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Much Ado about Nothing

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One of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, Much Ado about Nothing's appeal arises largely from the witty banter and charisma of Beatrice and Benedick, whose antagonistic relationship and eventual courtship are dramatized in the play's subplot. However, the main plot of the play, involving the docile Hero and the boorish Claudio, is often viewed as a dramatic failure. The relationship between these plots, as well as Claudio's role in the problematic main plot, are popular areas of critical study. Debate regarding the play’s genre is also a topic of modern criticism, and many scholars have studied the play’s deviations from the conventions of romantic comedy. Additionally, the characters' use of language and their view of its relation to political and social power, as well as the play's treatment of the problems related to knowledge and perception, garner much scholarly interest. In critiques of film and stage productions of Much Ado about Nothing, issues regarding characterization, genre, and gender are often discussed, particularly in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation.

In his overview of Much Ado about Nothing, Sheldon P. Zitner (1993) discusses the nature of the play's plot construction, highlighting the connections between the Hero-Claudio main plot and the Beatrice-Benedick subplot. Zitner observes that the plots are linked through a number of formal devices, including deception, eavesdropping, and overhearing. Additionally, Zitner examines the play's characters, noting the relevance of contemporary Elizabethan marriage customs to Hero’s loyalty and obedience. Zitner contends that Hero’s passivity is in part explained by immaturity, and that many of Claudio's personality traits, including his immaturity, exemplify the “social style of Honour.” Beatrice and Benedick are also studied extensively by Zitner, who notes that the characters' unconventionality and wit set them apart from Hero and Claudio, but are not their only notable characteristics. Zitner comments on Beatrice's rejection and acceptance of various aspects of patriarchal society, noting that her obedience in her marriage to Benedick will have its boundaries. As for Benedick, Zitner observes that his wit is used to mask his fear of marriage and his longing for Beatrice. In John Wain's (1967) analysis of the play, Claudio is cited as the primary cause of the failure of the main plot. Wain states Shakespeare found the character of Claudio “unattractive,” which caused him to create a “cold, proud, self-regarding, inflexible” hero. Likewise, Richard Henze (1971) focuses on the character of Claudio, finding that it is Claudio, not Don John and his dishonesty, nor Beatrice and Benedick in their unconventionality, that poses the most formidable threat to social harmony. Through Claudio, Henze states, Shakespeare depicted the power that malice attains when it appears respectable.

As Zitner points out, the plot of Much Ado about Nothing relies heavily on deception and the misunderstanding it produces. Critics have also studied a related theme—the play’s treatment of knowledge and perception. Critic Nova Myhill (1999) finds that the numerous depictions of deception in the play highlight Shakespeare's methodology for creating different modes of interpretation. Myhill goes on to argue that while the audience typically assumes it possesses a privileged status in terms of eavesdropping, this notion is undercut by the fact that the characters are repeatedly deceived by their belief that eavesdropping has provided them with direct access to truth. Taking another approach, Carl Dennis (1973) explores the two modes of perception he maintains are at work in the play: wit and wisdom. Whereas wit relies on reason and sensory evidence, wisdom, explains Dennis, is related to a belief in intuitive methods of understanding. In the end, Dennis asserts, wit is portrayed as an unreliable mode of perception, and the fate of the characters depends on their willingness to reject what they perceive through their senses and approach life through faith.

The characters’ attitudes toward language and their use of language to achieve various ends is another area of critical concern. Camille Wells Slights (1993) claims that the characters in Much Ado about Nothing view language as the backbone of social harmony and interaction, contending that the play is primarily concerned with the social nature of language, and with the power of language as an instrument and indicator of social and political hierarchy. In her analysis, Slights discusses the ways characters use and view language, observing for example that Beatrice uses language to acquire independence in a patriarchal society, and that both Beatrice and Benedick fear the power of language to deceive and associate this danger with gender roles and sexual relationships. Like Slights, Maurice Hunt (2000) explores the ways in which the characters employ language, particularly patriarchal language—characterized by irreverence, aggression, and authoritarian tone and content. Hunt demonstrates the way in which this type of speech establishes social dominance through the transformation, dismissal, or oppression of the words and thoughts of others. Hunt observes that the male characters, as well as Beatrice, use patriarchal language to assert social dominance.

Concerns regarding the genre of Much Ado about Nothing form another area of critical study. Walter N. King (1964) maintains that the play is a comedy of manners, and that like other plays of this genre its central theme is the examination of a morally “flabby” aristocratic class that accepts the established social codes without question. King notes that the society remains essentially unchanged at the play’s end, which is expected in a comedy of manners where “the social health depends upon compromise, adjustment, resilience, not upon fundamental social change.” The critic further maintains that it is the characters’ use of wit that enables them to achieve social harmony. Approaching the genre issue from another angle, Laurie E. Osborne (1990) examines Shakespeare's incorporation of elements of the Italian novella into the genre of English comedy. Osborne contends that through his linking of these two genres, Shakespeare explored the contradictions within comic conventions and the problems inherent in combining non-comic and non-dramatic materials with comedy.

Critics also explore issues of genre in their evaluation of modern productions of the play, such as Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing. Celestino Deleyto (1997) contends that Branagh's film belongs to the romantic comedy genre, and uses the play to gauge the changes that the genre has undergone in the last four centuries. Deleyto focuses on the sexual politics and gender tension found in the film, and finds that “[t]he culturally ingrained male fear of women is used and reversed by the film in order to produce a happy ending which, … ensures the continuity of the genre’s traditional structure.” Michael J. Collins (1997) also examines Branagh's film, contending that Branagh downplayed the original play's tension regarding gender roles in order to present the film as a typical, popular Hollywood romantic comedy. In modern stage productions, the play receives various treatments. Tom Provenzano (2000) praises the East Los Angeles Classic Theatre adaptation of Much Ado by Tony Plana and Bert Rosario. Provenzano notes the play, geared toward school-age children, was an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for young people. The critic also notes that despite the major textual cuts the production was faithful to Shakespeare's story and language. Critic Charles Isherwood (see Further Reading) offers a mixed appraisal of a 1998 Stratford Festival production, directed by Richard Monette. While Isherwood praises the performances of the middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, the critic finds the production as a whole “uneven.” Steven Oxman (see Further Reading) reviews the South Coast Repertory presentation of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Mark Rucker. Oxman applauds the production, and praises the director’s decision to style the play in a manner reminiscent of a Hollywood Golden Age film.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11521

SOURCE: Zitner, Sheldon P. Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, edited by Sheldon P. Zitner, pp. 1-78. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Zitner surveys the setting and characters of Much Ado about Nothing and discusses the relationship between the Hero-Claudio main plot and the Beatrice-Benedick subplot.]


Unlike many of Shakespeare's plays, Much Ado does not create a strong sense of place. Shakespeare's Messina, as Mario Praz observes, is ‘senz'altro una città imaginaria’.1 It bears no resemblance to Renaissance Messina or any other Italian city of the day. What it does resemble, however, is an Elizabethan town with a simple municipal organization operating under royal charter. Shakespeare's Messina is something of a social backwater; compare the gorgeous wedding gown of the Duchess of Milan with Hero's modest wedding dress which, according to her fashionable gentlewoman, is appropriate to the occasion. There is a provincial overtone in the strain felt by Leonato on receiving Don Pedro and his party; the formality is excessive and observed to be so. Leonato is unused to such exalted guests or to such entertaining. Public rooms, evidently not often open, must be perfumed by specially hired staff (Borachio); for music Leonato must depend on the Prince's man Balthasar. This is hardly Bandello's upscale Messina of the banquets. What Leonato is used to are easy, informal relations with townsfolk such as Dogberry, whom he can address as friend and neighbour. Evidently he is also used to a household without a wife's control, hence to a rather permissive domestic scene dominated by his teenage daughter, Hero, her two gentlewomen, and the unconventional Beatrice. This makes easier Don John's plot to discredit Hero, something that could have taken place only with difficulty in All's Well, whose household organization left no wall without ears.

In other plays the impression of place derives from mutually defining contrasts; town against country, court against tavern, and from evocative scene-setting. Much Ado has little of such poetry—Hero's description of her garden, a few words from Don Pedro on the beauty of the night—and no great removals of the action from place to symbolic place, to a Dover Cliff or a forest of Arden, for example. Social rather than physical ambience concerns the dramatist, but picturesque settings blur rather than clarify that ambience. As a text Much Ado implies a classical spatial economy and a radically stylized setting. With the exception of the church scene in which Claudio denounces Hero, and possibly the supposed penance in 5.3, the action takes place in or near Leonato's mansion.

Earlier editors often attempted to locate the action of individual scenes in the play, usually following Capell, Theobald, and Pope. Of the play's seventeen scenes, at least nine are localized differently by different editors. Generally the issue is whether to place the scene inside Leonato's house, before it, or in the adjoining garden. In only a few instances does the choice seem significant. For example, the depth of Leonato's anxiety and of the deference he shows Don Pedro can be indicated to some extent by the choice of locale: a public room in the governor's house, with its suggestion of Leonato's status, or a more deferential welcome outside.

How casual Shakespeare could be about location unless it affected meaning is clear from 1.2 and 1.3. Scene 1.2 opens with Antonio's second-hand account of Don Pedro and Claudio speaking of Hero when walking ‘in mine orchard’. Thus we also ought to locate all of 1.1 in Antonio's orchard, an unlikely place for receiving the Messenger, unless we think Pedro and Claudio repeated elsewhere their exchange of twenty lines earlier in 1.1. In 1.3 Borachio also claims to have overheard Claudio and Don Pedro discussing the proxy wooing, this time in a musty room. These are knots to be cut by directors, not untied by editors.

Where there is a need to define a place, it takes only a few descriptive lines (Hero's in her garden), minor props (trellis and tree for arbour and concealment), or only the stage architecture itself—as in 3.3 when Borachio and Conrad shield themselves from the weather under a ‘penthouse’, presumably the canopy over part of the stage. The action of Much Ado takes place largely in virtual rather than ‘real’ space, and the properties Shakespeare required for Much Ado were all on hand, an indication of his professional concern for easy transfer to different venues.


The story of Hero and Claudio does not require the whole cast of Much Ado. Hero and Claudio yes, but why Beatrice and Benedick? Leonato, but why Antonio? Margaret, but why Ursula? And why both Conrad and Borachio? Characteristically, the Shakespearian dramatis personae goes beyond the necessities of narrative, constituting a system of contrasting dyads and triads (Hal and Hotspur, Lear's three daughters), and even more sophisticated thematic variants (Hotspur as Time's fool, Hal redeeming it, Falstaff wasting it, Henry IV ‘serving’ it). In part, this systemic pairing reflects a view of character, specifically the Pauline voluntarism that prompts us to ‘look here upon this picture and on this’ in order to judge the characters resulting from the life-choices of Claudius and Hamlet's father.

There are further consequences arising from this process of doubling and tripling. In ‘Emotion of Multitude’, his seminal remarks on Lear, Yeats observes that the reverberations of parallel lives suggest to the audience the universality and hence the likelihood of what is occurring on stage. Shakespeare does with character what he does with scene and incident, maximizing the differences, here between characters brought together by incident (Leonato and Dogberry) or family or occupation (Hero and Beatrice, Dogberry and Verges). The result is vivid delineation, not only for its own sake, but for rapidity in orientating audience attention and easing the writer's task of generating dialogue.

Finally, the playwright is something of a company manager. In writing the play Shakespeare distributes the burden of work so as to sustain the enterprise, demanding of actors only what they can perform, bringing along novices by creating parts that stretch their talents.


Hero and Leander, with George Chapman's continuation of what Christopher Marlowe had left undone, was published in 1598. Even without this jog to memory, Shakespeare might have named his ingénue Hero after the faithful young woman whose lover is drowned swimming to an assignation. Benedick's ironic reference to ‘Leander the good swimmer’ in 5.2 suggests that allusions to the story would have been widely understood. Shakespeare's dependence on its associations is clear from Claudio's puerile repetition of Hero's name as he denounces her.

The Hero of Much Ado is one of Shakespeare's passive young women: obedient, unquestioning, well brought up, thoroughly conventional and rather prudish. As is Polonius speaking of Ophelia, Leonato can be confident when he says of Hero, ‘My daughter tells us all’. With the gardener in Richard II, Hero can gather politically correct platitudes (hers are naïve and unambiguous) from her garden in 3.1; she is uneasy at the sexual innuendo in Margaret's reference in 3.4 to the coming marriage; in 2.1 she is prudently specific in offering to do any ‘modest’ office to unite Beatrice and Benedick. In the brief self-defence she makes in 4.1, she responds with delicate obliqueness to the implicit charge of fornication, but directly to the apparently mentionable charge of conversation ‘At hours unmeet’.

Shakespeare seems at times to do everything but make Hero disappear; unlike Beatrice, this is a part requiring only a second-best boy actor. In 1.1, in answer to Claudio's request for an opinion of her, Benedick, an admittedly unreliable judge of women, finds Hero merely Leonato's ‘short daughter’, ‘too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise’. Even Hero's most intense reactions (she blushes and goes pale) are conveyed by someone else, by the Friar, who describes her innocence, her shame, and her rage. Later in the scene it is the Friar who provides an apologia which invents more than describes the ‘lovely’ life of a Hero who speaks so little in her own right. No wonder Shakespeare chose a name that was a label. But even so evocative a name as Hero could not compete in implication with ‘Beatrice’, yet another indication of Shakespeare's curious reversal of traditional priorities in subordinating his ‘main plot.’

Shakespeare's Hero is both a foil for Beatrice and a partial explanation of her character. In 2.1 Antonio asks Hero if she will be ruled by her father in the choice of a husband. Beatrice intervenes, saying that it is Hero's duty to curtsy and act as it pleases her father—adding however, that if the man chosen for her is not handsome, Hero should curtsy again and say ‘“Father, as it please me”’. Beatrice, unlike Hero, is not a highly placed heiress. Older, with no father, and moving toward what was thought an unmarriageable age, she has developed tough—if not single-minded—views which question the constraints imposed on women. She tries to stake out a position of modified obedience for Hero, a position hardly radical when The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, to use the title of a popular play performed by Shakespeare's company in 1607, had long been acknowledged. For Hero, however, Beatrice's compromise might have been unsustainable. The instant change from Hero's preparation for Leonato's ‘dream’ of a match with Don Pedro to her acceptance of Claudio suggests complete pliability.

Yet Hero's loyalty is not witless acceptance. Like her discreetly flirtatious responses to the Prince during their turn around the dance floor, her answer in 3.1 to Ursula's question, ‘When are you married, madam?’ shows some wit: ‘Why, every day, tomorrow.’ Perhaps this also hints at a long-prepared dedication to the social role that might make her ultimate marriage to Claudio plausible. However, Hero is not all conformity and quiet. Beatrice is a fool and you're another, she tells Margaret after Margaret questions her taste in clothes, a matter not of prime interest to Hero. Perhaps the outburst is pre-nuptial jitters. Hero obviously looks to Beatrice as to an older sister, but there may be truth as well as feigning in the critique she makes of Beatrice when trying to trick her into accepting Benedick. Beatrice, Hero says, is ‘self-endeared’; her being ‘so odd from all fashions’ is not commendable; her spirits are as coy and wild as the haggard of the rock.

From the perspective of conformity those who forsake it must always seem to assert an egotistical superiority. Looked at positively, Hero's choice is to be ‘other-endeared’, and so she can be portrayed but this, one can argue, is precisely the self-sacrifice that has been imposed on her. Hero's reference to the ‘haggard’, the female falcon in the wild, need not mean that she accepts a wholly instrumental role. In Shakespeare and His Social Context, Margaret Loftus Ranald, who discusses the term ‘haggard’ in relation to The Taming of the Shrew, points out that the art of falconry distinguished between training and taming, and recognized that training altered both master and bird, whose native wildness it sought to preserve if only for the sake of the hunt.2 The analogy reduces a human to an animal relation, an exploitive one at that, and encourages the male master's illusion that women can be ‘mastered’ without ‘breaking their spirit’. Yet to deny the distinction that was made through the analogy is to ignore a small, ameliorative point of argument in the current discussions of marriage.

By the turn of the century matches like that between Hero and Claudio were already looking out of date or at least rather high aristocratic. Shakespeare had been on safe ground with social opinion in questioning parental interference with a love-match, even in the society of Romeo and Juliet. Yet it was (and still largely is) thought unlikely that a Hamlet would ‘carve for himself’. The matching of a governor's daughter and a count—especially a young count so near a prince—comes close enough to a power transaction to ‘place’ if not extenuate Leonato's heavy-handed management and Hero's acquiescence.

The frequent appearance of dukes and counts in Elizabethan drama may lead to underestimates of the steepness of fortune's hill. Sir Thomas Wilson, describing ‘The State of England’ in a contemporary treatise,3 estimated that in 1600 there were only 60 peers, 500 knights, and 16,000 lesser gentry in a population of 4,000,000. It would have been easy enough for an Elizabethan audience to set the Hero-Claudio match to one side, accepting its rather bloodless quality as highly probable and well observed. The situation of Beatrice and Benedick, unusual as the two and their wooing were, would have seemed closer to courtships the audience actually knew.

At least some of those courtships were influenced by a degree of clerical support for more latitude for women in the conduct of marriage, though not for their parity. Paul's often quoted Letter to the Ephesians 5: 22 (‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord’) could be countered with Galatians 3:28 in which Paul himself had said that ‘in Christ there is no male or female’. But popular sermons teased an appropriate moral from texts with more picturesque images: Eve was created not from Adam's foot but from his rib, and so it was the divine intention that she walk by Adam's side, not be trodden underfoot. The term ‘helpmeet’ suggests both the limitations and advances implicit in the sermons. Milder attitudes toward women were reflected in the sentimental Frauendienst of romantic plays and poems, more substantially in sermon and homily and, some speculate, in individual marriages, particularly among couples with puritan sympathies.

It is unlikely, however, that Elizabethan marriages were any closer to the norms of advice and preachment than are marriages now. A passage from I. G.'s 1605 Apologie for Women-Kinde4 seems plausible if only because it seems familiar. According to I. G., women gave way to their husbands' authority ‘Only for order’, but ‘the authority is vain’ as ‘every one can tell’. Though clearly partisan, I. G. believes that the God who refrained from casting Eve into slavery or servility also ‘left her guidance to her husband's will’. The result is a familiar blur. The kind of marriage it implies is hardly egalitarian, but as a formula it probably represents, historically, a turn for the better. Progressive humanists could be even more optimistic about the possibilities for mutual contentment in the sexuality and companionship of marriage, as was Erasmus in A Ryght Frutefull Epistle in Laude and Praise of Matrimonie, written about 1530. The actualities of Elizabethan marriage in general are impossible to know and, as Carol Thomas Neely points out,5 there is inadequate evidence for choosing among contradictory assertions about women's improved or worsened lot during the period.

If we are to draw conclusions from what we know of Hero's off-stage aristocratic sisters, it is doubtful that Hero could even look forward to the kind of marriage I. G. described. Don Pedro, a bachelor, had to remind Claudio of the minimal behaviour expected of a husband. In English Society 1580-1680, Keith Wrightson describes the marital fate of young women of the high aristocracy.6 Their lives could be quite empty, and they themselves merely ‘ornamental and idle’ as they stitched away solitary hours while their husbands warred or governed.

Shakespeare has given us a submissive Hero, yet he has also given the actor enough to create a more subtle role. Neither her apparent enthusiasm for her ‘own dear Claudio’, nor her conformity precludes apprehensiveness and regret. When her gown is praised in 3.4, Hero replies, ‘God give me joy to wear it, for my heart is exceeding heavy’. This can be played as virginal jitters but, alternatively, it can also express a pang of resignation to a narrow fate. Hero's answer to Margaret's question about when she is to be married, ‘Why, every day, tomorrow’ may be spoken with grim anticipation, a tone Leonato's heavy-handedness could easily motivate.

Hero's vulnerability is due as much to youth as to social status. Shakespeare remembered Bandello's adolescent heroine in creating what Don John sourly calls this ‘forward March chick’ and in matching her with a ‘start-up’ suitor. Extreme youth is not unusual in engaged couples of the high aristocracy. There is one other young Claudio in Shakespeare, the unfortunate prisoner of Measure for Measure. The two Claudios share only their ordinariness and lack of moral distinction. (The Claudios of the commedia dell'arte were young lovers; perhaps Shakespeare recalled them wryly.) In Much Ado Claudio is addressed as ‘young Claudio’, ‘Lord Lackbeard’, and ‘boy’. He does not bridle at epithets that would have drawn Coriolanus' sword, for the epithets are undeniable.

Immaturity explains and extenuates Hero's passivity, as it does Claudio's too-quick suspicions and his ready acceptance of Don Pedro's offer to woo Hero in his stead. Even Claudio's military prowess, like that of Bertram in All's Well, seems connected with immaturity; indeed, Claudio is a first sketch for Bertram. The Erasmian scepticism about war Shakespeare develops in All's Well through Parolles' follies and Bertram's astounding feats as a teenage Alexander touches Beatrice's tart comments on killing and eating in 1.1 and her deprecation of Benedick's need to associate with some ‘young squarer’, some preocious master of brawling like Claudio. Through Bertram's career Shakespeare will imply that war is as much a boy's as a man's game; Claudio's victory over Don John suggests that the idea was already formed.

Alone onstage at the start of 2.3, Benedick tells us that Claudio in love has ‘turned orthography’ and that his words are a ‘very fantastical banquet’. No one familiar with the play will believe it. Having denied Claudio the sighing and sonneteering of the conventional stage lover, Shakespeare repeats the strategy he used in creating Hero. He makes Claudio in love the matter of someone else's virtuoso soliloquy. The description is a rehearsal of the Benedick-to-be who speaks it. It applies to no Claudio we have seen and it only underscores what he lacks. Claudio does make a brief declaration in 2.1, just after Leonato has offered him Hero in marriage. ‘Lady,’ he says to Hero, ‘as you are mine, I am yours. I give away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange.’ The speech is provoked by Beatrice's prodding of the lovers to declare themselves. It is weakened rather than justified by Claudio's insistence that his silence is ‘the perfectest herald of joy’, and by two rather cool formulations: ‘as you are mine’ and I ‘dote upon the exchange’ (italics mine). Why posit what sounds like a condition, and why not dote on the lady herself?

Anyone unfamiliar with Elizabethan marriage laws and customs would not realize that the words Claudio speaks constitute, as do the two other such exchanges in the last scene, espousals de praesenti, a form of union then considered virtually indissoluble. Thus there may be some slight extenuation for Claudio's later misbehaviour in the legal character of the commitments here, in the handfast—a probable piece of stage business—and the kiss. But Shakespeare does nothing to underline the point. Later he will neglect it again in the case of the Claudio of Measure for Measure, where the stakes are even higher.

As aristocratic suitor, if not as young lover, Claudio is highly plausible. He consults his elders, Benedick and the Prince, describing to his commander his subordination of his initial ‘liking’ of Hero to the ‘task in hand’. Now that ‘warthoughts / Have left their places vacant’, ‘soft and delicate desires’ have ‘come thronging’ in, ‘All prompting me how fair young Hero is, / Saying I liked her ere I went to wars’. This is a report to a superior rather than a confession of love; Claudio's thoughts and feelings come curiously self-propelled and nicely prioritized; nor do they overflow their categories. It is tempting to imagine Don Pedro with tongue in cheek when he warns Claudio that he will be ‘like a lover presently, / And tire the hearer with a book of words’. Don Pedro's offer to intercede with Leonato has the right cachet, and Claudio does not hesitate. Nevertheless he is still concerned about appearances: ‘lest my liking might too sudden seem, / I would have salved it [prepared for his declaration of love] with a longer treatise’.

Claudio can hold his own in scenes of soldierly ragging (indeed he must if Shakespeare is to write them without introducing more characters), but the verbal leanness of a minor part accords with this limited sensibility whose thoughts and feelings come from narrow conceptions of soldierliness and personal honour. As David Cook points out, in both 1.1 and 2.1 Claudio is on stage for sixty lines before he speaks a word.7 But when he thinks that his honour is at stake, as in the church scene, he can find words enough.

When he does speak at length, Claudio is unsympathetic. Like his mentor Don Pedro and some of Shakespeare's other command-figures (Henry V, the Duke in Measure for Measure, Prospero), Claudio is an instigator of spectacle. An unpleasant self-satisfaction prompts both his decision to denounce Hero before all the congregation and the denunciation itself. ‘But fare thee well, most foul, most fair; farewell / Thou pure impiety and impious purity’: the rhetoric is mechanical and absolute. That it has as its primary aim the advertisement of Claudio's own still spotless honour only makes it worse. However, Don Pedro and even Leonato accept the charges as proved. This may not be the exoneration of Claudio for which T. W. Craik argues,8 but at least it demonstrates that Claudio is not unique, not exclusively the ‘hateful young cub’ Andrew Lang thought him. However, the Friar's plan to lead Claudio to remorse through Hero's supposed death simply fails, as his behaviour and the Prince's in 5.1 show. Any expression of remorse has to be projected into the two lines (5.1.245-6) in which Claudio tells of the return of Hero's image ‘In the rare semblance that I loved it first’. No matter how impressive the ritual at Hero's shrine, wishfulness cannot explain away Claudio's defects, but criticism that isolates Claudio overlooks the ideological breadth of Shakespeare's unpleasant portrayal of Hero's accusers.

Propriety, plausibility, laconic speech and cliché, absence of intimate feeling, a touchy concern for (male) opinion—in all these Claudio exemplifies the social style of Honour. Add to this his youth, and his ready suspicion first of Don Pedro and then of Hero becomes ‘natural’. Yet both suspicions are suspicions of Hero, not ‘natural’ but exaggerations of accepted misogynist absurdities, here given a romantic coloration: if Don Pedro has betrayed him it is not because Don Pedro is disloyal but because, as Claudio bitterly observes at the ball after being taken in by Don John's lies, ‘beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood’, blood being our common sexuality. W. H. Auden wrote that had Claudio's love been ‘all he imagined it to be, he would have laughed in Don John's face’.9 But Claudio loved honour, not only more, but almost exclusively.

Yet even with honour as a motive for his blindness, can one accept Claudio's excuse, ‘sinned I not / But in mistaking’? And does his response to Leonato's second offer of a bride (‘Your over kindness doth wring tears from me’) give us at last a Claudio ‘fit’ for marriage; or only a Claudio grateful for any way out of a situation in which his honour is at risk? Auden, already generous to Claudio even in condemnation, thought him fit, as have others, if only because exonerating Claudio, according to Robert Grams Hunter, allows audiences to have the ‘comic experience’.10 Yet the question is not whether ‘we’ exonerate Claudio, although we are free to do so. We can find him innocent and Don John the only guilty party, as does Craik.11 We can forgive his youth; view the death of Hero as a symbolic purging of Claudio's offence, as does David Cook;12 or stage it, as did Trevor Nunn, so that ‘Claudio's penance at the tomb [would] not be undervalued’.13 Or we can take our cue from Leonato and Hero. But if the plot ‘forgives’ Claudio, the script seems less ready to do so. How is the actor to speak and behave in 4.1 and 5.1? How make his eagerness to wed even an Ethiope contrition rather than only care for his honour, which marriage into Leonato's family will clear? The treatment of Claudio in performance is a measure of how far directors are willing to risk the dark side of the play.

It is a mistake to dismiss Hero and Claudio as merely ‘ordinary’ and ‘uninteresting’. The ordinary has its own interest; it is where nature puts her bets on survival. Further, Hero and Claudio are painful historical portraits, and if their attitudes are commonplace they are necessarily so in order to define the rare luck of their quarrelsome intellectual superiors. There is, in addition, a canny irony in Shakespeare's enlisting such agents in a romantic plot. As John Russell Brown observed, Much Ado will not ‘betray its secret to … piecemeal criticism’.14

Beatrice and Benedick are older, more experienced, less constrained socially and intellectually, more sensitive and more expressive. They were also intended to be more active physically. In her book On Some of Shakespeare's Characters, one of the great nineteenth-century Beatrices, Helen Faucit, conceived of Beatrice as ‘tall, lithe, quaint and sportive’.15 The parcelling out of traits among the lovers is a nice instance of theatrical pragmatism. An older (and taller) boy would have been needed for the older, more difficult role of Beatrice; hence a diminutive Hero for the sake of contrast as well as the impression of extreme youth. A tall Benedick was needed as a physical match for Beatrice, and further attributes, such as his being a ‘valiant trencherman’, followed. Beatrice's remark in the last scene that she had been told that, for love of her, Benedick was ‘in a consumption’ may be a joking allusion to the actor's size. Perhaps Thomas Pope, the large comic actor who played Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch, created the role.16

Beatrice and Benedick are more than unconventional contrasts to the younger couple's conventionality. They are blessed, not in being the Perfect Conduct-book Couple, but as individuals singled out for unusual gifts, among them their talents, their second chance, and each other. Beatrice, however, is more thoroughly blessed; the gift to Benedick seems centred on words. Appropriately, his name entered the language as a now obsolete generic term for newly married bachelors of long standing; it served as a compliment in the days when that status had a sentimental import.

Beatrice and Benedick are best remembered as linguistic marvels. For aspiring actresses, the role is a pinnacle, like the role of Hamlet for men, and for the same reason: there are so many fine things to be said, and in the theatre the play stands or falls on the role. Beatrice's first words, like Hamlet's, have a tart, cryptic quality that sets her apart as distinctly an individual with private concerns, with a public group, but not of it. From then on she too is a social critic, orientating our understanding, expressing herself through irony, and, at a crucial moment, regretting her inability to act.

Helen Faucit, who preferred the gentler role of Rosalind, nevertheless inveighed against the ‘heresy’ of Mrs Pat Campbell's portrayal of Beatrice as a tomboy, a shrew, and in general an ‘odious woman’.17 The heresy still surfaces in the theatre as an apparent confusion between Much Ado and The Taming of the Shrew, although there are few similarities between ‘curst Kate’ and Beatrice. Indeed, after overhearing Hero's Kate-like ‘character’ of her in the arbour scene, Beatrice is appalled. In any case, ‘curst’—for Antonio at least—is a code-word for Beatrice's failure to obey her male relatives. Ellen Terry took pains to indicate from the beginning that Beatrice was half in love with Benedick; her devotion to the single life is queried before it is expressed since her interest in Benedick is obvious from her first words, despite their sarcasm.

As Helen Faucit observed, there is an edge to Beatrice's wit that ‘sorrow and wrong’, far from removing, had sharpened. The resistance Shakespeare attributes to Beatrice is not the soft-spoken resignation Faucit tacitly accepts as the proper feminine response to adversity. Despite this verbal edge, a star danced at her birth and she has been thoughtfully amused ever since. Inevitably her thoughts have centred on the situation of women, and her amusement on men, whom she finds both intolerable and desirable.

An intellectual history can be gathered from the order of the topics on which Beatrice exercises her wit. In 1.1 her initial target is Benedick as lady-killer (he ‘challenged Cupid at the flight’), then Benedick as courageous soldier (‘a good soldier to a lady’), Benedick as intellectual opponent (‘four of his five wits went halting off’), then Benedick as faithful companion (‘O Lord, he will hang upon [a male friend] like a disease’). A little later Beatrice calls him ‘a pernicious suitor’. Decoding these complaints requires only Don Pedro's statement that Benedick had ‘cut Cupid's bow-string’, or Beatrice's that Benedick had won her heart ‘with false dice’.

Evidently Beatrice thinks the barrier between them is Benedick's commitment to the all-absorbing male cults of war, comradeship, and honour. It was the assurance held out by those cults, an assurance of a nobler intimacy and of protection from enervating sentiment and sexual betrayal that prompted the cutting of Cupid's bow-string and led him to become ‘a professed tyrant to women’. Benedick is not so much older than Claudio as to be free of the adolescent fears, so evident in his misogynistic wit, that lead to false idealisms such as those of the young men in Love's Labour's Lost. Against such cults Beatrice has set her wit: for Beatrice war is what riding to hounds was for Oscar Wilde, a hunt for the inedible; male alliances are mercurial and superficial, with ‘every month a new sworn brother’; honour is the treacherous ‘princely testimony’ of the likes of Claudio and Don Pedro. For these Benedick has rejected all that women offer with marriage, which is in every way superior. From hurt and self-concern Beatrice develops both targets and a mechanism of wit.

Yet Beatrice is neither a malcontent nor a radical. Her ‘How long have you professed apprehension?’ is a self-serving bit of class condescension to Margaret. Beatrice, about whose personal fortune we learn nothing (some productions suggest she is an heiress; Michael Langham's tried her as a poor relation), is as keen as the other lovers on remaining in the circle of privilege. Messina as it is—this is the world in which she has given her heart and in which she must live. There is no contemptus mundi in her, no generalized vituperation, no pining; she will enjoy even leading apes to hell, should it come to that.

The role is frankly physical. In her exchange with Benedick when they are alone after the denunciation in church, the kinetic energy that generates her brief, probing sentences, as much as her cause and her love, is irresistible. Benedick is overwhelmed. According to the Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving by the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry played the scene ‘striding to and fro with long paces’;18 Helen Faucit combined forthrightness with delicacy. One wonders what in the world Dorothea Jordan did on stage that led her to say, admittedly after ten years of acting it, that the role was ‘a very easy quiet part’.19 Beatrice has little of Hero's maidenly reserve. She wants as handsome a man for herself as for Hero (a claim she makes for all women), and she can trade off-colour repartee with Margaret while keeping her moral distance. Shakespeare may be taking a certain risk to make a point when Beatrice says of Benedick ‘I would he had boarded me.’ The sexual innuendo is now diminished, but it could hardly have been lost on the audience.

Beatrice's mode of wit is typically ironic, though she is neither afraid to strike nor unwilling to wound. Indeed at one point she seems willing to kill. Yet irony itself, with its cryptic quality that forestalls reaction and its flattering appeals to laughter and intelligence, indicates that Beatrice speaks under constraint. Despite her position in Leonato's household and the latitude granted her as an amusing ‘original’, she is ‘merely’ a woman. Antonio and Leonato, even Benedick, simply leap away (the ‘jade's trick’) when they've had enough. To be listened to at all, a woman must amuse, or at least observe limits. Her engaging self-deprecations—Beatrice leading apes to hell, sunburnt Beatrice crying ‘heigh-ho for a husband’—these are Beatrice's recognition that she understands the game. But the self-deprecatory element in Beatrice's wit also reflects long-term anxieties. If Beatrice fears marriage she is also fearful and chagrined at being single: on the one hand she faces the prospect of being ‘overmastered’; on the other the pains of rejection, sexual denial, and exclusion from what was, outside the church, the only career with status open to women.

Though Beatrice objects to much of what men have made of themselves and of society, she also accepts much of it. She wants to marry Benedick, and when this seems possible after the deception in the arbour, she falls at once into the wildness-taming clichés of marital submissiveness. Typically, however, it is Beatrice herself who will do the taming. From her intellectual and moral domination of the play and from the parody obedience test of 5.2, we can guess that Beatrice's obedience will be qualified at best, and that it is not a sentimental anachronism to see the play hinting at something for Beatrice rather different from strictly patriarchal marriage.

In the modern theatre these issues can rarely arise; audiences sense the future of fifth-act marriages as happy or unhappy according to current standards. Criticism, however, puts the question of Beatrice's future on the agenda of interpretation. Beatrice's language and behaviour argue that her view of marriage is not extreme. Men are valiant dust (no cleric would quarrel), but women are overmastered by them nevertheless. (Even Goneril will legitimize male rule when she speaks contemptuously of her husband as a fool who ‘usurps’ her body.) Beatrice says she would have women exert power through a veto, and then during courtship, but Beatrice would not be the first of Shakespeare's characters to present orthodox credentials and then speak, act, or simply be in ways that question convention. An elegiac tone enters criticism that sees ‘the masculine world’ of Much Ado ‘unquestioned from within’ or sees Beatrice entering a repressive patriarchal marriage. Carol Cook's article is instructive on this point.20 Yet though the play does more, only to have created a Beatrice questions her future total subordination, and her mental force, which brings Benedick to some understanding, suggests a continuity of instruction beyond ‘I do’.

Yet if the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick may not be conventional, it is unlikely to outrage opinion. Beatrice's strictures against ‘honour’ rest on scepticism born of the violations of the code. In 4.1 when Benedick seems to defend his comrades, Beatrice scorns Claudio as ‘a sweet gallant’, and deplores the decline of manhood, which has become only ‘curtsies’ and compliment; ‘men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones, too.’ It is the conventional ideal that Beatrice admires; moreover it is a conventionally aggressive ‘man of honour’ that she wishes she were: ‘O God that I were a man! I would eat his [Claudio's] heart in the market place.’ (This echo of Beatrice's scornful offer in 1.1 to eat anyone Benedick killed in war is awkward.) Perhaps Beatrice's wish ‘to be a man’ reflects a self-denigrating accommodation to the idea of male superiority; more likely it is simply an outraged recognition of the way things are. Though something of the feminist that Ellen Terry, truly a feminist and perhaps the greatest of Beatrices, praised her for being, Beatrice is of her class and day. Occasionally her statements have connotations that time has made more radical than the character.

This tug of motives dictates the strategy of her wittiest remarks, which mock conventional ideas, especially those on the role of women, by appealing to conventional sources that usually support those ideas. The strategy allows for both the thrust and the drawing back that comprise irony. Beatrice, still ‘orthodox’ in objection, will not marry because Adam's sons are her brothers and she refuses to violate the Anglican Table of Affinity by a ‘match in [her] kindred’.

Inevitably, we take Beatrice's wittiest remarks less seriously than those—such as her sharp thrusts at Benedick in the first scene—in which the balance tips from ingenuity toward scorn. Her manifestos of bachelorhood come from too lively and sexually inclusive a sensibility not to undermine themselves, at least in that historical context. She proposes to remain single because of the imperfections of men. But she concludes by acknowledging that, like Adam's sons, she too is a kind of valiant dust, so her demand for male perfection is suspect. The acceptance of mutual imperfection, necessary to sustained love, is already implicit in her continuing interest in Benedick, despite his past errors. Before the play ends that acceptance becomes explicit. ‘For which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?’ Benedick asks in 5.2. ‘For them all together’, Beatrice replies.

In phrases like ‘valiant dust’ and ‘wayward marl’, with the amusing metaphysical upset of noun by adjective, and the repetitions that suggest opulent verbal resources, Beatrice's wit comes close to Benedick's. Freud's Jokes and the Unconscious reworks traditional distinctions between humour and satire as distinctions between innocent and tendentious wit. Humour, Freud argues, has no reformist tendency, accepting its nominal object as it is. Misogynist jokes are an attractive store of wit to some of those otherwise underendowed who would regret losing them through changes in the condition of women, even though they might welcome those changes. Jokes generate a minor interest in their survival somewhat apart from their social origins or social effects. Shakespeare makes us aware that Benedick, who is not underendowed, has none the less assumed misogyny as a persona, in part as a thematic aid to his wit. When solicited for an opinion of Hero, he asks Claudio, ‘Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgement, or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?’ Apparently Benedick thinks himself capable of providing true judgements of women apart from his ‘tyrannical’ comic turn. Yet when Claudio asks him to speak ‘in sober judgement’, he does not. His negative portrait of Hero is a wit-cracker's set-piece directed not at her intellect, where a charge of mediocrity might have held, but at her physical appearance—against the evidence of the play. Benedick's mask of misogyny is evidently difficult to remove, a telling observation. His consciousness of his self-division, acknowledged in the mocking word ‘tyrant’, is small excuse, though it does prepare us for his later turnabout.

Anyone fed up with girl-friend, wife, and mother-in-law jokes will no doubt bridle at the notion that Benedick's wit is self-protective and largely of the ‘innocent’ sort. It takes the rapid elegance of a Gielgud or the brio of a Sinden to focus attention on Benedick's language as adroit performance rather than on its social implications. But marriage and Beatrice are as much its occasions as its targets. It is a rhetoric of masked fear, and it flourishes where there is no opposition to query it, as in soliloquy or in the extended treatment of a single subject to which there is no reply; otherwise it would collapse at once. Beatrice, however, is at her best in contention, and always victorious.

Typical of Benedick's good moments are his ingenious variations on the theme of Beatrice's attacks on him. His exotic offers to go to the ends of the earth to avoid her say less about Beatrice than about Shakespeare's store of picturesque allusion. None of this lessens our (or Benedick's) admiration of the lady who can inspire such distinguished nonsense. What gives the game away—in addition to Benedick's sheer extravagance—is his repetition of Beatrice's description of him as ‘duller than a great thaw’. The comparison is suggestively different in its homeliness, yet so much in his own vein of witty metaphor that he cherishes it verbatim.

Most innocent of his ‘innocent’ witticisms is an exemplary sentence in Benedick's soliloquy after the deception: ‘When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.’ The gentle self-mockery of this verbal sleight suggests how Benedick's tyranny to women is to be taken. When his guard is down Benedick reveals a saving modesty. Beatrice is wise, he says, ‘but for loving me’. This prepares for the self-questioning in his question to Beatrice: ‘Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?’ Knowing what the audience knows, the question must seem naïve, but it shows why Benedick has no need of the tendentious and reformist strategies of Beatrice's wit. Frustration and disadvantage are obviously not his themes.

Yet ‘language is always a matter of force; to speak is to exercise a will for power; in the realm of speech there is no innocence’—so Barthes observed.21 Finally Benedick's wit rests on the self-serving clichés of male victim and persecuting virago. These are, however, qualified by the intimation that they are not deeply held, and mask both his fear of marriage and an attraction to Beatrice so great as to need disguising, especially from Benedick himself.

Another strain of wit in Much Ado deflects its social implications almost as well as does Benedick's. Dogberry's rationales for avoiding police duties are impeccable: contact with criminals defiles, and so the police should avoid it; only those subject to police jurisdiction may be arrested, so those who refuse arrest are obviously not subject to it. This logic recalls Beatrice's strategy for marshalling conventional morality and legalism to mock both. Dogberry's physical prudence is matched by his judicial caution. Of Conrad and Borachio, by now clearly guilty, he says that they are ‘little better’ than false knaves, or at least ‘will go near’ to being thought so (italics mine). The Dogberry scenes are hardly intended to prompt reform, and Dogberry droll is only perfected by being also Dogberry insufferable. What he is and his not knowing what he is flatters the observer, and for a moment rights the social balance. The presence of the Watch alone is proof that crime does not pay in Messina.

The almost constant wittiness of Much Ado—even Conrad and Borachio execute multiple puns as they are led off by the Watch—has been judged a defect, making Messina a cold and artificial place where what Johnson called the ‘reciprocation of smartness’ seems to some critics to dampen authentic passion and justify cruel remarks. It is difficult to convey cleverness as an index to feeling, and actors sometimes manage only half the task, in itself a considerable achievement. Yet read backwards from the moment when Beatrice and Benedick are alone after the denunciation of Hero, Much Ado hardly fits the charge. Moreover, as Rossister22 observes, ‘It is a notable point in Shakespeare's contrivance that he gives both wits their off-day, as soon as love [which Rossiter sees begun only after the deception scenes] has disturbed their freedom.’ It is only a step to recognizing earlier connections between wit and love. The wit serves as shield against vulnerability; when the shield is less needed, it can be lowered.

Like Dogberry, Beatrice and Benedick are vain of their wit. Wit is their mode of being and since it allows so epicurean a response to life, evidently something of a raison d'être. Through their rhetoric we come to know a great deal about Beatrice and Benedick, especially about their self-deceptions and vulnerability. Their instant capitulation to the plots to unite them is a sure-fire cliché of comedy, but nonetheless psychologically sound. We learn just enough about their earlier estrangement to make sense of this mutual capitulation in their ‘merry war’.

Explaining his determination not to marry Beatrice (but how did marriage to her pop up on his agenda? or to him on hers?), Benedick says that ‘She would have made Hercules have turned spit …’. Is this fear of domination only another patriarchal conceit? The context here is the story of Hercules' three years' expiatory bondage with Omphale. (Benedick unwittingly states not only his fears but his guilt.) Yet Beatrice seeks no expiation. For all her condemnation of Benedick's male alliances, Beatrice is also solicitous of them. When the need to right the wrong done Hero arises in 4.1, Beatrice answers Benedick's question, ‘May a man do it?’ with ‘It is a man's office, but not yours.’ I do not think that Beatrice's answer turns only on Benedick's extra-familial status. Not until the two have made their mutual declarations of love and she has a right to assume that Benedick's alliance with Claudio is now secondary is she free to say ‘Kill Claudio’. But such alliances are not broken in an instant. To Beatrice's credit she persists after Benedick's initial refusal, and to his credit he soon recognizes the absoluteness of the new commitment he has made.

For all their sophistication, the most likely cause of their obscure earlier difficulties is a common one, consistent with the text: a woman ready for marriage, a man for courtship. Yet the two continued to care for each other as is indicated by the mutual resistance it requires all their wit to sustain. Most of Benedick's wit has this resistance as its obvious theme; Beatrice's confession of love in 4.1 barely pierces an armour-plate of equivocation. But if words obscure their love, words—their matched sonnets—finally reveal it. Their resistance breached, what we know of them promises the self-completion that comes from mutual acceptance.23 In this lies their difference from Hero and Claudio who, as Joan Rees observed, ‘seem to have no principle of growth in them’.24


The two pairs of brothers, Don Pedro and Don John, Leonato and Antonio, are as ingeniously differentiated as the two pairs of lovers: Don Pedro and Don John noble and powerful bachelors with no significant age difference, both of them initiators of spectacle and intrigue, assured, intelligent and formal in speech, at odds—one apparently trusting, the other full of the dangerous discontent attributed to illegitimacy; Leonato and Antonio both apparently widowers, privileged but in a lesser sphere, older and with a pronounced age difference between them, slightly inept and provincial in manner, deferential and unable to act as they would like, eloquent but in an old-fashioned idiom, mutually supportive and loyal.

Shakespeare evidently wasted little thought on the names themselves. Leonato he inherited from Bandello; Antonio is Shakespeare's common name for fathers or father figures. In any case, he abandoned Q's ‘Old Man’ only when it became useful to do so. In the speech-prefixes Don John is plain English, as was Don Peter (Bandello's King Piero) before Shakespeare Hispanicized the name.

Leonato and Don Pedro are the significant members of the two pairs. Antonio is necessary as brotherly support and intensifier; a younger man could not have served these ends. Confronting Claudio and Don Pedro alone in 5.1, Leonato would have elicited a pathos Shakespeare thought undesirable; or so the caricature dialogue for Antonio seems to demonstrate. Antonio's description of errant youth is yesterday's Letter to the Editor, doubly amusing if Antonio were played by a boy, as was quite possible. Elsewhere he is a convenient voice for exposition, as in 1.2; and in the ball scene exchange with Ursula for some of the geriatric humour that Shakespeare had used in Richard II.

Don John is necessary but not important; his fate and nature are clear at once. Defeated rivals for power had no future, as Machiavelli and the history plays demonstrated, and Don John's illegitimacy is as much a marker as Hero's name. Although we do not learn of it until 4.1, Shakespeare's speech-prefixes show what was uppermost in his conception of the character. Don John is a plausible, ‘plain-dealing villain’, something he tells us ‘must not be denied’. The actor is helped to create the proper effect by portentous runs of monosyllables like, ‘I know not that when he knows what I know’, spoken just before Don John slanders Hero. There is a sturdiness in his determination to ‘claw no man in his humour’, but a sinister undertone in the violence of ‘claw’, which in this context should mean ‘stroke gently as if to placate’. Just the sight of him gives Beatrice heartburn. John Russell Brown relates how the Prospect Company's 1970 production of the play in Edinburgh dealt with the villain.25 Don John was brought onstage at the very end and shot by Don Pedro just before the jolly command, ‘Strike up, pipers.’

Don Pedro himself is another matter: legitimate, triumphant, honourable, helpful, well-spoken—if rather formally so—and on occasion humorous. Yet his share in the denunciation of Hero, his proxy courtship, his stage-management of the deceptions, his trial offers of a husband to Beatrice—all these add up to a less competent figure than his entrance or the sources promise. Much Ado ends with Don Pedro, like his brother, an odd man out.

Shakespeare often dissociates power from sexual intimacy and makes the point in plays as different as 1 Henry IV and Antony and Cleopatra. But Don Pedro is not as limited a personality as a Henry IV or an Octavius and in Much Ado the point is made in a way that suggests loss rather than tacit choice or native coldness. His ‘Will you have me, lady?’ in 2.1 may be interpreted as only a light-hearted rejoinder, but Beatrice is taking no chances. Yet Don Pedro's later declaration that, were Beatrice interested, he would have ‘doffed all other respects and made her half [him]self’ can be spoken truly, even though it is intended for the eavesdropping Benedick.

More revealing is Don Pedro's readiness to ‘win’ Hero for Claudio. Neither Claudio's youth nor the political importance of the alliance are invoked overtly in the play as reasons for Don Pedro's offer. The possibility that Don Pedro woos for himself is taken seriously by Leonato and by Benedick, as well as by Claudio. When Benedick's rather callous hints draw an explanation from Don Pedro, his ‘I will but teach them to sing, and restore them to the owner’ suggests that the Prince, if unwittingly, may be doing something more than eliciting a simple yes.26 At the ball Don Pedro's ambiguous introduction of himself to Hero as ‘your friend’ sets a flirtatious tone she then maintains and he does nothing to correct. Hero has every reason to believe that the Prince is approaching her on his own behalf.

Yet Shakespeare's handling of the Don Pedro-Hero material is not loose or careless. The speech that ends 1.1 is further evidence of a strategy to cloud intention. Don Pedro tells Claudio that he will ‘assume thy part’, ‘tell fair Hero I am Claudio’, and ‘take her hearing prisoner’ with his ‘amorous tale’, all of which seems uncomfortably like an anagram of Don John's later deception. Don Pedro's efforts to help his juniors are to his credit, but some lack in him feeds vicariously on the courtships of the four lovers. This is preferable to his brother's preying on them as ‘medicinable’ to his ‘sick … displeasure’. Yet against the glitter of the double wedding the figure of the Prince can seem rather sad.

Leonato is more recognizably literary (an echo of Kyd's anguished elders), more commonplace (the stock father of a marriageable stock daughter), and more surprising (a father who immediately accepts his daughter's guilt). There is a congenial side to Leonato, who can address the Watch as ‘friend’ and ‘neighbour’, appreciate Beatrice, forgive Margaret, and raise a laugh at the end with his vain effort to ensure that his daughter is safely off his hands before the dancing begins. He can make a snappy reply in 1.1 to Benedick's uncalled-for query about cuckolding, but this is the familiar men's-club topic and everyone knows the jokes. Yet in the deception of Benedick Leonato's awkward turning to others when he cannot think of useful lies is amusing.

The rest is unpleasant senex. Leonato's welcome to Don Pedro is sycophantic. The rhetoric of Elizabethan formal greeting of superiors was sycophantic, but here the excess is underlined by the Prince's dry response: ‘You embrace your charge too willingly’. Later in 1.1, the Prince tells Claudio and Benedick that he has told Leonato they will stay in Messina at least a month, and that Leonato ‘heartily prays some occasion may detain us longer’. This is said in Leonato's presence, and whether delivered as an intended small cruelty or as matter of fact, reflects well on no one. Such entertainments were a notorious burden.

Leonato's response to Hero's distress is a disaster. Treating her as an appendage, he has little sense of Hero as a person, hence nothing of Beatrice's—or even the Friar's—grounds for thinking Hero innocent. Leonato depends on what he thinks he knows, that princes and counts are men of honour and women sexually unreliable. When Claudio has finished his accusations, Leonato wonders why no one has stabbed him, wishes Hero dead, regrets her birth and nurture, insists that two princes would not lie, rebukes the Friar, relents only when Benedick accuses Don John, then claims he will avenge Hero and boasts of his wealth, strength, friends, and ‘policy of mind’. His last speech in the scene insists on the extremity of his grief. This theme is congenial; he elaborates it in a thirty-line speech at the start of 5.1. It is as though Shakespeare were determined to forestall audience sympathy for him. Leonato's confrontation of Claudio and Don Pedro later in that scene goes some way to redeeming him, but in the offer of another bride to a chastened Claudio, Leonato as a character succumbs to the necessities of the romantic plot.

Clearly, such speeches as Leonato's are as little to the modern taste as the attitudes they express. Productions generally trim them. However, Shakespeare's audiences enjoyed grand declamation and sententious wisdom. The tawdriness of what grand declamation could express, here as in Hamlet, must not have been lost on the author or on the ‘wiser sort’. But the primary implications of Leonato's speeches are ideological rather than literary. The deliberate organization of the negative reactions to Hero emphasizes their common misogynist premisses. Against an indifferent Don John, a benighted, self-centred Leonato, and both Claudio and Don Pedro, Shakespeare poises Beatrice, a humane Friar—remote from gender alignments yet a male, hence authoritative voice—and a Benedick slowly able to believe in the criminality of a prince and, later, in a close friend's outrageous behaviour, inexcusable though the friend has been duped.


Ursula and Margaret, and Conrad, Borachio, and Balthasar have in common their consciousness of social position. Ursula ‘knows her place’ and forgets it only once; Margaret cannot forget hers and would like to leave it. Conrad insists he is a gentleman; Borachio is critical of gilded youth and reveals qualities above his conspiratorial calling; Balthasar is a minor retainer whose forte is apology for being less than he thinks he ought to be.

To Hero, Ursula and Margaret are Ursley and Meg. The homely English intimate forms suggest an easy-going relationship between a young mistress and what, despite the title of ‘gentlewoman’, were essentially upper servants. (The social origins and social prospects of gentlewomen were various, as the Marias and Helens in Shakespeare's plays can testify. In effect, their title was a reflection of the rank of their mistresses. A suggestive modern analogy is the notion of ‘assimilated rank’ given temporarily to certain civilians on military assignment during wartime.)

Ursula and Margaret are rough parallels of Hero and Beatrice; Ursula apparently the more sober of the two, less imaginative and less articulate. Oddly, it is Ursula who is the more active in helping Hero in the deception of Beatrice. Claudio states in 3.2 that it was Hero and Margaret who ‘played their parts with Beatrice’. This accords with the ingenious character of Margaret. Perhaps making Ursula Hero's co-conspirator was a simple error, perhaps a mis-step taken in an effort to balance two minor roles.

Both women fetch and carry for their betters. The contrast lies in social attitudes. Ursula seems to have accommodated herself to her place; not so Margaret. At the masked ball, Ursula partners old Antonio, saying that she knows him by his dry hand and tremor. Antonio denies his age. When Ursula persists, he becomes testy. She backs off at once, prudently admiring Antonio's wit. Dressing Hero for the wedding, Margaret criticizes her mistress's rebato. Hero, for once, rebukes her sharply. Margaret mollifies her mistress by praising Hero's new head-dress but, unhappy in retreat, risks wishing the ‘tire’ were ‘a thought browner’.

Margaret is one of a trio of aspiring gentlewomen Shakespeare created—all of them sympathetically—at about the same time. Margaret is less fortunate than either Maria in Twelfth Night, who marries Sir Toby Belch, or Helen in All's Well, who is presented as at once manipulative and submissive. Like Helen and Maria, Margaret is a woman of superior intelligence and wit and, like Helen, she can be frank, though at times also tasteless and ill-considered about sexual matters. Indeed, Shakespeare seems to pit Margaret's innuendos in 3.4 and elsewhere against Hero's prudish reticence in order to locate Beatrice's views on sex as a proper mean. But Margaret's situation is hopeless. During the exchange that opens 5.2, Benedick praises Margaret's wit and beauty, but when she asks if she will always ‘keep below stairs’ for want of a proper husband, he provides more compliments but no reply. In addition to coveting status obtainable only through a husband, Margaret covets pretty things. Her description of the Duchess of Milan's gown is detailed and enthusiastic; her opinions on ‘rebatos’ and ‘tires’ have the assurance of envious observation. Such a Margaret would have been delighted to serve unwittingly in Borachio's plot, playing the engaged heiress and in her mistress's gown. Leonato's forbearance toward her is gracious, but it consigns Margaret, as before, to living below stairs on grace and favour. In the last scene she says nothing. Perhaps she should not be present at the wedding at all, but the scene would be poorer without her pathetic silence.

Margaret's unwillingness to take up with Balthasar is to her credit. Balthasar emerges from Shakespeare's early false starts with possible relatives for Leonato (see the Textual Introduction below). Balthasar apparently becomes a member of Don Pedro's retinue. His precise social status is unclear, but he seems to have aristocratic pretensions, or so commentators conclude from his disclaimers of musical ability before he sings in 2.3. Such disclaimers follow the advice of Castiglione, among others, against being vain of talents for which one can hire clerks and fiddlers. But Balthasar's disclaimers are so excessive as to be ludicrous; hence Don Pedro's punning rebuke.

There is no reason to disbelieve Benedick's comparison of Balthasar's singing to a dog's howling. Benedick is hidden and has no one on stage to amuse. In a neat comic manœuvre Shakespeare has Don Pedro respond to this criticism by addressing Balthasar as though Benedick were not in hiding: ‘Yea, marry, dost thou hear, Balthasar? I pray thee get us some excellent music’ for serenading Hero, clearly a rebuke. Balthasar's talent is apparently too small to warrant so great a disclaimer. If he sings again in 5.3, he can be neutralized by other voices. There is some slight evidence that this may have been the case. The attribution of the song at 5.3.12 is Dover Wilson's; Q has only the introductory title ‘Song’. Margaret's rejection of Balthasar during their turn at the ball prepares for this comedy; his first words to her are the pathetic, ‘Well, I would you did like me’.

Don John's tools, Conrad and Borachio—after the Spanish for wine-flask—are a complementary pair. Conrad functions as an ear for Don John's complaints in 1.3 and for Borachio's commentary in 3.3. His birth under Saturn presumably induced the sullen manner that sets off Borachio's tipsy energy. Conrad's initial advice to his master is intelligent and moderate, but his loyalty, ‘To the death, my lord’, has no reservations. Beyond this, his behaviour in resisting the Watch at the end of 4.2 shows him more pugnacious than Borachio, and when aroused by Dogberry's ‘sirrah’, Conrad insists that he is a gentleman, another marker for Messina's social dimension.

Borachio is more interesting. His response when called to account in 5.1 is full acceptance of his guilt: ‘Yea, even I alone’, and a generously specific exoneration of Margaret. His insistence on paying for his villainy with his death recalls his earlier moralizing on the subject of fashion. There is a hint of the déclassé in the attitudes and circumstances of both Conrad and Borachio. Like Margaret, Borachio is one of a group of related characters Shakespeare created within a few years of one another. With Falstaff, Sir Toby, and Michael Cassio, Borachio is a difficult alcoholic; the others have fallen socially or are in the course of doing so. In his case alone (Sir Toby is universally incontinent) is drink made the central attribute, and so something of an explanation for his circumstances. In Shakespeare and the Experience of Love Arthur Kirsch details the sacred allusions in Borachio's speech to baptism, redemption, and idolatry.27 The passage has been cut or played as merely tipsy chatter, but Kirsch is right about the seriousness of the moment. It is a brief lifting of the curtain on a possibly unelected anguish different from the self-chosen unhappiness of love and politics elsewhere in the play.

