beatrice as a proud woman, not vain, who “recognizes an element of truth in what Hero and Ursula say about her” in the arbor scene. She disagreed with Irving's use of the scene as a moment to reveal Beatrice's happiness at the discovery that Benedick loves her. Terry also stated that Beatrice's realization scene should be “charged with passion of a strong, deep heart”; however, she delivered the lines with “emotion,” “not passion” (Terry, 87). She further disagreed with Irving's plan to make Beatrice's indignation in the church scene comic. Mr. Lacy, an “actor of the old school” who was engaged by Irving, was quite serious when he explained to Miss Terry: “When Benedick rushes forward to lift up Hero after she has fainted, you ‘shoo’ him away. Jealousy, you see. Beatrice is not going to let her man lay a finger on another woman.” Terry's reaction was: “Oh nonsense Mr. Lacy,” to which he retorted: “Well, it’s always been done … and it always gets a laugh” (Terry, 95). Ellen Terry refused to follow these directions and finally managed to convince Irving to drop this action, but failed to convince him to drop the ‘gag’ he interpolated into the end of the church scene, the gag “hallowed by tradition” (L. Irving, 403).

Although most of the male critics highly praised Irving's submissive Beatrice, Terry's comments imply that she questioned Irving's interpretation that the marriage of Benedick and Beatrice should be a foregone conclusion from the start of the play. Nina Auerbach, in her recent biography, Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time, demonstrates that the actress used indirect strategies on stage to protest playing her roles in the way Irving envisioned them. When Terry disagreed with Irving's interpretation, her “impulse was to drown her plays in laughter … she used laughter to fight and transcend the roles she was given” (277). However, as his leading lady, she adapted her stage personality to the roles she was assigned and subordinated herself to his “self-obsessed performances.” As an actor in the company he managed, Irving centered his productions around himself and reduced equally important roles to supporting roles. In Much Ado, where Shakespeare equally balances the verbal exchange between Benedick and Beatrice, Irving downstaged himself by delivering his exchanges “in a slow and stately manner” (Memoirs, 115, 172) and arranged the set design to give himself primary visibility to the audience. Ellen Terry became an “ornament of Irving's theater … the visual power of her presence was so overwhelming that it obliterated her performance” (Auerbach, 195).

At the Lyceum Terry never received equal billing with Irving. When they toured America, Irving revised the program layout to give it to her: “American democracy claimed to be enlightened about women … its intelligentsia was ostentatiously conversant with feminist ideas; Ellen Terry was presented to America as Irving's proud equal and was billed accordingly (Auerbach, 194). But in the actual performance Irving continued to claim centrality. From her subordinated position in his theatre, Terry enviously looked at Ada Rehan and the acting opportunities given to her in Daly's company. In her Memoirs Terry “wistfully” describes the acting combination of a leading actor and actress, John Drew and Ada Rehan, in contrast to her own situation: “With what loyalty he supported Ada Rehan! He never played for his own hand but for the good of the piece” (Memoirs, 225, quoted by Auerbach, 235). In Ada Rehan, Ellen Terry believed she saw an actress given all she was not—boy's parts (Rosalind and Viola—characters she longed to play, but could not because they did not fit Irving's image of womanliness), and the opportunity to play Shakespearean heroines in the way she felt they were written to be played.

Terry overlooked the similarities between herself and Rehan. According to Auerbach, “Ada Rehan is Ellen Terry in reverse” (236). Like Terry, Rehan's stage self was created by Daly to meet the needs of his productions and to represent his audience's tastes, but unlike Terry, she was playing for “liberal” American audiences who applauded productions championing the “New Woman.” On stage Ada Rehan represented to Terry (and to the audiences she played before) the possibilities for women. In reality both actresses intuitively understood the underlying resentment in Beatrice's character, and her disdain for female powerlessness in patriarchal societies.

In Shattuck's view: “It was only through Ada Rehan … that [Daly] found the perfect means of self-expression that he craved” (II, 54). Graham Robertson implied that Daly must have been “a great actor who couldn't act” (Shattuck, 54). When John Drew, Daly's leading actor, left the company, “Daly had no choice but to stake his fortune on Miss Rehan” (Shattuck, 57). William Winter, the senior drama critic in New York, adored her and believed in Daly's decision wholeheartedly. His reviews, which “defined … femininity in terms exactly typical of a woman-worshiping American gentleman of the day,” defended the images of womanliness Daly presented to his public (Shattuck, 100). Mrs. G. H. Gilbert, a loyal member of Daly's company as well as a New York Times drama critic, claimed that Ada Rehan also believed Irving's interpretation of Beatrice was “too simple.” Mrs. Gilbert even stated that “Beatrice is the reason for Daly's [1896] revival” (Gilbert, 8). According to the critic, Ada Rehan saw Beatrice as a “strong-willed, complex character—a woman capable of strong love and hate—mentally developed among her feminine associates, not to be called sweet or coy or dainty, yet not lacking in the graces of gentle womanhood” (Gilbert, 8). Needing a powerful role in which to cast his leading lady, Daly commissioned Winter to rework Beatrice into a prototype of the American New Woman and decided to center the play on her.

The American New Woman became a popular character type on the American stage during the 1890s. Ibsen's A Doll House, a favorite among New York intellectuals, played to packed houses in 1891 at the Garden, Lyceum, and Harlem Opera House, and reopened in Hoyt's in 1895 (Hornblow, 233). In a letter of 21 November 1894 to Daly, Sydney Rosenfield, one of his playwrights, expressed his desire to write a play of this kind that would star Ada Rehan: “I am pregnant with an idea for a ‘strong woman's play’—Before I sit down in cold blood to write it, I want to have its goal in immediate contemplation. I have Ada Rehan in view for the part” (Rosenfield, “To Augustin Daly”). Rosenfield's suggestion would have appealed to Daly, who was plagued by internal problems among his company. Many actors were leaving because Daly adhered to strict company policies. Even Ada Rehan, his close friend, leading lady, and alleged mistress, had a disagreement with him in the summer of 1894. She agreed to remain with his company only after he agreed “to star her and to pay her a salary commensurate with her improved status” (Felheim, 31). In 1896 Daly assigned William Winter the task of refashioning Much Ado to star Ada Rehan. Winter chose to utilize the same techniques that had brought Daly's 1887 revival of The Taming of the Shrew popular acclaim.

Following the nineteenth century tradition of refashioning Shakespeare to suit what managers perceived to be the tastes of their audiences, Daly had hired Winter to tailor the plays and to write the commendatory prefaces for his adaptations (Felheim, 220-21). Winter insisted that a performance should be “relieved wherever possible” so as to last no more than three hours; should exhibit “good taste” by elimination of vulgar language; and should be pared of superfluous descriptive passages that impede the action (Felheim, 221). Winter exhibited no compunction when he centered The Taming of the Shrew around Ada Rehan. He metamorphosed the play into “the taming by the shrew” and delayed Rehan's entrance until the second act, at the highest pitch of the performance—a technique he repeated in Much Ado (Felheim, 240-41). Rewriting Much Ado at a point when Daly's company had been “weakened by death and desertion,” Winter modeled this adaptation after the earlier success, a highly popular production continually brought back “as a means of reviving [Daly's] fortune after a failure” (Felheim, 262, 239). Hoping for a New York success to replenish a dwindling bank account, Daly, with the assistance of Winter, attempted to give the American public all he believed to be fashionable in New York theatre: a lavish production of Shakespeare that bordered on melodrama, with a popular star cast in the role of the modern woman.

In the Commendatory Preface to Much Ado, Winter defends his and Daly's interpretation against Irving's. His 1884 review of Irving's production commends Miss Terry's performance but finds her sarcasm superficial: “She is nothing harsher than a merry tease … after the arbor scene she drops all flippancy and grows into tender and loving womanhood. A more fascinating personality than this Beatrice could not be wished; and Miss Terry's method of expressing it is marked with pliant, effortless power and absolute simplicity” (Winter, Commendatory Preface). To substantiate Daly's interpretation, Winter views Beatrice as “high-spirited” rather than “pleasant-spirited”; “complex rather than “simple;” and as a character whose “remarks are extremely diverting … [but] no more sapient than other women, once her heart is touched” (Winter, Commendatory Preface). She scorns the necessity in herself of longing for love and disdains the conventional assumptions toward marriage suggested by Claudio's proposed marriage arrangement to Hero. He identifies the wedding scene as:

the great moment of the play, for Beatrice is that of her prodigious, passionate, unspeakable resentment of the awful insult that is offered to the poor and gentle girl whom she so tenderly loves. It is as if all womanhood were incarnated in her single person, to rebuke, humiliate and punish the arrogant injustice of man. Women, usually, are the sternest censors of other women; but women at their best may well admire Beatrice, for she is all woman and the splendid champion of her sex. (Winter, Commendatory Preface)

According to Winter, Ada Rehan conveyed the ideal Beatrice to her audience. Daly's promptbook reveals how he effected this portrait.

Daly opened his Much Ado with the messenger-Leonato exchange up to line 30. The script then jumps to line 96.4 Beatrice is not on stage until Hero draws attention to her entrance. After the men exit, Beatrice and the messenger backtrack to the exchange that begins at line 30, “I pray you, is Signior Mountanto return’d from the wars?” Hero assumes Leonato's lines, so all attention focuses on Beatrice. The scene continues with few other changes to line 95. However, at the entrance of Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick, the dialogue moves ahead to line 162 and continues to the end of Act I. Then Beatrice reenters, saying “I wonder that you will be talking Signior Benedick, nobody marks you,” and Benedick greets her with “What, my dear Lady Disdain!” (ll. 116-17). Their dialogue ends at line 145, where Don Pedro clears the stage for the new end of Act I. Daly's rearrangements interrupt Shakespeare's witty exchange between Beatrice and Benedick to maintain Beatrice's centrality. She has the first chance to deliver her venomous lines while defenseless Benedick remains off-stage.

In II.i.51, Beatrice delivers her “Yes faith, it is my cousin's duty to make cur'sy and say Father, as it please you. … Father as it please me” in a “mocking tone;” stage directions indicate she should emphasize the underlined words. Beatrice sharply contrasts with the demure Hero in this scene. She will not subscribe to her uncle's orders. After Hero and Claudio's betrothal, stage directions indicate Beatrice should tap Claudio on the shoulder as she says “Speak, Count, ’tis your cue,” then loudly sighs as Claudio says to Hero, “Lady, as you are mine” (ll. 305, 308). In this same scene she says “Heigh-ho for a husband!” in a mocking tone (l. 320). All of these gestures clearly communicate to the audience where Beatrice stands on the issue of arranged marriages—she will follow no man's orders.

Of Rehan's interpretation of Acts I and II, Gilbert, in her New York review of the play, says that “Beatrice more than half means what she says, when she declares she’ll never wed. It seems possible she may fall in love with Benedick, but she is surely heart-whole in the first encounters with that valiant and loquacious soldier.” For Beatrice to be convincing in this play, she must realize her own sentimental possibilities. Gilbert says that at the masked ball, Beatrice reveals

tenderness and sympathy … at the news of Hero's betrothal—she appears the loving elder sister more than half pitying Hero for being so early doomed to captivity, yet recognizing her fitness for wifehood. Miss Rehan shows the beginning of change when she summons Benedick to dinner, and delivers her soliloquy at the end of the arbor scene with “strong passion”; she regrets her cruelty and shows pity and sympathy.

By III.ii. the audience sees two dimensions to Beatrice's character; both reach a climax in the church scene where she shows her love for Benedick as well as her hatred for Claudio. Daly omits the pre-nuptial scene in Hero's bedroom, apparently because this scene shows Beatrice's physical vulnerability, which is inconsistent with the image the audience should have acquired in the first three acts.

William Winter called Rehan's rendition of the church scene the moment where

she crowned her triumph by a magnificent outburst of passion—not turbulent, nor combative, not hysterical, but that of a woman's outraged mind and suffering heart—which while it impelled the dramatic action swiftly to a brilliant climax, it also operated to illuminate the whole character and to disclose it as intrinsically the soul of womanlike virtue and honor (Commendatory Preface).

Since Daly planned to make Hero representative of the powerless female and Beatrice her spokesperson, he needed to interrupt the balance of the scene. Unlike Irving, who reduced the seriousness of Beatrice's lines and characterization, Daly interpolated lines and gestures to draw the audience's attention toward the passion and sincerity of Beatrice's lines and to reduce the power of Benedick's.

At IV.i.65 stage directions indicate Beatrice should “fix her glare” on Don Pedro when he says, “I stand dishonor’d, that have gone about to link my dear friend to this common wanton, here.” Her glare as well as Daly's alteration strengthen the audience's awareness of the implied irony of his lines, while the connotation “common wanton” justifies Beatrice's readiness to attack. At line 209, after Leonato asks “What shall become of this? What will we do?” Beatrice kneels before the altar, apparently praying for mercy. When Benedick professes his love to Beatrice, he kneels before her as he says, “I lov’d nothing so well as you.” These interpolations work to heighten Beatrice's character on stage. When she delivers “Kill Claudio,” Gilbert says “she means the lines … that is the price of her love.” Gilbert reports that the audience “gasped at Beatrice's vehement utterances,” demonstrating they realized the tragic force of Rehan's delivery. As Beatrice delivers her two “O that I were a man” speeches, she again looks fixedly at Benedick. This look implies that if Benedick is a man he will kill Claudio. Beatrice becomes more tender-hearted when Benedick accepts her challenge. To ensure that the audience would understand his acceptance as submission to Beatrice, Daly revised from line 331 to the scene's end, intertwining Irving's emendations with his own:

Bene: I will challenge him.
Beat: You will!
Bene: I will kiss your hand and
so leave you. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account.
Beat: You will challenge him!
Bene: By these bright eyes I will!
Beat: Kiss my hand again!
Bene: As you hear of me, so think
of me; and so, farewell.
Beat: Kill him! Kill Claudio!
Bene: As sure as he’s alive
I will.

Although Daly's loyal supporters commended Ada Rehan's performance, Shattuck notes that a New York Post review of 24 December 1896 “said Miss Rehan never really ‘got into the skin of Beatrice’; She fell back upon her old impersonation of Katherine the Shrew, and ‘imparted a bitterness, not to say a rudeness, to the sallies of the fair disputant which does not belong to them’” (quoted by Shattuck, 89).

Both Daly and Irving's renditions of Much Ado demonstrate the liberties managers have taken with Shakespeare's folio text under the claim of art. While proclaiming to have a more artistic sense of the play than the orginator, managers like Daly and Irving were capitalizing upon American audiences' innocence as well as their social belief that culture could be purchased. In the eyes of these managers the theatre was a commodity, not an art form; in the eyes of the public, art was a commodity. Theatre revenue records indicate that Americans, believing they were becoming cultured, supported these disembowelments of Shakespeare; in turn, they expected the performances to reflect their social world.

Since managers traditionally took the liberty of making Shakespeare identifiable and understandable for their society, examination of Shakespearean stage history provides insight into the conflicting perceptions of femininity on the American stage. The historical tradition of staging Much Ado as a comedy implies that stage directors have ignored the underlying complexity of Beatrice's character. In America (and England) Much Ado continued to be staged as a comedy, until Gielgud's 1952 production permitted “the sincerity of the scene between Benedick and Beatrice to be realized,” when Gielgud's “low-toned, disbelieving” first refusal to “kill Claudio” eliminated the usual laugh (Campbell and Quinn, 567). Although Gielgud was not the first to challenge the traditional comic interpretation, his production is credited by Campbell and Quinn as the first to examine the underlying complexity of Beatrice's characterization. Producers and directors follow this precedent today when reviving Much Ado.

Augustin Daly clearly was not a feminist. His artistic ideal was corrupted by personal and commercial motives. Nevertheless, he did experiment with strengthening Beatrice's characterization and giving her stronger stage presence. Like his contemporary, Irving, he used his leading actress to project to American audiences a portrait of femininity he perceived would be compatible with the expectations of 1890 theatregoers. In contrast to Irving, he attempted to draw attention to the underlying complexity of Shakespeare's female characters. By refashioning the text to suit his purposes and his audience's tastes, Daly successfully staged Beatrice as an identifiable role model for American audiences. He failed to keep his interpretation grounded in Shakespeare's folio text; yet, his vision of Beatrice looked forward to modern revivals of Much Ado—a vision modern producers have found obvious within the text.


  1. “My style of management,” he wrote, “has not been an imitation of anyone else's. That precision of detail, luxury, completeness of surroundings and general unity of company and performance which was found so fascinating in Irving's performance, was inaugurated by me in 1869, ten years before Irving began his career as manager” (Felheim, 15, quoting Daly).

  2. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, as arranged for the stage by Henry Irving and presented at the Lyceum Theatre on Wednesday 11 October 1882 (London: Cheswick Press, 1882). This promptbook is in the Folger Shakespeare Library. Irving's stage directions and interpolations are pencilled in the text. All of Irving's stage directions, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from this promptbook. Line references refer to the play as published in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans.

  3. Not all Americans were blinded by Irving's textual infidelities. On 30 March 1885, an anonymous “student of Shakespeare” in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, criticized American critics for not commenting upon Irving's lack of respect for the text: “I simply am astounded that none of the good students of Shakespeare in this good city of Gotham have seen fit to comment upon this addition to the divine William's lines” (anonymous letter, 30 March 1885). The author is referring to the “gag hallowed by tradition” at the end of the church scene.

  4. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing: A Comedy in Five Acts, as arranged for production at Daly's Theatre, and privately printed for Mr. Daly, 1887. This text is part of the Folger collection. Daly's stage directions, rearrangements, and interpolations are printed as part of his text. All of his stage interpolations are taken from this text. Line references refer to the play published in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans.

Works Cited

Announcement of Daly's Opening of Much Ado About Nothing. The New York Times, 20 December 1896, 11.

Anonymous Letter. The New York Times, 30 March 1885, 11.

Auerbach, Nina. Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time. New York: Norton, 1987.

Auerbach, Nina. “Ellen Terry's Victorian Marriage,” pp. 268-291 in Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts, ed. Carolyn Heilbrun and Nancy Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Brown, John Mason, ed. The American Theatre as Seen by its Critics 1752-1934. New York: Norton, 1934.

Campbell, Osar James, and Edward G. Quinn. Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare. New York: Crowell, 1966.

Craig, Edith, and Christopher St. John, ed. Ellen Terry's Memoirs. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1970.

Davis, Walter R., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Felheim, Marvin. The Theatre of Augustin Daly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Fiske, S. “Review of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’,” ed. E. A. Buck. Spirit of the Times (5 April 1884), 290.

Fiske, S. “Review of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’,” ed. E. A. Buck. Spirit of the Times (16 October 1886), 382.

Gilbert, Mrs. G. H. “Miss Rehan's Beatrice Discussed.” The New York Times Magazine (3 January 1897), 8.

Hiatt, Charles. Ellen Terry and Her Impersonations. Orig. pub. 1898. Rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972.

Hobart, Marie Jeffreys. Theatre Diary of 1890's. This unpublished collection of programs, newspaper reviews, and private commentaries covers plays Mrs. Hobart and her companions viewed during the 1890s. This diary is located in the private library of Calhoun Winton, Professor of English, University of Maryland at College Park. Mrs. Hobart was the maternal grandmother of Dr. Winton's wife.

Hornblow, Arthur. A History of the Theatre in America, Vol. II. Orig. pub. 1919. Rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965.

Irving, Laurence. Henry Irving: the Actor and His World. London: Faber and Faber, 1951.

Izard, Forest. Heroines of the Modern Stage. New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1915.

Meisel, Martin. Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth Century England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Moses, Montrose Jonas. The American Dramatist. Orig. pub. 1925. Rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1964.

Prouty, Charles T. The Sources of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. History of the American Drama, Vol. I. New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1923.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson, History of the American Drama, Vol. II. New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1927.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (14 November 1884), 5.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (12 March 1885), 5.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (13 October 1886), 5.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (26 April 1888), 4.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (3 March 1894), 4.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (5 December 1895), 5.

Review of Much Ado About Nothing, The New York Times (24 January 1897), 7.

Rosenfield, Sydney. Letter “To Augustin Daly.” 21 November 1894. Item #31 of The Folger Shakespeare Library collection of Augustin Daly's letters.

Shattuck, Charles H. Shakespeare on the American Stage: From the Hallams to Edwin Booth. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976.

Shattuck, Charles H. Shakespeare on the American Stage, Vol. II. Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. As arranged for production at Daly's Theatre. Privately printed for Mr. Daly, 1897. This text is part of the Folger collection.

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. As arranged for the stage by Henry Irving and presented at the Lyceum Theatre on Wednesday 11 October 1882. London: Cheswick Press, 1882. This text is part of the Folger collection.

Taubman, Hyman Howard. The Making of the American Theatre. New York: Coward McCann, 1965.

Terry, Ellen. Four Lectures on Shakespeare. Orig. pub. 1932. Rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1969.

Winter, William. Introductory chapters to Mr. Daly's Much Ado About Nothing, arranged for production at Daly's Theatre. Privately printed for Mr. Daly, 1897. This text is part of the Folger collection.

Winter, William. Review of Ellen Terry's Beatrice. New York Tribune (1 April 1884). The American Theatre as Seen by its Critics 1752-1934, ed. John Mason Brown. New York: Norton, 1934.

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Michael Mangan (essay date 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Much Ado about Nothing,” in A Preface to Shakespeare's Comedies, 1594-1603, Longman Group Limited, 1996, pp. 179-201.

[In the following essay, Mangan studies the comedic language in Much Ado about Nothing, and finds it to be a reflection of Shakespeare's conception of romantic antagonism.]


Much Ado About Nothing picks up on the themes of two of the early comedies examined in Chapter 5: The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost. The analogies with The Shrew have often been remarked upon. Beatrice, like Kate, has words like ‘shrewd’ and ‘curst’ associated with her:

Leonato By my troth, niece,
thou wilt never get thee a husband if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue.
Antonio In faith, she’s too

(II, i, ll. 16-18)

Like The Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing is a play which is at least partly based on the theme of a battle of the sexes: the sparring between Beatrice and Benedick recalls some of the sparring between Kate and her suitors, especially Petruchio. But in the years between the two plays something has changed. It is not just that Beatrice repeatedly gets the better of Benedick in their wit-skirmishes, in a way that Kate only rarely does of Petruchio. It is that the character of the independent woman is no longer demonized: in the earlier play Kate's independence was perceived as a threat to male power, and she was therefore seen as an unruly hoyden who had to be, literally, ‘tamed’. But in Much Ado About Nothing the taming metaphor would be completely inappropriate. The patriarchal authority of a Petruchio is not ascribed to Benedick; his point of view is no more valid than Beatrice's, since he is also a descendant of the love-refusing lords in Love's Labour's Lost.

