Illustration of Hero wearing a mask

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare

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Lodwick Hartley (essay date May 1965)

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SOURCE: Hartley, Lodwick. “Claudio and the Unmerry War.” College English 26, no. 8 (May 1965): 609-14.

[In the following essay, Hartley argues that many of Claudio's purported character inconsistencies in Much Ado about Nothing are actually quite consistent when seen as the actions of a soldier rather than of a courtier.]

Much Ado About Nothing has generally posed more problems to the reader than to the spectator, who has been too busy enjoying the play to bother. But in spite of its great success on the stage, there have remained those who have been disturbed by the alleged tenuous motivation of Don John, who seems to act merely like a stock machiavel, and by the unexplained indiscretion of Margaret, who allows herself to be a party to a nefarious plot and to remain naively unconscious of her involvement. The greatest difficulty, of course, has been with Claudio, that handsome, valiant young man who ultimately seems to act so discreditably—however unfairly he may have been tricked.

All kinds of epithets have been applied to him like cub and cad. A kinder judgment is that he is “a badly plot-ridden character … [whose] actions do not conform to his character, but are forced upon him by the plot.”1 Clearly, however, an assumption that a character in a play is something other than his actions make him out to be involves such a lack of logic as to make any connection between character and action meaningless. Could it be, one is impelled to ask, that the “inconsistencies” of Claudio are forced upon him not so much by the plot as by what critics of the play have erroneously expected him to be? Or, to put the question another way, could it be that Claudio's actions maintain a consistency within the framework of the play, even though his actions are in our eyes not always admirable?

In the examination of this basic issue, it will be wise at this point to forego any look at the sources or any consideration of such theory of the composition of the play as, for example, that which explains the lacunae in the Claudio-Hero plot by assuming a revision of the original play in which an expansion of the Benedick-Beatrice portion necessitated lopping off some details of the former one. Nothing really essential to the characterization of Claudio seems to be left out. Thus a consideration of what he represents can proceed without attention to knottier problems.

“When I find Much Ado About Nothing beginning with a talk of a battle in which those killed are ‘few of any sort, and none of name,’” Harold Jenkins has remarked, “I may infer that Shakespeare intended to write a comedy and not a realistic one at that.”2 Indeed, he is writing a comedy, and he is doing so within a framework in which at least a part of what Professor Jenkins has observed is of first importance. The immediate setting is that of two kinds of war—one happily finished and another happily continuing—the products of which are to stand in contrast in the relationship of soldier and courtier.

Mention of the first of these comes in the initial brisk moments of the opening scene. Claudio, we learn, is a valiant Florentine who has taken his military career seriously and “has borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion.” To the second we are introduced more elaborately. Benedick, too—the report goes—has “good service … in these wars”; but, though we instantly sense the bias of the commentator, we recognize from Beatrice's delightfully acerbic remarks that he is a young man of quite a different stamp. “Signior Mountanto,” she calls him, implying from the fencing term that he fits more gracefully into the pattern of a gentlemanly sport than into that of the grim business of war; and she elaborates her assumption that he might better engage in contests of long-range archery than in dreams (in Mercutio's words)—

                                        … of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades.

The two kinds of war that will influence the characterization of the two heroes of the play have by now been firmly established. Benedick's war is “the merry war of wit.” It is still active, and it is to be the really dynamic force in the play. Claudio's war is, for lack of a better term, an unmerry war, which although on one level has been brought to a successful conclusion outside the play remains on another as a determinant of the “plotted” action of the play. The important thing, however, is that these two kinds of war provide a contrast which, early established and consistently maintained up to the crucial action of the play, should provide an index to the way in which both heroes should be regarded. The contrast is a comic contrast; and, though there may be tragic possibilities enough in the actions of Claudio, it is well to remember that he is always a character in a comedy. It is only through taking him out of context that his “inconsistencies” can mislead us.

From the outset Claudio as a successful young soldier is denied any possibility of being successful at romantic love-making or at wit. His circuitous approach to a relevation of his feeling for Hero to Benedick and his reluctance to make a direct admission to Don Pedro (“You speak this to fetch me in, my lord”) reflect something more fundamental than simple modesty. Certainly, a statement like “That I love her, I feel” was never intended to suggest anything very substantial in the way of passion. Claudio finally reveals both his bias and his inadequacy when he says of Hero to Don Pedro:

                                                                                O my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action,
I look'd upon her with a soldier's eye,
That lik'd, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.

If such is the way Claudio regarded his love at the outset, one remembers that he was later to offer to accompany his commanding officer, Don Pedro, to Aragon even at the expense of his honeymoon.

Quite plainly, whatever wound he may have received from the eyes of Hero before his first victorious military campaign, the arrow had not penetrated very deeply. His soldier's eye had had adequate protective armor plate. His situation upon his return from the campaign was easy for any Elizabethan (and for anybody else, for that matter) to understand. As a typical young Renaissance gentleman should, he had entered honorably on a military career, had fleshed his blade, and had proved his valor. He had flown to war and arms, embracing a sword, a horse, a shield, chasing his first foe as a new mistress, and so on. Having proved that he “loved honor more,” he now felt that he must fulfill himself in another area necessary to a gentleman who would perpetuate his line. Obviously, he must marry—and, preferably a beautiful girl with a rich and powerful father. The situation is little short of routine.

It is not too pat to say that Claudio is a soldier first and a lover second and that Benedick is a lover first (in spite of his spirited disclaimer) and a soldier second. Herein, at any rate, lies a truth underlying the essential comedy of Much Ado.

As Paul A. Jorgensen has ably demonstrated, most Elizabethans were well aware of the courtly tradition stemming from Castiglione's The Courtier and other courtesy books that held in contempt the soldier who was unable or unwilling to forget his soldiership when in female company.3 Shortly after he wrote Much Ado, Shakespeare with comic irony was to exploit in Henry V the traditional difficulties of the soldier in a romantic situation where the plain stout heart of the Englishman triumphant in battle is momentarily handicapped in a procedure in which the courtliness of the defeated and decadent French might have enabled him to perform glibly. In Hotspur, Shakespeare had depicted a high-spirited, imaginative young man whose pose as a plain soldier in love (“… when I am a-horseback I will swear I love thee infinitely”) convinces neither his wife nor us that he is not actually capable of being a romantic lover.

If the courtesy books spoke in contempt of the soldier as a lover, there were those who spoke in defense. Barnaby Rich, for example, defended the plain soldier, pointing out the virtues of military men as husbands and expressing regret that gentlewomen are not infrequently deceived by accomplished “love makers, suche as can devise to please women with new fangles, straunge fassions, by praising of their beauties.” In the debate in Farewell to Militarie Profession in which a man defends the soldier as lover, a woman argues for the courtier “with philed phrases, with sweet musicke, and with twenty amorous devices.”

Let me say quickly that Claudio and Benedick are assuredly not stereotypes of the soldier and the courtier. Claudio was not unhandsome as the typical “plain soldier” was, nor was his ineptness such as to make him the subject of derisive laughter in social situations. Benedick, unlike the typical courtier, admitted deficiencies in the appreciation of music, performed clumsily as a poet, and insisted that he was unable to “woo in festival terms.” His “philed phrases” have reverse English on them, and they wind up as prose rather than poetry and as devices of scorn (at least on the surface) rather than of love. But in a comedy as sophisticated as Much Ado, Shakespeare was not likely to restort to stereotypes. And by keeping the soldier-courtier balance at least partially subliminal he increased its subtlety.

If Claudio distrusted his own eloquence in romantic affairs, as the traditional plain soldier might, his willingness to accept Don Pedro's good offices in wooing for him is perfectly consistent. (One might also say, with perhaps less pertinence, that as a military man he found it perfectly normal to communicate “through channels.”)4 His temporary confusion over Don John's suggestion that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself might understandably arise out of a soldierly lack of confidence in a romantic situation—as well as out of a kind of youthful innocence. Of direct significance is a bit of interplay involving Claudio's reply “I wish him joy of her” to Benedick's information that “the Prince hath got your Hero.” “Why that's spoken like an honest drovier,” Benedick rejoins. “So they sell bullocks—” The ineptness in Claudio that Benedick indicates is certainly more nearly typical of the plain soldier than of the courtly lover and gentleman.

Benedick later describes Claudio in love in terms that directly involve the soldier and the courtly lover:

I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe: I have known when he would have walked ten mile a-foot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake, carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now he has turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.

(II. iii. 13 ff.)

But this is Claudio as Benedick elects to see him, not as we see him. As a matter of fact, when Benedick is engaging in this fantasy, Claudio is busier with playing a practical joke on Benedick, the self-styled rebel against love, than he is in pursuing his own love affair.

It is, of course, Benedick himself who, once convinced of what he has longed to believe, develops all the symptoms of the love malady attributed to the courtly lover, finding his brightness and wit displaced by a sober and dull disposition and being able to manage only a lame “I have a toothache” as a defense against the laughter of his friends.

At this point, we should turn for a moment to Don John, that baleful by-product of the “unmerry war.” It is idle to observe that Don John lacks the motivation of sexual jealousy that impelled Girondo Olerio Valenziano to trick Timbreo di Cardone into believing the infidelity of Fenicia—as Bandello, Belleforest, and several others have told the story. Actually, Don John's motivation is convincing enough for Shakespeare's purpose. Like Edmund to come he resents his bastardy. Like Iago, whom he more nearly resembles, he resents Claudio's position as first-lieutenant to Don Pedro. Professor A. P. Rossiter and others have agreed that it is not too far-fetched to see in Claudio a sort of embryonic Othello. Is not Claudio a military man with inadequacies in the arts of peace who falls victim to a deception involving “ocular proof” and who ultimately “kills” his beloved? And does not Don John's influence upon him assume a method similar to Iago's influence on Othello? (Don Pedro and Claudio, of course, foreshadow an aspect of the Othello-Cassio relationship.) Had Shakespeare been making a tragedy of the Claudio-Hero story, Professor Jorgensen's summation of Othello might have served with minor revisions for it, too:

The tragedy is, then, not simply a conflict between stereotyped versions of war and court. It is a conflict between a simple, but ennobled, soldier and a non-military situation aggravated by a villain who has inside knowledge of the potential weaknesses of the soldierly temperament and the court.5

But Shakespeare is not attempting tragedy; thus Don John does not need to be a fully developed villain, and his “inside knowledge” about his victims does not need to be made explicit. If he speaks very seldom (as all critics have remarked), his sinister presence can be and has been frequently suggested well enough by the stage business. When he does speak, he speaks to the point and with nice design.