Borachio's strictures against that ‘deformed thief’ Fashion in 3.3 were conventional, and would have have elicited agreement. The application of those strictures to both sexes precludes misogynist inferences from the discussion of women's fashions in the scene that follows.

The Textual Introduction below discusses the logistics and individuation of the Watch, whose prime figures are Dogberry and Verges. ‘Dogberry’ can refer to either the red European dogwood or to its berry, or it can be an excremental metaphor. Verges may refer to the ‘verge’ or staff of office, and ‘verjuice’, the sour-tasting juice of unripe fruit such as grapes. The names suggest the hearty ordinariness and the ‘verjuice face’ (OED sb. 2b cites the phrase from Marston's 1598 Scourge of Villainy), respectively of the popular comic actors Will Kemp and Richard Cowley (see Commentary 4.2.1, 2). Dogberry provides Verges with sufficient occasion for sourness. The Watch appears in the nick of time, and Borachio's slightly vain observation that ‘what your wisdoms could not uncover these shallow fools have brought to light’ becomes a sobering mockery of comedy's artifice of Utopian endings.

Amusing as he is, Dogberry is also arrogant, smug, and sycophantic. His patronizing of Verges is dismaying as well as sadistically funny. When Leonato ironically praises Dogberry for his superior wit, Dogberry's delicately modest, ‘Gifts that God gives’, is delicious. The Dogberryism from whose practical consequences its fictionality protects us is recognizably one of the nastier faces of minor authority. Yet Dogberry's confident, unearned jollity is something like the wonderfully cosseted omnipotence of infancy. What need for such vanities as reading and writing? All one needs is to be ‘a rich fellow enough’ with ‘two gowns and everything handsome about [one]’. Is there perhaps an explanatory personal survival hinted at in Dogberry's proud reference to his ‘losses’ and in his surprising and funny response with the traditional beggar's thanks, ‘God save the foundation’, when Leonato gives him money?

Finally, the roles of Messenger and Friar fix the moral boundaries of male Messina even more clearly than do more important characters such as Don John and Benedick. The Messenger begins the play with news of victory, but he defines a formal, hierarchical male world in which birth, rank, and military prowess are of supreme importance, and a common soldier counts for nothing, even in death. At the opposite end of male moral possibility is the Friar, urging moderation, reason, and faith, but within the bounds of custom. That this requires yet another lie is a sombre qualification, as is (feminists would insist), his vow of celibacy.


In his Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama, Richard Levin has a detailed analysis of the formal connections between the two plots of Much Ado.28 The Hero-Claudio courtship is initiated by Don Pedro, who also proposes the deception to unite Beatrice and Benedick. Hero and Claudio help in the deception, and in the last act their evidence finally seals the match. The crisis in both plots occurs at almost the same point for it is the plight of Hero after the denunciation that leads Beatrice and Benedick to their declarations of love. Moreover, Benedick's commitment to Beatrice and her acceptance of him are predicated in part on his understanding of Claudio's behaviour. Without the intervention of the Watch, of course, neither marriage might have taken place.

In addition to these causal connections, the two plots are bound by formal devices, the most important of which are the variant scenes of deception and ‘noting’, deliberate eavesdropping or casual overhearing. Leonato and Antonio receive a false idea of Don Pedro's intentions toward Hero. Claudio thinks he has overheard proof of Hero's infidelity. Beatrice and Benedick accept without question deceptive (yet not unfounded) accounts of their feelings for one another, and the Watch overhear Conrad and Borachio discussing Don John's plot against Hero and Claudio. The device pervades even details: in 5.1 Don Pedro mishears Benedick's sotto voce challenge to Claudio. These instances of noting occupy the spectrum of possibility: speakers without motive or malice or deliberately deceptive; hearers merely unfortunate in mishearing, naïve, or perverse in interpreting, or—like the Watch—just lucky; and information conveyed that is disastrous or happy in its effect.

The three narrative centres are connected and contrasted by their distinctive social ethos. The Claudio-Hero courtship is conventional, upper-upper-class, and thoroughly serious. These two are handbook personalities caught in a romantic plot. Beatrice and Benedick are a notch lower socially—she no governor's heiress, he no count; both are rather unconventional high-comedy sophisticates with a rather commonplace story. The Watch are predictably farcical low-comedy proles.

Taken together, the lovers exemplify the alternatives of gender behaviour: female passivity and female assertiveness, male control and male concessions to power-sharing. At the end of the play extremes are, however briefly, suspended, or seem to be so: a subdued if not chastened Claudio is on good behaviour that Hero need not assert herself to demand; Beatrice seems only nominally and humorously ‘obedient’, and Benedick may dwindle gracefully to a husband. Fears that his assertiveness in demanding dancing before the wedding may signal a second tyranny seem exaggerated. …


  1. M. Praz, Shakespeare e l'Italia (Florence, 1963), 91: ‘above all, an imaginary city’.

  2. M. L. Ranald, Shakespeare and His Social Context (New York, 1987), ch. 4.

  3. Edited by F. J. Fisher for the Camden Miscellany, 3rd ser., 52 (1936), pp. i-vii, 1-47.

  4. Quoted in L. Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance (Brighton, 1984), 76.

  5. C. T. Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, Conn., 1985), 1-23.

  6. K. Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (1982), ch. 4.

  7. D. Cook, ‘The Very Temple of Delight: The Twin Plots of Much Ado About Nothing’, in A. Colman and A. Hammond (eds.), Poetry and Drama 1570-1700 (1981), 41.

  8. T. W. Craik, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, Scrutiny (1953), 314.

  9. W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (New York, 1962), 518.

  10. R. G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Comedy of Forgiveness (New York, 1965), 108.

  11. Craik, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, 314.

  12. Cook, ‘The Very Temple of Delight’, 35.

  13. R. Berry, On Directing Shakespeare (1977), 71.

  14. J. R. Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (1957), 121.

  15. H. Faucit, On Some of Shakespeare's Characters (Edinburgh, 1885), 376.

  16. As suggested by T. W. Baldwin, The Organization and Personnel of the Shakespearean Company (Princeton, NJ, 1927), 246.

  17. Faucit, On Some of Shakespeare's Characters, 364.

  18. B. Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving (1906), i. 101.

  19. Quoted from B. Fothergill, Mrs. Jordan (1965), 181.

  20. C. Cook, ‘The Sign and Semblance of Her Honour: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado About Nothing’, PMLA (1986), 186-202.

  21. See R. Barthes, in S. Sontag (ed.), A Barthes Reader (1982), 381.

  22. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (1961), 69.

  23. The style of this mutuality may be suggested in a passage from a 1992 Observer interview: ‘[The author and his wife] have a specialized Darby and Joan act all their own, a continuous line in back-chat—mutually solicitous, happily contradictory. You can see that they're sufficient social life for each other most of the time.’ This is what Leonato had in mind when he predicted in 2.1 that if Beatrice and Benedick ‘were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad’.

  24. J. Rees, Shakespeare and the Story (1978), 29.

  25. J. R. Brown, Free Shakespeare (1974), 39.

  26. The sexual overtones of ‘sing’ are clear in the example from Troilus and Cressida cited by Eric Partridge in Shakespeare's Bawdy (1947), 187.

  27. A. Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, 1981), 53.

  28. R. Levin, Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago, 1971), 90-3.

John Wain (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7882

SOURCE: Wain, John. “The Shakespearean Lie-Detector: Thoughts on Much Ado about Nothing.Critical Quarterly 9, no. 1 (spring 1967): 27-42.

[In the following essay, Wain investigates the flaws and the novelistic qualities of Much Ado about Nothing, focusing in particular on the weaknesses of the main plot and the play's verse.]


Much Ado about Nothing is a play that might well halt the critic of Shakespeare in his amble through the plays, in much the same way as Hamlet halts him: a strong, buoyant, uneven piece of work. It could not possibly be called a failure, and yet it could not be described as a total success either. I believe the play has interesting things to tell us about the nature of Shakespeare's impulses as an artist, and in particular about the state of his mind in the closing months of the sixteenth century.

This essay will be concerned mainly with two topics: the play's overwhelmingly prosaic nature, its almost complete lack of the poetry which permeates Shakespearean comedy in general; and its novelistic quality, that drive towards three-dimensional characterization which forces us to stand back and allow the characters, at whatever risk, to come out of their dramatic framework; for both of which I hope to suggest plausible reasons.


To begin with the play's undeniable success. It has always been a great favourite on the stage. If the verses contributed by Leonard Digges to the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems are to be accepted as evidence, and I see no reason why they should not, this play already stood out as one of the most popular in the theatre:

                                        let but Beatrice
And Benedick be seen, lo in a trice
The cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full.

Yet Digges's manner of referring to the play by its sub-plot indicates, thus early, an imbalance that has continued to make itself felt. Much Ado, for all its glitter and pace, does not leave us, either as spectators or readers, with that complete satisfaction, that sense of participating in something perfectly achieved, that we associate with As You Like It or Twelfth Night—and, for that matter, with the earlier Midsummer Night's Dream. In all those plays, Shakespeare has been able to create a unity of mood which encircles and contains the many abrupt changes of tone—changes which a comedy, far more than a tragedy, is apt to invite and to live by. The total effect is of a glittering restlessness subjected to a harmony that governs and enriches. Much Ado lacks this harmony. It belongs, in that respect, with the notoriously fragmented Merchant of Venice.

Still, there is a fascination in the failures or near-misses of a great artist. If we are interested in those works in which he completely succeeds, we cannot help being interested in those in which the success is limited and flawed. And some failures are resplendent. The Romantic poets, we recall, honoured Milton for his failure to carry out in poetry the full range of his Puritan programme. Blake praised him for being ‘of the devil's party without knowing it’. Odd, to praise a great poet for a failure of self-knowledge! Yet that is what we sometimes find ourselves doing with Shakespeare. Like Milton in Paradise Lost—or, more strictly speaking, like Milton in the Romantics' characteristic account of him—he failed to estimate in advance, when blue-printing a work, which parts of it he could warm and illumine with his imagination and which parts would remain obstinately cold and dark.

The parallel with Milton, however, I introduce only to indicate the drift of my argument. It certainly does not hold good in any but superficial respects. For Milton's art, like his biography, shows everywhere the marks of a grand stubbornness. He confronted literary problems as he confronted political ones, by large and extreme solutions, carried through with courage and inflexibility. Cut off the king's head; leave your wife and sue for divorce; plan an immense epic and drive it through like a super-highway. Even in the weakest and dullest parts of Paradise Lost—those passages towards the end where plainly the poem is being heaved along by heroic will-power rather than driven by the immense and flowing urgency that we feel in the opening Books—Milton is still in control, still, though with a painfully visible effort, mastering his materials. Shakespeare is the opposite. As an artist, he is more often commanded by his imagination than commanding it. He is instinctive, spontaneous, lacking in the effrontery which can simulate inspiration in those parts of a large construction where it fails to come naturally. Where Shakespeare fails, he makes no attempt to varnish the failure. He is always doing several things at once, and if he loses interest in one of them, he leaves it frankly as a mock-up. But always for a good reason. He worked at speed, had to make a rapid choice of materials, and when a situation, or a character, fails to come to life under his hand, the fault is rarely—I think, never—the poet's. Some surfaces will not take a mural; some clay resists life; some situations, which looked neat enough in the blue-print, disintegrate under the weight of actuality and energy that Shakespeare cannot help putting into them.

Shakespeare, to put it in a more pedestrian way, was not a good hack-writer. He lacked the unvarying professional skill that can arrange even the poorest material into a pleasing shape, keeping its weaknesses out of sight. When things began to go wrong, he had his own remedy, which was to send even more energy flowing through those parts of the work which he did find congenial. As a result, the typical Shakespearean failure is a play at once lop-sided and brilliant—so brilliant that the lop-sidedness does not keep it from being acted and read.


These general considerations should help us in making our estimate of Much Ado. The comic scenes are warm and genial as well as genuinely funny; the story of Beatrice and Benedick, couched in a dialogue that sparkles like a handful of diamonds, is also a gentle and sympathetic story of how two gifted people are led towards a happiness they were in danger of missing; dramaturgically the play is brilliant, working out with a deft intricacy its major theme. This theme, as usual in Shakespearean comedy, is self-recognition, the journey from confusion to clarity: knowledge of one's own truth, leading to the possibility of happy relationships, symbolized by the multiple wedding and the dance. But in Much Ado this habitual theme is given an original twist, which John Masefield aptly described as ‘the power of report to alter human lives’. All the truths that are discovered, as well as all the lies and fake reports that are spread, are communicated by report. And this anchors the theme of self-recognition firmly to the related theme of social harmony. We form our opinions of ourselves and others always partly, and sometimes largely, on the basis of what other people say. No one quite trusts his own unaided perception of the world. ‘What a beautiful child you have’, says one woman to another. ‘That's nothing’, is the reply, ‘you should see his picture’. When Claudio is denouncing Hero's supposed faithlessness at the altar, he says to her father,

Leonato, stand I here?
Is this the Prince? Is this the Prince's brother?
Is this face Hero's? Are our eyes our own?

The play's answer to that last question is, of course, No. Our nature as human beings is such that we inevitably see as much through other people's eyes as through our own. When Claudio, in the first bitterness of his impression that Don Pedro has robbed him of Hero, says,

Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues;
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And use no agent,

he is asking the impossible. He himself, on first seeing Hero after his return from the wars, has turned to Benedick and asked, with a kind of rapturous anxiety, ‘Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato? … Is she not a modest young lady?’ And, longing to be serious in spite of Benedick's joking, pressed him, ‘I pray thee tell me truly how thou likest her’.

In the same vein is Friar Francis's remark (IV, i) that Claudio's attitude to Hero will change when he hears the report that she is dead; report will do for him what his own unaided perceptions would not:

When he shall hear she died upon his words,
The idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination.

Thus the machinery of this play links up with the cheated-vision symbolism of A Midsummer Night's Dream and also with the clothes-symbolism of Cymbeline; it is an essential Shakespearean preoccupation.

Yet the major deficiency remains. Everything is seen in the dry light and the straight perspective of prose. Poetry—however we define the word—is missing. Except here and there in the turn of some phrase of Beatrice's, the play never approaches it.

Like virtually every play of Shakespeare's, Much Ado is written in a mixture of prose and verse, and one of the first things we notice when we look at it attentively is that the prose is everywhere more memorable and satisfying than the verse, which at its best is workmanlike and vivacious, but never more; and, at its all too frequent worst, weak, monotonous and verbose.

The nature of the malaise is clear enough. The verse is weak because the verse-plot is weak. It was Shakespeare's custom, in comedy, to use a verse-plot alongside a prose-plot. In As You Like It and Twelfth Night, the two are of equal ease and vivacity. As the prose is supple and vivacious, so the verse is springy and memorable; the change from one to another falls on the ear as a delightful variation. It also serves as an aid to the attention. All plays are to some extent written for the first-night audience, and even the Elizabethans, with their quick wits and boundless appetite for complicated intrigue, must have welcomed the decisive difference in idiom which signalled the switch from plot to plot and back again. But in those plays, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream whose moon-lit atmosphere effortlessly embraces a prose-plot and a tight web of three verse-plots, Shakespeare's imagination was equally involved in all parts of the play. In Much Ado, it was not. The verse-plot fails to convince or interest us because it failed similarly with Shakespeare himself.


This, I know, is the conventional view, and recent critics like Graham Storey and John Russell Brown have registered various disagreements with it. Their arguments are ingenious and interesting and I find myself giving assent to them—until the next time I turn back to the play. That spoils everything. The old objections reappear in full force. Shakespeare has fallen into his old trap of beginning to handle a story without realizing that at bottom it simply does not interest him. When the realization comes, it is too late; he is stuck with the intractable material, and, as usual, he gives up any attempt to make it live.

Why did the Hero-and-Claudio plot go so dead on its author? The answer is not easy to find. Because it is not, per se, an unconvincing story. Psychologically, it is real enough. The characters act throughout in consistency with their own natures. Hero, her father Leonato and his brother Antonio, are all perfectly credible. Don John, though he is only briefly sketched and fades out early from the action, is quite convincing in his laconic disagreeableness, a plain-spoken villain who openly wishes others harm. Conrade and Borachio, mere outlines, are at any rate free of inherent contradictions; so is Margaret. None of these characters presents any major difficulty. It begins to look as if the trouble lay somewhere in the presentation of Claudio.

This young man, according to the requirements of the story, has only to be presented as a blameless lover, wronged and misled through no fault of his own; convinced that his love is met with deception and ingratitude, he has no choice but to repudiate the match; later, when everything comes to light, the story requires him to show sincere penitence and willingness to make amends, finally breaking out into joy when his love is restored to him. On the face of it, there seems to be no particular difficulty. But Shakespeare goes about it, from the start, in a curiously left-handed fashion. First we have the business of the wooing by proxy. Claudio confesses to Don Pedro his love for Hero, and Don Pedro at once offers, without waiting to be asked, to take advantage of the forthcoming masked ball to engage the girl's attention, propose marriage while pretending to be Claudio, and then speak to her father on his behalf. It is not clear why he feels called upon to do this, any more than it is clear why Claudio, a Florentine, should address Don Pedro, a Spaniard, as ‘my liege’ and treat him as a feudal overlord. Doubtless we are supposed to assume that he is in Don Pedro's service. It is all part of the donnée. There cannot be much difference in age between them, and Don Pedro is represented throughout as a young gallant, of age to be a bridegroom himself.

The scene is perfunctory, and carries little conviction; it seems to have been written with only half Shakespeare's attention. Why, otherwise, would he make Claudio bring up the topic with the unfortunate question, ‘Hath Leonato any son, my lord?’ as if his motives were mercenary. Don Pedro seems to fall in with this suggestion when he replies at once that ‘she's his only heir’. This is unpromising, but worse is to come. Immediately after the conversation between them, we have a short scene (I, ii) whose sole purpose seems to be to provide the story with an extra complication—one which, in fact, is never taken up or put to any use. Antonio seeks out his brother Leonato; he has overheard a fragment of the dialogue between Claudio and Don Pedro, and evidently the wrong fragment, so that he believes the prince intends to woo Hero on his account. Leonato wisely says that he will believe this when he sees it; ‘we will hold it as a dream till it appear itself’; but he does say that he will tell Hero the news, ‘that she may be better prepared for an answer’. Apart from confusing the story, the episode serves only to provide an awkward small problem for the actress who plays Hero. When, in the masked-ball scene in II, i, she finds herself dancing with Don Pedro, and he begins at once to speak in amorous tones, is she supposed to know who he is? Since she has been told that Don Pedro intends to woo her, she can hardly fail to guess that he will seek her out; presumably she is ready to be approached by him; does she intend to consent? There is no coldness or refusal in her tone, no hint of disappointment at not being approached by Claudio; she is merely gay and deft in her answers. It is a small, obstinate problem that is in any case hardly worth solving; on the stage, most producers cut out the scene where Antonio makes his mistake, and this is certainly what I should do myself. But it is hardly a good beginning.

Claudio is then convinced, by the unsupported assertion of Don John, that the prince has doubled-crossed him, that he made his offer merely to get Claudio to hold back while he went after the girl himself. If Claudio were a generous character we should expect him to put up some resistance to the story; he might say something like, ‘I have the prince's own word for it that he would act on my behalf; we have been comrades in arms, he wishes me well and I trust him; I know him better than to believe he would stoop to this’. In fact, he believes the story straight away, with a depressing, I-might-have-known-it alacrity.

’Tis certain so; the Prince woos for himself.
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love;
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues.
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.
This is an accident of hourly proof,
Which I mistrusted not. Farewell, therefore, Hero.

Benedick, who has heard the rumour and sees no reason to disbelieve it, now enters and tells Claudio the unwelcome news again, in no very gentle manner; when Claudio goes off to nurse his grievance, Benedick looks after him with ‘Alas, poor hurt fowl! Now will he creep into sedges’. This, though unconcernedly genial, is a contempt-image: Claudio has no more spirit than a dabchick.

At the next general muster of the characters (II, i) Claudio appears with a sour expression that makes Beatrice describe him as ‘civil [Seville] as an orange’, an image that later recurs in his bitter speech of renunciation at the altar (‘Give not this rotten orange to your friend’). When the misunderstanding is abruptly removed, and he is sudenly thrust into the knowledge that Hero is his after all, he is understandably speechless and has to be prompted by Beatrice, who, like Benedick, seems to have a slightly contemptuous attitude towards him.

Claudio is now launched on felicity, yet he has so far been given no memorable lines, has shown no gaiety or wit, and we know nothing about him except that he has a tendency to believe the worst about human nature. He has been brave in battle—offstage, before the story opens—but all we have seen is the poor hurt fowl creeping into sedges. Why Shakespeare treated him like this, when it was important to win the audience's sympathy for such a central character, I cannot say. But it is clear that, for whatever reason, Shakespeare found him unattractive. Already the altar scene, at which Claudio must behave with cold vindictiveness, is casting its shadow before.

The trick is played; the victims are planted, the charade is acted out, Don Pedro and Claudio believe that Hero is false and vicious. What, one wonders for the second time, would be the reaction of a generous young man, with decent feelings and a tender heart? There are several possibilities; he could seek out the man who had stepped into his place and challenge him to a duel; or he could take horse and gallop out of town within that hour, leaving the wedding-party to assemble without him and the girl to make her own explanations. What he actually does is to get as far as the altar and then launch into a high-pitched tirade in which he not only denounces Hero but sees to it that her father is made to suffer as much as possible.

In all this, there is no psychological improbability. Such a youth would in all likelihood behave just in this way, especially if he were a Renaissance nobleman, touchy about his honour. Claudio's basic insecurity, already well demonstrated in the play, would naturally come out in vindictiveness if he thought himself cheated. The story, qua story, is perfectly credible. The reason we do not believe it is simply that it is put into an artificial idiom. If Shakespeare had told this story in the same swift, concrete, realistic prose with which he presented the story of Beatrice and Benedick, it would be perfectly convincing. But he has, for some reason, written consistently poor verse for the characters to speak, mishandled the details (we will come to that in a moment), and in general made such a poor job of it that everyone feels a blessed sense of relief when Leonato, Friar Francis and Hero take their departure, and the stage is left to Beatrice and Benedick. How reviving it is, to the spirits and the attention, to drop from the stilted heights of Friar Francis's verse, full of lines like

For to strange sores strangely they strain the cure,

to the directness and humanity of

—Lady Beatrice, have you wept all this while?
—Yea, and I will weep a while longer.

The tinsel and the crape hair are laid aside with the attitudinizing and the clumping verse; we are back in the real world of feeling. Shakespeare obviously shares this relief. His writing, in this wonderful scene in which Benedick and Beatrice admit their love, has the power and speed of an uncoiling spring.

But to come back to Claudio. His vindictiveness towards Hero and her father is not in the least unconvincing; it springs from exactly that self-mistrust and poor-spiritedness which we, and some of the other characters in the play, have already noticed. The question is, why are they there? Why does Shakespeare give this kind of character to Claudio, when he could easily have made him more sympathetic?

The answer, as so often, lies in the exigencies of the plot. Claudio has to humiliate Hero publicly, has to strike an all but killing blow at her gentle nature, for the same reason that Leontes has to do these things to Hermione. In each case, the woman has to be so emotionally shattered that she swoons and is later given out as dead. So that Shakespeare had no alternative but to bring the whole party to the altar and let Claudio renounce his bride before the world. This, I believe, is the central spot of infection from which the poison pumped outwards. Having to make Claudio behave in this way, Shakespeare could feel no affection for him. And he had, as I remarked earlier, no gift for pretending. If he disliked a character, one of two things happened. Either, as in the case of Isabella in Measure for Measure, his pen simply ran away with him, providing more and more repulsive things for the character to say; or it refused to work at all. In Much Ado it was the second of these two fates that befell Shakespeare. As the play went on, he must have come to dread those scenes in which he would have to introduce Claudio. It became harder and harder to think of anything to make him say. Perfectly good opportunities presented themselves and were refused; he just could not try hard. The Shakespearean lie-detector was at work.

Think, for instance, of the closing scenes of the play's last act. Claudio, however heartless he may have been, has here several golden opportunities to redeem himself. Shakespeare has only to show him as genuinely penitent, give him some convincing lines to say, and we shall begin to feel sorry for him, to look forward with pleasure to the time when his happiness is restored. In fact, nothing of the kind happens. In spite of the harm done to the play by Shakespeare's true opinion of Claudio, he cannot help showing that opinion. In the scene (V, i) where he and Don Pedro are confronted by Leonato and Antonio, he appears as having disengaged himself, emotionally, from the whole situation.

DON Pedro.
Nay, do not quarrel with us, good old man.
If he could right himself with quarrelling,
          Some of us would lie low.
Who wrongs him?

An unfortunate question from one in his position; and it would be difficult, to say the least, for an actor to speak it in a tone of kindly innocence. It comes out inevitably with a hard, sneering edge.

That scene develops interestingly, bearing out the view that the story in itself was not repugnant to Shakespeare; he found plenty of interest in it. Antonio, a very minor character whose general function in the play is simply to feed the plot, suddenly comes to life in this scene. Leonato, knowing that his daughter is not really dead yet unable to keep down his anger at the sight of the two smooth young gallants who have brought such sorrow on his grey hairs, begins to rail at Claudio and the prince, whereupon Antonio, catching his mood and feeling it more deeply—for we have no reason to suppose that he is in the secret—begins to rage and threaten, becoming more and more beside himself while his brother, alarmed at the passion his own words have set in motion, plucks at his sleeve with ‘Brother—’ and ‘But, brother Antony—’. ‘Do not you meddle; let me deal with this’, cries the enraged old gentleman. The whole tiny episode is splendidly alive and convincing. But that life does not reach as far as Claudio. He says nothing until the two old men withdraw and Benedick comes onstage. Then he at once begins his accustomed teasing. He has it firmly in his head that Benedick is there to provide sport, either by his own wit or by providing a target for the infinitely more clumsy jokes that occur to himself or Don Pedro. Lightly dismissing the grief and anger of the previous encounter with, ‘We had lik'd to have had our two noses snapp'd off with two old men without teeth’, he challenges Benedick to a wit-contest, and in spite of Benedick's fierce looks and reserved manner, goes clumping on with jokes about ‘Benedick the married man’ until he is brought up sharply by an unmistakable insult followed by a challenge. He can hardly ignore this, but his is a mind that works simply and cannot entertain more than one idea at a time. He can change, when something big enough happens to make him change, but he cannot be supple, cannot perceive shifts in mood. Even after Benedick has challenged him, he cannot get it clear that the time for teasing is over; he keeps it up, woodenly enough, right up to Benedick's exit. So unshakable is his conviction that Benedick equals mirth and sport.

Psychologically this is exactly right. Shakespeare saw clearly what kind of person Claudio would have to be, if he were to behave in the way called for by the plot. What depressed him, inhibiting his mind and causing him to write badly, was the iron necessity of making such a man—cold, proud, self-regarding, inflexible—the hero of the main story in the play.

We see this more and more clearly as the last act unfolds. In Scene iii, when Claudio, accompanied by the prince and ‘three or four with tapers’, comes to do penance at Hero's tomb, Shakespeare shies away from the task of putting words into his mouth. Instead, he makes the scene a short formal inset; Claudio recites a few stiff, awkward rhymes and then a song is sung. The song has merit; the scene, lit by tapers and with a dramatic solemnity, is effective on the stage; but Shakespeare has missed the chance of bringing Claudio nearer to a humanity that would help us to feel for him. It is too late for that; the case is hopeless.

The characters then go home (evidently they are no longer houseguests at Leonato's) and put on ‘other weeds’ for the marriage of Claudio and the supposed daughter of Antonio, which he has agreed to with the words,

I do embrace your offer, and dispose
For henceforth of poor Claudio.

Arriving there, they find Benedick waiting with Leonato. Incredible as it may seem, Claudio again begins his clumsy pleasantries about Benedick's marriage (‘we'll tip thy horns with gold’, etc. etc.). Neither the challenge, nor the sobering effect of the occasion, nor the fact that he is newly come from the tomb of Hero, can make him forget that Benedick's presence is the signal for an outbreak of joshing. Shakespeare knows that this is the kind of man he is, and with his curious compulsive honesty he cannot help sharing that knowledge with us, whatever it may do to the play.

The cost is certainly great. Antonio goes off to fetch the girls, and brings them in wearing masks. Here, obviously, is an excellent opportunity for Shakespeare to give Claudio some convincing lines. When he is at last confronted with the girl he is to marry instead of Hero, there is plenty that even the most ordinary writer could make him say. He can speak, briefly but movingly, about his love for the dead girl, and his remorse; he can declare his intention of doing everything in his power to bring happiness into the family that has been plunged into misery through his error; he can thank the good fortune that has made him happy, even in this misery, by uniting him to a girl closely related to his love and closely resembling her. Then the unmasking and the joy. It is not my intention to try to take the pen out of Shakespeare's hand and write the play myself; I give these simple indications merely as a way of showing that it is not in the least difficult to imagine an effective speech that Claudio might make at this point in the action—how he might, even now, show some saving humanity.

What Shakespeare actually does is to give him the one line,

Which is the lady I must seize upon?

This, coming as it does at a crucial moment, has a strong claim to be considered the worst line in the whole of Shakespeare. It is the poet's final admission that Claudio has imposed his ungenerous personality on the story and ruined it beyond repair. After that, there is nothing for it but to get the unmasking scene over as quickly as possible and hurry on to the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick. Hero unmasks, and Claudio utters two words, ‘Another Hero!’ before the action sweeps on and everyone turns with relief to the sub-plot.


Before we can so turn, however, we must pause and consider the extent of the damage that was done to the Hero-and-Claudio plot by Shakespeare's distaste for it. Dr. Johnson, in dismissing the plot of Cymbeline, spoke of ‘faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation’. This could certainly be applied to the Hero-and-Claudio story; one can more easily say what isn't wrong with it than what is. To begin with we might note that the whole contriving of the plot by Borachio is just about as maladroit as it could be. When he is outlining to Don John what he means to do, Borachio says,

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.

There is here one of those contradictions ‘too gross for detection;’ how would it serve the deception to ‘hear Margaret term me Claudio’? If Claudio is supposed to be listening, he would surely suspect that something very strange was happening if he heard someone else called by his name. To be fair, this particular bit of the scheme is never afterwards referred to, and it has been argued that ‘Claudio’ is a slip of the pen for ‘Borachio’; many editors, from Theobald to Peter Alexander, boldly substitute the name ‘Borachio’, thus tidying up after a fit of Shakespearean absent-mindedness. But even if we accept this, we are still left with the problem of Margaret. Why should she consent to take part in the masquerade, to wear her mistress's clothes, and then remain silent when the storm breaks? What is she supposed to be doing? Why is she absent from the wedding, which as Hero's personal lady-in-waiting she might naturally be supposed to attend?

Margaret, obviously, is one of those characters on whom Shakespeare has simply given up. After the Watch has unmasked the plot, Leonato expresses his intention of seeking Margaret out and confronting her with Borachio. In the very next scene (V, ii) we see her, talking to Benedick, but the scene is entirely without function except in so far as Benedick asks her to go and fetch Beatrice and she agrees to do so; the rest is merely an interlude of rather arid sparring. Shakespeare was glad to bundle Margaret out of sight, just as he was wise to provide such good comic by-play in the scene of the overhearing of the plot by the Watch (‘I know that Deformed’), to keep us from noticing the threadbare device that is being used. Conrade, evidently, is a character whose sole function in the play is to be present in the street in the middle of the night (why?) and have Borachio tell him what has happened. They do not meet by arrangement; Conrade, though he has earlier declared that he will back Don John in any wickedness, is not present when Borachio outlines his plot, and knows nothing about it until the pair happen to meet in the street. We do not, at any rate in the theatre, feel the weakness of this device, partly because the antics of the Watch are so amusing and partly because, in the rather laboured dialogue with which they work up to the disclosure, the pair introduce the important theme of appearance versus reality. ‘Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak, is nothing to a man’. And this is part of the ‘nothing’ that causes all the play's much ado. It is excellent dramaturgy to have the audience reminded, at this point, of the play's serious backbone; it keeps our attention busy at an awkward moment. The same function is served by the brilliant stagecraft of the altar scene itself, which gives every character something to say and do, so that we are carried along on the dramatic current and do not pause for questioning. For that matter, it is likewise excellent dramatic sense to have the Watch overhear the plot before we come to the altar scene and not after; it prevents the altar scene from being flooded with that dark tragic colouring that would overbalance the lighter tones of the rest of the play. Shakespeare had learnt this lesson the hard way in The Merchant of Venice, and it is interesting to see him getting out of trouble by shaping the plot so artfully: since there is, of course, no inherent reason why Borachio should not have met Conrade in the street on the night after the wedding débâcle rather than the night before.


The Hero-and-Claudio plot, we have now established at perhaps tedious length, is a ruin. And what ruined it, in my opinion, was the pull towards psychological realism that seems to have been so strong in Shakespeare's mind at this time. Certainly this made the character of Claudio unworkable, and once that was hopeless it was all hopeless. Because the plot demanded that Claudio should behave ungenerously to a girl he was supposed to love, because Shakespeare could not stick to the chocolate-box conventions but had to go ahead and show Claudio as a real, and therefore necessarily unpleasant, youth, the contradictions grew and grew until they became unsurmountable.

It is this that must be my excuse for applying realistic criteria to the play, probing into questions of probability and motive, tut-tutting at the flimsiness of the main plot, and generally talking about the play as if it were a novel. In the last thirty years we have had many sharp warnings against this. It has been explained often enough that ‘character-criticism’ is a hangover from the later nineteenth century, when the novel was the dominant form in English literature and thus influenced everyone's way of looking at any literary work; that it climbed to its zenith in the days of Scott and then of Dickens, and has no business to live on into the age of Finnegans Wake and the post-Symbolist poets. Dramatic characters are real only in action; they do not, or at any rate should not, invite the kind of biographical fantasy that we attach to characters in prose fiction. Und so weiter. I know this line of argument well enough. But it seems to me that Shakespeare, who overflows the boundaries in every direction, also overflows this one. His plays differ very widely in the extent to which he rounds out the characters as a novelist might. We feel this instinctively, and no amount of preaching will alter that feeling.

Virtually all influential academic critics, in the last few decades, have turned against this tradition of Shakespearean criticism, itself largely entrenched within the older academicism. And not only academics. We find a successful novelist and dramatist like Mr. J. B. Priestley saying, in his printed lecture The Art of the Dramatist (1956) that ‘the professors’ are still at their work of obfuscation.

‘The professors almost persuade us that dramatists are not concerned with theatres and audiences. There are no longer any parts to be acted: The characters become historical figures, real people. “Now what”, the professors ask, “was Hamlet doing during those years?” As if we were all private detectives employed by King Claudius! When and where, they wonder, did the Macbeths first meet? And so it goes on. They cannot—or will not—grasp the fact that Hamlet has no existence between the two stage directions Exit Hamlet and Enter Hamlet, that the Macbeths never had a first meeting because Shakespeare never wrote a scene about it. The dramatist's characters exist in their scenes and nowhere else.’

Well, I am not a professor, but this seems to me to settle some intricate questions a little too summarily. What is the nature of imaginative creation? What are we doing when we think of Hamlet? When we see Othello strangle Desdemona on the stage, do we believe he is really strangling her? If not, what do we believe? That we are watching an actor and actress, who will soon be cleaning off the greasepaint and putting on ordinary clothes to take a taxi home? If ‘a dramatist's characters exist in their scenes’, if they can be said to exist at all, why should we not have a sense of them as existing in a continuum of experience? Surely anyone who has ever created an imaginary character knows that it can only be done by living with that character for long periods, getting the feel of a whole lived life behind the much smaller area in which we show the character actually doing and suffering. The novel, with its flash-backs and leisurely accumulation of detail, can, if the novelist so wishes, supply a great deal of background of the kind postulated by the question, ‘What was Hamlet doing during those years?’ The drama cannot. But it is not, to me, self-evident that the imaginative process involved, for either writer or spectator, is so very different; or that it is different in kind at all.

At the time when Shakespeare wrote Much Ado he was just moving into that phase of his work in which we find most of his really solid character-creations. In the next five or six years he was to give us Brutus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Cleopatra. After that, the interest in three-dimensional character lapses and the plays become ‘romances’, dream-like, openly symbolic. Clearly, one of the activities of his mind, during that period, was the kind of character-building which we associate mainly with the novel. This was the period when everything was rushing along at once, when Shakespeare, at the full torrential flood of his energies, was novelist, poet and dramatist combined. The three ‘golden comedies’, Much Ado, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, were a springboard for this great leap. Above all else, they are plays, and plays on a definite theme: self-knowledge as manifested in the making of choices and particularly in courtship. But they are also great dramatic-lyrical poems. And they are also novelistic in that they tell credible stories about fully imagined, realistic characters.

At least, the other two mature comedies are all these things. Only in Much Ado, the first of the series, the springboard to a springboard, is the balance missing. In it, the poetic element is absent; the dramatic and the novelistic elements are unusually strong. Shakespeare's mind was very like a river in spate. If it found one channel blocked, it would hurl itself with greater and greater force through the channels that remained. Dramatically—except for a stumble or two in the Hero-and-Claudio plot—Much Ado is more expert than the other comedies. Novelistically, if I may be permitted the term, it stands beside Hamlet: another play in which the whole is eclipsed by the brilliance of the parts.

As much as any novelist, Shakespeare, while writing this play, delighted in the depth and solidity of his characters. This delight comes out even in the purely mechanical business of the hoaxing of Beatrice and Benedick. Two eavesdroppings, two faked conversations, are contrived in that cuckoo-clock manner with which Shakespeare had enjoyed pleasing his audience ever since Love's Labour's Lost. But if we compare the hoodwinking of Benedick in II, iii, with the hoodwinking of Beatrice in III, i, we see that there is a considerable difference between the two scenes and that the difference springs from character. The men, in hoping to entangle Benedick with Beatrice, are simply diverting themselves; they may share in the general recognition that Beatrice and Benedick are meant for each other, they may even be aware of the warmth of feeling that already unites them, but they are not primarily interested in these things. Their main object is merriment. Hero, on the other hand, when she addresses Ursula on the subject of Beatrice's haughtiness, is engaged in the essential business of her life. Except for the pretence of being unaware of Beatrice's presence, there is no deception in her speech at all; she genuinely wants to caution Beatrice against the witty aggressiveness that is likely to spoil her life, and she genuinely finds it impossible to do so face to face.

                                                            If I should speak,
She would mock me into air; O, she would laugh me
Out of myself, press me to death with wit!
Therefore let Benedick, like cover'd fire,
Consume away in sighs, waste inwardly:
It were a better death than die with mocks,
Which is as bad as die with tickling.

She speaks feelingly because she is quite certain that her account of the situation is the true one; and so it is. Beatrice, like Olivia in Twelfth Night, is offending against one of the supreme laws of Shakespeare's world; namely, that girls exist to make wives for men and mothers for children. Olivia, by clinging to her grief for a dead brother and refusing the love of Duke Orsino, is flying in the face of nature by refusing the function and the fulfilment that nature offers her. The other characters see this, and gently but firmly the play eases her out of this impossible position and brings her to the altar. In exactly the same way, Beatrice is clinging to something which she thinks of as a protection—her wit—which is in fact not protecting her at all but pushing her out of reach of happiness.

Why do Beatrice and Benedick communicate by witty squabbling? In its characteristic way, the play suggests a biography behind them, and we gather that they have been close at some previous time and that they have fallen out, without, however, falling out of love with each other. This is indicated in II, i.

DON Pedro.
Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.
Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.

The high-spirited girl chooses to speak in riddles because she has no mind to speak openly of her troubles and sufferings in this proud, hard-hearted company; but what she means by saying that she gave Benedick ‘a double heart for his single one’ is plain enough; and the allusion to ‘false dice’ seems to indicate some suspicion that Benedick deceived her; a suspicion, perhaps, as groundless as Claudio's suspicion of Hero.

Starting from this misunderstanding, the two of them have got trapped in a psychological box. Their need for each other is intense, but they can express it only by quarrelling; a situation we have all seen many times in life, but not very often, I think, in literature, and certainly never as skilfully shown as here. The initial difficulty is heightened by the fact that their verbal defences are so highly developed; left to themselves, they will fence and fence their lives away; cleverness will be their undoing unless the much less clever characters who surround them come to their aid with heavy-handed facetiousness which breaks down the elaborate rhythms of their mating-dance. As Hero plainly tells the listening Beatrice, cleverness has no place in the business of selecting a partner.

So turns she every man the wrong side out;
And never gives to truth and virtue that
Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.

To give to truth and virtue the love and respect that are ‘purchased’ by simplicity and merit—this, Hero thinks, is all that is necessary for happiness, and the play agrees with her. Dogberry, who has climbed to a position of respect among his fellow-townsmen by virtue of his age and his sufferings as well as his upright ways—for he is ‘a fellow that hath had losses’—describes himself with honest, wrathful pride as ‘one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him’. This is echoed in Benedick's speech in the closing minutes of the play, when he renounces his pride in superior powers of repartee.

Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No: if a man will be beaten with brains, a' shall wear nothing handsome about him.

I am sure this echo is intentional; cleverness is rebuked although it is enjoyed. The constables are not clever, but they restore the harmony that has been upset by quick-witted schemers; if a man will only give up judging people, himself included, by their cleverness, he will be an honest man, like Dogberry, and have everything handsome about him.

This may seem a pawky moral to find in so glittering a play, but it is in line with the import of all Shakespearean comedy; the verbal pugnacity of Beatrice and Benedick is a more attractive fault than the moping of Orsino and Olivia or the artificial disillusion of Jaques; all the comedies deal with the correction of faults that obstruct life, and what they tell us is that human beings, in spite of all the difficulties that beset them, are unquenchably vital and must, somehow, find the strength to go on being unquenchably vital. All the rest is vain expense of breath, mere to-ing and fro-ing, much ado.

Richard Henze (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5648

SOURCE: Henze, Richard. “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 11, no. 2 (spring 1971): 187-201.

[In the following essay, Henze offers an analysis of Claudio's character that focuses on the threat Claudio poses to social harmony.]

Two major difficulties in Much Ado About Nothing, the question of unity and the character of Claudio, periodically reappear to be resolved or unresolved by the critics. On the first problem, critical opinion has been divided. While some critics feel that there is an inartistic disharmony in the combination of Hero and Claudio with Benedick and Beatrice,1 that the play's serious and comic plots are involved with each other rather than integrated,2 that there is an “inconsistency of purpose,”3 or that the play as we have it represents a less than perfect revision of an earlier play,4 other critics see instead considerable skill in the combination of elements in Much Ado.5 Some critics grant the play a kind of unity by ignoring Beatrice and Benedick or Claudio, but others have dealt with all characters in discovering a single theme. While all critics do not agree that the major theme is deception (some think instead that the play is primarily about such things as the uncertain course of true love6 or the significance of nothing7), most do agree that deception or improper noting is an important factor in the progress of the action of the play.8

The critics neglect to note, however, that deception in Much Ado is of two sorts. One deception leads to social peace, to marriage, to the end of deceit. The other deception breeds conflict and distrust and leads even Beatrice to desire the heart of Claudio in the market place. Wrong deception occurs when one trusts appearances and not one's intuition or “soul,” when one depends on eavesdropping and circumstantial evidence instead of careful study, when one has too little trust in human nature. Right deception supports that trust. I want, in this paper, to describe the double deception in Much Ado About Nothing, to show that the play's major images, eating, hunting or angling, and noting, reflect the double theme by being themselves double in significance, and to place Claudio, one of the play's major problems, in this context of theme and image.

One major, proper deception in Much Ado, that of Benedick and Beatrice by Don Pedro and his friends, is pleasantly designed to end another deception, the pretense of Benedick and Beatrice that each is the last person the other would marry, in order to draw together two people who will nourish each other and society itself. Both Beatrice and Benedick seem strongly against romance and marriage. She “had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me” (I.i.132-133)9 and will have no husband until “God make men of some other metal than earth” (II.i.62-63). Her attitude deserves modification. Shakespeare's comic heroines (Rosalind, Rosaline, Viola) are often aware of the artificiality of romantic convention, but each heroine is nevertheless ready, as Beatrice soon is also, to listen to a man who swears honestly that he loves her. But Beatrice's deception is mainly self deception, for with her first words she reveals her concern for Benedick; she is already in love; her deception is not really deceptive except to one who notes superficially. Having helped arrange the marriage of Claudio to Hero, Beatrice reveals just how much she too would like to be caught in her nest: “Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt, I may sit in a corner and cry ‘Heigh-ho for a husband!’” (II.i.330-333) Beatrice, like Petruchio's Kate, is willing enough to be caught, but self-protective enough to avoid the shame of rejection.

Nor is Benedick truly deceptive, except to Beatrice. Although he likewise seems opposed to romance and marriage, sure that he will “live a bachelor,” everyone but Beatrice knows just how small the deceit needs to be in order to unmask Benedick. Even while Benedick chides Claudio because he “wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it and sigh away Sundays” (I.i.203-204), we remember that Beatrice has called Benedick a “thruster” himself. Although Beatrice's “thrust” has bawdy implications that Benedick's lacks, Beatrice's word is appropriate in Benedick's sense too, for Benedick, as the baiting scene shortly shows, is more eager than Claudio ever will be to thrust his neck into the yoke. For Benedick to vow not to love as Claudio does is a sensible vow, but not to love at all is an anti-social and anti-romantic vow that matches Beatrice's assertion that she would rather not listen to a man say that he loves her.

Don Pedro depends on Benedick's and Beatrice's self-deception in order to end that deception, for if Benedick and Beatrice were not deceptive in their dislike of each other, they would not be drawn together by a scheme like Don Pedro's. One deception, therefore, requires the other. For fullest comic effect, Don Pedro needs to know that his deception is less than deceptive. For that same comic effect, Benedick and Beatrice must each actually consider the other opposed to love and marriage in order that the moment of surprise, when each immediately believes that Don Pedro's bait is the truth, may be as satisfying as it is. Leonato and Don Pedro play their parts well; they are expert hypocrites; but their hypocrisy is justified because it leads to social harmony. Luciana in The Comedy of Errors recommended just such hypocrisy to Antipholus of Syracuse: “'Tis holy sport to be a little vain / When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife” (III.ii.27-28). In Much Ado the holy sport is a carefully controlled deception that likewise conquers strife.

The other major deception, that of Claudio, depends, like Don Pedro's scheme, on a victim not being what he superfically appears to be. Claudio seems a noble fellow, one who “hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion” (I.i.13-15), who, like Benedick and Beatrice, should better expectation. Instead, in his poor repayment of the trust others have in him, he is worse than expected.

The criticism of Claudio is a curiously mixed bag. At one extreme are those critics, like Thomas Marc Parrot, who condemn Claudio for his treatment of Hero: “It is, perhaps, too hard to call Claudio, as Swinburne does, ‘a pitiful fellow,’ but only in romantic comedy could such a character be at last rewarded with the hand of the lady he had so publicly slandered.”10 A less severe judgment is furnished by Nadine Page, who finds Claudio “interested only in the financial aspect” (p. 742)11 and “reacting true to type in trying circumstances” (p. 744). Charles Prouty agrees: “the plain fact is that Claudio is not a romantic lover and cannot therefore be judged by the artificial standards of literary convention.”12 He is instead a very careful and sensible young Elizabethan seeking a profitable marriage. Kerby Neill feels that the judgments against Claudio are “based more on what Claudio does than on the interpretation which the text puts on his actions.”13 Francis G. Schoff, going further than most in salvaging Claudio's character, finds Claudio “conclusively and steadily an admirable hero on the evidence of the play itself, with no other witness needed, then or now.”14

The Claudio in Much Ado seems not so consistent as Schoff or Prouty would have him be. In order to make Claudio “an admirable hero,” one must ignore (as Schoff does) what Beatrice has to say about the repudiation of Hero, or one must prove that Beatrice is unjust in her judgment. In order to make Claudio a villain, one must ignore the fact that he is, without irony, called noble and that he is a close friend of Benedick and Don Pedro (or one can, as John Palmer does, make Don Pedro less noble for being ignoble Claudio's friend).15

The crux of the problem seems to be the nature of the Claudio-Hero relationship. If that relationship is a purely mercenary Elizabethan example of a young man seeking a “good” match, and if such a relationship is justified by the play itself, then Claudio is justly angry when he thinks that he is being forced into a bad bargain, and perhaps then even the public repudiation of Hero will seem “proper, and of an ‘established’ order of things.”16 On the other hand, if that relationship is more than merely mercenary, or if the repudiation is unjust in spite of the fact that it reflects Elizabethan practice, then Claudio's mistrust and public rejection of Hero can hardly be “proper.” Kerby Neill feels that the problem “is the belief in the slander, not the subsequent repudiation of Hero” (p. 92), but it would seem that both are pretty serious if either one is.

The very bulk of the criticism that condemns Claudio's treatment of Hero, both in his initial suspicion and in the cruel rejection, would seem to indicate that, in spite of Page and Prouty's description of the Elizabethan attitude toward marriage as a business arrangement, Claudio is doing more than refusing to honor a contract. Walter N. King, even while he agrees with Page and Prouty that the Claudio-Hero relationship is more socially traditional than romantic, detects the flaw in that relationship and fault in the repudiation: “It is here that the social abnormality of artistocratic society in Messina is exposed once and for all for what it is—shallow and perverse application of a standard of behavior that is both automatic and uncharitable.”17 A code may be in effect during the repudiation, but that code, as Claudio defines it, is unsatisfactory—it breeds mistrust and disharmony: “Those who marry according to the philosophy of caveat emptor, like Claudio, are bound to be predisposed to sexual distrust” (p. 150); and Don John thrives on sexual distrust.

But another problem appears: the code is not the only factor in the Claudio-Hero relationship, for Claudio and Hero follow the conventions of romance as well as those of the arranged marriage. T. W. Craik points out that “the whole point of Benedick's comments is that Claudio loves according to the romantic tradition” (p. 303), even though the arranged marriage makes the Claudio-Hero relationship more complicated than romance alone would be. The fact is that Claudio and Hero have both an arranged marriage and a romantic attachment—the one does not preclude the other. But in each case, as Claudio falls in love with Hero's beautiful face but not with her feelings while Don Pedro arranges a profitable marriage, convention is excessively restrictive and sincere human feeling is deficient. However “proper” or conventional the repudiation may be, it violates another code of love, beauty, and trust that a romantic attachment between Hero and Claudio has established. However conventional that romantic attachment might be, it is, as Benedick points out, too easily silly and too easily selfish unless it includes a concern for more than a pretty face. In Shakespearian comedy, convention that has become restrictive, whether it be the law at the beginning of The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the mercenary marriage in Much Ado About Nothing, or the artificial language of romance in Love's Labour's Lost and As You Like It, needs to become sufficiently flexible to allow for humanity. That flexibility is achieved in The Comedy of Errors when Aegeon is freed, in As You Like It when romance operates under the control of Hymen, in Much Ado when the arranged marriage enriches society, not just one man. Beatrice and Benedick indicate the modification that needs to take place in the Hero-Claudio relationship. Beatrice and Benedick, under the guidance of Don Pedro, likewise have arranged marriage and romantic attachment, but their relationship, unlike Claudio's to Hero, is characterized by sincere feeling and trust. They participate in the conventions, although lamely (Benedick can find no rime to “lady” but “baby”), but they are more concerned for Hero and for each other than they are for convention.

Claudio effectively shows what happens when superficial romance and selfish, suspicious social concern are combined. His “love” for Hero is much too shallow to preserve him from doubting both his friend Don Pedro and Hero. When told that Don Pedro loves Hero, Claudio instantly believes “'Tis certain so” (II.i.181). When Claudio wishes the Prince “joy of her,” Benedick hardly believes that Claudio could “think the Prince would have served you thus” (II.i.202-203). Benedick calls Claudio a “poor hurt fowl! Now will he creep into sedges.” The image makes Claudio the victim of Don John; but also, by pun, the foul quality that must be purged. With Hero, Claudio's suspicion is again immediate and so much in control of Claudio that he decides on Hero's punishment before he has witnessed her crime: “If I see anything tonight why I should not marry her to-morrow, in the congregation where I should wed, there will I shame her” (III.ii.126-128).

Claudio's suspicion is exactly the characteristic that enables him to fulfill his role in the play. Through Claudio, Much Ado displays the power that malice acquires when it is allowed to operate behind a respectable appearance. The greatest danger to society comes not from Benedick and Beatrice, who are very ready to increase the social harmony, nor even from Don John, who is known to be a villain to all but one who mistakenly decides that Don John is honest when he has proved himself dishonest. The dangerous one is Claudio, who conceals a huge and active suspicion behind a mask of virtue and fidelity. One can anticipate Don John's villainy; one does not expect Claudio's suspicion. If everyone were like the Friar and Beatrice—disinclined to accept slanderous accusations without clear proof—Don John would have no success whatever. Again, as with Don Pedro's deception, the primary scheme depends on a secondary deceit: Benedick's and Beatrice's distaste for each other has to be pretense for Don Pedro's scheme to work; Claudio's faithfulness has to be deceptive for Don John's plan to succeed, a plan which is, appropriately, not even Don John's, but Borachio's.

The consequence of Claudio's lack of trust is the repudiation of Hero. While, as Prouty shows, the repudiation would have been less offensive in Shakespeare's day than it is now,18 the fact remains that it could hardly have been completely inoffensive. Beatrice, in her impassioned demand for revenge, points out exactly the problem that we detect if we have watched or read the repudiation scene at all. Claudio is cruel, shamefully cruel. However well, according to some concept of “honor,” Claudio may be acting in trying circumstances, he is not acting well according to the more general standards of human decency. T. W. Craik argues that Claudio is cleared of blame “by the facts that Don John (as villain) draws all censure on himself and that Don Pedro (hitherto the norm, the reasonable man) is also deceived” (p. 314). I would argue that the emphasis of the play is on Don John's inability to bite until someone else gets close enough to him and that Claudio is to blame for putting himself that close. Don Pedro's agreement with Claudio does not exonerate Claudio; rather, it indicates the spread of suspicion until someone notes evidence carefully, as the Friar does, and opposes that suspicion with trust. Craik says that Friar Francis becomes the “new point of reference” after Don Pedro implicates himself in error. Beatrice is surely part of that new point of reference too. She knows intuitively that Hero is innocent; the Friar adds to that intuition a careful study of the evidence. This combination of intuitive trust and careful observation seems to be the one that the play recommends.

Craik argues that Beatrice's “revengeful invective against Claudio … does not justify itself” (p. 314) because Beatrice is wrong in her judgment of Claudio's guilt. I agree that Beatrice is too passionate, too much inclined to help Don John's feast of malice to its conclusion, but Claudio is not, therefore, innocent. Beatrice recognizes exactly the problem: “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 rancour—O God, that I were a man!” (IV.i.305-309) Here as in Lear even a dog deserves better treatment than that. Claudio's fault is both his lack of trust that leads him to doubt Hero so easily and his lack of decency that leads him to accuse her so unfairly at that very moment when he should be most concerned for her. Yet, the very magnitude of that accusation of Hero makes it more effective dramatically than a gentler accusation would be, for it better indicates the consequences of wrong deception, the social disruptiveness of a lack of trust. If Hero's shame were less, Claudio's fault would likewise be less; and the power that malice can have when it is allowed respectability would loom less large. The problem is not malice itself; that as Benedick points out and as the end of the play indicates, may be recognized for what it is. The problem is that Claudio, who should measure up to an expectation of nobleness, conceals beneath his noble appearance a lack of trust, a lack of soul.

Even at the moment that the success of the wrong kind of deception seems assured, however, its failure is evident, for the shameful result of Claudio's suspicion immediately awakens the decency of others and makes them observe carefully what Claudio has seen only superficially and inaccurately. While Claudio condemns Hero, the Friar and Beatrice assure themselves, on the basis of human evidence that Claudio ignores that Hero is guiltless. And, at the same time, Dogberry and Verges, apparently the most inept officers of law that one could ever fear to have, have in hand the originators of the deception, Borachio and Conrade. They have noted what Borachio and Conrade said; in this case noting ends the very mischief that noting began.

Possible confusion is usually limited in Shakespeare's comedies. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus ordains that the festivities shall last only so long. In Love's Labour's Lost, all of the young men's scheme is foreknown by the ladies; thus they are armed to resist confusion. In The Comedy of Errors, chains and ropes rapidly bind those who would wander too far from social restrictions. In Much Ado, two of the villains are arrested before the accusation takes place; the villainy will come to light; the asinine Dogberry is required in order to keep it from coming to light too early and spoiling the dramatic intensity of the play.

The control that society finally exercises is shown not only by Dogberry but also by Don Pedro's earlier guidance of Beatrice and Benedick toward marriage. That earlier control serves as a pattern for the later handling of Claudio and Hero, who are likewise led into marriage by a deception that undeceives. Claudio shows what happens when society loses its tight control over the deceptiveness of individual members of society; Beatrice and Benedick and later Hero and Claudio show the harmony that will occur when society, represented here by Don Pedro and Leonato, prince and father, regain that control.

The theme of deception is double in nature; the primary images, eating, fishing or hunting, and noting, that help carry that theme, reflect that doubleness. Beatrice, who would eat the heart of Claudio in the market place if she were a man, also feeds on the meet food of Benedick. One feast would satiate the appetite for revenge perhaps, but the other surely furnishes a nobler and a fuller satisfaction. Don John fishes for Claudio, and through him for Don Pedro, while Don Pedro angles for Benedick and Beatrice, but the two fishermen's goals and methods are as disparate as are their own characters. The Friar, by closely noting Hero, assures himself that she cannot be false. Claudio, after noting from some distance Margaret playing Hero, decides that Hero cannot be true. Both the methods and results of the two notings are contradictory.

In spite of Benedick's “excellent stomach” at the beginning of the play (I.i.52), Benedick and Beatrice at first feed the appetite that Don John feels most, the appetite for conflict. Beatrice says that her disdain will not die while “she hath such meet food to feed it as Signoir Benedick” (I.i.122-123). Benedick calls Beatrice “a dish I love not! I cannot endure my Lady Tongue” (II.i.282-283) and vows that he “would not marry her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgress'd” (II.i.258-261). Don Pedro points out that Benedick now has a “queasy stomach” which must be overcome for him to “fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love gods” (II.i.401-404). They are the only orderly love gods, more interested in social harmony than in romance.

Benedick's stomach does settle. Properly deceived, he decides that he will be “horribly in love” with Beatrice: “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” (II.iii.245-248). No longer will Benedick's queasy stomach reject the meat of the marriage table; instead it rejects the pleasures of selfish bachelorhood. As Margaret says, Benedick has “become a man. He swore he would never marry and yet now, in despite of his heart he eats his meat without grudging” (III.iv.88-90). Both meals and marriage are socially sustaining; the image is an appropriate one for the sort of love that Benedick accepts: “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.251-253). Sent to fetch Benedick in to dinner, Beatrice decides that he “has no stomach”; actually, he now has just the right sort of stomach.