In his commonplace book, published in 1598 as Palladis Tamia, the Elizabethan writer Francis Meres mentioned an unknown play by Shakespeare entitled Love's Labour's Won. A popular theory is that this is one of Shakespeare's existing plays which was published under another title, and Much Ado About Nothing is one of the favourite contenders for this honour. Whether or not this is the case is quite unknown; there is no other evidence to suggest that Much Ado About Nothing is a companion piece to the earlier play. Nonetheless, the suggestion points up ways in which themes, ideas and characters from Love's Labour's Lost are reworked in Much Ado About Nothing. The two plays share a few stock devices—poem scenes, parallel eavesdropping routines and, most notably, the mask scene—but more importantly they share a central situation, in which characters who profess disdain for romantic love end up falling in love; and although this disdain is no longer a purely male prerogative, the character of Berowne has much in common with that of Benedick.

The critic Louis A. Montrose has written plausibly of the ‘ludic’ quality of Love's Labour's Lost: its element of games-playing. He writes,

The world of Navarre has the appearance of a playground, a special place marked off from the pressures of social reality and the unpleasant implications of a world of fallen nature. Here Shakespeare explores the dimensions of the play faculty, from charming fripperies to serious products of the imagination. … Every activity in which the male quartet engages takes on the character of play …1

Something similar is true of Much Ado About Nothing. I want to explore the functions of two kinds of ‘play’, the verbal joke and the practical joke, in this ‘play’. In an earlier chapter I looked at various kinds of laughter—the laughter of everyday life, the laughter of festivity and the laughter of scorn and ridicule—and suggested that their social uses ranged from the celebratory to the punitive, in Elizabethan society. If I now suggest that Much Ado About Nothing is a play which has much to do with laughter and laughing, it is in the light of that chapter: the laughter in Messina is problematic.

The tone is set by the blokeish camaraderie of the bachelor soldiers returned from the war, whose conversation typically comprises banter and teasing. Don Pedro, for example, teases Benedick for his characteristic pose of misogyny:

Don Pedro Thou wast ever an
obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty.
Claudio And never could maintain
his part but in the force of his will.
Benedick That a woman conceived 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 the which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.

(I, i, ll. 223-37)

This kind of jokey verbal duelling characterizes the relationship between the men: it is both friendly and aggressive, relaxed and competitive. Benedick has the reputation of being the wittiest of the three, but they all take part in the banter. In the early part of the play, the joking that goes on between Claudio, Don Pedro and Benedick returns repeatedly and almost obsessively to the topic of love. In fact, it is even more limited than that; the basic joke that none of them seem as though they will tire of is Benedick's stance of the professed and committed bachelor. Their attitude towards this is actually quite complex: they laugh at him for it, and they eventually trick him out of it and into a relationship with Beatrice; yet they also encourage him in his misogyny. Their pleasure in his rôle as ‘heretic in despite of beauty’ is manifest. It is as if Benedick expresses for the whole male group within the play some of the feelings which they all share, but which they cannot always express. Beatrice refers to him at one point as ‘the Prince's jester’, and while the remark is intended primarily as an insult it has some truth to it. One of a jester's functions is to speak what others are thinking but not saying—or acknowledging.

The play begins, after all, at a moment of change for the younger men. They have returned from the wars, and are having to deal once more with being at peace; the previously shared male solidarity of the military campaign is beginning to fragment. Benedick laments this fragmentation, which he sees happening most clearly in the character of Claudio:

I have known when there was no music with him, but the drum and fife, and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see 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 turned orthography. His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.

(II, iii, ll. 12-21)

Benedick sets the worlds of love and of war in opposition to each other, and leaves it in no doubt which he prefers. Claudio, incidentally, confirms Benedick's account of his transformation; he tells Don Pedro about his sudden interest in Hero:

                                        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 … 

(I, i, ll. 270-86)

While Claudio, then, consciously changes his rôle from that of soldier to that of lover, Benedick continues to express his mistrust of women and his intention to ‘live a bachelor’, devoting himself to manly pursuits such as drinking. The other men in the play seem to find this rather reassuring.

Benedick's rejection of love and marriage is based on a particularly cynical view of male-female relationships. Love, according to Benedick, is a trap, marriage is a prison, women are deceivers and every husband an eventual cuckold.

Benedick The savage bull may
[bear the yoke] but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pull off the bull's
horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and insuch
great letters as they write ‘Here is a good horse to hire’ let
them signify under my sign ‘Here may you see Benedick, the married man’.

(I, i, ll. 245-50)

In his fantasy Benedick directs a charivari against himself, but the ‘crime’ he imagines committing is that of getting married at all. In ‘Benedick the married man’ he paints a figure of ridicule who is already wearing the emblem of shame, the cuckold's horns: to be married is to be cuckolded already. In the first part of this book it was argued that the jokes which a society tells are a significant index of that society's concerns and anxieties. The repeated ‘cuckold’ jokes in Much Ado About Nothing point to an underlying anxiety in the society of the play about the relations between men and women, one which is brought to the surface by the developing events within the play.

The presence of Beatrice feeds this anxiety. She is the rule-breaker, the woman who refuses to accept the gender rôle which the social structure provides for her. Like Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, she presents her society—and in particular her uncles, with whom she lives—with a problem: she shows no sign of wanting to find a husband who will support her. Leonato, it is true, shows none of the desperation which Baptista does in the earlier play about getting the (financially and legally, if not emotionally) dependent young woman off his hands; family structures in Messina seem more able to accommodate Beatrice than those of Padua were to accommodate Kate. Even so, Leonato does occasionally remind Beatrice what her expected destiny is:

Leonato Well, niece, I hope
to see you one day fitted with a husband.
Beatrice Not till God make men of
some other mettle 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 cloud
brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.

(II, i, ll. 53-8)

Beatrice's last remark contains a hidden truth. Spoken by her as a joke, another excuse not to take a husband, it points to her own ‘kindred’ with the men in the play. Her wit, for example, is as sharp as any of theirs, and of a similar kind. She stands out from the rest of the women in Messina because she is as good as any of the men at the verbal banter which is their characteristic mode of conversation. Thus she threatens them, not only by being as resolutely single as Benedick, but also by annexing an area of discourse which the bachelors of Messina, and Benedick in particular, usually treat as a male preserve: the witty and aggressive wordplay which is used to ward off the prospect of marriage. The other women of Messina can laugh and joke together, and can even—when suitably masked for a ball—hold their own in flirting conversations with Don Pedro, Balthasar and Antonio. But it is only Beatrice who will openly claim her fair share of lines in a conversation with a man, and it is only Beatrice who makes their kind of bantering language completely her own. Moreover, she can do this without seeming merely to be copying the men because she shares Benedick's contempt for love and marriage. One of the things which make Beatrice simultaneously so attractive to an audience and so threatening to Benedick is the fact that she effectively steals all of Benedick's best lines. For Benedick's pose of the confirmed bachelor and reputed libertine depends on a view of society in which women can be seen as somehow predatory, wanting to ‘capture’ a man and contain him in marriage, only to torture him with subsequent betrayal. Faced with a woman who proclaims herself equally contemptuous of marriage (and for the same reasons), Benedick's rôle is immediately compromised. Beatrice even appears to agree with his most cherished article of faith: the inevitability of a wife betraying a husband:

Beatrice … 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 sends me no

(II, i, ll. 22-7)

Beatrice, like Benedick, equates a husband with ‘horns’; she makes the threat explicit, that any husband of hers would indeed end up as a cuckold.

The cuckold is a familiar figure of fun in many comedies of the Elizabethan period, but there are few plays in which the idea of a wife's betrayal of her husband is so obsessively harped upon as it is in Much Ado About Nothing. In Messina there are, it appears, only two possible ways of thinking about love. One is the cynical view of love, marriage and cuckoldry which Benedick expresses. The other is the version of idealistic courtly love which appears at first to be exemplified by Hero and Claudio: romantic attraction (at a distance) followed by a happy-ever-after marriage. Claudio, newly in love with Hero, rejects Benedick's view of love in favour of this, the alternative. The jokes between the two men in the early part of the play arise from the fact that they berate, tease and insult each other about their respective points of view. But the continual jokes about husbands and cuckolds indicate the underlying anxieties about gender rôles, about women's possible sexual licence. And when Borachio's plot to discredit Hero in Claudio's eyes succeeds, the effect is to bring this anxiety into the open: the unspoken fear turns out, they think, to be well-founded, Borachio succeeds in getting Claudio to exchange one view of love—and of Hero—for the other. Thus, unable any longer to see Hero as a chaste and idealized goddess, Claudio immediately reverts to a view even more cynical than Benedick's. He concludes that she is a whore. The flood of vitriolic abuse which is subsequently unleashed on Hero by her fiancé, her father and her Prince is another, and more destructive, manifestation of those anxieties which had previously been the topic of jokes and wordplay.


The verbal jokes with which the play abounds have a close thematic correspondence to the practical ones which constitute so much of its plot. Practical jokes, of course, are part of the stock-in-trade of Shakespearean comedy in general. In these plays characters laugh at each other, and play elaborate practical jokes upon each other, spying, eavesdropping and gloating at their victims' discomfiture. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, the lord plays an elaborate trick on the tinker Christopher Sly, and Petruchio plays a series of much crueller ones on Kate; in Twelfth Night Sir Toby, Maria, Andrew Aguecheek, Feste and Fabian punish Malvolio through the practical joke of a forged letter, while Toby tricks Sir Andrew and ‘Cesario’ into a supposed duel; another trick duel features in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the main narrative is taken up by the tricks played by Mistress Ford and Mistress Page on the lecherous and opportunistic Falstaff; in All's Well That Ends Well the braggart captain Parolles is ‘captured’ on the battlefield by his own comrades, who pretend to be enemy soldiers, while Helena regains her faithless husband by the bed-trick; in A Midsummer Night's Dream the mythical trickster Robin Goodfellow (Puck) aids his master in playing a joke on the sleeping Titania, ensuring that she will fall in love with the first creature she sees on waking. This turns out to be Bottom, who has been transformed into part-man part-ass in another of Puck's practical jokes. At the risk of being reductive, in fact, it might be suggested that the practical joke lies at the root of the plotting of Shakespeare's comedies. These jokes range from the malicious to the benevolent; some are born out of desperate need, others are the whim of a moment; sometimes they are constructed for the benefit of an on-stage audience, sometimes they have no audience but the real-life one in the auditorium and the tricksters themselves.

Sometimes these practical jokes are staged in a light-hearted or inconsequential manner; elsewhere they turn extremely serious, and become the fulcrum on which the happiness or sadness of the characters depends. The priestly disguise which Feste wears in Twelfth Night reappears in a very different mood in Measure for Measure where the Duke puts on a priest's robes in order to play games of life and death with the other characters. In the late plays such as The Tempest and The Winter's Tale the practical joke takes on extraordinary new dimensions of magic and illusion. The entire plot of The Tempest is, in one sense, a huge practical joke, played by the magician Prospero upon Antonio, Sebastian, Ferdinand and Alonso in order to bring them to recognition of themselves. At the end of The Winter's Tale the penitent King Leontes is shown a ‘statue’ of Hermione, the wife whose death he had caused sixteen years before, and whose loss he has grieved ever since. But the statue comes to life, turning out to be Hermione herself; she has been hidden all this time and is only now restored to him in this fashion. On one level it is a bizarre practical joke, stage-managed by Hermione's lady-in-waiting Paulina and taking sixteen years of preparation. On another level, it is an extraordinary and moving theatrical moment, made all the more resonant for the fact that the audience is as unsure as Leontes about the nature of the reality they are witnessing.

The jokes of Shakespearean comedy frequently repeat themselves in terms of subject matter and action. The subject matter is frequently to do with the victims' own image of themselves; the action works to transform that image. Victims have their ‘true’ characters revealed, like Parolles, or else they are reconstructed in a new identity by the trick, like Christopher Sly. Sometimes it is ambiguous as to which of these processes is going on. In Twelfth Night Malvolio appears in yellow cross-garters: a figure of fun but also an incongruous emblem of ‘young love’. The trick transforms his status in the eyes of the other characters, but also reveals his desire for his mistress, which he has previously concealed. Similarly, Nick Bottom undergoes a transformation from weaver into ass; some critics have argued, however, that the spell reveals rather than transforms, merely making visible to audience and characters alike that element of Bottom's character which is in any case asinine.

In Much Ado About Nothing tricks and practical jokes are even more central to the action than they are in most other Shakespearean comedies. Like the verbal ones, these practical jokes return repeatedly to the theme of deception in love, and of swearing fidelity to one person and ending up in the arms of another. They take a variety of forms, have a variety of motives behind them, and are carried off with varying degrees of success. Among the most successful and benevolent of them are the parallel practical jokes played on Beatrice and Benedick in order to trick each of them into a relationship with the other. Within Benedick's hearing, the men discuss how enamoured of him Beatrice is:

Don Pedro Come hither, Leonato.
What was it you told me of today, that your niece Beatrice was in love with
Signor Benedick?
Claudio (aside) O ay, stalk on, stalk on. The fowl sits.—I did never
think that lady would have loved any man.
Leonato No, nor I neither. But most
wonderful that she should so dote on Signor Benedick, whom she hath in all
outward behaviours seemed ever to abhor.
Benedick (aside) Is’t possible? Sits the wind in that corner?
Leonato By my troth, my lord, I cannot
tell what to think of it. But that she loves him with an enraged affection,
it is past the infinite of thought.

(II, iii, ll. 90-101)

It is a benign version of the ‘letter’ plot against Malvolio from Twelfth Night. Benedick's self-esteem is so tickled that a few minutes later he can pluck a hidden sexual invitation out of the most unlikely of Beatrice's words: ‘Ha! “Against my will, I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.” There’s a double meaning in that.’ (II, iii, ll. 245-60).

Immediately afterwards, in a parallel scene, Beatrice overhears a similar conversation concerning her:

Hero No, truly, Ursula, she
is too disdainful.
I know her spirits are as coy and wild
As haggards of the rock.
Ursula But are you sure
That Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely?
Hero So says the Prince and my new
trothèd lord.
Ursula And they did bid you tell
her of it, madam?
Hero They did entreat me to acquaint
her of it.
But I persuaded them, if they loved Benedick,
To wish him wrestle with affection
And never to let Beatrice know of it.

(III, i, ll. 34-43)

Thus primed, the two become lovers almost immediately—as the audience expected them to all along. Part of the pleasure of the plot is that the stratagem used to catch this witty, intelligent pair is such a simple one. It is a playground trick—the sort of practical joke young adolescents play on each other: ‘so-and-so fancies you …’. And as such it is appropriate to the not-quite-grown-up world of erotic relationships in Messina. Beatrice and Benedick begin the play by proclaiming images of themselves which are overturned by the stratagems of their friends. Benedick is proud of his ‘hard heart’ (I, i, ll. 120) and Beatrice of her ‘cold blood’ (I, i, ll. 124). The practical joke which sends them into each other's arms allows them to discover other aspects of themselves: they are both transformed and revealed.

Different in tone and detail, but similar in purpose and effect, is the trick played by Claudio and Don Pedro, when the disguised Prince woos Hero for his friend. Don Pedro thinks up the plan:

I know we shall have revelling tonight
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.
Then after to her father will I break,
And the conclusion is, she shall be thine.

(I, i, ll. 303-10)

Again, this trick is a benevolent one: the avowed aim is not to humiliate Hero but to find a way of breaking through some of the barriers of etiquette which might otherwise keep the lovers apart. But the actual mechanism, whereby a woman is deceived into thinking she is being proposed to by one man, when in fact it is another who is speaking, is that of a practical joke. The context in which the proposal takes place makes it impossible for us to ignore this, for Don Pedro's ‘wooing’ takes place at the masked ball in Act II Scene i, a scene in which nearly everybody plays some sort of joke on somebody else. It is a rather genteel kind of inversionary festival, where the conventions of mask and disguise allow people to play comedic games with their own identities, and in which everyday hierarchies are temporarily suspended, so that the serving-girl can flirt with the governor's brother. We do not actually see the encounter between Don Pedro and Hero—that happens off-stage—but we see most of the other men and women take advantage of the masked ball to pretend to be someone else or to pretend that they do not know who they are talking to. This multiple trickery continues, for the most part, to be light-hearted and benevolent—with one significant exception.

One of the masquers is Don John, who knows Don Pedro's plan and attempts to turn it to his own advantage. He approaches Claudio, pretending to think that Claudio is Benedick, in order to impugn Don Pedro's motives for wooing Hero.

Don John Are not you Signior
Claudio You know me well. I am he.
Don John Signior, you are very near
my brother in his love. He is enamoured on Hero. I pray you dissuade him from
her; she is no equal for his birth. You may do the part of an honest man in

(II, i, ll. 151-6)

Like nearly every one else in this scene, Don John is playing a practical joke—albeit a particularly nasty one, and one that only John himself and his henchmen are likely to laugh at. In fact, it is not even a particularly good joke, and is doomed to failure from the start. He goes out of his way to throw suspicion on Don Pedro, implying that the Prince is wooing Hero not for Claudio, but for himself. As it happens, he need hardly have bothered: Leonato and Antonio are already under this misapprehension anyway, as a result of some faulty eavesdropping by one of Antonio's own servants. And although the misunderstanding causes Claudio some momentary pain, the confusion cannot last for long: the truth is bound to come out, as soon as Don Pedro, Hero and Claudio compare notes. And indeed, so it does, a few lines later:

Don Pedro Here, Claudio, I
have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won. I have broke with her father
and his good will obtained. Name the day of marriage, and God give thee joy!

(II, i, ll. 279-82)

Rather more successful is the second ‘practical joke’ which Don John and his henchmen play upon Hero and Claudio. This is the balcony plot, which leads Claudio to believe that Hero has been unfaithful to him. Although Don John takes the credit and the blame for this, it actually has very little to do with him; it is thought up, arranged and carried out by his servant Borachio, and all Don John has to do is watch and keep quiet. Don John is actually a rather unsuccessful villain. This trick, however—the most malevolent trick of them all—is an elegant and sinister variation and combination of the practical jokes which have been played before.

Borachio Find me a meet hour
to draw Don Pedro and the Count Claudio alone. Tell them that you know that
Hero loves me. Intend a kind of zeal both to the Prince and Claudio as in
love of your brother's honour who hath made this match, and his friend's
reputation who is thus like to be cozened with the semblance of a maid, that
you have discovered thus. They will scarcely believe this without trial. Offer
them instances, which shall bear no less likelihood than to see me at her
chamber window, hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio.
And bring them to see this the very night before the intended wedding, for
in the mean time I will so fashion that matter that Hero shall be absent,
and there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero's disloyalty that jealousy
shall be called assurance, and all the preparation overthrown.

(II, ii, ll. 29-45)

Borachio's plan resembles the original trick by which Don Pedro brought the lovers together, for again it depends on disguise and substitution of one of the lovers: this time, however it is not Claudio who is substituted but Hero. Moreover, it also resembles the jokes which Claudio and his friends played on Beatrice and Benedick: like them Claudio believes himself to be an unsuspected eavesdropper, when in reality the scene is being played out entirely for his benefit. Claudio, in fact, is caught in very much the kind of trap he had previously set for others.

The plot of Much Ado About Nothing revolves around these elaborate practical jokes, and it is according to the logic of jokes, rather than the logic of naturalism, that it should be understood. While Much Ado is a ‘realistic’ comedy in the sense of not being set in a world of fairy woods or pastoral retreats, it is sometimes commented upon that its plot is far-fetched, or illogical. For example, the famous nineteenth-century actress Ellen Terry once received a letter from an equally famous nineteenth-century writer, who complained:

Why in the world did not Hero (or at any rate Beatrice on her behalf) prove an ‘alibi’ in answer to the charge? It seems certain that she did not sleep in her room that night … Borachio says, after promising that Margaret shall speak with him out of Hero's chamber window, ‘I will so fashion the matter that Hero shall be absent’ (How he could possibly manage any such thing is another difficulty, but I pass over that.) Well then, granting that Hero slept in some other room that night, why didn’t she say so? … She could, of course, prove [it] by the evidence of the housemaids, who must have known that she occupied another room that night.

But even if Hero might be supposed to be so distracted as not to remember where she had slept the night before, or even whether she had slept anywhere, surely Beatrice had her wits about her? And when an arrangement was made, by which she was to lose, for one night, her twelvemonths' bedfellow, is it conceivable that she didn’t know where Hero passed the night? … With all these excellent materials for proving an ‘alibi’, it is incomprehensible that no-one should think of it.2

But once you start looking for logical inconsistencies in the plot, it is difficult to stop. The various elements of the narrative seem to vie with each other for the highest level of implausibility. It is pretty implausible, after all, that Hero should be successfully wooed on behalf of Claudio by the disguised Don Pedro. And the way in which the truth is eventually brought to light by the inept Watch (who arrest Conrade and Borachio in an impossible search for an imaginary villain called ‘Deformed’) is one of the most absurd series of events in Elizabethan drama. The whole thing is topped off by the way in which the happy ending is finally staged: this involves Leonato suddenly inventing a previously unknown ‘cousin’ of Hero, and Claudio both believing in her and being willing to marry her in order to make up for his previous bad behaviour. The entire plot of Much Ado About Nothing is basically absurd.

And this, of course, is part of the point. Comedies do not operate according to the rules of everyday likelihood, and in a play like Much Ado About Nothing the very absurdity of the events is part of the enjoyment that the audience is offered. It is ironic, therefore, that the writer quoted above, who so exasperatedly points out the holes in the plot, is none other than Lewis Carroll. The author whose own fictions display such a delight in irregularity and inconsistency, in breaking the rules of naturalism and in playing games with cause, effect, and logical narrative progression, seems almost offended when faced with inconsistencies in Shakespeare's comic narrative. It is not, after all, as if Much Ado About Nothing presented itself as a piece of dramatic naturalism. Shakespeare may have talked about the importance of drama holding ‘a mirror up to nature’, but that mirror is often a distorting one; the comic world of Messina is located somewhere through a looking glass. The Messina of Much Ado About Nothing is a world which both generates and obeys its own comic rules, just as the wood outside Athens, or the Forest of Arden, or Carroll's own Wonderland generate and obey theirs.