Observe his language when he plants the all but fatal suspicion in the minds of Don Pedro and Claudio. “The lady is disloyal,” he says. “The word is too good to paint out her wickedness. I could say she were worse; think you of a worse title and I will fit it to her.” A purely rhetorical question is implied. Don John has calculated his word—and his auditors. He who himself has been disloyal and the cause of a war of sorts is only too well aware of the meaning of his language to the military mind. Conviction of such a crime against honor makes perfectly consistent Claudio's resolution to shame Hero in church at the wedding ceremony. On the field of battle and in the presence of his company the disloyal soldier is stripped of his insignia of rank. Hero is simply to suffer a kind of “military” punishment.

The “proof” is to be forthcoming—necessarily, for Shakespeare's purpose, off stage; and Claudio is set up for his big scene in which his sense of violated honor causes him to act so deplorably. Misguided young man! Swinburne thought that he was more to be pitied than censured. The bluntness of his action and the vulgarity of “rotten orange” as an epithet for Hero can only attest that he was, again, speaking more nearly out of the impulses of a plain soldier than those of a courtly gentleman, whose rhetoric might have been differently allusive and more elaborate. The victimized lover in Bandello and Belleforest leaves the dirty work to a messenger.

Claudio's rhetoric improves as he progresses in the scene, but he convinces nobody that he has any other feeling than that of injured pride—the idea that he should “knit [his] soul to an approved wanton.” Even so, his reaction is more readily conceived as a response to the violation of a code, military or civil, than it is to a more fundamental kind of honor that is wrapped up with deep feelings of love and family. Curtis Brown Watson has suggested how much deeper, for example, is the passion of Leonato facing what seems to him to be a violation of family honor.6

With the denunciation scene, the soldier has played out his principal role, has done his best—which is also his worst. He has little else to do now except perform his penitential offices in the denouement. The rest of the play clearly belongs to Benedick and Beatrice. In order to win in love, the courtier must prove his manhood. He must demonstrate that his sword can, if necessary, be as sharp and as effective as his tongue. In short, the winning of the “merry war” depends on the ability to cope with some of the realities of an unmerry one. When Benedick at first demurs from Beatrice's demand that he kill Claudio, his mistress couches her disappointment in terms of scorn for the whole courtly tradition. “But manhood,” she says, “is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men only turn'd into tongue, and trim ones, too.” The proof that the true courtier can effectively turn soldier is, as everyone knows, not to be withheld too long. It comes, of course, in the challenge. If the actual duel did not take place, it was the turn of events and not Benedick's lack of valor that prevented it. Claudio's reaction to the challenge is indicative only that he had failed to understand both Benedick and himself, as he had failed to understand almost everybody and everything else.

“Deception by appearances in love,” A. P. Rossiter suggests, “is patently what most of Much Ado is ‘about.’”7 This is perhaps as perceptive a summary as one needs. The possibility of this deception obviously exists for quite different reasons in Claudio and Benedick. To the misprision which exists in the Benedick-Beatrice plot (the misapprehensions of themselves and of each other) and to “Claudio's contrived misprision of Hero” can also be added Claudio's brief but significant misprizing of Benedick—whom, until he finally realizes the seriousness of the situation, Claudio persists in regarding as the amusing object of a practical joke.

Love in Much Ado is in its most charming form a matter of the marriage of not only true but also witty and flexible minds. The “merry war” of the play had provided for Benedick the kind of discourse that Francis Bacon prescribed for the “ready man.” The other kind of war had failed to develop the same kind of readiness in Claudio.

It should be plain that had it not been for Claudio's acting throughout more like a plain soldier than like a courtier, the final proving of Benedick would not have been necessary or possible. Thus the soldier-courtier contrast in the characters of the two heroes justifies its structural purpose as one of the significant factors in the unity of the play.


  1. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited by Hardin Craig (1951), p. 531.

  2. “The Structural Problem in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth” in Discussions of Shakespeare's Histories: Richard II to Henry IV (1964), p. 43.

  3. Shakespeare's Military World (1956), pp. 208-314. Citations from Rich are as quoted in Jorgensen.

  4. See Charles T. Prouty's The Sources ofMuch Ado About Nothing” (1950), pp. 44-46, for a broader view based on a study of Elizabethan marriage customs.

  5. Jorgensen, op. cit., p. 265.

  6. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (1960), p. 372.

  7. Angel With Horns (London, 1961), pp. 65-81.

W. H. Auden (essay date 1946)

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SOURCE: Auden, W. H. “Much Ado About Nothing.” In W. H. Auden: Lectures on Shakespeare, reconstructed and edited by Arthur Kirsch, pp. 113-23. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

[In the following reconstructed lecture, originally delivered in 1946, Auden discusses how Shakespeare kept Much Ado about Nothing's tragic subplot—the conspiracy of Don John—from overshadowing the play's comic main plot: the romantic duel of wits between Beatrice and Benedick.]

The first thing to notice about Much Ado About Nothing is that the subplot overwhelms and overshadows the main plot. The main plot consists of the story of Hero and Claudio and the conspiracy of Don John. Its sources are Bandello, Ariosto, and a Greek romance. Shakespeare treats the story perfunctorily, and except for Don John, it's boring. And Shakespeare shows some carelessness in putting it together: for example, Margaret—didn't she know what she was doing? And Borachio's plans to be called Claudio from the window don't come off—anyhow, Claudio is listening. The whole story is a foil to the duel of wits between Beatrice and Benedick.

How have we seen Shakespeare use the subplot? First, as a parallel. In Love's Labour's Lost Armado parallels the gentry—his affected language is a comment on Berowne's poetic affectations, and he has to accept Jacqueline, an inferior wife, as Berowne has to “jest a twelvemonth in an hospital” (V.ii.880). In A Midsummer Night's Dream Bottom suffers from the same kinds of illusion as the lovers, and, like the lovers, he is eventually delivered from them. Shakespeare also uses the subplot as a contrast: Shylock is juxtaposed against Venetian life in The Merchant of Venice, and Falstaff is elaborately developed as a contrast to the heroic life of Hal and the nobles in Henry IV. There is also a very sketchy contrasting subplot in the Comedy of Errors—the tragic background of the father doomed to death unless he can raise the money to pay a large fine.

Much Ado provides another case of contrast, with the comic, light duel of wits in the foreground and the dark malice of Don John in the background. How does Shakespeare keep the tragic plot from getting too serious? He treats it perfunctorily as a background. This draws attention to an artistic point—the importance of boredom. In any first-class work of art, you can find passages that in themselves are extremely boring, but try to cut them out, as they are in an abridged edition, and you lose the life of the work. Don't think that art that is alive can remain on the same level of interest throughout—and the same is true of life.

The relation of pretense and reality is a major concern of the play, and the keys to understanding it can be found in two passages. One is Balthazar's song, “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” (II.iii.64-76). Where and how songs are placed in Shakespeare is revealing. Let's look first at two or three other examples. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, we have the song, “Who is Silvia? What is she, / That all our swains commend her?” (IV.ii.39-53). The song, which is sung to Silvia, has standard Petrarchan rhetoric—cruel fair, faithful lover—but the music is being used with conscious evil intent. Proteus, who has been false to his friend, has forsworn his vows to Julia, and is cheating Thurio, serenades Silvia while his forsaken Julia, disguised as a boy, listens:

How now? Are you sadder than you were before? How do you, man? The music likes you not.
You mistake, the musician likes me not.
Why, my pretty youth?
He plays false, father.
How? Out of tune on the strings?
Not so; but yet so false that he grieves my very heartstrings.
You have a quick ear.
Ay, I would I were deaf! It makes me have a slow heart.
I perceive you delight not in music.
Not a whit, when it jars so.
Hark, what fine change is in the music!
Ay, that change is the spite.
You would have them always play but one thing?
I would always have one play but one thing.


“O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” in Twelfth Night (II.iii.40-53), which is sung to Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is in the “Gather ye rosebuds” tradition, but taken seriously the lines suggest the voice of elderly lust, not youth, and Shakespeare makes us conscious of this by making the audience for the song a pair of aging drunks. In Measure for Measure, the betrayed Mariana is serenaded by a boy in a song that does not help her forget her unhappiness but indulges it. Being the deserted lady has become a role. The words of the song “Take, O, take those lips away” (IV.i.1-6) mirrors her situation exactly, and her apology to the Duke when he surprises her gives her away:

I cry you mercy, sir, and well could wish
You had not found me here so musical.
Let me excuse me, and believe me so,
My mirth it much displeas'd, but pleas'd my woe.


In each of these three cases, the setting criticizes the song's convention. The same is true in Much Ado About Nothing. The serenade convention is turned upside down in Balthazar's song, and its effect is to suggest that we shouldn't take sad lovers too seriously. The song is sung to Claudio and Don Pedro for the benefit of Benedick, who is overhearing it, as they plot to make him receptive to loving Beatrice. In the background, also, is the plot of Borachio and Don John against Claudio.

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 moe,
          Of dumps so dull and heavy!
The fraud of men was ever so,
          Since summer first was leavy.
          Then sigh not so, &c.


Claudio, in his dreamy love-sick state, is shortly to prove such a lover as the song describes, and Benedick, who thinks himself immune to love, is shortly to acknowledge his love for Beatrice. If one imagines the sentiments of the song being an expression of character, the only character they suit is Beatrice, and I do not think it is too far-fetched to imagine that the song arouses in Benedick's mind an image of Beatrice, the tenderness of which alarms him. The violence of his comment when the song is over is suspicious: “An he had been a dog that should have howl'd thus, they would have hang'd him; and I pray God, his bad voice bode no mischief. I had as live have heard the night raven, come what plague could have come after it” (II.iii.81-85).