Don John, who will “eat when I have stomach, and wait no man's leisure” (I.iii.16-17), is able to feed his villainous appetite while wrong deception prevails. In Claudio, Don John sees “food to my displeasure” (I.iii.68). Don John's private meal is to be at the expense of “the great supper” where too many healthy appetites are indisposed. Even Beatrice finds her appetite troubled by Don John: “I never can see him but I am heart-burn'd an hour after” (II.i.3-5). Don John's villainy and Claudio's suspicion are the acids that cause such indigestion.

In contrast to Claudio, who notes superfically and mistrusts Don Pedro and Hero, are all those who are not deceived because they recognize, as Hero tells Don Pedro, that “the lute should be like the case” (II.i.98). With proper noting, the lute plays, and relationships are like harmonic musical notes. As Beatrice tells Hero, “The fault will be in the music, cousin, if you be not wooed in good time” (II.i.72). Music is harmonic if, as Richard II says, time is kept at all. Beatrice, more interested in being witty than in being wise, is wise nevertheless. Claudio, Benedick, and Beatrice must properly note together and attain such accord if social harmony is to be attained.

The “noting” trap set for Benedick is itself harmonic both in goal and in method, for part of the bait is music:

Come, shall we hear this music?
Yea, my good lord. How still the evening is,
As hush'd on purpose to grace harmony!


Don Pedro notes “where Benedick hath hid himself” (II.iii.42), and has Balthasar do his noting in order to establish the graceful harmonic mood appropriate for getting a husband for a lady.

Balthasar protests:

                                        Note this before my notes:
There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting.
Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks!
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!


But Balthasar's notes are more than nothing; they are harmonic in sound and informative in message. The song warns ladies that “Men were deceivers ever,” always capable of fraud; the message is more appropriate for Claudio than for Benedick, although Benedick too has been guilty of attempted deception. As Balthasar sings his song, Benedick, like Hotspur who would rather listen to his hound, reveals his own discord in his unflattering appraisal of musical harmony: “I had as live have heard the night raven” (II.iii.83). But Benedick is to be made to accord whether he will or not, and beneath the deceptive self-protective wit, Benedick will.

Don Pedro says of Benedick, “if ever thou dost fall from this faith, thou wilt prove a notable argument” (I.i.257-258). Later Leonato describes Claudio as a notable argument also: “Which is the villain? Let me see his eyes, / That when I note another man like him, / I may avoid him” (V.i.268-270). Both notable arguments, finally, prove the same points, that one needs to note carefully before making an important judgment, and that one who is properly guided by society and its harmonic restrictions will avoid deceit and disharmony.

The fishing and hunting imagery, often combined with the noting image, likewise is of two sorts: while Don John angles deceptively for Claudio, Don Pedro fishes properly for Beatrice and Benedick. After Benedick is caught on a carefully baited hook, Beatrice hides in the bushes “like a lapwing” in order to “note” her bait:

The pleasant'st angling is to see the fish
Cut with her golden ears the silver stream
And greedily devour the treacherous bait.
So angle we for Beatrice, who even now
Is couched in the woodbine coverture.


The treachery is pleasant, and the pleasantness is not after all very treacherous; for Benedick and Beatrice are caught by the mere truth. Beatrice greedily eating all that she can find is feeding the very appetite that ought to be fed, the desire to marry Benedick. After the trap catches Beatrice, Hero points out that “Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.” The traps are perhaps less conventionally romantic than Cupid's arrows, but they are more carefully controlled than haphazard romance would be.

Feasting, noting, and angling become proper when society directs them. Don Pedro angles for Benedick with bait worth noting and gets him to the feast. Claudio, “a poor hurt fowl,” finally escapes Don John's trap and corrupt appetite and takes Leonato's bait. Through Don Pedro, who decides that Beatrice “were an excellent wife for Benedick,” and Leonato, who selects Claudio's wife, society exercises its control. Angling and noting in Benedick's and Beatrice's case, and finally in Claudio's as well, gather sufficient game for a feast of trust and fellowship.

The play is finally much ado about nothing because a sufficient bedrock of trust exists to support social harmony. Appearances do not deceive, at least not importantly, if one trusts one's friends. Just as every man should know that Dogberry is an ass because he has proved himself so, so every man should know Hero for a chaste woman and Don John for a villain.

Beatrice and the Friar, in contrast to Claudio, know men and women for what they are. Beatrice trusts Hero: “O, on my soul, my cousin is belied!” (IV.i.147) After his initial shock, Leonato agrees with Beatrice: “My soul doth tell me Hero is belied” (V.i.43); the soul is better evidence than the word of a villain. Benedick perceives where one source of confusion may lie: “The practice of it lives in John the bastard, / Whose spirits toil in frame of villainies” (IV.i.189-190). The Friar, after careful “noting of the lady,” decides that she is “guiltless here / Under some biting error” (IV.i.170-171). But Don John's feast is soon to end, for with the Friar's plan, proper deception replaces improper deception.

Only now, after the shame of Hero, do Benedick and Beatrice confess their love. Benedick says, “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?” (IV.i.269-270) But concern for Hero takes precedence over romance. Although Beatrice assigns her knight a knightly duty, she does so exactly because she loves Hero.

After Benedick's declaration of love, the language strikes the ear rather harshly, but the language and its harshness are appropriate:

By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me.
Do not swear, and eat it.
I will swear by it that you love me, and
I will make him eat it that says I love not you.
Will you not eat your word?


Of the two kinds of eating in the play, the biting conflict and suspicion that consumes social peace and the pleasant feast of harmony and love that settles a queasy stomach, the eating that Beatrice would like to do on Claudio is not the one that will nurture social harmony. The duty that Beatrice assigns Benedick, to kill Claudio, is likewise an antisocial task, however much Claudio may seem to deserve killing at this point. Happily, Benedick does not have to fulfill that duty in order to win Beatrice.

Beatrice's concern for Hero defines her essentially generous nature that has been hidden behind a witty counterfeit. Benedick's refusal to kill Claudio defines the same quality in his character:

Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Kill Claudio.
Ha! Not for the wide world!


Although Benedick does finally agree to fulfill Beatrice's request, he does so because he trusts her intuition:

Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.
Enough, I am engag'd.


Now, very late, Don Pedro and Claudio discover what their intuition should have told them. Don Pedro remembers that Don John “is compos'd and fram'd of treachery” (V.i.257). Claudio sees Hero's innocence, admits his fault, but denies its magnitude: “Yet sinn'd I not / But in mistaking” (V.i.283-284). But that mistaking, as Beatrice has told us, was a large fault, a violation of trust and social harmony. We cannot expect Claudio to achieve tragic recognition, but we have been furnished sufficient evidence to see Claudio's fault. Leonato forgives Claudio easily after all, for Claudio's only penance is to marry Leonato's mystery niece, “Almost the copy of my child that's dead” (V.i.298). Claudio's penance may seem light, but comedy does not require the more severe logic of tragedy, particularly not when the comedy is concerned to show the failure of suspicion and success of trust. We are happy, as is Antonio, that “all things sort so well” (V.iv.7). While they sort so well, the firm hand of society pushes a properly deceived Claudio and an innocent Hero into marriage; with social restrictions in control, malice is ineffectual.

As in Shakespeare's other comedies, that control is disguised by sentiment even while the conventional language of sentiment is handled less than seriously. Benedick and Beatrice, witty to the end, are finally permitted to join wits:

Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.
I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.


Benedick and Claudio are friends again. The play ends with dancing, music, peace. With society in control, with suspicion replaced by trust and with destructive biting by a marriage feast, Don John is no problem. He has been brought back to Messina, but as Benedick says, we need not think on him “till to-morrow.”


  1. E. C. Pettet, Shakespeare and the Romance Tradition (London, 1949), p. 132.

  2. Alan Gilbert, “Two Margarets: The Composition of Much Ado About Nothing,Philological Quarterly, XLI (January, 1962), 63. G. K. Hunter, Shakespeare: The Late Comedies, Writers and their Work, No. 143 (London, 1962), says that Beatrice and Benedick are “not essential to the plot” (p. 20).

  3. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (New York, 1926), p. 128.

  4. Arthur Quiller-Couch and J. Dover Wilson eds. Much Ado About Nothing (Cambridge, 1923, 1953), pp. 89-107.

  5. Hazelton Spencer, The Art and Life of William Shakespeare (New York, 1940), p. 251; Donald A. Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), p. 68; P. Harvey, “Much Ado About Nothing,Theroia, XI (1958), 32-36.

  6. T. W. Craik, “Much Ado About Nothing,Scrutiny, XIX (October, 1953), 315.

  7. Paul A. Jorgensen, “Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Quarterly, V (Summer, 1954), 287-295. In Much Ado says Jorgensen, we have “a dramatic, rather than expository, elaboration” of the significance of nothing: “Out of a trifle, a misunderstanding, a fantasy, a mistaken over-hearing, a ‘naughtiness,’ might come the materials for a drama. …” (p. 295)

  8. Dorothy C. Hockey, “Notes, Notes, Forsooth …,” Shakespeare Quarterly, VIII (Summer, 1957), 353; Graham Storey, “The Success of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’”, More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London, 1959), p. 131.

  9. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  10. Shakespearian Comedy, (New York, 1949), p. 157. E. K. Chambers describes Claudio as “a worm” (p. 134).

  11. Nadine Page, “The Public Repudiation of Hero,” PMLA, L (1935), 739-744.

  12. Charles Prouty, The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing (New Haven, 1950), p. 41.

  13. Kerby Neill, “More Ado About Claudio: An Acquittal for the Slandered Groom,” Shakespeare Quarterly, III (1952), 91.

  14. Francis G. Schoff, “Claudio, Bertram, and A Note on Interpretation,” Shakespeare Quarterly, X (Winter, 1959), 12.

  15. John Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1953), p. 113.

  16. Terry Hawkes, “The Old and the New in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’” Notes and Queries, n.s., V (December 1958), 525.

  17. “Much Ado About Something,Shakespeare Quarterly, XV (Summer, 1964), 150.

  18. Prouty, pp. 47, 62.

Donald McGrady (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3364

SOURCE: McGrady, Donald. “The Topos of ‘Inversion of Values’ in Hero's Depiction of Beatrice.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44, no. 4 (winter 1993): 472-6.

[In the following essay, McGrady reviews the way Beatrice inverts rhetorical tradition through her persistently negative appraisal of her suitors, and argues that upon overhearing Hero's description of her, Beatrice is made aware of her flaws and is finally able to open herself up to love.]

In act 3, scene 1, of Much Ado About Nothing, Hero incites Beatrice to love Benedick by staging a scene for her to overhear in which Hero censures Beatrice's custom of criticizing all her suitors, of turning their spiritual virtues or physical characteristics into defects:

                                                                                          … I never yet saw man,
How wise, how noble, young, how rarely featur'd,
But she would spell him backward: if fair-fac'd,
She would swear the gentleman should be her sister;
If black, why, Nature, drawing of an antic,
Made a foul blot; if tall, a lance ill-headed;
If low, an agate very vilely cut;
If speaking, why, a vane blown with all winds;
If silent, why, a block moved with none.
So turns she every man the wrong side out,
And never gives to truth and virtue that
Which simpleness and merit purchaseth.

(ll. 59-70)1

Hero's tactic is to point out to her cousin that she is hypercritical, being unfair with all the men attracted to her. Hero and her maid Ursula have already stated that Benedick loves Beatrice (ll. 37-43) but that she is so “self-endeared” as to be incapable of requiting his affection (ll. 49-56). They therefore conclude that Benedick should forget Beatrice (ll. 41-43 and 77-86) and end by praising Benedick's qualities (ll. 91-99). Hero's strategy works to perfection, as the eavesdropping Beatrice becomes aware of her mistakes (“Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much? / Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu! / No glory lives behind the back of such” [ll. 108-10]) and yields her formerly scornful heart to love (ll. 111-16). From this moment on, Beatrice is a changed woman, as love's flame refines her temperament, turning arrogance to sweetness (see 3.4.38-73); the proverbial illness of love makes her yearn for “a hawk, a horse, or a husband” (ll. 39-40, 67-70, and 50), all interchangeable, since the hawk and the horse traditionally symbolize eroticism.2

That Hero's stratagem proves so effective with Beatrice may in part be due to its use of an ancient rhetorical tradition, although Beatrice, as an incorrigible man-hater, has turned that tradition inside out. The immediate inspiration for Hero's speech (as George Steevens pointed out two centuries ago3) appears in two passages of Lyly's Euphues. In the first of these passages, Lyly, like Shakespeare, accuses women of describing men's positive or neutral characteristics in negative terms:

Dost thou not know that women deem none valiant unless he be too venturous? That they account one a dastard if he be not desperate, a pinchpenny if he be not prodigal, if silent a sot, if full of words a fool? Perversely do they always think of their lovers and talk of them scornfully, judging all to be clowns which be no courtiers and all to be pinglers [i.e., farm-horses] that be not coursers. … Do you not know the nature of women, which is grounded only upon extremities? Do they think any man to delight in them unless he dote on them? … If he be cleanly then term they him proud, if mean in apparel a sloven, if tall a lungis [i.e., long, slim person], if short a dwarf, if bold blunt, if shamefast a coward. …4

Four of Shakespeare's ten examples (tall, low, speaking, silent) are listed in Euphues. (Those missing are the corporeal fair-fac'd and black and the spiritual truth, virtue, simpleness, and merit.) Shakespeare undoubtedly recognized Lyly's critique of feminine faultfinding as an echo of a classical topos.

The original form of the motif—which to the best of my knowledge has never been studied—reverses the version that Beatrice employs: it consists quite simply of a lover who characterizes his beloved's various physical or spiritual defects as laudable attributes.5 Naturally this form applies to young boys rather than to women:

“… Glaucon,” said I, “… It does not become a lover to forget that all adolescents … sting and stir the amorous lover of youth and appear to him deserving of his attention and desirable. … One, because his nose is tip-tilted, you will praise as piquant, the beak of another you pronounce right-royal, the intermediate type you say strikes the harmonious mean, the swarthy are of manly aspect, the white are children of the gods divinely fair, and as for honey-hued, do you suppose the very word is anything but the euphemistic invention of some lover who can feel no distaste for sallowness when it accompanies the blooming time of youth? And, in short, there is no pretext you do not allege and there is nothing you shrink from saying to justify you in not rejecting any who are in the bloom of their prime.”6

Plato here begins a tradition that has lasted more than two millennia. Not suprisingly, his attention to the imperfect nose did not find favor with subsequent imitators, but the beloved's complexion (swarthy, too fair, or honey-colored) became one of the standard characteristics often repeated by later writers.

From Plato the motif passes to Lucretius, who adds to the meager list in the Republic many more instances of lovers' blindness:

For for the most part men act blinded by passion, and assign to women excellencies which are not truly theirs. And so we see those in many ways deformed and ugly dearly loved, yea, prospering in high favour. … A black love is called “honey-dark”, the foul and filthy “unadorned”, the green-eyed “Athena's image”, the wiry and wooden “a gazelle”, the squat and dwarfish “one of the graces”, “all pure delight”, the lumpy and ungainly “a wonder” and “full of majesty”. She stammers and cannot speak, “she has a lisp”; the dumb is “modest”; the fiery, spiteful gossip is “a burning torch”. One becomes a “slender darling”, when she can scarce live from decline; another half dead with cough is “frail”. Then the fat and full-bosomed is “Ceres' self with Bacchus at breast”; the snub-nosed is “sister to Silenus, or a Satyr”; the thick-lipped is “a living kiss”. More of this sort it were tedious for me to try to tell.7

Lucretius retains Plato's swarthy and honey-hued skin, but introduces additional blemishes perceived by the suitor as positive qualities; of these, the most enduring have proved to be excessive thinness, shortness, tallness, and taciturnity. Plato lists only a few purely physical faults; Lucretius expands this list considerably and then adds the mental characteristics of reticence and loquacity (ll. 1164-65), which will reappear in Lyly and Shakespeare.

Horace, the next cultivator of the motif, barely alludes to the lover's propensity to excuse his beloved's defects before proposing that we extend our benevolent evaluations of our sweethearts to our friends and offspring as well:

Let us turn first to this fact, that the lover, in his blindness, fails to see his lady's unsightly blemishes, nay is even charmed with them. … I could wish that we made the like mistake in friendship and that to such an error our ethics had given an honourable name. At any rate, we should deal with a friend as a father with his child, and not be disgusted at some blemish. If a boy squints, his father calls him “Blinky”; if his son is sadly puny, like misbegotten Sisyphus of former days, he styles him “Chickabiddy”. … But we turn virtues themselves upside down, and want to soil a clean vessel. Does there live among us an honest soul, a truly modest fellow? We nickname him slow and stupid. Does another shun every snare and offer no exposed side to malice, seeing that we live in that kind of a world where keen envy and slanders are so rife? Instead of his good sense and prudence we speak of his craftiness and insincerity. Is one somewhat simple … ? “He is quite devoid of social tact,” we say.8

Although most of Horace's treatment of the motif falls outside our principal area of interest, focusing as it does upon the faults of offspring and friends, rather than on those of the beloved, it is important in the evolution of our topos, for it juxtaposes the figure of the indulgent suitor with the crucial notion of unjust criticism of the virtuous. In other words, to the lover's natural tendency to depict his sweetheart's faults as positive qualities, Horace adds the idea that that same wooer may describe moral merits as blemishes—a concept borrowed from the larger motif of the “inversion of virtues and vices.” With this fundamental accretion, our amorous motif of the reversal of values nears its complete form.

The last known classical instances of our theme appear appropriately enough in Ovid; one such passage is in the Ars Amatoria:

Particularly forbear to reproach a woman with her faults, faults which many have found it useful to feign otherwise. Her complexion was not made a reproach against Andromeda by him on whose either foot was a swift moving pinion. All thought Andromache too big: Hector alone deemed her of moderate size. … With names you can soften shortcomings; let her be called swarthy, whose blood is blacker than Illyrian pitch; if cross-eyed, she is like Venus; yellow-haired, like Minerva; call her slender whose thinness impairs her health; if short, call her trim; if stout, of full body; let its nearness to a virtue conceal a fault.9

Unlike his predecessors, Ovid here makes no original contribution whatsoever to the development of our motif; he simply repeats the notion that lovers praise their girlfriends' physical flaws. Four of the blemishes enumerated by Ovid—swarthiness, thinness, shortness, and stoutness—coincide with items from Lucretius's list, and he does not include any mental faults, as do Lucretius and Horace. Subsequently, however, in his Remedia Amoris, Ovid introduces a fundamental change in the motif; here he recounts how his advances were rejected by a certain girl, and he describes a remedy that he used to forget her:

“How ugly,” would I say, “are my girl's legs!” and yet they were not, to say the truth. “How short she is!” though she was not; “how much she asks of her lover!” that proved my chiefest cause of hate. Faults too lie near to charms; by that error virtues oft were blamed for vices. Where you can, turn to the worse your girl's attractions, and by a narrow margin criticise amiss. Call her fat, if she is full-breasted, black, if dark-complexioned; in a slender woman leanness can be made a reproach. If she is not simple, she can be called pert: if she is honest, she can be called simple.10

Ovid's remedy for rejection consists, then, in persuading himself that the disdainful lady's qualities and virtues are but so many faults and blemishes. That is, Ovid here turns inside out the original motif of the lover who perceives all his beloved's imperfections as positive qualities: the suitor who once regarded his sweetheart with rose-tinted glasses, when rejected by her, should exchange those spectacles for others that present her in a wholly jaundiced light. This Ovidian passage was incorporated by Lyly into his Euphues, in a paragraph that immediately follows the passage from Euphues quoted above; in response to a woman who turns his qualities into failings, the man should do the same:

Be she never so comely, call her counterfeit; be she never so straight, think her crooked; and wrest all parts of her body to the worst, be she never so worthy. If she be well set then call her a boss [i.e., fat], if slender a hazel twig, if nut-brown as black as coal, if well coloured a painted wall; if she be pleasant then is she a wanton, if sullen a clown, if honest then is she coy, if impudent a harlot.11

Here, then, we have the background for Beatrice's negative depiction of her suitors. The classical commonplace was for the man to perceive even his lady's faults as endearing qualities. Ovid—who apparently knew all there is to know about love—initially registers this masculine trait and then gives the antidote for it; if a girl rejects you, reverse your attitude, construing her good points as bad. Lyly reproduces this Ovidian remedy, but without mentioning its opposite, the lover's natural tendency to turn his lady's faults into positive attributes.

It is only when Lyly's satire is set against the background of the ancient writers that his use of an old device—as well as the distinctiveness of his treatment of it—become apparent. It was in Euphues that Shakespeare found just the model he needed for Beatrice's posture toward men. (Indeed, it is even arguable that the conception of this man-hater came from Lyly.) The influence of Euphues on Hero's portrait of Beatrice is clearly established by the style: Shakespeare follows Lyly in prefacing each phrase of reversal with the conjunction if (“if fair-fac'd,” “if black,” “if tall,” etc.). Moreover, Shakespeare's “if tall” and “if silent” are identical to characteristics in Lyly, while his “if low” and “if speaking” are equivalent in meaning to Lyly's “if short” and “if full of words.”

It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe to Lyly the exclusive inspiration for Hero's description of Beatrice's negativity; the closest parallel to Shakespeare's contrastive pair “if fair-fac'd … if black …” remains Plato's “the swarthy … the white. …” It is reasonable to assume that both Shakespeare and Lyly knew the classical texts cited above, given the standard educational readings of the time and these authors' level of cultural literacy;12 however, I believe that Shakespeare imitated the motif found in Euphues because it coincides exactly with the character he wished to portray in Beatrice.

An awareness of the age-old topos of the “inversion of values,” as applied to lovers, allows us to identify—for the first time—Beatrice's criticism of her wooers as a rhetorical commonplace. An acquaintance with the motif also tells us something about Beatrice's personality: since the time of Plato, it has been considered natural for lovers to excuse their beloveds' faults, praising their physical and mental blemishes as positive attributes; by inverting that tradition, Beatrice reveals a serious psychological flaw of her own. Seeing herself harshly reflected in her cousin's verbal mirror, Beatrice lowers her defense and allows herself to fall in love with the accomplished (though of course imperfect) courtier that is Benedick. Although this denouement is placed in doubt by Beatrice's habit of reversing the ancient custom whereby lovers turn their sweethearts' defects into virtues,13 the fact that the name Beatrice means “she who blesses,” while Benedick means “he who is blessed,” hints from the very beginning of the play that these two will end up happily wedded.14


  1. Quotations are from the edition by A. R. Humphreys, The Arden Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1981).

  2. See, for example, Ad de Vries, Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery, 2d ed. (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1976), 14 E and I 4, respectively.

  3. See The Plays of William Shakespeare, with notes by Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, ed. Isaac Reed, 15 vols. (London: Longman, 1793), Vol. 4, pp. 463-64. Since that time, however, few scholars have appreciated the significance of the parallel. Two editors of Much Ado who have reproduced the passages from Euphues are George Lyman Kittredge ([Boston: Ginn, 1941] p. 113) and Humphreys (p. 146), although neither mentions the motif of the “reversal of values” or the classical antecedents. The most recent editor of the play, F. H. Mares (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), follows the great majority of his predecessors in failing to cite the Euphues parallels.

  4. Quotations are from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. Euphues and His England, ed. Morris William Croll and Harry Clemons (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964), pp. 95-96 and 102. Other instances of the motif of the “inversion of values” are found on pp. 26 and 103 (the latter reflects the influence of Ovid's Remedia Amoris).

  5. This limited motif of the indulgent suitor is an offshoot of the much larger topos of the “inversion of values,” which usually deplores the decadence into which a state or society has fallen, with corrupt or weak individuals being preferred over more worthy ones. This broader commonplace is likewise much older than the more restricted amorous motif, going back to Thucydides (III, 82, 4-8) and reappearing in such writers as Isocrates (Areopagiticus, 20; Antidosis, 283-84), Plato (The Republic, VIII, 560 D), Cicero (Partitiones Oratoriae, XXIII, 81), Sallust (LII, 11), Seneca (Epistles, XLV, 7), Quintilian (III, vii, 25; VIII, vi, 36), Plutarch (Moralia, “How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend,” 74 B), and Juvenal (VIII, 30-38). The device continued throughout the Middle Ages (scattered documentations have beeen gathered for Spanish literature, for instance), and in the Renaissance was cultivated in particular by Erasmus (e.g., Enchiridion, LB V 16A: “We must merely be careful not to disguise a vice of nature with the name of virtue, calling depression gravity, harshness sternness, envy zeal, stinginess frugality, adulation friendliness, or scurrility wit” [The Collected Works of Erasmus (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1988), Vol. 66, Spiritualia, ed. John W. O'Malley, p. 45]).

    The subject is deserving of a monograph (one is suprised not to find it in Ernst Curtius's excellent European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages [New York: Harper, 1963]), but the task is rendered awesome by the topos's very ubiquity throughout more than two thousand years of European historiography, philosophy, and literature. Besides the scattered cross-references recorded below (nn. 6-9), I am aware of no studies in English. More attention has been paid to the motif in the field of Spanish literature; for documentation, see my edition of Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna (Barcelona: Crítica, 1993), ll. 292-347 nn.

  6. Plato, The Republic, V, 474 D-E. The translation is from the bilingual edition by Paul Shorey, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann; New York: Putnam, 1930), Vol. 1, p. 513. Shorey points out the parallels in Lucretius, Horace, Shakespeare, and Molière.

  7. De Rerum Natura, IV, ed. and trans. Cyril Bailey, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947), Vol. 1, ll. 1153-70, pp. 421-23. Bailey notes the parallels in Plato, Horace, Ovid, and Molière (Vol. 3, p. 1311).

  8. Satires, I, iii, 38-47 and 55-66, ed. and trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 34-37. Fairclough refers to the analogues in Plato, Lucretius, Ovid, and Molière.

  9. II, 641-46 and 657-62, in The Art of Love, and Other Poems, ed. and trans. J. H. Mozley (London: Heinemann; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 110-11. Mozley lists the parallels in Lucretius and Horace.

  10. ll. 317-30, in The Art of Love, pp. 198-201; Mozley does not see the relationship between the two passages (which was pointed out to me by my friend and colleague Marvin Colker).

  11. p. 103. The Ovidian sources are registered by Croll and Clemons.

  12. We have already alluded to Lyly's use of Ovid (see nn. 4 and 11, above). Shakespeare's acquaintance with the general motif of the “inversion of values” is apparent in Beatrice's subsequent tirade against the lack of manliness (“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” [4.1.317-21]), and in a phrase from his Sonnet 66: “And simple truth [is] miscall'd simplicity” (cf. Horace, 63 and 66).

  13. The motif of the “reversal of values” appears in two other celebrated European plays: Lope de Vega's Fuente Ovejuna (ca. 1612), ll. 292-347, and in Molière's Le Misanthrope (1666), 2.5711-30. In Fuente Ovejuna the topos is largely divorced from the amorous context; Molière's usage is amatory, and his source was Lucretius (see Molière's Oeuvres complètes, ed. Georges Couton, 2 vols. [Paris: Gallimard, 1971], Vol. 2, p. 1337). The motif likewise occurs in Robert Davenport's play entitled A New Tricke to Cheat the Divell (1639), Act 1, scene 2, wherein Slightall describes how he euphemizes women's physical defects; his examples are taken from the passage in Ovid's Ars Amatoria, II, 641-46 and 658-61. See Old English Plays, ed. A. H. Bullen, New Series, 3 vols. (London: Wyman, 1890), Vol. 3, pp. 203-4 (cited by Humphreys, ed., p. 146).

  14. These meanings are noted by Humphreys and Mares in their editions (respectively, pp. 87-88 and 52), but neither draws any conclusions from them.

Kenneth Branagh (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5048

SOURCE: Branagh, Kenneth. Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, with Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Movie by Kenneth Branagh, pp. vi-xvi. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.

[In the following essay, Branagh describes his approach to filming Much Ado about Nothing. Branagh discusses his focus on character, comments on the film's casting and his adaptation of the text, and notes that most of the cuts he made were for the purpose of eliminating plot repetition.]

Why make a new film of Much Ado About Nothing? In this century, Shakespeare's play has been produced as a feature film on four occasions. The first was an American silent version in 1926; an East German version was made in 1963, and two Russian films appeared in 1956 and 1973. There have also been television versions, often of notable stage productions like Franco Zeffirelli's in 1967 and Joseph Papp's in 1973. But why no modern cinema version?

Certainly the movie world's financers have always evinced suspicion about the commercial possibilities of Shakespeare on film. Yet ‘popular’ plays like Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet have not only worked spectacularly in film versions by Zeffirelli and Sir Laurence Olivier but have proved commercial enough to be repeated on film many times. There are sixty movie versions of Hamlet.

It seems odd that Much Ado About Nothing has not fallen into this category. Since Shakespeare wrote the play, in the mid to latter part of 1598, it has been an enduring success. The 1600 edition tells us that by then it had been ‘sundrie times publikely acted.’ The play was certainly a crowd pleaser and puller. The poet Leonard Digges observed,

Let but Beatrice
And Benedick be seen, lo, in a trice
The cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full.

The role of Dogberry was an enormous success for the first great clown of Shakespeare's company, Will Kempe. Down the centuries since, the leading roles have attracted many notable actors: David Garrick, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and, in our own time, John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, and Maggie Smith. But does this play rest too completely on the ‘kind of merry war twixt Signior Benedick and her’ [Beatrice]? And can the expression of this conflict, in puns, courtly wit, verbal conceits, translate into the medium of film? Can its identity-defining wordplay be dramatic in a screenplay?

Well, yes, I believe it can, but more than that, I believe a film of Much Ado allows us to see in unique focus the breadth of a play that goes much further than the celebration of one gloriously witty couple. Beatrice and Benedick are, after all, the subplot.

The challenge for a new film of Much Ado is not to resist Beatrice and Benedick's dominance but, through the choices made by the camera, to bring to vivid life all the other characters. To take on the play as a whole and realize fully-fleshed lives, for characters like the Friar, the Watch, and Leonato's household in a realistic background and an evocative landscape. Against this detail the Beatrice and Benedick sequences do not sit merely as star turns. Perhaps most importantly, there is room in a movie to give a different kind of space to the Claudio/Hero plot.

My first thoughts about a film version occurred in 1988. At that time I had not yet directed my first feature film (Shakespeare's Henry V), but I found that often after seeing a play, filmic images suggested by the play would haunt me. The ‘movie’ would start to run in my imagination. All the more vividly, perhaps, because at that stage I had no real idea that I would ever have the opportunity to make the movies in my mind translate to celluloid.

The opening images for this film of Much Ado About Nothing came to me during an actual stage performance of the play when I have to confess my concentration wandered. I was playing Benedick in a beautiful production directed by Dame Judi Dench on a U.K. tour. One night during Balthasar's song ‘Sigh No More, Ladies,’ the title sequence of this film played over and over in my mind: heat haze and dust, grapes and horseflesh, and a nod to The Magnificent Seven. The men's sexy arrival, the atmosphere of rural Messina, the vigour and sensuality of the women, possessed me in the weeks, months, and years that followed. This long-term marination process was vital in convincing me that a film of Much Ado could work. Opening the story for the cinema, I thought, should not mean drowning the words and characters in endless vistas and ‘production value.’ Yet the play seemed to beg to live outside, in a vivid, lush countryside. Making the right stylistic connection between word and picture took me four years and three more films to achieve.

During that time I'd become even more convinced of the necessity of doing the film. There were many reasons. The experience of putting Shakespeare on screen as in Henry V had been an extraordinary lesson. A continuous and consistent stream of mail from around the world confirmed the huge appetite for affordable, truly modern accounts of this man's work. Our Henry V had encouraged many (including vast numbers of children) to develop their own, healthily critical view of Shakespeare. This, in a medium with which they were already familiar and to which they had far greater access than to the theatre.

Many of those who wrote had enjoyed the apparent ‘naturalness’ of the acting (which I think is depressing testament to the usual expectation of incomprehensible booming and fruity-voiced declamation). My continued desire in Much Ado was for an absolute clarity that would enable a modern audience to respond to Shakespeare on film, in the same way that they would respond to any other movie. Our concern was to do this without losing his unique poetry.

Ironically, three-quarters of Much Ado is in prose. But if there is such a thing as ‘poetic prose,’ then Shakespeare achieves it in this play. It has a double effect. It can give us the poetic melancholy of Beatrice's ‘No, sure, my lord, my mother cried. But then there was a star danced and under that was I born.’ But at the same time much of the dialogue has a realistic, conversational tone that renders it most easy on the ear.

The prose wooing scene between Henry and Katherine at the end of Henry V prompted many viewers to say that we had made up the dialogue. When we played Much Ado in the theatre, this charge was made regularly by backstage visitors. The accusation was not true, but it did say much about the realistic quality of the play. It hinted also at the style our Renaissance Theatre Company had begun to develop, a style on which the acting in the films of Henry V and Much Ado would be based.

During our theatre company's short life we have tackled several of Shakespeare's comedies. In each case the productions have, in broad terms, sought out the particular quality that has spoken most loudly to the directors and actors involved. In the case of Twelfth Night it was the bitter melancholy of the piece that attracted us. That sense of irony and regret, shot through the comedy, made our rendition closer to Chekhov than is perhaps usual. With As You Like It, the sheer joy of its pastoral lyricism was emphasised; the acting was playful and delicate. Much Ado About Nothing seemed much more robust in tone, rougher and sexier than our Forest of Arden in As You Like It. Its hot-tempered Italianate qualities distinguish it from the more obvious ‘Englishness’ of the other plays.

But in the case of each of these stage productions, our intent was to disarm the audience with the ‘reality’ of the playing. Our troupe was young and often inexperienced. But the actors were cast for their talent and for the freshness they brought to the roles. Like me, many of the actors were coming to the plays for the first time. They were relatively free of actory mannerisms and the baggage of strutting and bellowing that accompanies the least effective Shakespearean performances.

Ours was a style that wished to be in tune with our audience. We were touring around the United Kingdom and Ireland to places and audiences that were also relatively unfamiliar with these plays. Our great joy was to set and tell the story with the utmost clarity and simplicity and let the particular directorial inflexion, or interpretation, be seen through the characterisations. In effect, we assumed that no one had seen the play before. We wanted audiences to react to the story as if it were in the here and now and important to them. We did not want them to feel they were in some cultural church.

We made the same attempt in film. The goal was utter reality of characterisation. Shakespeare accomplishes this as a matter of course. The difficulty for actors lies in not putting things in between themselves and this reality—a funny voice, a walk, an unconscious treatment of the character that suggests he or she is from another planet. The film medium resists such artifice completely. The camera in a film of Much Ado would ruthlessly sniff out any artificial ‘witty’ acting—flutey voiced young gallants with false laughs and thighs made for slapping.

Indeed, I required absolutely the opposite. This film would be based on character. In the absence of an eventful plot (the irony of the title is not lost on us), it is the detail of humanity amongst the participants that helps make Much Ado one of Shakespeare's most accessible works.

The film presented a rare opportunity to utilise the skills of marvellous film actors who would embrace this naturalistic challenge. I was determined, however, not to cast only British actors. I wanted a combination of elements that would exploit the novelty of doing Shakespeare on film. Unlike the plays performed on our theatrical tours, this film would be seen mostly by people coming fresh to Shakespeare in movie form. I wanted something of that atmosphere on the set.

In crude terms, the challenge was to find experienced Shakespearean actors who were unpracticed on screen and team them with highly experienced film actors who were much less familiar with Shakespeare. Different accents, different looks. An excitement borne out of complementary styles and approaches would produce a Shakespeare film that belonged to the world. As a longtime admirer of American screen acting, I naturally wished to include some U.S. actors. In place of events, much of the action in this piece comes from the characters' emotional volatility. The best American film acting has always had this emotional fearlessness.

Making this work called for the appropriate casting chemistry and a formal rehearsal period prior to shooting. The casting of the British actors was relatively straightforward. Richard Briers, Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed et al., had spent much of the previous five years working with Renaissance and being part of the developing style I've tried to describe. I had no set number of American actors that I tried to cast. Indeed, I was also interested in one or two Italian and French actors. My aim was to be as international as possible. In the end the choices became simple. I asked film actors whom I admired and whose career choices had been adventurous enough to suggest they would not be intimidated. In all cases I explained that I did not want artificial ‘Shakespeare voices,’ that they must perform in their own accents, and that they must be prepared to study the text technically, as well as carry out their absolute obligation to be truthful.

The rehearsal process was designed to accommodate these tasks. One of the people in attendance was Russell Jackson of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon. His special responsibility was to make each actor aware of when a character was speaking in verse and when in prose, and to make him aware, in either case, of the rhythm of the text. Russell pointed out places where particular words were repeated for effect, places where a character's vocabulary gave a clue to personality, and devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration—in short, any appreciation of where the music of the language breathed, stopped, paused, etc. All this to ensure that the spontaneity, freshness, and naturalism that we were after were achieved with a bedrock of structural understanding. Realistic Shakespearean acting on film or on stage cannot be achieved fully without this understanding. Whatever the effect we strive for, we must remember at all times that we are speaking the words of a great dramatic poet. His poetry, of whatever kind, must be observed.

Also present at rehearsal was Hugh Cruttwell, former director and principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Hugh had two roles on the production. One was to ensure that in the midst of other responsibilities my performance as Benedick did not suffer. He was my other eye. A secondary function was to be a help to the actors in establishing their characters. These were arrived at in a variety of ways. I had solo sessions with each of the actors, and we held group discussions/improvisation sessions to explore the background to our world.

How long had the soldiers been away? What kind of war had it been? How violent? Which of our men had been killers? How often had they visited Leonato prior to this? How well did they all know one another? How old were they? How long did these soldiers expect to live?

And then, of course, we probed the detail of the relationships. This filling in of the ‘back story’ for each of the characters is one of the most necessary and interesting elements in preparing a characterisation, particularly for the screen. The audience won't know specifically my off-screen history for Benedick—his upbringing, his family, his likes and dislikes—but I hope that with this history firmly in my mind, they will at least intuit part of it, feel a depth to the character beyond what he says and does.

With Benedick and Beatrice, a shared understanding between the actors of their mutual history was essential. They are both described as ‘merry.’ Leonato says of Beatrice,

There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord; she is never sad but when she sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have heard my daughter say she hath often dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.

Yet many productions interestingly choose to mine that part of Beatrice and Benedick's history which, if not tinged by melancholy, is at least spoken of with some regret by Beatrice, who when charged with losing the heart of Benedick replies,

Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

Emma Thompson and I both wanted to suggest former lovers who had been genuinely hurt by their first encounter, which perhaps occurred at the tender age of Hero and Claudio in the play. (For our purposes we deliberately made the younger lovers around twenty years of age and Beatrice and Benedick a significant ten years or so older.) In our version, both characters are at that point where they might well develop into confirmed spinster and bachelor. Both are staunchly anti-marriage and very resistant to the way in which that institution mutes the personalities of such as themselves. But the foundation of the performance was the idea of two people who had broken each other's hearts and who had developed personalities that attempted to prevent the same thing ever happening again. Their wit, irony, and apparent lack of feeling covers only superficially two of the most romantic, generous, and emotional of Shakespeare's characters.

This emotional volatility was a key to the whole film. We wished to involve the audience's hearts as well as their minds and their laughter muscles.

Robert Sean Leonard (Claudio), Denzel Washington (Don Pedro), and Keanu Reeves (Don John) all wished to stress the full-blooded nature of their respective characters. These men are soldiers for whom time spent away from war is precious. Love is seized. The instantaneousness of Claudio's love for Hero, its intensity, is not unusual amongst men for whom death is an equal reality. Hence the swiftness and the delight with which Don Pedro takes up his young charge's case. There is a zeal to the Don's playfulness that is almost too intense. We enjoy his fun but at the same time cannot fail to be worryingly aware of Don John's malevolent, equally passionate presence. The atmosphere in the early part of the play recalls Juliet's reservations before her fateful date with Romeo.

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say it lightens.

There is much rashness in Much Ado. The speed of the plot allows people to abandon rationality in the face of often incredible events.

As in much of Shakespeare, a strong suspension of disbelief is necessary when it comes to the plot of Much Ado. Lewis Carroll is very funny about it in a letter to Ellen Terry:

My difficulty is this: Why in the world did not Hero (or at any rate Beatrice when speaking on her behalf) prove an ‘alibi’, in answer to the charge? It seems certain she did not sleep in her own room that night: for how could Margaret venture to open the window and talk from it, with her mistress asleep in the room? It would be sure to wake her. Besides, 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 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? When Claudio asks her, ‘What man was he talked with you yesterday out at your window betwixt twelve and one?’ why doesn't she reply, ‘I talked with no man at that hour, my lord: Nor was I in my chamber yesternight, but in another, far from it remote.’ And this she could prove by the evidence of the housemaid, who must have known that she had 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 has her wits about her? And when an arrangement was made, by which she was to lose, for that one night, her twelve-months' bedfellow, is it conceivable that she didn't know where Hero passed the night? Why didn't she reply

But, good my lord, sweet Hero slept not there:
She had another chamber for the nonce.
’Twas sure some counterfeit that did present
Her person at the window, aped her voice,
Her mien, her manners, and hath thus deceived
My good lord Pedro and this company.

That this whole story should be resolved by the comic intervention of a ludicrous constable lends to Much Ado a warmly bizarre quality that does much to amend the ugliness inherent in the wedding scene and in Claudio's behaviour afterwards. Michael Keaton and I were agreed that Dogberry should be not only a verbal but a physical malaprop. I suspect I am not alone in finding the character's play on words less funny today than the character himself—instantly recognisable, a universal type, beautifully pompous, and, in our version, dangerous too. A modern cinema audience, ready to scream at Dogberry for his inability to inform Leonato of the plot against Hero in time, needed to know exactly why he does not.

In our version this is quite clear. Dogberry combines an awe and envy of authority that renders him barely able to speak in the presence of someone like Leonato or Don Pedro. When he does speak, it is with the confused confidence of the psychopath. In our film Dogberry and Verges are charismatically, indomitably mad. The Watch, who are featured throughout the film, are awed and frightened by him. This element of danger allows the audience to feel uncertain about whether the plot will ever truly resolve itself. That unbalancing of expectations, a useful doubt about what would happen next, was something we actively sought.

For a film of Shakespeare should have no empty moments. As in Henry V, where we featured the faces of an otherwise anonymous English army that became known to us, in Much Ado Leonato's household are present throughout. Their reaction at the wedding becomes that much more powerful, their joy at the end that much more intense. In the theatre when there is a palpable sense of ‘company,’ the audience is aware of it in a very satisfying way. Our rehearsals did as much to promote this sense of one Messinian community as possible.

On the production side we made sure that the costumes and period setting did everything they could to release the audience's imagination. We consciously avoided setting this version in a specific time but instead went for a look that worked within itself, where clothes, props, architecture, all belonged to the same world. This imaginary world could have existed almost anytime between 1700 and 1900. It was distant enough to allow the language to work without the clash of period anachronisms and for a certain fairy tale quality to emerge. This fairy tale idea seemed to spring naturally out of the countryside in which we were working. We were in Tuscany, central Italy, a magical landscape of vines and olives that seems untouched by much of modern life. Lusher and more verdant than Sicily (Shakespeare's setting), it allowed us to create a visual idyll in which this cautionary tale might be told.

If there is a single moral to be taken from this story, it is one that I chose to find in the song that begins the film.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.

We hear the song three times in the film. Once in Beatrice's wry, ironic voice at the beginning, again at the centre of the film, in an idealised garden setting where it appeals to Claudio's high romanticism, and finally at the end where it becomes a hard-won confirmation of a certain reality in the relationships between men and women. The idea of seeing the words and hearing them spoken right at the beginning of the film was a determined attempt to show how they could be dramatic in themselves. It allows the audience to ‘tune in’ to the new language they are about to experience and to realise (I hope) that they will easily understand the simplicity, gravity, and beauty of the song lyrics.

Purists may be offended; the play does not begin in this way. But this decision does raise the issue of what one means exactly by ‘adapting’ Shakespeare. I think that in film terms, it means giving a strong sense of the interpretive line. In the comedies this is crucial. They must be inflected. They do not lay themselves out with the same strong narrative, historical frame that the history plays do. The very titles themselves invite us to be bold: Twelfth Night, or What You Will. As You Like It.

In the case of this screenplay (whose planned mise-en-scène was adhered to far more strictly than in any other film on which I've worked) there is a great deal of description. Particularly at the beginning much is made of atmosphere and characters' states of mind. This seemed necessary for a play like Much Ado, which has been set in every conceivable period and country, with young, old, and middle-aged casting of every permutation. We did cut lines and occasionally scenes where the plot (such as it is) was not advanced. We did transpose some scenes in order to create a movie pace (quite different from that of the theatre).

For example, in the very first scene, it seemed to me important to get to the men's arrival as soon as possible. We would shortly see them riding to Leonato's. Excessive description of what Benedick and Claudio were like therefore seemed unnecessary.

The Beatrice and Benedick gulling scenes were trimmed in such a way as to make one big scene of continuous action in the same garden. We wanted to lose any sense of the formal ending of one scene and beginning of another as in the play. This helped the believability of the two characters' falling for each other so swiftly. It also took acting pressure off the women in the second of the scenes. In the theatre this is often a difficult scene, as it has to in some way ‘top’ the boys' gulling scene. This is impossible, as the second scene's tone is quite different, less obviously funny.

The deception of Claudio was most important in this screen adaptation. In theatrical versions this character is often dismissed for his gullibility. Hero's alleged infidelity (her ‘talking’ to a man at a window) is described as happening offstage. It seemed that if we saw this occur on screen, it would add a new dimension to our understanding of Claudio. This proof of her disloyalty is one of a number of crucial events that take place on the night before the wedding. To extract maximum drama (and comedy) from this night, we made some transpositions. Don John's scene with Borachio where they plot the deception was moved from before the gulling scenes (as in the play) to afterwards, as if at the beginning of this one terrible night. This had the side effect of distributing Don John's appearances more evenly and satisfyingly through the film. We broke up the first Watch scene, bringing Dogberry into the story earlier and cutting after his first exit, allowing the dastardly events of this night to occur with greater film logic. Time passes while the deception occurs, and then we come back to the sleeping constabulary ready to arrest Borachio and Conrade.

In the Dogberry scenes we cut the unfunniest lines. (I realise this is an entirely subjective issue, but having played one of the great unfunny Shakespearean clowns—Touchstone in As You Like It—I speak from bitter experience.) The wedding morning scene between the women, where Beatrice's love-induced ‘cold’ is made much fun of by Margaret, was shot. But although beautifully acted it was cut on the grounds that the dramatic way in which the previous nighttime sequence had played made the audience alive with expectation for the events of the wedding itself. This scene with the girls seemed finally to frustrate.

Elsewhere the cuts mainly involved the repetition of plot. In the play, characters constantly restate the current shape of events and repeat what's just happened and what's about to happen. But nothing ‘difficult’ was changed. No words were altered for easier understanding. The adaptation was at the service of our attempt to find an essence in the piece, to find the spirit of the play itself.

This brings me back to my first question. Why film Much Ado About Nothing? And why now?

When I was training to be an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, this question of why? was something Hugh Cruttwell constantly urged me to consider. The how of creating a piece of art always comes second. It's the why that will get you to the truth of a character. Why does Benedick love Beatrice? Not how—that's easy. Answering why always takes forever when creating a character, but it's a necessary journey. An actor has to apply the same question to himself when creating a film, or when performing a play. With the luxury of a degree of choice, a proper answer has to go beyond ‘So I can earn a living’ or ‘It's a lovely part’ or ‘I like Italy.’ One has to ask why one is communicating this particular story at this particular time.

So, once again, why Much Ado About Nothing? Well, for me, because it speaks loudly and gloriously about love, one of humankind's permanent obsessions. The cruelty of it, the joy of it. The question of tolerance in love and the danger of judging others. The cost of the ambiguous maturity that people like Hero and Claudio enjoy. The loss of innocence; the power of lust; our obsession with sex and the flesh. The persistent presence of sheer, unmotivated evil in the world as provided by the Iago prototype Don John.

In short, the play presents a whole series of emotional and spiritual challenges that we—young, old, male, female—continue to face when we love. And all throughout this comic debate about everything and nothing, there is life-giving, wisdom-bearing humour and warmth. The piece is harsh and cruel as people can be. It is generous and kind as they can also be. It is uplifting but never sentimental. It ‘holds the mirror up to nature’ and allows us inside its wonderful warts-and-all world of human nature, to understand and perhaps even to forgive ourselves for some of our oft-repeated follies.

That's why I interpreted Much Ado About Nothing on film in 1993. The attempt to achieve all this and any degree of success is due to a massive team effort. My thanks to producers, production team, cast, and crew for making it all possible.

Celestino Deleyto (review date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8142

SOURCE: Deleyto, Celestino. “Men in Leather: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing and Romantic Comedy.” Cinema Journal 36, no. 3 (spring 1997): 91-105.

[In the following review, Deleyto studies Branagh's treatment of genre and gender issues in his 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing.]

Recent writing on romantic comedy has taken the view that the genre has died, been reborn, and reached a peak of popularity in the course of the last fifteen to twenty years. Reacting to Brian Henderson's well-known article on the “agony” of contemporary romantic comedy, Bruce Babington and Peter Evans, for example, affirm the ongoing validity of the genre's basic discourse of celebration of heterosexual love, even while they acknowledge that it has undergone important transformations because it “involves specifics that are in a state of flux in advanced Western cultures.”1 Referring to comedy in general, Andrew Horton likewise notes the consistent popularity of Hollywood comedies in the late eighties,2 while Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik not only speak of a “current revival of romantic comedies”3 but have more specifically distinguished between the “nervous romances” of the late seventies and early eighties—romantic comedies whose uncertainties about the continuing applicability of the genre's conventions often express themselves in a fragmentary narrative form—and the “new romances” that emerged in the mideighties and were characterized by a return to the old-fashioned values of traditional heterosexual romance.4 More recently, Kathleen Rowe has used Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) as an illustration of the lasting validity of comedy as a narrative genre, in part, she states, “because it speaks to powerful needs to believe in the utopian possibilities condensed on the image of the couple.”5 With the exception of Henderson, all these writers share the belief that romantic comedy can and will survive by adapting to changing historical circumstances and that this will not necessarily entail much modification in its basic form and ideology.

Any attempt to historicize the romantic comedy of the eighties and nineties must, consequently, address the ways in which the “specifics” mentioned by these authors have influenced the genre's basic structure, while at the same time acknowledging its powerful tendency to hold cultural transformations in place.6 The films do not openly lend themselves to an analysis of the impact of social change in them. Rather, they privilege the eternal, unchanging nature of romantic love and tend to gloss over those aspects from the surrounding culture which threaten to deconstruct their underlying sexual ideology. According to Babington and Evans, the most relevant social changes that have affected the genre recently are the growing divorce rate, single parenting, feminism, gay rights, and the “rise of the working woman,” all of which they see as the outcome of the “post-feminist, gay revolutions.”7 Compulsory heterosexuality and the subjugation of women seem to be, then, the two central ideological tenets of classical romantic comedy8 and also those which have come under greatest pressure in contemporary films. Yet, in my view, the effects of this pressure are rather uneven: whereas the problematics of the foregrounding of female desire and the creation of a female space—what Rowe calls “women on top”9—have apparently become a primary concern of most recent Hollywood romantic comedies, the existence of alternative sexualities has remained significantly underdeveloped in them.10 In other words, it seems that, while the genre has gradually adapted to reflect changes in gender relationships, it is proving to be much slower and less flexible to incorporate homoerotic desire. This unbalanced situation is, to a great extent, reproduced in the literature on the subject. While evidently aware of the compulsion to heterosexuality in the genre, neither Neale and Krutnik nor Rowe investigate the films' possible anxieties over this issue. Babington and Evans's analysis does partly focus on two films whose subject is precisely this anxiety (Tootsie and Victor/Victoria), but for them the basic tension in contemporary examples of the genre remains that between a “cultural differentiation of the sexes based upon the passivity and subordination of women” and a “mutual delight in differences that are not necessarily hierarchical.”11

Hence, even at this early stage, Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing (1992) can be seen as an interesting case study for several reasons. First, as a contemporary adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy, the film is an ideal space for the exploration of the changes undergone by the genre in the last four centuries. In historical terms, Much Ado occupies an uneasy position, both bearing witness to the birth of modern romantic comedy and standing side by side with the most recent manifestations of the genre. It is precisely this ambiguous position that renders the film an illuminating example of the state of the genre in the nineties. Secondly, Much Ado continues a general trend in Shakespearean romantic comedy in that it overtly hinges on Beatrice, the female protagonist, as the main point of identification for the audience, especially in her “merry war” with Benedick. Third, the plot of Much Ado also allows Branagh to deal at length with the threat that homoerotic desire may pose to the central heterosexual romance. In other words, by adapting this particular play, Branagh is able to tap into the two elements whose presence/absence defines the contemporary stage of development of the genre. The film is, therefore, a special case within the genre because it almost brings into the open what other romantic comedies—both classical and contemporary—for the most part keep well hidden: the pressure of homoerotic desire on a generic and social structure based on heterosexuality.

For the Shakespearean critic Richard A. Levin, the key to the action of Much Ado is the recognition that “the time to marry has arrived in Messina.”12 Yet, instead of producing harmony, the immediate prospect of socialization through heterosexual monogamy seems to bring to the surface all the sexual tensions that have remained muted during the war. With the exception of Beatrice's initial hostility to men, it is mostly the young men that present the fiercest opposition to marriage. In fact, the film could be described as the story of a group of men who are confronted with the social reality of marriage and who are only half-heartedly reconciled to an immediate future of stable monogamy, because such a prospect will entail the abandonment of the company of men and the intense state of male bonding favored by the war. In the rest of this essay, I propose a reading of Branagh's Much Ado as a film of the nineties and, more specifically, as a culturally prestigious arena in which contemporary questions of sexual politics and gender ideology are explored. My analysis will first focus on the specific terms of the relationship between optimistic heterosexual romance and gender tensions in the film. After a brief account of the play's discourse on heterosexuality—a discourse which is still understandable at the end of the twentieth century—I will concentrate on three different but interrelated aspects of the film: Balthasar's song, the precredit and credit sequences, and, finally, the treatment of the male characters, especially Don Pedro (Denzel Washington) and Don John (Keanu Reeves). In order to explore the film's delineation of heterosexual relationships and the threats to romance posed by these two characters I will draw, among others, on Susan Lurie's work on pornography and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's on homosocial desire.13 Starting from very different theoretical positions, both authors coincide in positing the male fear of woman and the threat she poses as the founding mechanism of patriarchal culture. The proud group of men in leather who dominate the first few minutes of Much Ado soon starts crumbling under the influence of the “female space” of Messina. The culturally ingrained male fear of women is used and reversed by the film in order to produce a happy ending which, while acceptable to contemporary audiences, ensures the continuity of the genre's traditional structure. It is this process of adaptation to both the laws of the genre and contemporary society that I try to map in the following pages.14

Although Benedick ultimately proves to be the most compromising of the male characters and ripe for a heterosexual union in which an egalitarian relationship between the sexes may at least be envisaged, it is precisely through him that the play articulates the patriarchal view that falling in love affects manliness and turns men into effeminate posers. What is ironic about his famous soliloquy in scene 2.3 of the play is that it comes immediately before Don Pedro's plot to get Benedick and Beatrice to fall in love with each other, and, consequently, immediately before Benedick starts behaving in the exact manner he so vehemently criticizes. Among other things, his friend Claudio is blamed for changing his preferences from military to festive music, from armor to fashionable clothes, from plain discourse to rhetorical embellishment. There follows a list of the qualities that an eligible woman should have in order to “convert” Benedick. These are, of course, the very qualities that Beatrice possesses, and the spectator is aware that with this hypothetical enumeration he is really describing her and anticipating their future compatibility. This kind of double play, which both glorifies and parodies heterosexual harmony, partakes of Shakespeare's ambivalent attitude toward the tradition of courtly love, a tradition that had, by the 1590s, become clichéd in English literature but which served, at the same time, as the culturally prestigious basis for the new Protestant concept of marriage based on love.15 Despite the parodic attitude that this and other texts of the same period show toward the medieval conventions, “true love” cannot be imagined and, therefore, represented without reference to them.

However, while the relationship between Claudio and Hero provides the clearest example in the play of a love according to courtly conventions, the ideal heterosexual relationship, that between Beatrice and Benedick, incorporates yet another ingredient: gender confrontation. This element of Shakespeare's romantic comedies has best been discussed by Stephen Greenblatt through the concepts of heat and chafing.16 Starting from a discussion of Elizabethan medical theories of sexuality, which explained sex and reproduction as a matter of erotic heat (the literal increase of bodily temperature produced by friction as a precondition for the proper functioning of the sexual organs), Greenblatt contends that, since erotic heat could not be directly represented on the Elizabethan stage, Shakespeare took advantage of the common knowledge that erotic heat was no different from other kinds of heat in the human body and substituted verbal wit for it: the linguistic sparring between lovers which produced the necessary dramatic friction to metaphorically represent the erotic friction on which sexuality was based. Greenblatt's theory explains the nature of the linguistic competition between Benedick and Beatrice: linguistic tension is at the very basis of the representation of love and compatibility between the two characters. On the other hand, while medical science has since then proved that the concepts of heat and friction are inaccurate to describe the functioning of the human sexual organs, the dramatic friction that, for Greenblatt, is in the Elizabethan era a consequence of the putting into discourse of these medical concepts is still understandable in the twentieth century as part of the codified structure of heterosexual relationships in comic fiction.17 In other words, the medical grounds of the convention may have disappeared, but the convention itself still works in our day, defining the representation of sexual relationships in cultural texts as a problematic tension between friction and harmony. For a late-twentieth-century film like Much Ado, the continuing applicability of this convention has the added advantage of highlighting Beatrice's “feminist” awareness of the unfairness of male behavior in patriarchy, while at the same time explaining her readiness to “submit” to a stable relationship with a man: she exposes Benedick's shortcomings and dismissive attitude toward women as sexist, but, through her verbal “abuse,” the play simultaneously manages to convey her attraction toward him. To put this in other words, linguistic friction is the film's way of dramatizing the conflict between Beatrice's wish to be independent from men and her desire for Benedick, a conflict which is, for Rowe, at the basis of the contradictions experienced by heterosexual women in patriarchy.18 It also renders more credible Benedick's change from apparent resentment of women to the willing and joyful acceptance of a monogamous engagement with the most threatening specimen of the opposite sex.