If the play is brought near to tragedy by means of Borachio's malevolent trickery, it is also through a sequence of tricks that it is led back towards its inevitable happy ending. It may be thought that Friar Francis's plot to hide Hero away and give out that she is dead hardly merits being called a trick or joke since the context at that point is too serious. However it, too, bears structural similarities to earlier tricks in the play: by giving out false information, the Friar intends to release the true emotion of sorrow and repentance in Claudio's breast, and force him into self-recognition—just as Beatrice and Benedick had been fed false information as their friends attempted to trick them into recognizing their true love for each other.

Friar Francis … 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 the soul
Than when she lived indeed. Then shall he mourn
If ever love had interest in his liver … 

(IV, i, ll. 216-30)

As it happens, the Friar's plot fails, for he has completely under-estimated Claudio's capacity for self-deception and self-justification. Claudio's response to the news is shockingly cold-blooded: he shows no concern at all for the person he earlier claimed to love so dearly, and denies any responsibility for her supposed death.

Leonato … I say thou
hast belied mine innocent child.
Thy slander has gone through and through her heart,
And she lies buried with her ancestors;
O, in a tomb where never scandal slept,
Save this of hers, framed by thy villainy!
Claudio My villainy?
Leonato Thine, Claudio; thine I say.
Don Pedro You say not right, old
Leonato My lord, my lord,
I’ll prove it on his body if he dare,
Despite his nice fence and his active practice,
His May of youth and bloom of lustihood.
Claudio Away! I will not have to
do with you.

(V, i, ll. 67-79)

It is not until Hero's innocence is established and the truth about Borachio's plot finally revealed that Claudio accepts any responsibility for what he has done. And, as if to achieve some kind of dramatic expiation of this guilt, a final trick is constructed in order to bring the lovers together after all. This involves a shift in tone whereby the plot is taken into the realms of folk- or fairytale as Leonato invents a previously unknown ‘cousin’ of Hero, whom Claudio must not only believe in but promise to marry. Once more it is a variation of the ‘disguised lover’ motif which has featured throughout the play. The difference is that this time the motif appears both as a practical joke and as a test, and what is being tested is the sincerity of Claudio's repentance. By virtue of one of those slightly uncomfortable paradoxes in which Shakespearean comedy abounds, it is only when Claudio renounces his own free will and agrees to marry whomever he is directed, that he finally shows himself to be worthy of Hero.

Thus the verbal witticisms in the play are linked thematically to the play's sequence of practical jokes and tricks. These in turn pass through a cycle which leads from well-meaning trickery to malevolent plotting, and then back finally to the benevolent love-trick out of which the happy ending is forged.


Comedies end happily and the happy ending is symbolized by marriage: that, at least, is the conventional view. In Much Ado About Nothing there are two sets of couples with, initially, contrasting attitudes towards the comedic happy ending of marriage. Hero and Claudio are the conventional lovers of comedy, for whom the expected wedding day will (supposedly) symbolize the culmination of their desires. This is why the disruption of the ceremony which takes place in Act IV Scene i makes for such a painful moment, not only for Hero but for the audience: the promised ending of the narrative has been snatched away, the comedy has collapsed, and the play teeters on the brink of tragedy. And what makes it so poignant is that Hero and Claudio (but especially Hero) had believed in the message which the structure of romantic comedy implies: that the marriage ceremony offers the perfect ending to the story.

Beatrice and Benedick, on the other hand, reject the assumption that marriage makes for a happy ending. Beatrice sees it as a stage in a process of deterioration, and warns Hero that:

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.

(II, i, ll. 65-72)

They are a comic hero and heroine who, at first at least, reject the logic of comedy: the assumption that marriage will see them live happily ever after.

In other plays by Shakespeare those who turn their backs on the forces of Eros (like the lords of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost or Kate in The Taming of the Shrew) are usually treated as proud figures heading for a fall. This is how Beatrice and Benedick's friends see them, and in the early scenes the audience is invited to share this point of view—hence the humour of the parallel tricks which are played upon them: it derives from a comfortable shared awareness that Beatrice and Benedick ought to be brought into the comedic marriage arrangements.

I have talked about the trick which their friends play upon them as being benevolent—designed to do them good. There is another way of looking at it, however, which does not contradict that but which stresses another aspect of the trick. As we saw in the early chapters of this book, laughter can be used as a weapon against those who flout the norms of a society; it can be used to discourage socially deviant behaviour. Beatrice and Benedick's ‘deviancy’ lies in their professed rejection of the pattern of comedy. The trick which is played upon them is a way of mobilizing the laughter of the audience in order to bring them back into line, and to make them behave according to the expected norms—not so much of their society as of their genre.

As the play progresses, however, the conventional model of romantic love, represented by Hero and Claudio, becomes increasingly compromised. Seen from Claudio's point of view it is compromised by Hero's supposed faithlessness; more importantly, seen from the point of view of the audience (who know the truth of the matter) it is compromised by the ease with which Claudio's adoration collapses into loathing. The audience is made more and more uncomfortably aware that Beatrice and Benedick may be justified in their original suspicions of love and marriage as they exist in Messina. And the more the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick develops, the more the one between Hero and Claudio is brought into question.

Throughout the play, the courtship of Hero and Claudio is compared and contrasted in this way with that of Beatrice and Benedick. In many respects the two courtships are each other's opposite: in one respect, though, they are similar, in that both courtships are initially frustrated by the couples' inability to express love directly. The disguised Don Pedro has to speak for Claudio, taking his place in the courtship ritual and speaking the words that Claudio himself seems unable to say. It is only when his path has thus been cleared for him that he can assume in full his rôle of the lover, and speak the poetic language of love. The moment is pointed up by Beatrice:

Leonato Count, take of me
my daughter, and with her my fortunes. His Grace hath made the match, and
all grace say amen to it!
Beatrice Speak, Count, it is your
Claudio Silence is the perfectest
herald of joy. I were but little happy if I could say how much. Lady, as you
are mine, I am yours. I give myself away for you and dote upon the exchange.

(II, i, ll. 299-306)

Claudio's ‘silence’ is eloquently expressed: when he finally manages to speak, he does so in ‘festival terms’, speaking a formal and poetic language of love. Benedick calls it ‘orthography … a very fantastical banquet’ and laments for the old days when Claudio ‘was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier’ (II, iii, ll. 20-1). In fact Claudio tends to compartmentalize his languages: he has one register for laughing and joking with the boys, and another very different one for going courting. This compartmentalizing of languages corresponds, in fact, to the way in which he compartmentalizes his emotional life. It is on a par with his idealization and subsequent demonization of Hero, and with his ability to dissociate himself from his own cruelty in rejecting her.

In the early part of the play the pattern of courtship which Claudio and Hero follow is gently satirized. It appears to be presented as a not-too-exaggerated caricature of a kind of courtship which is familiar in Elizabethan drama. It is based at least in part on economic considerations: Claudio's first question to Don Pedro concerns Leonato and whether he has a son; Don Pedro reassures Claudio that Hero is ‘his only heir’ (I, i, ll. 278). The pair do not know each other intimately, and the love that they feel for each other is one based on a sense of affinity which is formed at a distance. It is a love which has not yet developed a sexual dimension beyond that of erotic attraction: Claudio insists that he

… never tempted her with word too large,
But as a brother to his sister showed
Bashful sincerity and comely love.

(IV, i, ll. 52-4)

Even the intimacy of a person-to-person declaration of love is not initially available to them and the betrothal itself is as much a matter between Don Pedro and Leonato as it is between Hero and Claudio. Moreover, the fact that things should be done this way does not seem to cause anyone any particular surprise. Don Pedro takes on the surrogate courtship almost as a matter of course.

Don Pedro … If thou
dost love fair Hero, cherish it,
And I will break with her, and with her father,
And thou shalt have her. Was’t not to this end
That thou began’st to twist so fine a story?
Claudio How sweetly you do minister
to love,
That know love's grief by his complexion!
But lest my liking might too sudden seem
I would have salved it with a longer treatise.
Don Pedro What need the bridge much
broader than the flood?
The fairest grant is the necessity.
Look what will serve is fit. ’Tis once: thou lovest
And I will fit thee with the remedy.

(I, i, ll. 291-302)

And yet within these parameters Claudio's dramatic function as the ‘young lover’ remains intact: the audience is to understand that he is ‘in love’ with Hero. ‘The sweetest lady that ever I looked on’ (I, i, l. 181), he calls her, and we are meant to believe him. The level-headed Elizabethan considerations of family formation are overlaid with a passionate language of courtly love, and for a while it looks as if it will be an antidote to the cynicism of Beatrice and Benedick and the buckish jesting of the male comrades-in-arms.

But in the second part of the play the gentle mockery turns into savage irony, as Claudio's courtly love and his lyrical, distant idealizing of a woman whom he has wooed at second-hand turns out to have a sinister reverse side to it. In the scene which by rights should have marked the culmination of the love-plot, the stately, courtly language of the betrothal is replaced by the verbal violence of Claudio's public humiliation and rejection of Hero.

Claudio … Father, by
your leave,
Will you with free and unconstrained soul
Give me this maid your daughter?
Leonato As freely, son, as God did
give her me.
Claudio And what have I to give you
back whose worth
May counterpoise this rich and precious gift?
Don Pedro Nothing, unless you render
her again.
Claudio Sweet Prince, you learn me
noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again.
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.

(IV, i, ll. 22-31)

The audience knows, more or less, what is about to happen. We are aware (as Leonato is not) that the polite civilities of the Prince and his protégé are bogus, and that the exchange between Claudio and Don Pedro contains a double meaning quite the opposite of what Leonato expects. Even so, the image of the ‘rotten orange’ which Claudio uses to describe the woman everybody thinks he is about to marry, is a shockingly violent one, and one which shatters the atmosphere of celebration. The marriage ceremony turns into a punitive shaming ritual, in which Hero is publicly humiliated as surely as if she were in the pillory or ducking-stool.

Even more violent than Claudio's insult is Leonato's almost hysterical reaction to the charge. Siding immediately with Claudio, his public rejection of his daughter takes on the intensity of a curse:

Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature's frame?
O one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirched thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said, ‘No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?
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,
Valuing of her—why she, O, she is fall’n
Into a pit of ink … 

(IV, i, ll. 126-39)

The fact that the daughter is the property of the father is stressed in this speech; the word ‘mine’ pounds through Leonato's lines with a drumbeat insistence. His disgust at his daughter's supposed infidelity and his desire to disown her only serve to intensify his sense that she is, indeed, his to dispose of as he pleases.

Lewis Carroll asked why Hero does not provide herself with an alibi. Yet it is significant how little notice is taken of what Hero herself says in this scene. Elsewhere in the play Hero is presented as a lively and interesting young woman, particularly when she is ‘in private’, in the company of her female friends. When Claudio is on stage, however, she becomes demure and quiet. In the scene in which she was betrothed to Claudio she was given almost nothing to say. Now, as she is rejected by him, most of her talking is once more done for her by the dominant males in her life: her future husband, her father, or her Prince. She is not, however, completely silent. In answer to Claudio's accusations she protests her innocence;

Is my lord well, that he should speak so wide? … 
O God defend me! How am I beset!
What kind of catechizing call you this? … 
Is [my name] not Hero? Who can blot that name
With any just reproach? … 
I talked with no man at that hour, my Lord.

(IV, i, ll. 62, 76-77, 81-2, 85)

Yet her words are ignored. Claudio does not believe her; Leonato apparently does not even hear her! ‘She not denies it’ (IV, i, ll. 175), he exclaims, quite erroneously, and he deduces from her non-denial a proof of her guilt. The language of the public scene belongs entirely to men; the woman's words are not listened to.

Thus the conventional love-relationship, as exemplified by Hero and Claudio, becomes less and less attractive as the play develops. We see the interesting young woman diminished by her relationship with the man. Even in fortune Hero's role in the relationship is a passive one. Things are done to her: her marriage is arranged with her having scarcely a line to say about it, and later she is treated like a piece of faulty merchandise both by her father and her future husband as they find their projected idealization of her under threat. Her passive rôle turns into that of victim.

Claudio, meanwhile, appears increasingly repulsive: as a wooer he was unimpressive, but as a potential life-partner he is appalling. He exemplifies perfectly a kind of masculine attitude to women which can cope with them only as extremes: thus, deprived of his idealized image of Hero as pure virgin, he reacts by castigating her as a whore.

Claudio 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 pampered animals
That rage in savage sensuality.

(IV, i, ll. 56-60)

By this stage in the play the bantering, jokey language of the inhabitants of Messina is being shown in a very different light. In earlier scenes it had been presented as something quite attractive: good humour, camaraderie, high spirits. As the play progresses, however, the jokes and the wordplay are seen more and more clearly as a mode of discourse which serves to limit the characters' emotional range. The most striking example of this is given in Act V Scene i, where Don Pedro and Claudio, refusing to accept any responsibility for Hero's supposed death, try to revert to their earlier modes of speech. Having shrugged off Leonato's challenge, they turn with relief to Benedick, trying almost desperately to get him to join in with their jesting in an attempt to prove to themselves that nothing has really changed.

Claudio We have been up and
down to seek thee; for we are high-proof melancholy, and would fain have it
beaten away.
Wilt thou use thy wit?
Benedick It is in my scabbard. Shall
I draw it?
Don Pedro Dost thou wear thy wit
by thy side?
Claudio Never any did so, though
very many have been beside their wit. I will bid thee draw, as we do the minstrels:
draw to pleasure us.
Don Pedro As I am an honest man,
he looks pale. Art thou sick, or angry?
Claudio What, courage, man! What
though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.

(V, i, ll. 122-33)

The jokes here sound increasingly hollow and forced, not because they are intrinsically any less witty than the earlier banter of the men, but because the context has turned them sour. They need Benedick to join in with their game in order to reassure themselves that things are as they always were: the language of wit is here being used by both men as a shelter behind which to hide. Claudio's resolute lack of response to the news of Hero's ‘death’ has already made us realize that he will hear only what he wants to hear. Now, as Benedick, charged with the duty to ‘kill Claudio’, attempts to challenge him to a duel, Claudio and Don Pedro try not to hear the seriousness in his tone. When Benedick not only refuses to humour them, but finally does make his challenge heard, Don Pedro (ironically) puts it down to the corrupting influence of love! But the Prince's exclamation that ‘He is in earnest’ (V, i, ll. 193) indicates his shocked realization that the camaraderie is at an end; Benedick has dropped his role of jester, and by ceasing to joke he has broken the fellowship.

And yet the language of jokes is reinstated at the very end of the play. Just as Leonato's trick about the ‘second Hero’ reclaims the practical joke as a benign device, so the jokes which seemed to turn sour in Act V Scene i become light-hearted and celebratory again in the final scene. Whereas most of the characters seem to feel that they must choose either to make jokes or to be in love, Beatrice and Benedick end up by having their cake and eating it. As Benedick says, he and Beatrice are ‘too wise to woo peaceably’ (V, ii, l. 65); they find, though, that they are able to court each other with banter and jokes—in the very terms, in fact, in which they once abused each other. They reject the language of romantic love in favour of a more everyday language. Benedick, it is true, makes a half-hearted stab at love poetry, but soon gives up:

Benedick … Marry, I
cannot 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. I cannot
woo in festival terms.

(V, ii, ll. 34-9)

For Beatrice and Benedick, their jokes become a means to resist the kind of love-match exemplified by Hero and Claudio. By the end of the play they have constructed a loving relationship which is as much of a sparring match as their enmity was.

Benedick 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.

(V, iv, ll. 92-6)

The ‘happy end’ which sees Hero married off to Claudio is fraught with contradictions, for the conventional relationship founded on romantic love which they exemplify has been severely satirized by Shakespeare. Beatrice and Benedick are offered as an alternative to Hero and Claudio. The festive ending is displaced onto the couple who have managed to deploy their jokes and their bantering not only as a defence against desire, but also as a language of desire. Their relationship—for all its anomalies—is a more equal one than either of them might have expected. In their Messina, unlike in the Padua of The Taming of the Shrew, there is no longer any need for the husband to ‘win’, for him to browbeat the wife into submission as Petruchio does. Beatrice and Benedick end the play more or less even on points, with the promise of frequent friendly re-matches in the future. And if the relationship between the pair is not presented as an ideal, it is nonetheless seen as preferable to the fragility of an idealized romantic love such as Claudio's with all its tendency to collapse into loathing and disgust. And for Beatrice and Benedick to have wrested the language—and the laughter—to their own ends in this way is in itself some cause for celebration.


  1. Louis A. Montrose, ‘Sport by Sport O’erthrown: Love's Labour's Lost and the politics of play’, in Gary Waller, ed., Shakespeare's Comedies (Harlow: Longman, 1991) p. 58.

  2. Quoted in Brean Hammond, ‘Suspicion in Sicily: or, a Hair off the Great Cham's Beard’, in Linda Cookson and Bryan Loughrey, eds, Critical Essays on ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (Harlow: Longman, 1989), pp. 63-4.

Gavin Edwards (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Anticipation and Retrospect in Much Ado about Nothing,Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLI, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 277-90.

[In the essay that follows, Edwards considers Much Ado about Nothing as “a play much preoccupied with … the narrative ordering of human life.”]

The relationship between life and stories about life has exercised a number of philosophers, theologians, literary critics and experimental novelists in recent years. Barbara Hardy, who has already made an important contribution to these discussions, now draws our attention to Shakespeare's interest in the ‘narrative motions’ of the human mind (‘Shakespeare's Narrative: Acts of Memory’, E in C, XXXIX. ii. April 1989, pp. 93-115).1

A leitmotif of Barbara Hardy's analyses has been that works of narrative art reflect and explore the everyday (and night) activities of the human mind: narrative form is derived from rather than imposed upon real life. With the intention of countering this view Louis Mink has argued that

stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends; there are meetings, but the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later, and there are partings, but final partings only in the story. There are hopes, plans, battles, and ideas, but only in retrospective stories are hopes unfulfilled, plans miscarried, battles decisive, and ideas seminal. Only in the story is it America which Columbus discovers.2

Mink and Hardy would undoubtedly agree that the retrospectiveness of stories goes deeper than the fact that most of them happen to be told in the past tense. But Mink—like Sartre's Roquentin—wishes to identify an element of bad faith or sleight-of-hand at the heart of narrative. If beginnings only exist in retrospect then stories, which seem to begin at the beginning, can only do so by silently anticipating the retrospective view. The essence of narrative plotting, argues Peter Brooks, is ‘the anticipation of retrospection’.3 Louis Mink is of course arguing, against Hardy, that life is one thing and story another; but it is clear from his examples that the processes he describes—the anticipation of retrospection, the retrospective construction of the past as prelude to the present—are endemic in human mental life even if (as he claims) they originate in our experience of storytelling.

Barbara Hardy's emphasis on Shakespeare's interest in retrospection, anticipation, and the anticipation of retrospection—‘We look before and after, look before at looking after, and after at looking before’—prompts a fresh look at Much Ado About Nothing, a play much preoccupied with anticipation, retrospection, and the narrative ordering of human life.

Early on in the play Claudio tells Don Pedro how he has come to love Hero:

                                        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.

To which Don Pedro replies:

Thou wilt be like a lover presently
And tire the hearer with a book of words.
If thou dost love fair Hero, cherish it,
And I will break with her and with her father
And thou shalt have her. Was’t not to this end
That thou begans’t to twist so fine a story?

(I. i. 277-91)

Don Pedro's rhetorical question (‘Was’t not to this end … ?’) echoes the bringing together of beginnings and endings in Claudio's ‘When you went onward on this ended action’. Of course by ‘end’ Don Pedro means purpose and anticipated consequence, rather than terminal point, but these meanings cannot be clearly separated since the anticipated consequence will be the terminal point of the autobiographical story Claudio has started to tell. In any case, part of Don Pedro's meaning is that Claudio's story constructs the past conveniently as prelude to the present and to the desired future: the story, Don Pedro suggests, is an essentially retrospective view of the events it describes.

One thing which makes it easy for Claudio to present his life as a story is that he thinks of it, in a wholly conventional way, as constituted by what Jacques in As You Like It calls ‘ages’: a human life is a finite sequence of distinct episodes or stages, with a beginning and an end.4

What might lead Don Pedro to see Claudio's story as indeed too much like a story to be wholly true is the way in which it repeats itself. Claudio starts by describing his early liking for Hero, a plain fact about his past that we have no reason to doubt. Then the fact of this past liking is repeated: Claudio is telling us that his present ‘desires’ are ‘saying I liked her’. There are two ways we can take this repetition. On the one hand what his new desires are telling him can be believed because it echoes what Claudio himself has already presented to us as a fact. On the other hand, since the whole story is being told by the man who is feeling these new desires, the repetition may damage the initial claim: perhaps it is only now, in retrospect, that he believes he used to like Hero, the story conveniently fabricating the past as antecedent to the present. Now that the audience and Don Pedro hear the end of Claudio's autobiographical sentence do we all start to doubt, in retrospect, the beginning? Perhaps, as Mink says, ‘the beginning of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later’, but we cannot be sure.

Don Pedro makes his point via a traditional association between story-telling and spinning (the association that gives us ‘yarn’ and the ‘thread’ of a story). What his use of this metaphor leaves tantalizingly open is whether all stories are deviously retrospective (that is to say, morally twisted) or only some are.

The play presents certain kinds of fairly uncomplicated anticipation. The schemes devised to cause Beatrice to love Benedick, Benedick to love Beatrice, Claudio to hate Hero, and Claudio to love Hero again, obviously involve an anticipation, on the part of the schemers, of the likely consequences of the deceptions practised on their fellows. Furthermore, Shakespeare is clearly interested in the variable relation between the expected results and the actual results when they arrive. The schemes to get Beatrice and Benedick in love with one another are successful: the anticipated and the actual outcomes co-incide. Similarly, Don John the Bastard is correct in his anticipation of the effect on Claudio of overhearing what the latter takes to be evidence of Hero's infidelity, but because the truth does eventually seep out via Dogberry and Verges his scheme is foiled.

The eventual failure of Don John's plan may also have something to do with the Friar's scheme to get Claudio back in love with Hero. It is this scheme of the Friar's which is in many respects the most interesting of all. The extent of its success is hard to assess, and partly for that reason it makes us think especially hard about the relation between anticipation and retrospection.