Historically and individually there are new discoveries, like courtly love, which create novelty and give new honesty to new feelings. As time goes on, the discovery succeeds because of its truth. Then the convention petrifies and is employed by people whose feelings are quite different. Petrarchan rhetoric had its origin in a search for personal fidelity versus arranged marriage, and was then used to make love to a girl for an evening. To dissolve the over-petrified sentiments and unreality of a convention, one must apply intelligence. “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more” is Petrarchan convention seen comically through the lens of a critical intelligence.

Man must be an actor, and one always has to play with ideas before one can make them real. But one must not forget one is playing and mix up play with reality. When Antonio tries to comfort his brother Leonato about Hero, Leonato resists his counsel:

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.
Therein do men from children nothing differ.
I pray thee peace. I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods
And made a push at chance and sufferance.


This is the other key to the issue of pretense and reality in Much Ado: just as feeling can petrify, there can be a false rhetoric of reason that genuine grief can detect. Too much concern for play widens the gap between convention and reality, resulting in either a brutal return to reality or a flight to a rival convention. Leonato's grief is not real—it is an expression of social embarrassment. Antonio, though he tries to console Leonato, is the one who really grieves, as his curses against Claudio and Don Pedro for their lack of faith show:

                                                            God knows I lov'd my niece,
And she is dead, slander'd to death by villains,
That dare as well answer a man indeed
As I dare take a serpent by the tongue.
Boys, apes, braggarts, Jacks, milksops!. …
Scambling, outfacing, fashion-monging boys,
That lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander.

(V.i.87-91, 94-95)

So it is Antonio who really feels, Leonato who puts on an act.

Beatrice and Benedick are essentially people of good will—their good will and honesty are what create their mockery and duels of wit. Don John is honest and cynical, but behind that is ill will. All three characters are intelligent, able, and honest. Much Ado About Nothing is not one of Shakespeare's best plays, but Benedick and Beatrice are the most lovable, amusing, and good people—the best of combinations—he ever created. They are the characters of Shakespeare we'd most like to sit next to at dinner. The great verbal dexterity of Beatrice and Benedick is paralleled by the great verbal ineptitude of Dogberry, an ineptitude which itself becomes art. All three love words and have good will—they are divided in verbal skill and intelligence. The honest, original people in the play use prose, the conventional people use verse. A general criticism of an Elizabethan sonneteer is that he is too “poetic.” Every poet has to struggle against “poetry”—in quotes. The real question for the poet is what poetic language will show the true sensibility of the time.

Much Ado About Nothing is full of deception and pretense. Benedick and Beatrice fool themselves into believing they don't love each other—they mistake their reactions against the conventions of love for lovelessness. Claudio, Hero, and Don Pedro pretend to Benedick and Beatrice that the two love each other, and—with good will—they use Benedick and Beatrice to bolster their own conventions of love. Don John, Borachio, and Margaret's pretense, on the other hand, is animated by pure malice and ill will. Their deception succeeds because those who are deceived are conventionally-minded. They are stupid and don't recognize malice, unlike Benedick, who at once suspects Don John (IV.i.189-90), and Beatrice, who at once believes that Hero is innocent (IV.i.147).

Claudio turns away from Hero, Hero faints instead of standing up for herself, and Leonato is taken in by Don John's pretense because he doesn't want to believe that princes lie—he's a snob. When Beatrice says that she was not Hero's bedfellow on the night in question, though she has been so for a twelvemonth, Leonato declares:

Confirm'd, confirm'd! O, that is stronger made
Which was before barr'd up with ribs of iron!
Would the two princes lie? And Claudio lie,
Who lov'd her so that, speaking of her foulness,
Wash'd it with tears? Hence from her! Let her die.


Leonato and Hero subsequently follow the Friar's advice to pretend that Hero is dead and to disguise her as a cousin—yet more pretense. And, finally, Dogberry pretends to know language and to be wiser than he is.

The individual versus the universal. Among animals there is no universal like marriage or justice—only man can be false by following his nature. A human being is composed of a combination of nature and spirit and individual will. Laws are established to help defend his will against nature and to get the individual meaningfully related to the universal. When the individual has only an abstract relation with the universal, there is a hollow rhetoric and falsity on both sides. There are three possibilities in relating to law. First is the defiant rebel, who is a destructive misfit. Second is the conformist, whose relation to law remains abstract. And third is the creative, original person, where the individual relation to law is vivifying and good on both sides. Don John the bastard is in the first, temperamentally melancholic, group. Don John uses that temperament to take a negative position outside the group, like Shylock, as opposed to a character like Faulconbridge, who is an outsider with a positive attitude. “I thank you,” Don John says sullenly to Leonato at the start of the play, “I am not of many words, but I thank you.” (I.i.158-59). To Conrade, who advises him to behave more ingratiatingly to his brother Don Pedro, he says,

I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdain'd of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied that I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchis'd with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.
Can you make no use of your discontent?
I make all use of it, for I use it only.
                                                                                          Enter Borachio
Who comes here? What news, Borachio?
I came yonder from a great supper. The Prince your brother is royally entertain'd by Leonato, and I can give you intelligence of an intended marriage.
Will it serve for any model to build mischief on? What is he for a fool that betroths himself to unquietness?


Don John's discontent is infinite. His view of marriage is superficially like Benedick and Beatrice's, but his motive is the hatred of happiness. Like the Devil, he wants to be unique. He has little feeling, great intelligence, and great will.

Claudio is chief among the conventional characters—characters who are either functions of the universal or are destroyed by it. Claudio has some intelligence, some feeling, and very little will. Don Pedro has to coax him to declare his love for Hero. When Claudio asks whether Leonato has a son, he's indirectly saying he wants to marry for money, an attitude that Benedick's honesty has already detected: “Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?” (I.i.181-82). There's some conventional stuff about his having been at war and having had no time for love. He really wants to get married—no matter to whom, and he turns to entirely conventional forms of love-making. Benedick says of him,

I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walk'd ten mile afoot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turn'd orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet—just so many strange dishes.


Claudio is a conventional tough soldier, a conventional Petrarchan lover—and his jealousy is conventional, expressed in conventional puns: “fare thee well, most foul, most fair! Farewell, / Thou pure impiety and impious purity!” (IV.i.104-5). The remedy for the conventional is the exceptional: Hero's supposed death makes him a killer, and he is punished by being forced to marry her “cousin,” which proves that he's not an individual. The song Claudio sings for Hero in the churchyard, “Pardon, goddess of the night” (V.iii.12-21) is a suitably bad song that keeps the tragedy cursory. Don Pedro and Claudio skip off to the final reconciliation nonchalantly.

Now to the people who are both critical and creative. The conventions of love-making are criticized in the courtship of Berowne and Rosaline in Love's Labour's Lost, in which Rosaline is superior, and in the courtship and marriage of Petruchio and Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruchio is superior. Benedick and Beatrice mark the first time that both sides are equally matched. Both are critics of Petrarchan convention, and both hate sentimentality because they value feeling. When they really love, they speak directly:

I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?
As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you. But believe me not; and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.
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?
With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.
Why then, God forgive me!
What offence, sweet Beatrice?
You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you.
And do it with all thy heart.
I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.
Come, bid me do anything for thee.
Kill Claudio.


Beatrice wants action here, though Benedick is right in thinking Claudio is not entirely responsible.

Beatrice and Benedick have a high ideal of marriage. Before the dance, Beatrice kids Hero:

For, hear me Hero: wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig—and full as fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes Repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.
Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly.
I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church by daylight.


Beatrice and Benedick demand a combination of reason and will, a combination Benedick displays in the soliloquy in which he resolves to love Beatrice after hearing how she loves him:

This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censur'd. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say too that she will rather die than give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair—'tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous—'tis so, I cannot reprove it; and 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? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.


Benedick's reasons are not those of feelings. Conventional people protest in a rhetoric of feeling.

There is a gay conclusion for Benedick and Beatrice. At the end one feels absolutely confident of the success of their marriage, more than of other marriages in Shakespeare. They have creative intelligence, good will, a lack of sentimentality, and an ability to be open and direct with each other in a society in which such directness is uncommon. For us, the modern convention of “honesty” is now the danger. People must learn to hide things from each other a little more. We need a post-Freudian-analytic rhetoric.

The play presents law in a comic setting. Dogberry is an imperfect human representation of the law, and he's conceited. He and the Watch don't understand what's happening, and they succeed more by luck than ability. Dogberry's “line” is like Falstaff's, but he's not against law. He says to the Watch and Verges,

If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be no true man; and for such kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty.
2. Watch.
If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay hands on him?
Truly, by your office you may; but I think they that touch pitch will be defil'd. The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company.
You have been always called a merciful man, partner.


Dogberry and his company do indeed raise the problem of mercy versus justice. They are successful against probability, and that they are suggests (1) that police are dangerous because they become like crooks in dealing with crooks, and (2) that good nature pays off better than efficiency. Efficiency at the expense of kindness must be checked, which is more a British than an American attitude.

A contrast between light and dark is always present in Shakespeare. It is made explicit in Much Ado About Nothing in the contrast Don Pedro draws, after visiting Hero's tomb, between kindness and the possibilities of malice and tragedy, between the gentle day and the wolves of prey:

Good morrow, masters. Put your torches out.
          The wolves have prey'd, and look, the gentle day,
Before the wheels of Phoebus, round about
          Dapples the drowsy east with spots of grey.
Thanks to you all, and leave us. Fare you well.


With this passage in mind, let me conclude by reading from Rimbaud's “Génie”:

He is affection and the present since he has made the house open to foamy winter and to the murmur of summer—he who has purified food and drink—he who is the charm of fleeing places and the super-human delight of stations.—He is affection and the future, love and force whom we, standing among our rages and our boredoms, see passing in the stormy sky and banners of ecstasy.

And we remember him and he has gone on a journey … And if Adoration goes, rings, his promise rings: “Away! superstitions, away! those ancient bodies, those couples, and those ages. It is this present epoch that has foundered!”