This approach therefore reinforces the feasibility of a thematic structure in which conflict not only leads to final reconciliation but is an integral part of the sexual compatibility produced by that reconciliation. Having said this, it is however also possible to reverse Greenblatt's theory: in a play like Much Ado, successful sexual relationships are invariably based on ideological and linguistic tensions between the sexes that cast a permanent shadow on the feasibility of those relationships. Since reconciliation is a universal comic convention, to say that the film ends in reconciliation is not to say anything specific about the text itself. We must, therefore, analyze the specific terms in which that reconciliation takes place. On the other hand, Benedick's flexibility and readiness to compromise is not totally shared by his “buddies.” While his apparent resentment of women may be considered as “only” one ingredient of his future acceptance of their difference, the attitudes of the other three male characters cannot easily be contained by this reading. The viewer must accept the final reconciliation between Claudio and Hero as a contribution to the generalized image of social harmony characteristic of Shakespeare's comedies, no matter how problematic this reconciliation may look nowadays, but no effort needs to be made in the cases of Don Pedro and Don John, who are, for apparently different reasons, simply excluded from the final heterosexual pairing celebrated by the song and dance. To put it briefly, a reading of the film must explain the exact terms of the negotiation that leads to heterosexual reconciliation in the case of Benedick and Beatrice and the reasons why Don Pedro and Don John are excluded from it (reasons which, in my view, should also lead to Claudio's exclusion and certainly to Hero's rejection of him).

For Barbara Everett, what distinguishes Much Ado from other Shakespearean comedies is its insistence on the radical difference in outlook and behavior between men and women and the fact that it is the women's world that dominates in the play.19 An element that may undercut this dominance, however, is Balthasar's song, one of the most problematic aspects of the staging of the play.20 Benedick's comparison of his singing to a dog's howling and the servant's acknowledgment of his own limitations as a singer have often been sufficient evidence to turn the song into parody and burlesque in performance.21 Zitner argues that Balthasar's limited ability as a singer may be the key to solving the problem of the contradictory message contained in the lyrics. For him, the message, delivered through the assertion that “men were deceivers ever” and, simultaneously, that women ought to leave lamentation over male infidelity and sing songs of flirtation (Zitner's interpretation of the phrase “hey nonny nonny”) can only be explained as male self-serving counsel: “that women reconcile themselves to playing in an unfair game, even [while] blandly own[ing] up to male unfairness.”22 The emotional power of this misogynistic message would then be undercut by Balthasar's exaggeratedly poor rendering, thus invalidating the “truth” of its content.

This is clearly not the option taken in Branagh's film. In this case, Balthasar (Patrick Doyle) sings the song beautifully, and Branagh's histrionic but effective performance of Benedick's reaction contributes to the general impression that male pomp and self-importance ought to be abandoned before a balanced heterosexual relationship may be established. But the song is not rescued from parody and burlesque solely by Balthasar's performance. The same song is used for the final dance and celebration, which again sanctions its validity as part of the dominant discourse of the text. But, even more crucially, it is appropriated by Beatrice and used for the opening of the film. It is to this opening scene—Beatrice's performance of the song and the arrival of Don Pedro's men in Messina—that I want to turn my attention now.

Adrienne L. McLean has recently argued that musical numbers in nonmusical films tend to be dismissed as passages in which nothing important happens, yet they may provide one of the few places in classical Hollywood cinema “in which women do not necessarily always play only to male desire.”23 Elsewhere in her essay, McLean applies Rick Altman's contention that the musical reverses the “normal” image/sound hierarchy of classical cinema: in the musical number, image becomes subordinated to sound.24 Although the critic is referring to classical Hollywood films, her words accurately describe the narrative function of Beatrice's rendering of “Hey nonny nonny.” The film opens with the lyrics of the song gradually appearing on a black screen while Emma Thompson's voice is heard reciting them to the background melody which will again accompany the song on two more occasions during the film (first by Balthasar, and then by everybody at the end). The film's use of the written lyrics can be understood as prompting the spectator to sing, or at least recite, along and thus identify with the content of what is being said and with the speaking voice. Even before the importance of the message sinks in, the film is, therefore, demanding total identification with Beatrice from the spectator. After the end of the first stanza, the black screen is first replaced by a painting of the Italian villa, which idealizes the space of the recitation, and then, through a leisurely panning frame movement, followed by a view of Leonato's household as they sit on the grass in a “carelessly arranged” manner listening to Beatrice's words. Her face is then framed for the first time, in close-up, as her recitation of the song's second stanza finishes. This shot, therefore, establishes the space of Leonato's household as dominated by Beatrice and by the words she recites, bringing the film closer to Everett's reading of the play. But what exactly do these words mean?

This is not, as in the play, a man suggesting that women should put up with men's infidelities and keep on inviting male misogynistic behavior but a woman ironically suggesting that women reject that behavior and advising them not to take men too seriously and not to shed one single tear over them. The “hey nonny nonny,” whose original meaning is not clear anyway, appears here to be turned by the film's contemporary discourse into a song of celebration of a female space, a space initially occupied by the women and the men of Leonato's household. The song, therefore, cannot be taken ironically, as Zitner suggests in the case of the play, but at face value, as defining a position, within patriarchy, in which the basic injustice of patriarchal society is understood and in which women resist the humiliation stemming from that injustice.25

The harmony of this female space is inevitably disrupted by the news of the imminent return of Don Pedro and his company of men. Beatrice's recitation, therefore, adds an interesting nuance to the play's opening. Whereas in Shakespeare the emphasis is, from the beginning, on Don Pedro's arrival and his men's exploits, in the film this arrival is presented both as a disruption of the female space with which the spectator is unequivocally asked to identify and as a slightly ridiculous event through the focus on the messenger's embarrassed replies to Beatrice's minimizing of Benedick's warring exploits. Shortly afterward, as the credits appear, the company of men are shown covering the last stretch of their journey, a moment which is visually presented through the point of view of Beatrice and her friends.

Being a comedy, Much Ado pays less attention to male performance in war than to Beatrice's biting comments about Benedick's cowardice. Yet the experience of war does seem to underscore some of the male characters' actions and attitudes in Messina. For these men, the memory of war produces an experience of loss and a state of regressive bliss characterized by male bonding and total absence of women. In a recent analysis of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), Tania Modleski has argued that “an important objective of war is to subjugate femininity and keep it at a distance.”26 This male fear of women in patriarchal societies has been persuasively analyzed by Susan Lurie in a feminist revision of the Freudian theory of castration, in which she argues that, in the course of their psychosexual development, male subjects gradually replace their longing for union with the mother with a fear of dissolution and loss of individuality through this union. A similar form of this terror is experienced in adult life every time the male subject has a sexual encounter with another woman. The threat of castration, accordingly, does not come from the father, as Freud had argued, but from the mother, who is not perceived by the boy as a “penisless man” but as the possessor of a terrible power that is capable of castrating him.27 This fear of women is a product of acculturation, the consequence of a patriarchal society that represses female sexuality, precisely by associating it with hostile, destructive drives, drives which do not respond to the reality of women but belong exclusively in men's minds. For Klaus Theweleit, the violence of war is a consequence of this same fear of dissolution through union with the woman. It is this fear that throws men into homosocial bonding.28 Male homosocial desire, the term coined by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, describes precisely the cultural process whereby latent homoerotic desire is combined with apparent homophobia in a hegemony of male virility whose ultimate objective is the abjection of woman and the threat she poses.

The presence of this masculine hegemony in recent popular films has been analyzed, among others, by Cynthia J. Fuchs, who finds that the threat posed by women to the male bond becomes the unspoken structuring principle of many of these films, in which an “all-male unit transcending race and class distinctions” is finally triumphant.29 Fuchs's analysis centers mostly on action adventure films and is not immediately transferable to romantic comedies, in which, as I suggest in the introduction to this essay, the male bond, because of its latent homoerotic dimensions, is not usually so visible. In Much Ado, by contrast, the all-male unit is prominent but in a period of crisis, and it consequently becomes the main object of attack in Beatrice's song. As some critics have pointed out, however important male bonding is in the play, the film nevertheless turns this male-to-male allegiance into a much more central element of its ideological structure, one that simultaneously problematizes and highlights its heterosexual romance.30

The crisis of the male group, however, is not immediately obvious as they arrive in Messina on their return from the war. Celebratory military music forms the auditory background to a set of slow-motion shots of the riders as the credits are displayed on the screen. A shot of Don Pedro's flag is followed by a shot of horses' legs in full gallop and then an individual medium shot of Don Pedro, followed by similar shots of another five men: Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Benedick, two lords, Don John, Don Pedro's bastard brother, and Borachio (Gerard Horan) and Conrad (Richard Clifford), two common soldiers, friends of Don John's. As in Fuchs's description, in this panoramic tableau there is no class or racial distinction. On the contrary, the picture presents an apparently idyllic male company, whose power and friendship are then emphasized by a final long shot, still in slow motion, framing the six men in a horizontal composition, riding together, with no hierarchical differentiation between them. Shots of the men arriving in Leonato's house are then crosscut with shots of the people in the house, mostly the women, both groups rushing to their meeting in an atmosphere of exhilaration, completing a rousing credit sequence which sets the mood for the rest of the film. In fact, it could be argued that the flutter, excitement, and even sexual euphoria shown by both men and women at this point underscore the truth value of Beatrice's ditty, as discussed earlier, and produce a spectatorial distance from her words of caution to women, prompting female spectators to surrender to male supremacy.

Closer attention, however, will show that the men's power and strong unity are, in fact, textually undercut by three stylistic elements: the credits, the music, and the clothing. As the sequence of shots reaches its first climax and the men are seen together for the first time, they raise one arm and shout in unison, reinforcing their teamlike unity. At the same time, however, the background music turns into a fully orchestrated repetition of the “hey nonny nonny” melody as the title of the film—Much Ado About Nothing—is superimposed on the image. The music suggests that these warriors are entering a space where the budding romantic proceedings will have to take place on the terms proposed by Beatrice, totally opposed to this all-too-obvious display of machismo. At the same time, the title neatly suggests that military victories and men's subsequent sense of self-importance are … much ado about nothing. Finally, close attention to the six riders will reveal that although their white jackets are almost exactly alike, a slight contrast is established between the horsemen on the right and on the left of Don Pedro through the blue and black linings of the men's jackets.31 Suspicion is then confirmed at the end of the sequence, as the men walk in to meet Leonato and the others: it now appears that the riders' trousers are not all the same. This added detail definitely divides the men into three subgroups: Don John, Borachio, and Conrad, situated on the left-hand side of Don Pedro, wear black leather trousers. Claudio, Benedick, and the messenger (who has now joined the other men), on the right-hand side, wear blue flannel trousers. Don Pedro, who occupies the vortex of a now undeniably hierarchical composition, wears blue leather trousers, that is, halfway between the two groups.

I want to argue that the leather trousers of the two brothers and Don John's underlings are, through their contemporary connotations of homoerotic desire, a powerful, if not always obvious, symbol of the film's construction of male bonding as the most formidable opponent of heterosexual union, conversely depicted, as indicated before, as taking place in a feminized space.32 The main difference between Much Ado and the contemporary “buddy” films analyzed by Fuchs and others is that, while in the latter strong male bonding is generally compatible with heterosexual love, in Branagh's film it excludes heterosexuality. On the other hand, the film's celebratory support of heterosexual relationships, even its endorsement of the power of the female space, is enforced through an underlying streak of homophobia. At this point Sedgwick's term “homosociality” proves to be very useful, for it introduces the possibility of distinguishing male bonding in patriarchal societies from homoerotic desire, even though both are ultimately related. As Chris Holmlund has argued recently in a study of another group of contemporary “buddy” films, the risk of looking for homoeroticism in heterosexual male genre films “increases astronomically … if, as critics, we fail to notice or downplay the films' homophobia.”33Much Ado appears to be aware of all these distinctions and risks, yet it cannot separate its conscious critique of patriarchal male bonding from a more ambivalent but, at times, very powerful homophobia. Through the symbol of the leather trousers, for example, homoerotic desire and male bonding are collapsed into one single concept.

Another “problem” often encountered by critics in Shakespeare's Much Ado is the indeterminacy of the nature of Don John's evil. While there is a consensus that the character's villainy is due to his being an illegitimate child, his bastardy is not explicitly mentioned until scene 4.1, after his appearance at the wedding. Even at this point, it remains unexplained and, as a reason for his evil acts, unsatisfactory. His villainy is described by Leggatt as generalized and conventional, with the only apparent function of furthering the plot.34 Several rather mystifying utterances by Don John to Conrad in scene 1.3—“I cannot hide what I am” (1.3.12-13), or, later on, “let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me” (1.3.34-35)—could be explained as an acknowledgment of the influence of his “unnatural birth” on his character.35 Yet while this explanation would have been perfectly understandable in the sixteenth century, it makes little sense nowadays.

Since the film belongs to a culture in which bastardy is no longer considered as an inexcusable source of evil, an interesting shift takes place in this scene. The dialogue with Conrad takes place at night, in a small room suffused in the intense yellowish-reddish light of the fire, while Conrad gives his master a massage. Don John, still wearing his black leather trousers (like Conrad and Borachio, who later comes into the room), is naked from the waist up, the intimate relationship with his friend unequivocally seeking to position the spectator in terms of homoerotic desire.36 In this context one cannot but associate the homoerotic mise-en-scène with Don John's ambiguous words, which define him as different in the exclusivity of his all-male space. The abstract nature of the dialogue and the ambiguity of the terms used to define Don John combine with the visual rendering of the scene to reframe his difference as sexual difference.

Moreover, the villain's grim and surly general mood helps create an oppositional space to that of heterosexual celebration in Messina, a space characterized by strict exclusion of women and by alternative male specularization. The pleasures offered by this specularized all-male world are striking—the men's spectacular arrival at the beginning, Don John's exhibitionist poses and the massaging scene—but inevitably short-lived. In a society bent on marriage and strictly heterosexual exchange of energy, male bonding is doomed to failure, as the outcome of his two plots against Claudio proves. For Don John, Claudio is “that young startup [who] hath all the glory of my overthrow” (1.3.63-64). Don John's “overthrow,” another ambiguous and unexplained event in the play, is presented by the film as jealousy of the growing favors of Don Pedro toward Claudio at Don John's expense. On the other hand, Don John's hostility against Claudio can be interpreted as his disgust at the young nobleman's readiness to comply with the social rules in Messina and his willingness to abandon the men's company. Don John's bitterness can, therefore, be reread, in the new context offered by the film, as his disappointment and resentment at the sight of the dissolution of the company of men, some of whose members appear, in varying degrees, to have made up their minds to succumb to the socialized pleasures of marriage and abandon the dream paradise of male bonding. It may be proof of the sexual confusion of our times that, in identifying the narrative's evil as an excess of male bonding, the film falls into the characterization of its main villain in terms of homoeroticism. This characterization reaches its climax in the scene when Don John concludes that “it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain” (1.3.29-30), framed in medium shot, arms outstretched, the firelight emphasizing the beauty of his desirable body. At this point, any distinction between homoerotic desire and villainy has totally disappeared.37

For his part, Don Pedro's position encapsulates all the difficulties of the role of the intermediary in a world in which heteroerotic desire and male bonding are mutually exclusive spaces. He is both the men's leader and the creator of the plots that finally get the two young couples together. Yet his intervention on both occasions suggests that he is not happy with his lot. His plan to woo Hero in Claudio's name in the play is a rather unnecessary gesture, which may already suggest that he is uncomfortable in his role as go-between and would like to woo for himself.38 The film underlines this possibility by including a long shot in which he kisses Hero's hands with a genuinely felt intensity which betrays his own desire. Later on, still in the same scene, his proposal of marriage to Beatrice, which she rejects, is again supplemented in the film by a shot of Don Pedro looking at Beatrice, as she walks away, with an expression of longing and sadness on his face. The rendering of this scene also seems to suggest the importance of the casting of Denzel Washington in the part of Don Pedro. Beatrice's rejection and Don Pedro's sad expression suggest that the invisible barrier between them may not be so invisible after all, and the difference between them becomes not only one of class and sexual orientation but also a difference of race. Since Don Pedro does not need to be black in terms of realism (people from Aragón are not and have never been, as a general rule, black), it must be inferred that Washington's casting is, like Reeves's, a way of reinforcing the character's difference. It seems obvious that the film could not have used, with the same effect, Washington or any other black actor (British or American) to play the parts of Benedick or Claudio. The link established between homosexuality and blackness becomes a powerful symbol of the lingering “otherness” of both conditions in our culture.39

At the end of the film, when Don John has been arrested and brought back to Don Pedro's presence, the looks that the two brothers exchange are not so much looks of rivalry and hostility as of recognition. In spite of their differences, they are brought together by their mutual “difference.” Don Pedro seems to acknowledge the presence of Don John in himself, and when Benedick advises him to get married, it is obvious to the spectator that marriage is not such a straightforward proposition for the prince as his friend seems to think, both for sexual and racial reasons. The previous shot showing the prince at the vortex of the hierarchical arrangement can now be seen as a metaphorical representation of Don Pedro's predicament: his position at the apex suggests a tension between male bonding and heterosexual love. All of these details define Don Pedro's difference from the people in Messina, including Benedick and Claudio. Aware as a ruler of the limitations of male bonding and the necessity of stable heterosexual relationships for the model of society which he defends, he himself finds it impossible to be part of that society, much as he would like to be. Levin, writing about the play, argues that his dialogue with Beatrice suggests that they are not suitable life companions because an invisible but powerful line separates them. This line, Levin continues, may be the line that separates heterosexual from homosexual, although “such terminology is too coarse for Shakespeare's delicate and perhaps evasive portrayal.”40 Why this terminology should be too coarse for an author who wrote a whole series of sonnets about homoerotic desire is difficult to understand. In any case, the film's reading of the male space in Messina as a space of aggressive bonding and strict exclusion of women and its characterization of Don Pedro as longing for but incapable of sexual relationships with women once again recontextualizes the tensions of the story within a scenario of homosocial desire. The “otherness” and undesirability of this scenario is intensified by Don Pedro's skin color, a contemporary manifestation of the line that, according to Levin, separates this character from Beatrice.

From the perspective of the film's dominant discourse, Don Pedro's predicament brings into the open what Western cultural texts have generally attempted to hide for many centuries: the contradictions of a patriarchal discourse that has tried to harmonize male bonding with the centrality of stable heterosexual relationships. In many Western narratives the solution has been to subordinate the hero's erotic relationship with the heroine to his homosocial links with other men. Occasionally, such narratives as stories of amour fou and others have ignored men's relationships with other men and threatened through the male protagonist's total involvement with the female character the precarious balance necessary for the perpetuation of patriarchal structures. Branagh's film makes the most of the ambiguities and gaps already present in Shakespeare's play and advances a very different proposition: male bonding is, in the film's ideological discourse, the main obstacle to heterosexual relationships, which, in the egalitarian climate in which the film was produced, can only be successful if they take place within the female space of Messina and on the terms dictated by Beatrice. The prominence of Beatrice's song throughout the film and, specifically, its dominance over and infiltration of the male celebratory discourse of the first scene, together with Benedick's acceptance of Beatrice's conditions, suggest the ideological incompatibility between male bonding and marriage. The discourse of male bonding, on the other hand, is specularized by means of the ideologically significant collapsing of homosociality and homoerotic desire: the pleasures offered by this discourse are, in the scenes analyzed above, clearly homoerotic ones, yet they are ephemeral insofar as the film constantly asks the spectator to reject a discourse which is embodied, it must not be forgotten, in the narrative's unrepentant villain, Don John. In other words, the film's project of apparent rejection of male bonding and critique of women's subordination in patriarchy cannot be separated from its latent homophobia. In Branagh's new paradise, fear of women has been displaced on to—or, perhaps, hidden under—fear of homosexuals.

As a romantic comedy of the nineties, then, Much Ado signals the incompatibility between the genre and its initial scenario of men in leather. Like other recent examples of the genre, the film manages to promote its heroine as a “woman on top,” responding in this way to social changes by establishing a more egalitarian climate in the battle of the sexes. Yet, homoerotic desire (and, in a less obvious way, interracial relationships) must, for the time being, remain outside the genre as its “repressed other.” Further, the film presents its homoerotic and female spaces as incompatible and opposed to one another. It is, in cultural terms, as if the inclusion of one space actually reinforces the exclusion of the other. However, by dramatizing the impossibility of homoerotic desire in Messina rather than simply hiding it, the film becomes a particularly telling case of the underlying sexual ideology of romantic comedy and, if only indirectly, offers a possibility of change in the future evolution of the genre. In any case, the continuing success of such “new romances” as French Kiss (Lawrence Kasdan, 1995), Nine Months (Chris Columbus, 1995), or The American President (Rob Reiner, 1995) shows that this possibility remains, for the time being, largely unexplored within the Hollywood industry.41


  1. Brian Henderson, “Romantic Comedy Today: Semi-Tough or Impossible?” Film Quarterly 31, no. 4 (summer 1978): 11-23; Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), 268-69.

  2. Andrew S. Horton, ed., Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 2.

  3. Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 171-72.

  4. Frank Krutnik, “The Faint Aroma of Performing Seals: The ‘Nervous Romance’ and the Comedy of the Sexes,” Velvet Light Trap, no. 26 (1990): 62-70; Steve Neale, “The Big Romance or Something Wild?: Romantic Comedy Today,” Screen 33, no. 3 (fall 1992): 287.

  5. Kathleen Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter,” in Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, eds., Classical Hollywood Comedy (New York and London: Routledge 1995), 56.

  6. Neale and Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy, 171; the recent interest in history in film studies has provided the main impetus for Karnick and Jenkins's Classical Hollywood Comedy, an attempt to correct the ahistorical tendency in earlier approaches to comedy; however, Rowe's conclusion on Moonstruck, quoted above, attests to the difficulties inherent in such a project, especially in the case of romantic comedy.

  7. Babington and Evans, Affairs to Remember, 268, 297.

  8. See also Neale and Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy, 145, 154; Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender,” 45, 47.

  9. Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender,” 49.

  10. Growing female independence is, for Rowe, the central issue of Moonstruck, but many of the most successful Hollywood romantic comedies of the eighties and nineties also deal with threats to patriarchal subjection of women. See, for example, Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Coppola, 1986) Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987), Working Girl (Mike Nichols, 1988), The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, 1988), Green Card (Peter Weir, 1990), or Alice (Woody Allen, 1990). Homosexuality as the “repressed other” of romantic comedy, by contrast, is practically absent in recent Hollywood. Some exceptions are Tootsie (Sydney Pollack, 1982), Victor/Victoria (Blake Edwards, 1982), and Switch (Blake Edwards, 1991).

  11. Babington and Evans, Affairs to Remember, 269.

  12. Richard A. Levin, Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Content (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1985), 93.

  13. Susan Lurie, “Pornography and the Dread of Women: The Male Sexual Dilemma,” in Laura Lederer, ed., Take Back the Night (New York: William Morrow, 1980), 159-73; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  14. Since this is an analysis of the film as a romantic comedy, the most carnivalesque aspects of the story, especially the parts played by the comic characters, are not explored here. Yet the casting of star Michael Keaton as Dogberry in itself suggests the importance that the part of the action dominated by this character has in the overall structure of the film. Although I later suggest that Dogberry's Watch act is a comic foil for the male group of the romantic action, there are, no doubt, other dimensions to these characters and the type of comedy they embody that fall outside the scope of this paper.

  15. On sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant discourses on love and marriage, see Mary Beth Rose, The Expense of Spirit: Love and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988).

  16. Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 88-89.

  17. The “displacement of physical sexuality into language” is, for Neale and Krutnik, also a characteristic of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. For these authors, who do not specifically refer to linguistic confrontations, this displacement is a reflection of the way in which courtship and seduction are carried out in real life (Neale and Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy, 162). Friction between romantic partners in the cinema is also mentioned by Molly Haskell in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (London: New English Library, 1975), 127 and expanded on by Neale and Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy, 140.

  18. Rowe, “Comedy, Melodrama and Gender,” 54.

  19. In William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, ed. Sheldon P. Zitner (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 76.

  20. These are the words of the song:

    Sigh no more, ladies sigh no more.
    Men were deceivers ever,
    One foot in sea, and one on shore,
    To one thing constant never.
    Then sigh not so, but let them go,
    And be you bright and bonny,
    Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into hey nonny, nonny.
    Sing no more ditties, sing no more
    Of dumps so dull and heavy.
    The fraud of men was ever so
    Since summer first was leafy.
    Then sigh not so, but let them go,
    And be you blithe and bonny,
    Converting all your sounds of woe
    Into hey nonny, nonny.
  21. See, for example, Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love (London: Methuen, 1974), 173, and Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, 45.

  22. Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, 204-5.

  23. Adrienne L. McLean, “‘It's Only That I Do What I Love and Love What I Do’: Film Noir and the Musical Woman,” Cinema Journal 33, no. 1 (fall 1993): 3.

  24. Ibid., 5.

  25. It is in this context that the “truth” value of Benedick's assertion in the final scene, when he says to Don Pedro that “man is a giddy thing,” should be understood, for it has by then become clear that the frank acknowledgment of male infidelity and unfairness to women is the necessary condition for men to be admitted to the comic space of Messina.

  26. Tania Modleski, Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 62.

  27. Lurie, “Pornography,” 161-68.

  28. In Modleski, Feminism without Women, 62-63.

  29. Cynthia J. Fuchs, “The Buddy Politic,” in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 194; Fuchs analyzes, among others, Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987), Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner, 1989), The Rookie (Clint Eastwood, 1991), and Heart Condition (James D. Parriott, 1990).

  30. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, 169-70; Levin, Love and Society, 91-98; and Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, 29-30.

  31. I am indebted to Anita La Cruz for first pointing out to me the superimposition of the film's title over the display and celebration of male power and to Chantal Cornut-Gentille for noticing details of the riders' jackets. Leslie Felperin Sharman refers to the title as punning with the word nothing (“no thing” being a common Shakespearean play on virginity and women's “lack” of a penis) in “Much Ado about Nothing,Sight and Sound 3, no. 9 (September 1993): 50-51, but the sexual reference is less than clear in Shakespeare's play and would most certainly be lost nowadays anyway. Zitner goes through all the possible connotations of the title but settles for none of them and finally links it with Shakespeare's other “throwaway titles”—As You Like It, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Twelfth Night, more particularly, its subtitle, As You Will—as a probable fashion of the time to counteract excessively spectacular and explanatory titles (Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, 14-15). Be that as it may, the film takes advantage of the indeterminacy of the title of the original and manages this unexpected ironic connection, very much in keeping with its foregrounding of male bonding.

  32. Dogberry and his Watch constitute the comic foil of this powerful company of men. The stupidity of the comic company and their constant self-deconstruction represent another avenue of criticism of male bonding, through parody. For example, when Dogberry and his men question the villains after they have arrested them, the film's mise-en-scène presents both groups as distorted mirror images of one another.

  33. Chris Holmlund, “Masculinity as Multiple Masquerade: The ‘Mature’ Stallone and the Stallone Clone,” in Cohan and Hark, Screening the Male, 225.

  34. Leggatt, Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, 156.

  35. The lines from the play have been taken from the Zitner edition quoted above.

  36. This positioning of the spectator is clearly intensified by the casting of Keanu Reeves as Don John, an actor who “signifies” queer through his body and previous roles, especially the part he had recently played in My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991), curiously enough, another, if much freer, Shakespearean adaptation.

  37. Unlike Benedick's, Claudio's transition from the war to Messina is more problematic than his hasty engagement to Hero may suggest. At the truncated wedding ceremony, he encapsulates all of Don John's resentment of women in his public humiliation of and physical violence against Hero. This attitude makes the young bride's forthright willingness to give herself to him in the final wedding ceremony the least palatable aspect of the film's version of the play to modern audiences.

  38. Levin, Love and Society, 95-96.

  39. Race is another area in which contemporary romantic comedy is resistant to change. The recent popularity of comic African American stars such as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg should not blind us to the reality of Hollywood's resistance to make race visible in heterosexual romances. Denzel Washington may be, in fact, one of the first African American actors whose star persona makes him eligible for romantic parts, but his casting as Don Pedro in Much Ado attests to the difficulty of such an operation. The Pelican Brief (Alan J. Pakula, 1993) is another example, although not a comedy, in which the relationship between a law student (Julia Roberts) and an investigative journalist (Washington) would have most likely ended in romance had it not been for Washington's racial otherness. As it is, all we get is his longing look in close-up as Roberts walks away in the film's final scene. This look reminds us of the one described above when Beatrice refuses to marry Don Pedro and encapsulates Washington's contradictory position as a romantic lead of the nineties. Whoopi Goldberg has also been recently involved in romantic comedies such as Made in America (Richard Benjamin, 1993) or Corrina, Corrina (Jessie Nelson, 1994), but the analysis of her parts in these films falls outside the scope of this paper.

  40. Levin, Love and Society, 98.

  41. On the other hand, the relative success of non-Hollywood films such as The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1992), Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1993), or Gauzon Maudit (Josiane Balasko, 1995) proves the growing compatibility, within the present sociocultural context, between a certain normalization in the representation of male and female sexuality and the conventions and structures of romantic comedy.

Michael J. Collins (review date 1997)

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SOURCE: Collins, Michael J. “Sleepless in Messina: Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing.Shakespeare Bulletin 15, no. 2 (spring 1997): 38-9.

[In the following review, Collins contends that in his 1993 film version of Much Ado about Nothing, Branagh downplayed the tension regarding gender roles found in Shakespeare’s play in order to present the film as a romantic comedy in the popular Hollywood style.]

The availability of Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing on videotape has provided me a way of exploring some of the issues involved in staging Shakespeare's comedies. As many people have pointed out, Claudio's question to Don Pedro in 1.1, “Hath Leonato any son, my Lord,” and the Prince's reply, “No child but Hero; she's his only heir” (284-85), open up the possibility that Claudio's interest in Hero (despite his declaration of love in the lines that follow) is, to some degree, financial as well as romantic. At the same time, no matter how much he may love his daughter, Leonato seems to appreciate that her marriage to Don Pedro will bring about a desirable “alliance” (to use Beatrice's word in 2.1.314); for when Antonio mistakenly informs him that the Prince loves Hero (1.2), he says, “We will hold it as a dream till it appear itself. But I will acquaint my daughter withal, that she may be better prepared for an answer” (18-21). Later, in 2.1.65-67, he reminds Hero, apparently for a second time, that “if the Prince do solicit you in that kind [i.e., with a proposal of marriage], you know your answer.”

Leonato's instructions to Hero in 2.1, however, leave his motivations unclear. While they may be meant to suggest that he simply wants an alliance with the Prince through the marriage of his daughter, his instructions are given to her in the context of Beatrice's disparagement of men and marriage; they follow her advising Hero to tell Leonato “Father, as it please me”; and they thus may also suggest that with two women in his care, one of whom he believes, as Antonio puts it, “too curst” (20) ever to be married, Leonato wants to make certain that the other one will not refuse the Prince's attractive proposal.

Although this second possibility may offer the actor playing Leonato a more plausible opportunity to show affection for Hero and implicit concern for her happiness, neither suggests that he believes or desires that Hero should marry, as Beatrice advises, for love. At the same time, Hero's notorious reticence (she says nothing to her father, her uncle, or Beatrice) leaves her intentions and her feelings unknown. Thus, by the time Don Pedro draws Hero aside at 2.1.99, the play has, in some measure, called into question the romantic view of Hero and Claudio that it has simultaneously created.

In teaching Much Ado About Nothing, I try to bring students to recognize that, on the stage, a production will probably emphasize one reading and repress the other, to see the relationship of Hero and Claudio either as romance (the more likely choice) or as alliance for financial and social reasons. To help make that recognition possible (and, at the same time, to emphasize the openness of all of Shakespeare's scripts to interpretation), I ask students to look carefully at the scene in which the Prince brings Hero back on stage, ultimately reveals to Claudio that he has wooed and won her for him, and then proposes marriage to Beatrice (2.1.210-337). I first divide the students into groups of six (to play the six roles in the scene) and then provide them a series of questions to help them imagine how the scene might look and sound on the stage. The questions are designed to address three fundamental questions: how are the actors positioned on the stage; how do they deliver their lines; and what actions do they perform? I ask half the groups to imagine a staging that articulates a romantic relationship between Hero and Claudio and half a staging that suppresses it. Since they have already watched, in class, the conclusions of such popular romantic comedies as Sabrina and Sleepless in Seattle, they have less difficulty imagining the first possibility.

I am not entirely fair to my students when I ask them to imagine a staging that suppresses the romantic possibilities of the scene, for, unlike them, working out such a staging on their own, I have seen a production which seemed to do just that, a Much Ado directed by Matthew Warchus in 1993 for The Queen's Theatre in London, with Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as an awkward and inelegant Beatrice and Benedick (see Shakespeare Bulletin 12.1 [Winter 1994]: 16-17). When Don Pedro, having wooed Hero for Claudio, returned to the stage with her, he kissed her and left her, with the large jacket of his naval uniform around her shoulders for warmth, standing upstage center, uneasy, entirely alone, looking occasionally to one side or the other, while, downstage right, he talked first to Benedick and then to Beatrice and Claudio. Sitting alone, downstage left, her voice suggesting an emotional detachment from the action around her, Beatrice watched intently as Don Pedro and Leonato gave Hero to Claudio and, after they kissed, comically mimed vomiting.

She then stood up, moved across to a bar downstage right and, while mixing a drink, refused Don Pedro's offer of marriage. Both Leonato, standing next to her at the bar, and Don Pedro grew angry, and the Prince, crossing to the edge of the stage, still angry, stood looking out at the audience until Beatrice, with some nervous laughter, made her apology. Having told his niece some three hundred lines earlier that she would never get a husband if she remained “so shrewd” of tongue, Leonato looked angrily at her, apparently for letting the Prince's offer (and the alliance it would bring about) go by.

By answering the questions about the staging of the scene and trying, as the final part of the exercise, to stage and act it for themselves, students come to see more clearly not simply its ambiguity, its simultaneous potential for a romantic or an ironic reading, but also the ways in which it can be staged to articulate one or the other. At this point, I ask them to look at the scene in Branagh's film of the play, for, having worked through the script carefully themselves and having seen some broad and rudimentary stagings of its possibilities, they are now better prepared to recognize the decisions Branagh makes to achieve a remarkably beautiful and effective presentation of its romantic possibilities. In Branagh's version of 2.1.210-337, Hero enters smiling, alone with Don Pedro (and not also, as the conventional stage direction states, with her father). Although she has no lines, she remains next to Don Pedro, laughing and enjoying with him the good-natured teasing of Benedick about Beatrice. At the same time, as he does in the earlier exchange between Benedick and Claudio, where, for example, “Do you think the Prince would have served you thus?” is spoken to suggest that Benedick is correcting Claudio's mistaken conclusion, Branagh cuts all the lines in which Benedick expresses his belief that Don Pedro has betrayed Claudio and wooed Hero for himself. When he says, for example, “I told him, and I think I told him true, that your Grace had got the good will of this young lady” (213-15), the cuts here and earlier make the line mean Benedick has told Claudio that Don Pedro has won Hero for him, although, as we have seen in Claudio's response, he does not believe him.

When Beatrice enters with Claudio, she also brings Leonato, Antonio, and Ursula with her. The jocular tone shifts soon after she enters, for she is embarrassed and momentarily hurt by Benedick's “I can not endure my Lady Tongue” (272) and what Branagh's script calls her “rueful, rather sad” response (Much Ado About Nothing: The Making of the Movie. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. 33) quites the scene and leads naturally to the exchange between Don Pedro and Claudio. Gently, Don Pedro tells Claudio he has won Hero for him. Leonato then steps forward and, smiling with great affection, gives Hero to Claudio (“Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes”). The camera focuses on Hero, who smiles happily at Claudio and, with Beatrice's gentle, playful encouragement (“Speak, cousin; or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and not let him speak neither”), moves toward him. The two young lovers embrace and kiss, while, as the script has it, “the others laugh, cheer, and clap” (35). The subsequent exchange between Don Pedro and Beatrice is equally gentle and affectionate, and it ends with Don Pedro alone on a bench, speaking softly to himself as he admires Beatrice's pleasant spirit.

Everything in the scene conspires to make it a moving moment in the film, to evoke in its audience the feeling of satisfaction that often marks the end of a romantic comedy: the cuts Branagh makes, the focus of the camera on the joyful faces of the lovers, the music, the pleasure all the characters seem to take in one another, the apparent affection they have for one another. Hero, who has no words in the scene, joyfully accepts the man she loves: her laughter with Don Pedro at Benedick, her concern at Claudio's discomfort, her happiness as she looks at him and kisses him all put to rest any doubt about her feelings for Claudio that her silence, as it did in Warchus' production, might otherwise evoke.

Much Ado About Nothing was released in early summer 1993, coincidentally at about the same time as the spectacularly successful romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. The films have more than their time of release in common, however, for Branagh seems to have decided to suppress the play's uneasiness about the roles that gender imposes upon both men and women and make his Much Ado resemble, as far as possible, one of Hollywood's popular romantic comedies. I do not speak critically. Branagh has done what, it seems to me, all directors of Shakespeare's comedies must finally do: decide whether to emphasize in performance the conventions of the genre with its happy ending or those elements, always present in Shakespeare's comic scripts, that call the conventions of the genre into question. Branagh chose to affirm the conventions of the genre and thus made Much Ado About Nothing into a beautiful, enjoyable, and commercially successful romantic comedy.

While I always enjoy the pleasure most students take in the film, I use it in the classroom, with either the acting exercise I have described here or a similar one for the last scene (i.e., 5.4.53-128, where both Kate Beckinsale as Hero and Emma Thompson as Beatrice make the appropriate romantic choices) primarily for other reasons. First, since the actors make clear choices to achieve clear effects, the film allows students, after they have worked though parts of the script themselves, to see how Branagh produced, as all directors do, a reading, an interpretation of Shakespeare's script. Then, the film makes clear as well how particular issues in a script can (through cuts, actors' choices, and directors' decisions) be ignored or suppressed, how even a complex script can be reduced to formula, a reduction which, in this case, blurs, to some degree, the differences between Beatrice and Benedick and Hero and Claudio, thereby obscuring the questions about the roles and status of women those differences often raise. Finally, the film suggests the power of actors and acting to shape both a production and our response to it: none of the doubts that the script raises about the love of Hero and Claudio are invited to make any impact on us in the film because John Sean Leonard and Beckinsale can convince us, even without much dialogue, that they are deeply in love, as they do at various moments in the film before the broken wedding and, most effectively, as they tearfully and silently embrace one another when they are reconciled at the end of the play. But, as students come to recognize, such acting finally makes Hero not a real woman but a conventional figure playing a conventional role, and thus it helps turn Shakespeare's complex, disquieting script into Branagh's simpler, more comforting, but undeniably enjoyable film.

Tom Provenzano (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Provenzano, Tom. “Much Ado About Nothing: Mariachi Style.” Theatre Journal 52, no. 1 (March 2000): 118-19.

[In the following review, Provenzano assesses a 1999 East Los Angeles Classic Theatre adaptation of the play Much Ado about Nothing by Tony Plana and Bert Rosario, describing the production as an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for young people.]

Truncated versions of Shakespeare's canon provide millions of school-age children their first experiences with classic theatre while fulfilling the artistic desires and commercial needs of youth theatre companies across the country. Few of these outings, however, create the rich cultural events that East Los Angeles Classic Theatre has been furnishing since 1995. Currently, the company's touring “mariachi-style” adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing is an exquisite young-people's introduction to the Bard—remarkably without condescension. While director Tony Plana and Bert Rosario have strategically cut the play to a blazing seventy minutes, it retains every important story point. Even the play's darker moments of sexual betrayal and death are not eradicated for adolescent audiences; rather, they are presented with simplicity and discernment, so parents can feel assured of the humanity behind the messages being delivered. The adaptation is essentially faithful to the integrity of Shakespeare's language, but often archaic phrases and rhetoric requiring annotation are sacrificed for clarity and accessibility.

This Much Ado transforms Italy into a nineteenth-century California fantasy in which Mexicans and Anglos live in peace and harmony. The Mexican wars and gold rush are over, and California has been admitted to the union, but rich, landed ranchero gentry like Leonato still control much of the land. In this world, the Mexicans represent the aristocracy while the Yankees are the lower, mercantile class moving in to take over the infrastructure of the state. When white soldiers Claudio and Benedick return triumphantly from battle, they are greeted jubilantly by Leonato, his daughter Hero, and niece Beatrice. Love and joy abound with masques and frivolity as the cultures blend happily. Unfortunately, a betrothal between the Mexican Hero and Anglo Claudio strikes a chord of racial hatred within the cruel Don John—designating a specific reason for his treachery that one rarely finds in the play. This turn of events highlights the play's clever twist of presenting Mexican cultural preeminence, which, in Don John's case, presents minority racism toward the increasingly dominant but cruder culture. In the midst of comedy, this racism turns to ugliness and tragedy as Don John manipulates his fellow soldiers, through gender chauvinism, to destroy the marriage plans and bring death and disaster to the once peaceful gathering.

Though darker themes of politics and sexuality remain intact, most of the production focuses on triumphant joys celebrated through opulent Mexican culture, specifically through the exciting music of Mariachi Del Sol. The mariachi component is not background; rather, it is the soul of this piece. Comic, tender, and even tragic portions of the play are turned over to classic mariachi themes that fit the context of the story. Mariachi's merging of Latino folk music and traditional European instrumentation works as a metaphor for the union of cultures represented in this adaptation. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the mariachi works beautifully, because it is such a pleasure to hear. The complex orchestrations and poetic lyrics, whether in bistros, show-stopping numbers, or moving ballads, utterly belie the common Anglo conception of mariachi as an inconsequential musical form.

Within the festive atmosphere of mariachi, the love story between Hero and Claudio thrives and the comic anti-love battle between Beatrice and Benedick takes root. This adaptation wisely focuses on the love story rather than the verbose war of the sexes, bringing an unusual equality between the two sets of lovers. Claudio and Benedick, as well as Mexican soldiers dressed in fine, traditional nineteenth-century uniforms, cut striking figures, looking like technicolor fantasies of The Cisco Kid or Zorro. This swashbuckling ideal is exemplified in flamboyant sword fights, both celebrating and lampooning macho posturing. Hero and Beatrice dress in extravagant and highly feminine period costumes, but both women are spirited matches for their comically virile mates. The fast-paced, nearly gymnastic staging splashes across a vast, multi-leveled set offering enormous variety of movement, which Plana uses to enthusiastic advantage.

Bowing to contemporary demands of youth theatre, Plana pulls in just a bit of audience participation, skillfully managed through some handclapping to music and group singing. The techniques are used most entertainingly during the extremely low-comic scenes with Dogberry, as prepubescent audience members are costumed as deputies and pushed adroitly through the play without stopping the action or lowering the overall level of performance. The acting and singing are uniformly expert and energetic in every role, and the mariachi musicians help keep the breakneck pacing alive. East Los Angeles Classic Theatre's extraordinary ability to effortlessly combine children's theatre techniques with traditional Mexican music and a difficult poetic text is a gift for Los Angeles families and youth who are served so well by the company, which is currently touring to more than sixty venues.

Walter N. King (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7315

SOURCE: King, Walter N. “Much Ado About Something.Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964): 143-55.

[In the following essay, King maintains that Much Ado about Nothing is a comedy of manners, and that like other plays of this genre its central theme is the examination of a morally “flabby” aristocratic class that accepts the established social codes without question.]


What to do with Much Ado About Nothing has bedeviled Shakespearians for longer than one likes to think. And no wonder, when critics dismiss the play, if only by implication, as a charming potboiler, archly comic for the most part, but, in Acts IV and V, oddly tragicomic and melodramatic, and unconvincing.

Reaction against this usually disguised conviction varies, of course. G. B. Harrison shrugs the whole thing off as a diverting entertainment, “but for all that, as it turns out, ‘much ado about nothing’”.1 John Palmer is somewhat more complimentary; “this most brilliant but least profound” of Shakespeare's comedies is one of his “greatest triumphs as a dramatic craftsman, showing what he can do when his genius is not half engaged and he falls back on his technical skill as a playright.”2 C. L. Barber in his study of Shakespearian comedy is almost cavalier in his light-hearted apology for ignoring the play altogether, except for comments en passant: “What I would have to say about Much Ado About Nothing can largely be inferred from the discussion of the other festive plays.”3 In short, Much Ado is pigeonholed as a tour de force for consummate actors like Sir John Gielgud and Pamela Brown, while critics hasten on to Twelfth Night, which everyone agrees is profound as well as brilliant, and which after all has Feste and Sir Toby Belch to spice up the action.

Some of us, nevertheless, cannot dismiss Much Ado quite so nonchalantly. Shakespeare's riddling title teases us into the belief that he had something to say about man and the world he lives in, or at least about some types of men and women and the social world that shapes them into what they are, worthy of the craftsmanship he lavished upon this merriest of all his comedies. “Nothing” must imply something, and the suspicion is hard to down that that something embraces every part of the play, informs every part, unites every part. What to do with the word “nothing” is, in fact, a paramount critical issue, though it is astonishing how few critics have paid serious attention to it. Among these few is Dorothy C. Hockey, who suggests, because of the pun on “nothing” and “noting”, for which there is sound phonological support, that Much Ado is the dramatization of a series of mistakes produced by the recurrent failure of key characters to use their eyes and ears accurately when assessing themselves, each other, and events and situations. The play is thus a study of “a common human frailty—the inability to observe, judge, and act sensibly.”4

No one will quarrel with this sober conclusion; a verbal eye and ear pattern is indubitably central to the play's structure, and mistaken judgments are certainly skeletal to the developing action. But what do the key characters misjudge? Simply themselves, others, events as they occur, as Miss Hockey suggests? Or more fundamentally, do they misjudge all these things by preferring poor values to better ones, as great comic characters seem duty-bound to do? With respect to values Miss Hockey is not very explicit, and so her interpretation falters just when it should rise completely to what John Russell Brown calls “the implicit judgement” so necessary to conceptual interpretation of Shakespearian comedy.5

On the other hand, one can concentrate upon the meaning of “nothing” to the exclusion of almost everything else, as have Paul A. Jorgenson and Harold C. Goddard. Renaissance theological treatises, Jorgenson points out, affirmed “the original nothingness surrounding creation and the essential nothingness of all temporal things.” “Nothing” is harmless “when compared with the miscry occasioned by things”, yet “nothing, in a more positive sense, did produce all things; and its formidableness in the genesis of man's affairs and dreams became for Shakespeare, as for all his contemporaries, a fertile obsession.”6 In particular, Shakespeare was attracted to the metaphorical implications of the word when applied to the poet's craft. According to the psychological authority Laurentius, “The understanding part of the minde receiveth from the imaginative the formes of things naked and voide of substance”7—so that “nothing” symbolized for Shakespeare the imaginative faculty of the artist. Or as Goddard puts it, “nothing” is a Shakespearian synonym for creativity.8Much Ado About Nothing is saturated with this idea of the power of Nothing (of the creative ingredient of the imagination, that is) to alter the nature of things for good or ill …”.9

Neither Jorgenson nor Goddard asserts, of course, that Much Ado, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a celebration of the poet's imaginative capacity to create out of “airy nothing” something solid and local that can be contemplated objectively (see Theseus' speech on the imagination, MND V.i. 2-22). Indeed, they scant interpretation of the play as a whole. No doubt it is true that in terms of Shakespeare's broad development as an artist “nothing” does have the symbolic implications they suggest, but as to what “nothing” alludes to specifically in Much Ado, they say rather little. That “nothing” can “alter the nature of things for good or ill” is provocative, but what precisely is meant by “the nature of things”? Metaphysical things? Ethical things? Psychological things? And how do these things, whatever they are, relate to the play as a fully structured entity?

The point I have been edging toward is that criticism of Much Ado has become far too greatly entangled in the solving of an assortment of problems by now as much a part of the play as the text itself,10 or has been introductory to discussion of wide-ranging issues in Shakespearian studies. Aside from a few people like Miss Hockey, hardly anyone has bothered to suggest what the particular comic issues in Much Ado are, perhaps because there has been no agreement about what kind of comedy it is. Yet without some consensus as to genre, it seems difficult to get at a synoptic interpretation that eliminates problems and obviates any need for apologetic comments. I venture now to suggest the proper genre—comedy of manners; and I venture the further assertion that, if we read Much Ado as comedy of manners, we can discover rather easily what Shakespeare meant by the “nothing” in the title.11 An adequate descriptive definition of the word will be meaningful, of course, only if it exposes values that penetrate into every nook and cranny of the play.


Central to Much Ado, as to all great comedies of manners, is the critical inspection of a leisure-class world grown morally flabby by thoughtless acceptance of an inherited social code. All of the principal characters are presented in typical social situations that imply unexamined behavior close to abnormality, in that they react time and again as if they have lost all sense of proportion. Throughout they are being measured against a suitable norm of conduct that is only gradually revealed, but is implied obliquely from the beginning, often by means of the behavior of characters acting automatically in ways that appear to be superficially correct. In the denouement the proper norm is finally established, with the excesses of the major characters brought to a point of manageability or total cure.12 This gradual readjustment depends upon Shakespeare's deft treatment of the two counterpointed sub-themes into which he splits his major theme: love, courtship and marriage, as felt (or not felt) and verbalized upon in a highly aristocratic society; and the folly of elevating wit into a primary value in the daily life of that society.

Urbane to the point of absurdity, the aristocrats of Messina have canalized natural instinct (love, the battle of the sexes, marriage) according to a prescriptive code which almost everyone takes for granted and which almost no one has the intelligence to question. Exempt from daily labor, these sophisticates have little to do but fall in love, get married as social routine decrees, and squander whatever mentality they can lay claim to upon verbal high-jinks. As usual in such societies, wit is lavished upon two characteristic topics: love and sex (bawdry is a recurrent leitmotiv); and sharp, sometimes cruel, criticism of each other. The result is an extreme artificiality. Wit has degenerated into the smart crack; social custom has petrified into the hard-headedness stressed in the betrothal of Claudio and Hero; and love has been turned into a set of conditioned reflexes that smack of sentimentality, melodrama, and sheer eyewash.

Of the two sets of lovers, Claudio and Hero are the ultimate products of a fashionable code—thoughtless conformists who question nothing, least of all themselves. The most laconic of all Shakespeare's heroines, Hero speaks only six times in the first two acts, and then murmurs banalities or responds perfunctorily to insignificant, factual inquiries. Yet she is not a full-fledged object of satire. A well trained upper class Elizabethan daughter (Messina is simply a name for an aristocratic English locale), she muzzles her tongue in public, obeys her father implicitly and accepts (one supposes gratefully) the husband chosen for her. Obviously she is not much in love with Claudio, whom she barely knows, nor is she supposed to be. Nubility is her sole characteristic and her only asset. Her duty is to look charming, conduct herself decorously, and be a virgin—in order to maintain a high value on the international marriage mart. (Don Pedro is Prince of Aragon; Claudio and Benedick are citizens of Florence and Padua.) For marriage in aristocratic circles such as hers was largely, during the Renaissance, a business matter, in which love totted up to little in pounds and pence.13

Claudio is depicted with equal realism and with a minimum of satire. A desirable catch himself, he is out shopping for a suitable wife, “modest” and “sweet looking” (the criteria he harps on when consulting Benedick about Hero in I.i)—and well-to-do. “Hath Leonato any son, my Lord?” (I.i.296) is the only question he asks Don Pedro, after requesting his services as a go-between, a question blandly materialistic and surprisingly unknowledgeable about Hero's family situation. Young but not shy, he wastes no time in romantic palaver. To Don Pedro he confesses that before the wars he “liked” Hero “with a soldier's eye” and apologizes “lest my liking might too sudden seem” (I.i.300-313). When Benedick asks flatly, “Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?” he replies, “Can the world buy such a jewel?” Benedick's answer, “Yes, and a case to put it into”, tells the full monetary story (I.i.181-184).

His lack of sentiment is further emphasized by the supine manner in which he accepts the false report that Don Pedro has won Hero for himself. Unwilling to condemn his social superior, he consoles himself with the platitude that a man should woo for himself (II.i.181-189), and when he discovers that Don Pedro has not been double-dealing, he accepts Hero without any romantic protestations.14 Leonato is equally unsentimental: “Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes” (II.i.313-314). Natural instinct counts for both of them only insofar as “liking” can blossom into love after the marriage has been arranged. Claudio will “be like a lover presently”, Don Pedro had jested earlier, “and tire the hearer with a book of words” (I.i.308-309). Love, then, has been devalued into verbal formulae in line, presumably, with the required decorum of the occasion.

But if the social homogeneity of Messina is typified in Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro and Leonato, it is offset by heterogeneous streaks of character in Beatrice and Benedick, whom Shakespeare presents ambivalently throughout.15 Frank, lighthearted, self-conscious to the marrow, they oscillate between acquiescence to the social norm and tart criticism of it. In part, their disapproval, especially of the ossified attitudes toward love of their fellow aristocrats, is mere pose; in part, objective assessment of social folly; in part, unconscious cultivation of self-esteem. Of the two, Benedick is the more conscious of the role he is playing. “Do you question me, as an honest man should do, for my simple judgment [about Hero]?” Benedick asks Claudio, “or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?” (I.i.167-170). Beatrice is far less aware that she is a superb illustration of self-admiration. “I have a good eye, Uncle”, she congratulates herself, “I can see a church by daylight” (II.i.85-86). But singly or together, in spite of their failure to know themselves, these two serve as yardsticks for measuring the disproportionate in others, while missing the disproportionate in themselves.

Their psychological astigmatism produces subtle complications of moral character. They play the game of misogamy as if it were the acme of social wisdom, but from the start they are driven by emotional impulses absent in Hero and Claudio. Though they ridicule the love conventions honored mechanically in Messina (see Benedick's soliloquy, II.iii.7-38), they are themselves stunning examples of Petrarchan stereotypes: Beatrice the disdainful woman of courtly love (“too curst” to Antonio and “my Lady Tongue” to Benedick—II.i.22 and 284), and Benedick the anti-feminist windbag (as Beatrice understands very well—I.i.117-118 and II.i.142-156). Their destiny is the conventional punishment for misogamists: to fall in love with someone not (ostensibly) in love with them, though Shakespeare revitalizes this tired convention by means of the two orchard scenes, during which each is gulled into believing that the other is ill with love for him. Like Bernard Shaw's Bluntschli they epitomize on one level the romanticism they have made a profession of mocking in public.

On another level, their merciless railing against marriage and Petrarchan blarney amounts to a realistic revolt against the sentimentalizing of courtship that has become a social blight in Messina. Unhappily, their cure for it has hypertrophied into an aggravation of the blight itself: a reveling in wit for its own sake. Beatrice and Benedick are, thus, another ultimate product of the artificiality of their environment. Though vexed by it in each other, they are unaware that their genius for repartee has grown tiresome and that their disgust with the follies love induces in others has taken the form of a serious under-valuation of love itself. Resolved not to be fools in love, they have mutated into fools of words, to which they ascribe the value that should be attached to things. Intellectual alertness, their finest quality, has catapulted them into the disease of self-love, a social abnormality that for some time has undermined their judgment.

The witlessness that often accompanies the gift of wit is repeatedly emphasized by means of the verbal pattern Miss Hockey has isolated: the motif of true and false seeing. Though Beatrice and Benedick pride themselves on the acuity of their mental eyesight, one of their most striking traits is a kind of tunnel vision not far removed from blindness. During the masque in Act II Beatrice cannot identify Benedick as the masked gentleman she is dancing with, although Ursula, dancing with Antonio, also masked, identifies him at once “by the wagging of your head” (II.i.119). Nor can Benedick understand why, during his dance with Beatrice, she derides him as “the Prince's jester, a very dull fool …” (II.i.142-143). The implicit judgment to be drawn here is that people in love, as Benedick actually is, tend to see poorly, whereas in matters that permit detachment, they tend to see clearly16—hence, Benedick's clear-sighted observation that Claudio has been metamorphosed since his betrothal into the conventional lover-fool (II.iii.7-23), while failing to see that he has become one himself. Hence, also, the ease with which Benedick's friends hoodwink him into the belief that Beatrice is heart-sick with love for him. The depth of his self-delusion (and yet an ironic intuition of the truth) is reached in his sudden conviction, after the first orchard scene, that “I do spy some marks of love in her” (II.ii.255), when Beatrice brusquely bids him come to dinner.

She too is easily deceived into love, but the comic point of the two eaves-dropping scenes in the orchard is not, for Beatrice and Benedick, the discovery of love, but the shock of perceiving the unwholesome effect of misused wit on their own personalities. “I must not seem proud”, Benedick soliloquizes.

Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is … wise, but for loving me—by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. 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? … 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.

(II.iii.237-251—my italics)

Intelligence, without which wit shrivels into vapidity (and in Elizabethan English “wit” means mental capacity, wisdom, good judgment, in addition to apt association of thought with expression), begins to assert itself, and simultaneously natural instinct, in spite of Benedick's rationalizing, begins to destroy his inflated valuation of words as ends in themselves.

Beatrice's smug self-approval disintegrates at once under the homiletic dissection of her character by Hero and Ursula.

But Nature never fram'd a woman's heart
Of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.
Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes,
Misprizing what they look on; and her wit
Values itself so highly that to her
All matter else seems weak. She cannot love,
Nor take no shape nor project of affection,
She is so self-endeared.

(III.i.49-58—my italics)

Her caustic aspersions on men amount to “carping”, to social abnormality, defined by Hero (herself a yardstick for measuring the norm at this point) as “to be so odd, and from all fashions” (III.i.71-2). And Ursula hopes that Beatrice

cannot be so much without true judgment [comic proportion]
(Having so swift and excellent a wit
As she is priz'd to have) as to refuse
So rare a gentleman as Signior Benedick.


Unlike Benedick's, Beatrice's rejection of wit is unleavened by rationalization and is starched with self-denunciation.

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.


Comedy continues, of course. Benedick languishes in tune with the Petrarchan symptomology of the man in love: beard shaved off, face dabbed with cosmetics and lover's melancholy proclaimed as toothache. Somewhat testily he endures the hackneyed wit of his male friends (III.ii), an ironic playback of his own earlier joshing of the lover-fool, and begs to speak “eight or nine wise words” with Leonato. Beatrice hides her distress under the pretense of a head-cold that prompts bawdy jests from Margaret that Beatrice would formerly have admired in herself. “O, God help me!” she lashes out. “How long have you profess'd apprehension [wit]?” (III.iv.67-68). The cure for false wit in both these essentially sound people requires only the church scene in Act IV for completion.

This much analyzed scene has been excessively damned by some critics as stagy melodrama, and excessively defended by others, too zealous advocates of Shakespeare's honor as psychologist-philosopher. Theatricality cannot be denied, but its essential rightness can be better defended than it has been, if it be judged as the crisis of a comedy of manners (like the crisis in The Misanthrope, Célimène's exposure as a vicious backbiter) rather than as a foretaste of tragicomedy. For it is here that the social abnormality of aristocratic society in Messina is exposed once and for all for what it is—shallow and perverse application of a standard of behavior that is both automatic and uncharitable. In part, critical misunderstanding of this scene has sprung from failure to realize that the deception by Don John and Borachio of Claudio and Don Pedro into the belief that Hero is sexually loose is symbolic as well as psychological. Inability to see clearly at night is a common human trait, but in Claudio and Don Pedro it symbolizes the dominant trait of aristocratic folk in Messina, in whom failure of physical eyesight is equivalent to moral confusion. Those who marry according to the philosophy of caveat emptor, like Claudio, are bound to be predisposed to sexual distrust, while their depreciation of love and marriage to the level of the market-place inevitably leads them to believe in virginity as the principal attribute of a bride-to-be.