After the climactic episode in which Claudio ruthlessly throws his wedding into reverse by giving Hero back to her father, Leonato the Friar suggests the swift conversion of Hero's broken nuptials into her mock funeral. ‘Pause awhile’, he says to the despairing Leonato and Benedick,

And let my counsel sway you in this case.
Your daughter here the princes left for dead,
Let her awhile be secretly kept in,
And publish it that she is dead indeed;
Maintain a mourning ostentation,
And on your family's old monument
Hang mournful epitaphs, and do all rites
That appertain unto a burial.

‘What shall become of this? What will this do?’ asks Leonato. The Friar argues that this course of action

                    well carried shall on her behalf
Change slander to remorse; that is some good:
But not for that dream I on this strange course,
But on this travail look for greater birth.
She dying, as it must be so maintain’d,
Upon the instant that she was accus’d,
Shall be lamented, pitied, and excus’d
Of every hearer; for it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack’d 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 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.
Let this be so, and doubt not but success
Will fashion the event in better shape
Than I can lay it down in likelihood.

(IV. i. 200-236)

What Barbara Hardy says of Shakespeare—‘As he imagines memorial, he looks ahead to contemplate recall’—is true here of Shakespeare's Friar, except that neither the memorial nor the recall are the Friar's own.

All the schemes in the play anticipate an alteration in the victims' feelings; but the Friar's scheme specifically anticipates the effect on Claudio's feelings of his seeing Hero's life in retrospect, as a remembered and ritually memorialised person. One consequence of this is that our own temporal experience, as readers or spectators of this dramatised story, can be drawn into the play's investigation of temporality in an especially complex and puzzling way. We are led to ponder what Hardy calls ‘the process through which events and persons are turned into narrative’.

Is the Friar's scheme successful? Is his anticipation of the effect on Claudio of retrospection accurate? There is no easy answer to these questions. In some respects the scheme works and in some respects it doesn’t, and our sense of where the balance lies will alter as we proceed through the play from Act IV, Scene 1. As the play unfolds we are surely prompted to remember the Friar's initial speech differently or to remember different parts of it, altering our recollection so as to make the past a plausible prelude to a changing present. These are processes in which all readers and spectators are always involved, but we may become unusually conscious of them when, as in this case, they are also the subject matter of what we are reading or watching.

The Friar anticipates that when Claudio hears of Hero's death he will not only feel remorse but, caught up in the public rituals of memorial, will come to idealise her life even ‘though he [still] thought his accusation true’. But in fact when Claudio hears of Hero's death he does not change his feelings about her. At this point in the play therefore we must conclude that the Friar has anticipated the future incorrectly, although we may at the same time remind ourselves that the Friar did also seem to hedge his bets by allowing that things might not turn out as he anticipated. A few scenes later however, after he has learned that Hero is innocent as well as (he believes) dead, Claudio does come to do and feel exactly what the Friar anticipated. He goes to Hero's family monument, reads the ‘mournful epitaph’ hung upon it and engages in those ‘rites of burial’ which cause him to ponder and idealise ‘the idea of her life’ in precisely the way the Friar suggested that he would.

The Friar anticipated that Claudio would think well of Hero again because he would be affected by her supposed death; in fact he is affected by her supposed death because—discovering that his accusations against her were not true—he thinks well of her again. Nevertheless, as Claudio engages in rites of mourning at Hero's family monument readers and spectators are likely to revise their judgement both on the accuracy of the Friar's anticipation and on their own earlier assessment of that anticipation. We may at this point forget that the Friar was ever wrong in any respect (forget that reality has reversed the sequence of cause and effect envisaged in his scheme), or we may consider that he was only partly wrong. We may also retrospectively revise our understanding of that later section of the Friar's speech in which he appeared to hedge his bets:

Let this be so, and doubt not but success
Will fashion the event in better shape
Than I can lay it down in likelihood.

This, we can now believe, is exactly what has happened. The degree to which the event has diverged from the anticipated event actually increases, in this later retrospect, our sense of the Friar's wisdom. After all, the Friar's scheme is based on his insight that things seem (are?) different after the event from how they seem before or during the event. And if this insight is to be taken seriously it must apply to the Friar himself just as much as to the other characters in the play. So to be really consistent and wise the Friar must say, as a correlative to his scheme, that it may well work out quite differently (better or worse) than anticipation can forecast.

As we have seen, none of the play's other schemes aim to alter feelings by forcing their victims to see things retrospectively. Nevertheless, the alteration of feelings which these other schemes successfully effect does itself prompt retrospection—on the part of the characters whose feelings have been altered, and on the part of readers and spectators.

When Beatrice is left alone after she has overheard the conversation between Hero and Ursula about Benedick—the conversation which Hero and Ursula plan she should overhear—she says:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on, I will 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.

(III. i. 107-116)

By saying ‘maiden pride, adieu’ Beatrice is announcing that she is moving from one stage of the female life-cycle to the next stage, but she is doing more than that. She is acceding—in a way she has always aggressively refused to do before—to the notion that human life is indeed a cycle, a sequence of prescribed stages or episodes in which individuals play a succession of parts or characters with predictable characteristics. She now sums up her previous recalcitrance, her unconventionality, as merely one kind of conventional behaviour, ‘maiden pride’. This categorization of herself is explicitly retrospective; and this is not surprising since the notion that life is a sequence of prescribed stages is more congenial to people at some stages—later stages—of life than at others. Adolescents do not usually think of themselves as adolescents and young people do not normally start youth clubs. It is when Beatrice sees herself as a woman who will be married that she quickly defines her previous behaviour, in which she stood out against marriage, as characteristic of an earlier episode in a temporal schema, as the prelude to this very different next episode.

Benedick's response to overhearing the conversation between Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro—a conversation he is meant to overhear—is rather more complex. Like Beatrice he reconciles what he now feels with what he used to feel by linking them as predictable episodes in a narrative sequence, but his retrospection also involves the memory of anticipation:

I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed 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. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? 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.

(II. iii. 227-35)

In railing against marriage Benedick had not in fact argued that he would die before he reached that stage of life: he had not spoken as if life was necessarily made up of such prescribed and obligatory stages. He had resisted his friends' anticipation of the title ‘Benedick the married man’. But he now explains his previous attitudes in just such terms and commits himself to a conventional narrative view according to which a person's life is made up of linked stages in which one plays the part of ‘bachelor’, ‘married man’, ‘youth’, ‘age’ and so on. Nevertheless, Benedick's final remark here—‘when I said I would die a bachelor, / I did not think I should live till I were married’—has an interestingly paradoxical air. Benedick's formulation somehow acknowledges that it may not now be possible even to understand the point of view from which he used to see life. His altered mental landscape has put the place he used to live quite out of sight. To reconcile his past and his present attitudes by allocating them to two contiguous stages in a necessary and universal process of growing up is perhaps a form of self-deception forced upon the world by those who conform to it.

As Beatrice and Benedick are pushed into falling in love with one another, we ourselves, as readers and spectators, may well find ourselves reinterpreting the protagonists' present affection as the inevitable and predictable outcome of their previous hostility. In the Introduction to his Penguin edition of the play, R. A. Foakes argues that ‘the tricks practiced on [Beatrice and Benedick] to make them fall in love merely bring into the open what is already implicit in their attention to each other’. Beatrice and Benedick do not claim this themselves of course; nevertheless Foakes is, like them, being drawn into interpreting the past as prelude to the present, interpretations more subtly retrospective than any of them realise.

The idea that the love between Beatrice and Benedick was latent in their previous mutual hostility is of course ethically convenient. The uncomfortable similarity between the benign deceit which brings Beatrice and Benedick together and the malign deceit of Don John which temporarily drives Claudio and Hero apart is easier to accept if you are convinced that the former only draws out a love latent in the relationship from the start. Some feeling of this kind is surely inevitable, for any reader or spectator, but so is a degree of scepticism about this feeling—a realization that their bantering hostility could, in other circumstances, have continued, or turned to indifference, or to hatred, or to friendship.

To speculate in this way about how a relationship might have turned out is itself bound to be problematic. As Stephen Greenblatt says,

theatrical performance is distinct from most other social practices insofar as its character is predetermined and enclosed, as it forces its audience to grant that retrospective necessity was prospective: the formal necessity disclosed when one looks back on events that have already occurred was in fact the necessity disclosed in the existence, before the performance itself, of the script.

Some (though not all) of the feeling, shared by R. A. Foakes with many other critics, that Beatrice and Benedick were destined for one another from the start, must derive not from the particular character of their relationship but from the fact that it is a relationship in a story of a particular kind: a comedy. Correlatively, to say that ‘in other circumstances’ their relationship could have turned out differently can only mean ‘in another play’ or—as Greenblatt puts it—in a performance where the actors ‘forget their lines or blurt them out before their cue or altogether refuse to perform’.5

Some people believe that the retrospective view has a privileged relation to truth and that the predetermined character of stories only reveals the narrative order that underlies the apparent confusion—or freedom—of real life. And we do not need to accept that philosophical position to see that there are some specific features of real life which resemble stories and which stories may be said to imitate and explore. This has been argued not only by Barbara Hardy, but in Shakespeare criticism by Anne Barton, Stephen Greenblatt and others who have noted Shakespeare's preoccupation in his plays with play-like aspects of life outside the theatre. There is one species of play-like behaviour which is more prominent in Much Ado than in any of the other plays, and in which the narrative aspect of drama is especially prominent. Much Ado shows that this behaviour is an important part of the ‘process through which events and persons are turned into narrative’. This play-like behaviour is the ritual practice known as a rite of passage. Shakespeare brings such rites directly onto the stage in the two weddings of Claudio and Hero and in the memorial acts performed by Claudio at Hero's supposed tomb.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in the course of an argument with Louis Mink's contention that ‘in life there are no beginnings, middles, or ends’, asks ‘but have you never heard of death?’6 It has frequently been suggested that it is death, more than anything else, that binds life and story together by enforcing that sense of an ending which generates the sense of beginnings and middles. But it is a moot point whether it is death alone or its ritual marking which generates the sense of an ending: even here culture may be required to supplement nature. In contemplating the effect on Claudio of Hero's supposed death, the Friar puts considerable emphasis on ‘the rites / That appertain unto a burial’. Hero's friends' ‘mourning ostentation’ at the ‘family's old monument’ is to lead Claudio himself to ‘mourn’ and Claudio's eventual ritual acts at the monument are directly staged.

If it is the ritual marking of death as much as death itself which generates the sense of an ending, it is most certainly weddings which begin marriages, and do so partly by anticipating their end (‘till death do us part’). Louis Mink may be right to say that ‘the start of an affair belongs to the story we tell ourselves later’, but the same is not true of a marriage. A function of weddings, and of the marriages they bring into being, is to give life something of the shape of a story while it is still going on. Weddings, like baptisms, funerals and other rites of passage, work to divide the lives of individuals into distinct segments and link the segments together into a finite sequence, to give life a narrative order. When Beatrice bids ‘maiden pride, adieu’ she is saying goodbye to the role of maiden in order to greet the role of wife. Her speech articulates her sense of being in transit between ages. This transition will actually be effected by the event which her speech implicitly anticipates: the wedding ceremony in which her uncle Leonato will give her away to Benedick. This event does not appear on stage but the equivalent moment in the lives of Claudio and Hero does. The so-called ‘church scene’ at the start of Act IV shows Leonato giving his daughter to Claudio who then tries to throw the ritual sequence brutally into reverse, telling his almost-father-in-law to ‘take her back again’. It is a shocking moment, both for the other characters and for us, and for a number of critics the maimed rite of Hero's wedding, together with the grief of her uncle and father which immediately follows it, moves the play to the borders of tragedy.7 The climactic position of the scene and its specially disturbing impact, are best explained in terms of the play's preoccupation with the relation between life and narrative.

Claudio commits an act of great psychological violence against Hero, and it is a sacrilegious act (the subversion of a sacred event in a sacred place). But these factors do not in themselves explain the unsettling force of the scene, which derives from the ways in which it draws upon the relationship between the event which it is (a scene in a play) and the event which it represents (an episode in a—subverted—rite of passage).

In the first place we need to remind ourselves that the wedding rite does more than move a person from one stage of the life cycle to another (from daughter to wife, for instance). It also, in so doing, helps to establish life as a cycle, or sequence of stages. By making Claudio disrupt the rite, attempting to reverse the sequence of the rite and of Hero's life, Shakespeare vividly emphasises its narrative function and the threat to life's narrative order which its disruption involves.

Secondly, the church scene is as J. R. Mulryne has noted ‘consciously and overtly “theatrical”’8, and the principal reason for its theatricality is that the rite which it represents on stage is—when performed in a real church by people really getting married—already a quasi-theatrical event, involving costumes, symbolic objects, the learning of parts, the following of a script. Shakespeare emphasises both the differences and the proximities between the on-stage and off-stage performances by using as part of his own script words that are (as the Arden editor puts it) ‘close to, but not exactly, the English marriage service’.9

If a real wedding and its representation in a dramatic narrative are thus complicated in their relationship to one another, it is worth pondering the implications of defining the church scene's impact by invoking the concept of ‘tragedy’. Tragedy is both a kind of human situation and a literary genre, the two meanings being neither identical nor easily separable. To describe the church scene as taking us to the borders of tragedy suggests that while it happens we wonder whether this is the kind of play in which an intensity of anguish and discord develops that, contrary to our previous expectations, will not be redeemable by any subsequent concord. The scene threatens that particular sense of anticipated retrospect which is essential to our sense of genre. I have suggested that to say the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick could have turned out differently ‘in other circumstances’ can only mean ‘in another play’: in the church scene we feel we may be in another play.

Of course, while we may be in a different play from the one we thought we were in, we are not in a different play from the one Shakespeare wrote. Nevertheless, the power of this scene may partly derive from a subliminal feeling that the actor playing Claudio has somehow refused to follow Shakespeare's script. He has not really done so, and the feeling that he has could not survive for a moment if it became more than subliminal. But we should recall Greenblatt's description of a hypothetical performance in which the actors ‘forget their lines or blurt them out before their cue or altogether refuse to perform’. That would describe quite well the way in which Leonato, the Friar, Claudio and Hero stumble through, and then in Claudio's case reject, their parts in the rite of passage. In suddenly refusing to play the bridegroom's part, the actor playing Claudio is still playing his part in Much Ado, but the similarities between the on-stage and off-stage performances are so real that the former secretly borrows some of the emotional charge that would result if the actor were to destroy the narrative order of the play itself by ‘altogether refusing to perform’.


  1. Barbara Hardy's principal theoretical statement is ‘Towards a Poetics of Fiction: An Approach Through Narrative’, Novel, II (1968), pp. 31-40, revised for Tellers and Listeners (1975).

  2. ‘History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension’, New Literary History, I (1970), pp. 541-58 (p. 557).

  3. ‘The very possibility of meaning plotted through sequence and through time depends on the anticipated structuring force of the ending … the anticipation of retrospection’. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Oxford. 1984), pp. 93-4. See also Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York, 1967).

  4. Jacques' speech makes it hard for us to use the word ‘stage’ in this modern sense without punning anachronistically on its theatrical sense.

  5. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford, 1988), p. 17.

  6. After Virtue: a study in moral theory (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1981), p. 197.

  7. Much Ado may be called a tragi-comedy … the clouds gather in the fourth Act and look like breaking into tragedy, only to pass away in the fifth’. J. Dover Wilson, Shakespeare's Happy Comedies (1962), p. 121.

  8. Shakespeare: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1965), p. 18.

  9. A. R. Humphreys (London and New York, 1981), p. 172.

Roy Battenhouse (essay date 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Toward Understanding Patriarchy in Much Ado,Shakespeare Yearbook, Vol. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 193-200.

[In the following essay, Battenhouse criticizes Claire McEachern’s interpretation of patriarchal issues in Much Ado about Nothing, particularly for its lack of consideration of the play’s Christian aspects.]

My aim in this brief essay is to sketch an alternative to Claire McEachern's recent depiction of Shakespeare in “Fathering Herself” (SQ 39:269-90) as a critic of patriarchy. His portrayal of fathers, she writes, “refuses to authorize patriarchal power” (288). She offers her analysis as a contrast to that of Kathleen McLuskie, another feminist who dislikes patriarchy. In McLuskie's view Shakespeare was enbondaged to the patriarchal assumptions of his culture; an essay of hers has dubbed him “The Patriarchal Bard” to warn readers against an alleged anti-feminism in his art. McEachern, on the other hand, would insist that Shakespeare “forges a critical perspective from which to view patriarchy” (289).

Now insofar as this approach seems to promise some attention to the difference between faulty patriarchy and true patriarchy, it sounds attractive to me. But alas, it turns out that for McEachern all versions of patriarchy become problematic. Even the patriarchally ordered happy ending in Much Ado is regarded as dubiously satisfactory and “highly ironic” (280). Why so? Apparently, because McEachern reads patriarchy as an unstable social construct “founded in a profound contradiction” (273). In her view, the term is only a “rubric” which conflates two conflicting “systems.” One involves ruling the family and the other a negotiating of male alliances. The contradiction between those, she asserts, is “at the heart of patriarchy” and is what Shakespeare explores (273).

I shall test this contention by examining the patriarchy of Leonato in Much Ado. McEachern's discussion of Leonato relies on a terminology borrowed from modern sociology and psychoanalysis. I hope I may be pardoned for suggesting that these tools may be inadequate for grasping Shakespeare's assumptions.

First, permit me a few words about comedy. As I see it, comic action includes both a happy ending and some intermediate exhibits of human folly and foibles. In Much Ado the funniest moment for me is the wedding scene fiasco, for here the comedy of human folly has its most spectacular display. A deluded groom rejects his bride, not quietly and in private, but at the church altar, where he shouts at her bewildered father:

                    There, Leonato, take her back again
Give not this rotten orange to your friend.


Disregarded is the girl's modest testimony of innocence. Her accuser parades as the exposer of false seeming. “O what authority and show of truth,” he exclaims, “Can cunning sin cover itself withall!” (34-35). But note the dramatic irony: this speaker's own rhetoric unwittingly points his proverb at himself. For what is as comic as a speaker who intemperately denounces intemperance, while he credits hearsay yet refuses to hear? His folly is particularly out of place in a church, since the Bible, in Leviticus 19:16 and Matthew 7:1, forbids slander and blind judgment.

The response by Leonato is equally absurd. He believes Claudio's “show” and duplicates it. Rejecting his own daughter, he talks wildly of wishing to strike at her life. “Death is the fairest cover for her shame” is his comment when Hero faints on the floor. “Help, uncle!” her cousin Beatrice cries out, but only the sensible clergyman answers with a timely “Have comfort, lady.” Leonato is wholly absorbed with self-pity. Lamenting ever having loved Hero, he cries: “Hence with her, let her die.” This lack of fatherly concern is as shamefully ludicrous as Claudio's lack of loverly concern.

The comedy is enhanced, let me note, by the metaphors with which Shakespeare lets these high-society fools expose their versions of duty. Claudio vows to

… lock up all the gates of love
And on my eyelids shall conjecture hang.


Leonato cries, “Do not ope thine eyes” (122). To prefer closed eyes and conjecture is contrary, surely, to both husbandry and fatherhood. Through further details Shakespeare reveals the illogical reasoning of these rash judges. Claudio trusts the testimony of a “ruffian” who confessed to a thousand secret vile encounters with Hero (90-94). Is it sensible to believe a ruffian? A moment later when Beatrice is called on for testimony, she reports having been the bedfellow of Hero every night but one in the past twelve months (147-48). That should make evident that Hero has been belied. But Leonato is bent comically on a dark imagining of the one night outside Beatrice's knowledge. Grasping at this straw of non-evidence, he declares Claudio's charge “Confirmed! Confirmed!” Bogus reasoning is an old staple of comedy, and surely Shakespeare counts on his theatre audience to laugh at it here.

I have sketched the scene's comic aspects so that I can now appropriately ask how much awareness McEachern has of these. She doesn’t mention any of them when discussing the “critical perspective” she credits Shakespeare with providing on Leonato. Rather, she tells us that Shakespeare is forcing us to be indignant at Leonato:

Our knowledge that Hero did not in fact contravene her father's and her suitor's bond forces us to censure Leonato's belief in Claudio's accusation with, at the very least, indignation: He is unjust, disloyal, and too ready to sacrifice his love for his daughter to the ideal of male alliance.


I would say, instead, that our native understanding of a father's normative responsibility prompts us to feel a huge amusement at Leonato's topsy-turvy version of fatherhood. We see him as the victim of his witless imagination, making much ado about nothing. To say that he “sacrifice(s) his love for his daughter to the ideal of male alliance” seems to me inaccurate. Actually he is repudiating love, not sacrificing it, and he makes no mention of “male alliance” as his ideal. His ideal here, I would infer, is simply to maintain his honor in the public eye and in his own estimate. He is, like Claudio, a shallow man overly concerned for worldly reputation. He therefore falls into and duplicates what later he will repent of and oppose as Claudio's “fashion-monging” unmanliness (5.1.95). Momentarily, Leonato is Fashion's fool, as I read him.

But from McEachern's pages one would never guess that Shakespeare intended any comic element in these characterizations. His aim, she tells us, was “to expose the potentially destructive emotional logic of patriarchy” (275). Leonato's rhetorical lament that “mine I loved, and mine I prais’d / And mine that I was proud on” (135-6) she diagnoses as “shockingly narcissistic” (276). And then she proceeds to associate this narcissism with “the power of his love for his daughter,” his having taken “the risk of loving her,” and “patriarchy's radical investment in the affective order of the family”—all of which Shakespeare is presenting as “the ideological confusion” of the patriarchal system (276). Leonato's “fatherly love for Hero,” we are told, is in conflict with “his social need for male honor” (277). When he interprets Hero's blush as guiltiness, “It is as if Hero's very body is marked by the competing demands of patriarchy” (278). His rejection of her “testifies to his radical possession of her, a possession inappropriate to comedy and to exogamy alike, however psychologically understandable” (278). “In order for the play to end in marriage, Leonato must … acknowledge the necessity of granting his daughter's alterity” (278).