He will not go away, he will not come down again from any heaven, he will not accomplish the redemption of the angers of women and the gaieties of men and all this Sin: for it is done, he being and being loved.

He has known us all and all of us has loved; take heed this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the shore, from look to look, force and feelings weary, to hail him, to see him and to send him away, and under the tides and high in the deserts of snow, to follow his views,—his breaths,—his body,—his day.

Paul A. Jorgensen (essay date summer 1954)

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SOURCE: Jorgensen, Paul A. “Much Ado About Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 5, no. 3 (summer 1954): 287-95.

[In the following essay, Jorgensen describes how Shakespeare's use of the word nothing in the title and text of Much Ado about Nothing would have held significant, if sometimes ambiguous, religious and philosophical meanings for Elizabethan audiences.]

It is generally agreed that certain words must have given Shakespeare considerably more pleasure than they give us today. The honesty game in Othello, for example, may now impress us as a cleverness unworthy of the tragic stature of the play. I have elsewhere suggested, however, that Shakespeare was attempting in Othello a serious dramatic use of a popular literary situation in which knaves, with scarcely more disguise than the label honest endlessly repeated, pose successfully as honest men.1 The word nothing presents an interesting parallel, for not only did its iteration stem from popular genres, but serious writers were using it for purposes other than verbal ingenuity. And there were further similarities. Like honesty, it had developed shadings just closely enough related to one another to prevent easy distinction. In its combination of one covert meaning with several respectable meanings—enough to make its use permissible, but never securely so—Shakespeare must have recognized one of his favorite opportunities. The fate of both words in modern exegesis also promises to be comparable. So enlightening, one fears, has been professorial clarification of the occasional pun on honesty, that many students have left the classroom believing that whenever Shakespeare said “honest” he meant “chaste.” Less likely to emanate from classrooms, but not for that reason the less persuasive, are the results of Thomas Pyles' scholarly study of “Ophelia's ‘Nothing,’” wherein he rescues the word (if not Ophelia) from a moderately respectable oblivion for a distinguished place in the “venereal vernacular of the day.”2 Without meaning to sully what Professor Pyles rightly considers the “beautiful clarity” of his findings, I should like to restore some of the larger web of meaning which lay behind Shakespeare's remarkable insistence on the word.

“Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” asks Lear's Fool.3 The query strikes deeper into the King's impending tragedy than we at first realize. Certainly Lear's confident reply—“Why, no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing”—would have struck original audiences as seriously, even ironically wrong. In its pagan doctrine it opposed a vital Christian tenet; it contradicted, in several other senses, the highly potential nature of the word and idea as demonstrated elsewhere by Shakespeare and his contemporaries; it had been underlined by a previous dialogue (I.i.89-92) in which, after Lear and Cordelia exchange emphatic nothing's, the King warns her, “Nothing can come of nothing”; and it is ironically echoed by the Fool's later pronouncement upon Lear himself: “Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now: I am a fool, thou art nothing” (I.iv.211).

The audience which thus witnessed, in one sense, much growing tragically from nothing, and, in another, kings becoming things of nothing, had been familiarized with the pattern not only by De Contemptu philosophy but by two other well-known bodies of writing. The first consisted of theological treatises affirming the original nothingness surrounding creation and the essential nothingness of all temporal things. The second was part of the literary tradition which produced mock encomia like Erasmus' Praise of Folly. Both shared the purpose of defending the importance of nothingness.

Indeed, out of context it is sometimes hard to distinguish one type from the other. The theological treatises were of course marked by solemnity of purpose, for they were attempting to refute the doctrine which the Church could not allow to stand unrefuted: creation out of matter, with its implicit dualism.4 But as the discussion thus far has inadvertently demonstrated, no solemnity of idea could control so treacherous a vocabulary as the subject was fated to contend with. Witness Sir Philip Sidney's attempt to translate with dignity De Mornay's proof from creation ex nihilo that God exists:

It followeth therefore that it is a power from without us which hath brought us out of Not beeing into beeing. … For otherwise, from out of that nothing which we were (If I may so tearme it,) we shoulde never have come to any thing at all. Now betweene nothing and something, (how little so ever that something can bee) there is an infinite space.5

And this was the fate of philosophical poets like Sir John Davies, John Davies of Hereford, and Fulke Greville who concentrated upon the second half of the paradox: that temporal life and matter are essentially nothing. Davies of Hereford, for example, in proving the insubstantiality of life, creates little more than jingle of thing's and nothing's:

What! in the World, where all things are so rife,
Is naught but Nothing to the same agreeing?
Which not appeares, nor scarse suppos'd by Seeing!
          And, beeing scarse suppos'd: then it is
          To Nothing next, or Nothing's like to this.(6)

The nonreligious writers gladly availed themselves of the theological argumentation, since it gave valuable support to their encomia; but their special contribution is usually revealed in verbal mazes just a little worse than accidental; for, despite a superficial concern with the ideas involved, their real interest was to make verbally as much as possible out of nothing.

Although there were Italian and Latin antecedents,7 the first English tract of this trifling sort was The Prayse of Nothing (1585), doubtfully attributed to Sir Edward Dyer.8 This prose treatise not only claims for Nothing the distinction of being the origin and end of everything, but speculates upon how much better most things would be if Nothing had caused or influenced them. This exploitation of the word's ambiguity, especially when it is used as the subject of a sentence, is better illustrated in an anonymous ballad, apparently inspired by the tract and bearing the same title:

Nothing was first, and shall be last, for nothing holds for ever,
And nothing ever yet scap't death, so can't the longest liver:
Nothing's so Immortall, nothing can,
From crosses ever keepe a man,
Nothing can live, when the world is gone, for all shall come to nothing.(9)

William Lisle's poem Nothing for a New-Yeares gift (1603) likewise uses the word, as in its title, in both a positive and negative sense. And in a manner reminiscent of the Queen's premonition in Richard II, Lisle pays tribute to the creative pains that come from meditating the subject:

          Excesse of studie in a traunce denies
My ravisht soule her Angel-winged flight:
          Strugling with Nothing thus my bodie lies
Panting for breath, depriv'd of sences might.
          At length recovered by this pleasant slumber,
          The straunge effects from Nothing, thus I wonder.(10)

Obviously the only limitation upon this type of writing is the patience of the reader, for it is an easy matter to dilute sense with so large a portion of nonsense that the mind refuses to follow. Trusting indeed would be the “Courteous and gentle Reader” who, having survived Nicholas Breton's prefatory address to him, attempts a serious reading of the ensuing discourse upon the various kinds of nothing. Breton's address begins as follows:

Reade no further than you like: … If there be nothing that likes you, my luck is nought: in nothing there can be no great thing, yet something may bee founde, though nothing to any great purpose. Well, there are divers Nothings, which you shall reade further off. … Now, though I will wish you looke for no mervailous, or worthy thing, yet shall you finde something; though in effect (as it were) nothing, yet in conceit a pretie thing to passe away the time withal. Well, if you stande content with this Nothing, it may be ere long, I will send you something, more to your likeing: till when, I wish you nothing but well.11

Here, indeed, is much ado about nothing. The achievement of such writing is well expressed in two concluding lines from the anonymous “A Song made of Nothing”:

Here you see something of nothing is made,
For of the word “nothing” something is said.(12)

To some extent, and especially in his early works, Shakespeare's interest in the word lay in this type of rhetorical chicanery. But just as the nondramatic encomiasts often combined a modicum of sense with the more obvious intent of bewildering iteration, so Shakespeare frequently has an idea within his earliest Nothing jingles. When, in Sonnet 136, he says:

For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me, a something, sweet, to thee,

he is making the challenge equivalent, in terms of love, to the other types of creativity from nothing. A similar challenge is basic to a virtuoso passage in A Midsummer Night's Dream (V.i.77-89). To Philostrate's deprecation of the artisans' play as “nothing, nothing in the world,” and Hippolyta's insistence, “He says they can do nothing in this kind,” Theseus replies, “The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.” Again, in Much Ado (IV.i.269), both Beatrice and Benedick, in their exchange of thing's and nothing's, resort to the screen of nonsense for a tentative advancement of a serious meaning:

I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?
As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you. But believe me not; and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing.

At the same time, they manage a deft indirectness by putting nothing into a syntax where the other person may choose either its negative or its positive meaning. And in still another sense, inaudible let us hope to the speakers if not to the audience, the passage might reward the combined insights of Professors Partridge and Pyles.13

Shakespeare, in fact, almost always surpasses other performers in this word game in the number—nearing proportions Empsonian—of satisfactory readings he supplies. It is seldom that one of the word's appearances in a Nothing cluster is without two or more possible interpretations. No fewer than two older meanings, for example, enrich the second nothing in Falstaff's remark about Pistol: “Nay, an 'a do nothing but speak nothing, 'a shall be nothing here” (2 Henry IV, II.iv.207). One meaning was negation in the sense of idleness or lack of import. With this denotation in mind, Alonso reproves Gonzalo who has been talking about his ideal commonwealth (Tempest, II.i.171): “Prithee no more. Thou dost talk nothing to me”—which remark, of course, gets Gonzalo really started on the subject. He had talked of nothing, he declares, to entertain the others, whose lungs are so nimble “that they always use to laugh at nothing,” in which usage nothing may connote not only empty talk but the word itself, as it appeared in the idle entertainment of the popular encomia. In its second meaning, Falstaff's nothing has the same force as naughtiness in its original sense.14 Christian monism encouraged the explanation of evil as mere negation. So Sir John Davies explains it in Nosce Teipsum:

And then the Soule, being first from nothing brought,
When Gods grace failes her, doth to nothing fall;
And this declining pronenesse unto nought,
Is even that sinne that we are borne withall.(15)

To these denotations and contexts, with their shadings too numerous to describe here, must be added the unrelated meanings made possible by an unusual vulnerability to the pun. Affording a passable rhyme with doting, as in the twentieth sonnet, nothing invited confusion with another fertile word, note. “A Song Made of Nothing” might not suggest a quibble if there were not other examples to prove that the play upon “musical noting” was far from infrequent. Shakespeare's Autolycus uses the word to describe both the vacuity and the technique of a song: “No hearing, no feeling, but my sir's song, and admiring the nothing of it!” (Winter's Tale, IV.iv.623). Stephano looks forward to having his “music for nothing” (Tempest, III.ii.154). More doubtful, and with a primary meaning closer to “absence of sense,” is Laertes' description of Ophelia's singing: “This nothing's more than matter” (Hamlet, IV.v.174)—and here one rules out only with reluctance a punning allusion to the obscenity of the mad ditties.16 More clearly in a musical context is the climactic appearance of the word in the involved passage on noting from Much Ado (II.iii.55):

Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes.
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!