Claudio's determination to expose Hero in church is quite in line with the social usage of his society, which accepted as legitimate harsh reprisal for sexual fraud, but he also exposes his general moral blindness. And the immediate compliance of Don Pedro (III.ii.126-130) indicates that Claudio's decision, however lacking in Christian charity, should not be reckoned a complete social abnormality. All those who reject Hero, even Leonato, assume they are justified, and they all behave melodramatically, just as shallow human beings are always inclined to thunder for justice in a social crisis when wounded pride, far more than moral shock, begins to steam up their ethical consciousness.

Nevertheless, Claudio's self-righteousness exposes a serious flaw in the social code: the superficiality of a value system that mistakes sexual purity for love is shown up in all its heartless folly. At the same time, the concurrent movement away from superficiality in Beatrice and Benedick, already under way, suggests how witlessness can be exchanged for wisdom. Stupidity versus intelligence is the underlying theme of the church scene and is dramatized by means of a typical Shakespearian problem in epistemology: under what conditions can the senses be trusted to provide accurate data for substantive knowledge of human character? To what degree do objective and subjective ways of knowing lead to rock-bottom truth about people we think we are familiar with?

The dialectic begins in Claudio's ironic reflection upon human presumption: “O, what men dare do! what men may do, what men daily do, not knowing what they do!” (IV.i.19-21). His folly—tragedy to his social peers—is to confuse what appears to his eyes, Hero's external look of innocence, with what appears to his mind, her alleged promiscuity. “Would you not swear, All you that see her, that she were a maid, By these exterior shows?” (IV.i.29-41). The either/or mentality of the mediocre mind trying to think erupts in a burst of hackneyed metaphor:

You seem to me as Dian in her orb,
As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown,
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals
That rage in savage sensuality.


Some lines later comes a saving note of doubt: “Are our eyes our own?” (IV.i.72). Claudio is on the verge of learning the first lesson of the Platonic theory of knowledge, that the senses may deceive. (His early confession to Benedick that Hero “is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” [I.i.189], has now been transformed into the false assumption that her “blush is guiltiness, not modesty” [IV.i.43].) But he is far from grasping the second lesson, that the senses are sometimes trustworthy. Appearance can be reality.17 As a consequence, he leaps to a false conclusion about Hero, owing to a confusion of mind that springs naturally enough from reliance upon second-rate values.

But Claudio is no worse than those who, knowing Hero better than he, take at face value the “fact” of her depravity. In twenty-three impassioned lines dripping with the sentimentality and bombast an unexamined moral code can produce, Leonato sermonizes on the theme: “Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?” (IV.i.121-144). “Let her die”, he urges (IV.i.155), and insists, “She not denies it” (IV.i.174), in the face of Hero's flat declaration to Claudio, “I talked with no man at that hour, my lord” (IV.i.87). Leonato's allegiance to a dessicated social norm continues even after Friar Francis outlines a means for retrieving Hero's reputation. As hyperbolic as Claudio, Leonato also illustrates the truth of Beatrice's summary estimate of the male world of Messina: “But manhood is melted into courtesies, valor into compliments, and men are turned into tongues, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it” (IV.i.20-24). No longer fooled by words, she longs to be a man in a society in which the traditional concept of manhood has become debased.

She, too, along with Benedick, contributes to the dialectic. Whereas Beatrice knows instinctively that Hero “is belied” (IV.i.147), Benedick's reaction is “I know not what to say” (IV.i.146), a way to begin to know. His earlier brag, “I can see yet without spectacles” (I.i.191), has ceased to be an immodest claim, now that his faith in verbal gymnastics has vanished. His is the first sensible question to be asked, “Lady [Beatrice], were you her bedfellow last night?” (IV.i.148)—a way of knowing through research; and only he is keen-eyed enough to suspect Don John's complicity in the slander—a way of knowing through hypothesizing. Together with the behavior of Beatrice and Friar Francis, whose reasoned faith in Hero's innocence is grounded in objective observation combined with extensive experience of human nature (another way of knowing), Benedick's behavior diverges sharply from the inadequate norms of Messina toward a revitalization of the norms that will culminate in Hero's restoration.

Such revitalization is difficult, demanding as it does the development of insight in people accustomed to see dimly. Those who can be tricked into seeing what is not obvious (Hero's “guilt”) must be tricked into seeing what is plain (her innocence); hence, Friar Francis' plan, based upon the psychological fact that superficial people have only a limited capacity for change, to reform Claudio's vision (and so his thinking) by deceiving him into the belief that Hero is dead. “She dying, …

Upon the instant that she was accus'd
Shall be lamented, pitied, and excus'd
Of every hearer. …
                                                                                So will it fare with Claudio,
When he shall hear she dies 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.


This method of stimulating the “imagination” (i.e., one's sense of values) might be called benevolent brainwashing—a way of inducing, though the Friar is not sure that it will succeed, sounder judgment in a man lacking emotional and intellectual depth.

His modest claims are well advised. Though Leonato agrees to the scheme, he is too strongly bound by the social code he has lived by for so long to understand it. Overwhelmed by the family disgrace, he delivers a soapbox diatribe against patience (a prime Christian virtue) that leads even Antonio, as shallow as Leonato, to rebuke him for childishness (V.i.33). Their retreat to the heroics of melodrama is not the failure in characterization some critics have branded it. Having lived by words for so long, they can condemn them in “fashion-monging boys” (V.i.92-98), yet miss the fact that they overrate words themselves. Their ridiculous challenge of Claudio dribbles out into the frustrated name-calling of men who have lived and think it grand to die according to shopworn behavior patterns. “… as I am a gentleman”, says Antonio, he will whip “sir boy” (V.i.84-85), and Leonato orates: “If thou kill'st me, boy, thou shalt kill a man” (V.i.79). Their concern for Hero is admirable; their rant is as comic as Alceste's in The Misanthrope.

Friar Francis' scheme is equally ineffectual with Claudio and with Don Pedro, who is “sorry” for Hero's death, but is still convinced of her guilt (V.i.103-105). Their insensitivity to human pain is reflected in Claudio's tasteless report to Benedick, “We had like to have had our two noses snapped off with two old men without teeth” (V.i.115-118). They are “high-proof melancholy”, but not from shame, and want Benedick “to use thy wit” (V.i.122-124) as an anodyne. Their trite jests about love in Acts I to III now seem, when repeated, as insipid as they always were, and Claudio's bewilderment at Benedick's challenge and contempt for his idle blather (“Sir, your wit ambles well, it goes easily. … You break jests as braggarts do their blades, which, God be thanked, hurt not”—V.i.159 and 189-190) is an ironic measurement of their social and personal irresponsibility.

Their change of heart, such as it is, comes about, not via the “imagination”, but by the factual confession of Borachio, led in opportunely by Dogberry and the Watch (an ironic name for a constabulary in a community that refuses to see except at night). “I have deceived even your very eyes. What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light …” (V.i.238-240). Only now does Claudio begin to see imaginatively, but without any appreciable gain in depth: “Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear In the rare semblance that I loved it first” (V.i.259-260—my italics). His apology to Leonato limps with self-defense: “Yet sinned I not But in mistaking” (V.i.283-284). And Leonato forgives him.18 So little does slander, the sin of misusing words, amount to in Messina. The conclusion seems justified that Dogberry's recurrent demand to “be writ down an ass” applies less to himself than to his betters, who have heedlessly clung to an ass's code.19 His parting wish to Leonato, “God restore you to health” (V.i.333-334), is rich in irony. The social norm of Messina has been ailing for a long time. Can the community now be brought back to social health?

A total cure for all the social abnormality in Messina, Shakespeare is too wise to posit, though cure rather than manageability is depicted in the transformation of Beatrice and Benedick. Claudio's change of heart is quite in character—a form of manageability. He delights in his “second” betrothal as pliantly as in his first and on the same materialistic terms: his new bride is “almost the copy of my child that's dead”, Leonato advertises, and she is “heir” to both him and Antonio (V.i.298-299). Claudio's acceptance of the masked Hero typifies his congenital inability to see beneath surfaces. To him one mariage de convenance is as good as another. (It is significant that Benedick inquires which of the masked women is Beatrice before asking for her hand—V.iv.72). The best that can be hoped from Claudio is that he may value better the externalities that alone appeal to him.

It is to Beatrice and Benedick that we must turn to find a yardstick for the proportionate in their reappraisal of love and wit. In their declaration of love at the end of the church scene their language is stripped bare of the wit associated with conventional love jargon. “I do love nothing in the world so well as you”, Benedick confesses. “Is not that strange?” (IV.i.269-270). And though he agrees to challenge Claudio, he refuses to kill him at the command of Beatrice, whose sense of outraged justice pushes her to extreme conformity to the social code.20 Benedick's indictment of Claudio's wit after the church scene is, however, not a repudiation of wit itself. His witty acknowledgement that he cannot “woo in festival terms” (V.ii.40) implies both self-realization and the conviction that life without wit would be dull indeed. “Thou and I”, he tells Beatrice, “are too wise to woo peaceably” (V.ii.73).

The teasing ambiguity of their final wit combat is a fair measurement of the distance they have come.

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


This superb example of Shakespeare's exploitation of Lylian dialogue illustrates graphically wit become the equivalent of wisdom. “No more than reason”—but is reason an attribute of love; does it induce or qualify love; can love be measured by reason; can one love reasonably? And are love and reason as truly antithetical as traditional belief insisted? Only a keen intelligence can play with such questions, all of which imply that love, whatever it is, cannot be entirely “much ado about nothing”.

What, then, does the “nothing” of the title imply, relevant to the themes of love and wit? To the detached, because they see clearly that those in love frequently behave like fools, love may appear to be “nothing”, a mirage that deludes those whose vision has become emotionally cloudy. Conversely, to the undetached, it makes no difference, once they fall in love, if their vision is blurred and that to the detached they appear to be fools. For they perceive—and it is another form of vision—that to be in love is to surrender to a higher wisdom than the detached can ever claim: the recognition of the validity of natural instinct unsoiled by materialistic or conventional considerations. Throughout the play Beatrice and Benedick have exemplified these various distinctions and learned in the process—a dynamic, far more than a rational process—that love is “much ado about something”, however indefinable in the long run that something may be.

But the title applies most aptly to the critique upon wit. To everyone but Beatrice and Benedick, and sometimes even to them, indulgence in wit has been an unconscious embrace of meaninglessness, the canker that can eat the heart out of a society like Messina. The innocent jest and the double-bitted witticism that reveal rather than conceal meaning have got lost in the welter of daily experience, and their place has been taken by the stale joke that can be peddled from mouth to mouth until its flatulence is a stench in the nostrils of those blessed with intelligence. Natural instinct has lost its centrality in human life, as if to say that the wittier, and thus the more jargonistic, one gets about love, the further one gets from living human reality. Or to put it another way, as language depreciates into a coinage little removed from the counterfeit, those who pay their social bills with it sicken into abnormality.

Viewed in this way, Dogberry's struggle to enlarge his vocabulary is not just verbal comedy rooted in the inability of an oaf to say what he means. In Dogberry can be perceived the halting, but conscious movement upward of the near-illiterate to linguistic exactness, to that happy condition in which words, witty or otherwise, are anchored in real meaning. In the fashionable upper crust of Messina can be perceived the unconscious movement downward of the pseudo-literate to the unhappy condition in which words, especially “witty” words, have retained only the residual meaning of gobbledygook. Dogberry's bumbling hold upon the moral truth that Borachio and Conrade are villains who should be investigated is a trenchant comment upon the purblindness of his social superiors who fail to see when they should that chicanery is responsible for the slanderous charges against Hero, charges that in effect are an impeachment of their whole society. Thus, to value life in terms of wit alone is to make “much ado about nothing”.

Nevertheless, to value wit truly is to make “much ado about something”. This double way of assessing the same thing, characteristic of Shakespeare's wholeness, is implied in Benedick's ultimate witty appraisal of the value of wit.

I'll tell thee what, Prince: a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No. If a man will be beaten with brains, 'a shall wear nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it. …

(V.iv.100-107—my italics)

Though love may appear to be nothing, it is the final something that gives meaning to life; and though wit may decline into nothing, it can, when properly seasoned with wisdom, add a significant savor to life, without which even love would be tepid and tedious.

Social abnormality has been cured, then, in Beatrice and Benedick; in Claudio and the fashionable world of Messina, it has become manageable. More significant is the fact that Beatrice and Benedick have developed sufficient insight into themselves to become living norms for their society instead of being carping critics of their society's norms. Though their society remains essentially unchanged, this is as we should expect. In the world of comedy of manners social health depends upon compromise, adjustment, resilience, not upon fundamental social change; and wit, fully matured in Beatrice and Benedick, is the best available instrument for achieving external and internal harmony. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, therefore, when he designed Much Ado so that wit, a salient feature of all his previous comedies, became the final integrating factor. Without it the play would be the double-jointed affair, replete with problems, it has so frequently been mistaken for, a mélange of odds and ends like Love's Labor's Lost, in which wit, though a major theme, never quite pulls the play into a rounded construct. And it is because of the theme of wit that Much Ado rises to the kind of profundity to be found in all great comedies of manners in western literature. It remained for Shakespeare to show how wit can provide penetrating insights into the dark corners of human existence in the language of Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear.


  1. G. B. Harrison, Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing, in Shakespeare, Major Plays and the Sonnets (New York, 1948), p. 420.

  2. John Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1947), pp. 134 and 135.

  3. C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton, 1959), p. 222.

  4. Dorothy C. Hockey, “Notes Notes, Forsooth …”, Shakespeare Quarterly, VIII (1957), 354.

  5. John Russell Brown, Shakespeare and His Comedies (London, 1957), chap. I. Miss Hockey's interpretation loses value, in my opinion, when she discusses Benedick's behavior in V. i, as if it were similar to his behavior hitherto. After the church scene Benedick's eyes are fully open; his character has changed signally; he is not “seeing” in the same way as he had before. In short, he has shifted his standard of judgment, as I point out later on.

  6. Paul A. Jorgenson, “Much Ado About Nothing”, Shakespeare Quarterly, V (1954), 288 and 293.

  7. Jorgenson, p. 293.

  8. Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1959), p. 272.

  9. Goddard, p. 275. This conclusion Goddard grounds in Friar Francis' argument that, once Claudio believes Hero to be dead, “Th' idea of her life shall sweetly creep / Into his study of imagination” (IV. i. 225-226) so that she will seem more precious than when she lived. Citations from Much Ado are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. by George Lyman Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  10. Typical problems are the justification of the Hero-Claudio plot, the curious series of false reports stemming from eavesdropping, and the question of melodrama in Acts IV and V. Typical essays are those of Kerby Neill, “More Ado About Claudio: An Acquittal for the Slandered Groom”, Shakespeare Quarterly, III (1952), 91-107; and Francis G. Schoff, “Claudio, Bertram, and a Note on Interpretation”, Shakespeare Quarterly, X (1959), 11-23.

  11. Palmer, p. 113, classifies the play as comedy of manners. Charles T. Prouty, The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing: A Critical Study, Together with the Text of Peter Beverley's Ariodanto and Ieneura (New Haven, 1950), pp. 63-64, calls the play high comedy. That Much Ado is high comedy seems undeniable, but that it is comedy of manners has met with little general acceptance. The reason lies, perhaps, in the assumption that Shakespearian comedy of the middle period is, sui generis, too unique for rigid classification, and in the tendency of theorists of comedy to define comedy of manners with an eye confined to average Molière and the pseudo-Molière comedy of manners of the Restoration. These presuppositions, it seems to me, ought to be vigorously questioned.

  12. For the theory of comedy on which I ground the following interpretation of Much Ado, see L. J. Potts, Comedy (London, 1949). Such abstract terms as I have used here and in subsequent paragraphs come from this excellent little book.

  13. See Prouty, pp. 39-52, and Nadine Page, “The Public Repudiation of Hero”, PMLA, L (1935), 739-744, for fuller treatment of the subject of arranged marriages in Elizabethan England. I am unable to understand why their sociological treatment of the Hero-Claudio plot has been depreciated in some quarters; it seems to me to make good sense, and it will be noticed that my reading of Much Ado has been strongly influenced by both these scholars.

  14. The fuss over the false report that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself—one of the red herrings in discussion of the play—can be cleared up by recognition of the fact that Don Pedro is pretending to be Claudio in the masque (I.i.323-7), a fact none of the characters but Claudio is aware of. I see no reason to assume that Shakespeare was guilty of poor design and awkward motivation in this instance.

  15. David Lloyd Stevenson, The Love-Game Comedy (New York, 1946), pp. 209-214, has pointed out Shakespeare's double point of view with respect to Beatrice and Benedick as lovers, but he does not suggest how this ambivalence is carried through with respect to Beatrice and Benedick as fanciers of wit.

  16. I am indebted for insight here to Mr. Charles Frey, a former student of mine at Yale.

  17. Kerby Neill, p. 93, makes a somewhat similar comment, but in terms of the traditional conflict between reason and emotion. I find it hard, however, to accept Neill's description of Claudio as a somewhat idealistic, if naive, young man.

  18. Claudio's penance, which strikes modern readers as silly in the extreme, I take to be a further illustration of his and his society's superficiality. Readers who are amused by it are, I think, reacting as Shakespeare hoped they would—comically.

  19. Dogberry's misuse of words represents the obverse side of a culture that values words above deeds. All the Dogberry episodes can be read as parody of different elements of the upper plots.

  20. Beatrice's sudden “kill Claudio” (IV. i. 291) has occasioned much comment upon inconsistency of characterization. It seems to me that her demand upon Benedick makes sense, if the play is read as comedy of manners. It should not be assumed that, because Beatrice and Benedick are in some matters at odds with the conventions of their world, they are at odds with them in every matter. In moments of high crisis, especially those involving strong moral shock, nonconformists frequently revert to black and white social judgments. Beatrice has always been somewhat fierce in her judgments of other people; she is uncompromising in her judgment of herself after the orchard scene; now she has a legitimate reason for a truly ferocious outburst, however melodramatic it may be.

Carl Dennis (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5759

SOURCE: Dennis, Carl. “Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado About Nothing.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 223-37.

[In the following essay, Dennis explores the two modes of perception he maintains are at work in Much Ado about Nothing: wit and wisdom. In the end, Dennis asserts, wit is portrayed as an unreliable mode of perception.]

Recent critics of Much Ado About Nothing have tended to agree with Mr. Graham Storey's convincing suggestion that the play is about “man's irrestible propensity to be taken in by appearances.”1 “Deception,” Mr. Storey writes, “operates at every level of Much Ado: it is the common denominator of the three plots, and its mechanism—eavesdroppings, mistakes of identity, disguises and maskings, exploited heresay—are the stuff of the play.”2 What causes the characters to be so often deceived is one of the central critical questions that the play raises. Mr. Storey attributes all the confusion to man's innate “giddiness,” following Benedick's concluding assertion that “man is a giddy thing” (V.iv.107); but the term is perhaps too imprecise to clarify the particular limitations of the protagonists.3 Perhaps a more helpful suggestion is made by Mr. A. P. Rossiter, who considers almost all the characters to be “self-willed, self-centered, and self-admiring creatures, whose comedy is at bottom that of imperfect self-knowledge which leads them on to fool themselves.”4 Surely Beatrice and Benedick are betrayed by their overreaching cleverness when they spy on their friends; Claudio is led astray when he proudly assumes that his eavesdropping gives him the knowledge and the right to vilify Hero; and Dogberry hopelessly distorts facts because of his infatuation with his own imagined excellences. But self-centeredness and self-deception are such generally pervasive flaws in Shakespearean comedy that without being further discriminated they are not very useful in defining the distinctive attributes of any particular group of characters. In this essay I want to try to sharpen the meaning of the various mistakings and discoveries of Much Ado, of the many changes from blindness to insight and from insight to blindness, by relating them to an opposition which the play develops between two ways of perceiving the world. One mode of perception presented here, which may be called “wit,” relies on prudential reason and practical evaluation of sensory evidence; the other, the opposite of wit, rejects practical reason for intuitive modes of understanding. The drama of the play resides in the protagonists' moving from one way of seeing to the other; and their practical and moral success is determined by their willingness to lay down their wits and approach the world through faith, through irrational belief.5

The characters whom the reader associates most immediately with wit are Beatrice and Benedick, though in their cases wit seems to be not so much rational calculation as a simple delight in verbal ingeniousness, in wittiness, which the reader admires for the sharpness of mind and the playfulness of spirits which it betokens. But this wittiness also implies a certain view of life. Taking the form of playful insults between a man and woman, it expresses indirectly a detached attitude to love, a sophisticated amusement at conventional romantic attitudes. It thus is not simply evidence of a quick mind but an indirect affirmation of rational self-control as opposed to emotional self-indulgence that carries man away from reality on the tide of feeling. For both Beatrice and Benedick, perhaps especially for Benedick, a lover like Claudio is a pathetic lunatic. From a plain-speaking, battle-loving soldier he becomes a lover whose “words are a very fantastical banquet—just so many strange dishes” and whose “soul is ravished [with] sheep's guts” (II.iii.21-22, 60-61). The witty man, on the other hand, keeping his wits about him, is able to avoid anything as irrational as love.

The desire of Benedick and Beatrice to keep their practical reasons dominant is perfectly understandable; for they are experts in the exercise of their cleverness and rank amateurs in the exercise of their emotions. But problems arise when their bias towards reason deludes them into believing that they have no emotional selves that require expression. When this happens their verbal wittiness is used not so much to expose foolishness in others but to disguise to themselves the state of their own feelings. To insult playfully a person to whom one feels attracted is a way of proving to oneself that the attraction does not exist. In Benedick's case this self-deception is also dramatized by his vexation at Claudio's immediately falling in love with Hero. To Benedick his impulsive friend is an image of his own emotional self which he is unconsciously trying to suppress; and his laments about Claudio's giving up manly soldiership for effeminite love express his unacknowledged war against his own latent desire for love. The war is doomed to failure, not only because feelings cannot be ignored indefinitely, but also because a refusal to acknowledge them weakens one's ability to cope with them when they finally surface. Much of the humor of the eavesdropping scenes where Beatrice and Benedick decide to take pity on each other results from the speed in which their defenses are broken down.

Along with this distrust and denial of the emotions, a bias toward wit is associated with a hard-headed, skeptical attitude to human worth. Beatrice and Benedick mock lovers as being not only impulsive and fantastical but also prone to see value where none exists. Their battles of wit take the form of insults because they want to show themselves as being under no idealistic delusions about the worth of the opposite sex. Benedick's skepticism about women calls particular attention to itself because it involves a complete reversal of the conventional view of man as woman's persuer. Doubtless his abuse of women is done in part for sport. He himself distinguishes his “custom” of speaking as “a professed tyrant to their sex” from “the simple true judgment” of his more serious moods (I.i.169-170). But he would hardly adopt the role of woman-hater if it did not correspond, however indirectly, to some real aspect of his own beliefs. And when he doffs his guise of the “tyrant” to speak “truly” about Hero, he still refuses to acknowledge any of her obvious merits. He is still, as Don Pedro says, “an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty” (I.i.236-237). If he does not actually believe that all women make their husbands cuckolds and prisoners, as he asserts he does, he at least has serious doubts about the value of their society. The shrewd man of wit knows that to idealize a woman is to play the fool.

But all this shrewdness of practical reason turns out to be blindness, not insight. Benedick's prudential skepticism is not based on any actual experience of human nature, on any specific knowledge of particular women, but on foolish pride. His distrust of love and marriage results in good part from an overestimation of his own worth, from his seeing himself as superior in kind to women in general. He gives himself away most obviously in his soliloquy in Leonato's orchard, in which he defines the woman who will be worthy of his love: “One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well. But till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace” (II.iii.28-31). To be “well,” to be prudently rational, is identified here with being impervious to love, with complete self-sufficiency. But since the rationale for this resistance is Benedick's ridiculous assurance of his own perfection, the wisdom of wit turns out to be foolishness. To identify giving “grace,” giving unmerited favor, with finding “all graces,” all perfections, in the object, is to willfully ignore the necessity of unearned trust, of irrational, unprovable faith, in every bond that holds people together. If strictly followed prudential wit, with its proud demand for positive proof of perfection, leads logically to a state of complete isolation, to a repudiation of the social communion that Shakespeare's comedies invariably celebrate.

Although Benedick avoids this kind of isolation by falling in love with Beatrice, we are given a grotesque example of what can happen to the man of skepticism and pride in the figure of Don John. The melancholy that Don John admits suffering from, which prevents him from liking anyone and impels him to stir up mischief, is finally not the result of particular injuries but the fruit of a morbid pride that makes him consider all society with others a diminishment of his self-sufficiency. What seems to aggravate him most when he is first presented to us is not so much his failure to defeat his brother in their recent quarrel but his being forgiven for starting it, since the forgiveness places him in the role of in inferior: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. 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” (I.iii.27-33). His claims to self-sufficiency, to “smile at no man's jests” and “tend to no man's business,” are of course specious (I.iii.15, 17). Just as in a lighter vein Benedick seeks out the company of the woman he overtly spurns, because of his suppressed attraction to her, so in a sinister vein Don John spends his time thinking of ways to hurt the people whom he overtly pretends to ignore, feeling a suppressed admiration for them which his pride refuses to acknowledge.

The great moral difference between Benedick and Don John is rooted in the fact that Benedick is merry and Don John melancholy. Beatrice herself points out this contrast: “He were an excellent man that were made just in the midway between him [Don John] and Benedick. The one is too like an image and says nothing, and the other too like my lady's eldest son, evermore tatling” (II.i.7-11). The overflow of good spirits that underlies at least some part of Benedick's wit-play is a safeguard against dangerous pride because it expresses a general delight in human relations, a delight that makes isolation from society impossible. The world pleases Benedick too much for him to reject it. The same kind of delight in life is associated with the sportive aspects of Beatrice's wittiness. She is, as Don Pedro comments, “a pleasant-spirited lady”; and her uncle, Leonato, drives the point home: “There's little of the melancholy element in her; she is never sad but when she sleeps, and not ever sad then” (II.i.356, 357-359). Wittiness, then, can have positive meaning as well as negative. If, on the one hand, it can be used as a tool of practical reason in the service of emotional repression, distrust, and pride, it can also express a light-hearted playfulness, a love of life, that undermines the vices of proud reason and brings man into communion with his fellows. Thus the playful side of Beatrice's and Benedick's wit-cracking prepares us for their transformation into lovers and their abandonment of bad wit.

Because Beatrice and Benedick are duped into loving each other, we may at first not be inclined to see their love as an indication of an important shift of internal perspective. After all, the trick played on them seems to appeal basically to their vanity. Each decides to love the other partly because he is flattered by the other's supposed adoration. But to move from a pride that rejects all potential lovers as unworthy to a vanity that is willing to reciprocate another's admiration is to make a crucial moral adjustment. Vanity, unlike pride, is social; it requires the good will of others in order to thrive. And the good will that Beatrice and Benedick seek is not only that of each other but the good opinion of their friends. They are duped successfully by their friends because neither wants to be thought hard-hearted and disdainful by the people they most respect. They want to fulfill the values of their community.

In accepting the criticism of their friends Beatrice and Benedick show not only a desire for approval and communion but a willingness to lay aside a reliance on their own wits and rely instead on the perceptions of others. They believe on trust that their friends can see them more clearly than they can see themselves. Thus Beatrice's acceptance of the criticism she overhears is immediate:

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu:
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.


In submitting here without question to the censure of her friends, Beatrice seems to be rejecting the authority of autonomous reason. This willingness of both Beatrice and Benedick to use other eyes than their own applies of course to their views of each other as well as of themselves. When at the close of the play Leonato says that the lovers were “lent” their eyes by their friends (V.i.23-26), he means primarily that each was encouraged to love the other by overhearing reports of the lovelorn state of the other. Though in this regard they are completely mistaken, their being deceived is perhaps a step in the right direction. By rejecting objective appearances of disdain in the other by a subjective belief in the other's devotion, they indirectly repudiate the skeptical reason that supported their disdain. To be sure, they are supporting their faith here on hearsay, on circumstantial evidence. But they are willing to believe this evidence so quickly only because it agrees with their own hidden desire for love. And if they are in one sense fools, their foolishness is finally vindicated; for their very acts of irrational belief in each other's love help to bring their real love for each other into being.

That genuine love entails giving up the outer eye of reason for the inner eye of faith becomes clear later in the play when Beatrice and Benedick are tested by the crisis of Hero's vilification. Beatrice here proves her powers of commitment by believing without question in her friend's innocence. She is the only one, along with the holy Friar Francis, to give no credence whatever to the accusations of Don Pedro and Claudio. She requires no factual evidence for her conviction, relying rather on an act of subjective trust. Benedick's powers of commitment are tested during this crisis when he places himself completely at Beatrice's disposal, agreeing even to obey her command to challenge his friend Claudio to a duel. He agrees not simply because he wants to keep Beatrice's love, but because his love for her enables him to trust in the rightness of her commands:

Tarry, good Beatrice, By this hand, I love thee.
Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.
Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.
Enough, I am engaged, I will challenge him.


In accepting without external evidence the absolute wisdom of his beloved Benedick proves that he has abandoned the external perception of wit for the inner vision of faith.

It has been argued by some critics that Beatrice and Benedick are comically emotional in their defense of Hero, that we are meant to laugh at Beatrice's command, “Kill Claudio,” and at Benedick's zealous obedience. If before the pair were too witty, it is contended, now they have become too romantic. This argument is true in the literal sense that the lovers are over-hasty in their revenge against Claudio, in the sense that they are ignorant of how he was deceived. But in the larger moral context of the play this emotional impetuosity is a proof of the sincerity of their trust, and hence of their moral maturity. Only through their emotions are they led to the unprovable insight that Hero is innocent. Calm self-control and rational sifting of evidence cannot lead them to this all-important truth.

As has already been suggested, to say that Beatrice and Benedick abandon bad wit is not to say that they abandon wittiness. Humorous joking can express a playfulness founded on a love of life; and at the end of the play the pair are as playfully witty as ever. Now, however, the negative side of their wit is repudiated. Instead of concealing their feelings, their joking actually expresses them. Thus after brief and humorless assertions that they love each other “no more than reason,” they submit to the evidence of their love-letters and acknowledge their emotions by the use of witty irony:

A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee, but by this light, I take thee for pity.
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.


Wittiness here takes the form not of an insult ingeniously clever, but an insult transparently a lie. Their new wit is finally directed towards themselves rather than towards others. It gently mocks the fundamental irrationality of love, though it accepts that irrationality as an essential part of life.

While Beatrice and Benedick develop morally by abandoning the perception of skeptical reason for that of intuitive faith, by leaving wit for a higher wisdom, Claudio degenerates in the course of the play by rejecting subjective faith for prudential doubt. He compromises his initial emotional involvement with Hero by relying on his wits to understand her character. The fatal flaw in his love for Hero is not its impetuosity; for though it begins rather suddenly, it is based on some prior acquaintance and attraction and is directed toward a woman who is intrinsically admirable. The flaw, rather, is its lack of depth. Underneath Claudio's impetuous ardor is a latent uncertainty about the rightness of his own emotions and the value of love. This uncertainty shows itself first in the cautiousness with which Claudio tells Benedick of his feelings for Hero. Instead of boldly declaring his love at once, he begins by asking Benedick for his opinion, and when he later does acknowledge his feelings, he hedges his acknowledgement in a series of gentle qualifications. “In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on,” he tells Benedick (I.i.189-190), guarding his praise by admitting indirectly the possible bias of his emotions. And when he later asserts, “If my passion change not shortly, God forbid it should be otherwise” (I.i.221-222), he seems to admit a lack of complete confidence in the strength and stability of his emotions.

This lack of confidence may perhaps result partly from mere inexperience; for Claudio appears to be a young man who is more practiced as a soldier than as a courtier. He does not know the subtle workings of love, and for this reason is happy to have his friend Don Pedro woo Hero as his substitute. But when he believes Don John's lie that Don Pedro has wooed and won Hero for himself, he shows a lack of generosity as well as a lack of experience. He is too ready to distrust not only his own feelings but the intentions of others. He sees man as an easy prey to irresponsible infatuations that betray all other commitments:

’Tis certain so. The Prince woos for himself.
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love;
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues.
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.


This explanation of Don Pedro's supposed inconstancy in friendship, it should be noticed, not only degrades man by viewing him as a passive victim of his feelings, but also degrades women by viewing her attractions as Circean enchantments that make men act with the amorality of animals. In opposing blood to faith, love to constancy, Claudio is actually stripping love of its greatest virtue. He is blind to the fact that faith lies at the very center of love's power of perception; and this blindness prepares the way for his great blunder, his mistrust of Hero.

Some critics have tried to mitigate the guilt of Claudio's condemnation of Hero by reminding us that he is duped into his false belief not only by the slanders of Don John but by the seemingly conclusive proof of his own observation. Claudio in fact uses this argument to defend himself. “Yet sinned I not but in mistaking,” he assures Leonato when he finally discovers the truth (V.i.284-285). But this defense overlooks the crucial fact that real love abandons the external perception of the eye and ear for internal subjective perception. It rejects circumstantial appeals to practical wit, to skeptical prudence, for unconditional trust. Claudio is disposed to accept flimsy appeals to his senses because he has never fully committed himself to Hero, never rejected his suppressed doubts about the value of love. It has been argued that Don Pedro's acceptance of the false evidence is a proof of its power, that we must excuse Claudio's credulity if the good-hearted and sensible Don Pedro is duped as well. But there is obviously one all-important difference between the two men: Claudio is in love with Hero, or thinks he is, and Don Pedro is not. If love means anything here it should mean a special will to believe in the goodness of the beloved. Because Claudio's love is superficial, that special will does not exist. At the crucial moment he relies on wit, not faith.

Abetting Claudio's lack of trust in Hero is the kind of pride that we have seen supporting Benedick's initial commitment to wit. One of the reasons behind Claudio's decision to expose Hero in public is a desire to punish her for daring to dishonor him. He seems to be moved as much by the need of personal revenge as by the claims of moral justice. His dignity is offended that someone would be brazen enough to try to trick so noble a man as himself. By deciding to “bear her in hand until they come to take hands” (the phrase is Beatrice's, IV.ii.305-306), by feigning ignorance until the last moment, he intends to prove that he can overmatch her craft with his own. The hurt to his pride accounts for the viciousness of his attack, for his willingness to hurt cruelly the feelings of Hero's father and uncle in order to make her suffer, for the preponderance of anger over pity as he says to Leonato, “take her back again, / Give not this rotten orange to your friend” (IV.i.32-33). To the extent that Claudio's sense of justice is tainted by proud vengefulness he becomes like Don John, the man who is angry at the world and who is the prime agent in causing Claudio's distrust of Hero.

After his condennation of Hero, Claudio holds a position in relation to Benedick that exactly reverses their original relations. While Benedick has rejected the perceptions of the skeptic for those of the lover, Claudio has moved from love to skepticism. Where the old Benedick who trusts no woman is left behind for the new Benedick who trusts one woman completely, the old love-seeking Claudio is abandoned for a new Claudio who decides “to lock up all the gates of love” and “turn all beauty into thoughts of harm” (IV.i.106,108). Because Benedick has abandoned wit for the will to believe, he can see the goodness of Hero that is hidden from her apparent lover, Claudio, who has abandoned the will to believe for wit. The extent to which they have developed in opposite direction is shown most emphatically in the scene in which Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel. Benedick here is now in deadly earnest, attacking his former friend with honest indignation; Claudio is now the flippant man of wit, hiding under his wittiness whatever qualms he may feel about Hero's death. He expects Benedick to provide some witty entertainment, unaware that the old Benedick no longer exists:

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?
It is in my scabbard. Shall I draw it?
DON Pedro:
Dost thou wear they wit by thy side?
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.


Though Claudio and Don Pedro amuse themselves by joking about Benedick's loss of wit and his falling in love, Benedick is now wit-proof, as he says in his parting speech to Claudio: “Fare you well, boy. You know my mind. I will leave you now to your gossiplike humor. You break jests as braggarts do their blades, which, God be thanked, hurt not” (V.i.187-190). The laugh that Claudio and Don Pedro have at Benedick's new seriousness, at the love-striken man who “goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit” (V.i.202-203), is cut short when they learn from Borachio just how much their own wits have been deceived. “I have deceived,” affirms Borachio, “even your very eyes” (V.i.238).

In order for Claudio to deserve Hero's love at the end of the play, he must repudiate the prudential reason and reliance on sensory evidence that comprises bad wit. At first it may be a little difficult to see him accomplishing this; for when he tells Leonato that he sinned “But in mistaking,” he seems to overlook, as we have mentioned, the lack of trust which made this mistaking possible. Yet when he mourns Hero at her tomb he not only shows real grief at what his mistaking has done, but makes no effort to mitigate his guilt. The epitaph he writes for her affirms that she was “Done to death by slanderous tongues” and identifies her murderers with her mourners:

Pardon, goddess of the night,
Those that slew thy virgin knight,
For the which, with songs of woe,
Round about her tomb they go.


Moreover, in yielding himself up completely to the will of Leonato, in agreeing even to marry any woman that Leonato chooses, Claudio seems to be renouncing his reliance on self-sufficient intelligence. Just as Benedick finally relies on Beatrice's perception, so Claudio is finally willing to let someone else see for him and “dispose / For henceforth of poor Claudio” (V.i.305). And his not being allowed even to see the face of his wife before the marriage suggests symbolically the need to abandon external perception of the outer eye. The apparent miracle of Hero's resurrection comes about only by repudiating the kind of skeptical wit that caused her apparent death.6

The crowning blow to the claims of wit in Much Ado is given in farcical terms by the antics of Dogberry and Verges. For these blundering clowns, who are completely witless, manage to stumble into the truth that is denied Claudio and Don Pedro. As Borachio tells the deceived noblemen, “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.i.238-240). In the task of discovering clever criminals, crafty wit must yield to well-intentioned stupidity. Instead of cautioning prudent vigilance, Dogberry and Verges tell the watches to avoid getting into trouble; but the culprit gives himself away. They completely misconduct the trial, but they seem to know somehow that Borachio is a villain; and when they finally bring Conrad and Borachio before Leonato, Dogberry is able to give the crime its right name, although he is too ignorant to count to six: “Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves” (V.i.220-224). What seems to lie behind the success of their witlessness is their good will. They are simple-minded, but their hearts are in the right place. Their respect for Leonato's good name, for example, is ridiculously expressed, but is finally commendable:

Neighbors, you are tedious.
It pleases your Worship to say so, but we are the poor Duke's officers. But truly, for mine own part, if I were as tedious as a King, I could find in my heart to bestow it all of your Worship.
All thy tediousness on me, ah?
Yea, an ’twere a thousand pound more than ’tis, for I hear as good exclamation on your Worship as of any man in the city, and though I be but a poor man, I am glad to hear it.
And so am I.


In the world of the play such good feelings seem to be enough to enable one to stagger into truth.

While Dogberry and Verges, when taken together, represent the triumph of witlessness, Dogberry taken by himself can be seen to expose wit in even a more direct way. For with all his stupidity Dogberry believes that he is a clever man; and by his fatuous pride in his wit he parodies unconsciously the pride of Benedick and Claudio. Thus his malapropisms, which result partly from his desire to display his vocabulary, are related in motive to the word-play of his betters, which expresses, at least in its debased form, a kind of intellectual vanity.7 And Dogberry's patronizing lament that old Verges's “wits are not so blunt” as they should be, that “when the age is in, the wit is out,” recalls Benedick's initial patronizing of love-lorn Claudio, and looks forward to Claudio's laughing lament over Benedick's foolishness as a lover. The relation of Dogberry to Claudio is especially close. Dogberry's examination of Borachio and Conrade follows immediately after Claudio's public examination of Hero; and the absurd mishandling of the villains' hearing (though Dogberry has promised to “spare no wit” in the matter (III.v.66)) is a commentary on the injustice of Hero's hearing. Even Dogberry's horror that he should have “been writ down an ass” (IV.ii.90) may perhaps echo Claudio's angry indignation at the affront to his dignity which might be caused by Hero's supposed deception. The men of wit in the play, then, are not only less successful than the fools in seeing truth, but are mocked by one fool's aping of their witty pretensions.

The inadequacy of wit as a mode of perception is perhaps suggested by the very title of Much Ado About Nothing. It has been often pointed out that “noting” and “nothing” were pronounced alike in Elizabethan England, and one recent critic, Miss Dorothy Hockey, has suggested in a very useful article that Much Ado is really a “dramatization of mis-noting,” pointing out the many specific references to hearing and seeing in the play that underscore the mistakes of observation.8 We can enlarge the meaning of this point if we keep in mind the relation of noting to wit; for wit in Much Ado, as we have seen, entails a skeptical prudence that relies on sensory facts rather than on intuitive belief. The pun in the title, which suggests that to depend on noting is to depend on nothing, thus vindicates indirectly the intuitive mode of perception to which wit is opposed.


  1. Graham Storey, “The Success of Much Ado About Nothing,” in Discussions of Shakespeare's Romantic Comedy, ed. Herbert Weil, Jr. (Boston, 1966), p. 44.

  2. Storey, p. 40.

  3. Citations from Shakespeare in this essay are to The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1968).

  4. A. P. Rossiter, “Much Ado About Nothing,” in Weil, p. 26. This essay appeared originally in Angel with Horns by A. P. Rossiter, ed. Graham Storey (London, 1961).

  5. The importance of the notion of wit in Much Ado has been particularly emphasized by two critics, Mr. Walter N. King and Mr. William G. McCollom. Mr. King, in his interesting article, “Much Ado About Something,” SQ, XV (1964), limits the meaning of wit to the use of word-play, contending that the expressive practice of this kind of joking buries “natural instinct” under a layer of conventionality. Mr. McCollom, on the other hand, contending that wit is a positive force in Much Ado, argues that the play is “about the triumphing of true wit (or wise folly) … over false or pretentious wisdom,” with Beatrice and Benedick being the truly wise and “Don John, Borachio, Don Pedro, Claudio, and even Leonato … present[ing] in very different ways the false wisdom which deceives others or itself” (“The Role of Wit in Much Ado About Nothing, SQ, XIX (1968), pp. 166, 173). The problem with this formulation is that it fails to notice that the wit-play of Benedick and Beatrice has potentially negative qualities that lead to self-deception, and that a reliance on wit, in the general sense of practical reason, leads to error more often than to insight. The opposition between pride and humility is doubtless a crucial distinction in the play; but Mr. McCollom does not make clear enough how the mistakes of Claudio and Don Pedro are attributable to pride, or how Beatrice's and Benedick's belief in Hero is the result of their humility.

  6. I must admit that I agree with the many critics who are disturbed by Claudio's joviality during his wedding. His punning jokes at Benedick, his rather crude question, “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” (V.i.53), and his playful request to look under the bride's veil before the ceremony suggest that his remorse over Hero's death is somewhat superficial. A more somber bearing here would make us more willing to believe that he deserves Hero, that he has reached the moral plane of Beatrice and Benedick.

  7. Mr. Rossiter makes a similar point, contending that “wit and nitwit share a common obsessive delight in the wonder of words” (p. 28).

  8. Dorothy C. Hockey, “notes notes, Forsooth. …,” SQ, VIII (1957), p. 354.

Laurie E. Osborne (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8641

SOURCE: Osborne, Laurie E. “Dramatic Play in Much Ado about Nothing: Wedding in the Italian Novella and English Comedy.” Philological Quarterly 69, no. 2 (spring 1990): 167-88.

[In the following essay, Osborne analyzes Much Ado about Nothing as an integration of the Italian novella and the English comedy. Osborne asserts that through his linking of these two genres, Shakespeare explored the contradictions within comic conventions and the problems inherent in combining non-comic and non-dramatic materials with comedy.]

In Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare creates two plots from a single principal source—the slandered maiden tale which Ariosto and Bandello both treat.1 One plot, the story of Hero, up to the end of the comedy, imitates the action of the original Italian novellas and their interesting villain, while the other, the story of the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, which is Shakespeare's creation, refashions the main plot and its dramatist manipulator according to comic principles.

The relationship between these two plots is most frequently discussed—or dismissed—in light of the two pairs of lovers. Charles Prouty claims that the couples each represent different “realistic” views of love. In the courtship of Hero and Claudio, he sees a Renaissance commonplace, the marriage of convenience, and in Beatrice and Benedick, the “realistic” rejection of outworn romantic ideals. John Traugott, in a more recent version of the same kind of argument, suggests that Shakespeare manipulates comedy and romance to expose the potential violence at the heart of the latter and to create through Beatrice “a rational Rinaldo of Benedick, a worldly Ginevra of herself.”2 Both Prouty and Traugott begin by observing how Shakespeare alters his sources, specifically with the addition of Beatrice and Benedick. Their analyses rely on the premise that what interested Shakespeare most about these novellas was the courtier's code—that is, the idea of a romance courtship like that of Ariodant and Genevra in Book 5 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.3

Up until now, examining Shakespeare's sources for Much Ado about Nothing has led almost inevitably to arguments about how Shakespeare revises or imitates their representations of romantic love.4 Problems of mixed genres or generic contamination, from this perspective, center around the opposition between the domestic married love of comedy and the chivalric devotion and peregrinations of love in romance. As a corrective to this limited view, I suggest that Shakespeare's principal interest in these works lies in their representation of the dangerous powers of dramatic play—staging scenes, acting roles, and creating spectacle.5 In my view, what Shakespeare's use of these tales reveals most strikingly is his fascination with figures who manipulate their worlds by dramatic means. Shakespeare sharpens the focus on these figures, whom I will call player-dramatists, in a variety of ways. By deliberately dulling the passionate love and jealousy experienced by the lovers in his sources, he draws attention away from Hero and Claudio and directs it towards the disinterested malevolence of Don John. Of the three characters drawn directly from the novellas—the lover, the slandered maiden, and the obsessive rival, only one, Don John, retains something of the excessive emotion of the originals.

Yet Don John is obsessed with his brother, not Hero. In fashioning his villain, Shakespeare totally abandons the jealous rivalry which motivates Ariosto's Polynesso and Bandello's Girondo to slander the chaste maidens. Whereas the other versions, one and all, focus on a rejected lover's contrivance, Don John has no personal interest in Hero at all. In fact, it is Don Pedro, not Don John, who is presented, however briefly, as Claudio's rival for Hero's affections. This mistaken conflict, which dominates the first act and a half, is one of the first hints of how crucially connected the two brothers are in Shakespeare's use of the novellas. The other sign is, of course, Don John's predominant desire to thwart his brother in any way: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace.”6 With the sole intention of opposing his brother's favorite, Don John effectively recasts the actors in Claudio's courtship, not once but twice. Yet Don John is not the first to exploit a staged scene in Messina; Don Pedro initiates the dramatic play in Much Ado about Nothing with his unexpected offer to act the role of suitor in order to further the match between Hero and Claudio.

Shakespeare singles out the slanderous player-dramatist of his source by leaving that figure involved in the extravagant emotion so common in the novellas and by creating a character who is, for all practical purposes, his mirror image. If Don John is preoccupied with crossing his brother in any way, Don Pedro is equally obsessed with making marriages, first Hero's and Claudio's and then Beatrice's and Benedick's. In fact, Don Pedro's tactics and goals in his role as comic matchmaker inspire Don John's match-breaking. For both, dramatic play becomes the expression of their needs, as each stages and restages contrived scenes to force his view on Messina.7

In this way, Shakespeare establishes Don Pedro as the comic impulse in Messina, creating a new version of the villain of the novellas who uses his dramatic play exclusively to achieve the comic goal of marriage. Don John's violent urge to sabotage his brother shows the lingering resistance of the Italian novellas to such comic treatment and the vitality given comedy by such opposition. Don John insists upon the villainy of dramatic play and revels in his marriage breaking as he persistently recalls Shakespeare's imitation of his sources.

By linking these two player-dramatists so strongly, Shakespeare examines the difficulties of absorbing non-comic, non-dramatic materials into comedy. Examining what role narrative from the novellas can play in comedy ultimately reveals the contradictory functions of the comic dramatist as he must not only seek to further social union but also complicate and delay that union to tell a tale. Thus Much Ado, in transforming non-comic materials into comedy, uncovers the contradictions in the comic conventions which form the basis for that revision.

My reading of Much Ado about Nothing insists upon the importance of the brothers and the other characters who take up or challenge dramatic play. In examining the relationship between the melodramatic novellas and Much Ado about Nothing, I focus on comedy as a genre in process rather than a conventional dramatic form determined by its end. As a result I look at the connections between the self-contained “comedy” of the first two acts and the rest of Much Ado in terms of Shakespeare's initial responses to his narrative materials. I also explore the way the power of dramatic play passes from the brothers to other characters like Leonato and the Friar in the course of Shakespeare's ongoing reworking of his original materials. Whereas a critic like Bertrand Evans in Shakespeare's Comedies approaches these “practices” in terms of how Shakespeare is manipulating the audience's perceptions, I am interested in how he uses these player-dramatists to draw together the discourses of different genres.8 The conflict between the narrative novella and comic drama forces a new consideration of the contradictions at the heart of comedy and leads to a radical shift in his use of the sources in the second half of Much Ado.


The first two acts of the comedy test the power of Don Pedro's comic vision to dominate in a world where play can also effectively create an anti-comic view—the world of Ariodant and Genevra, for example, where Polynesso's dramatic play nearly results in Ariodant's suicide and Genevra's execution. The opening apparently establishes the extreme difference between the comic Don Pedro and the contrary Don John but actually implies a close relationship between the two.

In act 1, Don Pedro peremptorily usurps Claudio's courtship. Once Claudio reveals his interest in Hero, Don Pedro takes up not only the cause of forwarding the marriage but also Claudio's role as suitor: “I will assume thy part in some disguise / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio” (1.1.103-4). By the end of the first scene of Much Ado, Don Pedro has identified himself so thoroughly as a proponent of marriage that he reduces Claudio to a mere observer of his own courtship. As Don Pedro seeks to assimilate Hero to his comic vision of marriage, he becomes the first player-dramatist in Messina.

When Don Pedro turns so readily to dramatic play, his action has several results. First, instead of effectively promoting Claudio's and Hero's union, as he seems to expect, his actions lead to immediate confusion in her family. In the scene following the Prince's decision, Antonio rushes in to tell Hero's father that “the Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter, and meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance” (1.2.10-12). Leonato, as a result, councils her on how to react to Don Pedro's proposal, not Claudio's. At this point, like Polynesso of Orlando Furioso, the Duke is seen as the only potential suitor for Hero.

Don John hears a more accurate description of his brother's plan and responds with his usual contrary spirit: “This may prove food to my displeasure; that young start-up [Claudio] hath all the glory of my overthrow. If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way” (1.3.61-66). Motivated purely by the desire to cross Don Pedro and his friends, Don John looks for “any model to build mischief on” (1.3.44). In his brother's dramatic play, he finds both a cause to oppose in this marriage and a model to imitate.

As a result, Don John becomes the rival player-dramatist, and begins to act as the single-minded enemy of comic union. He doubly opposes marriage in his dramatic play during the masked dance. Not only does he destroy Claudio's anticipation of wedding Hero by asserting that Don Pedro woos for himself, but he also ostensibly seeks to ruin his brother's proposed “marriage” to the lady. Don John addresses Claudio as Benedick and begs him to intervene—“Signior, you are very near my brother in his love. He is enamored on Hero; I pray you, dissuade him from her, she is no equal for his birth” (2.1.151-53). Purposely mistaking the masked Claudio for Benedick, Don John exploits his brother's playing as he sees through Don Pedro's disguise to “discover” his wooing, thus establishing Don Pedro as Claudio's rival. Moreover, in focusing on the disparity between Hero's and Don Pedro's birth, he offers the very reason given by Fenicia's father in Bandello's story when Timbreo rejects her. Don John's passionate opposition to the lovers' betrothal links him strongly to Shakespeare's sources, while the effects of his actions, the establishment of Don Pedro as a suitor, serve to implicate his brother as the rival of the novellas.

I read the first practice of Don Pedro and Don John's corresponding deception as two aspects of the same action, an action as thoroughly grounded in the novellas as the actual slander at the end of the play.9 Don John and his later villainy actually come from the novellas and, in turn, inspire Shakespeare's invention of Don Pedro, who uses disguise and staging scenes for very different purposes. Paradoxically, within Much Ado itself, it is Don Pedro's immediate impulse to act the role of suitor in arranging Claudio's wedding which incites Don John. By showing Don Pedro as both the initiator and resolver of his own small comedy, Shakespeare seeks to privilege his dramatic play and the comic conventions which he espouses. Yet the first act and a half indicate his fatal connection to the source's villain when he seems to be Claudio's rival. Moreover, Don Pedro's single-minded pursuit of Hero's and Claudio's betrothal is matched and mirrored in Don John's equally dedicated opposition to it.

In the first practices of Much Ado, these two characters share the artistry of the comic dramatist, which Marvin Herrick describes in Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century, “the art of the poet is shown by his ability to weave a tangled web of threats, dangers, misunderstandings, and errors, which are then skillfully, but with an air of naturalness, happily resolved.”10 Both Don Pedro, who aims at happy endings, and Don John, who arranges “threats, dangers, and misunderstandings,” are essential in making a comedy of the first part of Much Ado, since Don John's playing leads to the near disaster which intensifies the joy of Hero's and Claudio's betrothal.

However, their persistent conflict suggests that the extreme contradiction between comedy in process, i.e. erecting threats, etc., and comedy as goal, aiming toward union, cannot be easily resolved “with an air of naturalness.” The comedy continues for two reasons. Don John persists in his efforts to break the betrothal that his brother has arranged, and Don Pedro persists in making marriages, now turning his attention to Beatrice and Benedick, a pair as resistant to marriage as Don John.

Both Beatrice and Benedick defy Don Pedro's matchmaking. When Benedick reveals his most thorough opposition to women and marriage, declaring, “I will live a bachelor” (1.1.228), Don Pedro responds to this statement as if it were a personal affront, “I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love” (1.1.229). Benedick's further avowal that he would not marry Beatrice “though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed” (2.1.235-36) both denies the validity of the Prince's comic vision and contests his power to arrange the match.

Beatrice first provokes Don Pedro by drawing attention to his orchestration of Claudio's betrothal—“Speak, Count, 'tis your cue” (2.1.287).11 When she explicitly prompts the two lovers to speech as if they were actors, she shows her awareness of Don Pedro's playful control. As the woman who notes that God “send[s] me no husband, for which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening” (2.1.24-26), Beatrice appropriately calls attention to Don Pedro as the active comic principle in the comedy—and resists his vision even as she perceives its force over Hero and Claudio. When the dominance of his comic vision becomes even more obvious in his offer to marry her, she refuses him.

Don Pedro, with his curious proposal, not only reinforces the fact that he has only one possible objective in his dramatic play but also suggests that the true goal in this comedy is his own union. The real task in Much Ado about Nothing goes beyond arranging the marriages of the two couples, whose betrothals are achieved with relative ease; the real issue here is wedding the melodramatic novellas, concentrated around Don John, and comedy, represented in Don Pedro. Resolving the opposition between the two brothers is essential not only to unite the two functions of the comic dramatist which the brothers embody but also to combine the powers of narrative and drama.

As Don Pedro gets more deeply involved in pursuing comic union, his actions becomes more closely identified with drama. The most striking quality of the trick he arranges for Benedick is its overt theatricality. The display the conspirators put on is excessive, especially in contrast to the practice Don Pedro has used to bring Hero and Claudio together. What becomes clear in the dramatic play which Don Pedro orchestrates here is that the purpose is not to control events but to control the way Benedick perceives them.

Don Pedro's preparation of his audience begins with his insistence that Balthasar repeat a song which Don Pedro has had him “rehearse”—“Come, Balthasar, we'll hear that song again” (2.3.43). However, Balthasar's initial reluctance to “slander music any more than once” indicates immediately the potential problems of the co-operative dramatic play which Don Pedro has set up in his second attempt at matchmaking. It seems to me unlikely that Balthasar is aware of the role he is playing here, since he is sent away before Don Pedro initiates the topic of Beatrice's love. Moreover, Balthasar is all too obviously designing his witty self-deprecation and his performance to suit Don Pedro as his audience and patron. His unwittingly obstructive scene-stealing in Don Pedro's planned performance irritates the Prince more and more as he keeps trying to get Balthasar to sing and to stop making puns about music. Don Pedro finally exclaims, “Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!” (2.3.57). When Balthasar finally does produce the designated song, a ballad on the faithlessness of men, Don Pedro's refashioning of Benedick's perceptions begins.

In the revelation of Beatrice's affections, Don Pedro takes the role of questioner. He enacts Benedick's part in the scene by playing the person who does not exactly know the details of Beatrice's feelings but would like to know. From that position, he can act as a prompter, asking Claudio and Leonato the questions which will elicit the information he wants Benedick to know. He can also voice Benedick's doubts, “Maybe she doth counterfeit” (2.3.103). Yet again, Don Pedro chooses the suitor's position, carrying it to the point of saying, “I wish she had bestowed this dotage on me, I would have daffed all respects and made her half myself” (2.3.164-66).

However, in this scene Don Pedro is not the sole actor as he was in Claudio's courtship; he must rely heavily on Leonato and Claudio. Leonato, who presumably has much at stake in arranging a match for his niece and pleasing the man who arranged his daughter's betrothal, keeps up with Don Pedro's conversational gambits, but Claudio keeps breaking out of character to comment on Benedick's responses. His exuberant pleasure in tricking his friend almost wrecks the scene as, at first, he pays more attention to his audience than to his role. When Don Pedro asks, “Why what effects of passion shows she?” Leonato paves the way for Claudio's contribution—“She will sit you—you heard my daughter tell you how” (2.3.108, 110-11). But Claudio, who has been watching and commenting on Benedick, says only, “She did indeed” (2.3.112). It takes several more lines to bring Claudio into the conversation enough to begin his description of Beatrice's letterwriting.

Even Beatrice herself is transformed into an actress in Don Pedro's dramatic play. At the beginning of the scene Leonato has commented that it is “most wonderful that she should so dote on Signior Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviours seemed ever to abhor” (2.3.96-99). Much as Ariosto's Polynesso suggests to Ariodante “How cunningly these women can dissemble, / Litle to love where they make greatest show,” Don Pedro suggests that Beatrice's outward behavior is an act which hides her true feelings.12 Moreover, Claudio and Leonato describe her behavior in acknowledging that she loves Benedick as if that, too, were a role.