This medley of explanation seems to me mostly a loose jargon that is wide of the mark. Why equate fatherly love with narcissism? Further, I can see no evidence that Leonato's predicament is due to the competing demands of patriarchy. Family order and exogamy were both respected by him when he gave Hero to Claudio in Act Two. And in this match, made with her full consent, there was no possessive scanting of her “alterity.” I see the real cause of the ensuing trouble, rather, in the limited horizons of Leonato and Claudio. When I hear Claudio hail his betrothal with the comment, “I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange” (2.1.295), his doting strikes me as signifying a superficial understanding of love and marriage. And Leonato's equally superficial understanding is surely signaled by his comment to the Friar as the wedding party gathers at the church: “Come, Friar Francis, be brief—only the plain form of marriage, and you shall recount their duties afterwards” (5.1.1-3).

The here-neglected particular duties, as the play's final outcome will make clear, turn about a faithful caring for the loved one. Without this religious dimension, a husband's (or a father's) love can lapse into a worldly concern for fashionable appearances. Fashionable “apparel,” appearances, is what we hear Borachio discoursing on in a key passage of the play (3.3), where he equates it with what is “nothing to a man” but deforms him. Fashion, says Borachio, turns its followers into giddy gentlemen. As examples he cites Pharaoh's soldiers (who drowned in the Red Sea), the god Bel's priests (who served thievish appetite in the guise of piety), and the shaven Hercules (when he lapsed from virtue).1 Each of these examples is an icon of moral faithlessness—two of them, let us note, from the Bible. All three illustrate moral manhood betrayed into an action of vanity. And is not this what Shakespeare lets us see Claudio and Don Pedro and Leonato fall into? It takes a faithful friar to rescue the faithless Leonato and turn him into a proper patriarch.

The contribution of the Friar, let me point out, is threefold. First, he persuades Leonato of Hero's innocence by pointing to testimony in her face and eye which he, by virtue of his calling in “divinity,” can read. Secondly, he proposes a remedy for rescuing the broken marriage through a strategy of funeral rites to awaken remorse in Claudio for the “death” he has caused. And thirdly, he comforts the lady with an adage that encapsulates the mystery of Christian wisdom: “Die to live.” On this basis he grounds his hope that “This wedding-day / Perhaps is but prolonged” (4.1.252-3)—that is, made longer so it may be more lasting. As later events reveal, the friar himself will preside at the wedding which fulfills this hope by bringing a resurrected Hero to a penitent Claudio. That outcome not only provides the joy and wonder proper to comedy; it also reveals the “gracious” context that underlies Christian marriage in contrast to (and in correction of) the unreliable “grace of mortal men” which fashioned the match made in Act Two. (Cf. R3 3.4.96: “O momentary grace of mortal men, / Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!”) More than “male alliance” is involved in a Christian marriage. Leonato, by cooperation with a “holy friar” (5.4.57), has become a fatherly mediator of a heavenly grace.

Theological categories, unfortunately, are outside McEachern's realm. I think it significant that the only reference she makes to the friar is to quote the lines in which he correctly interprets Hero's blushes as innocence. In McEachern's view, it is Benedick who prompts a change in Leonato. “As Benedick is part of the male world he [Leonato] wishes to join,” she explains, “his endorsement of Hero's innocence allows Leonato to retract his rejection of his daughter” and exchange the vocabulary of narcissism for that of a chivalric protector (279). “In the distant, idealizing stance of the chivalric champion, Leonato can love Hero and learn to release her,” while the “macho” aspect of the challenger allows him to recover social honor (279). He appropriates “a courtly rhetoric … in which fathers are made archaic.” Shakespeare thus “re-idealizes the patriarchal system,” yet “in terms so highly artificial that they make us conscious of their presence and of the emotional life they would dissemble” (280). Further,

Disguised, and given in marriage by her uncle, Hero is safely removed from Leonato; the father is doubly replaced: first by Antonio and finally by Claudio. Leonato is relegated to spectator, … and in the macabre fantasy of Hero's death Shakespeare insists upon the costs of constructing and maintaining the patriarchy. … Leonato's arrival at the posture of patriarch is labored and highly ironic, requiring a suggestion of tragedy that can never be fully dismissed by the high artifice of a happy ending.


I have quoted lengthily from McEachern in order to indicate the flavor of her analysis. Her precise meaning I find elusive. But what she seems to be saying is that Leonato's revised patriarchy becomes highly ironic because it is achieved at the cost of displacing himself. Also, that the symbolic death of Hero is a “macabre fantasy” of tragic cost, which makes the play's comedy problematic. McEachern does not perceive, evidently, that the only cost to Hero is that of suffering an adversity with patience (as does Hermione in The Winter's Tale), thereby demonstrating her hidden virtues of faith, hope, and charity, on which any lasting happy ending depends. Nor does this critic notice that Leonato is carrying out the friar's “Look for greater birth” (4.7.212) when he gives Claudio a “penance” to reeducate him as soon as the play's wise-fool watchmen have demolished Claudio's foolish trust in his own righteousness. For if the marriage is to be mended, Claudio must not merely feel remorse for the loss of “Sweet Hero” (as he does at 5.1.245); he must also undergo a symbolic death—in his case through contrition, confession, and satisfaction, stages paralleling the penance of church ritual, as R. G. Hunter noted in his chapter on Much Ado in Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (1965). Claudio receives Leonato's forgiveness only when he accepts sight-unseen, as a final proof of good faith, the substitute bride Leonato grants him, namely, Hero's hidden self. McEachern's modern feminism apparently nullifies her ability to appreciate this kind of comedy.

I have noted deficiencies in McEachern's analysis in order to point up at the same time the Scriptural rootage of Shakespeare's sense of comedy. The gospel remedy of a penitential dying to an old or worldly self and the gospel “mystery” of a resurrection that overcomes slander inform the ending of Much Ado. Earlier, Claudio's and Leonato's absurd infidelity have as a glossing commentary the Bible's paradigms of Pharaoh's soldiers and Bel's priests. And then the untangling of this predicament involves St. Paul's paradox in 1 Corinthians, that the worldly-wise are fools who can become truly wise only by becoming holy fools. Chris Hassel's Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies (1980) has explored the presence of this Pauline paradox in several of Shakespeare's comedies, and Barbara Lewalski in 1965 aptly cited 1 Corinthians 1:27 as pertinent to Much Ado.

Nowadays Hassel's book, and R. G. Hunter's on the forgiveness motif, and Nevile Coghill's 1951 essay on “The Medieval Basis of Shakespearean Comedy,” emphasizing its Christian premises, seem routinely bypassed by researchers. Why? Perhaps because the Bible is too subtly pervasive a source to be easily noted, or perhaps because our attunement to Biblical allusions is disappearing. If we pay attention to religious dimensions, McEachern's reducing of the play to a critique of patriarchal power is somewhat askew. It is not the power of patriarchy that is on trial, but rather the good sense of Leonato. We see him become utterly ludicrous when he lets his love of reputation turn him into an unfatherly father, echoing thus Claudio's lapse into an unloverly lover for the same shallow reason, an addiction to the fashions of the world which pass away, as Christians ought to know from 1 Corinthians 7:31. Providentially, these fools get rescued from their folly by the wisdom of Messina's clergyman, aided indirectly by the town's simpleton watchmen who can intuitively recognize evil on hearing its voice even though they fumble in naming it. The play as a whole is continually amusing by its exposure of human foibles, and a genuinely happy outcome is attained when, by a friar's counsel, Leonato grows into a self-effacing patriarch who fulfills fatherhood's true role. Whereas McEachern supposes the play's ending to be an ironic re-idealizing of patriarchy, readers capable of a traditional Christian sensibility either in Shakespeare's day or our own can recognize it as patriarchy's true actualization by a triumph of faith over fashion.


  1. It is pertinent that Benedick is compared with Hercules by Beatrice when she is upbraiding him for lack of manhood, in 4.1.316: “… manhood is melted into cur’sies, valor into compliment, and men are turn’d into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it.”

Works Cited

Hassel, R. Chris. Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980. Chapter 4.

Hunter, Robert G. Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness. New York: Columbia UP, 1965. Chapter 4.

Kirsch, A. C. Shakespeare and the Experience of Love. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1981. 46-54.

Lewalski, Barbara. “Love, Appearance, and Reality: Much Ado about Something.” Studies in English Literature 8 (1965): 235-251.

McEachern, Claire. “Fathering Herself: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 269-290.

McLuskie, Kathleen. “The Patriarchal Bard.” Political Shakespeare. Eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 88-108.

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

Phoebe S. Spinrad (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Dogberry Hero: Shakespeare's Comic Constables in Their Communal Context,” Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 161-78.

[In the following essay, Spinrad argues that the constables are reassuring figures—despite and due to their ineptitude—within the more sinister power dynamics in Much Ado about Nothing and Measure for Measure.]

Dogberry and Elbow, Shakespeare's most famous comic constables, have long been recognized both as satiric commentary on the corruptions in Elizabethan local law-enforcement systems and as thematic commentary on the judicial or social systems within the larger scope of their plays. Of course, beyond their historico-thematic functions, the constables are also some of the choicest bits of Shakespearean humor, with their malapropisms, their inability to articulate what the charges against a malefactor are, and in general their bumbling, although well-meaning, inefficiency. And yet, even those critics who find the constables' “inefficiency” the most endearing aspect of their comic effect must often admit that they are not all that inefficient; Dogberry and his minions do in fact break up Don John's plot in Much Ado, and in Measure for Measure Elbow does in fact break up whatever it is that is happening in Pompey's alehouse, as well as finally bringing Pompey to justice a second time, this time on charges that apparently stick.1 The constables, then, are not entirely ineffectual, although they may be inefficient. And I should like to suggest that their very inefficiency is part of their effectuality, as well as another level of satiric commentary on the over-efficiency of even good enforcement systems; that they represent, in fact, the substratum of at least pre-modern comedy which assures the audience that all things will work out well, both on the stage and in society, because it is in the nature of things to do so unless forcibly disrupted from outside.

One of the historical assumptions about these constables2 is that the Elizabethan constabulary system was riddled with corruption, the constables generally being taken from among the illiterate and therefore stupid commons, the minimally employable who gladly leaped at the chance to act as substitutes for the otherwise qualified who did not wish to be bothered with the task. To a certain extent, these statements have a bit of truth in them; like any system, the constabulary system was open to abuse. But Dogberry is by no means in abuse of his office, and although Elbow is apparently one of those paid substitutes, he is performing an important duty at great sacrifice to himself and his family—and he is performing at least as well as the person for whom he is acting might do.

It may be helpful to review who and what the constables of Elizabethan England were.3 The constable was normally elected by his (and sometimes her!) neighbors in a village, town, or ward (city sector).4 Eligibility was dependent not on income or class so much as residence in or attachment to a particular household or tenement, although such residence was of course a matter of class and income to a certain extent. When the population of a community was particularly mobile, the buying and selling of tenement holdings might result in constables who were virtual strangers; however, in stable populations, the constable was a neighbor, a settled member of the community whom one might have known from infancy. The term of office was usually for one year, and the office was supposed to be rotated among the eligible householders so that no one was subject to the hardships of the office for a ruinously long time. Elbow's tenure of seven and a half years, then, may indeed be an abuse of the system, as Escalus assumes:

Escalus: Alas, it hath been
great pains to you; they do you wrong to put you so oft upon’t. Are
there not men in your ward sufficient to serve it?
Elbow: Faith, sir, few of any wit
in such matters. As they are chosen, they are glad to choose me for them;
I do it for some piece of money, and go through with all.
Escalus: Look you bring me in the
names of some six or seven, the most sufficient of your parish.


It is not clear whether Elbow is an officially appointed deputy, who would have been paid out of the constable's own pocket, or whether he has simply had the position fobbed off on him. Occasionally, as Joan Kent observes, “men and women who were considered personally exempt from serving … were ordered to find deputies for their tenements, and incumbents occasionally appointed a deputy if they were incapacitated or obliged to be absent from the community; but the records provide very little other evidence of substitutions”6 The problem with Elbow's service, then, is not his status as deputy but rather its duration; a series of neighbors, rather than just one, have hired him as substitute. This may indicate that the whole society is corrupt, in that too many eligible citizens are refusing their law-enforcement duty for one reason or another. It may also indicate corruption on a more personal level, in that the citizens are victimizing a neighbor whom they should protect—that is, they are luring him into impoverishing himself under the guise of paying him money “up front.” As I will note shortly, constabulary duty was expensive and time-consuming.

Dogberry appears to have been elected in the normal way; he is a man of some substance in Messina, as he indignantly informs Conrade:

Dogberry: 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.

(Much Ado 4.2.73-78)

Furthermore, his knowledge of the law is not as faulty as might appear on the surface. As O. Hood Phillips points out, he is careful in his choice of deputies for the watch, picking those who can read and write, and his caution to them to “keep your fellows' counsel and your own” (3.3.79-80) is an actual phrase taken from the charge to the grand jury of the time.7 He is also conscientious in telling his deputies to call him out of bed if there is any “matter of weight.”

The fact that Dogberry himself is apparently unable to read and write is not in itself an abuse. We must remember that illiteracy is not necessarily synonymous with stupidity. Although Dogberry does not seem to be gifted with a high IQ, his illiteracy might not be unusual in a given community. The literacy level among constables varied, sometimes as low as 15 percent and sometimes as high as 80 percent, and illiterate constables usually had neighbors fill out paperwork for them, or, as Dogberry does, submitted all paperwork chores to their superiors. The occasional failure of a constable to find anyone to read his instructions to him or take down charges for him does not seem to be one of Dogberry's problems. Despite his poor memory for the nature of words, he is aware of the duties which the words signify. Nor does he seem to be liable to an unpopular constable's problem of having literate but malicious neighbors falsify what they are reading and writing for him. Dogberry's literate deputies obey his orders, and the Sexton (or Town Clerk) who transcribes the testimony in the examination of prisoners is careful to guide the testimony into the correct channels.

Phillips points out that “by English law [the examination of the prisoners] should have been conducted before two justices,”8 but here again I think we see conscientious rather than mistaken performance of duty on the part of Dogberry, especially since the Sexton does not protest the irregularity. The testimony is of immediate importance to the community, Leonato (who as governor of Messina may also be its Justice) is preoccupied with his daughter's wedding, and the traveling justices may not be available for days or even weeks. Indeed, the chain of command for a constable was a multiplex and sometimes confusing one. Petty constables such as Dogberry reported variously to high constables, sheriffs, bailiffs, justices, and royal visitors, and often had to travel long distances to make their presentments at leet courts and assizes. Since Dogberry invokes “the Prince's name” when briefing his deputies, he is obviously aware of the bureaucratic channels to which he is responsible.

For what duties was a constable responsible? The list is almost too long to enumerate here, but it included the following: apprehending vagrants (about which more in a moment), whipping them, and passing them on to the next town's constable to be further whipped and passed on until they were returned to the parish of their birth; housing any vagrants whose home parishes could not be determined; arresting and jailing and/or punishing thieves, drunks, murderers, assault perpetrators, and other offenders; searching houses for stolen goods; issuing warrants; keeping watch and ward; breaking up fights; assessing and collecting fines and taxes; impressing soldiers as necessary; verifying and enforcing licenses of alehouses; disseminating government proclamations; appearing before leet courts and assizes to testify in criminal cases; and a host of other time-consuming (and money-consuming) duties.

A small stipend was allotted for the performance of these duties, but it was seldom enough to cover immediate expenses. The constable was responsible for hiring his own deputies and maintaining local jail facilities, or housing suspects where no jail facilities were available. When called to appear before assizes, he traveled at his own expense. Although he might be reimbursed for costs incurred while on duty, he still had to advance the money from his own pocket. And of course during the performance of constabulary duty he had to neglect his own business or hire assistants to carry on in his absence. We may almost begin to understand why the residents of Vienna might appreciate a tractable Elbow who will do the work for them.

Furthermore, constabulary duty could be dangerous. Criminals were not always as docile as Borachio, Conrade, Pompey, and Froth; a constable acting alone was subject to assault, and sometimes he could not get enough assistants to help him. In fact, his assistants might be the very people he had to arrest. There are many cases on record of a constable's being assaulted by his own townspeople, particularly during his attempts to search a house, break up a fight, collect an unpopular assessment, close down an illegal alehouse, or stop a popular local crime such as smuggling.

Pity the poor constable. As a local resident, he was usually torn between loyalty to his own community and responsibility to his superiors and the central government. Animosity incurred during his time of office might injure his business afterward, either because he would lose his neighbors' custom or because they would crack down on him more heavily when they were in office. But failure to perform his duties as expected by the central government would involve him in additional trips to explain before the courts why he had been negligent, and might result in heavy fines. The conflicting pressures are aptly summed up in a ballad of 1626 cited by Joan Kent, which is attributed to a Surrey constable:

The Justices will set us by the heels
If we do not as we should;
Which if we perform, the townsmen will storm;
Some of them hang's if they could.(9)

Although Boorman points out that “to be merely a justice of the peace, even a churchwarden, gave a man a kind of local social immortality denied to the common man,”10 the job was by no means without its dangers to that immortality—both figuratively and literally.

In view of these pressures on local residents who were also the overseers of their own neighbors for a year or more at a time, Dogberry's laissez-faire attitude that Robert Ornstein so aptly calls his “Jeffersonian approach to keeping the peace” is understandable.11 But the nature of some of the “crimes” that Dogberry and Elbow are supposed to control may shed still more light on Dogberry's good nature—and Elbow's heroism. Both Nevo and Ornstein,12 for example, almost instinctively take delight in Dogberry's instructions on dealing with town vagrants:

Dogberry: This is your charge:
you shall comprehend all vagrom men; you are to bid any man stand, in the
Prince's name.
2 Watch: How if ’a will not
Dogberry: Why then, take no note
of him, but let him go, and presently call the rest of the watch together
and thank God you are rid of a knave.
Verges: If he will not stand when
he is bidden, he is none of the Prince's subjects.

(Much Ado 3.3.22-30)

The vagrancy problem in England had grown progressively worse throughout the sixteenth century and was essentially a problem of poverty, of “masterless men” forced out on the roads or into the towns to beg. By statutory definition, according to Manning, “a vagrant was a person able to labour who possessed neither land nor master, who worked at no recognized trade, and who refused to accept such employment as might be offered to him. Almost invariably this meant working as a servant-in-husbandry or agricultural labourer.”13 Many of these men had been made landless or masterless by land enclosures and the new centering of wage industries in the towns, and the very conditions of their unemployment guaranteed its continuance. Therefore, they traveled in order to find employment elsewhere but usually found only more of the same conditions. When employment was not available and begging failed to sustain them, they turned to assault and robbery.

The vagrants, then, were considered dangerous, both to the economy and to life and limb. They were also a drain on even those towns that had a system of poor relief, as some of the major cities did by the 1590s: “A category of deserving poor was discovered, but the deserving poor excluded all who could not establish a claim to residence.”14 The Vagrancy Act of 1572 decreed that first offenders were to be imprisoned until the next quarter sessions; those who were convicted at the sessions were to be whipped and branded on the ear, while second offenders were adjudged as felons, and escapees were hanged. The next Vagrancy Act, of 1597, stipulated further that vagrants were to be whipped from town to town back to their legal parishes; if the legal parish of a vagrant could not be determined, the last town that failed to whip him had to assume the cost of his support.15

Note that vagrants were not simply turned out of town but were literally whipped through the parish until they arrived at the border of the next parish, where the constable was responsible for whipping them in turn to his own border, and so on until the vagrants arrived at their own towns—where they would not, of course, have established residences and therefore could not receive poor relief, so that the whole cycle might begin again. Someone who had wandered a long way would thus receive a number of whippings before returning home—perhaps to face starvation or more whippings—and it is little wonder that vagrants about to be apprehended might turn ferocious enough to make Dogberry and his men chary of intercepting them. In addition, the costs involved in housing the vagrants, either until quarter sessions or permanently, could prove ruinous to a small businessman like Dogberry. If the knaves could find their own way home, all the better.

Although Dogberry's instructions to the Watch, including his caution that “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” (3.3.53-55), may be interpreted as simply cowardice or negligence, they may also be interpreted as good sense (a thief identified at night can be better apprehended by a large posse during the day) or even merciful, as Verges insists. Although Elizabethans in general did not share our squeamishness about physical punishment, Dogberry apparently does: “Truly, I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man that hath any honesty in him” (3.3.58-59). In an age that enjoyed bull and bear baiting, and that skinned animals alive under the impression that such a procedure improved the pelts, this is squeamishness indeed. Notably, even Queen Elizabeth showed no such squeamishness. Manning records the following incident, in which we should bear in mind that those who were arrested faced at least whipping and branding, if not hanging:

Early in January 1582, towards the end of Christmastide, the Queen was riding through Islington when her carriage was surrounded by a great crowd of beggars. The incident must have alarmed her, because William Fleetwood, recorder of London, was ordered to begin a sweep of masterless men the same day. The campaign lasted about ten days and netted several hundred vagrants—100 being taken in a single day.16

Nor is Dogberry alone in being more merciful than his superiors; of those constables who were charged with neglect of duty by the leet courts, most were accused of failing to apprehend vagrants or allowing the escape of prisoners. Their “live and let live” attitude, then, not only gave a more literal meaning to “letting live” than we are accustomed to assuming, but also cost them more literally, in the fines levied on them for negligence, than we might be willing to pay. However, when real trouble threatens the community, both Dogberry and Elbow do not hesitate to act.

Dogberry's men do “watch about Signior Leonato's door, for the wedding being there to-morrow, there is a great coil tonight,” as Dogberry instructs them (Much Ado 3.3.85-87); and when they overhear Borachio's and Conrade's admission of having caused harm to a neighbor, they make an immediate arrest. As for Elbow's apprehension of Pompey and Froth, we must remember that it is a single-handed taking of two men who might cause the constable grievous bodily harm. The “alehouse” in which they are taken is actually a brothel, in which Elizabethans knew ruffians and desperate men congregated—in fact, many of these alehouses were hiding places for the vagrants whom Elbow, too, is apparently unwilling to whip out of town. There has been a “Jeffersonian approach” to justice in Vienna as well as in Messina, on more levels than the Duke's; but perhaps Elbow's laxity is more excusable than the Duke's, and his justice more equitable than either the Duke's or Angelo's. To be sure, one of the constable's duties was inspecting and enforcing alehouse licenses, so Elbow has good reason to be checking them; however, although Manning cites “one in ten houses” functioning as illegal alehouses, he also notes that constables were “frequently lax” in suppressing them since “some alehouse keepers had no other source of income and might otherwise have become public charges.”17

If a tradeoff has to be made, then, between enforcing the alehouse laws and giving poor people a source of income and a refuge from the Vagrancy Acts, Elbow apparently takes the more charitable option. Note that this is not simply a question of “looking the other way” in matters of sexual corruption, which is the problem in the foreground of the play's opposition of mercy and justice, but a question of communal well-being: the alehouses, however suspect in sexual matters, are sources of income for the proprietors, safe haven for beggars, and neighborhood bars for the working people of the community. Only when the threat to the community outweighs other considerations does Elbow act. It is difficult, of course, to cut through the malapropisms of Elbow's charges in order to discover what has happened in Pompey's alehouse, but from the few things understandable, it appears that Elbow's pregnant wife entered in an innocent attempt to get some refreshment, including a dish of prunes. While there, she was accosted in some way by either Pompey or Froth and solicited to join Mistress Overdone's stable. Whatever was said or done to her, it was apparently coarse enough to cause her not just to leave but to spit in someone's face—perhaps as a way of pulling free from physical assault. We will never know; even Escalus cannot figure it out. But whatever happened, Elbow considered it harm to a citizen and accordingly risked danger and expense to himself in order to make the arrest.