Shakespeare's more thoughtful concern with the traditional Nothing forms may best be approached through the special slant that these apparently gave to his expression of De Contemptu philosophy. Treatises on Nothing commonly divide the subject into such categories as life, time, beauty, and honor. Thus Breton's discourse contains a long monologue proving, by logical steps, that military honor belongs to the type of Nothing called “the nothing durable” (sig. G 2v):

An other Honour is gotten by valiancie, and that is in the Warre, whereby the Captaine winneth the Armes, that [he and] his posteritie … do honourably beare: yet for all this, well considered, it is nothing, for that it is not certaine: for that in Warres to day is got, that to morrow is lost: to day he gets an Ensigne, that to morrow looseth his owne Armes. … Hee may be accused and attainted, that never did amisse. … Then this Honour, I see likewise is the nothing, that is the nothing durable.

Written, if not printed, well before the penning of Falstaff's disquisition, this monologue may have come to Shakespeare's attention, especially if the “W. S.” who wrote the commendatory verses can be, as Grosart thinks possible, the dramatist.17 Again, Macbeth's “signifying nothing,” with which he closes his discourse on time and life, may have had a specific ring, now lost, to audiences accustomed to the many formal disquisitions whose equations ended with nothing.

Although in these instances Shakespeare does not, any more than several other writers in the genre, depend upon the emphasis of iteration, there are many serious passages in which he does. Thus, Leontes' protest against believing his jealousy insubstantial is clamorous with the word:

                                                                                                    Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing;
The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

(Winter's Tale, I.ii.292)

But here, since Leontes is distraught, Shakespeare uses for valid purposes of characterization the pointless cleverness of the non-dramatic writers. Furthermore, Leontes' distraction is not only expressed but aggravated by his meditating the idea of nothingness. In like manner the “inward soul” of the rhetorically frantic Queen Isabella trembles with “nothing”:

As, though in thinking on no thought I think,
Makes me with heavy nothing faint and shrink.

(Richard II, II.ii.31)

The Queen's fearful thought of non-being contrasts effectively with her husband's eager acceptance of it. Richard finds a pleasure, typically verbal, in dramatizing the ritual of a king becoming a thing of nothing. He prefaces this aspect of his deposition with “for I must nothing be,” and concludes it: “Make me, that nothing have, with nothing griev'd” (IV.i.201-216). And he privately re-enacts the scene—with the same verbal play—in the episode before his death, where after being “unking'd,” he straightway becomes “nothing.” “But whate'er I be,” he concludes,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas'd till he be eas'd
With being nothing.


The solacing power of Nothing, as Richard ingeniously interprets it, was a staple of the mock encomia, which likewise rely upon ambiguity by comparing Nothing's harmlessness with the misery occasioned by things. The prose Prayse of Nothing is written so that “we may more apparently perceive the good effects which come of nothing, as of the least, or no enimie of life, by whose societie many evils depart.”18 It is appropriate that the dying Timon should find no more positive words for the hereafter than the formula of the mock encomia:

                                                                                                                        My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things.

(Timon of Athens, V.i.189)

Timon's statement, of course, had its obverse side. Nothing, in a positive sense, did produce all things; and its formidableness in the genesis of man's affairs and dreams became for Shakespeare, as for his contemporaries, a fertile obsession. Shakespeare's meditation on this orthodox theme runs through such variations as Romeo's oxymoronic “O anything, of nothing first create” (I.i.184); Mercutio's rhapsody on the origin of dreams; and even, perhaps, whole plays in which the dramatist's virtuosity was demonstrated by the extent to which he could make something of nothing. But possibly the aspect of the subject that most fascinated Shakespeare, judging from his references to it, was its metaphorical application 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.”19 This, the creative shaping of what was trifling, insubstantial, or unknown, seems to have impressed Shakespeare as the real challenge facing the imagination. In his most famous lines on the subject (Midsummer Night's Dream, V.i.14-17), he speaks of imagination bodying forth the forms of things unknown, while the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Nor is the task of shaping “airy nothing” peculiar to the poet. It is shared by all who imagine. Ophelia's “speech is nothing,”

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection.

(Hamlet, IV.v.7-9)

Here it is the hearers who turn the nothing, the nonsense, into shapes. And Shakespeare demanded that his audience generally do the like. The audience's obligation to give the actors thanks for nothing, as proposed by Theseus, is best explained by the playful demands of the mock encomia. But in Henry V Shakespeare challenges the audience more seriously. Let us actors, he asks,

                                                  ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.(20)

Nothing is the material of human dreams. Mercutio, like Gonzalo accused of talking of “nothing,” likewise shapes the word to his own ends:

                                                                      True, I talk of dreams;
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy;
Which is as thin of substance as the air.(21)

Imogen describes her supposed dream as “but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing, Which the brain makes of fumes” (Cymbeline, IV.ii.300-301). Distempered fantasies are similarly begot. Queen Isabella, fainting from “heavy nothing” (or could it be heavy noting?), is told by Bushy, “'Tis nothing but conceit, my gracious lady.” Her reply, though hysterical and equivocal, is in one of its senses consistent with Shakespeare's other statments:

'Tis nothing less. Conceit is still deriv'd
From some forefather grief. Mine is not so,
For nothing hath begot my something grief,
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve.(22)

One must not, of course try to build Shakespeare's concept of imaginative creation upon the fanciful, and at best figurative, references to Nothing in these passages. At the same time, analogy with the doctrine of divine creation, which was neither fanciful nor figurative, helps explain the remarkable persistence with which the concept of nothingness, and usually the word itself, appears in his statements on poetry and dreams. And it is interesting that Puttenham should use, “reverently” he is careful to add, analogy with the Christian God to justify the Greek notion of the poet as maker (rather than simply imitator). Did not God, “without any travell to his divine imagination,” make “all the world of nought?”23

But perhaps enough has now been said about Nothing to give point to the title of this paper. Did Shakespeare intend the Nothing in Much Ado to have what was for him a characteristic richness and emphasis? Almost a century ago, Richard Grant White employed his knowledge of Elizabethan English in a bold proposal that the original audience both pronounced and interpreted the title as “Much Ado about Noting”; for noting, or observing and eavesdropping, is found in almost every scene and is indispensable to all the plots.24 Though no successful refutation of White's argument has appeared, its rejection is implicit in an almost perfect editorial silence. Not only do most editors fail even to mention the theory (Hardin Craig is apparently unique in giving it a footnote), but there has been only the most casual of commentary on the title at all.25

Possibly some of the additional evidence needed by White is now before us. He proved that noting yielded a good reading of the play; he could not prove that Shakespeare intended so slight a title to carry weight. With our awareness of the various Nothing discourses, of their challenge to make as much as possible of nothing, of Shakespeare's concept of nothing as the material of imaginings, and of his tendency to underline the word, we can add support to White's theory—though only by correcting his exclusive emphasis on the meaning of “noting.” Writers who ingeniously shaped Nothing into many significances did employ the pun, but their medium demanded the use of other kinds of manipulation. In attempting a dramatic, rather than expository, elaboration, Shakespeare would give the playwright's equivalent of the poet's imaginative shaping. Out of a trifle, a misunderstanding, a fantasy, a mistaken over-hearing, a “naughtiness,” might come the materials for a drama—as happened, less deliberately perhaps, in King Lear.

Besides paying deserved respect to an important word, this theory has the merit of removing from the most troublesome of Shakespeare's happy comedies many of the supposed imperfections in character and motivation. At worst, perhaps, it will move the hearers to collection.


  1. Honesty in Othello,SP [Studies in Philology], XLVII (1950), 557-567.

  2. MLN [Modern Language Notes], XLIV (1949), 322-323.

  3. King Lear I.iv.143. Throughout I have used The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Kittredge (Boston, 1936).

  4. For the theological significance of creation ex nihilo, see C. M. Walsh, The Doctrine of Creation (London, 1910).

  5. A Worke Concerning the Trewnesse of Christian Religion (1592), p. 4. See Henry Cuffe's ingenious attempt to explain “A making something of nothing” in The Differences of the Ages of Mans Life (1607), pp. 26-29. Christian works on creation typically devote an early section to this vexing matter, as does Sylvester's Bartas. His Devine Weekes (1605) in “The First Day of the First Weeke.”

  6. Wittes Pilgrimage, in The Complete Works of John Davies of Hereford, ed. Grosart (Edinburgh, 1878), II, 44. For an attempt to refute the idea that since “god created all things of nothing, therefore shall all things returne againe unto nothing,” see Godfrey Goodman, The Fall of Man (1616), p. 19; also the discussion of this subject in Victor Harris, All Coherence Gone (Chicago, 1949).

  7. See Jean Passerat's Nihil (1567), and Francisco Copetta's Capitolo nel quale si lodano le Noncovelle (c. 1548). The genre, still not extinct, persevered only meagerly during the Augustan period. Fielding, in An Essay on Nothing (Complete Works, ed. Henley, London, 1903, XIV, 309), could cite as one who “dared to write on this subject” only “a hardy wit in the reign of Charles II” (doubtless referring to Rochester's “Upon Nothing”).

  8. In “The Authorship of The Prayse of Nothing,” The Library, 4th Ser., XII (1932), 322-331, R. M. Sargent proposes Edward Daunce instead of Dyer.