In describing the scene of Beatrice's writing, the conspirators use narrative within dramatic play, yet the form their “narrative” takes is that of a play script. They quote Beatrice's words and narrate her actions, culminating in Claudio's extended stage direction: “Then down upon her knees she falls, weeps, sobs, beats her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses” (2.3.143-44). He assigns to her actions all the theatrical signals of extreme anguish. Despite the way the three men “theatricalize” their narrative of Beatrice, ultimately their description recalls both the extreme emotion of the novellas and the revealing letter of love which initiates Polynesso's raging jealousy of Ariodant in Ariosto's tale. This portrayal of Beatrice's emotional vulnerability, which is crucial in altering Benedick's perception of their relationship, also connects Don Pedro once again with the slanderous player-dramatist of the sources.

In fact, the conspirators cannot resist mentioning the possibility of counterfeiting. When Don Pedro and Claudio suggest that she feigns the emotion, Leonato insists that Beatrice loves Benedick passionately, while continuing to emphasize the possibility of counterfeit: “Oh God! Counterfeit? There never was counterfeit of passion came so near the life of passion as she discovers it” (2.3.105-6). Benedick picks up the suggestion of counterfeiting but discounts twice the possibility that he is being tricked. As soon as the conspirators suggest that Beatrice is pretending passion, Benedick comments “I should think this a gull, but that white bearded man speaks it” (2.3.118-19). Alive to the possibility of dramatic play, Benedick nevertheless looks for reasons to believe their version, accepting the word of Don Pedro's most recent ally, Leonato. After the conspirators have concluded their game, Benedick once again considers the possibility of a trick but concludes, “This can be no trick: The conference was sadly borne” (2.3.212-13). Convinced by their sincerity, he abandons his suspicions and moves to adapt his views to suit Beatrice's love—“I will be horribly in love with her” (2.3.226-27).

The comedy which Don Pedro imagines for Benedick in act 2, scene 3 has three scenes. The first is the scene of Beatrice's love-stricken anguish which Claudio and Leonato recall and recount; it establishes Benedick's character as the obstruction to Beatrice's happy acknowledgement of her love. The second scene is the one which the conspirators put on for Benedick, where they challenge him to change his view and marry Beatrice. The aim of all Don Pedro's preparations is yet a third scene. His goal is a meeting between Beatrice and Benedick: “The sport will be when they both hold one an opinion of another's dotage, and no such matter: that's a scene that I would like to see, which will be merely a dumb-show” (2.3.207-10). If Beatrice and Benedick will not act willingly in his comedy, he will trick them into it.

The excessively “dramatic” qualities of Don Pedro's scene are even more noticeable in contrast to the straightforward practice Hero enacts for Beatrice. Beatrice is similarly prepared to meet Benedick with a more accommodating spirit in act 3, scene 1, but the scene she witnesses is more direct and much shorter. Hero starts off by declaring Beatrice too disdainful to hear of Benedick's love. Hero concentrates on the characteristic play which blocks the mutual affection of Beatrice and Benedick: “She cannot love, / Nor take no shape nor project of affection / She is so self-endeared” (3.1.54-56). Whereas Don Pedro's staging is elaborate both in its production and in its descriptions of Beatrice's sufferings and Benedick's cruelty, Hero strikes directly at Beatrice's destructive role as scorner of love.

The contrast between Don Pedro's self-consciously theatrical trickery and Hero's more straightforward approach is important because of Hero's unwitting critique of the egocentricity of dramatic play. Whereas Don Pedro glories in describing Beatrice's role playing, Hero sharply criticizes Beatrice's role as inherently destructive. Whereas Don Pedro and his cohorts enjoy their production so much that they joke with “counterfeiting,” Hero reinterprets the false presentation of Beatrice's character as slander, “Truly I'll devise some honest slanders / To stain my cousin with” (3.1.84-85).13 Don Pedro's dramatic play may seem innocuous, but Hero's version of the same trick offers a harsher view and recalls vividly how closely all the staged scenes of this comedy are related to the slander at the heart of Shakespeare's sources. Even in Don Pedro's moment of greatest triumph, Shakespeare never lets his audience forget that he is still vitally linked to Don John.

Shakespeare's attempt in the main action to transform the melodramatic novellas into a subject for comedy meets the resistance of the necessary slander at the center of the source's plot. Juxtaposing the destructive dramatic play of Bandello's or Ariosto's version with comic conventions has had the double effect of exposing slander as a type of dramatic play useful also for comic ends and, more disturbingly, of insisting on the creation of “false” or divisive discourse as the prerequisite of comic dramaturgy. The revelation of this contradiction at the heart of comedy is figured most powerfully in Don John.14

As the player-dramatist who opposes marriages, Don John is inevitably most effective in the interim between betrothal and wedding where he can fashion difficulties. His dramatic play dominates the epitasis of the comedy where “the complications, the intrigues, are developed. More often than not, dangers arise, increase, and finally become so pressing that a drastic remedy is necessary.”15 The danger in Much Ado is the threat of dishonor, which in the courtier's code of Messina, is also the threat of death.16

Still following the source, Don John pursues the ruin of Claudio's marriage to Hero in the second half of the comedy. Once again Don John, the imitator, must turn to others for inspiration. Slow to catch the implications of Borachio's dalliance with Margaret, Don John cannot see beyond his main purpose: “What is in that, to be the death of this marriage?” (2.2.19-20). Borachio must explain the mechanism of the slander, but he points to Don John's role as crucial:

The poison of that [Borachio's meeting with Margaret] lies in you to temper. Go you to the Prince your brother; spare not to tell him that he hath wronged his honor in marrying the renowned Claudio … to a contaminated stale, such a one as Hero.


Instead of merely influencing Claudio, who has already proven all too susceptible to the opinions of others, Don John must now draw Don Pedro into a new interpretation of the proposed match. As Don Pedro's dramatic play has prepared Benedick and Beatrice to conform to the love which supposedly controls them both and discover the proof of that love in each other's actions, Don John prepares Don Pedro and Claudio to adjust to the new view of Hero and to perceive proof of it in Borachio's encounter with Margaret.

In fact, Don John's most effective tactic in inspiring their reversal in judgment is very similar to Don Pedro's tactics with Benedick. Don John encourages his brother and Claudio to imagine what they will do if they do discover Hero's dishonor, much as Don Pedro and his friends anticipate Benedick's playful scorn if he knew of Beatrice's love. However, while Don Pedro leaves open an alternative reaction for Benedick, Don John leaves no hint of sympathy for Hero as he obviously allows only one imagined result of his proof.17 Because Don Pedro lacks Benedick's or Beatrice's ironic appreciation of his own playing, he does not even suspect a counterfeit. Instead, he adopts this attitude toward Hero as freely as the ever-accommodating Claudio.

Whereas Don Pedro's manipulations of Benedick and Beatrice emphasize his connections with comic drama, Don John's trick is predominantly associated with narrative. Not only does the scene at Hero's window only occur in Borachio's story of what happened, but also Don John's speech to Claudio and Don Pedro bears a noticeable resemblance to the one given by the creator of the bedroom scene in Bandello's version. The nameless obsequious villain of Bandello's tale (counterpart to the nameless Messaline nobleman who acts as matchmaker and then conveys Timbreo's refusal to wed Fenicia) claims to act only in Timbreo's best interest: “Sir, I come at this hour to speak with you about matters of the utmost importance, which touch your honor and well-being, and since perhaps I may say something could offend you, I pray you pardon me; let my devotion to you be my excuse.”18 Don John's approach to Don Pedro and Claudio is similar, invoking their honor while, more improbably, asserting his devotion to them.

As a result of this conversation, Don Pedro and Claudio undergo a startling change from the beginning of the scene to its conclusion. Where they start out by playing with the lovesick Benedick and glorying in their jest, they end the scene as dupes themselves. As Don Pedro moves from playful control to being controlled by another's schema, even his language changes, and he begins to sound like Don John:19

DON Pedro.
O day untowardly turn'd!
O mischief strangely thwarting!
DON John.
O plague right well prevented! So will you say when you have seen the sequel.


Having masterfully persuaded them to adjust to his view, Don John has predisposed them to perceive the “sequel” as proof, to act and speak in ways which conform to his vision. Like the anonymous evil courtier who helps Girondo arrange the slander of Fenicia and the anonymous matchmaker who starts by arranging the marriage and then joins in its destruction by reporting Timbreo's rejection of his bride, Don John and Don Pedro become one in their desire to disrupt the wedding.

When the Prince and his bastard brother move on to new practices after act 1, scene 2, both men continue to enact the same kind of play, but with very different purposes. Both seek to persuade a more sophisticated audience to accept a new view. Their activities in the second movement of the comedy once again represent two halves of a single ruse. In fact, Don John creates the exact counterpart to Don Pedro's small comedy for Benedick. His miniature tragedy also contains three scenes: the scene which prepares Claudio and Don Pedro to see Hero's frailty; the scene at Hero's window, and the shaming of Hero in the church. Here Don John poses the greatest possible threat to comedy—the disruption of the wedding and the disgrace of an innocent and unsuspecting maiden. But, most shockingly, Don Pedro, the player-dramatist who originally arranged the match, joins in transforming what should be a joyous celebration into a public disgrace which apparently results in death.

In act 4, it seems that Much Ado about Nothing gives over all comic purpose to submit to the power of the narrative source. Even Beatrice and Benedick, according to Traugott, revert to imitations of the excessively romantic novellas as she plays distressed maiden to his errant knight. As Don Pedro and Don John together come to express the anti-comic dramatic play of the source, it becomes clear that the only kind of harmony that can be achieved between the two brothers is, ironically, a union which destroys the goal of comedy.

In creating Much Ado, Shakespeare uncovers the utter dependence of the comic on the anti-comic. The enactment of that problem is displayed in the creation of one plot from the other, one player-dramatist from another. In the second section of this comedy, with the union of the two brothers, the inextricable connection between the comic and the anti-comic in the catastrophe essential to comedy becomes explicit, as the two brothers unite and in effect becomes one figure. Don Pedro becomes his own antithesis, the marriage-breaker of the source, and, as a result, Don John literally disappears when his function as the imitator of the source is absorbed in his brother's character.

At the same time, ironically, the joining of the two brothers achieves the fullest integration of narrative and drama and consequently the most powerful dramatic play up to that point in the comedy. Until act 4, scene 1, Don Pedro prefers drama and transforms the narration he must use to persuade Benedick into as theatrical a form as possible, whereas Don John consistently favors telling a story over acting it out, even though he must feign concern for his brother to tell the tale of Hero's infidelity. When the two brothers unite in support of Claudio, the three together stage the most effective dramatic play thus far in the comedy, the humiliation of Hero at the altar. Claudio and Don Pedro use and improvise upon the script of the wedding ceremony, while Don John acts as the grieving witness. They narrate the story of Hero's frailty as the crucial part of their staged punishment of Leonato and his daughter. This scene, which is unique to Shakespeare's version of the novellas, marks the point of greatest power for the two brothers as their dramatic play apparently proves Hero's frailty and results in her death. However, their united success violates comedy as well as the innocent Hero and leads Shakespeare to abandon his player-dramatists—suddenly and completely, both lose the power to play.

There are reasons for this abrupt loss. Don Pedro's faith in his own play has been undermined so he cannot return to achieve the “cheerful outcome;” his comic purpose has failed utterly. Don John, on the other hand, cannot maintain his slanderous vision of Hero, because he has not engaged enough of Messina in his dramatic play. Consequently, his view of Hero dissolves readily. Nonetheless, their unexpected powerlessness is all the more striking because it coincides and, in some ways expresses, Shakespeare's sudden departure from his sources—the disappearance of Don John, who in the other versions is always present, either to be killed as Polynesso or married off as Girondo; the disturbing silence of Margaret whose prototype, Dalinda in Ariosto's tale, is the person who reveals the trick of the bedroom scene; and perhaps the most striking changes of all, the omission of the window scene which occurs in every other version of the story.

While Don John's disappearance, which occurs because he and Don Pedro have become one and the same, occasions little comment, Margaret's silence has caused critics and students alike more anxiety. Her patent involvement in Borachio's trick and failure to vindicate Hero either at the wedding or later are frequently dismissed by the claim that she is not so much a character as a plot convenience. Her reticence would pass unnoticed on stage, or so the argument goes. Yet given the fact that almost the entire story of Ariodant and Genevra is narrated by the maidservant Dalinda, Margaret's failure to speak seems to me too important to be set aside that easily. By denying Margaret speech, Shakespeare overtly rejects the narrator of the novellas. Yet, strangely enough, he does not replace her lengthy story of the trick staged at the window by dramatizing the event.

The omission of the scene at Hero's window is perhaps the most startling change Shakespeare makes in the original narratives. All of the variations of the source tale both include and emphasize such a scene, but Shakespeare leaves it out with three crucial results.20 First, the true emphasis of Don John's dramatic play, like his brother's, is concentrated more in shifting the attitudes of his audience than in controlling what they see. He prepares them to discover “proof,” rather than supplying that proof.

Second, the omission of that staged scene emphasizes still further the narrative quality of Don John's trick. While still involved in dramatic play, Don John's marriage-breaking is associated with narration in this comedy just as strikingly as Don Pedro's manipulations of Benedick are linked to theater. First Don John tells the story of Hero's frailty. Then we do not see the scene at Hero's window; we hear about it from Borachio:

Know that I tonight have wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero's gentlewoman, by the name of Hero; she leans me out at her mistress's chamber, bids me a thousand times good night—I tell this tale vilely—I should first tell thee how the Prince, Claudio, and my master, planted, placed, and possessed by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter.


Borachio even draws attention to the fact that he is telling a tale rather than enacting the dramatic play which he describes. Whereas Don Pedro allies himself with comedy only to be betrayed in his connections to the narrative novellas, Don John at every point seems to be associated with the narrative and the slander of the source.

Finally and most importantly, Don John draws attention to the “sequel” of his persuasions, but Shakespeare replaces Don John's carefully contrived scene which transforms Hero to a contemptible stale with the only scene of unplanned eavesdropping in the comedy: the Watch overhearing Borachio's confession to Conrade. Borachio's incoherent, out-of-order recital of events, whose flaws he self-consciously acknowledges, becomes all the more convincing as proof of villainy because he has not crafted it carefully to persuade his audience. Indeed the Watch as his audience, prepared only with Dogberry's somewhat confusing analysis of villainy, completely misconstrues the crime. When Shakespeare takes over the very type of dramatic play which serves his player-dramatists throughout Much Ado about Nothing, he does not concern himself with making or breaking marriages. Instead he unites melodramatic narrative in Borachio's story of slander and comic drama in staging the drunken, out-of-order recital of events before a well-meaning but not-very-bright internal audience. By staging the only scene of “genuine” eavesdropping, Shakespeare deliberately invokes the narration of the sources and renders it theatrical.

Leaving aside his original attempts to transform the source's villain into a comic figure by creating Don Pedro to oppose Don John, Shakespeare unites narrative and comic drama in other ways. In place of the notable omissions from the source material, Shakespeare creates and refashions a variety of characters—Dogberry, the Friar, Leonato—to assume the burden of comic creation in Messina. Notably, all these new figures combine elements of narrative and theater as each unites an anti-comic deferral of union with the ultimate purpose of union and suggests ways of reconciling the contradiction in comic creation exposed by the two brothers.

As the task of comic assimilation passes from Don Pedro's flawed hands to Shakespeare's manipulations of the plot, the most notable assurance of comic resolution which Shakespeare supplies is his creation of Dogberry and the Watch. After the scene where Don John carefully prepares his brother and Claudio to interpret the “proof” of Hero's infamy, Shakespeare supplies the only characters in the play who do not originate in any fashion from the source—Dogberry and his Watch.

In fact, Dogberry's briefing of his Watch is quite different from Don John's preparation of his brother and Claudio. Unlike Don John, Dogberry does not urge his men to any action. In fact, if any resist their warnings, the Watch is instructed merely to leave the drunkard at the tavern, to watch the thief steal away, and to listen to the babe crying. In short, the Watch is carefully told how to react to the normal “villainies” they may encounter. Consequently, they deal with Borachio and Conrade in terms of the crimes for which Dogberry has prepared them. When Borachio offers “like a true drunkard,” to tell his tale to Conrade, the Watch, instructed to deal with vagrants and drunkards, draws close to listen to “some treason.” And when Borachio metaphorically refers to fashion as a deformed thief, the Watch has truly found out one of the great villainies they were warned against.

With the inept but inevitable mechanism of comic justice in place, Shakespeare assures us that the slander of Hero will eventually be revealed while insuring that the resolution will be delayed by the bungling of the investigators. The crucial revelation of the villainy in the court combines narration, telling the story before a judge, and comic drama as Dogberry interrupts and misconstrues almost the entire deposition. Such well meaning incompetence becomes the first explanation of how erecting difficulties in comedy does not contradict the pursuit of comic union; human fallibility becomes a natural obstacle.

After the link between Don Pedro and Don John becomes explicit and undeniable in their unity in act 4, Shakespeare also creates a new player-dramatist who both imitates the villain of the source in arranging Hero's “death” and transforms that threat to a comic purpose. The Friar recognizes Hero's blushes and death-like faint as signs of her innocence and suggests his own dramatic play: “publish it that she is dead indeed; / Maintain a mourning ostentation” (4.1.204-5). The Friar's plan demands both the public narration of Hero's death and the display of “mourning ostentation” in order to achieve its effect. This feigning at first appears to complicate the situation and delay Hero's wedding indefinitely as Leonato realizes when he demands what purpose such a pretence can serve. Friar Francis offers two goals. First her death will affect the conscience of the Count and therefore, if the accusation is misproved, pave the way to “fashion the event in better shape / Than I can lay it down in likelihood” (4.1.235-36). Or, if her honor cannot be regained, her pretended death not only “will quench the wonder of her infamy,” but also will permit further concealment as her stained reputation requires (4.1.239).

The Friar's dramatic play unites the impulse to complicate the situation and the desire to resolve Hero's dilemma, as he asserts that obstacles are necessary to promote her marriage, delay is necessary to effect union. In this new player-dramatist, Shakespeare combines the opposing tendencies of the two brothers, Don Pedro's goal of comic union and Don John's single-minded attempts to prevent the wedding. The Friar uses her feigned death so that she may “die to live” and find that her “wedding-day / Perhaps is but prolong'd” (4.1.253-54). Her presumed death, which completely thwarts her union with Claudio, will inspire him to recall his love for her; total opposition to his desires will bring them to light more strongly. Though not entirely effective, the Friar offers a single pattern which expresses the contradictory needs of comic dramaturgy—and explains away that paradox when challenged.

Dogberry's bumbling insures the revelation of the truth—after a time—and the Friar's dramatic play combines delay with the desire for union, by promising to provoke love by feigning death. Similarly, Leonato, as the character whom Shakespeare entrusts with enacting the comic resolution of Much Ado, expresses the paradoxical requirements of comedy as he exacts a penance from Claudio which requires both the telling of Hero's innocence and the enactment of mourning and marriage. Here the complications inherent in comedy are framed as the necessary expiation which precedes union.

In the series of figures who replace Don Pedro and Don John as the engineers of Much Ado's plot, we see Shakespeare gradually reapproaching his sources, this time aiming at combining the opposing facets of comedy in each character's actions. Shakespeare renews his assimilation of the sources at three different levels. Dogberry, of course, is entirely Shakespeare's invention, but a priest appears in Bandello's version of the source even if his role is not that of a player-dramatist. Leonato—the ultimate assurance that the contradiction of delaying to promote union is resolvable—is a direct imitation of the father Lionato, in Bandello's “Timbreo and Fenicia.” While Shakespeare does condense the action from a year to overnight, the tactics of Leonato in Much Ado reflect pretty faithfully Lionato's strategies—provoking mourning, demanding that the suitor marry a girl of his choice, supplying that girl who is in fact the original maid. Yet Bandello's Lionato actually carries through the marriage before revealing who the girl is, while Leonato, like the other player-dramatists in this comedy, merely prepares Claudio to marry his niece and leaves the action of marriage until after the close of the comedy.

What becomes obvious in Leonato's play—as well as in the dramatic play of other characters I've discussed—is that the purpose is not to manipulate events so much as to control the ways others perceive them. This tendency may be most obvious in Don Pedro's actions as he encourages Beatrice and Benedick to refashion their interpretations of one another, but does not try to control their meetings. Yet this insistence on recasting the characters' understanding of their situations is also evident in Don John's practice upon his brother, the Friar's plan for Hero, and even Leonato's arrangement of Claudio's new marriage. In none of these cases does Shakespeare show the player-dramatist staging the event itself—Don Pedro aims at the scene of Beatrice's and Benedick's doting which he himself does not witness, the window scene is omitted from the comedy, the Friar is noticeably absent at the marriage, and Leonato stops short of forcing Claudio to wed a veiled bride. Though all of these “non-events” actually do occur in his sources, Shakespeare chooses to leave them out and emphasize instead the way these player-dramatists prepare others to react to their situations.

This emphasis reveals that it is not the actions themselves which are so different from the novellas to the comedy—what differs is the way the characters, and, to some extent, the audience imagine their relationship to those events. In drawing together these two genres, Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing juxtaposes the discourse of the melodramatic novellas, designed (like the Friar's plan) to present disaster in order to provoke strong emotions, and the discourse of comedy, designed to present disaster that can be easily and naturally set aside to promote harmony and union. Uniting these two different sets of conventions—even though the plots both involve betrothal, misunderstanding, and reconciliation—all too vividly exposes the contradiction at the heart of comedy. The differences between narrative and theater, displayed particularly in the conflicting dramatic play of the two brothers, only further underscores the paradox of comic dramaturgy, which must erect obstacles, like Don John, while pursuing marriages, like Don Pedro.

In response, Shakespeare offers not one but three ways the contradiction which Don Pedro and Don John embody can be resolved “with an air of naturalness.” Dogberry's well-meaning ineptitude, the Friar's production of Hero's death to reveal Claudio's true emotion, and Leonato's representation of expiation as the necessary prerequisite for comic union are all attempts to explain the contradiction of comedy which disrupts in order to unite. Significantly, none of these figures is entirely successful on his own. The resulting over-determination of reasons for the combination of obstacle and goal reflects the force with which Shakespeare's use of the novella narratives, evoking the patterns of melodrama, has challenged the conventions of comic drama. The process of creating this comedy from a noncomic source exposes the contradictions at the heart of a genre which requires the manufacture of disasters and opposition in order to assert the inevitability of harmony and order.21


  1. Both Geoffrey Bullough (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2, The Comedies [Columbia U. Press, 1968], pp. 61-80) and Charles Prouty in The Sources of Much Ado about Nothing (Yale U. Press, 1950) cite the slandered maid tales recounted by Ariosto, Bandello, Belleforest, and even George Whetstone as the principle sources of Much Ado.

  2. John Traugott, “Creating a Rational Rinaldo: A Study of the Mixture of the Genres of Comedy and Romance in Much Ado about Nothing,Genre 15 (1982): 175.

  3. In her analysis of Much Ado's sources in The Book of the Courtier, Barbara Lewalski also deals mainly with the two couples, claiming that Beatrice and Benedick “acted out of the pattern of Bembo's rational lovers … basing love on genuine knowledge, and accepting it not in terms of mad passion but by conscious choice” (Barbara Lewalski, “Love, Appearance, and Reality: Much Ado about Something,” SEL 8 [1968]: 244-45).

  4. Some critics do take a different approach. Joyce Hengerer Sexton, for example, in “The Theme of Slander in Much Ado about Nothing and Garter's Susanna,PQ 54 (1977): 419-33, argues that “Shakespeare was emphasizing not the mechanism of the trap or the feelings of those caught in it, but something else: what slander is. Out of the source material he extracted the ethical issues, bringing to the center of his play a sense of the absoluteness of the evil of slander” (p. 420).

  5. Jean E. Howard takes a comparable position in discussing anti-theatrical tracts and the theatrics in Much Ado about Nothing; her attention to the sources also emphasizes the focus on dramatic play. Her reading, however, does not address the relationship between Don John and Don Pedro, between narrative and drama, so much as the theatrical representation of a politics of gender (“Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and rank in Much Ado about Nothing” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology [New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987], pp. 163-87).

  6. William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing, The Arden Edition of the Works of Shakespeare, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1981), 1.3.25-26. All further references will be to this edition and will appear in the body of the essay.

  7. I take my definition of play from Jean Piaget's Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1960). Piaget sees play in a spectrum of possible relationships between the child and reality; on one end of the spectrum he locates imitative accommodation and on the other end playful assimilation. Dramatic play, as I see it, tends toward an equilibrium between play and imitation as it approaches dramatic work; however, dramatic play remains predominantly assimilative and egocentric.

  8. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

  9. Bertrand Evans, in Shakespeare's Comedies, suggests that this first set of practices allows Shakespeare to demonstrate both the willingness with which the citizens of Messina engage in deception and the ease with which they are taken in by these practices—even by the very ones they are involved in (pp. 70-74). As I see it, the practices of acts 1 and 2 prepare the way for the main action of the plot; however, Shakespeare does not create Don Pedro's little comedy solely to make Hero's slander and its effects more plausible but also to explore the intimate connection between his two player-dramatists.

  10. Throughout this essay I refer to Marvin Herrick's book Comic Theory in the Sixteenth Century ([U. of Illinois Press, 1964], p. 121) because he catalogues so thoroughly the conventions of comedy from which Shakespeare was working.

  11. When he does speak, as Alexander Leggatt notes, her intervention “makes the rightness of Claudio's speech look disconcertingly like the rightness of a wind-up toy. Beatrice is outside the convention, and her perspective provides a comically dislocating effect” (Shakespeare's Comedies of Love [London: Chatto & Windus, 1974], p. 154). In orchestrating their betrothal, Don Pedro has contrived a comic ending for Hero and Claudio, but Beatrice, recognizing this influence, challenges his power.

  12. Bullough, p. 91.

  13. Bertrand Evans claims that Shakespeare uses these hints to maintain the audience's awareness of the tragic overtones to these comic practices, but again I feel their purpose extends more particularly to connecting the two brothers (p. 75).

  14. Ruth Nevo draws attention to Anne Barton's assertion that Don John is the official enemy of all happy endings when she comments that “it is not by chance that the malign plotter sets off a malign, potentially tragic dialectic of either/or, while the benign plotter releases a benign dialectic of both/and” (Comic Transformations in Shakespeare [London: Meuthen & Co., Ltd., 1980], p. 173).

  15. Herrick, p. 121.

  16. Of the critics who have drawn attention to the courtier's code and its importance in both Much Ado and its sources, Barbara Lewalski, in “Love, Appearance and Reality: Much Ado about Something,” discusses the Renaissance notions of courtiership and their implications for Much Ado most thoroughly. She notes quite prominantly the equation of dishonor with death in the courtier's code, in part as a defense of Claudio.

  17. As Paul and Miriam Mueschke note in “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado about Nothing,SQ 18 (1967): 53-65, Don John offers several ambiguous hints and slowly reveals Hero's “frailty”: “He deliberately tantalizes his victims until their nerves are raw and fear of dishonor is fomented; after their judgment is paralyzed by innuendo, he lures men reft of judgment to an immediate and irrevocable choice between tainted love and undefiled honor” (p. 60).

  18. Bullough, p. 115.

  19. Critics such as Alexander Leggatt notice a shift in style: “Deceiving not only Claudio but Don Pedro as well, he [Don John] produces a decisive shift to a simplified, arbitrary dramatic idiom … The style is stiffly patterned, and the expressions of intent are not only arbitrary but pat and perfunctory. Claudio and Don Pedro are now moving as Don John moves, simply as figures in a story, engaged in conventional roles” (p. 160).

  20. As Bullough notes, “It is truly remarkable that Shakespeare does not present the scene in which the hero sees his ‘rival’ climbing to his betrothed's window; for such a scene is found in all the analogues” (p. 78).

  21. It is only fitting that comic closure in Much Ado about Nothing restores the dramatic play of Don John and Don Pedro. The final scene restages Hero's wedding but demands an act of faith on Claudio's part which rewrites the tragic conclusion of Don John's dramatic play. Moreover, the evidence of Beatrice's and Benedick's writing of their love which forces them to acknowledge their love also restores Don Pedro's dramatic play by making good on the scene of writing which he and his conspirators describe so elaborately.

Camille Wells Slights (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8868

SOURCE: Slights, Camille Wells. “The Unauthorized Language of Much Ado About Nothing.” In Shakespeare's Comic Commonwealth, pp. 171-89. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Slights asserts that one of the main concerns of Much Ado about Nothing is the social nature of language and its relationship to hierarchical social and political power.]

‘and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind’


In the first scene of Much Ado About Nothing, when Claudio and Don Pedro make fun of Benedick's use of a conventional verbal formula, Benedick retorts: ‘Nay, mock not, mock not. The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments, and the guards are but slightly basted on neither. Ere you flout old ends any further, examine your conscience’ (I.i.285-9). When Benedick accuses his friends of guarding their discourse with fragments that are ‘but slightly basted on,’ his attack is both rhetorical and moral. Assuming the value of elegant language, he claims that Don Pedro and Claudio also resort to ‘old ends’ of conventional verbal formulas and, moreover, fail to integrate them gracefully into their own language. At the same time, he implies that these ‘fragments’ that ‘guard,’ that is, decorate and/or protect, are inauthentic embellishments on the true body of their discourse. The pun registers Benedick's awareness that the rhetorical authority invoked by proverbs, classical allusions, and traditional tropes and figures is a means both of self-display and of self-protection. More significant is the ambivalence towards language implicit in his metaphor. ‘Guards’ suggests that words are extrinsic to truth, but ‘the body of your discourse’ acknowledges that words also constitute the meaning that is decorated or hidden. Benedick understands language as the material of the social self, the means by which people present themselves to others, and prides himself on his witty, elegant language. At the same time, he is deeply suspicious of the capacity of language to obscure truth.

Benedick's interest in language and his ambivalent attitude towards it are not individualizing traits but typical of the characters in Much Ado About Nothing. In the opening scene that introduces Shakespeare's Messina, almost all the characters speak with self-conscious artfulness, ranging from the Messenger's rhetorical flourishes to Beatrice and Benedick's exchanges of wit. That the Prince's messenger should speak with elegant formality and the young aristocrats with spirited wit is, of course, entirely decorous; what is striking is the frequency with which characters talk about the problematics of language. The Messenger protests, in a standard rhetorical figure, that he is unable to do justice to Claudio's merits: ‘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 bett'red expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how’ (I.i.13-17). Benedick calls Beatrice ‘a rare parrot-teacher’ (I.i.138), implying that she speaks meaningless chatter, learned by rote. Beatrice's response—‘A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours’ (I.i.139)—implies that Benedick is sub-human, incapable of rational speech.

These gibes at falling short of a human standard of discourse are based on a conception of language as the distinguishing human trait and as the basis of civilization. These, of course, are Renaissance commonplaces. According to Ben Jonson, for example, ‘Speech is the only benefit man hath to expresse his excellencie of mind above other creatures. It is the Instrument of Society.1 But if the characters in Much Ado assume that language is the basis of harmonious social relations, they also know that it can be the source of misunderstanding and conflict. They are acutely aware of a potentially dangerous disjunction between the literal sense of words and the meaning of a discourse. Don Pedro, for example, assumes a general skepticism about the identity of tongue and heart when he reports Leonato's invitation to hospitality with the assurance ‘I dare swear he is no hypocrite, but prays from his heart’ (I.i.150-2). And Benedick assumes a gap between truth and ordinary social discourse when he asks Claudio: ‘Do you question me … for my simple true judgment? or would you have me speak after my custom … ?’ (I.i.166-9). Conscious of the misunderstandings arising from such ambiguities of tone, Leonato anxiously apologizes for Beatrice's barbed references to Benedick: ‘You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her’ (I.i.61-3). Claudio, too, as he confides his love for Hero to his friends, is careful to avoid misunderstanding, replying to Benedick: ‘Thou thinkest I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik'st her’ (I.i.177-8) and tentatively accusing Don Pedro: ‘You speak this to fetch me in, my lord’ (I.i.223). Similarly Benedick asks Claudio: ‘But speak you this with a sad brow? or do you play the flouting Jack … ? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?’ (I.i.182-6).

The characters, then, both distrust and delight in the multivalency of the language they use to engage and to struggle with each other. In addition, as Leonato's concern that the Messenger not misunderstand Beatrice and as Claudio's suspicion that Don Pedro's speech is intended to ‘fetch [him] in’ indicate, they are also aware that language is inextricably implicated in relationships of power. For example, Leonato's concern with the nuances of social discourse is nicely illustrated in his short exchange with the Messenger. Leonato's first speeches are straightforward and stylistically plain: ‘I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Arragon comes this night to Messina’ (I.i.1-2); ‘How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?’ (I.i.5-6). In contrast, the Messenger speaks with elaborate artifice, reporting, for example, of Claudio's uncle: ‘I have already deliver'd him letters, and there appears much joy in him, even so much that joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness’ (I.i.20-3). In response, Leonato first anxiously checks whether he has interpreted the metaphor correctly: ‘Did he break out into tears?’ (I.i.24). Then he replies in the same euphuistic style: ‘A kind overflow of kindness. There are no faces truer than those that are so wash'd. How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!’ (I.i.26-9).2 Leonato's eagerness to understand and to speak the language of the court shows not only his use of language to create social bonds, but also his awareness of the ambiguity of language and of its involvement in hierarchies of power.

I have examined what Kier Elam calls metadiscourse3 in the first scene of Much Ado in order to suggest that the play is centrally concerned with the social nature of language—with the power of language and with language as an articulation of power. The witty repartee, elaborate rhetoric, compliments, accusations, and apologies function as means of social cohesion, establishing relations between people, and simultaneously as expressions of relative power. The Messenger, reporting on the casualties in the recent battle, equates language and power, explaining that Don Pedro's forces lost ‘But few of any sort, and none of name’ (I.i.7). To have a name in Messina is to be recognized as a participant in its power structure; to be powerless is to be nameless.

While all the characters are aware of language as an expression of social and political hierarchy, it is Don John who illustrates most clearly the Renaissance association of speech and sociability. In his popular commentary on Aristotle's Politics, for example, Louis LeRoy explains that men are ‘naturally Civill and publicke, that is to say, by their naturall disposition, enclining to live in societie: as it appeareth by Speech, which was in vaine bestowed upon them if they should live solitarily without companie and conversation. And if by chance there be any such monster extant, which by a particular inclination should shun and avoid Civill societie, hee ought to be reputed as most wicked, a lover and stirrer up of warres and seditions …’4 In the first scene Don John signals his anti-social nature by announcing his laconic style: ‘I am not of many words’ (I.i.157). When he next appears, in private conversation with his companion Conrade, he identifies himself as ‘a plain-dealing villain,’ who, on hearing of an intended marriage, immediately wonders whether it will ‘serve for any model to build mischief on’ (I.iii.32, 46-7). And he explains his rejection of social discourse as an expression of his anti-social nature: ‘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’ (I.iii.13-18). For Don John, adapting to other people is a painful infringement of freedom: ‘I am trusted with a muzzle, and enfranchis'd with a clog, therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage’ (I.iii.32-4). While Don John's determination ‘not to sing in [his] cage’ is the converse of Benedick's desire to figure out what key Claudio is in so that he can ‘go in the song,’ they are talking about the same thing: the discourse that enables social relationships also controls individual expression.

Beatrice and Benedick, whose verbal battles are clearly power struggles, understand the power of language. Hence Beatrice describes Benedick as ‘too like my lady's eldest son, evermore tattling’ (II.i.9-10), and he calls her ‘my Lady Tongue’ (II.i.275). When Benedick addresses Beatrice as ‘my Lady Tongue’ or ‘Lady Disdain’ (I.i.118) and when Beatrice renames Benedick ‘Signior Mountanto’ (I.i.30), they are utilizing the connection between naming and power deeply embedded in Western culture. Adam's ability to name the creatures was interpreted as demonstrating his knowledge of their natures and thus as evidence of his right to dominion over them.5 According to most Elizabethan language theorists, Adam's descendants inherited this power collectively: custom, not individual genius, is the basis of language.6 Thus, the logician Ralph Lever warns, ‘no man is of power to change or to make a language when he will.’7 Beatrice and Benedick, then, by exercising the power to create names, not only try to claim dominion over each other but pretend to an Adam-like independence from social control.

Their name-calling and reciprocal accusations of talking too much are significant indications of their understanding of themselves and of each other in relation to society. Beatrice recognizes that, while language is an expression of power, it can also function to create the illusion of power. She suspects Benedick of words without substance. He talks a good war, but she is skeptical about his prowess as a soldier. He is like a child, ‘evermore tattling,’ not a man of action. He is the ‘Prince's fool’ (II.i.204), whose verbal wit amuses but does not command respect. He is gregarious and likable, but shallow and fickle: ‘he hath every month a new sworn brother’ (I.i.72-3). If Don John's taciturnity indicates a monstrous incivility, Beatrice fears that Benedick is too socially compliant. He is ‘the Prince's jester,’ who becomes ‘melancholy’ if his jokes are not laughed at (II.i.137, 148).

Even though Beatrice interprets Benedick's loquacity as evidence of unmanly weakness and dependence on social approval, she uses her own verbal dexterity to gain independence in a male dominated society. When Leonato warns her that her shrewish tongue will prevent her from getting a husband, she protests that spinsterhood is a blessing. She does not want a husband, she tells her uncle, ’till God make men of some other mettle than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmaster'd with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I'll none. Adam's sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kinred’ (II.i.59-65). Beatrice's witty speech defines a genuine dilemma: her society urges her to marry but structures marriage so that she must submit to a master whose superiority she does not admit. Men are not made of a different clay, but of the same stuff as she. More specifically, she complains, a man such as Don John ‘says nothing’ (II.i.8), while Benedick talks too much. Beatrice, then, must either subordinate herself to an equal, or, as she jokingly suggests to Don Pedro, marry her social, though not her sexual, superior. And that alternative she rejects on the grounds that ‘Your Grace is too costly to wear every day’ (II.i.328-9). Beatrice, then, is aware of the coercive power of the hierarchical society, but instead of responding with Don John's sullen resentment, she exploits the gap between literal and actual meaning to mock masculine pretensions without offending the victims of her wit: ‘But I beseech your Grace pardon me,’ she apologizes gracefully, ‘I was born to speak all mirth and no matter’ (II.i.329-30).

Like Beatrice, Benedick warns his listeners against interpreting his wit literally, and in his customary role as ‘a profess'd tyrant to their sex’ (I.i.168-9) condemns women in general and Beatrice in particular. While Beatrice interprets Benedick's talkativeness as an unmanly substitution of words for deeds, Benedick condemns hers for its intimidating power: ‘She speaks poniards, and every word stabs … I would not marry her, though she were endow'd with all that Adam had left him before he transgress'd. She would have made Hercules have turn'd spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too’ (II.i.247-54). By characterizing Beatrice's discourse as emasculating aggression, Benedick accuses her of inverting the hierarchy of the sexes. His antipathy is not limited to ‘my Lady Tongue’ but includes all women, basically because a woman's word cannot be trusted. ‘Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any,’ he declares, ‘I will do myself the right to trust none’ (I.i.242-4). Benedick, of course, is voicing traditional attitudes. If the talkative woman is a rebel against the orthodox sexual hierarchy, she is also a recognizable cultural stereotype—the shrew. Similarly, the association of women with duplicity is inscribed clearly in Western culture at least since the story of Eve's tempting Adam to eat the apple. In this misogynistic tradition, the charge of female duplicity usually is associated with sexual promiscuity.8 Certainly Benedick's mistrust of women is essentially skepticism about their sexual fidelity. He invariably associates marriage with cuckoldry. ‘Cuckoo’ is a word that strikes terror into the heart of the bachelor Benedick, not so much because he fears personal betrayal, as because he imagines vividly the public shame of being labeled a cuckold. If he should ever submit to marriage, he tells his friends, they are entitled to: ‘pluck off the bull's horns, and set them in my forehead, and let me be vildly painted, and in such great letters as they write, “Here is good horse to hire,” let them signify under my sign, “Here you may see Benedick the married man”’ (I.i.263-8).

Beatrice and Benedick, then, epitomize the ambivalence towards language endemic to their society. Like the other inhabitants of Messina, they use language to create engaging social presences with which to establish relations with other people and also to protect and distance themselves from others. They delight in wordplay and admire people, as Benedick says of the ideal woman, ‘of good discourse’ (II.iii.33-4); at the same time they are skeptical of the veridical force of language and fear its powers of deception and coercion. And they associate these dangers with gender and with sexual relationships. Benedick's cuckoldry jokes echo Leonato's. In the first scene, when Don Pedro politely remarks, ‘I think this is your daughter,’ Leonato responds, ‘Her mother hath many times told me so’ (I.i.104-5). And Beatrice's accusation ‘He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat’ (I.i.75-6) applies to Benedick the generalized sentiments of Balthasar's song: ‘Men were deceivers ever … To one thing constant never’ (II.iii.63-5).

By the fashion in which they guard their own and criticize the other's discourse, Benedick and Beatrice make evident the contradictions inherent in their culture's definition of marriage. It is the expected norm of social behavior, encouraged by figures of authority like Leonato and Don Pedro. But it requires women to subordinate themselves to fallen Adam's sons, prone to deception and inconstancy, and requires men to entrust their honor to untrustworthy women. These contradictions are brought to a crisis by Don John's plot to disrupt the marriage of Claudio and Hero by accusing Hero of infidelity.

The deception responsible for Hero's disgrace is a verbal construct. As Borachio confesses, it was done ‘partly by [Don John's] oaths … but chiefly by my villainy, which did confirm any slander that Don John had made’ (III.iii.156-9). The slander consists of and is nourished by the attitudes encoded in the cultural discourse. The association of female speech with sexual promiscuity underlies the charge against Hero—that she did ‘Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window’ (IV.i.91). And the stereotype of female duplicity makes the charge credible and prevents her from defending herself. Everything she says is used against her literally. Her denial—‘I talk'd with no man at that hour, my lord’—convicts her: ‘Why then you are no maiden’ (IV.i.86-7). By denying that Hero's speech has any relation to truth, the male authorities—her betrothed husband, her father, and her ruler—try to destroy her. Claudio tells her that the purpose of his accusations is ‘To make you answer truly to your name’ and insists that her name itself is proof of her guilt: ‘Hero itself can blot out Hero's virtue’ (IV.i.79, 82). Dehumanized by being deprived of language, Hero to her father's eyes becomes not a speaking subject but the objectified printed text of the story Claudio has told: ‘the story that is printed in her blood’ (IV.i.122). And so Leonato mourns that:

                                                                                she is fall'n
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again.


Hero's helplessness under this bewildering attack is total because not only is she effectively silenced but no one speaks to defend her. Beatrice never doubts her cousin's innocence, but she remains silent. Her distrust of glibness has become disdain for language as a tool of feminine weakness. She is contemptuous of men who substitute words for physical force: ‘men are only turn'd into tongue … He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it’ (IV.i.320-2). Her strongest wish is to be a man who could avenge her wronged cousin's honor, and her only strategy for fighting the injustice is to persuade Benedick to kill Claudio. Beatrice, who earlier claimed to be the equal of any man, shows that she is controlled by the patriarchal values of her society when she despairs: ‘I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving’ (IV.i.322-3).

If Beatrice has been co-opted by the collective prejudices of her culture, Hero's other potential defenders, her father and her lover, have also been colonized quite literally. Although most critics who comment at all on the setting of Much Ado perfunctorily characterize it as a sophisticated, courtly world, the most significant fact about Messina is that it is an Italian city-state ruled by Spain.9 Leonato, the Governor of Messina, is subject to the authority of Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon. In Shakespeare's source for the Hero and Claudio story, Bandello's Novella 22, the relations between the natives of Messina and their Spanish rulers provide a framework for the plot. Bandello begins by describing the political context of his story:

During the year of Grace mcclxxxiii the Sicilians, no longer able to endure French domination, rose one day of the hour of Vespers and with unheard of savagery murdered all the French in Sicily—for so it was treacherously concerted throughout the island. Nor did they massacre only the men and women of the French nation, but on that day slew all Sicilian women who could be suspected of being pregnant by Frenchmen … whence arose the melancholy fame of the ‘Sicilian Vespers.’ King Piero of Arragon hearing of this came quickly thither with his army, and made himself lord of the Island.10

In the happy ending, after the calumniated heroine has been exonerated, Bandello emphasizes the integration of the Sicilian and the Spanish nobility. King Piero provides the heroine's dowry as if she were his own daughter and gives her father an honorable office in Messina. In the final paragraph, Bandello links the story to contemporary political circumstances by praising the political and military deeds of descendants of Sir Timbreo of Cardona, who ‘was the first who in Sicily founded the noble race of the lords of the House of Cardona, of which there live today both in Sicily and in the Kingdom of Naples many men of no little esteem. In Spain also flourishes the noble breed of Cardona, producing men who do no shame to their ancestors both in arms and in the senate’ (2:134). In Bandello's narrative, Messina welcomes King Piero's victory, but there are tensions between the citizens of Messina and their Spanish rulers.11 Sir Timbreo (the Claudio figure) first tries to seduce Fenecia (the Hero figure), the daughter of a poor Messinese nobleman. Only when Fenecia virtuously rejects him does Timbreo decide to marry her, ‘although he thought that he was demeaning himself by so doing’ (2:113). When Timbreo is duped into believing that Fenecia is unchaste, her father assumes that his accusations are an excuse not to marry a woman who is his inferior in wealth and rank.

In Shakespeare's version, the historical details are vague (we do not know the year or the enemy in the recent battle), but the setting and political structure are insistently clear. The repetition of the name ‘Messina’ four times in the first few minutes of dialogue (I.i.2, 18, 39, 114) alerts us that the action takes place in a remote provincial city ruled by Spanish overlords.12 The epithets ‘Don,’ for the Prince of Arragon and his brother, and ‘Signior,’ applied consistently to the Italians, are frequent reminders of the political situation. As in Bandello, the relations between the Spanish and the Messinese are cordial. Indeed, in Much Ado, although the Sicilian setting is a reminder of the infamous Sicilian Vespers and the potential for violence in the colonial enterprise, the emphasis is on the Italians' eager acquiescence to Spanish domination. While Sir Timbreo is Spanish, Claudio and Benedick are Italian followers of the Spanish Prince. Leonato, a native of Messina, is delighted when he hears the rumor that the foreign ruler intends to court his daughter and apparently just as pleased to accept the son-in-law that Don Pedro actually proposes to him. Equally as significant as the Italians' deference to Don Pedro is the ruling Spaniards' control of Messinese society. In Bandello, a Messinese nobleman approaches Leonato on Sir Timbreo's behalf, and King Piero figures only as the authority who rewards the virtuous at the end of the story. The plot to discredit Fenecia originates in sexual jealousy: a Messinese nobleman in love with Fenecia deceives Sir Timbreo in hopes of winning her after Timbreo renounces her. In Much Ado, of course, Don Pedro himself is the matchmaker, and Don John is responsible for the slander.13 Hero is not the primary object of the plot but an expendable casualty in the murky hostility between the two Spanish princes.

The control of society by a colonial authority is dramatized in the first scene by Don Pedro's appropriation of Claudio's discourse. As soon as they are alone, Claudio begins to tell Don Pedro of his love for Hero. Don Pedro cuts him short, mocking his bookish wordiness:

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 began'st to twist so fine a story?


Overriding Claudio's protest that his love requires ‘a longer treatise’ (I.i.315), Don Pedro plans to disguise himself as Claudio and to woo Hero in his stead, promising to

                    take her hearing prisoner with the force
And strong encounter of my amorous tale.


Don Pedro insists on being the author of Claudio's story and has no doubts about the effectiveness of the tale he will tell.

Don Pedro's control of social discourse results from the deference paid to his political power and serves as a means of exercising and maintaining that power. Controlling language is an effective way of controlling the people who use it. After arranging Claudio's marriage with his consent, Don Pedro decides to make a match between Beatrice and Benedick without their knowledge. This time, instead of speaking for someone else, he directs the speech of others, teaching Hero, Leonato, and Claudio what to say. Although Don Pedro uses his power altruistically, the misunderstanding when Benedick and Claudio think that Don Pedro has courted Hero for himself warns of the dangers inherent in being appropriated into someone else's discourse.

These dangers are realized in Don John's plot. As Borachio outlines the plan, its object is to convince Don Pedro that ‘he hath wrong'd his honor’ (II.ii.23) by arranging Claudio's marriage to Hero. When Claudio was told that Don Pedro had betrayed him, he suffered passively and privately, and the mistake was easily corrected. When he is told that Hero is unchaste, he reacts to the dishonor to his Prince as well as to himself and immediately plans Hero's public disgrace. Instead of coming to nothing as had the previous deceptions and misunderstandings, the slander of Hero has serious consequences, partly, as I have already argued, because of the presuppositions about Hero as a woman, and partly because of political relationships. Claudio feels his first loyalty to Don Pedro, not to Hero and not to Leonato. In this situation, Don Pedro can assert his power and vindicate his honor without needing to speak or even to direct Claudio how to speak; he can rely on Claudio, who identifies his own interests with those of his Prince, to speak for him.

Even Leonato, who in Bandello's story defends his daughter, in Much Ado makes common cause with Hero's accusers. At the beginning of the wedding scene, he is a proud father whose only child is marrying a nobleman in an alliance arranged and blessed by the Prince himself. His sense of patriarchal authority is expressed in his assumption of control over language. He opens the scene peremptorily: ‘Come, Friar Francis, be brief—only to the plain form of marriage …’ (IV.i.1-2). When Claudio answers ‘No’ to the friar's first question—‘You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady’—Leonato presumes to interpret Claudio by criticizing the friar's diction: ‘To be married to her. Friar, you come to marry her’ (I.i.4-8). And when the friar asks Claudio whether he knows of any impediment to the marriage, Leonato interrupts: ‘I dare make his answer, none’ (IV.i.18). But when Claudio savagely denounces Hero, Leonato's expansive confidence collapses, and he appeals to Don Pedro: ‘Sweet Prince, why speak not you?’ (IV.i.63). And when Don Pedro pronounces Hero guilty, Leonato accepts his word. Denying that ‘the two princes’ (IV.i.152) and Claudio would lie, he laments the outrage to his honor and wishes for his daughter's death.

Hero's disgrace, then, exposes problems already present in Messinese society. The conventional rhetoric of Claudio's denunciation associates Hero's supposed wantonness with the stereotype of female duplicity and sensuality:

You seem to me as Dian in her orb,
As chaste as is the bud ere it be blown;
But you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals
That rage in savage sensuality.


And the cruelty of Don Pedro and Claudio justifies Beatrice's disdain and fear of established authority. ‘Princes and counties!’ she exclaims with sarcastic contempt. ‘Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant surely!’ (IV.i.315-17). At the same time, the characters' distrust of language intensifies. Claudio's outrage is directed as much at Hero's deceitfulness as at her sexual misconduct, and Beatrice is overwhelmed by the power of the ‘public accusation’ and ‘uncover'd slander’ (IV.i.305) that have dishonored her cousin.

If events in the church seem to confirm the characters' worst fears, to the audience aware of their source in lies and deception the scene is an even more devastating critique of social discourse. Language, which according to Renaissance theory should bind people together in a civilized community, is portrayed as an unreliable guide to truth and a powerful instrument of coercion. The citizens of Messina, by speaking with the collective voice of their patriarchal culture and by articulating the desires of their foreign ruler, have lost the authority to order their own lives. Just how deeply encoded in language are the relationships of dominance and submission becomes clear when Leonato, finally persuaded of Hero's innocence, accosts Claudio and Don Pedro. Although Leonato shows contempt for Claudio by calling him ‘boy’ and using the familiar ‘thou’ form of the pronoun (V.i.79), he calls Don Pedro ‘my lord’ and continues to observe the pronominal convention by addressing him respectfully as ‘you’ (V.i.48). During this encounter, Don Pedro condescends to Leonato as an ‘old man’ (V.i.49-50, 73) and brushes him aside: ‘I will not hear you’ (V.i.107). As soon as Leonato and his brother withdraw, Don Pedro joins Claudio in laughing at their impotent rage.

This dramatic representation of sovereign political authority as a callow young man mocking the ineffectual anguish of a subject obviously provokes a critical attitude toward the uses of power. Just as obviously, as I have tried to trace Shakespeare's portrayal of the role of language in the dynamics of power, my own rhetoric has become misleading. Talk about the dangers of colonialist verbal appropriation comes out of twentieth-century, not sixteenth-century, discourse.14 Shakespeare's contemporaries recognized the threat of foreign domination, and Shakespeare was aware, as was Francis Bacon when he analyzed the idols of the market place, that language is implicated in dangerous confusions of thought. But Shakespeare's Messina is not an Orwellian image of thought-control, and Much Ado About Nothing is not propaganda for a Sicilian liberation movement. Like the other comedies, Much Ado celebrates human community and the cohesive power of language even as it exposes dangers inherent in both. The pathos of Hero's disgrace and Leonato's grief is contained by knowledge that Dogberry and his friends are on the way to deliver Borachio's sworn statement that will reveal the truth.

Language, which creates the crisis, also resolves it. The collective nature of social discourse, which makes it a powerful coercive force to frighten Benedick with the name of cuckold and to drive the disgraced Hero from society, also limits authoritative control. In Mikhail Bakhtin's terms, language is a heteroglossia, an unsystematic collection of the voices of diverse social groups that guarantees the dispersion of creative authorship and authority throughout society.15 In addition, the inherent imprecision and fluidity of language create spaces where unknown and unofficial truths can emerge. The diversity of social discourse and the polysemic fluidity of language, its capacity for irony and resonant ambiguity as well as misunderstanding and deception, prevent total control of the community by any univocal authority.

I have already noted one form of this verbal creativity in Beatrice's parodies of hierarchical power: when, for example, she tells Don Pedro that he is ‘too costly to wear every day’ (II.i.328-9), or when she instructs Hero how to deal with patriarchal authority in selecting a husband: ‘it is my cousin's duty to make cur'sy and say, “Father, as it please you.” But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another cur'sy and say, “Father, as it please me”’ (II.i.52-6). The plot to trick Beatrice and Benedick into love enacts more fully the benign results of the multivalency of social discourse. Not only are the staged conversations fictions created to deceive their unwitting audiences, they are cooperative efforts that depend for their success on their listeners' susceptibility to other voices. Beatrice and Benedick are able to fall in love because they trust their friends' praise of the other's merits, because they believe their friends' report that they are loved by the other, and because they accept their friends' accusations that their own speech misrepresents the truth.16 The possibility of verbal ambiguity, moreover, allows their love to flourish—a potential exploited most delightfully perhaps in Benedick's imaginative deconstruction of Beatrice's invitation to dinner: ‘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”’ (II.iii.257-62).

Just as Benedick's discovery of double meanings in Beatrice's words allows him to requite the love he finds there, misunderstandings and ambiguities contribute to Hero's vindication. Midway through the scene of the interrupted wedding, Friar Francis announces his belief in Hero's innocence. ‘By noting of the lady,’ he explains, he has ‘mark'd’ (IV.i.158), as evidence of her innocence, the blushes that Claudio had interpreted as a sign of ‘guiltiness, not modesty’ (IV.i.42). The friar presents his ‘noting’ and ‘marking’ as at once a reading of ambiguous signs and as a writing, with himself as an author of more credible authority than Claudio:

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

(IV.i.165-70; italics added)

He then counsels Leonato to hide Hero away and ‘publish it that she is dead indeed’ (IV.i.204).

The friar's book, of course, is only partly accurate. When the news of Hero's death is published, Claudio does not feel remorse or regret for his lost love as predicted. But the fiction is also intended for the community as a whole, and in that object the plan succeeds. When the watchmen tell the sexton about the plot to slander Hero, he believes them because their account fits the facts as he knows them: ‘Hero was in this manner accus'd, in this very manner refus'd, and upon the grief of this suddenly died’ (IV.ii.61-3). The line from Borachio's confession of his part in the plot to the full revelation of the truth is hilariously circuitous. In his drunken ramblings, Borachio deplores men's subservience to social conventions and fads, exclaiming on ‘what a deformed thief this fashion is’ (III.iii.124). The watch who overhear him are more concerned to arrest the notorious thief named Deformed than to reveal Don John's treachery. Master Constable Dogberry, hearing the accusation against Don John, is indignant: ‘Why, this is flat perjury, to call a prince's brother villain’ (IV.ii.41-2). But eventually, through the attempt to apprehend the thief Deformed and to record the full extent of the ‘perjury’ against Don John, Borachio's story is told. By repudiating Hero publicly, Claudio and Don Pedro involve the whole community that includes the friar, Dogberry and the watch, Borachio, and the sexton. Social discourse, then, in addition to courtly formality and sophisticated wit, includes the friar's fiction, Borachio's drunken ramblings, Dogberry's malapropisms and homely aphorisms, and the sexton's conscientious recording of the testimony of the watch. Out of this strange mixture, truth emerges. Significantly, the society that in the beginning of the play counted only those ‘of name’ is saved by its most despised members, most effectively by the efforts of a nameless sexton.

The power of Don Pedro's authoritative discourse, then, is limited, as Dogberry understands in his own muddled way. Instructing the watchmen in their duties, he tells them: ‘This is your charge: … you are to bid any man stand, in the Prince's name’ (III.iii.24-6), but, he continues, if the culprit will not stand: ‘Why then take no note of him, but let him go … and thank God you are rid of a knave’ (III.iii.28-30). They should, for example, ‘call at all the alehouses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed’ (III.iii.42-3), but if the drunks decline to obey, Dogberry's advice is to ‘let them alone till they are sober’ (III.iii.45-6). What Dogberry recognizes is the futility of attempting to impose control over those who do not accept your authority. Or, as he explains, as representatives of ‘the Prince's own person’ (III.iii.75), the watch are empowered to detain any man at all, even the Prince himself, but in practice they can stop the Prince only if ‘the Prince be willing, for indeed the watch ought to offend no man, and it is an offense to stay a man against his will’ (80-2). Although originally it seemed that Don Pedro and the collective values of society constituted authority in Messina and that Don Pedro would compose the ‘amorous tale’ of Claudio and Hero, it has emerged that Don John, rejecting that authority, has told another story. As Ursula tells Beatrice, ‘Don John is the author of all’ (V.ii.98-9). With the attribution of authorship comes responsibility. Don John is held accountable, and Hero is vindicated.

Hero's vindication is also a vindication of language. While her name is blackened, words seem useless. Leonato rejects Antonio's consolatory advice as hollow:

                                                                                                                        brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel, but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would …
Charm ache with air, and agony with words.


If speech is only air to Leonato in his grief, the written word is equally powerless:

For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods.


Yet before the scene is over, Borachio's confession testifies to the power of words: ‘My villainy they have upon record, which I had rather seal with my death than repeat over to my shame’ (239-41). And Don Pedro and Claudio understand that power: ‘D. Pedro. Runs not this speech like iron through your blood? Claud. I have drunk poison whiles he utter'd it’ (V.i.244-6).