It may be objected that Elbow has arrested Pompey and Froth only because his own wife has been harmed. However, as we see later, the prison of Vienna is quite full, so Elbow, as chief arresting officer, has been active in other cases as well. The significant point about the case that we do see is that much as we may laugh knowingly at Lucio's and Pompey's contempt for the law, an innocent citizen is not safe on the streets of Vienna when such men are in control of public mores. There is more, then, to the problem of vice than is mentioned in the theorizing of the major characters. Even Angelo, who has given lip service to what we would now call “victims' rights,” essentially does to Isabella, once he succumbs to the prevailing vice of Vienna, what Froth has done to Mistress Elbow. The difference between the two cases is one of degree, not of kind.

It may be objected, too, that the arrest leads to no punishment; because the charges are so incomprehensible, both Froth and Pompey are let off with warnings. But the point is that, as with Dogberry's case, although the bumbling of a constable prevents immediate official measures, the presence of the constable insures the balking of a menace to individual citizens. Elbow's wife is rescued; Froth is removed from the scene and perhaps scared into better behavior in the future; Pompey will be watched more carefully in the future; and Don John's plot, however it may succeed for the moment, is doomed. Furthermore, in each case the official system has been ineffectual while the individual community system has worked.

This is a point often overlooked or at least glossed over too quickly: that as constables, Dogberry and Elbow may be washouts, but as people who are simply there, wandering around and seeing what is going on, they preserve the wellbeing of the community. We may draw an analogy here with small towns and crowded city neighborhoods of our own recent past. Before the advent of television, air conditioning, automobiles, backyard grills, and other technological marvels, people spent a good deal of time sitting outside or at least leaning out of windows, visibly minding each other's business. Strangers were scrutinized and often questioned; odd behavior was noted and discussed and dangerous behavior interrupted on the spot; and if there was an annoying lack of privacy in all this, there was also much safety. Conversely, when a community felt that officialdom was being too harsh on a well-liked neighbor, it could become remarkably reticent and “ignorant” about the neighbor's activities or whereabouts—until officialdom left, at which time the community's eyes, memory, and voice miraculously recovered.18 We have tried to recapture this security with “block watches,” but there is a difference between signs posted on pillars and dozens of visible eyes watching one's movements. Furthermore, once a living communal organism breaks down, even those who do watch are reluctant to act, since they do not know their neighbors well enough to depend on them for help (as in the Kitty Genovese case).

An editorial digression on our own society? Perhaps; but perhaps, too, with some relevance to Shakespeare's society. Interestingly, Shakespeare presents this self-protecting nature of community as a counteragent against both too much and too little official enforcement in the two plays, just as it may have existed in his two residences and indeed in the changing sociopolitical climate in different parts of England. In Stratford, apparently, the Dogberrian method of enforcement was favored. F. W. Brownlow, speculating about John Shakespeare's recusancy, notes that:

[A] document such as the Warwickshire recusancy return of 1592 … is a record of the coercive power of the Tudor state, extending itself into every parish, affecting the lives of very ordinary subjects of the crown. One natural reaction to such governmental meddling was to find various ways of being as little affected as possible, and it is not surprising that in many parishes … there are signs that local officers did not like to push the penal laws too hard against their friends and neighbors. In Stratford in 1592, the wardens seem to have responded to the letter of the law and no more.19

Whether the Tudor state was more coercive than any other is disputable; however, its systems of investigation and enforcement were complex and multitudinous. We have already noted the numerous chains of command to which the constable had to report, each link of which had similarly complex chains of command above it. In addition, the religious network, now linked to the State by the Henrician centralization and Elizabethan settlement, had become similarly entangled. The “wardens” referred to by Brownlow were the local churchwardens who were commissioned to examine households for orthodoxy or heterodoxy, examinations which meant not only catechesis and keeping records of church attendance but also home visitation to check for immoral practices, illicit popish artifacts, and evidence of priest-harboring. Philip Hughes calls the churchwarden of the time “the unpaid constable and detective for parochial morality in its widest and in its narrowest sense,”20 and reminds us that churchwardens also inspected the orthodoxy of the schools, often deputizing the local schoolmaster into being yet another detective. As an additional entangling of the bureaucracy, churchwardens' reports were due both to the bishop and to the central government's secular authorities, and since papistry was considered a crime of treason rather than of heresy, male-factors of this sort were tried as civil offenders first in Church courts and then passed on to the central government. The churchwardens, in their turn, were subject to episcopal and governmental visitation to insure that they were reporting correctly.

In addition, as the anti-papist legislation increased in rigor and urgency throughout the 1580s and 1590s, and as more and more seminary priests arrived from the Continent, government pursuivants, who had previously been considered simply government inspectors, became virtually synonymous with priest-hunters, and their numbers were increased. Since many of the new pursuivants were free-lancers who were paid on the basis of their results, their visits became more frequent and more intense.21 Residents of a given town, then, considered simply as ordinary householders of whatever persuasion or class, were increasingly subject to the “meddling” that Brownlow cites: constables, churchwardens, episcopal visitors, justices, pursuivants, and a host of other representatives of officialdom.

It is important to note that most of the surveillance came from the outside, and that the old system of checks and balances, where the Church might provide protection from the State and vice versa, had disappeared with the consolidation of the two. As Clark and Slack point out, even such officials as now reported to the central government had once been merely local figures like the constable;22 and the craft guilds that had once been part of the religious and communal life of towns were now mostly run by the politically powerful and were “closely integrated with civic administration. In many communities they were little more than auxiliary weapons of the town oligarchy, as at Maidstone, where the guild wardens were employed to patrol the town, suppress disorder, and eject undesirables.”23 In effect, there were now either parallel constabularies even at the local level, one empowered by the central government and one drawn by election from householders, or a single constabulary whose vested interests were more and more divorced from those of the common citizen.24

If the bureaucracy had made Stratford's enforcement system too burdensome, however, it seems to have made that of London too slipshod. The central “old city” was as tightly run as a center of government might be expected to be, but as Clark and Slack observe, “the city fathers had made no attempt to extend their jurisdiction to cover the new suburbs to the north, east, and west.” By the turn of the seventeenth century, then, “much of greater London was ruled by an impotent alliance of parish, manorial, and county authorities. Unlike the rest of the kingdom, … the government of outer London steadily disintegrated, making it vulnerable to political agitation.”25 These suburbs, then, perhaps like the suburbs of Vienna in Measure for Measure, were subject more to the anarchy of nonrule than to the tyranny of overenforcement, except (again as in Vienna) during government crackdowns on what was perceived to be dangerous to the State.

In addition, the influx of workers to these suburbs of London led to a new kind of communal network almost unknown in towns. Although the guilds had by now become political rather than trade or religious entities, people working the same crafts tended to live together in clusters, forming (we might say) craft ghettos where there had once been craft guilds. In these ghettos there developed the same kinds of self-protecting bonds that had once been formed by geographic or familial ties, but on a smaller and perhaps more desperate scale.26 Newcomers were closely scrutinized, strangers were suspect, and when danger threatened a member of the community, the community often responded by taking the law into its own hands, since it apparently could not depend on the chaotic enforcement system to act—or even care.

In both cases, that of the overly governed town and that of the insufficiently governed city suburb, figures such as Dogberry and Elbow are both necessary and reassuring. Dogberry's slipshod surveillance is evidence that the local constabulary has local rather than central governmental interests at heart; and his actual capture of miscreants shows that the communal organism can protect itself without interference from outside. Conversely, Elbow's activism shows that the community can arrest danger to itself both when enforcement agencies are too lax and when they are witch-hunting outside the purview of what really threatens the well-being of local citizens.

Of Elbow's place in Vienna and his play, I will say more in a moment. In the case of Dogberry, we do not have quite so desperate a case, since he comes from the kind of community that protected John Shakespeare and therefore can be said to function well. However, even in Messina there are potential problems in trusting the government, problems that become darker in the story of Vienna. As S. C. Boorman points out, even the most benevolent rulers are subject to human flaws and follies, so that even in comedy the “wise fool” must be used as a check against hubris: “Dogberry's stupidity and complacent acceptance of his own little social importance … reminds us that the more ‘important’ figures of the play have their own stupidity and complacency, show an equally human confusion and inadequacy.”27 Leonato, Benedick, Beatrice, and Claudio (not to mention Don John) are as concerned as is Dogberry not to be considered asses; but Dogberry, for all his asininity, performs his duty in spite of the insults to his dignity—and without the manipulative tricks that the other characters play to gain even their well-meant ends. Although Ornstein perhaps exaggerates in claiming that “Kindly himself, Dogberry inspires kindness in others”28—Dogberry inspires as much exasperation as kindness—the point is that Dogberry muddles through when every supposedly intelligent and “expert” member of society is going to pieces. And in this sense, Ornstein's comment in another context captures the essence of Dogberry's status as hero: “the security of comedy depends on an assurance (or a hope) that top side is right side, that communal life is nurturing despite the blusterings of fathers. …”29

Messina, of course, is a fairly stable society in which the communal structure needs only an occasional nudge to stay in good order. Vienna is another story. The laxity of the Duke has created danger in the streets, much as it did in suburban London, and the sudden cracking down on sexual offenses does little to correct the immediate problem for common citizens. The duration of Elbow's time in office, discussed earlier, indicates that external efforts to maintain the peace have collapsed, and that therefore whatever steps are now being taken to control crime are those originating in a narrowly defined estimate of the problem: one of sexuality rather than public safety. Notably, Rosalind Miles, who observes that Angelo's theories of government “bear so close a correspondence to Tudor theories … that an audience of 1604 would fully have appreciated their force,” also observes of the Duke that he shows “very little moral outrage” at the vices of the low-lives whom he meets.30 Both the strict Angelo and the merciful Duke, then, operate by theories rather than by the simple “moral outrage” shown by Elbow. And as with Dogberry, sometimes a simple-minded, instinctive outrage with wrong may work where the theorizers fail.

This is not to claim that theories are ineffectual and gut reactions the basis on which we should build society; nor is it to claim that Shakespeare would have claimed such a dangerous proposition. But as Boorman points out, Elizabethan discussions of reason and passion saw a danger in too divorced a reason as well as in too unbridled a passion. Reason must be in control, but it cannot stand alone, or it becomes nonhuman.31 Hence the dramatic convention of the “wise fool” who sees what the foolish wise have lost sight of, and hence the reassurance that while all the judicial supervisors are arguing out their theories of justice and mercy, someone will still be available to lose his temper and do something constructive when a woman who attempts to buy a dish of prunes is given insults or pinches on the posterior instead.

Two scenes in Measure for Measure may illustrate the point. Act 2, scene 1, in which Elbow brings his presentment against Froth and Pompey before Angelo and Escalus, is generally viewed as a contrast between the bad and good justice of Angelo and Escalus, respectively. Angelo loses patience early and walks out on the case, leaving the judgment to Escalus and closing with the hope that “you’ll find good cause to whip them all” (2.1.130). The departure and the intent to punish regardless of the results of a trial are quite rightly seen as tyrannous justice, much in the nature of Pontius Pilate's: simultaneously lax in the performance of duty and draconian in the imposition of punishment. Escalus is thus seen as the contrast to Angelo, and therefore his judgments are cited as the via media between Angelo's rigor and the Duke's laxity, a standard against which we measure all the characters' decisions at the end of the play. But Escalus himself has a contrast in this scene. Although his judgments are just, they are undercut to a certain extent by Pompey's aside: “I thank your worship for your good counsel; [aside] but I shall follow it as the flesh and fortune shall better determine” (2.1.237-39). At least one of the corrections that he has attempted on human behavior has not had its intended effect, nor, by implication, will the laws against the whorehouses be fully effective unless he intends, as Pompey jokes, to “geld and splay” all the youth of Vienna (2.1.217-18). Escalus's counsel is wise and just, but it does not reform Pompey. It is Elbow once again who persistently monitors Pompey's actions and hauls him in again in act 3, scene 2, this time on charges that are more officially acceptable and therefore put Pompey in jail.

The undercutting of Escalus's sage counsel has its parallel in the final Judgment scene (5.1), a scene much debated by critics. Regardless of whether we view the Duke as an irresponsible ruler or a Christ-figure, we cannot evade the issue of Lucio's running commentary during what should be the Duke's great moment of justice. The scene can be played easily without the Duke's losing his dignity; but there is no way to eliminate Lucio from it altogether without destroying the scene. And it must be Lucio who unveils the pseudo-Friar. The Duke, in this scene, is just; the Duke is wise; the Duke reprieves and reforms at the same time—maybe. But if he is too powerful in his wisdom and justice, if all things work the way he plans them, what is to prevent him from becoming a tyrant-figure in his own right, at least in the perception of the audience?

In tragedy we generally expect a total collapse of a society, which is then put back together by a powerful figure from the outside; omnipotence here is welcome. But in comedy we expect a society to put itself back together from the inside; and omnipotence here is dangerous. In Measure for Measure, especially, most of the trouble has come from rulers who think themselves above common humanity: Angelo, whose “blood / Is very snow-broth” (Lucio, 1.4.57-58), and the Duke, who has “ever loved the life removed” (1.3.5) and who plays espionage, bed-trick, and testing games with his suffering subjects. If the Duke's games were all successful, he would be as dangerous as Angelo, because he too would be playing God and considering himself a highly successful God. He must be “written down an ass” like Dogberry before the audience can be assured that his resumed rule will be a better version than the first. At the very least, the audience must not class him with the bureaucracy that they know too well in their own lives.

In this comedic sense, then, Dogberry and Elbow and all their bumbling kind are the true heroes of their societies and the audience's. Notably, both of them are presented early enough in their plays to reassure us that no matter how bad things get, someone who can do something will be watching, ready to step in when all else fails. They can barely be understood by officialdom; but then, officialdom does not understand a number of things about local conditions, things that Dogberry and Elbow understand very well. They are stupid enough not to be frightening to us or to anyone else—the felons they arrest will not consider them dangerous enough to assault—and yet not so stupid that they cannot tell when one of us is in trouble and needs help. When government is oppressive, they defend us; when government is ineffectual, they watch over us; we may laugh at them, indeed must laugh at them, but we cannot do without them. They are the eyes and hands of the communal body, our assurance that when the world is collapsing, our neighborhood is safe.


  1. See, for example, Ruth Nevo, Comic Transformations in Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1980), 119; S. C. Boorman, Human Conflict in Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), esp. 87; and O. Hood Phillips, Shakespeare and the Lawyers (London: Methuen, 1972), 68.

  2. I concentrate primarily on Dogberry and Elbow because they seem to epitomize the community's response to two types of problems: too much and too little governmental surveillance and protection. There are, of course, many other law enforcement officials in Shakespeare: Constable Dull in Love's Labour's Lost, Justice Shallow in 2 Henry IV and Merry Wives, and the various sheriffs, bailiffs, arresting officers, justices, and King's (or other ruler's) men of the tragedies and histories.

  3. Unless otherwise specified, the ensuing description of the constabulary system is taken from Joan R. Kent, The English Village Constable 1580-1642 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); material on village and town structures is from Peter Clark and Paul Slack, English Towns in Transition, 1500-1700 (London: Oxford University Press, 1976); and material on the vagrancy problem is both from Clark and Slack and from Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). Irene Gladwin's The Sheriff: The Man and His Office (London: Victor Gollancz, 1974) indirectly shows the relationship between constable and sheriff; and J. H. Gleason does the same for Justices of the Peace in The Justices of the Peace in England, 1558 to 1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

  4. Because the structure and duties of the constabulary system grew out of the parish system and therefore tended to be the same in different sizes of communities, with minor variations dependent more on local history than on size, I will normally use the generic term “community” for the constable's jurisdiction to avoid implying that what I am describing was typical only of a particular type of community. Where an author whom I cite uses a more specific term, it should be understood in this generic sense unless I indicate otherwise.

  5. All references to the plays are taken from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (New York: Viking, 1969).

  6. Kent, 74.

  7. Phillips, 67-68.

  8. Phillips, 68.

  9. Kent, 222.

  10. Boorman, 23.

  11. Robert Ornstein, Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1986), 131.

  12. Nevo, 119 and Ornstein, 130.

  13. Manning, 159.

  14. Manning, 61.

  15. Manning, 165-67.

  16. Manning, 169.

  17. Manning, 164.

  18. I must add an autobiographical note here, lest I be accused of elitist and patronizing nostalgia for something that never existed. I grew up in the South Bronx of the 1940s, lived around the corner from a pickle factory, and attended a school past whose windows ran the Third Avenue “el” trains. It was not an affluent suburb by any means. But children were safe, even after dark; and no one, whether of European, African, or Puerto Rican origin, ever locked a door during the day. Nor has the phenomenon totally disappeared; in a neighborhood where I lived in Baton Rouge in the 1980s, children played in swarms in the street, gossiping in a manner that would put adults to shame. I felt quite secure in leaving my house unprotected when I was at work or traveling; in fact, I contemplated with glee the discomfiture of any burglar who attempted to break in and found himself surrounded by children inspecting his tools, regaling him with the details of the neighbors' lives, and cross-examining him about his own.

  19. See F. W. Brownlow, “John Shakespeare's Recusancy: New Light on an Old Document,” Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 186-91. The quotation is from p. 188.

  20. Philip Hughes, The Reformation in England, rev. ed., 3 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 2:118. Hughes contends that the surveillance system started under Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII created “an efficient secret service” and the “heyday of the paid government spy” that lasted into and was intensified in the reign of Elizabeth I. Although G. R. Elton denies this allegation, the very evidence that he offers, which shows Cromwell's ignorance of the network or dismissal of charges against persons brought to him, suggests at least an increase in the perception that people were more subject to surveillance. There was now a centralized point to which magistrates, busy-bodies, and vindictive neighbors could direct their charges against citizens. Since such charges involved the transportation of the accused to examination, possible torture, and possible execution for an ever-increasing list of treasonous offenses, the ordinary citizen might well feel dangerously spied upon. See Elton, Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), esp. ch. 8.

  21. John Bellamy points out that although technically the capture of priests did not come under the schedule of payments authorized for pursuivants, disclosure of “slanderous and traitorous books” did—books which, of course, could be found on the person of any priest as well as among those attending illegal Masses. The first such disclosure was worth £20 to the pursuivant, and the second and third “large rewards” plus half of the forfeitures incurred. See Bellamy's The Tudor Law of Treason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), esp. 85 and 183. The proclamations offering the rewards are those of 1 July 1570 and 12 October 1584; see Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, eds., Tudor Royal Proclamations, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), 2:577 and 2:672.

  22. Clark and Slack, pp. 13 and 132.

  23. Clark and Slack, 28-29.

  24. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson, in their introduction to Order and Disorder in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), note the gradual pulling away of the gentry from the lower classes during the course of the sixteenth century. Prior to mid-century, the two classes had participated together in both orderly and disorderly community activities (10-12). Philip Hughes locates the dichotomy more precisely in time: the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace (1:307-8).

  25. Clark and Slack, 71.

  26. It is fascinating to note that the types of neighborhoods described in this way by Clark, Slack, and Manning are still evident in the descriptions of London working-class neighborhoods given by Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century.

  27. Boorman, 87.

  28. Ornstein, 131.

  29. Ornstein, 17.

  30. Rosalind Miles, The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation (London: Vision Press, 1976), 213, 177. Miles gives a comprehensive summary of the critical controversies surrounding both the justice-mercy theme and the Duke's motivations. See also my “Measure for Measure and the Art of Not Dying,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 26 (1984): 74-93; N. W. Bawcutt, “‘He Who the Sword of Heaven Will Bear’: The Duke Versus Angelo in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 89-97; Richard A. Levin, “Duke Vincentio and Angelo: Would ‘A Feather Turn the Scale’?” SEL 22 (1982): 257-70; and Cynthia Lewis, “‘Dark Deeds Darkly Answered’: Duke Vincentio and Judgment in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 271-89.

  31. Boorman, passim.

Jonathan Hall (essay date 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “From Double Words to Single Vision: Patriarchal Desire in Much Ado about Nothing and Othello,” in Anxious Pleasures: Shakespearean Comedy and the Nation-State, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995, pp. 170-93.

[In the essay that follows, Hall contends that both Much Ado about Nothing and Othelloundermine—through their use and treatment of language—the establishment of any single interpretation of the texts.]

The opening witty dialogue in Much Ado About Nothing between Beatrice and Benedick consists in a deadlocked rivalry, which seeks to deny that there is a relationship between them:

Beatrice. I wonder you will
still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.
Benedick. What, my dear Lady Disdain!
Are you still living?


This is a rivalry of indifferences. Now, real indifference is impossible in dialogue, since it would then not be a sign but a natural state unengaged with the other. Proclaimed “indifference” is a weapon of attack and/or defense, but as soon as it is used as such, it reveals its nature as a dialogically charged sign. Like all the signs of wit, “indifference” is deployed in a power struggle, and its meanings cannot be fixed in advance. All that is certain is that “indifference” (as sign) is not really indifference.