  9. The Praise of Nothing (n. d.), STC 20185, second stanza. I have used a microfilm of the British Museum copy.

  10. Second stanza, reprinted Fugitive Tracts, Second Series (1875), no pagination.

  11. “The Scholler and the Souldiour,” in The Wil of Wit (1597), sig. F4. I have used the unique copy of this edition in the Huntington Library.

  12. Roxburghe Collection, 372, 373. Printed in The Roxburghe Ballads (Hertford, 1874), II, 484.

  13. Editors have apparently overlooked the parallel between this dialogue and the broadside ballad beginning: “Fain would I have a prettie thing, / to give unto my Ladie: / I name no thing, nor I meane no thing, / but as pretie a thing as may bee” (in Clement Robinson's A Handefull of Pleasant Delites, 1584, ed. Kershaw, London, 1926, pp. 95-97).

  14. For other examples of this privative usage of nothing, see Othello, III.iii.432 and IV.i.9.

  15. The Poems of Sir John Davies, Reproduced in Facsimile (N.Y., 1941), p. 148. More elaborately De Mornay cites as the cause of evil “the verie nothing it self; that is to wit, that God almightie, to shew us that he hath made all of nothing, hath left a certeine inclination in his Creatures, whereby they tend naturally to nothing, that is to saye, to change and corruption” (p. 23).

  16. Nevertheless, a good case for suspecting puns even in situations of tension is made by M. H. Mahood, “The Fatal Cleopatra: Shakespeare and the Pun,” Essays in Criticism, I (1951), 198. And compare Laertes' verbal cleverness on a still more trying occasion (IV.vii.187):

    Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
    And therefore I forbid my tears.
  17. See Grosart's edition of Breton's Works (Edinburgh, 1879), I, liv.

  18. The Prayse of Nothing (1585; reprinted 1862), p. 17.

  19. M. Andreas Laurentius A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight (1599); Shakespeare Assoc. Fac. No. 15, p. 16. For the relationship between the understanding and the imagination, see Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde (1601), pp. 91-96.

  20. Henry V Prologue, 17. See Alwin Thaler, “Shakespeare on Style, Imagination, and Poetry,” PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America], LIII (1938), 1031.

  21. Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.96. “Affection,” states Leontes in a wild speech, communicates with dreams and fellows nothing, but may “co-join with something” (Winter's Tale, I.ii.138-143).

  22. Richard II, II.ii.32-37.

  23. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie (1589), in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. Smith (Oxford, 1950), II, 3. This analogy, potentially more serious in poetics than can be shown here, is absent from even so sound a study as M. W. Bundy's “‘Invention’ and ‘Imagination’ in the Renaissance,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology], XXIX (1930), 535-545.

  24. The Works of William Shakespeare (Boston, 1857), III, 226-227.

  25. Of the twelve pages devoted by T. M. Parrott to the play in Shakespearean Comedy (N.Y., 1949), none is given to the title. Most editors who do allude to it (Neilson and Hill, O. J. Campbell, and G. B. Harrison) refer to it either as a symptom of genial carelessness or as a clue that all will turn out happily.


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Much Ado about Nothing

Set in Messina, Sicily, Much Ado about Nothing (c. 1598) is generally considered Shakespeare's happiest comedy. It certainly remains one of his most popular—and most frequently performed—plays. Beneath the play's merriment, however, runs a strain of melancholy, because Much Ado about Nothing tells a powerful warning tale of the potential tragedy that can result from deception and miscommunication. The play has two plots. One centers around the wooing of Hero by the soldier-courtier Claudio, a courtship that is temporarily halted by the scheming of the play's villain, Don John. The other plot focuses on the “merry war” between the play's other romantic protagonists, Beatrice and Benedick. Modern audiences tend to identify most with the Beatrice/Benedick story, although scholars point out that Shakespeare intended it as the play's subplot rather than the primary plot. “The first thing to notice about Much Ado about Nothing is that the subplot overwhelms and overshadows the main plot,” claims W. H. Auden (1946). According to Paul and Miriam Mueschke (1967), however, Much Ado about Nothing centers on Hero and Claudio rather than on the more likeable Beatrice and Benedick because the troubled lovers more clearly illuminate the play's major theme: honor. The relationship between the two plots, as well as Claudio's role in the problematic main plot, are popular areas of critical study. Other areas of critical study include the role of rumor and false reports in the play, and the significance of the word “nothing” in the play's title.

Part of the problem with the play's Hero/Claudio story line is that, to modern audiences at least, Claudio appears as an inconsistent and discreditable lover who is too eager to assume the worst about his bride-to-be—character traits not worthy of a story's hero, as many commentators of the play have noted. Other scholars have come to the defense of Shakespeare's characterization of Claudio. Lodwick Hartley (1965) argues that Claudio's supposed inconsistencies can be explained when viewed as the actions of a soldier rather than of a courtier. Jeanne Addison Roberts (1987) suggests that Claudio represents Benedick in his callow youth—the Benedick whom Beatrice says she knew of old. Much of Much Ado about Nothing's comedy comes from the witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick. But, as C. O. Gardner (1977) points out, these two comic heroes are weighty characters “with an intense sense of individuality.” Marvin Felheim (see Further Reading) also notes that when they are alone, Beatrice and Benedick always speak in prose, which he says supports the “impression that there is a serious non- or antiromantic side to these Shakespearean comic lovers.” Many scholars have claimed that Beatrice and Benedick are “original” characters, drawn entirely from Shakespeare's imagination. Hugh H. Richmond (1979) believes, however, that literary sources for Beatrice and Benedick can be found, particularly in characters that appear in the Heptameron, a sixteenth-century collection of French tales. The other memorable comic character of Much Ado about Nothing is Dogberry, the vulgar, malapropism-spewing constable who ends up exposing Don John's scheme to block Claudio and Hero's marriage. Dogberry's ego seems to know no bounds, although, as John A. Allen (1973) asserts, he is not the only male character in the play who suffers from an exalted opinion of himself.

Much Ado about Nothing has been popular on the stage since Shakespeare's day. The witty banter of Beatrice and Benedick and the comical bumblings of Dogberry and the Watch have charmed audiences and made the play a success for centuries. Peter Marks (1998) reviews the 1998 Stratford Festival production of Much Ado at New York's City Center. Marks contends that the production was unremarkable and “short on laughs,” criticizes the sterile sets and unappealing costumes, and notes that there was no spark between Martha Henry's Beatrice and Brian Bedford's Benedick. Page R. Laws (2002) describes how New York's Aquila Theatre Company successfully turned Much Ado into a fun, giddy spoof of television's secret agent shows of the 1960s and 1970s. Laws notes that the extensive cutting of the play's original text and the deletion of characters did take their toll—the play's darker elements were lost and the characterization was weakened. However, the critic claims that the “gain in giddiness seemed worth the loss.” Toby Young (2002) declares that he was completely won over by the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2002 production of Much Ado, which was set in Mussolini's Italy. Young calls the production an “unapologetic crowd-pleaser” and particularly praises Nicholas Le Prevost's Benedick. Markland Taylor (2002) examines the Hartford Stage/Shakespeare Theater 2002 staging of the play directed by Mark Lamos. Taylor notes that the production was “surprisingly bloodless and lacking in spontaneity” and finds Karen Ziemba's shrewish Beatrice and Dan Snook's “cutely coy” Benedick unimpressive.

Hearsay plays a major role in the development of Much Ado about Nothing's dual plots; it draws Claudio and Hero apart and Benedick and Beatrice together. As Steven Rose (1970) points out, hearsay also resolves both plots: in one, the Watch overhears the details of Don John's conspiracy to stop Claudio and Hero's marriage; in the other, Beatrice and Benedick are forced to reveal their love-sonnets to each other. Hearsay thus governs love in Much Ado—a point, Rose argues, that is central to understanding the play's more serious comment on “the essentially arbitrary nature of human passion.” Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare set certain crucial scenes, such as the chamber-window scene in which Claudio and Don Pedro mistake Margaret for Hero, offstage in order to draw audiences' attention to the destructiveness of rumor and false reports. Mark Taylor (see Further Reading) proposes, however, that Shakespeare's failure to dramatize certain plot-driving scenes represents not the absence of something but the presence of the nothing suggested in the play's title. The significance of Much Ado about Nothing's title has long intrigued scholars. Paul Jorgensen (1954) describes how Shakespeare's use of the word nothing in the title and text of Much Ado would have held significant, if sometimes ambiguous, religious and philosophical meanings for Elizabethan audiences. Many scholars have commented on how the play's title serves as a pun on the word noting, which can be defined as the act of observing and eavesdropping as well as the actual writing of physical notes. Anthony B. Dawson (1982) points out that notes are featured throughout the play—from the opening scene, when a note heralds the imminent arrival of Don Pedro and his soldiers to Messina, to the final scene, when the love of Beatrice and Benedick for each other is revealed through their handwritten love-sonnets. This last scene of the play, with its “rebirth” of Hero, comments Dolora Cunningham (see Further Reading), exemplifies how Shakespeare used wonder in his comedies. The audience, Cunningham says, is “expected to join the on-stage characters to contemplate with wonder—with amazement or astonishment or admiration—the unexpected turn of troubled events which lead to marriages and apparent happiness in the end.”

Peter Marks (review date 17 November 1998)

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SOURCE: Marks, Peter. “A Pair of Warhorses Come Trotting Down from Canada.” The New York Times 148 (17 November 1998): E2.

[In the following excerpt, Marks reviews the 1998 Stratford Festival production of Much Ado about Nothing at New York's City Center. Marks contends that the production was unremarkable and “short on laughs.”]

The curtain rose at 7:40, but the Stratford Festival did not unveil its capabilities until an hour later.

The moment of revelation came when William Hutt, the celebrated Canadian company's Old Reliable, an actor in his late 70's with the savoir-faire that comes with age, made the force of his presence felt in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. The troupe has brought the play to City Center for a two-week run in repertory with its production of Moliere's Miser.