Appropriately, the reparation that Don Pedro and Claudio must make for the damage their words have done is verbal. ‘I cannot bid you bid my daughter live—/ That were impossible,’ Leonato says,

                                                                      but I pray you both,
Possess the people in Messina here
How innocent she died, and if your love
Can labor aught in sad invention,
Hang her an epitaph upon her tomb,
And sing it to her bones, sing it to-night.


Human language is not omnipotent—it cannot resurrect the dead—but it is, in Jonson's phrase, ‘the instrument of Society’ that can restore Hero's good name in the community, her life in society.17 To object, as critics have done, that Claudio's observances at Hero's tomb seem too formal and conventional to express love and remorse convincingly is, I think, to miss the point. Events have demonstrated the radical uncertainty of individual perceptions, which are inextricably involved in cultural codes and conventions and susceptible to ignorance and error. This treacherous instability can be controlled at least partially by the openness and permanence of communal and written forms of discourse.18 By writing an epitaph and participating in a communal ritual, Claudio gives formal shape to his obligations to Hero, demonstrating not intense romantic feeling but commitment and responsibility. The necessary complement to Claudio's epitaph is the song that Balthasar, as representative of the social group, sings, asking forgiveness for Hero's detractors.

Much Ado About Nothing achieves its happy ending not by resolving conflicts and coming to rest on a harmonious major chord but by dramatizing a dynamic tension between impulses towards freedom and towards responsibility and order. While social discourse constitutes an unavoidable, arbitrary authority, its diversity and multivalency also limit its power to enforce conformity. If the slipperiness of language exerts a centrifugal force that threatens social cohesion, the written word and the collective nature of language provide a measure of stability. When Benedick and Beatrice would disclaim their love, they are protected from their own skittishness through the efforts of their friends and the stabilizing power of the written word. Their friends produce sonnets each has written as evidence of their mutual love. Beatrice and Benedick fall in love in the terms available in their culture, but they continue to resist the rigidifying, coercive force of linguistic formulas and cultural norms. Benedick, the dedicated bachelor, decides to accept the yoke of marriage, but he speaks of his decision as defying rather than conforming to social expectations and conceives of marriage in terms of change rather than permanence: ‘since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it, and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion’ (V.iv.105-9). He acknowledges authorship of his ‘halting sonnet’ (V.iv.87) as evidence of his love for Beatrice, but he knows that the conventional love sonnet is not his style. As he tells Beatrice, they are ‘too wise to woo peaceably’ (V.ii.72), and the linguistic forms appropriate to them are the destabilizing ones of parody, ambiguity, irony, and paradox. They first declare their love in language that is a triumph of ambiguity: ‘Bene. I do love nothing in the world so well as you—is not that strange? Beat. As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I lov'd nothing so well as you, but believe me not; and yet I lie not: I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing’ (IV.i.267-72). In the last scene, they reaffirm their love in language that denies it: ‘Bene. Come, I will have thee, but by this light, I take thee for pity. Beat. I would not deny you, but by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption’ (V.iv.92-7). And Benedick's last word on marriage is a mock encomium of cuckoldry: ‘Prince, … get thee a wife. There is no staff more reverent than one tipp'd with horn’ (V.iv.122-4). Benedick's paradoxical valuing of the cuckold's horn over the staff of office does not constitute a rejection of political authority or of male dominance, but his playful, ironic language acknowledges the contingency of both authorities.

Claudio and Hero do not speak with the ironic wit of Beatrice and Benedick, but their marriage too embodies a tension between acceptance and defiance of social hierarchy. Claudio's acceptance of an unknown and unseen bride from Leonato revises the form of the earlier betrothal by asserting Leonato's authority at the expense of Don Pedro's. This modification of the way the political hierarchy functions is not, of course, a repudiation of Spanish hegemony any more than Benedick's encomium of cuckoldry is a repudiation of male dominance. But both gestures imply limits to hierarchical power.

Much Ado About Nothing is not an attack on the principle of hierarchy, but it does reveal hierarchical structures as often arbitrary, contradictory, dangerous, and irrelevant. In one of the ‘old ends’ with which he guards his discourse, Dogberry suggests that hierarchy is unavoidable: ‘and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind’ (III.v.36-7). But Dogberry has also suggested the theory that political authority governs by the consent of the governed: ‘it is an offense to stay a man against his will’ (III.iii.81-2). The ordering, centralizing language of official hierarchy is only one of the competing voices heard in Messina. No one defies Don Pedro's authority at the end of the play, but no one listens to him much either. Whereas Bandello's story of the slandered bride moves from an account of the violent overthrow of a political authority to a description of the integration of the rulers with the ruled, Shakespeare's moves from a dramatization of excessive deference to political authority to a kind of marginalization of that authority. At the end of the play Don Pedro is addressed respectfully as Prince, but his voice is only one among many and a relatively minor one at that. After discovering that he has been repeating slanders authored by Don John, Don Pedro is noticeably chastened and silent, but his experience is only an especially humiliating version of the common one. Even Don John is not in fact ‘the author of all’ as alleged: Borachio invents the story he tells. In one sense, all the characters in Much Ado are ‘parrot-teachers.’ Their speech is made up of old ends of common linguistic usages, rhetorical conventions, and social customs that compose an authorless discourse which they have only the illusion of creating and controlling. But there is another sense in which they are all authors, who, out of the ambiguous, polysemic fluidity of social discourse, create the texts of themselves and, through their dialogues with each other, authorize their society.


  1. Timber, or Discoveries in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-52), 8:620-1.

  2. Brian Vickers points out that Leonato creates his effect by using an image, a polyptoton, and an antimetabole; The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London: Methuen, 1968), 174.

  3. ‘Language used to comment directly on language itself is generally know[n] as metalanguage … And by analogy, a use of language which in turn frames, or “goes beyond”, language in use can be termed metadiscourse.’ Kier Elam, Shakespeare's Universe of Discourse: Language-Games in the Comedies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 19.

  4. Louis LeRoy, Aristotles Politiques or Discourses of Government (London, 1598), 12.

  5. See Arnold Williams, The Common Expositor: An Account of the Commentaries on Genesis 1527-1633 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1948), 81. Williams quotes Francis Bacon's prediction that when man ‘shall be able to call the creatures by their true names he shall again command them.’ Of the Interpretation of Nature in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Ellis, Douglas Heath (London, 1857), 3:222. Alastair Fowler's notes to the naming of the creatures in Paradise Lost, VIII, 343-56, cite Andrew Willet's opinion that one of the purposes for the naming of the creatures in Genesis 2 is ‘that mans authoritie and dominion over the creatures might appeare: for howsoever man named every living creature, so was the name thereof.’ Andrew Willet, Hexapla … Sixfold Commentary upon Genesis (London, 1608), 36. The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair Fowler (London: Longmans, 1968).

  6. See Jane Donawerth, Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 32.

  7. Ralph Lever, Arte of Reason (London, 1573), vi, as cited in Donawerth, 32.

  8. A sizable body of recent scholarship describes sixteenth-century ideas about women. On the association of deceit and sexuality, see, for example, Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester Press, 1983), Chapter 4, and Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

  9. ‘Messina. A city in N.E. Sicily … Pedro of Arragon took it from the French, and it remained a possession of the Spanish royal house from 1282 to 1713.’ Edward H. Sudgen, A Topographical Dictionary to the Works of Shakespeare and His Fellow Dramatists (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1925), 343. A sixteenth-century account is included in The Historie of Philip de Commines …, trans. Thomas Danett (London, 1596), 24-5.

  10. La Prima Parte De Le Novella Del Bandello (Lucca, 1554), trans. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), 2:112.

  11. The French translation of Bandello's story in Francois de Belleforest's Le Troisiesme Tome des Histories Tragiques Extraictes des oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel', Histoire XVIII (1569) emphasizes this tension, describing the prince as ‘ce roy inhumaine Pierre d'Aragon.’ See A. R. Humphreys' ‘Introduction’ to the Arden Much Ado, 14.

  12. The infamous Sicilian Vespers seems to be the most common association with Sicily for sixteenth-century Englishmen. Although Englishmen visited Venice, Milan, Padua, Florence, Rome, and Naples as centers of culture, few ventured to Sicily. See E. S. Bates, Touring in 1600: A Study in the Development of Travel as a Means of Education (New York: Burt Franklin, 1911), 113; John Walter Stoye, English Travellers Abroad, 1604-1667: Their Influence in English Society and Politics (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), 124.

    Although such notable Elizabethan tourists as Thomas Coryat and Fynes Moryson did not go to Sicily, George Sandys stopped there on his return from the Levant in 1611. His account emphasizes the violent history of foreign control and contemporary colonial status: ‘… at length Clement the fourth did give it from Conradine, unto Charles of Aniou the French Kings brother; betraying him [Conrad] to the slaughter, who was overcome neare Naples in a mortall battell, and his head stricken off by Clements appointment. So fell the Germans, and so rise the French men to the Kingdome of Naples and both the Sicilias. But here some seventeene yeares after they were bid to a bitter banquet: al slaine at the tole of a bell throughout the whole Iland, which is called to this day the Sicilian Even-song. A just reward (if justice will countenance so bloudy a designe) for their intollerable insolencies … Don Pedro King of Aragon, had married Constantia the onely daughter of Manfroy. In whose right (although Manfroy was a bastard, a parricide, and usuper) he entred Sicilia in this tumult whereunto he was privy, and was crowned King with the general consent of the Sicilians: it continuing in the house of Aragon, untill united to Castile. So it remaineth subject unto Spaine … They [the Sicilians] have their commodities fetch from them by forrainers, and withall the profit … The chiefe of the ancient Sicilain Nobility attend in the Court of Spaine: a course of life, rather politickly commanded, then elected’ (237-8).

    In Messina, Sandys was most struck by the Spanish influence and by the violence of the society: ‘The better sort are Spanish in attire … The Gentlemen put their monies into the common table, “for which the Citie stands bound” and receive it againe upon their bils, according to their uses. For they dare not venture to keepe it in their houses, so ordinarily broken open by theeves (as are the shops and ware-houses) for all their crosse-bard windowes, iron doores, locks, bolts, and barres on the inside: wherein, and in their private revenges, no night doth passe without murder … The Duke of Osuna their new Vice-roy, was here daily expected; for whom a sumptuous landing place was made …’ (245-6). George Sandys, A Relation of a Journey begun An: Dom: 1610 (London, 1615).

  13. In all other versions of the story, a rival lover is responsible for the slander. See Charles T. Prouty, The Sources of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), 34.

  14. Of course, anxiety about foreign domination, specifically fear of Spanish power, was intense in England. The possible application of Sicilian history to English politics is illustrated by John Hoskyns' speech in Parliament in 1614 which compared England dominated by James I's Scottish favorities to Sicily under the French at the time of the Sicilian Vespers. Hoskyns was committed to the Tower the following day. Louise Brown Osborn, The Life, Letters, and Writings of John Hoskyns, 1566-1638 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937), 38. I am indebted for this reference to Annabel Patterson, ‘All Donne,’ in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth Harvey and Katharine Maus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 57.

  15. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 263.

  16. Carl Dennis points out that the deception successfully appeals to Benedick and Beatrice's social natures: ‘They want to fulfill the values of their community’ (228). See ‘Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado About Nothing,Studies in English Literature, 13 (1973), 223-37.

  17. Joyce Hengerer Sexton observes that the emphasis on publicizing the truth about Hero in the denouement represents a significant divergence from the sources and analogues; see ‘The Theme of Slander in Much Ado About Nothing,Philological Quarterly, 54 (1975), 423, 428.

  18. Anthony Dawson points out that Dogberry's desire to be ‘writ down an ass’ (IV.ii.87) alludes to writing as a mark of cultural validity. ‘Much Ado About Signifying,’ Studies in English Literature, 22 (1982), 218-19. On sixteenth-century respect for the stability of the written word in contrast with ephemeral speech, see Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare's Talking Animals: Language and Drama in Society (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1974), 38.

Nova Myhill (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9523

SOURCE: Myhill, Nova. “Spectatorship in/of Much Ado About Nothing.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 39, no. 2 (spring 1999): 291-311.

[In the following essay, Myhill observes that Much Ado about Nothing is centrally concerned with the problems related to knowledge and perception, and argues that the depiction in the play of numerous deceptions highlights Shakespeare's methodology for creating different modes of interpretation.]

In the past twenty years, a great deal of criticism has focused on concerns about appearances in the early modern period, particularly in terms of “self-fashioning”;1 in this article, I want to look at the other side of this issue: the fashioning not of the self but of others through theatrical display. The debate over the stage in early modern England was also a debate over the ways in which audiences perceived and were affected by spectacles. This debate, at its most polemical, led the theater's detractors to claim that audiences would “learne howe … to beguyle, howe to betraye … howe to murther, howe to poyson, howe to disobey and rebell agaynst Princes,” and its supporters to claim the theater “teach[es] the subjects obedience to their King … shew[s] the people the untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions and insurrections … present[s] them with the flourishing estate of such as live in obedience, exhorting them to allegeance, dehorting them from all trayterous and fellonious stratagems.”2 These claims can easily be applied to the same plays; the “trayterous and fellonious stratagems” that Thomas Heywood claims the theater teaches its audience members to avoid are the same as those John Northbrooke claims it teaches them to perform. But playwrights recognized the power of the audience over the play as well as the converse that so agitated the theater's opponents.

For the antitheatrical tracts of the 1580s, the threatening power of the stage lies in the inevitable interpretive failure of its audience—in the way in which “straunge consortes of melody … costly apparel … effeminate gestures … and wanton speache … by the privie entries of the eare, slip downe into the hart, and … gaule the minde, where reason and vertue should rule the roste.”3 Playwrights seem to have shared the antitheatrical writers' interest in, though not their despair of, the ways in which their audiences perceived spectacles. Much Ado about Nothing is centrally concerned with problems of knowledge and perception. The representation of multiple deceptions reveals a mechanism of creating methods of interpretation—the process by which narratives ensure particular readings of spectacles, at times in the face of other equally possible interpretations. The theater audience's assumption of its own privileged position as eavesdropper is undercut by the frequency with which the play's characters are deceived by their assumptions that eavesdropping offers unproblematic access to truth.4

When Claudio denounces Hero at their abortive wedding, he asks as a means of confirming his accusation, “Leonato, stand I here? / Is this the prince? Is this the prince's brother? / Is this face Hero's? Are our eyes our own?”5 If, as Leonato admits, “All this is so,” then Hero is guilty of seeming unchastity and Claudio's denunciation and repudiation of her is acceptable within the social framework of the play (IV.i.66). But Leonato is wrong; all of this is not so. In supposing that our eyes are our own in the same unarguable way that he “stand[s] here,” Claudio implies that only one interpretation of a spectacle is possible—a position the play is at some pains to dispute. Claudio sees Hero's face, but it is not the same face he saw the previous night at Hero's window because, in the deception of Claudio and Don Pedro, their eyes are extensions of Don John's vision, not their own. Moreover, the theater audience is denied direct access to the pivotal moments in Don Pedro and Claudio's courtship of Hero—Don Pedro's wooing of her at the masked ball and the scene of Margaret and Borachio at Hero's window—and instead must cope with multiple and contradictory narratives it can only measure against each other. In its dependence on frequently false narratives, the theater audience also sees with eyes that are not its own.

From the first scene, Much Ado presents a world of differing interpretations which cannot be reconciled. Claudio says of Hero that “In mine eye, she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on,” but Benedick “can see yet without spectacles, and [sees] no such matter” (I.i.139-40). While a difference in taste does not indicate a fundamental difference in perception, this emphasis on sight reappears throughout the play in describing the assumptions that characters bring to their observations. When Don Pedro asks Claudio about his feelings for Hero, Claudio answers that he “looked upon her with a soldier's eye” (I.i.224) before he went to the wars, but now that

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.


The way Claudio saw Hero before he went to war and the way he sees her at the start of the play seem to differ only situationally. In attributing his new view of Hero to the promptings of his “delicate desires,” which seem to function independently from the “me” they prompt, Claudio defines his vision as involuntary and unquestionable. Benedick marvels at Claudio's new way of seeing, wondering “may I be so converted and see with these eyes?” (II.iii.18). Eyes in Much Ado are not what one sees with, but what one sees through—the filters that lead characters to see people in particular, conventionalized ways. At the play's end, Leonato claims that Benedick has “the sight” of his “eye of love … from me, / From Claudio and the prince,” and that Beatrice's “eye of favor” for Benedick “my daughter lent her” through the false narratives of each other's passion that Beatrice and Benedick overhear (V. iv. 23-6). This essay examines how characters in the play come to “see with these eyes.”

The possibility that spectacles can “convert” their audiences against their wills is the basis of a persistent anxiety in antitheatrical writing. In Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), Stephen Gosson warns that “as long as we know ourselves to be fleshy, beholding those examples in Theaters that are incident to flesh, we are taught by other men's examples how to fall. And they that came honest to a play may depart infected.”6 The language of infection, which appears frequently in antitheatrical writings, implies an audience helpless to avoid the influence of the plays. Gosson's final “action” of Playes Confuted is a discussion of “eye Effects yt this poyson works among us … These outward spectacles effeminate and soften ye hearte of men, vice is learned in beholding, sense is tickled, desire pricked, & those impressions of mind are secretly conveyed over to ye gazers, which ye players do counterfeit on ye stage.”7 He describes these “effects” as entirely outside the playgoers' control. In his example of the effect of Bacchus's seduction of Ariadne on its spectators, Gosson claims that the audience reproduces what it sees: “when Bacchus rose up … the beholders rose up … when they sware, the company sware … when they departed to bedde; the company presently was set on fire, they that were married posted home to their wiues; they that were single vowed very solemly to be wedded.”8 While the first set of imitations, rising up and swearing, are physically identical—imitation in the simplest and most literal sense—the second set involves a replication of the mental state, not the physical. “Vow[ing] very solemly to be wedded” is not the same thing as having sex, but in this context it suggests that the effect of seeing Bacchus and Ariadne was to compel the audience to replicate not the physical action of seduction, but the mental state that enabled this action.

Gosson's example suggests that “we” will all have no choice but to learn from the same examples. His formulation implies a stable relationship between spectator and spectacle, in which the spectator is always at the mercy of his (for Gosson's spectator is always male) involuntary responses.9 But John Northbrooke, in the earliest pamphlet directed specifically against the London public theaters, recognizes what Gosson attempts to deny—that members of the theater audience are simultaneously spectators and spectacles, and vulnerable on both accounts. His anxieties about female theatergoers stem from their positions as spectacles for and spectators of the male theatergoers and actors: “What safegarde of chastitie can there be, where the woman is desired with so many eyes, where so many faces look upon her and again she upon so many?”10 For Gosson, whose spectators all become like Bacchus, not like Ariadne, spectatorship is a male province, and his expressed concern for female playgoers is that “you can forbid no man, that vieweth you, to note you and that noteth you to judge you.”11 In becoming spectators—a role that Gosson implicitly denies them—women make spectacles of themselves and are vulnerable to the judgment of the male spectators. But if spectacles shape the viewer, as Gosson and many other writers claim, does not the woman have as much threatening power as the play? And if the opposite is true, then is not the play threatened as much as the woman?

The “nothing” about which there is much ado in Shakespeare's play is simultaneously the female genital “nothing” and “noting”—habits of observation and interpretation.12 “Noting” becomes a problem in the play because the male characters accept that women should be, as Hero is, silent and defined by the ways in which they are seen.13 Hero is defined visually not only for Claudio, but for the theater audience, which has more access to her than her lover, but still cannot see or hear her response to Don Pedro's offstage wooing, cannot hear her response to Claudio's declaration of his own silence, “the perfectest herald of joy” (II.i.232). Hero characteristically lacks a voice and “becomes in effect a sign to be read and interpreted by others.”14

The contested territory of Much Ado about Nothing is not action, but interpretation, and while the theater audience occupies a privileged position in relation to the action of the play, the play presents it with audiences that also believe their position privileged and shows how that assumption leaves them vulnerable to having their readings controlled by the play's internal dramatists Don John, Borachio, and Don Pedro.15 The represented audience's perception of an event is based on both what it is allowed to see and hear and what it expects—an expectation created by a narrative like the one of Hero's falseness that Don John provides Don Pedro and Claudio or the narratives of the other's love and their own shortcomings to which Beatrice and Benedick are exposed. While much criticism examines the difference between Don Pedro's benevolent and Don John's malevolent deception, the similarity both of methods and of results is striking.16 The represented audience's perception of its spectatorial power allows it to accept an externally imposed narrative over the evidence of its senses. By presenting the manipulation of interpretation and questioning the privileged status of the spectator, the play challenges the idea of omniscience in any spectator, or the possibility of any spectator having the sort of automatic access to truth that the position implies for both characters in the play and the theater audience.

Don Pedro, Claudio, Beatrice, and Benedick all observe and overhear scenes actually predicated on their presence, which they believe to be predicated on their absence; the deceptions are based on the victim's assumption that he or she is seeing and hearing a private scene. In conceiving of themselves as subjects making discoveries, they become the objects of deception; they are not simply spectators, but spectacles of their gullers. The gulling scenes emphasize how visible the supposed eavesdropper is; Benedick's access to Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato's conversation in the orchard is based not on his success in “hid[ing] me in the arbour,” but his failure (II.iii.28). Three lines after Benedick conceals himself, Don Pedro asks Claudio “See you where Benedick hath hid himself?” (II.iii.32) and Claudio has, “very well, my lord” (II.iii.33). In the parallel scene involving Beatrice, Hero tells Ursula to “look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs / Close by the ground, to hear our conference” (III.i.24-5), and Borachio, describing the unrepresented scene at Hero's window, tells Conrade that “the prince, Claudio and my master planted, and placed, and possessed, by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter” between himself and Margaret (III.iii.121-4). The discrepancy between their spectatorial position and the one they believe they occupy leads characters to accept what they hear as truth, and model themselves accordingly. With the sole exception of the watch's overhearing of Borachio and Conrade's conversation in act III, scene iii, all other represented eavesdropping occurs with the contrivance of those being overheard; the positions of performer and audience are reversed.

All of the upper-class male characters in Messina are quite aware of the possibility of deception; they recognize that the world around them is not transparent and that other characters may wish to show them a false version of events. Benedick twice considers and rejects the idea that he is being gulled, Borachio knows that Claudio and Don Pedro “will scarcely believe this [that Hero is false] without trial” (II.ii.30-1), and even the perennial dupe Claudio fears that Don Pedro praises Hero “to fetch me in” (I.i.165). But Claudio's very awareness that he may be deceived ensures that he will be, causing him to distrust his own experience of Don Pedro and Hero, and to accept both the news of Don Pedro's betrayal that he hears “in name of Benedick” and his observation spying on Hero's window (II.i.128). S. P. Cerasano claims that “the natural tendency of the residents of Messina is toward gullibility, inconstancy, unpredictability and slander,” but this gullibility is less a “natural tendency” than a product of characters' awareness of their vulnerability to deception.17

Eavesdropping, rather than conversation, is established as the accepted model for receiving credible information throughout the play; to see or hear an action and believe yourself to be unobserved or unrecognized is to see that action as authentic and unstaged. Most characters in Much Ado believe that the awareness of audience is what creates “performance”: people cannot act for an audience if they are unaware of it. Thus, assuming (correctly) that “Hero” is unaware that he is watching her window, Claudio reinterprets all of her previously displayed behavior as a staged action. The “exterior shows” cease to be an indicator of maidenhood and Claudio rereads Hero's blushes when he accuses her of unfaithfulness as “guiltiness, not modesty” (IV.i.35-7).

Claudio and his fellow eavesdroppers are correct in believing that the awareness of audience is what creates “performance,” but not in the way that they, as audiences who believe themselves invisible, suppose. Don Pedro and Don John both take advantage of the belief that eavesdropping constitutes authentic experience. As Anthony Dawson observes, “for most of the characters, eavesdropping … is a natural, spontaneous gesture,” a habit of placing themselves at one remove from conversation so that they can have the perspective that they believe guarantees access to truths that other characters would not tell them to their faces.18 In the parallel scenes in which first Benedick and then Beatrice believe themselves to be secretly observing the discussion of the other's passion, they assume that since the spectatorial position is one of power, they know more than the characters they watch because only they know of their presence at this private conference.

In both cases, the gullers insist that their victim should not be told of the other's love because they would “make a sport of it” (II.iii.134, cf. III.i.58). In gulling Benedick, Don Pedro and his assistants raise the specter of deception in order to dispel it; Don Pedro suggests that Beatrice “doth but counterfeit” so that Leonato may describe her passion (II.iii.92). Benedick's judgment that “this can be no trick” is based on outward signs of reliability (II.iii.181); he “should think this a gull, but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it: knavery cannot sure hide himself in such reverence” (II.iii.106-7). His explicit consideration of what constitutes reliable evidence emphasizes that belief is not a default condition in Much Ado; everything is open to the accusation of “counterfeit,” which must be explicitly refuted.

The circumstances of Benedick making his “discovery” convince him of its veracity, and lead him to reinterpret Beatrice and himself. Resolving to love Beatrice, Benedick explicitly reacts against the description he has heard of himself as a man who “hath a contemptible spirit” (II.iii.153-4), proclaiming that “happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending” (II.iii.187-8). He constructs himself as a lover, resolving to be “horribly in love with her” (II.iii.191-2). Just as he redefines himself in opposition to the unflattering portrait he has overheard, Benedick reads in Beatrice's unaltered behavior toward him “some marks of love in her” (II.iii.199-200), reinterpreting her sentences to make their meaning consistent with what he has heard: “I took no more pains for those thanks than any pains you took to thank me: that's as much as to say any pains I take for you is as easy as thanks” (II.iii.209-11). Beatrice's language, like Hero's blush when Claudio refuses to marry her, is subject to reinterpretation to make it fit into the idea Benedick has received about her from outside agents. Benedick, having accepted Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato's narrative, reads Beatrice's avowed indifference as a form of acting which he, as an audience member with access to more information than she believes he has, can now penetrate and interpret correctly.

Benedick's labored reinterpretation of Beatrice's summons to dinner points not to the new clarity of his perception as he claims, but to his newfound determination to read her as Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio have suggested that he should. When Benedick, in asking Leonato for Beatrice's hand, tells him that he “with an eye of love requite[s] her,” Leonato seems justified in answering, “The sight whereof I think you had from me, / From Claudio, and the prince” (V.iv.24-6). Benedick's reading of Beatrice is socially constructed, and his shift in vision is the one Don Pedro arranges.

Don Pedro's plan for winning Hero for Claudio assumes a less complex response from her than from either Beatrice or Benedick. While he expects both of them to react against a negative reading of themselves, Hero is to be won almost without her consent. Don Pedro proposes to “take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale,” implying that his speech will exercise absolute control over Hero (I.i.250-1); once he has taken her hearing prisoner, “the conclusion is, she shall be thine” (I.i.253). The possibility of failure, or even of a response from Hero, never crosses Don Pedro's mind. Hero, Don Pedro's audience, is to be molded by “the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale” (I.i.250-1); her hearing, as separable from her reason as Claudio's “delicate desires” are from his, is to form her response (I.i.229). Don Pedro's confidence in the power of speech seems justified by the success of narratives throughout the play in changing their hearers' methods of interpretation. Benedick and Beatrice are persuaded to regard each other “with an eye of favor” (V.iv.21) through the conversations among their friends that they imagine they overhear by chance, and Claudio and Don Pedro accept the sight of Hero as “every man's Hero” after hearing Don John's account of what they will see (III.ii.78). But Don Pedro's success in winning Hero is not necessarily the testimony to his eloquence that he imagines; well before he takes her out to dance, Hero, as Leonato tells her, “know[s her] answer” to any proposal from the prince (II.i.49).

The theater audience, in the presence of Don Pedro and Claudio's explicitly “secret” communication onstage, supposes itself to have a more complete narrative than the play's other characters who are unaware of the scene (I.i.151). But this privilege is undermined throughout the first act, as Antonio's servant and Borachio, both invisible to the theater audience, Don Pedro, and Claudio, are retroactively introduced into the scene, and bring back varying reports to their masters. If Claudio and Don Pedro suppose their conversation secret, then so does the theater audience suppose its access to it unique. The two scenes following Don Pedro's revelation of his plot make the audience position progressively more crowded. By the time the first act has finished, the “secret” of Don Pedro's plan is known, in one form or another, to almost every character in the play, and the theater audience's position as privileged observer has come into question.

Despite Don Pedro's faith in his ability to manipulate perception through narrative, his impersonation of Claudio, which he believes will win Hero through “the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale” wins her instead because of her obedience to her father (I.i.250-1). After Antonio tells Leonato what his servant has overheard, Leonato resolves to “acquaint my daughter withal, that she may be the better prepared for an answer, if peradventure this be true” (I.ii.17-8). Hero's response is determined before the performance begins, not by Don Pedro's eloquence in the role of Claudio but by Leonato and Antonio's instructions to Hero, based on the assumption that Don Pedro is her suitor. The wooing scene which Don Pedro wishes to enact becomes a scene in which his audience knows far more than he supposes, and the presence of multiple narratives of Don Pedro's “secret” conversation with Claudio, which was not to produce any, allows Don John and Borachio to suggest to Claudio, plausibly enough, that Don Pedro “is enamored on Hero,” particularly when Don Pedro's performance of wooing Hero becomes a secret scene to which Hero alone, not Claudio and not the theater audience, has access (II.i.121-2).

When Don John and Borachio tell Claudio that Don Pedro woos for himself, the theater audience, although it can be sure of their motives, cannot have the immediate certainty that they are lying. Don John's claim that “Sure my brother is amorous on Hero, and hath withdrawn her father to break with him about it” (II.i.115-6) before he makes clear that he and Borachio are performing for Claudio causes editors to insert notes explaining that Don John does not actually believe this,19 and “Garrick's text (1777) makes this explicit by inserting ‘Now then for a trick of contrivance’ at the beginning of the speech.”20 But the play text offers no such certainty; Don Pedro's courtship is inaccessible to any audience, including the paying one, until it is over. Claudio instantly believes, and Benedick later is willing to consider the possibility, that Don John and Borachio are telling the truth. The possibility of Don Pedro wooing for himself is at least voiced by every man at the ball except Don Pedro.21 Don John's falseness is no guarantee of Don Pedro's truth.

Believing that Don John and Borachio mistake him for Benedick and are thus transparent conduits of information, Claudio accepts without question their claim that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself, reasoning that “beauty is a witch, / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood” (II.i.135-6). Claudio supposes that rather than taking “her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale,” Don Pedro has himself been bewitched in looking at Hero (I.i.250-1). Hero's status suddenly and dangerously shifts, from the audience which can be controlled by what she hears, Don Pedro's words entering her ear, to the spectacle before which he is similarly powerless. But Hero's consistent position as a spectacle does not endow her with witchlike powers; it only allows the men who observe her to read her as having them.

Upon Don John's accusation, Claudio instantly reveals (or develops) a distrust of his own “agent” Don Pedro, claiming that “all hearts in love use their own tongues. / Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” (II.i.133-5). This is not only a disclaimer of the efficacy of wooing by proxy, but a distrust of proxies in general. The “negotiation” of the eye is the way in which the eye observes as well as the way in which it seduces. But in Much Ado, all eyes seem ultimately to “trust agents”; sights and sounds are filtered through the characters who first bring them to mind.

Although the characters of the play have great faith in their own abilities to “see a church by daylight” (II.i.59), the scene in which Claudio denounces Hero as “an approved wanton” (IV.i.39) is the most forceful reminder of how easily interpretation can be guided. The “eye of love” which Benedick claims he and Beatrice see each other with is something that can be “lent” (V.iv.23-4), as Leonato says. And it is lent in almost precisely the same way as “conjecture” is placed on Claudio, “to turn all beauty into thoughts of harm” so that “never shall it more be gracious” (IV.i.100-1). Borachio tells Conrade that Don Pedro and Claudio have been deceived “partly by [Don John's] oaths, which first possessed them, partly by the dark night which did deceive them, but chiefly, by my villainy, which did confirm any slander that Don John had made” (III.iii.127-30). The possession by the oaths is the necessary precondition to everything else: what makes Borachio's “villainy” serve as “confirmation” in the same way as Beatrice's statement that she was not Hero's bedfellow the previous night although she had been at all other times becomes confirmation for Leonato of Hero's falseness rather than of the impossibility of Borachio's confession of “the vile encounters they have had / A thousand times in secret” (IV.i.87-8).

When Borachio claims that he “can at any unseasonable instant of night, appoint [Margaret] to look out at her lady's chamber window” (II.ii.14-5), Don John sees this as an insignificant event, as Borachio agrees it is, but “the poison of that lies in you to temper” (II.ii.17).22 The event will only have meaning that can “be the death of this marriage” if Don John provides Don Pedro and Claudio with that meaning (II.ii.16). Both Borachio and Don John recognize that their main problem is to get Don Pedro and Claudio to believe Don John's story—the production of “proof.”

The visual proof that Borachio tells Don John to offer is identical to his narrative; the syntax of Borachio's sentence transforms Don John's promise of what Don Pedro and Claudio will see into what they will actually see:

tell them that you know that Hero loves me, intend a kind of zeal to both the prince and Claudio … 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 … and there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero's disloyalty, that jealousy shall be called assurance and all the preparation overthrown.

(II.ii.26-37, my italics)

The deictic “this” refers to a scene that exists only in Don John's accusation: the sight of Hero with Borachio. The verbal “instances” that Don John is to offer become precisely the same as what he is to “bring [Don Pedro and Claudio] to see,” and what they, under the influence of his narrative, do see.

The absence of the theater audience from this scene prevents any knowledge of whether Margaret, in the guise of Hero, calls Borachio “Claudio” as the text insists, or not. The appearance of “Claudio” rather than the more logical (at least for Borachio and Don John's plan) “Borachio” can be explained, as the Riverside Shakespeare does, as “apparently a slip,” but forcibly demonstrates that no matter how often the theater audience may hear the events of “the very night before the intended wedding” described, it cannot know what Don Pedro and Claudio saw and heard, only what they were prepared to see and hear (II.ii.33-4).23 In this instance, description and preconception replace sight on the most literal level. Indeed, the theater audience's conspicuous exclusion from the scene of Borachio and Margaret at Hero's window, combined with the seven distinct descriptions of the event that replace it, suggest both the uncertainty of the theater audience's position and the impossibility of any scene having a transparent meaning.

When Don John tells Don Pedro and Claudio of Hero's disloyalty, he does not, as Borachio instructs him, describe what they will hear, preferring to tell them what they will see: “go but with me tonight, you shall see her chamber window entered, even the night before her wedding day … If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know” (III.ii.82-8). Don John implies to Claudio and Don Pedro that “knowledge” is acquired through becoming a part of the same group of spectators, but what they see will be materially different from what Don John (or the theater audience, were the scene visually represented) sees.

Don John plays upon Don Pedro and Claudio's belief in their ability to understand what they see, to be in the position of power that eavesdropping implies. The deception works because he constructs it as a choice that they can make, based on the evidence of their senses, between himself and Hero. The choice offers Don Pedro and Claudio the chance to prove their own ability as observers, to see through the mask of Hero's “seeming” (IV.i.50). To see Hero's disloyalty is to confirm Don John's loyalty. Don John represents his speech as insufficient, insisting that Hero cannot be adequately represented in language: “she has been too long a-talking of,” “the word [disloyal] is too good to paint out her wickedness” (III.ii.76, 80).24 In promising to “disparage her [Hero] no further, till you are my witnesses,” Don John claims that Don Pedro and Claudio's acuteness as spectators, rather than his suspect testimony, will prove Hero's unchastity (III.ii.95). As in the case of Don Pedro's plan to have Benedick “overhear” the discussion of Beatrice's love and his own misgovernment, the promise of the ability to see through a deception—Hero's chastity, Beatrice's indifference—assures the interpretation for which the spectator has been prepared.

In the first description the theater audience (and the watch, “stand[ing] close” in the play's only instance of successful eavesdropping [III.iii.88]) hear of the incident at the window after it has happened, Borachio tells Conrade that Claudio and Don Pedro are deceived “partly by [Don John's] oaths, which first possessed them, partly by the dark night which did deceive them, but chiefly, by my villainy, which did confirm any slander that Don John had made” (III.iii.127-30). The action only serves as confirmation; Don Pedro and Claudio have previously been possessed by Don John's story. Placed as they are “afar off in the orchard” in the dark night, Don Pedro and Claudio's senses are as unreliable as Don John's oaths, but their senses and his story, neither of which can be believed, confirm one another (III.iii.123).

In telling Conrade (and the watch) what has just occurred in Leonato's orchard, Borachio illustrates the shift from spectator to spectacle that threatens all of the play's audiences; he first tells Conrade that he has “tonight wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero's gentlewoman, by the name of Hero: she leans me out at her mistress' chamber-window, bids me a thousand times good night” (III.iii.118-21). To this point, he describes what he saw, but realizes this is insufficient to explain how he has earned a thousand ducats from Don John, and backs up to explain that “the Prince, Claudio, and my master planted, placed and possessed, by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter” (III.iii.121-4). This is the unrealized perspective of the theater audience; Borachio speaks first as the object of scrutiny that Don Pedro and Claudio think him, the spectacle unaware of observers, then as the omniscient audience member, aware of how all of the characters involved in the scene see it.

The theater audience's exclusion from the scene at Hero's window insists that its members must, like the characters in the play, accept narratives which color their interpretation. The scene at the window is finally inaccessible, vanishing behind the screen of multiple narratives which are never quite in agreement.25 The theater audience's relationship to Hero is established as one of observation; its position is established through its access to the information that will allow it to read Hero correctly—Don John and Borachio's plot to show Don Pedro and Claudio “Hero” at the window. But this is precisely the scene to which the theater audience is denied access. At other points in the play, the theater audience sees the same scene as the designated audience (Beatrice or Benedick, for instance), but is able to interpret it differently because it knows that the scene is staged only so that the designated audience will hear it. But the most crucial staged action is not staged for the theater audience—and as it is reported seven separate times for seven distinct audiences, the theater audience's knowing exactly what happened becomes increasingly impossible.

Almost all critical descriptions of the scene at Hero's window mention that Margaret is wearing Hero's clothes, as if this is the sign that explains Claudio's credulousness. And it may be; for an audience observing the action from “afar off,” costume is an exceedingly useful indicator of who is who.26 But this piece of information does not come to light until Borachio confesses to Leonato in act V, when the theater audience has already judged Don Pedro and Claudio's spectatorship. Claudio's immediate response to this revelation is to return to his original idea of Hero: “now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I loved it first” (V.i.220-1). Hero remains a visual construct, now purified by her retroactive absence from the scene; Claudio simply switches from one way of seeing, which he now perceives as incorrect, to his earlier view.

Claudio's understanding of Hero in purely visual terms is obviously problematic in that it allows the success of Don John and Borachio's plot, but only Beatrice seems to have any other way of understanding her. Even at the very beginning of the play, when Leonato makes the old joke “Her mother hath many times told me so” in answer to Don Pedro's “I think this is your daughter” (I.i.76-8), Don Pedro takes Hero's physical appearance, not the word of Leonato's wife, as a guarantor of her paternity.27 Despite Beatrice's best efforts to convince Hero to have some voice in choosing her husband, Hero seems to accept her father's choice: “if the prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer” (II.i.48-9). Despite Leonato and Beatrice's attempts to put words into her mouth, Hero never directly responds to the debate around her. The silence that leaves appearance as the only indication of female significance is established as culturally and socially desirable; Claudio praises Hero for being “modest” (I.i.121) and Benedick at first ignores Beatrice's beauty because he “cannot endure my Lady Tongue” (II.i.207-8).28 But, in the absence of speech, and thus in the absence of narrative, interpretation becomes ever more important, particularly since female characters are then only to be looked on as spectacles. In this model, to be exclusively a spectacle is to have no power, to be completely subject to interpretation as Hero is at the wedding.

Hero's appearance, rather than her words, speaks for her; Claudio accuses her of being “but the sign and semblance of her honor: / Behold how like a maid she blushes here” (IV.i.28-9). Certain visual cues, outward appearances, are assumed to signify truth; when Benedick speaks of Leonato's credibility, he bases this not on personal knowledge of Leonato but on his white beard, the “reverence” in which knavery cannot hide itself (II.iii.106-7). Claudio's condemnation of Hero is particularly violent because he identifies her as “the sign and semblance of her honor,” as being “like a maid” without being one. Hero cannot defend herself from this charge because only her physical exterior has been available; if this is a lie, no clear way to read her exists.

Readings of Much Ado that focus on right and wrong methods of interpretation generally find the model for proper interpretation in Beatrice's certainty of Hero's innocence and in Friar Francis's “noting of the lady” (IV.i.150). Richard Henze says that “this combination of intuitive trust and careful observation seems to be the one that the play recommends,” but to whom and under what circumstances?29 How is one to make judgments simultaneously based on faith and careful noting? According to Henze's argument, if Claudio is wrong about Hero, and Beatrice and Friar Francis are right, then they look in the right way and Claudio looks in the wrong. way. But Friar Francis's “noting” consists of interpreting the meaning of Hero's blushes, just as Claudio's and Leonato's do. Until Friar Francis allows Hero to speak, quite late in the scene, her body is the only available object of interpretation.

All of Hero's accusers, but especially Claudio, are preoccupied with the disparity in what they have seen “Hero” do and what her outward appearance suggests. Claudio insists that she is “but the sign and semblance of her honor” and remains preoccupied with her exterior (IV.i.28): “Would you not swear / All you that see her, that she were a maid, / By these exterior shows?” (IV.i.33-5), “O Hero! What a hero hadst thou been, / If half thy outward graces had been placed / About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart?” (IV.i.93-5). Claudio's experience outside Hero's bedroom window has led him, by accepting Don John's version of ocular proof, to distrust his sight and the appearances of those around him. As a result, he says that “on my eyelids shall conjecture hang, / To turn all beauty into thoughts of harm, / And never shall it more be gracious” (IV.i.99-101). Claudio has learned a new way of seeing, one in which appearance is now branded as seeming, and everything must be observed through the filter of “conjecture”; Don John is no longer necessary as an external creator of preconception because he has been replaced by “conjecture,” a purely internal filter which assures that Claudio's eyes are no longer his own.

Even assuming that “any man with me [Hero] conversed, / At hours unmeet” (IV.i.175), Claudio's accusations that she is

more intemperate in your blood,
Than Venus, or those pampered animals,
That rage in savage sensuality


and “knows the heat of a luxurious bed” seem to have little to do with what he saw (IV.i.36). Don Pedro, although much less hysterical, still accuses Hero of being “a common stale” (IV.i.59). Hero's supposed, and Margaret's actual, “crime” has been to place herself on view—to, as Borachio says when describing his plan in the most neutral way possible, “at any unseasonable instant of the night … look out at her lady's chamber window” (II.ii.14-5). Gosson's warning that “you can forbid no man, that vieweth you, to note you and that noteth you to judge you” becomes a threat in this context.30 But while Hero cannot forbid the “noting of the lady” in which Claudio, Don Pedro, Don John, Friar Francis, and Leonato engage, and is as vulnerable to ill report as may be imagined, the play is not comfortable with this vulnerability of spectacle (IV.i.150). Claudio and Don Pedro's view of the situation seems skewed, especially for a theater audience that did not see any woman “talk with a ruffian at her chamber window” (IV.i.85).

Hero's accusers, particularly Claudio, are, as Beatrice forcefully insists, not only incorrect but cruel; their accusations are out of proportion with what they have actually seen. They respond not to their own observation but to Don John and Borachio's narratives, and to their own fears of being disgraced. In accusing Hero, Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio provide very limited descriptions of what they saw the previous night; their focus on vituperation outweighs any desire to convince others of the justice of their accusation. Claudio spends nearly fifty lines abusing Hero before he provides a specific accusation, and Don Pedro only says that

Myself, my brother, and this grieved count
Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night
Talk with a ruffian at her chamber window
Who hath indeed like a most liberal villain,
Confessed the vile encounters they have had
A thousand times in secret.


The final proof that Don Pedro offers is Borachio's confession, a confession unnecessary to confirm what they have seen, but necessary, as it confirms the implications of Hero speaking to a man outside her window. Once again, a narrative gives meaning to an ambiguous staged event, and Hero, who has never produced narratives except those Don Pedro told her to in the gulling of Beatrice, is faced with Claudio's, Don Pedro's, and Don John's readings of her—readings her own father accepts with startling readiness.

In accepting Claudio and Don Pedro's reading, Leonato asks, “Could she here deny / The story that is printed in her blood?” (IV.i.114-5). Like Claudio's rhetorical questions, “Leonato, stand I here? / Is this the prince? Is this the prince's brother? / Is this face Hero's? Are our eyes our own?” (IV.i.63-5), Leonato's questions establish his certainty, even as their possible answers establish the problems with his interpretation. The structure of the question whose speaker thinks it is rhetorical reveals the assumptions he will not question.31 Despite Hero's insistence thirty-five lines previously that she “talked with no man at that hour,” Leonato is sure that he can read “the story that is printed in her blood” (IV.i.80). Her characteristic silence becomes another reason for believing her accusers: “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” (IV.i.164-6). Hero's rescue in this scene comes when the friar speaks of his “noting of the lady” (IV.i.150); again, this is an observation of physical signs: the

thousand blushing apparitions [that] 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.


Friar Francis is one of a group of men who read Hero's body, and that he is correct can be read as chance. Carol Cook observes that “Benedick's act of ‘marking’ [Beatrice] is clearly a projection, but the question then arises whether the friar's marking of Hero is not equally so.”33 Much can be said in Friar Francis's favor, but, if his observation is privileged, it is through his willingness to let Hero speak in her own defense, not his “careful observation.”

The friar's reading of Hero's appearance ultimately leads him to question her after stating his belief in her innocence; and her answer, not Friar Francis's faith, is what finally removes Leonato's certainty of her guilt, although the certainty of her innocence does not immediately follow. Leonato's acceptance of the testimony of “the two princes” whose social position authorizes their accusation, exemplifies some of the most problematic viewing in the play, as he chooses to read Hero in light of their accusation although he has not seen the proof they have (IV.i.145). Leonato never asks for Hero's story; from the moment Don Pedro and Don John join Claudio in his accusation, Leonato sees her as having “fallen / Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea / Hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (IV.i.132-4), asking “Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie” (IV.i.145). In the face of two opposing readings, Leonato is unable to decide:

I know not: if they speak but truth of her,
These hands will tear her, if they wrong her honour,
The proudest of them shall well hear of it.


Although his eventual determination to believe Hero is obvious in act V, his last word on the subject as he leaves the wedding scene is that the “smallest twine may lead me” (IV.i.243); belief in either version seems to him equally well, or poorly, grounded.

Comparing the ways in which Don Pedro and Claudio look at Hero with the ways in which Beatrice and Friar Francis do ultimately seems impossible because none of Hero's defenders has seen what Don Pedro and Claudio have, and, if Benedick and Beatrice will accept a less well-supported tale of the other's love, Don Pedro and Claudio's belief in Don John and their own eyes indicates more of a problem with the vulnerability of spectatorship in general than a fault particular to those two. Benedick's acceptance of the words of his friends (although his trust seems based on Leonato's participation rather than that of Don Pedro), describing a scene he has not seen and his rereading Beatrice's speech to conform to what he has heard, exemplifies the same problems as Leonato's initial acceptance of the accusations against Hero, in which he reinterprets Hero's silence as guilt.

In representing Margaret at the window only verbally, and in leaving the content of the dialogue that occurs at the window entirely obscure, Much Ado avoids a number of problems for the theater audience. To observe a staged action that one recognizes as such is to be complicit, voluntarily or involuntarily, with the character who produces that action, sharing knowledge that the represented audience does not possess. The position of shared superior knowledge defines the represented audience's position as credulous. The problem is acute in Much Ado because, if Margaret were represented at the window, the theater audience would be in a position to decide exactly how credulous Don Pedro and Claudio are and how good the deception is. Like Don Pedro's and Claudio's, the theater audience's view of Margaret will be from “afar off,” and the question arises of exactly how much Margaret looks like Hero. Costumes are primary markers of identity on the early modern stage (hence the unbreakable disguise convention), and Margaret in Hero's clothes may look enough like Hero to convince an unprepared (or differently prepared) audience of Hero's guilt—or she may look enough unlike her to suggest that observation has no power over narrative.

The scene of Borachio and Margaret at Hero's window has not always remained inaccessible in production. Michael Friedman discusses Michael Langham's 1961 Stratford-upon-Avon production, which featured a dumbshow in which Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio saw Borachio climb up to the balcony where he was joined “by ‘Hero.’” In fact, the actress on stage was not Margaret disguised as Hero, but Hero herself, “heavily cloaked [promptbook's phrase], pretending to be Margaret pretending to be Hero.”34 This interpolation justifies Claudio to the point of making Don John's accusation accurate. But the absence of the chamber window scene from the play makes this sort of identification with, or sympathy for, Claudio's position at the wedding rather improbable. A slightly less determined, but probably more influential, attempt to excuse Claudio's behavior through the representation of the window scene, appears in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film of Much Ado. Branagh explains his decision to include the scene on the grounds that “if we saw this occur on screen, it would add a new dimension to our understanding of Claudio,” saving him from being dismissed for his gullibility.35 But this anxiety about Claudio's gullibility seems to leave him peculiarly vulnerable to it; the actress playing Margaret in Branagh's film bears almost no physical resemblance to the actress playing Hero. And Claudio's gullibility is not unique to him but part of a larger range of issues of problematic forms of spectatorship.

If Margaret is represented as very similar to Hero, Claudio and Don Pedro's reaction at the wedding becomes understandable, although not laudable. More significantly, deception becomes impossible to detect visually, an uncomfortable position for a play whose resolution depends on Friar Francis's “noting of the lady” (IV.i.150), Claudio's willingness to accept Leonato's offer of his niece, “Almost the copy of my child that's dead” (V.i.256), and Beatrice and Benedick's seeing each other with the eyes of love Leonato says their gullers “lent” them (V.iv.23). One of the reasons Don Pedro and Claudio believe Don John is that “his lie … easily passes in Messina as a truthful reading of women,”36 but if the visual proofs he gives them are irrefutable at the distance of a theater audience member from the acting area above the stage, then his lie will pass anywhere, and the position of spectator is no more one of control than that of spectacle.


  1. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980).

  2. John Northbrooke, A Treatise wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Playes or Enterluds … Are Reproved by the Authoritie of the Word of God and Auntient Writers, ed. Arthur Freeman (New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), pp. 67-8. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors, ed. Richard H. Perkinson (New York: Scholars' Facsimilies and Reprints, 1941), sig. F4v.

  3. Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (London: T. Dawson, 1579), sig. B6v-B7.

  4. The representation of audiences, rather than mirroring the behavior of theater audiences, presents reception codes in an exaggerated form for scrutiny in the same way that inset spectacle presents performance codes. For a discussion of performance code, see Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1980), pp. 49-97. Michele Willems discusses how inset plays present performance code for scrutiny in “‘They do but jest’ or do they? Reflexions on the Ambiguities of the Space Within a Space,” in The Show Within. Dramatic and Other Insets, English Renaissance Drama (1550-1642), ed. Francois Laroque (Montpellier: Publications de Universite Paul-Valery, 1990), pp. 51-64, 53.

  5. William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, ed. F. H. Mares (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), IV.i.63-5. Further references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  6. Stephen Gosson, Playes Confuted in Five Actions (London: Thomas Gosson, 1582), sig. G4.

  7. Gosson, sig. G4

  8. Gosson, sig. G5, Laura Levine argues that the Bacchus/Ariadne passage suggests not only that “watching leads inevitably to ‘doing’ … [b]ut … the more radical idea that watching leads inevitably to ‘being’—to assuming the identity of the actor” (Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-theatricality and Effeminization, 1579-1642 [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994], p. 13).

  9. Levine argues that the antitheatrical writers envision “a self which can always be altered not by its own playful shaping intelligence, but by malevolent forces outside its control” (p. 12).

  10. Northbrooke, p. 63.

  11. Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, sig. F2. For a discussion of the letter “to the Gentlewoman Citizens of London” appended to the end of The School of Abuse, arguing that Gosson's anxiety is motivated as much by the possibility of women looking at their fellow theatergoers as by the way that male theatergoers look at them, see Jean Howard, The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 76-80.

  12. For some early discussions of this double meaning, see Dorothy Hockey, “Notes Notes, Forsooth …,” SQ 8, 3 (Summer 1957): 353-8, 355, and David Horowitz, “Imagining the Real,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Much Ado About Nothing,” ed. Walter R. Davis (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1969), pp. 39-53, 39.

  13. The only character in Messina to encourage female speech directly is Don Pedro, who tells Beatrice that “Your silence most offends me” (II.i.252). This response to Beatrice's “I was born to speak all mirth, and no matter” (II.i.251) suggests a sanctioned form of female speech, but one that cannot construct the narratives that shape perception. I am grateful to the anonymous reader for SEL for drawing my attention to this exchange.

  14. Carol Cook, “‘The Sign and Semblance of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing,PMLA 101, 2 (March 1986): 186-202, 194.

  15. Laurie Osborne observes (“Dramatic Play in Much Ado about Nothing: Wedding the Italian Novella and English Comedy,” PQ 69, 2 [Spring 1991]: 167-88) that “the purpose [of staged actions] is not to manipulate events so much as to control the way that others perceive them” (p. 184).

  16. See, for instance, Richard Henze's “Deception in Much Ado abut Nothing,SEL 11, 2 (Spring 1971): 187-201. For a discussion of the way in which this argument naturalizes Don Pedro's deceptions as revelatory rather than constitutive, see Howard, pp. 59-65.

  17. S. P. Cerasano, “Half a Dozen Dangerous Words” in Gloriana's Face: Women, Public and Private, in the English Renaissance, ed. S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 167-83, 175.

  18. Anthony Dawson, “Much Ado about Signifying,” SEL 22, 2 (Spring 1982): 211-21, 215.

  19. See, for instance, Mares's edition of the play, p. 72.

  20. Mares, p. 72, n. 115-6.

  21. Mark Taylor, “Presence and Absence in Much Ado About Nothing,CentR 33, 1 (Winter 1989): 1-12, 4.

  22. Margaret is here represented as an observer herself, but to “look out at her lady's chamber window” is to be seen at that window (II.iii.15). As in Gosson's formulation of the female theatergoer, to be a spectator is to become a spectacle.

  23. G. Blakemore Evans, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974), p. 341, n. 44.

  24. For a discussion of Don John's use of and representation of language, see Dawson, p. 214.

  25. Taylor argues that “the play focuses our attention on [the] blank space[s of Don Pedro's wooing and the scene at Hero's window] as a way of showing how various characters perceive themselves in that blank spot” (p. 5).

  26. Beyond this, Stephen Orgel argues that costume on the early modern transvestite stage constitutes the identity of the characters that wear it; in Twelfth Night Viola cannot return to her original identity until she recovers her original costume. Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 103-5.

  27. Claire McEachern observes, “Hero's physical resemblance to her father guarantees her mother's fidelity, and with it her father's honor” (“‘Fathering Herself’: A Source Study of Shakespeare's Feminism,” SQ 39, 3 [Autumn 1988]: 269-90), but I think it significant that Hero must “father herself” with her body rather than her mother's words. Michael D. Friedman, in “‘Hush'd on Purpose to Grace Harmony’: Wives and Silence in Much Ado About Nothing,TJ 42, 3 (October 1990): 350-63, discusses the stage directions in both the quarto and folio texts which give an entrance in act I, scene i and act II, scene i to “Innogen [Leonato's] wife,” and the possibilities of staging Hero's perfectly silent and unacknowledged mother.

  28. For discussions of the relationship between silence and gender roles in Much Ado, see Howard, pp. 65-70 and Friedman.

  29. Henze, p. 194.

  30. Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse, sig. F2.

  31. Many of the accusations against Hero are couched in terms of rhetorical questions. In addition to the examples above, Claudio asks, “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?” (IV.i.32-5). Leonato finds confirmation in asking, “Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie, / Who loved her so, that speaking of her foulness, / Washed it in tears?” (IV.i.145-7). Hero's attempt to use this structure, asking “Is it [my name] not Hero? Who can blot that name / With any just reproach?” (IV.i.74-5), collapses when Claudio instantly answers her, “Marry, that can Hero” (IV.i.75).

  32. For a discussion of the ambiguity of Hero's blushes and the multiple interpretations available, see David Bevington, Action is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 96-7.

  33. Cook, p. 192.

  34. Friedman, “The Editorial Recuperation of Claudio,” CompD 25, 4 (Winter 1991-92): 369-86, 373. Friedman's account of the production comes from Pamela Mason's “‘Much Ado’ at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1949-1976,” M. A. thesis (University of Birmingham, England, 1976). In his more recent “Male Bonds and Marriage in All's Well and Much Ado” (SEL 35, 2 [Spring 1995]: 231-49), Friedman also discusses the introduction of the scene of Margaret and Borachio at Hero's window into Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film (pp. 240-1).

  35. Branagh, “Much Ado about Nothing” by William Shakespeare: Screenplay, Introduction, and Notes on the Making of the Film (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993), p. xv.

  36. Howard, p. 61.

I am grateful to A. R. Braunmuller, Rebecca Jaffe, Claire McEachern, and Robert N. Watson for comments, advice, and encouragement on this article.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11540

SOURCE: Hunt, Maurice. “The Reclamation of Language in Much Ado about Nothing.Studies in Philology 97, no. 2 (spring 2000): 165-91.

[In the following essay, Hunt studies the characters' usage of patriarchal speech in Much Ado about Nothing, demonstrating the way in which this type of speech establishes social dominance through the transformation, dismissal, or oppression of the words and thoughts of others.]

Interpreters of Much Ado about Nothing have often remarked that Shakespeare focuses in this middle comedy upon the faculty of hearing. And indeed “nothing,” in its senses of listening and eavesdropping, does much to complicate and unravel the play's fable.1 What is rarely noted in accounts of Much Ado is the dependence of hearing upon speaking, the possibility that Shakespeare may also dramatize the potential of speech to exasperate and resolve humankind's wishes and schemes, especially as they involve romantic love. Repeatedly the language of Much Ado illustrates the fact that expression often becomes disjoined from meaning. “The body of your discourse is sometime guarded with fragments [trimmed with odds and ends],” Benedick tells jesting Don Pedro, “and the guards are but slightly basted on neither” (1.1.265-66).2 Anne Barton takes Benedick's quip to mean that “the trimmings” of Don Pedro's speech “are very insecurely stitched on too (i.e. they have little connection with what is being said).”3 A. P. Rossiter has remarked that in Much Ado Cupid does not work by slander, but by hearsay.4 “Of this matter / Is little Cupid's crafty arrow made,” Hero pronounces, “That only wounds by hearsay” (3.1.21-23). The word has two parts. In Much Ado, “[l]ove by hearsay,” according to René Girard, “means love by another's voice.”5 Love arises when stratagems of eavesdropping make Benedick, Beatrice, and Claudio fall either in or out of love, but they do so only because of what other characters say, only because of the speech uttered and the attitude of members of the trio toward it. One would assume that a gap of some kind naturally exists between Beatrice's, Benedick's, and Claudio's original self-generated (in some cases faint) amorous inclinations and the romantic love created by others' speech and the speech of lovers molded by their utterances. It is another version of the disjunction between inward meaning and spoken words that we hear in Benedick's quip about the “slightly basted” rhetorical “trimmings” of Don Pedro's speech.

