Much Ado about Nothing
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...
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