The theater is made of signs. Nothing is what it seems, and yet there is a strong desire that things and people should either be what they seem, or reveal their being from behind their seeming. This desire also arises from the sign, and is intensified in the theatrical deployment of signs. One should therefore always beware of the pressure towards interpretive synthesis in much academic criticism, which aims above all at the production of determinate characters through unacknowledged extrapolation from the contradictory movement of the dramatic discourse. It is typical of such critical accounts to translate the hostility and combat of Beatrice and Benedick into an appearance, beneath which is to be found the essential reality of their love. For example, Northrop Frye writes:

Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado are [similarly] mechanical comic humors, prisoners of their own wit, until a benevolent practical joke enables their real feelings to break free of their verbal straitjackets.1

One consequence is that the plot becomes one of revelation: “The action of a comedy often leads to a kind of self-knowledge which releases a character from the bondage of his humor.”2 The difficulty in thinking against the strong tide of presuppositions guiding such interpretations is that they are not entirely wrong. That would be too simple. But in their rewriting of plot and its discursive clashes as dramatic strategies of revelation, they write the integrations brought about by the ending back into the whole of the dramatic text, abolishing thereby all suggestion of a real constitutive instability, with its attendant anxieties, in the first place. Actually, the strength of such criticism, (its rhetorical persuasiveness is seductive), is that such a regressive stabilization of the text gratifies us, its readership, by the removal of uncertainty, repeating with a certain deceptive accuracy the strategies of closure in the plays themselves. The critical loss is the denial of the textual process as one of the production of alternative possibilities for desire.

It is in this sense that Terry Eagleton is surely right, when he writes of Much Ado About Nothing:

The love between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado is the effect of elaborately fictitious information fed to each partner, so that it is impossible to decide whether this groundless discourse uncovers a love which was “naturally” there, or actually constructs it.3

This undecidability is important. What happens is that Don Pedro and Claudio, supported by Margaret and Ursula, take over the plot-producing trickster function assigned exclusively to Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Their “construction” of love is actually an interpretation of each of the partners which is offered, through the contrived overhearings, to the other, who accepts it as true.

At first, the comic effect is straightforward. Benedick alone has accepted the interpretation of Beatrice's hostile demeanor as a cover for love (like a mystified Petruchio), and the plotters have not yet suggested this hermeneutic strategy to Beatrice. Here the audience laughs, “knowing,” for the moment, that Benedick is mistaken:

Benedick. By this day, she’s
a fair lady. I do spy some marks of love in her.
Beatrice. Against my will I am sent
to bid you come in to dinner.
Benedick. Fair Beatrice, I thank
you for your pains.
Beatrice. I took no more pains for
those thanks than you took pains to thank me. If it had been painful I would
not have come.
Benedick. You take pleasure, then,
in the message?
Beatrice. Yea, just so much as you
may take upon a knife's point and choke a daw withal.

(Much Ado About Nothing, 2.3.236ff.)

Actually, Beatrice's words are capable of being interpreted in opposing senses but, seeing the benevolent plot in action, the audience can still feel able to separate the “real” meaning from Benedick's comically mistaken interpretation that follows:

Benedick. Ha! “Against
my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.” There’s a double
meaning in that. “I took no more pains for those thanks than you took
pains to thank me.” That’s as much as to say “Any pains
that I take for you is as easy as thanks.”—If I do not take pity
of her I am a villain. If I do not love her I am a Jew. I will go get her


The contrived overhearing is an example of a play enclosing another play, which is common in the Shakespearean opus as a whole. It is particularly striking in Much Ado About Nothing, for the benevolent plot of Claudio and Don Pedro is set against the malevolent plot of Don John, and Don John's staged machinations are reversed in their turn by the quasi-providential plotting of the friar. This play, then, consists largely of plays within plays, and the real audience is interested in the effect of these inner plays on their fictional audience. What we witness is the benevolent plotters' construction of a fictional theater for Benedick. I call it a fictional theater (and not an example of theatrical self-referentiality or mise-en-abîme) because it is addressed to Benedick's desire for clarification and hidden truth. It is a voyeuristic fantasy theater where, for him alone, the ambiguities of the real theater cease. It constrains him to regress to an infantile state of narcissism, anterior to the duplicity of signs where the real theater persists. This regression is dependent upon the “realist” illusion, in which the spectacle is supposed (by the deluded subject) to be free from the duplicity of the sign. But the audience sees that its realist simplicity is an illusion addressed to his desire. If they partly identify with that desire for clarification, they are nonetheless also held at a distance from it.

When the same interpretive strategy is foisted upon Beatrice, the effect is cumulative. The mistake (or “fiction,” since it is constructed) becomes the truth, because it is confirmed by the other, but at the same time it remains a fictional construct. The conclusion of Claudio's and Don Pedro's benevolent plot organizes this fiction-become-truth into a hierarchy in which the hostility is appearance and love is the reality. At the same time, however, Shakespeare's play does not endorse this simple closure. What is actually restored is not this regressive idealist illusion, but the duplicity of signs, however paradoxical this may sound.

Terry Eagleton comments that the marriages which close the comedies are “the organic society in miniature, a solution to sexual and political dilemmas so ludicrously implausible that even Shakespeare himself seems to have had difficulty in believing it.” I would argue that this depends upon the larger critical myth of “recognition” with its structural re-writing of plot. Eagleton's summary of the marriage as myth makes the point that it re-writes desire in essentialist terms:

Marriage is not an arbitrary force which coercively hems in desire, but reveals its very inward structure—what desire, if only it had known, had wanted all the time. When you discover your appropriate marriage partner you can look back, rewrite your autobiography and recognize that all your previously coveted objects were in fact treacherous, displaced parodies of the real thing, shadows of the true substance. This, broadly speaking, is the moment of the end of the comedies. Marriage is natural, in the sense of being the outward sign or social role which expresses your authentic inward being, as opposed to those deceitful idioms which belie it. It is the true language of the erotic self, the point at which the spontaneity of individual feeling and the stability of public institutions harmoniously interlock.4

The retroactive function of marriage is to act as the disclosure of the “truth” of desire in the service of social order. The sense of the ending which rewrites the middle in terms of appearance and essence is the crucial activity of the myth. Eagleton's passing appeal to Shakespeare's “difficulty in believing” is best understood as a self-deconstructive property of the comic text, whereby the dramatic discourse undoes its own myths of closure. For me, the main interest is that this deconstruction of the monological plot and its closure can be related to the complex relations of anxiety and pleasure. The Beatrice-Benedick plot in Much Ado About Nothing ends with less stress on the socialized libido (marriage) than on the corresponding socialization of hostile rivalry within the language of desire. This is what makes the marriage possible. The agency for this is the restoration of mutual joking, with its ambiguities that allow hostility to be misrecognized as mere appearance. Since Beatrice and Benedick at the end mutually agree to interpret verbal aggression as a cover for love, aggression is allowed to continue in the form of joking banter. The jokes with which this play ends resemble the opening but they are not absolutely the same. Their hostility, which runs momentarily wild in the middle of the play, is recontained in the end. The recontainment of violence, via a joking misrecognition, seems to me the main point. The comic plot transforms violence into harmony, but the harmony is shot through with anxiety over the possible alternative resolution. Love is precariously close to hostility. Only the joke holds this disastrous “clarification” in abeyance.

The witty engagement with the other person is certainly a desire to please that person, and it can be construed as a verbal act of “love.” But it is never free from narcissistic self-assertion, and rival narcissisms imply a state of war. That is to say, when the very act of pleasing the other through the seductive language of wit is also an act of power, the individual seeks the euphoric gratification of mastery in the other's admission of a vulnerable interiority set up by the speaker. This is the opening situation between Beatrice and Benedick. It is not a stable hierarchy in which real love is waiting to be released from the constraints of a surface hostility. It is a degree of rivalry within wit itself, unexplored even in the formal combats of Love's Labour's Lost. It is as though Beatrice had watched the process of Katherina's interpellation, and was now playing from a position of equality, or at least a bid for it. The result is a deadlock of wills. Only the intervention of a set of tricksters, Don Pedro and Claudio with their plot, can resolve it by setting up a mutual “recognition” which stabilizes the combat into an interiorized hierarchy, where hostility can be (mis)recognized as an appearance covering the reality of love. Before the intervention of Don Pedro and Claudio, the play shows the opening situation of mutual joking descending towards disaster. Through their intervention, Don Pedro and Claudio rescue the relationship from mutual destruction, but the perceptibly fictional nature of the rescue places the audience in a divided position vis à vis their own pleasure. It hovers on the edge of a critical awareness of the means by which its own gratifications in the stabilizing closure have been achieved.

In formal terms the Beatrice-Benedick relationship undergoes a process of disastrous disambiguation, before ambiguity is restored, by mutual consent, at the end. In the closing jokes, the old hostility is rehearsed, but harmlessly now, within an acceptance of the plot as truthful revelation which has brought the recalcitrant couple together:

Benedick. Do not you love
Beatrice. Why no, no more than reason.
Benedick. Why then, your uncle and
the Prince Claudio
Have been deceived. They swore you did.
Beatrice. Do not you love me?
Benedick. Troth no, no more than
Beatrice. Why then, my cousin, Margaret,
and Ursula
Are much deceived, for they did swear you did.


They still do not have the precise knowledge that the others' words which they cite here are fictional. They have become the truth. Artifice has become nature. When the other characters go on to produce sonnets which Beatrice and Benedick have written, as proof of their love against what they are now saying, a joyfully schizoid Benedick exclaims:

A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts.


At the macro level too, the artifice of plotting which has virtually written the love into Beatrice and Benedick, has now become the expression of a “nature” from which it cannot be disentangled. The installation of harmony at the end of this plot is achieved, in all its precariousness, not through disambiguation of signs (i.e., “clarification”) but through the restoration of the ambiguities of wit. It is a triumph of writing, or artifice, for it was the drive to clarification that threatened the disaster that is finally averted.

It might seem paradoxical that it is the masque scene that precipitates the disastrous disambiguation. The masque scene in act 2 resembles the Muscovite masque in Love's Labour's Lost, in the way that it sets up illusions, not in the female beholders to whom it is addressed, but in the male producers. Only Claudio and Benedick believe that their masque disguises are impenetrable. They think they are “unseen” and are therefore in control of the other. Such simplicity in Claudio enables Don John to trap him into jealousy, by pretending to address him as Benedick and asking him to get Don Pedro to desist in his attentions to Hero. Benedick is more subtly, but similarly, trapped by his own disguise. His belief in the impenetrability of the mask functions almost magically as a narcissistic regression. He knows, of course, that he is being duplicitous, but he thinks that his little “theater” will induce others into direct speech, and that they will not perceive his duplicity. Although he is staging the theater here, he behaves in exactly the same way as when Claudio and Don Pedro stage the overhearing scene for him.

The narcissistic regression to childish simplicity actually makes him vulnerable in the world of signs, because he never questions his assumption that Beatrice does not know that she is talking to him when she describes him as the Prince's fool. Therefore, uncharacteristically (if we consider his wit to be characteristic) he disambiguates her speech when he repeats it to Don Pedro:

Benedick. She told me—not
thinking I had been myself—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. … I would not marry
her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed.
She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club
to make the fire, too.


He ends his lament with the locus classicus of the impotent warrior and the castrating female. Then, still not seeing Beatrice's speech as a joke, he blames her for a slander on himself, and sets out to run her down in public, fulfilling his promise of revenge. If we are unwilling to essentialize Benedick as simply vicious beneath his jesting, we must attend to the dynamics of the discourse here. The masque scene places Benedick in the position of the fool who cannot see Beatrice's joke (an unusual posture for him). In this scene the joking relationship between Beatrice and Benedick undergoes a process of disambiguation, brought about by Benedick's failure to meet joke with joke. But the disambiguation of signs is not the same as simply being wrong. The reproach to someone that they “cannot see a joke” is often an evasion itself, a way of failing to acknowledge that he or she has correctly estimated the aggression which the joke normally both conveys and denies. In other words, the “misunderstanding” of a joke is also an undeniably accurate way of understanding it.

The disturbing point is that Benedick's failure brings out a truth of the witty discourse: the love is not more essential than the aggression. The hostility, no longer restrained by the mutual consent which should conventionally contain it within the established norms of the war of wit, threatens to run riot. When Don Pedro proposes to achieve “one of Hercules' labours” and bring the pair “into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other” (2.1.342), his proposal amounts to reversing this process of disambiguation in the opposite direction. My argument is not that the aggression is more essential than the love, which would be a mere inversion of the more common essentializing interpretation. It is that the witty exchange at the beginning contains both potentials. When Leonato says to the messenger: “You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her” (1.1.55ff.), he is trying to account for the excessive acerbity of her tone. His explanation is not, as it were, the voice of analytic truth. It is a response to the breach of decorum in Beatrice's excess, which it explains away, more or less successfully. Both Beatrice and Benedick have been compared to Lady Emilia Pia and Lord Gaspar Pallavicino, representatives of decorous courtly wit in the immensely influential translation of Castiglione's Il Libro del Cortegiano5, but actually the most striking feature of their wit, even at the beginning, is the way in which it hovers at the point of the breakdown of decorum. This is not to deny the Castiglione connection. The point is that the Beatrice-Benedick plot enacts a breakdown, which is where it explores the language of wit instead of merely representing it.

The drive to clarification is in perpetual conflict with the duplicity of signs. (In this sense, clarification contradicts theatricality.) Even before Benedick's appearance at the beginning of the play, there is a debate between Beatrice and the messenger over Benedick's nature. The messenger defends him as “a good soldier,” and Beatrice reproaches “signor Mountanto” (“upthrust” in sword-play) for being a verbal braggart, and by the same token sexually untrustworthy, a man who changes his faith “as the fashion of his hat” (1.1.68). She makes other hints about a previous broken engagement, and some critics are satisfied by references to an earlier narrative as the key to some kind of truth. Actually, we are confronted with the same issue as in Love's Labour's Lost. The witty sexual war is accompanied by extreme distrust on the part of the witty lady. As in the earlier play, the “merry war” is situated just at the termination of a real war of arms, and the nature of the male warrior identity is put into question by the shift from deeds into language.

However, the outcome is totally different; so much so, that this play almost seems like a rejoinder to the closure proposed in Love's Labour's Lost. As a wit, Benedick has an undecidable mobility associated with duplicity:

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
troths, my lord, I spoke mine.


As in Love's Labour's Lost, the mistrusting witty lady, Beatrice, offers to the witty and wordy lord, Benedick, the partly unwelcome but irresistible opportunity to prove his faith in deeds. The feudal test here is simple: “Kill Claudio!” The archaic regression to the warrior romance, where being is underwritten by deed, is more disturbing than the stylized feudal test at the end of Love's Labour's Lost. The witty Beatrice is swept up in a barbaric desire for revenge by the public insult to her “kinswoman,” and she challenges Benedick to prove that ultimately he is a man of his word. Overtaken by the regressive fantasy which shapes the whole of Don John's plot, she defines men (i.e., “real” men) by the directness of deed instead of shilly-shallying verbal evasion: “O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace” (4.1.305). She cannot be a man, but she can challenge Benedick to show that he is not just words:

Beatrice. 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.


Benedick, for his part, is trapped. He meets Beatrice's challenge, and he will prove his faith in the archaic manner, but the display of faith is totally separate from belief in the rightness of what he is doing. He will act because Beatrice thinks “in her [your] soul” that Claudio has wronged Hero. But it is still roleplaying.

Beatrice's regression to an archaic or nostalgic version of manhood makes her appear somewhat like Lady Macbeth “unsexing” herself as a challenge to her husband to act. Her desire to be a “man” is inseparable from her reproach to Benedick that he is not one. When Benedick rapidly yields to the force of Beatrice's challenging reference to a general lack of manhood in the present age of signs, when “manhood is melted into curtsies …,” their shared nostalgia for the lost epoch of manhood is much more significant than the gender difference between them. Fortunately, unlike Love's Labour's Lost, the ending restores wit and ambiguity in place of the disaster which the desired proof of male selfhood threatens to bring about. Nonetheless, the symbiotic relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, which ensures that both share the anxiety that is the obverse of wit, means that they are jointly vulnerable to the lure of a lost phallocentrism.


The drive to clarification, the desire to get behind appearances to a supposed truth, is a violent desire. My comparison with the ending of Love's Labour's Lost has shown that, at least in the Beatrice-Benedick plot, this death wish, which is also a phallocentric and a historical regression, is averted by a restoration of the ambiguity of signs. The violence which overtakes Beatrice and Benedick also arises from their involvement in the romance plot of Claudio and Hero. In turning to this now, I want to discuss its striking similarity with the plot of Othello, because in both the comic romance and the tragedy, patriarchal murder of the beloved is a desire organized through the lure of the visible.

The point that I wish to establish is not the commonplace that appearances are deceptive. That implies that there is a truth which is not deceptive; both Othello and Claudio “know” this and passionately desire to see it. My point, then, is quite other. It is that looking is a libidinal drive. It informs Benedick's regressive narcissism in the masque scene, where he seeks to look upon the women but to be impenetrable to their gaze. It is the same voyeuristic drive that makes him vulnerable to the benevolent plotters' staged seduction, for he is alert to the duplicities of language but blind to the fact that the visible is also a series of signs through which he is vulnerable. Towards the end of the play, when he “recognizes” his true nature, the audience sees this recognition as a dramatic joke: he is in fact being constructed by the plotters, even at the level of his desires. This is more problematic than mere deceit, for “deceit” implies an alternative truth that is being concealed. But, at the end, Benedick is actually saved from further anxiety, and potential violence, through his lack of suspicion towards the visible:

Benedick. Signor Leonato,
truth it is, good signor,
Your niece regards me with an eye of favour.
Leonato. That eye my daughter lent
her, ’tis most true.
Benedick. And I do with an eye of
love requite her.
Leonato. The sight whereof I think
you had from me,
From Claudio, and the Prince. But what’s your will?
Benedick. Your answer, sir, is enigmatical.
But for my will, my will is your good will
May stand with ours this day to be conjoined
In the state of honourable marriage … 


For Benedick, the idea that his desiring eyes are borrowed is “enigmatical,” since visuality is for him beyond the play of signs. He does not know that he has been trapped into love in the same way that Claudio was trapped into hatred. But the audience, which knows better, is also more deeply perplexed by the joke which gives it pleasure. For the closing harmony of “wills” or desires is also constructed out of signs. This constructed satisfaction of the ocular drive is worth comparing with the address of Iago and Don John to their male victims, for they concern the same anxiety.

In the case of Othello and Claudio, the scopic drive is constructed by the malevolent plotters and turns to a murderous violence, of which they are also the victims. The common name for that violence is jealousy, but naming something should not be considered the end of enquiry. As we are dealing with a desire, it is necessary to understand the satisfaction which it seeks, and the anxiety which it tries to overcome. My argument is that, within a patriarchal discourse, the scopic drive promises a gratifying certainty and recentering of the dominant (male) subject, and that this is exacerbated by the very perception of the unreliability of signs. Othello is an exploration of the crisis of the sign within the patriarchy, where the scopic drive seeks stabilization through murder. I turn to Othello first, because my argument is that the tragedy takes to extremes what the comic romance precariously averts, but only through a benevolent counterplot which relies equally on the scopic drive. The tragedy and the comedy both employ malevolent plotters, whose seductive address to the anxieties of their respective warrior figures throws into relief the peculiar gratifications which they offer.

Through Iago's leading rhetorical question: “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, / Know of your love?” (Othello, 3.3.96ff.), the anxiety and the desire to know are simultaneously constructed in Othello. (Indeed they are the same desire.) Iago does not need to pretend that his question is innocent. He presents himself to Othello as a tantalizing site, rivaling Desdemona herself as the keeper of a desired knowledge, where truth could be separated from appearance. He suggests an absent content behind his words, thereby provoking a desire for immediate (visible) presence. Othello responds with this desire for visibility:

Othello. ‘Think, my
By heaven, thou echo'st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown! Thou dost
mean something.
                                        If thou dost love me,
Show me thy thought [emphases added]


Iago's verbal seduction actually flaunts language as a veil. That which is feared, the ‘monstrous’, is also desired, because it is presented as concealed knowledge, which, if visibly possessed, would put an end to the concealments of language. From this point on, the desire for disambiguation, with its promise (which is also a threat) for a final separation of essence and appearance, takes over. Iago focuses its violence on Desdemona's body. She is the site of an equivocation, an enigmatic body that must be destroyed in order to arrive at a clarification. This clarification will take the form of the compelled confession prior to execution, for that particular exercise of royal power as the theater of truth is also part of Othello's fantasy. Such is the force of the desire set up by Iago's seduction that if Desdemona's body does not satisfy it through “ocular proof,” Iago's will:

Othello. (taking Iago by the throat)
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.
Be sure of it. Give me the ocular proof,
Or, by the worth of mine eternal soul,
Thou hadst better have been born a dog
Than answer my naked wrath. [emphasis added]


The fantasy which Iago offers Othello is the role of a judge whose gaze would be able to penetrate the duplicity of signs, separate essence from appearance, and compel confession. It is a fantasy of the power to effect transcendental stabilization, and it is an interpretive desire for order which only comes into being because of the anxieties which besiege patriarchal possession.

Iago subtly strengthens the desire for the dreaded proof by meditating aloud on the unfulfillable nature of ocular “satisfaction,” at least for “mortal eyes.” “Satisfaction” becomes a key word which links punishment with desire:

Iago. You would be satisfied?
Othello. Would? Nay, and I will.
Iago. And may. But how, how satisfied
my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on,
Behold her topped?
Othello. Death and damnation! O!
Iago. It were a tedious difficulty,
I think,
To bring them to that prospect. Damn them then
If ever mortal eyes do see them bolster
More than their own! What then, how then?
What shall I say? Where's satisfaction?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk. But yet I say,
If imputation, and strong circumstances
Which lead directly to the door of truth,
Will give you satisfaction, you might ha’t.


Iago taunts Othello with the impossibility for “mortal eyes” to see what language can suggest. The secrets of others can only be perceived by God, and it is in achieving such transcendental vision that true “satisfaction” is also achieved. Iago offers the closest approximation, not quite to the inaccessible truth, but to “the door of truth,” to glimpse it voyeuristically from outside. Jealousy here is a desire for the “prospect” or vision of the elusive object, which is named “satisfaction.”

The visual satisfaction, which turns to murder, involves the deferral of bodily sexual consummation. For some psychoanalytical critics this deferral is actually a horror of consummation focussed on the white handkerchief, “spotted” with strawberries, which Othello inherited from his mother and passed to the virginal Desdemona, only to see it reappear in the hands of Bianca.6 It seems to me that there is no need to invoke the primal scene of parental intercourse as a textual absence, when Othello himself names the handkerchief as a talisman of his mother's hymen received from the Egyptian “charmer”:

Othello. She told her, while
she kept it
’Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirit should hunt
After new fancies.