At stake in these examples is what we are accustomed to call the truth. Shakespeare unforgettably invites the question of the relation of spoken language to the truth by showing how easily the words of others cause Benedick and Beatrice to fall in and out of love. In Much Ado, Shakespeare suggests that the desire to exert power over another in a way that flatters or amuses the wielder often determines both the use of speech and the control of conversation and monologues. To achieve and exercise personal power, Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio, and other male characters in Much Ado capitalize upon inherent disjunctions between expression and meaning, upon auditors' distrust of an interlocutor's words, and upon speakers' inability to govern their tongues (and thus the language they speak). In this process, patriarchal speech almost always triumphs by mandating its construction of the truth. Marked by irreverence, aggressiveness, and an authoritarian tone and content, Shakespearean patriarchal speech is designed to establish social dominance by twisting, dismissing, or oppressing the words and ideas of others. Moreover, it is not exclusively the property of men. In Much Ado, Beatrice's acerbic speech, compared to the qualities of patriarchal language, appears at times more conventionally male than conventionally female. Because the seekers after power in the play often cannot manage problematic language or rule their own tongues, they generally become the verbal and literal victims of someone else's power stratagems, and social prestige shifts distressingly within the community of Messina.

Early in Much Ado, Shakespeare represents a paradigmatic image of exemplary speech and speaker. In act 2, scene 1, Beatrice wittily conceives of authentic manhood in terms of moderate speech. “He were an excellent man,” she quips, “that were made just in the mid-way between [Don John] and Benedick: the one is too like an image and says nothing, and the other too like my lady's eldest son, evermore tattling” (2.1.6-9). Beatrice's assertion sets up a standard of modulated, tempered speech that she herself cannot practice. “By my troth, niece,” Leonato tells sharp-tongued Beatrice, “thou wilt never get thee a husband, if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue” (2.1.16-17). Nevertheless, Beatrice's linguistic analysis applies, strictly speaking, to the attainment of excellent manhood. Thus the tempering of speech that she recommends could possibly rectify certain absolutist traits of patriarchal speech. But self-destructive consequences entailed by the compulsion to acquire and exert social and physical power over others preclude the attainment of this temperance. At least they do so until, suffering adversity, characters such as Benedick learn to modulate significantly their quest for power and thus the speech associated with it. The relatively sanctified, integrated speech of the powerless Hero and that of Friar Francis, who has piously relinquished the pursuit of self-congratulatory power, become guides toward this end for Shakespeare's audience. An appreciation of the melding of their expression and intended meaning depends upon initially grasping the extent of Shakespeare's depiction of the manifold, subtle foibles of language.

Patriarchal speech is often edgy, distrustful, because male speakers frequently imagine that male interlocutors may have competitive designs upon them, or because they are hyperconscious of losing among men a masculine persona. When Claudio asks Benedick, “Is [Hero] not a modest young lady?” (1.1.153),6 Benedick's response reveals his habitual distrust of the wholesome, straightforward meaning of a friend's speech: “Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgement, or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?” (1.1.154-57). Benedick implies that he has two kinds of speech—an honest, simple discourse, rarely spoken, and a customary caustic, witty idiom that (by the logic of his own question) is dishonest and false. Benedick has cultivated the reputation of being a tyrant to women in order to enhance his stature (his power) primarily among his male friends. Yet he has become an ironic victim of this strategy, a prisoner of his circulated, anti-feminist sayings. With a life of their own, these witty sayings have created a persona that he believes he must inhabit and maintain. To venture outside of it (as he here intimates he might) is to gamble the loss of a self-fashioned identity and imagined respect. In the present case, Benedick suggests that the risk of simple, relatively honest speech is too great. When Claudio protests, “I pray thee speak in sober judgement,” Benedick jokes, “Why, i'faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise: only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her” (1.1.158-64). Benedick's clever paradoxes are sufficiently ambiguous to keep Claudio uncertain of the speaker's feelings. “Thou thinkest I am in sport,” the thoroughly frustrated Claudio complains; “I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik'st her” (1.1.165-66). Benedick's linguistic suspicion proves deep-seated, however. He asks Claudio, “But speak you this with a sad brow, or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder, and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?” (1.1.169-73). Benedick's concluding metaphor suggests his notion that talk with Claudio amounts to no more than a kind of duet valuable for its harmony rather than its content, a creation in which one finds one's part in conjunction with other artistes of language.

Benedick never does directly answer Claudio's question about Hero's modesty. (He says instead that he sees no sweetness in her.) His reluctance to conform to Claudio's expectation of the rules governing conversation constitutes a comic, poetically just punishment of Claudio. “God help the noble Claudio!” Beatrice has exclaimed concerning Benedick's company; “[i]f he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere a be cured” (1.1.80-82). In terms of our subject, Claudio can be said to have “caught the Benedick,” for he himself shares his companion's distrust of forthright speech. Responding to Claudio's qualified declaration of love for Hero, Don Pedro pronounces, “Amen, if you love her, for the lady is very well worthy” (1.1.204-5). “You speak this to fetch me in, my lord” (1.1.206), Claudio anxiously replies. “By my troth, I speak my thought” (1.1.207), Don Pedro assures him. When Claudio responds, “And in faith, my lord, I spoke mine” (1.1.208), Benedick cannot resist joking about the extralinguistic guarantee of their words that Don Pedro and Claudio seek in Christian invocations: “And by my two faiths and troths, my lord, I spoke mine” (1.1.209-10).7 Whatever effective communication Don Pedro and Claudio have achieved gets derailed by Benedick's ingenious witticism about his (and humankind's) double—deceitful—faith and truth. His joke—in his mind, at least—for the moment makes him the dominant speaker among male friends wary through speech of giving auditors an advantage.

The masked ball of Much Ado provides characters suspicious of direct speech an opportunity to speak without hesitation or subterfuge, simply because they believe that their visors absolve them from the responsibility of owning their utterances. No longer do they feel compelled to worry about how their words might gain or lose them respect. In such a context, they risk speaking imagined truths. Recognizing Benedick behind his mask (but thinking that he does not recognize her), Beatrice unleashes the aggression that her anxious feeling of vulnerability to men has created by directly, painfully telling him of the foolish ass his self-conceit makes him (2.1.127-33). In other words, she powerfully compensates for her usual secret sense of powerlessness in a decidedly patriarchal society. Admittedly, Beatrice's frustrated affection for Benedick contributes to her aggressiveness, her criticism a personally safe attempt to encourage him to reform himself and his langauge. But the painful extremity of her portrait of him reveals the deeper source of her aggression in the dynamics of power and powerlessness, which distort the truth of her utterances. “She speaks poniards,” Benedick complains, “and every word stabs” (2.1.231-32). Benedick has his flaws, but her verbal portrait of him as “the Prince's jester, a very dull fool; [whose] only gift is in devising impossible slanders” (2.1.127-28) misrepresents—skews—the whole man. Beatrice's criticism of Benedick's “gift,” moreover, could just as easily apply to her everyday, ridiculing self.

Characters' inability to control their speech, their failure to shape it to their wills, can be heard throughout Much Ado. Benedick's “double” faith reflects his “double tongue”; at least, it does so in Don Pedro's report of Benedick's opinion of Benedick's verbal duplicity. When Don Pedro tells Benedick that he praised Benedick's knowledge of foreign languages to Beatrice (“‘Nay,’ said I, ‘he hath the tongues’”), he says that she responded, “‘That I believe … for he swore a thing to me on Monday night, which he forswore on Tuesday morning; there's a double tongue; there's two tongues’” (5.1.164-66). Benedick's double tongue, a characterization reminiscent of that of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream,8 manifests itself not only in his swearing and forswearing of love for Beatrice, but also in his punning jests, which require the ability to speak two disruptive meanings at once. Swearing, forswearing, and punning in Much Ado, as in life, usually involve the imagined acquisition or consolidation of social prestige. The stress in this judgment falls upon the word “imagined.” Often punning jokes escape the jester's control, wounding him in the poor opinion of others, even as his swearing and forswearing painfully work eventually against the swearer's image in others' eyes.

Few characters in the Messina of Much Ado consistently rule their tongues to their advantage. Underscoring this impression is that of Beatrice's and Benedick's runaway tongues. Both of these characters suffer from logorrhea. “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick,” Beatrice quips; “nobody marks you” (1.1.107-8). She, however, in Benedick's chauvinistic opinion, is “my Lady Tongue” (2.1.258), a “dish” whose garrulousness makes her unpalatable. Surprisingly, the play's memorable analysis of humankind's inability to govern its tongue belongs to its low-life personage, Borachio. Concerning Borachio's claim that he can tell a story of intrigue, Conrade, uttering a phrase repeated later in The Tempest, exclaims, “and now forward with thy tale” (3.3.99-100).9 The pun latent in this statement—the notion of putting forward something naturally belonging to the rear (“tale” / “tail”)—predicts the preposterousness (literally, the backward-firstness) of Borachio's narrative.10 The beginning of Borachio's tale—“Therefore know, I have earned of Don John a thousand ducats” (3.3.106-7)—is actually its conclusion: the reward that the trick to be narrated brought him. Then, by holding forth on the truth that “the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak, is nothing to a man” (3.3.114-34), Borachio makes Conrade complain, “But art not thou thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou hast shifted out of thy tale into telling me of the fashion?” (3.3.136-38). Thus rebuked, Borachio explains that he has just wooed Margaret by the name of Hero and that she repeatedly bid him good night from the window of Hero's bedchamber. Despite this conformity to Conrade's request, Borachio catches himself up: “I tell this tale vilely—I should first tell thee how the Prince, Claudio, and my master, planted and placed and possessed by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter” (3.3.143-47). Borachio has giddily gone forward with his tale, again telling a later part first. Throughout Much Ado, Shakespeare uses forms of the word “giddy” to refer to humankind's inveterate inconstancy (its defining trait, according to the Player King in act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet). “For man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion” (5.4.106-7), Benedick summarizes near the end of Much Ado.11 Humankind (especially mankind), in this play, reveals its essential giddiness chiefly in inconstant, fickle speech, which often entails the loss of control over logical discourse. Giddy Borachio exemplifies this phenomenon with his wordy, backward-first tale.12 His loss of linguistic control amounts to a semicomic instance of the flaw that Benedick and Beatrice mutually accuse each other of committing in the form of subversive, irrelevant jests.

The inevitable ambiguity of public speech complicates in Much Ado problems of linguistic distrust and loss of control. Beatrice's and Benedick's verbal cleverness allows them to both inject and read what they will into an inherently imprecise symbolic medium of communication.13 Believing that Beatrice secretly loves him, Benedick often misinterprets her utterances. “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner,” she tells Benedick; when he thanks her for her pains, she coldly replies, “I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me” (2.3.238-42). Left alone, Benedick's fertile imagination falls prey to his self-conceit working on the mismatch between a speaker's apparent intention and the broad language that never exactly registers it:14 “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 picture” (2.3.248-54).15 The inherent imprecision of language thus serves an anxious need to magnify the self's importance. Having taken pleasure in his double tongue (see above, 1.1.209-10), Benedick suffers the poetic justice of misconstruing to his later embarrassment the radical double meaning of Beatrice's speech. At this point, my reader might object that Benedick has in fact not misconstrued the basic tenor of Beatrice's utterance; he or she might argue that Beatrice's hostile and neutral statements serve to mask her conflicted but nevertheless authentic attraction to Benedick and that he intuitively has picked up on this concealed resonance and somehow heard it for what it affectionately is. While this argument carries weight, I would point out that the inevitable ambiguity of Beatrice's and Benedick's dialogue, working with feelings of self-importance, causes each of them much more suffering and public embarrassment concerning their hidden feelings for each other than relatively unambiguous, trusted words of affection would. This is true simply because in the latter case a mode of communication which the world assumes, even if it does not usually practice, would allow their love to bloom naturally.

The physical and social contexts of utterances can significantly affect the designs of speakers intent on using ambiguous language to forge or strengthen social identities.16 Antonio states that his servant, “in a thick-pleach'd alley in mine orchard” (1.2.9-10), overheard Don Pedro telling Claudio that he plans to propose to Hero. Evidently the density of the foliage warps or muffles Don Pedro's speech, permitting Antonio's man to hear only part of the truth (that Don Pedro woos Hero on behalf of Claudio). In this instance, the context of an utterance determines its meaning as much as the simple mode of hearing does. That the villain Borachio hears the whole truth about Don Pedro's wooing indicates that the arras behind which he hides in a musty room, unlike the garden's foliage, does not in this case significantly damage acoustics. Hero's gentlewoman Margaret demonstrates the extent to which a speaker sometimes goes to neutralize a distorting interpretive context and recover an imagined integrity of self. When Margaret jokes that Hero's heart will “be heavier soon by the weight of a man,” Hero exclaims, “Fie upon thee, art not ashamed?” (3.4.25-26). Somewhat indignant, Margaret disavows the bawdy meaning of this jest: “Of what, lady? of speaking honorably? Is not marriage honorable in a beggar? Is not your lord honorable without marriage? I think you would have me say, saving your reverence, ‘a husband.’ And bad thinking do not wrest true speaking, I'll offend nobody. Is there any harm in ‘the heavier for a husband’? None, I think, and it be the right husband, and the right wife; otherwise 'tis light, and not heavy” (3.4.29-36). Margaret tellingly makes the point that a jest's innocuousness lies in the ear of the auditor. If a wife genuinely loves and respects her husband, nothing necessarily salacious attaches to her expression of the thought of her husband's weight during sexual intercourse. “A jest's prosperity lies in the ear / Of him that hears it,” Rosaline authoritatively pronounces in Love's Labour's Lost, “never in the tongue / Of him that makes it” (5.2.861-63).17 Margaret revises this truth so as to suggest that the existential context of a speaker's and auditor's thinking invests the broad ambiguity of speech with relatively accurate meaning.

Still, Margaret has made an obscene jest (to Hero's and our ears, at least), and the troublesome instability of speech has allowed her to escape responsibility for a possibly coarse intention. That Margaret should articulate the above-described principle of language interpretation is heavily ironic. Her bidding Borachio “a thousand times good night” (3.3.142-43) in the name of Hero (given her by Borachio) corrupts Claudio's faith in his beloved. Language is so imprecise that an auditor, suspiciously hearing it in a vile context, can wrench it to conform to a fantasy. Margaret vainly takes pride in her linguistic virtuosity and ability to wiggle out of responsibility for her words' meaning, but she suffers the consequences of Borachio's duplicity when her honestly meant good night (she seems to care for Borachio) goes awry and Leonato later faults her for her part in Hero's slander (5.4.4-6).

Such a nonessential property is speech that socially empowered characters such as Don Pedro and Leonato can appropriate (steal) subordinates' voices, reducing Claudio and Hero to either ventriloquism or silence. In the patriarchal hierarchy of Messina, empowering voices tend to concentrate in the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, and Leonato, the governor of Messina and Hero's father.18 Don Pedro autocratically wrenches Claudio's words of courtship away from the young lover. “Thou wilt be like a lover presently,” he tells Claudio, “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” (1.1.286-90). Not only will Don Pedro conduct Claudio's suit to Leonato (a typically Elizabethan patriarchal arrangement), but he will also, unconventionally, speak Claudio's words of love to his beloved's own ears. Claudio's muteness includes the nonverbal signifier of his face, pale with love, which he thinks speaks his meaning far better than his own words could. “How sweetly you do minister to love,” he gratefully tells Don Pedro, “That know love's grief by his complexion!” (1.1.292-93). Still, he would like to speak on his own behalf: “But lest my liking might too sudden seem, / I would have salv'd it with a longer treatise” (1.1.294-95). Don Pedro, however, peremptorily silences him: “What need the bridge much broader than the flood?” (1.1.296). The “flood,” of course, is Claudio's imagined passion for Hero; by saying that the lover need not describe it, and that he might briefly “bridge” it, Don Pedro patronizingly suggests that Claudio's love is narrow, relatively unsubstantial. What Claudio could never have supposed when he agreed to Don Pedro's “gracious” offer is the prince's plan to woo Hero on Claudio's behalf from behind a mask, a situation that makes his words of love indistinguishable from Claudio's to Hero's ear. “And in her bosom I'll unclasp my heart,” he tells Claudio, “And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale” (1.1.303-5). Don Pedro's powerful metaphor of the tyranny of speech includes as its victim not simply Hero, but Claudio too. Don Pedro has robbed Claudio of his voice in a way that neither Hero nor Claudio could ever have supposed.

Hero's father Leonato and her uncle Antonio generally dictate her speech and enforce her silence. Beatrice makes clear that Antonio's advice to Hero—“Well, niece, I trust you will be rul'd by your father” (2.1.46-47)—chiefly pertains to her speech. “Yes, faith,” Beatrice sarcastically responds: “it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please you’: but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, ‘Father, as it please me’” (2.1.48-52). Beatrice's facetious putting of words in silent, obedient Hero's mouth serves to stress the verbal dependency of Claudio's beloved in a patriarchal society. The second imputed utterance—“‘Father, as it please me’”—strengthens this negative impression, mainly because no one, onstage or off, could imagine dutiful Hero voicing it.19 Recognizing Beatrice's insubordination, Leonato coarsely tries to quell it: “Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband” (2.1.57-58). As the obscene connotation of the word later more extensively indicates in Cymbeline,20 “fitted” implies a physical conformity of shape to the complementary male phallus that symbolizes female subordination in a patriarchy. In effect, Leonato crudely suggests that Beatrice's husband will one day, through the effect of his sexual power, reform her language.21 Cast as a solicitous wish, Leonato's utterance is in fact a harsh threat. That Beatrice ignores this warning and continues her witty, mutinous protest in no way liberates Hero's speech. Ignoring Beatrice's rebellion, Leonato reminds Hero that he has scripted the language of her courtship: “Daughter, remember what I told you: if the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer” (2.1.61-62). That we never hear Hero's response to this reminder—Beatrice speaks up again, telling Hero that she should “dance out the answer” to Don Pedro (2.1.63-73)—confirms Leonato's linguistic supremacy and her voicelessness.

The presence of socially privileged speakers continues to mute Claudio and Hero even in their betrothal. After Don Pedro has told Claudio that he has “woo'd in thy name” and won both Hero's and her father's consent to the wedding (facts that Leonato immediately confirms) (2.1.298-304), Beatrice must prod the lover: “Speak, Count, 'tis your cue” (2.1.305). Claudio's all-important pledge of love, however, minimizes the agency of language: “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 away myself for you, and dote upon the exchange” (2.1.306-9). Regarded in light of his distrust of other speakers' words, Claudio's opting for silence in the midst of several potent, linguistically aggrandizing men is understandable. As is Hero's. She speaks not an audible word in reply to her lover's proposal. “Speak, cousin,” irrepressible Beatrice urges, “or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither” (2.1.310-11). All that shy, dutiful Hero can do is whisper; “My cousin tells him in his ear that he is in her heart” (2.1.315-16), Beatrice remarks. “And so she doth, cousin” (2.1.317), Claudio confirms. Suddenly Hero's silence, which has become a sign of patriarchal oppression in playgoers' minds, acquires positive value. Beatrice and Benedick's previously quoted dialogue indicates that Hero's unheard whispers constitute a private language whose privateness insures the communication of the purity of her thoughts and insulates them from the degradations of a totalitarian codification of verbal meaning. At this moment in the public context, Hero's language is, paradoxically, an eloquent silence. At the beginning of King Lear, Cordelia represents (and preserves) an integrity of speech in the midst of a rigged totalitarian discourse. But while attractive, her frank, public utterances begin a disastrous chain of events. Hero, in an admittedly different context, succeeds where Cordelia fails because she forgoes public speech. For the moment she escapes danger because she enfolds a fine private language within an expressive public silence, a strategy apparently unavailable to Cordelia.

Paradoxically Hero's clipped, unconventional language of the heart positively contrasts with the more attractive (because amusingly witty) effusive language of Beatrice that delivers her over to and imprisons her within a patriarchy. After some “masculine” banter with Don Pedro, Beatrice begs his pardon for its license. “I was born to speak all mirth and no matter” (2.1.330), she explains. “Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you” (2.1.331-32), Don Pedro patronizingly replies. Beatrice's male banter paradoxically works to subordinate her in a male circle. Obviously the prince applies a double standard here. The socially presumptuous badinage that a woman like Beatrice engages in with men would be offensive in Hero, whereas a silent wiseacre like Beatrice would deprive him and his comrades of amusement. Leonato firmly puts Beatrice in her place when he abruptly says, “Niece, will you look to the things I told you of?” (2.1.337-38). Beatrice's submissive reply—“I cry you mercy, uncle. By your Grace's pardon” (2.1.339-40)—reveals that at this moment she adopts an early modern woman's idiom and accepts her socially and linguistically subordinate role.

The public nature of Hero's nuptials precludes an integrity-preserving private language; consequently, she finds herself forced to participate, with personally disastrous results, in a compromising public dialogue ruled by men with masculinist assumptions. Patriarchal attempts to control the wedding ceremony immediately become apparent. When Friar Francis asks Claudio, “You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady,” and the groom abruptly answers “No” (4.1.4-5), the linguistic autocrat Leonato takes charge and reinterprets his blunt reply: “To be married to her, friar: you come to marry her” (4.1.6-7). Uncertainty about the relation of speech acts to one another, and the plausibility of hearing an utterance within related but different social contexts, make language interpretation ambiguous. This fact permits Leonato to hear Claudio's negative in an ingenious but incorrect way, prompting him to remind the friar that the speech act of marriage is properly the churchman's and not Claudio's. Rattled, Leonato appropriates Claudio's voice when the ceremony reaches a potentially dangerous requirement:

If either of you know any inward impediment why you should not be conjoin'd, I charge you on your souls to utter it.
Know you any, Hero?
None, my lord.
Know you any, count?
I dare make his answer, none.


This patriarchal appropriation of speech sends Claudio into the rage that shatters the wedding ceremony and ends in his cruel claim that Hero has fornicated with Borachio. Claudio's following words incidentally describe Leonato's presumptuous theft of his own speech as much as they do Borachio's bold stealing Hero's honor: “O, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!” (4.1.18-19). Leonato's appropriation makes Claudio feel powerless, and he compensates by redirecting his angry frustration onto Hero, who seems generally powerless and so someone lesser than himself at this moment. Thus he explodes against the supposed fornicator perhaps before he had planned to do so. In keeping with the play's emphasis on the appropriation of speech, even body language is seized upon and misconstrued. During their wedding ceremony, Claudio claims that Hero is “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.


Hero does not even get to translate the “speech” of her blushes—that she is shyly modest. Interpreted by angry Claudio, her vascular language proclaims blood corrupted by guilty lust. Likewise, disconsolate Leonato later exclaims, “Could she here deny / The [supposedly damning] story that is printed in her blood?” (4.1.121-22).22 Privileged males rob mute Hero even of the speech of her body—yet it was that physical language, in the form of Margaret's embrace of Borachio, that they were all too ready to “hear” and credit, to Hero's demise.

Labeled a “rotten orange” (4.1.31), Hero manages only one utterance in the midst of Leonato's and Claudio's dialogue concerning her supposed promiscuity. When Claudio asserts that he loved Hero as a brother might, with “Bashful sincerity,” she protests, “And seem'd I ever otherwise to you?” (4.1.54-55). Her remark, however, only serves to launch Claudio into a condemnation of her imputed seeming. Finally, Don John insists that Claudio's nasty allegations are true (4.1.67). Picking up Don John's last word, stunned Hero can only echo “‘True’! O God!” (4.1.68). This three-word utterance captures the essence of Hero's integrity. Ironically, the exclamation “O God!” reflects the piety that makes Hero's utterances true. Her three words “speak” her nature as no other words could. And yet they include a man's word (“true”) put in her mouth, in this case by false Don John.

Hero's discourse, even in this utterance that genuinely expresses her, thus partly derives from a socially privileged male statement (Don John's). More important, when heard within the public arena of masculinist prejudgment and condemnation, Hero's exclamation can be misheard as an admission of guilt. When the agonized Hero asks, “What kind of catechizing call you this?” (4.1.78), Claudio coldly replies, “To make you answer truly to your name” (4.1.79). Claudio would fit Hero with the name “common stale,” but she protests that her name reflects her inner purity. Only in her name does Hero find a word her own, all her own: “Is it not Hero? Who can blot that name / With any just reproach?” (4.1.80-81). But even this apt, potentially ennobling word is reinterpreted and devalued by the malicious Claudio. “Marry, that can Hero,” he snarls; “Hero itself can blot Hero's virtue” (4.1.81-82). It can do so because the name of Hero, in Claudio's estimation, is “now the name of an unchaste woman.”23 Viewed from one perspective, the Hero of Marlowe's Hero and Leander (1598) appears an idealized heroine of love (e.g., ll. 1-50, 117-30). But the celebrated Elizabethan epyllion took the representation of Ovidian eroticism to new extremes, and the on-a-pedestal heroine also appeared a gamesome young woman (e.g., ll. 494-96, 502-16, 529-36). In fact, like the name Cressida, Hero in a matter of months during 1598 had come for Shakespeare's playgoers to denote a commonplace—a literary stereotype—of an idealized woman of surprisingly erotic behavior.24 Shakespeare's Hero could be considered a “stale” in two senses: as Claudio's whorish woman and as a familiar commonplace of eroticism. In this latter case, Hero's very name (a staleness) conspires against her, muffling in Claudio's ears the singular integrity of her utterances.25 Stripped finally of even the protective grace of her name, Hero in despair swoons in a death-like trance.26 “Hath no man's dagger here a point for me?” (4.1.109), her father moans just before her collapse. Men's words, however, have amounted to seemingly lethal equivalents in his daughter's case. Hamlet's spoken daggers in the ear threaten to become an equally lethal metaphor in Much Ado about Nothing.27

Granted Shakespeare's portrayal in Much Ado of the several inadequacies and failures of speech analyzed in the preceding pages, the play's audience wonders how words, which after all constitute a primary medium of drama, can effect the prosperous outcome of comedy. The reification of language, first as a talismanic name and then as authoritative writing, appears to offer a solution. Throughout Much Ado, characters insist upon virtues inherent in name, initially understood to be that of reputation. Concerning Leonato's question about gentlemen lost in the recent battle, a messenger responds, “But few of any sort, and none of name” (1.1.6). Later, during the gulling of Beatrice, Ursula says that “For shape, for bearing, argument, and valour,” Benedick “Goes foremost in report through Italy” (3.1.96-97)—a fact (rather than a fabrication) that urges Hero to say, “Indeed he hath an excellent good name” (3.1.98). The powerful condensation of reputation in name leads Claudio, albeit wrongheadedly, to try to make Hero, in the tradition of church catechism, “answer truly [in a negative spirit] to [her] name” (4.1.79).

Historically, the prince's name compresses many more efficacious virtues than simply that of his reputation. Most of these additional attributed virtues in late medieval/early modern cultures possessed quasi-supernatural properties.28 At first Shakespeare in Much Ado skeptically dramatizes this dimension of the word. In the punchy dialogue of Dogberry with the Watch, the playwright appears intent on satirizing characters' stereotypic trust in the magical nature of the royal name. Told that they are to “comprehend” (apprehend) all vagrants, the Watch hears Dogberry conclude that they “are to bid any man stand, in the Prince's name” (3.3.25-26). But the supposed talismanic power of the prince's name disappears in the ridiculous dialogue which follows Dogberry's injunctions:

2. Watch:
How if a will not stand?
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.
If he will not stand when he is bidden, he is none of the Prince's subjects.


Here the Second Watchman, George Seacole, the literate neighbor, reveals a distrust of the purportedly essential force of the prince's name. This skeptical attitude gets reinforced by Dogberry's and Verges' absurd advice that the Watch should ignore a vagrant commanded to stop in the prince's name who instead walks away from them. Despite this skeptical staging, later, when Seacole “present[s] [represents] the Prince's own person” (3.3.73) and orders Conrade and Borachio, “in the Prince's name, stand!” (3.3.159), the villains obey his command. Since the Watch (Seacole included) immediately reveal to the villains their stupidity by believing that Deformed is a flesh-and-blood thief, and since Conrade and Borachio meekly obey the order to accompany the constable, playgoers deduce that the arresting force lies not in these obvious bumpkins, but in the prince's name. To the considerable degree that the play's comic resolution hinges on the apprehension of Borachio and his forthcoming recorded admission of guilt, the prince's name uttered by his deputy proves redemptive.29

Seacole's ability to reify a truth-producing word is not limited to his role as the prince's deputy. “To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune,” Dogberry tells him, “but to write and read comes by nature” (3.3.14-16). By nurture—not nature—Shakespeare and his contemporaries would most likely say. By being able to freeze through writing the evanescent, shifting, unreliable word, Seacole adumbrates a remedy for the near-tragedy wrought in Much Ado by slander and inherently imprecise speech.30 It is his “pen and inkhorn” (3.5.54) that fix the verbal testimony of Borachio and provide the record by which Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio conclusively learn that an innocent woman has been roundly slandered.31 “Only get the learned writer to set down our excommunication [examination, communication],” Dogberry ebulliently commands Verges, “and meet me at the jail” (3.5.58-60). Shakespeare stresses the salvatory effect of the reified word by staging the written transcription of testimony in act 4, scene 2, the comic episode of the malefactors' examination.32 Despite the egregious malapropisms of Dogberry and company on this occasion (a reminder of the play's several problems of language), the Watch's indictment is recorded (4.2.39-59).33 And it is done so, appropriately enough, in the prince's efficacious name: “Masters,” Dogberry addresses the Watch, “I charge you in the Prince's name accuse these men” (4.2.37-38). Nevertheless, one must realize that the pronouncement of the prince's name in Much Ado does not, strictly speaking, ideally state the truth or contain a truth; rather, it is an agent of secular power that helps discover or determine the truth. Shakespeare throughout his plays implies that the exercise of secular power to some degree always diminishes or impairs some kind of truth. The marks of physical abuse apparent on the pinioned Conrade's and Borachio's faces at the beginning of the interrogation scene in Kenneth Branagh's recent film version of the play tell audiences that the power of the prince's name may have limits, may need an even more powerful supplement for the complete revelation of a social or a romantic truth. Violated sadistically in this case is a truth about Christian charity (or one about humane treatment). More promising for the reclamation of language in Much Ado than the prince's name is the written poetic word.

The beneficial results of freezing unreliable, unconfirmable speech by writing it down also appear in Benedick's and Beatrice's tumultuous courtship. At play's end, Don Pedro's plot to cause the pair to fall irrevocably in love through hearsay comes to nothing when they tell one another that their reported and overheard protestations of love meant nothing. The unconfirmability of uttered speech, vanished into air without a trace, holds hostage the actually affectionate but once again distrustful pair. That is, it does so until Claudio and Hero produce stolen love sonnets of Benedick and Beatrice (5.4.85-90). Their secret writings arrest their words for all to read, conclusively trapping them and giving them the blessed relief of being able to acknowledge their genuine but hitherto denied love. “A miracle! here's our own hands against our hearts,” Benedick exclaims; “Come, I will have thee, but by this light I take thee for pity” (5.4.91-93). Rather than showing their hands against their hearts, however, Beatrice's and Benedick's amorous handwriting complies with the hidden yearnings of their hearts. The concord that the written legal record creates for the community of Messina has its counterpart in the relatively integrated personalities that the written poetic word makes possible in Beatrice and Benedick. In keeping with its biblical—especially Johannine—power, the imaginative word in Much Ado can make a man and woman, in the sense that the lovers' poetry gives them the first basis for the ultimate confidence to recreate themselves through the sacrament of marriage into one sanctified flesh. If spoken slander undoes them, the written poetic word promises their recreation.

But does spoken language have any restorative capability in Much Ado? Answering this question involves the subject of physical language. Friar Francis' ability to read the “words” of silent Hero's face leads to a declaration that ultimately saves her marriage. Whereas Claudio misinterprets the message of Hero's blushes (4.1.33-41), the friar correctly “hears” what they “utter”:

                                                                                          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. 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.


Friar Francis silently reads the words “encoded” in the “book” of Hero's face.34 Benedick was fooled by Leonato's white beard as the guarantor of Hero's father's words (2.3.118-20).35 The friar, however, explicitly invokes the nonverbal signifiers of his own advanced age, his priesthood, and the facts of his scholarly, reverent life as validators of his uttered judgment. He, of all the principal male characters in the play, is least caught up in the power games that distort and falsify what is said and heard. Playgoers gather that his piety, his wise chastity of life, determines his ability to perceive and speak the truth. Leonato initially rejects the friar's conclusion, perhaps because the churchman's authority does not derive from the political/sexual patriarchy that Hero's father represents. Nevertheless, Leonato eventually credits the friar's scheme for either reviving Claudio's love for Hero or disposing of her among a religious sisterhood. This scheme entails the advice that Leonato broadcast Hero's “death,” the report prompting Claudio's imagination to revalue what has been lost. Friar Francis' formulation of the dynamics of revaluing what has been lost amounts to the most eloquent, moving speech in Much Ado (4.1.210-43). It does, with Benedick's urging, win over Leonato, and it is a qualified success.36 These facts testify to the source of the speech's authority, a learned, relatively pure speaker, disinterested in whether his scheme might bring him social prestige. In this respect, he contrasts sharply with his counterpart, Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, whose similar scheme is hatched partly to bring him credit for reconciling the Capulets and Montagues. Its failure theoretically is in keeping with the impurity—the vanity—of its conception.

The qualified success of Friar Francis' language contradicts Leonato's opinion about the ineffectuality of similar spoken advice. This opinion deserves quotation. Suffering from the imagined sin of his daughter and the ruin of his name, Leonato tells his brother Antonio that he could only credit the uttered counsel of a man exactly like himself, one who has been wronged by the sexual lapse of a daughter once dearly loved. “But there is no such man,” Leonato moans,

                                                                                          for, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air, and agony with words.
No, no, 'tis all men's office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man's virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel:
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.


Leonato has apparently forgotten that a man most unlike himself, Friar Francis, counseled patience in language so charged that Leonato agreed to defer immediate judgment and participate in the saving plan proposed. A relatively dispassionate priest who has never had a daughter successfully inculcates a patience within Leonato that gives the friar's plan time to work. In one sense, Friar Francis' sayings have proved medicinal.

Given the role of the friar's language in Leonato's ultimate rehabilitation, playgoers conclude that Hero's father's part in the subsequent linguistic process of Claudio's recreation of Hero is fitting. As part of the friar's stratagem for renovating Claudio's love, Leonato commands the young man to compose a poetic epitaph, hang it on Hero's tomb, and “sing it to her bones” (5.1.279), actions which amount to recompense for participating in potentially lethal slander. Act 5, scene 3 stages this ritual behavior. Claudio's epitaph immortalizes Hero through the proclaimed fame of her chastity, slandered by villains. Like those of Shakespeare's sonnets, the text of Much Ado has survived time's ravages. In both cases, the poetic word grants a kind of eternity—to the Young Man of the sonnets and to Hero, “praising her [even after the Renaissance Claudio is] dumb” (dead) (5.3.10). Claudio's recreative words compensate for his earlier destructive language. His song has an effect both cathartic (for the speaker) and resurrectional (for the subject):

Pardon, goddess of the night,
Those that slew thy virgin knight;
For the which, with songs of woe,
Round about her tomb they go.
          Midnight, assist our moan,
          Help us to sigh and groan,
                    Heavily, heavily:
          Graves, yawn and yield your dead,
          Till death be uttered
                    Heavily, heavily.


The notion that this song should be sung “Till death be uttered” has purgative overtones. While “uttered” may mean “fully expressed, i.e. adequately lamented,”37 the word also connotes “finally articulated, finally expelled.” The idea that speech can triumph over mortality gets reinforced by the proximate command that graves open to yield their dead. The conceit entails enlisting wraith-like mourners who can augment the volume of laments. By circling the tomb chanting the song and vowing to repeat the ceremony yearly (5.3.23), Claudio and Don Pedro, through incantatory means, intend to purge their sin and cast out (off) death. This last effect involves not so much a miracle as it does permanent release from feelings of morbidity and despair.

Nevertheless, metaphoric resurrection gets attached to Claudio's and Don Pedro's conceit in the suggestion of death's expulsion. Playgoers sense that privileged speech (elevated by being sung poetry) is beginning to work in Claudio's mind the resurrection of Hero. Intellectually, the charming effects of this self-begot language stimulate Claudio's imagination in the idealizing of Hero's image and the reclamation of his love. What was dead comes alive. And it does so through the force of poetic words, further empowered by their utterance in a ritual context. Late in the play, when Claudio and Don Pedro insist that Antonio's “daughter” is “Another Hero!” “The former Hero! Hero that is dead!” (5.4.62, 65), Leonato calmly explains, “She died, my lord, but whiles her slander liv'd” (5.4.66). His remark reemphasizes the main fact of the epitaph scene—that Hero was reborn when near-magical words of repentance and catharsis superseded (killed) the slander with which Hero's loss was synonymous.38

Likewise, adversity and the self-examination that arises from it reform, partially at least, Benedick's speech. Together they work to dissolve the self-importance that distorts and inflates language. Benedick experiences an uncharacteristic impoverishment of speech as a result of Claudio's brutal destruction of the marriage ceremony and slander of Hero: “For my part I am so attir'd in wonder,” he admits, “I know not what to say” (4.1.144-45). Related to this inarticulateness, his love for Beatrice makes him realize, perhaps for one of the first times in his life, that he can have feelings that the most clever playing with language cannot convey. Attempting to express his passion for Beatrice in the form of a sonnet, he discovers, “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, nor I cannot woo in festival terms” (5.2.34-40). The “halting” sonnet that Benedick finally manages to write is valuable as inscribed public proof of his love rather than as an adequate conveyor of that love. In this respect, he contrasts with Claudio, renovated through the vehicle of poetry. Nevertheless, love—as it does in a somewhat different way for Claudio—joins with adversity to correct, that is to say, to chasten and simplify Benedick's speech.

Like Shakespeare's King Henry V with regard to Katherine Princess of France, Benedick eschews “festival terms” and becomes disposed to woo Beatrice in plain, direct, unequivocal language. This plain idiom is heard almost immediately in Benedick's unprecedented declining a match of jests with Beatrice. When he says that only foul words passed between himself and Claudio and demands a kiss, she jokes: “Foul words is but foul wind, and foul wind is but foul breath, and foul breath is noisome; therefore I will depart unkiss'd” (5.2.49-51). Benedick, however, protests, “Thou has frighted the word out of its right sense, so forcible is thy wit. But I must tell thee plainly, Claudio undergoes my challenge, and either I must shortly hear from him, or I will subscribe him a coward” (5.2.52-56). Significantly, Benedick objects for the first time in Much Ado to the disruptive, scornful jesting that has distinguished his language. The key phrase in Benedick's quoted protest is “tell thee plainly”—a mode of speech auditors would never have predicted from Benedick. His criticism of jesting necessarily entails an abatement of the vain need to call attention to himself through the supposedly amusing (but actually hostile) punning disruption of others' speech meanings. Don Pedro earlier foresaw Benedick's capacity for authentic speech. “He hath a heart as sound as a bell,” Don Pedro asserted, “and his tongue is the clapper; for what his heart thinks, his tongue speaks” (3.2.11-13). While in its local context Don Pedro's remark has slightly negative overtones (Benedick lacks an internal censor of impulsive speech that consequently rings a bit brazenly), his judgment forecasts Benedick's ability to articulate genuine heart-felt speech that is not overly calculated.39

The negative connotations of Don Pedro's statement suggest that speech in Much Ado can be tempered but not wholly reformed. Benedick could be said, at play's end, to approximate roughly Beatrice's model of a tempered speaker midway between Don John's sullen silences and terseness and an uneducated Benedick's disruptive, oblique garrulousness. Benedick does not completely exorcise his jesting spirit after his criticism of Beatrice's punning word associations (see, for example, 5.2.82-86, 5.2.102-4, and 5.4.48-51), but his manifestation of a new confidence to withstand barbed witticisms without responding in kind reflects his tempering of a problematic speech trait. Hearing Don Pedro tease him with being “‘Benedick, the married man’” (5.4.98), he steadfastly pronounces, “I'll tell thee what, Prince; a college of wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No: if a man will be beaten with brains, a shall wear nothing handsome about him. In brief, since I do purpose to marry, I will think nothing to any purpose that the world can say against it; and therefore never flout at me for what I have said against it; for man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion” (5.4.99-107).

Benedick realizes that a person may with genuine impunity contradict one of his or her previous statements, as long as the speaker understands that the fault lies not in language but in the essentially inconstant humanity of the speaker. This inconstancy—this “giddiness”—will always preclude the ideal tempering of one's speech. Nevertheless, a less-than-perfect tempering of speech and the kind of verbal contradiction represented by Benedick can be harmless and blameless as long as speakers' self-awareness of their own inconstancy breeds the humility in everyone not to make too much of a linguistic inconsistency or fault.40 Coupled with this humility is the self-respect that allows scornful jests to never influence one's settled opinions and behavior, ridiculous though these attributes at times may be. Benedick, with these insights expressed in relatively unadorned, direct speech, fulfills in Much Ado the secondary etymology of his name: “Speak Well” (“Bene-Dic”).41 While Benedick's name will never achieve the talismanic power of the Prince of Messina's, it does at last truly capture and express a palpable new understanding refined in the crucible of hearsay and slander.


  1. See, for example, Paul A. Jorgensen, “Much Ado about Nothing,” in Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), 22-42.

  2. All quotations of Much Ado about Nothing are from the Arden text, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: Methuen, 1981).

  3. Anne Barton, introduction to Much Ado about Nothing, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 369. Since the word “guarded” for Shakespeare's contemporaries could mean both “protected” and “ornamented,” the secondary connotation of the word in Benedick's quip ironically conveys the speaker's use of puns and facetious speech to protect a vulnerable, straight-thinking, straight-talking self. Here he imagines that Don Pedro uses jests for the same purpose.

  4. A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Graham Storey (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961), 65-81, esp. 68: “Cupid is not responsible for calumny; but ‘hearsay’ is a main force in both love-plots: each is about its effects on proud, self-willed, self-centered and self-admiring creatures.”

  5. René Girard, “Love by Hearsay: Mimetic Strategies in Much Ado about Nothing,” in A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 82.

  6. Carol Thomas Neely, in Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), notes that “Claudio protects himself from Hero's sexuality by viewing her as a remote, idealized love object who is not to be touched or even talked to: ‘she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on’ (1.1.183)” (44).

  7. For the extralinguistic properties of the speech act of a spoken oath, see Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (1969; reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 83; and John Searle, “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts,” in Language, Mind, and Knowledge, ed. Keith Gunderson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975), 344-69, esp. 354.

  8. See Maurice Hunt, “The Voices of A Midsummer Night's Dream,Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34 (1992): 218-38, esp. 222-23.

  9. For the dramatic importance of this idea in The Tempest, see Maurice Hunt, Shakespeare's Romance of the Word (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1990), 117-19.

  10. For the centrality of preposterousness in this literal sense in the design of Love's Labour's Lost, See Patricia Parker, “Preposterous Reversals: Love's Labor's Lost,Modern Language Quarterly 54 (1993): 435-82.

  11. That the theme of human “giddiness” (radical inconstancy) is central to the design of Much Ado has been argued by Ejner J. Jensen, Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 71; and by Graham Storey, “The Success of Much Ado about Nothing,” in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1959), 128-43, esp. 142.

  12. Mark Taylor, in “Presence and Absence in Much Ado about Nothing,Centennial Review 33 (1989): 1-12, has argued that Borachio's violation of chronology in telling his tale merely betrays the Spanish etymology of his name—“borracho” (drunkard). But while Borachio may have just emptied several cans of ale, he remains sufficiently sober to make his purported digression on fashion illustrate humankind's propensity for giddiness, for inconstancy in all things. When impatient Conrade interjects, “But art not thou thyself giddy with the fashion too, that thou hast shifted out of thy tale into telling me of the fashion?” (3.3.136-38), Borachio carefully answers, “Not so, neither; but know that I have tonight wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero's gentlewoman, by the name of Hero” (3.3.139-41). Borachio's reply strongly implies that he calculated his anatomy of fashion to exemplify the universal trait of inconstancy that Margaret practices when she abandons loyalty to her mistress for participation in her lover's strange charade of switching names. In other words, Borachio's strategy may be partly designed to excuse Margaret's behavior. For other arguments that Borachio's account of fashion does not constitute a digression, see John A. Allen, “Dogberry,” Shakespeare Quarterly 24 (1973): 35-53, esp. 40-43; and David Ormerod, “Faith and Fashion in Much Ado about Nothing,Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 93-105, esp. 93-95.

  13. “In the sixteenth century,” Margreta de Grazia argues, “it was assumed that defects in man brought about confused speech; in the seventeenth century, it became widely held that confused speech brings on many of the defects in man” (“Shakespeare's View of Language: An Historical Perspective,” Shakespeare Quarterly 29 [1978]: 381). De Grazia's judgment is uncannily justified by the facts that Much Ado most likely straddles the two centuries and that in it, Shakespeare depicts both of the relationships that De Grazia describes.

  14. The definitive (and original) major study of this aspect of Shakespeare's art—the problematic difference between a character's singular intention and the less specific public, social language that necessarily distorts (or perverts) it to some degree—appears in Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), esp. 22-46 and 260-84. Francis Bacon, in his well-known description of the Idols of the Market-Place in Novum Organum anticipates Burckhardt's linguistic thesis (see The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 15 vols. [London, 1875], 4:54-55 and 61).

  15. Anthony B. Dawson, in “Much Ado about Signifying,” Studies in English Literature 22 (1982): 211-21, esp. 215, also claims that this dialogue is about Benedick's preoccupation with making others' words mean what he would have them signify. Dawson asserts that “[i]n general [in Much Ado], language, as a system of messages, is consistently, comically, called into question: further messages are intercepted, misinterpreted, overheard in a variety of ways that move the plot forward and pose problems of interpretation for the characters” (212).

  16. See J. R. Firth, Papers in Linguistics: 1934-51 (London: Oxford University Press, 1957), 27 and 182; M. A. K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning (London: Edward Arnold, 1978), 27-35, passim; and Fernando Peñalosa, Introduction to the Sociology of Language (Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1981), 23.

  17. The Riverside Shakespeare (See note 3).

  18. Camille Wells Slights has argued that Much Ado “is centrally concerned with the social nature of language—with the power of language and with language as an articulation of power” (“The Unauthorized Language of Much Ado about Nothing,” in The Elizabethan Theatre XII, ed. A. L. Magnusson and C. E. McGee [Toronto: P. D. Meany, 1993], 116). Slights anticipates several of my points—such as that about this comedy's characters' “talk about the problematics of language” (114) in the play's opening scenes (113-15)—but her line of argument and evidence remain essentially different from mine.

  19. Michael Taylor, in “Much Ado about Nothing: The Individual in Society,” Essays in Criticism 23 (1973): 146-53, argues that the dialogue presently under analysis (2.1.46-52) joins with other passages in the play to associate certain traits of Beatrice with more extreme, pernicious counterparts in Don John: “Like Don John, she appears to be totally antagonistic to any compulsion from without, jealously guarding the freedom of her individual will” (146-47). I would add that in the present case, that freedom involves the right of a woman to speak and be heard in her own right, a deserved liberty that makes Beatrice's rebellion different in kind from Don John's.

  20. See David Bergeron, “Sexuality in Cymbeline,Essays in Literature 10 (1983): 159-68, esp. 163.

  21. David Ormerod alternatively judges that Leonato's harsh remark (2.1.57-58), “if we discount the lewd joke, is tantamount to saying that a man is no more than the clothes he wears” (“Faith and Fashion,” 96)—in this case the “fashionable” woman “fitted” to him.

  22. Citing these lines, John Drakakis claims that Leonato “transforms Hero's body into a ‘writing’ … lamenting her loss of value as a signifier in the masculine discourse of possession” (“Trust and Transgression: The Discursive Practices of Much Ado about Nothing,” in Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry, ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 77).

  23. The quoted opinion is that of Anne Barton in The Riverside Shakespeare, 386.

  24. For this stereotyping of Cressida's name, see Maurice Hunt, “Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Christian Epistemology,” Christianity and Literature 42 (1993): 243-60, esp. 255-56.

  25. Like Drakakis, Slights concludes that Hero, “dehumanized by being deprived of language … to her father's eyes becomes not a speaking subject but the objectified printed text of the story Claudio has told: ‘the story that is printed in her blood’” (“Unauthorized Language,” 121)—printed also, I would add, in a text written by Christopher Marlowe.

  26. Jean Howard concludes that “when Hero hears herself named whore at her wedding, she does not contest that construction of herself; she swoons beneath its weight. It is as if there were no voice with which to contest the forces inscribing her in the order of fallen ‘woman’ women. … What Claudio gets [at play's end] is the still-silent Hero, the blank sheet upon which men write whore or goddess as their fears or desires dictate” (“Renaissance Antitheatricality and the Politics of Gender and Rank in Much Ado about Nothing,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor [New York: Methuen, 1987], 179 and 181).

  27. The motif of imperfect speech in Much Ado symbolically condenses in Balthasar's claim that his “bad … voice” slanders the musical songs that he sings (2.3.44-45). After he sings “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,” Benedick jokes, “And he had been a dog that should have howled thus, they would have hanged him, and I pray God his bad voice bode no mischief” (2.3.79-81). Benedick confirms the notion of a bad voice ruining an exquisite message. The episode assumes an emblematic significance in the flawed Messinan world of words.

  28. Focusing upon Genesis 2:19-20, wherein God parades the animals by Adam to encourage him to name them, early modern commentators such as Richard Mulcaster (1582) and Joshua Sylvester (1592) extrapolated the idea that Adam's intuitive naming the creatures instantaneously gave him knowledge of their essences. (For the historical development of this idea, see William C. Carroll, The Great Feast of Language in “Love's Labour's Lost” [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976], 12-13). Richard II constitutes Shakespeare's fullest analysis of the theory that the ruler's name (and his naming) have supernatural properties and effects. In respect to this, see James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: “Richard II” to “Henry V” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 13.

  29. Phoebe S. Spinrad, in “Dogberry Hero: Shakespeare's Comic Constables in Their Communal Context,” Studies in Philology 89 (1992): 161-78, judges that “[s]ince Dogberry invokes ‘the Prince's name’ when briefing his deputies, he is obviously aware of the bureaucratic channels to which he is responsible” (165). My analysis, however, indicates that this invocation involves much more than bureaucratic deference. Nevertheless, René Girard asserts that “there is one more reason for the general instability of opinion in Much Ado about Nothing. This is the prince himself, around whom everyone revolves, but who cannot provide a stable center for the very reason that he is just as decentered and mimetic as everybody else” (“Love by Hearsay,” 88). My analysis concludes that while the Prince of Messina may to some degree be “decentered,” his name becomes a central deed in the play. In this respect, he contrasts with Don John who, as John Drakakis has pointed out, lacks a legitimate name, a fact which precludes the lasting power to name socially or create verbally (“Trust and Transgression,” 73).

  30. Jonathan Goldberg, in Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), provides extensive evidence for the early modern English belief that the word inscribed by handwriting invests the oral word with diverse social energies and efficacies.

  31. While 3.5.53-55 clearly indicates Shakespeare's intention to make Seacole the recorder of the malefactors' examination, the staging of that event (4.2) suggests that the Town Clerk (or sexton) may have performed the role in original performances. While Seacole is present in this latter episode, Dogberry exclaims, “where's the sexton? Let him write down ‘the Prince's officer coxcomb’” and “O that he [the Town Clerk] were here to write me down an ass!” (4.2.67-68, 72-73). (Dogberry's second utterance occurs moments after the Town Clerk's exit, at 4.2.63.) Nevertheless, my point about the value of the written as opposed to the spoken word in Much Ado's subplot stands irrespective of the identity of the transcriber in act 4, scene 2.

  32. Spinrad remarks that Dogberry does not appear “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” (“Dogberry Hero,” 164).

  33. Throughout his career Shakespeare implies that truth in speech has something to do with rationality and then something to do with qualities beyond (or apart) from rationality: qualities such as the madness of King Lear, the stupidity of Bottom, and the piety, virtually muted in Hero's case, of Leonato's daughter and of Friar Francis in Much Ado. In his denseness and malapropisms, Dogberry invites comparison with Bottom, but a search of the text of Much Ado turns up no speech of Dogberry's comparable to Bottom's garbled yet nevertheless authoritative echo of passages from 1 Corinthians in his awestruck formulation of supernatural mysteries that he has experienced (A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Riverside Shakespeare 4.1.203-17). Shakespeare gives certain marginalized characters—the biblical last who will one day be first—an inside track on true speech (which is close to silence) because their authority appears guaranteed by something other than socially privileged male statements, in short, by God. Dogberry joins Friar Francis and Hero as one of the more pious characters in Much Ado (God's name is repeatedly on his lips), and he approaches the truth-speaking of the other two characters but he does not quite match their achievement, perhaps because a vain insistence on social prestige (power) afflicts his speech. The nature of Dogberry's comic malapropisms betrays his pitiful desire that auditors perceive him to be more educated and socially prominent than he will ever be (e.g., 4.2.75-83). Jean Howard has concluded that Dogberry's and Verges' “gift of intuition is bought at the price of speech and rationality. Dogberry and Verges exist almost outside of language, and this displacement denies them any real social power” (“Renaissance Antitheatricality,” 177).

  34. For the literary topoi of the human face as a “book” to be read, see Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (1953; reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 334-37.

  35. Benedick receives comic poetic punishment for his engrained distrust of others' speech when, during the scene of the trick played upon him, Leonato's white beard seems to him to confirm the truth of the old man's actually deceitful words of Beatrice's amorous behavior. “I should think this a gull, but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it. Knavery cannot sure hide himself in such reverence” (2.3.118-20). But knavery does lurk behind this cliché of truthfulness. Despite his verbal acumen, Benedick labors under some mistaken stereotypes of kinds of speakers and their language, one of which is that elderly years and the whiteness of a beard always promise the truth of speech by a possessor of these attributes. In this respect, Benedick appears verbally naive.

  36. The friar predicts that Claudio will revalue Hero when he hears that “she died upon his words” (4.1.223). In fact, he repairs his idea of her only after he learns from Borachio that she was the victim of Don John's slanderous plot (5.1.225-46). The report of her wronged innocence, not the narration of her death from his rejection, moves Claudio to reimagine her worth. “Sweet Hero!” Claudio concludes; “Now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I lov'd it first” (5.1.245-46). This notorious discrepancy does not override Claudio's general conformity to the friar's psychological script. Among the many commentators on the play who have remarked this discrepancy are Barbara K. Lewalski, “Love, Appearance, and Reality: Much Ado about Something,Studies in English Literature 8 (1968): 235-51, esp. 249-50; Carol Cook, “‘The Sign of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing,PMLA 101 (1986): 186-202, esp. 196-97; and Neely, Broken Nuptials, 51-53. Neely remarks that “only in Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline does the mock death by itself lead to the guilt, penitence, and forgiveness predicted by the Friar [of Much Ado]” (52).

  37. The Riverside Shakespeare, 394.

  38. My argument for the importance of the tomb/epitaph scene for the potential success of Claudio and Hero's later marriage questions the negative overtones of Neely's claim that “Claudio performs a ritualistic but impersonal penance” (Broken Nuptials, 55).

  39. Several critics have charted a reformation of Benedick's character in the latter acts of Much Ado. Among them is Jensen, who notes that “[s]omewhere between Beatrice's account of Benedick as boaster, coward, trencherman, and affliction and the messenger's report of a ‘good soldier’ and one who ‘hath done good service … in these wars’ … exists the Benedick who will emerge later in the play” (Shakespeare and the Ends of Comedy, 50).

  40. Lewalski identifies Benedick's play-ending assessment of humankind's “giddiness” as an insight comparable to the Neoplatonic mode of knowledge that love brings: “Benedick explicitly renounces foolish consistency, and his observation that ‘man is a giddy thing’ (V.iv.108) signals the lovers' new affirmation of the whole range of human life and activity” (“Love, Appearance, and Reality,” 245).

  41. Critics generally agree that the primary Latin etymology of Benedick's name is “‘Benedictus,’ he who is blessed” (Humphreys' Introduction of Much Ado 87), a counterpart to “‘Beatrix,’ she who blesses” (88). Considered in light of the two characters' painful mutual gibes, the complementary primary etymologies appear highly ironic.

Further Reading

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Dawson, Anthony B. “Much Ado About Signifying.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 211-22.

Investigates the role of messages in the play, including an examination of the characters who deliver the messages, and the ways in which the messages are received, interpreted, and misinterpreted.

Hassel, R. Chris, Jr. “‘Man Is a Giddy Thing’: Repentance and Faith in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Faith and Folly in Shakespeare's Romantic Comedies, pp. 77-109. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.

Studies the thematic and structural relevance of Christian doctrine relating to the treatment of humility and faith in Much Ado about Nothing.

Isherwood, Charles. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Variety 373, no. 2 (23-29 November 1998): 56-7.

Offers a mixed appraisal of the 1998 Stratford Festival production of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Richard Monette. While Isherwood praises the performances of the middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, the critic finds the production as a whole “uneven.”

Leggatt, Alexander. “Much Ado About Nothing.” In Shakespeare's Comedy of Love, pp. 151-84. London: Methuen, 1982.

Suggests that in Much Ado about Nothing Shakespeare intended to incorporate the range and fluidity found in The Merchant of Venice and the harmony found in the various elements of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Levin, Richard A. “Crime and Cover-up in Messina.” In Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy, pp. 86-116. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985.

Explores the role of the social forces at work in Messina, suggesting that all the characters, not just Don John and/or Claudio, share in the responsibility for what transpires in the play.

Mueschke, Paul and Miriam. “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 1967): 53-65.

Noting that their assessment of the play is at odds with most critical views, the critics assert that the theme of the play is honor, the play's spirit is more reflective than joyful, and that courtship is depicted as a serious threat to masculine honor.

Oxman, Steven. Review of Much Ado about Nothing. Variety 382, no. 6 (26 March-1 April 2001): 56.

Applauds a 2001 South Coast Repertory production of Much Ado about Nothing directed by Mark Rucker, commenting that in style, the production resembled a film from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Stauffer, Donald A. “Words and Actions.” In Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It: A Casebook, edited by John Russell Brown, pp. 87-93. London: Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1979.

Argues that Much Ado about Nothing reflects Shakespeare's harshest criticism of the weaknesses inherent in romantic love.

Taylor, Mark. “Presence and Absence in Much Ado About Nothing.Centennial Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1989): 1-12.

Examines several absences or silences within the play, noting that within these absences characters such as Claudio see concealed aspects of themselves revealed.

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