Mr. Hutt, portraying Leonato, father to Hero, the ingénue, and uncle to Beatrice, the sharp-tongued cynic, steals an inherently funny drinking scene with his descent into good-natured inebriation. Dangling a martini glass, Mr. Hutt turns the leonine patriarch into a figure out of Noël Coward, supplying dry-as-vermouth commentary as the other men spin lies about the love Beatrice (played by Martha Henry) has for Benedick (Brian Bedford), all of which Benedick overhears while hiding behind a plant.

The scene is so effortlessly charming, and Mr. Hutt so delightfully lightheaded, that you wouldn't mind if someone turned off the play and allowed the banter to go on and on. The trouble is that once the scene ends, the party is essentially over. Its conclusion marks the passing of the only truly sparkling encounter all evening.

The Stratford Festival, which draws tourists and rabid theatergoers to a small town in Ontario for an immersion in the work of Shakespeare and other old hands, has come to City Center with a sampling on the first of what it hopes will be an annual occasions. The company, quite sensibly, arrived in New York, where the classics only sporadically enthrall the hometown crowds, with a pair of audience-pleasing comedies by dead playwrights with whom the ensemble is nonetheless on intimate terms.

Surprisingly, the shows are short on laughs and long on—well, they're just kind of long. Based on the dubious rewards, potential ticket buyers might be better served by waiting to see what Stratford plans for next year.

These are technically proficient productions, directed by Stratford's artistic director, Richard Monette, but without virtually any remarkable aspects, from the sterile sets by Guido Tondino and Mérédith Caron to unappealing costumes by Ms. Caron and Ann Curtis.

Though there are nimble performances by a few of the older actors, like Mr. Hutt (in both plays, but more memorable in Much Ado) and the always resourceful Mr. Bedford (also in Much Ado), the level of performance is for the most part standard issue, especially among the younger players. The overall impression is of a Much Ado ultimately thwarted by odd casting decisions and a Miser undermined by a precious and debilitating concept.

Mr. Monette's modern, cosmopolitan Much Ado is the livelier of the evenings. The setting is the Italian seacoast just as World War I is ending, in Leonato's luxurious palace, where the fellow at the baby grand plays music inspired by Gershwin.

The play takes place at what would have to be twilight. As portrayed by the mature Ms. Henry and Mr. Bedford, the old antagonists are a lot older here than audiences are used to. This is a cooler, sexually mellower sparring match, between an unregenerate spinster and a confirmed bachelor. But age is not really the confounding characteristic. In fact, the line readings have a nice twist in this On Golden Pond pairing. “My dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?” Mr. Bedford, in ascot and whiskers, sneers at Ms. Henry, whose casual retort, “I know you of old,” sounds more like an insult than an observation.

The severe-looking Ms. Henry, playing Beatrice as a kind of bookish smarty pants, is best in the early scenes, when Beatrice is at her most smug. But the badinage goes nowhere. Dressed in what look like outfits from the Queen Elizabeth II Reject Shop—check out the ghastly kimono and cap she wears in the wedding scene—Ms. Henry reveals little affinity for Mr. Bedford. That they end up together seems a random result. In another break with tradition, the audience is not actively engaged in the rooting for their union. Whatever happens to them, you're reasonably certain that these two survivors will, indeed, survive.

Surrounding the two leads are an assortment of supporting players, only a few of whom, like James Blendick as Don Pedro, are more than satisfactory. Tom McCamus's villainous Don John is a blank in black, and the overdone Dogberry of Stephen Ouimette should be wearing a sign that says, “Look at me, I'm funny.” …

John A. Allen (essay date winter 1973)

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SOURCE: Allen, John A. “Dogberry.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 1 (winter 1973): 35-53.

[In the following essay, Allen proposes that Much Ado about Nothing's comic, self-important, and utterly preposterous constable, Dogberry, is not the only character in the play with an inflated ego.]

It is safe to assume that Dogberry, the “right master constable” of Much Ado about Nothing, would appear in anyone's Who's Who of memorable comic characters in Shakespeare; yet he seems largely to have baffled, or at any rate escaped, serious critical attention. Commentators frequently convey the impression that his peculiarities are more to be wondered at than analyzed.1 However, on the principle that Shakespeare seldom wasted an opportunity to turn his material to full dramatic account, we may suspect that Dogberry, intriguing as he is merely as a preposterous phenomenon, is more than that.

Surely Dogberry would not make so lasting an impression if he were artistically as well as personally inscrutable. Comic characters invite analysis no less than others do, and much has usefully been said, for instance, of Malvolio to point his close connection with the principal concerns of Twelfth Night. On inspection, he emerges as the egregious instance of absurd pretension in a play which features insubstantial dreams, all of which except his own convert in time to viable realities. Like Dogberry, Malvolio is pompous and inordinately self-admiring, but he differs from the cryptic constable in being both intelligent and lucid; and, as a result of overhearing the soliloquies in which he preens himself as “Count Malvolio,” we learn what he covets secretly and are prepared by this superior knowledge to enjoy the stratagem which turns his grave censorious visage into a simpering travesty of himself as fortune's darling. But no convenient route gives access to the inner Dogberry. He eschews ambition of the vulgar sort and is content, while going about his everyday affairs, merely to manifest what he devoutly thinks of as his natural superiority. Although he is attentive to his duty as he sees it, he is the most benign of officers, permissive to a fault. To be sure, on one occasion his moral indignation rivals that which is habitual with the sour Malvolio, but none would deny that public decency demands harsh measures when a villain calls the most distinguished of “the poor Duke's officers” an ass. In normal circumstances, when his gifts receive their due respect, he radiates a mild benevolence toward every honest man.

All of the above and more can, with some earnestness, be said in praise of Dogberry, but irony is implicit in the fact that to the objective observer this same paragon is nothing less than a connoisseur's delight of the ridiculous and bizarre. It would be difficult to imagine a finer exuberance of comic invention than is manifest in Dogberry's mode of thought, expression, and behavior; yet the very brilliance of the conception threatens to divert the critic from investigating its intent as caricature and thus establishing both Dogberry's relevance to his dramatic context and his kinship with the common run of men. The inflated ego, like the sun and foolery, shines everywhere; and surely the laughter which begins as soon as Dogberry makes his ponderous entrance may be attributed, at least in part, to recognition of sure marksmanship directed at a well-defined satiric target. Specifically, the source of Dogberry's immediate comic triumph is the coexistence in his person of the air and mannerisms of a veritable sage with utterances and behavior so inane as to produce a splendidly bathetic contrast. When he grandly gives instructions to his Watch, the effect is comparable to what we might experience if an actual ass, suitably attired, were to hold forth in the pulpit or address a class in criminology or ethics. Dogberry's aim is to exemplify and foster virtuous conduct. He is much concerned with Christian doctrine and morality and is, in fact, a moral philosopher in somewhat the same sense that Bottom, playing in Pyramus and Thisbe, is an actor. Where his own most treasured accomplishments are concerned, he is joyfully and completely subject to illusion.2

If Dogberry is the nonpareil of beatific self-appreciation, he is not alone in the world of Much Ado.3 Shakespeare peopled his play with characters who exemplify in varying degrees the infatuation of the ego with itself. Don John, the outright villain, stands as Dogberry's opposite number in that he prides himself on his misanthropy as much as Dogberry does on his benevolence. Don John is a bumbling minor-league Iago, relishing the “mortifying mischief” which he finds within and scorning to be cured of it by “moral medicine” (I.iii. 10-11).4 He would rather “be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any” (ll. 25-26), and, when all his machinations have failed to advance the cause of evil, he presumably congratulates himself on the harvest of opprobrium which sets him apart from ordinary men. On the other hand, the cheerful egotists, Beatrice and Benedick, for all their protestations of unmatchable superiority, succumb to the fascinating notion that another loves them as they love themselves. Their pairing off provides a necessary balance to the unsavory affair of Claudio and Hero, whose romanticism barely survives their discovery that alliance can impose expense upon the sovereign ego—a fact which Hero's father, Leonato, finds no less disturbing from the paternal point of view. Before he has recovered from this ugly shock, he appears progressively more foolish as his self-righteous horror at Hero's supposed corruption modulates into senile rage against her detractors, Claudio and Don Pedro. As for the latter pair, we shall have much to say below concerning Claudio's notorious priggishness and the sensitivity to “honor” which deforms the otherwise attractive figure of Don Pedro. Even Hero, whose misfortune properly disarms our criticism, bears an aura of genteel complacency. She is the perfect model of the fashionable ingénue, obedient to her father's wish that she marry advantageously and apparently more concerned with the fashion of her wedding gown than with her feelings for the bridegroom, Claudio. It is no accident, then, that Dogberry is native to Messina, for he is the gross exemplar of an attitude which is endemic there. In order to convey the reverent tenderness of self regarding self, the actor who assumes the role of Dogberry should display his goodly girth majestically and speak his lines with the rhetorical emphasis appropriate to one who knows himself to be not only just and merciful but also wise and learned, handsome, witty, patriotic, wealthy, and, above all, full of dignity. When this portrayal is successfully achieved, Dogberry will impress the audience at once as fully and immutably in character—a comic everyman as egotist, in whom a bland self-ignorance maintains its unimpeded sway.

Where Dogberry's intellectual pretensions are concerned, he reminds one of various false pedants who appear elsewhere in Shakespeare. Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost is an example, and the scholarly jargon employed by Feste in Twelfth Night and Polonius in Hamlet comes to mind. But Dogberry is not intended as a parody of the professional man of learning, and his locutions are not intentionally garbled for comic effect, as Feste's are, nor laden with the moral clichés and fashionable phrases which are affected by Polonius. At one level Dogberry's pronouncements frequently appear to be bare nonsense, as when he says that for his sins the villainous Borachio should properly “be condemned into everlasting redemption” (IV.ii.51-52). Here the editor may be relied upon to gloss “redemption” as a mistake for “damnation”—a conjecture which is sound enough as far as it goes. But Dogberry is no ordinary ignoramus, and he is not so easily translated. As is frequently true of his malapropisms, this one yields a kind of sense just as he utters it. It is an appropriate expression of complete moral confusion5 exactly comparable to his statement that Borachio, who has truthfully revealed the knavish practice of Don John, is guilty of “flat perjury, to call a prince's brother villain” (IV.ii.38). Indeed, one can go further than this and argue that the notion of being condemned into redemption is not actually nonsense at all but is a familiar Christian paradox—to be found, for instance, in the Donnesque conceit in which the sinner's heart becomes a boon because it is drawn, like iron, to the magnet, God. Taken in this way, the remark applies quite aptly to Borachio, who shows distinct signs of going straight after he has been caught red-handed in his dirty work. Obviously, Dogberry is entirely unaware of this, but Shakespeare was not as he frequently put words of wisdom, intentional and otherwise, into the mouths of children and fools. Dogberry blunders into truth just as he blunders into apprehending the malefactors in the play. And once at least, as we shall see, he speaks with genuine insight quite intentionally, as other mortals sometimes do. In this and other ways, when Dogberry is taken not as a flesh-and-blood person but as a character in a play, he becomes a source of illumination as well as of laughter; and he is all the funnier when he is understood to be, after a fashion, quite comprehensible.