Here Othello tells Desdemona that the magic of the hymen, which subdues him as it has his father, depends on it being neither lost nor given to anyone. If it is lost, his “father's eye” (i.e., his own now) would turn to hatred and seek “new fancies.” The common meaning of “new loves” is doubled by the more pertinent threat of new satisfactions. That is why the murder itself has appeared to so many critics as a deferred and displaced consummation of their marriage. The numerous associations of the bridal bed with the death bed utilize a common poetic association of consummation with death. But Othello carefully notes how he will eschew the phallic knife and the blood involved, so as to keep her body as a spectacle of visual purity in death. In some part of his fantasy, he considers her inviolate still; or rather, the consummation/death is not merely delayed but staged by the patriarch as a restoration of virginity that will enable the voyeuristic love to persist beyond death. The murder, therefore is a sublimated sexuality, offering a pleasurable spectacle to Othello himself. The fact that murder as sublimation of bodily desire implies a horrifying visual “aesthetics” makes Shakespeare's discourse non-complicit with this pleasure.

The horror arises from the constraining power of the fantasy over Othello, which is such that it offers him gratification in the spectacle of himself as “Justice” personified, even while it breaks him. His fantasized restoration of order (“she must die, else she’ll betray more men”), is a necrophilic desire whose gratification is the feeling of heavenly sorrow, as though Othello were the spectator at his own and Desdemona's tragedy:

Othello. O balmy breath, that
dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee
And love thee after. One more, and that’s the last.
                    (He kisses her)
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow's heavenly,
It strikes where it doth love.


In order to play the fantasy role of the divine Judge, and enjoy thereby the “heavenly sorrow,” this hero has overstepped the bounds of traditional patriarchy. In his fantasy, which is a kind of tragic hubris, he has become God. I would argue that this should be linked, not simply to traditional patriarchy, but to the complex historical moment of its crisis when the threat to possession is such that the male hero enacts for himself on the stage the powerful compensating fantasy of a traditionally forbidden transcendental role. He sees himself performing the divine role, and derives narcissistic pleasure from the spectacle. Shakespeare's drama, therefore, also enables a critical encounter with the patriarchal fantasies that it represents. It provokes in the audience a horrified encounter with the pleasure that the destructive desire for order brings with it. This pleasure is produced by Iago's address to patriarchal anxieties, and this is what makes Iago a figure of contemporary decentering of power. Othello's pain is obvious. What is less obvious is the satisfaction. But without at least the promise of pleasure, in the form of a kind of gratification to fill the gaps opened by the anxieties which he provokes, the trickster could not seduce. The pleasure or “satisfaction” that Iago offers to Othello is the patriarchal fantasy of himself as the almighty Judge, the ultimate interpreter of signs, and disambiguator of appearance and essence.

Stephen Greenblatt has argued persuasively that the desires set in motion in Desdemona by Othello's seductive narration of himself, become a threat to him because he is aware that Desdemona has not been attracted by a real self, i.e., a “natural” self, but by a narrative fiction. Greenblatt glosses Othello's “narrative self-fashioning” as similar to Lacan's version of the endlessly frustrating construction of the self in analysis.7 The connection between Othello's anxiety and Iago's manipulation of it is brought about by Iago's exploitative, quasi-imperialist “empathy.” Throughout the play, the socially impossible status of the racial misalliance, points back to the bewitching power of Othello's wooing narrative which overthrew that social normality, conventionally called “nature.” Iago's rhetorical triumph really consists in the way that he brings Othello himself to share the metropolitan discourse of the “natural,” because then Desdemona's love for him must be the most violent decentering of “nature.” In this respect, the dialogue between Iago and Othello is an astonishing representation of the discourse of cultural imperialism interpellating its subject, so that Othello's induced destruction of Desdemona is preceded by an acquiescence in the conquest of himself:

Othello. And yet how nature,
erring from itself—
Iago. Ay, there’s the point;
as, to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends.
Foh, one may smell in such a will most rank
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural!


Thus Iago is able to speak for Othello's anxieties, and to suggest that if Desdemona loved Cassio, that would actually be a return to “nature” and to “better judgement”:

Iago. But pardon me. I do
not in position
Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear
Her will, recoiling to her better judgement,
May fall to match you with her country forms
And happily repent.
Othello Farewell, farewell.
If more thou dost perceive, let me know more.


When Othello accepts the dominant discourse that casts him out on the grounds of deviance from the “natural,” he goes on to allow Iago's eyes to see for him too. Iago's plot will depend crucially on the manipulation of Othello's desire to see.

However, Othello's anxieties are not just those of an alien but of the European patriarch, whose place he has recently come to occupy. He occupies a patriarchal position, but without being a patriarch, since the position is usurped. It is this very decenteredness that makes him the representative figure of patriarchal anxiety. A further implication of Greenblatt's Lacanian argument would have to be that the drive to construct a stable self beyond the displacements of narrative is also a regressive drive to return to the “mirror phase,” that is to get back to the mythical visual image of a whole self, constructed in the Imaginary prior to the decenterings at the level of the Symbolic. Presumably, this mythical other self would not conquer Desdemona through the dark sorcery of language (Othello agrees with this charge of Brabantio's, for he too is now a patriarch fearing betrayal), but would have a “naturally” prettier, i.e., more socially acceptable, face. Obviously, Cassio has a socially endorsed visible presence that Othello lacks, but Iago selects him also because of their joint wooing in the past. Othello's “love” for Cassio goes back to their joint wooing, and this very identification of Cassio as alterego makes Iago's charge irresistible. Cassio is the self that Othello desires to be and to see himself being, and which Desdemona could love without violating “nature” and betraying her father, with whom Othello also identifies. Thus Iago's plot gets fully under way within the same topos as the initiation of Claudio's anxiety in Much Ado About Nothing. The topos of the double wooing is a major figure for an inward fissure, and Othello's racial/cultural marginality actually functions to make him more representative of the crisis of patriarchy than the more comfortably assured Venetian patriarchs themselves.

It is not uncommon to find critics of Much Ado About Nothing paying scant attention to Don Pedro's early proxy wooing of Hero, because Don John's opportunist construction of jealousy in Claudio is short-lived, a failure preceding his more successful, because visually staged, deception. The short-lived episode seems to have little dramatic function within the larger whole. But it introduces the same problems as Othello's wooing: viz. what is the self who speaks and seduces, if the fruits of victory are transferable? Initially Don Pedro makes a promise concerning the power of his wooing discourse:

Don Pedro. 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.
Then after to her father will I break,
And the conclusion is, she shall be thine.


What can “thine” mean, under such conditions? Don Pedro simply assumes the transferability of the woman conquered in verbal engagement. But that transferability has become a problem to the “possessor.” It is not simply a matter of Don Pedro popping the question in disguise. Hero's response would then be unequivocally addressed to the man she took to be Claudio. But if Don Pedro is right, and her self-surrender is her response to the power of language, then language threatens the very possession which it enables, because there is no unique self to do the possessing. Another may do it as well. Don Pedro's restitution of Hero to her rightful owner is an incomplete resolution to the anxieties evoked by this episode.

Don Pedro protests to the mocking Benedick that it is only because Claudio lacks a voice that he has spoken for him:

I will but teach them to sing, and restore them to the owner.


But Claudio is not literally dumb or incoherent. In fact he is often verbally dexterous when the plot requires it. Nonetheless, he represents an attitude of impatience and suspicion towards language, which is extremely important because it is a desire to get beyond it. That desire, born of suspicion towards all speech including his own, is what Don John exploits. Claudio is from the aristocracy of the sword, and wishes that language would be nothing but a reliable means to achieve an end. When Don Pedro cuts him short with “Thou wilt be like a lover presently, / And tire the hearer with a book of words” (2.1.289ff.), Claudio is relieved to let Don Pedro do the talking for him. Yet he is aware that as a lover he ought to do it for himself. Don Pedro supplies his inadequacy, as Claudio admits:

Claudio. How sweetly you do
minister to love,
That know love's grief by his complexion!
But lest my liking might too sudden seem
I would have salved it with a longer treatise.


It is immediately after this that Don Pedro talks of the military power of his own discourse that will capture Hero for Claudio. So Don Pedro's very success enables Don John to precipitate the jealous anxiety in Claudio.

Claudio's lack of a voice is often commented on, mostly in contrast to Beatrice and Benedick, who have an excess in that respect. In contemporary terms, Claudio is the warrior who has not yet fully become a court wit. It might seem that the direct honesty of the soldier, combined with “sincerity” of feeling, would spare the innocent couple from the deviousness of language and signs. But, of course, the play tells a different story. Those who cannot manipulate signs, and even those who regard them with suspicion, can nevertheless be manipulated by them. The simple warrior has his violent romance literature of deeds, which structures his feudal imagination. And Claudio was not alone, since romance plots were largely relatively recent, idealizing reinventions of the feudal past. Nostalgia for a supposed time when virtue could guarantee that word match deed, has the force of a regressive desire for stability in an age sensitive to the political power and duplicity of discourse. The visual is the agency of a desire to regress to the stability of what Lacan labels the Imaginary, prior to the untrustworthiness of signs.

From the standpoint of concepts of consistent characterization, there is an inconsistency when Benedick reflects on the power of love and its transformation of Claudio:

Benedick. He was wont to speak
plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier, and now is he
turned orthography. His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many
strange dishes.


The audience never hears this transformed Claudio. But Benedick's talk of a transformation here mobilizes the common discursive contrast between love and war, in which letters, wit, and femininity are associated with the former term, and masculinity, deeds, and directness, with the latter. (Beatrice too thinks within these terms.) This discursive structuring is so pervasive in Shakespeare and the Renaissance generally, that it would be merely tedious to accumulate references. However, this play is concerned with the way in which the warrior's essentialist and suspicious scorn of signs lays him open to a manipulation of his corresponding desire for truth behind its supposed appearances. Don John's plot, like Iago's, is an address to a desire to get behind language as appearance in order to make final judgments. Its seductive appeal is that its offer of ocular proof claims to bypass language, and is therefore the nearest approximation to certainty that one can get.

Neither Claudio nor Othello actually state that they prefer the disasters of “ocular” clarification to the pleasures of consummation. And yet it is only that preference which can account for their seduction by paltry proofs. They desire to see what they fear. This constructs their sexuality as scopic drive. The commonsense opposition of fear and desire disappears within the overwhelming desire engendered by this discourse, the desire for scopic “satisfaction.” Satisfaction, even today, is a term in which sexual gratification is interchangeable with destructive vengeance. In both cases it names a mythical equilibrium at the end of a desire. The obviousness of the window trick in Much Ado About Nothing has often been observed; indeed Shakespeare does not even trouble to motivate it as well as Ariosto. Quite a number in the audience of the time might well have recognized its actual provenance, from their reading of Harington's translation of Book 5 of Orlando Furioso. But of course, that is not necessary. What is required is nothing more than recognition of the kind of romance plot that it is. There is no need to suppose a uniformly sophisticated audience to advance the view that Shakespeare's play “defamiliarizes” (and paradoxically renews at a more complex level) the somewhat outworn discourse by displaying the desires which it sets in motion. The strategies by which those desires are constructed by Don John cannot entirely escape the attention of the least critically aware. This means that the romance drama of honor and revenge can no longer be naively consumed. The display of its rhetorical production and its power upsets uncritical consumption.8

The obviousness of Don John's plot is dramatically meaningful in that it suggests a desire in Claudio to be seduced, which is satisfied by the most perfunctory gestures towards verisimilitude. That is to say, greater Aristotelian probability, whose absence is sometimes deplored, would in fact obscure the workings of desire. Don John partly presents his plot to Claudio and Don Pedro in the guise of a simple test of objective truth. But he also knowingly makes it a challenge to their will to see that truth:

Don John. If you dare not
trust that you see, confess not that you know. If you follow me, I will show
you enough, and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly.


The fanatical “certainty” with which Claudio follows Don John's lesson in the disambiguation of signs, itself testifies to the violence of the desire to know. In the service of the will to power, Claudio becomes a passionate and murderous interpreter:

She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.
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.


There is a fierce joy in the release of this anger. Claudio's sense of serving the revelation of truth, in church appropriately enough, blinds him to his own proceeding but not to the duplicity of signs per se. Indeed, that duplicity becomes the target of his anger, because its evil is displaced onto Hero. It is in that displacement that he is truly unconscious.

Where the marriage ceremony calls for the acknowledgement of desire, Claudio finds a new satisfaction in thrusting the desired object away. In his fantasy, the lover has become the judge. But to focus upon this, as though it were the revelation of an essential malevolence of character, would be to miss the way in which the joy is also pain, and the disambiguation of Hero's signs is also self-destruction. Here he resembles Othello. When he exclaims, “Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it” (4.1.56), he adds in the next lines, “You seem to me as Dian in her orb, / As chaste as the bud ere it be blown.” This is a recognition that he is “writing” against himself, and is still caught up in signs. Accordingly, he concludes that Hero's destruction is a destruction of himself, within a generalized misogyny:

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 more shall it be gracious.


Don John's plot, it should be stressed, is conceived as an attack on the whole of the ruling order, from which he is excluded by his illegitimacy. What he engineers is a tragedy along the lines of a Spanish honor play. In accordance with the feudal code of honor, the destruction of the honor of the “weaker vessel” is in reality an attack on the patriarch, whose honor is exposed by any inability to defend it in the dependent female. The locus classicus, at least within comedy, is Tirso de Molina's famous Don Juan play, El Burlador de Sevilla (c. 1625?). Patriarchal honor provides the whole dramatic logic of Don Juan Tenorio's assault on the fathers and rulers through the seduction of daughters and wives. It is an assault which provokes violent closure in the form of the revenge of the Supreme Patriarch himself. It is the ultimate revenge play, because the vengeance by God through a reincarnated Father/statue, rescues the whole patriarchal ideology from the mockery of the false son. The latter is even more marked as a traitor to the “blood” because he is not actually a bastard by birth. (The extent to which Tirso's play endorses its own ideology must be left aside here. Certainly the vengeful phallic statue teeters on the edge of the more obviously comic vocation of its later imitators like Molière. But even these have a serious subtext, as the more disturbing aspects of Mozart's opera attest.)

To consider Leonato's or Claudio's condemnation of Hero outside the discourse of honor, in which they are also at stake, would be to miss the whole point. Leonato's paternal curse of Hero is also an act of despair and confession of vulnerability:

Leonato. … mine, and
mine I loved, and mine I praised,
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I to myself was not mine,
Valuing of her—why she, O she
is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again. [emphasis added]


There is certainly a critique of this value system in Shakespeare's play, but it is not adequately described by attributing an individualistic moralizing judgment of Leonato or Don Claudio to the playwright or his text. The play is more radical (but not necessarily satirical), because the critique bears upon the collective code, and not upon a somewhat sketchy individuality. Shakespeare's play makes the audience witness the patriarchs themselves being manipulated by a trickster figure, who is master of the plot. They are therefore partly victims of a discourse of which they only seem to be the masters. Furthermore it sweeps up others, like Beatrice and Benedick, in its power. This power is only finally arrested by the benevolent counterplot of the friar.

Don John's plot, which threatens to destroy them all in a revenge tragedy, is checked by a benevolent trickster figure whose power over others' desires has a transcendental, ultimately stabilizing effect. The friar begins by addressing Claudio's interpretation of the “exterior shows” of Hero's blushing as “guiltiness, not modesty,” and her father's translation of this signified into the fear of “tainted blood” that haunts him. He replies by transforming her in his speech into a field of conflict, in which the white of innocence and truth triumphs over the tainted red of blood. Then he goes on:

Friar. I have marked
A thousand blushing apparitions
To start into her face, a thousand innocent shames
In angel whiteness beat away those blushes,
And in her eye there hath appeared a fire
To burn the errors that these princes hold
Against her maiden truth.


His language borrows Claudio's and Leonato's metaphors, and transforms them into those of the church militant, even down to the inquisitorial fires that burn errors to preserve the purity of truth. Like them, the friar links judgment and violence, and he too talks within essentialist presuppositions. Aware that his “reading” of Hero's signs can be challenged as equally arbitrary as theirs, he immediately grounds it rhetorically in every form of transcendental authority that he can muster:

Friar. Call me a fool,
Trust not my reading nor my observations,
Which with experimental seal doth warrant
The tenor of my book. Trust not my age,
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error.


He then proposes the counterplot of the fictional death of Hero, to put this authority to the test. The friar's reading of the signs (which the audience knows to be circumstantially correct), is to be transcendentally grounded, and his plot will be a test and revelation of Hero's true nature. But at the same time it is also a way of quickening Claudio's regret for a lost object. That, however, means that it is not a revelation of Hero's essence, but an appeal to Claudio's desire. He counts upon a manipulation of Claudio's desire as a means to bring about the happy outcome:

                                        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.


This worldly knowledge informs the strategic address to Claudio's desire, which is the counterplot. Don John's plot is countered on its own grounds (for want of a better word), the manipulation of signs to structure another's desire. Like Claudio and Don Pedro, when they fulfill their dramatic function as benevolent plotters who manipulate Beatrice and Benedick, the friar too converts Claudio's hatred back to love through his socializing plot. The reversibility of the signs of desire and hatred operates in both plots. It has to be said that the friar, in his capacity as theatrical plotter, is a true expert in the power of the inward “eye and prospect of [his] soul” in the construction of desire for the lost object:

Friar. 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 apparelled in more precious habit,
More moving-delicate, and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she lived indeed.


He also relies on the persuasive power of the erotic imagination over all convictions of truth:

Friar. 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.


The friar is an expert seducer, like Don John and Iago, relying on the power of signs. He is a good therapist, but a very equivocal good man. Nonetheless, his worldly expertise is legitimated by his insight into Hero's “true” nature. His engagement in battle against Don John's slander guarantees that his production of plot, which, like Don John's and Iago's, is the furtive production of desire through the creation of a lack, shall nonetheless function as a revelation. Given this closure, his manipulative seduction affords gratification to the audience, but not without inviting a certain critical awareness of its own procedure. As in the case of the plots mounted by Prospero in The Tempest, and the Duke in Measure for Measure, the revelation of the artifice places the closure in abeyance.


  1. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965), 81.

  2. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective, 79.

  3. Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), 19.

  4. Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare, 20-21.

  5. Baldassar Castiglione, Il Libro del Cortegiano [1528]. This work had immense influence all over Europe, and was translated into English as The Book of the Courtier [1561] by Sir Thomas Hoby (London: Dent, 1944).

  6. See Peter L. Rudnytsky, “The Purloined Handkerchief in Othello,The Psychoanalytic Study of Literature, ed. Joseph Reppen and Maurice Charney (Hillsdale, New Jersey: The Analytic Press, 1985), 169-190. André Green, in The Tragic Effect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 125-127, writes of the “dual origin of the handkerchief,” since Othello talks of it as a gift from his father to his mother. Thus Desdemona is the site of the feared lack, deriving from the castration complex, and the handkerchief functions as a Lacanian “veil” over a lack of the penis, provoking a desire to see. I am more concerned with the provocation to see than with arriving always at the same missing object.

  7. Stephen Greenblatt, “Improvization and Power,” in Literature and Society, Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1978, ed. Edward Said (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 80-81.

  8. For an alternative, more rationalistic reading of the romance connection between Othello and Much Ado About Nothing, see John Traugott, “Creating a Rational Rinaldo: a Study in the Mixture of the Genres of Comedy and Romance in Much Ado,The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance edited by Stephen Greenblatt (Norman, Oklahoma: Pilgrim Books, 1982) 157-81. There is much to agree with here. However, Traugott is mainly concerned with questions of genre and parodic defamiliarization, explicitly arguing that Beatrice is in control of everything, leader of “the game-playing rationalists” who drive away the violence of romance through wit. There is no interest in the duplicity of wit itself or with its relationship to the anxious politics of regressive desire, which are central to my argument.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Evans, G. Blakemore. “Dogberry and Job.” Notes and Queries 235, No. 2 (June 1990): 183.

Reads Dogberry's plea to be “writ down an ass” as an echo of Job's serious request that his “wordes were now written.”

Friedman, Michael D. “The Editorial Recuperation of Claudio.” Comparative Drama 25, No. 4 (Winter 1991-92): 369-86.

Discusses the staging issues surrounding Claudio's rejection of Hero and subsequent redemption.

Hunter, Robert Grams. “Forgiving Claudio.” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of Much Ado about Nothing, edited by Walter R. Davis, pp. 60-66. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.

Examines the characterization of Claudio as an erring hero.

Jensen, Ejner J. “‘Knowing aforehand’: Audience Preparation and the Comedies of Shakespeare.” In Acting Funny: Comic Theory and Practice in Shakespeare's Plays, edited by Frances Teague, pp. 72-84. Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Argues that the continuing success of Shakespeare's comedies lies at least in part with what she calls “preparation.”

McGrady, Donald. “The Topos of ‘Inversion of Values’ in Hero's Depiction of Beatrice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 472-76.

Analyzes the rhetorical techniques Hero uses to convince Beatrice to look more kindly on Benedick's anticipated courtship of her.

Myers, Jeffrey Rayner. “An Emended Much Ado about Nothing, Act V, Scene iii.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 84, No. 4 (December 1990): 413-18.

Discusses a problematic passage in the play, in the scene depicting Hero's “funeral.”

Parten, Anne. “Beatrice's Horns: A Note on Much Ado about Nothing, II.i.25-27.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 201-02.

Studies the sexual significance of the attribution of horns to Beatrice.

Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Strategies of Delay in Shakespeare: What the Much Ado Is Really About.” In Renaissance Papers 1987, edited by Dale B. J. Randall and Joseph A. Porter, pp. 95-102. Durham, N.C.: The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1987.

Notes Shakespeare's manipulation of timing to intensify the tragic or comic impact of the dramatic action.

Rossiter, A. P. Much Ado about Nothing. In Shakespeare: The Comedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Muir, pp. 47-57. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1965.

Emphasizes the strong connection between deception and love in Much Ado about Nothing.

Straznicky, Marta. “Shakespeare and the Government of Comedy: Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespeare Studies XXII, (1994): 141-71.

Examines the political commentary within the play.

Taylor, Mark. “Presence and Absence in Much Ado about Nothing.Centennial Review XXXIII, No. 1 (Winter 1989): 1-12.

Discusses what the play “chooses not to represent” by examining the play’s gaps and silences, specifically Don Pedro’s wooing of Hero and the chamber-window scene.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to 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

Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 31)


Much Ado about Nothing (Vol. 67)