Dogberry's function in the plot of Much Ado, as distinct from his particular kind of oddity, is altogether clear and has long been recognized. With the assistance of his Watch and the Sexton, he uncovers and reports the slanderous device by means of which Don John and his henchman, Borachio, have sought to blacken the reputation of Hero. This enables her, after a confused interval, to marry Claudio as originally planned, and the play ends upon a suitably festive note. To be sure, it appears for a time that Dogberry will contrive to bungle the simple task assigned him, but his shortcomings as a constable are of service to dramatic strategy. Claudio must continue to believe in Hero's guilt until he has carried through his plan for publicly repudiating her, for this event is the dramatic center of the play; yet, as Dogberry has meanwhile fortuitously gained possession of the facts which will establish Hero's innocence, the audience is set at ease concerning Hero's ultimate vindication, knowing that the forces of law and order, though oddly implemented, will prevail in the end.

If, as seems likely, the character of Dogberry in broad outline was suggested by the requirements of the plot of Much Ado, that sufficiently accounts for the presence in the play of an incompetent constable, but not for the full range of his peculiarities.6 Dogberry is generically similar to other Shakespearean characters of his calling—Constable Dull in Love's Labour's Lost and Elbow in Measure for Measure—yet he is a far more memorable character than these. This is, of course, partly the result of his strategic function in the plot. He serves as a special kind of deus ex machina, and as such may be compared with nobler figures who appear in that capacity in other plays—for instance, Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure and Prospero in The Tempest, both of whom, like Dogberry, are moral philosophers and champions of justice.7 Nor do the resemblances end there. In testing his supposedly upright deputy, Angelo, Vincentio might almost say with Dogberry that “The most peaceable way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him show himself what he is, and steal out of your company” (III.iii.54-56). Certainly Angelo, given free reign, shows himself what he is—namely, an incipient tyrant—and Prospero relies upon the conscience of Alonso and his other sometime enemies to provoke them into penitence and restitution. One cannot say whether Don John, who steals out of the company of those whom he has wronged in Much Ado, is capable of penitence, but Borachio is, and, being caught, he publicly avows his shame and savs that he desires “nothing but the reward of a villain” (V.i.231).

As for those who have been so readily deceived by Don John and Borachio, they have certainly shown themselves what they are, but their penitence is open to some question. Leonato seems to recognize that he has been at fault—to judge by his eventual forgiveness of the once and future bridegroom, Claudio, for this is an act of generosity which suggests acknowledgment of common guilt—but one has doubts about Claudio himself and equally about his friend, Don Pedro. Both of these gentlemen, after being obliged to admit that they have done Hero grave injustice, proceed at once to rationalize their blunder, chorusing “Yet sinned I not / But in mistaking” (V.i.261-62). Certainly, this is not a gracious or convincing mea culpa. But deficiencies of sensibility are so much the rule in Much Ado that they must be accepted philosophically. Besides, they are apparently incorrigible—a point which has a special relevance to Dogberry who is proof against the smallest glimmer of self-knowledge. Nor can we find it in our hearts to wish it otherwise. We share the delight of those whose plot is the undoing of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. His bubble must be pricked and is, with the result that he is made to see himself, if only for a moment, as the utter ass that his detractors take him for. But for Dogberry to recognize himself for what he is, if that were conceivable, would be intolerably pathetic. It would seem that our indulgence is invited not only for Dogberry himself but for the Dogberry-like qualities of other characters in the play and even, by extension, in ourselves.

It is precisely because of the complex interconnection of the Dogberry episodes and the main events of Much Ado that we cannot reach an understanding of Dogberry by focusing our attention upon him alone.8 Like Dogberry himself, when faced with a difficult examination, we must recognize that “the eftest way” of getting at the point is sometimes not to approach it directly but to “go about” with it. To return to a suggestion made above, Dogberry does resemble several of the more exalted characters in Much Ado not only in point of egotism generally but of a firm and quite unfounded confidence in his superior wisdom. The comparison is made explicit by Borachio when he remarks that the plot which all the wisdom of Hero's friends and relatives could not discover has been brought to light by “shallow fools” (V.i.222), by which he means, of course, Dogberry and the Watch. The irony of this observation could hardly be more devastating. Inasmuch as Dogberry, alas, deserves Borachio's epithet, it falls with hyperbolic force upon the heads of Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro. This Borachio is a curious anomaly. Although he both conceived and executed the device which temporarily blackened Hero's reputation, he is by no means indifferent to moral values; and, as his generous exoneration of his friend Margaret suggests, he is not without a certain magnanimity. Being a thoughtful chap, satirically inclined, he notes with some asperity the easy rationalizations and self-righteous airs of those who are most willing to excuse themselves at his expense. No one is more aware than he that these supposedly judicious persons, faced with the flimsiest circumstantial evidence, have displayed a true Dogberrian witlessness in failing to perceive its fraudulence. He has deceived their very eyes, not because he is a dedicated villain but because, human nature being what it is, villainous deeds are easily accomplished and well paid. It is his drunken discourse upon this and related subjects, being overheard by Dogberry's Watch, that supplies the constable with his evidence against the conspirators. Having allowed himself to abet the devious processes of justice in Messina, Borachio may be contrite, but he cannot resist an opportunity to puncture the complacency of honorable men. The question, as he earlier pointed out to Conrade, is why “villainy should be so rich” (III.iii.104); and the answer seems to be that villains thrive because their victims are deceived with such astonishing ease. Happily, however, although Borachio does not know it, his success is qualified by the superior insight which permitted Hero's cousin Beatrice and Friar Francis stoutly to take sides with Hero from the first; then Benedick, under the benign influence of his new-found love for Beatrice, became the lady's champion; and Leonato, although belatedly, came around and soon was followed by Antonio, his brother.

The only persons who remained altogether deluded by Don John's plot until Borachio and Dogberry laid the matter bare were the bridegroom, Claudio, and his patron, Don Pedro. Faced with an awkward lapse on the part of two characters who seem to require our acceptance or even admiration, commentators have suggested that Shakespeare, by implication, exonerated Claudio by causing the behavior of the attractive nobleman, his friend, to be equally culpable.9 The prevalence of error in high places may indeed be taken as a hint that one should not be too severely critical either of Claudio or the Prince, but this should not obscure the fact that Don Pedro's code of conduct is found conspicuously wanting when it is tested at the moment of Hero's greatest need. Anyone can make an error in judgment, but surely no one in whom genuine courtesy is operative would vengefully conspire to shame an unhappy noblewoman publicly, however certain he might be that she was guilty as accused.10 If Claudio emulates the manners of Don Pedro, that does something to account for his shortcomings, but it tends to suggest the inadequacy of the fashionable mores of which both gentlemen are exemplars rather than to free them from all blame for their deficiencies in perceptiveness and charity.

To be sure, Claudio is not a very agreeable hero, but one can argue that he is nevertheless a good match for Hero who is as tamely subject to the dictates of fashionable behavior as he is. The influence of fashion in social intercourse, as opposed to that of genuine character, is a major target of the satiric arsenal in Much Ado.11 This should be apparent from the woeful lapses of the fashionable Claudio and Don Pedro, but if we find it tempting to be no more critical of them than they are of themselves, we can rely upon Borachio to put us right. On the occasion when he has just brought off his trickery with astonishing success, he tells his colleague, Conrade, what he thinks of his employer and those whom he has hoodwinked. All, he says, are subject to the tyranny of fashion. The burden of his remarks on this important subject, despite the fogginess induced by his admitted drunkenness, is clear enough, and what he says not only makes good sense in itself but has an important bearing on the principal events and characters of the play.

Fashion, as Borachio sees it, signifies the conception of one's self which one presents, or wishes to present, to the public eye. Of course, it “is / nothing to a man” (III.iii.109-10), but in their ignorance all men are more concerned with the impression which they make on others than with their actual qualities of mind and spirit. Like a “deformed thief” (l. 115), fashion steals from men their knowledge of themselves, reducing them to posturing automatons who nourish the illusion of their individuality while actually possessing none, because they do not even choose the fashions they will wear but, whether they will or no, are fashioned to them. Borachio's thief may sometimes do no worse than cause his victims to strike foolish attitudes—as he does with lovers who, to quote the report of Benedick on the lovesick Claudio, will “lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet” (II.iii.16-17)—but his effects can be more damaging.12 Enraged by the shallowness of Claudio and Don Pedro, Beatrice laments that crass hardheartedness can masquerade as conduct worthy of a gentleman, but “manhood is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too” (IV.i.313-15). The spoils of fashion are most frequently the qualities which, in the Shakespearean sense, are “natural”—that is, which nurture and solidify essential interpersonal bonds. In Much Ado such thievery abounds. According to Beatrice, Benedick wears his faith “but as the / fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block” (I.i.66-67), and Hero shrewdly explains that Beatrice cannot love because “her wit / Values itself so highly that to her / All matter else seems weak” (III.i.52-54). Fortunately fashion itself is vulnerable to stratagems which on two occasions succeed in restoring to the owners stolen hoards of love and faith. Don Pedro, aspiring to the role of Cupid, sees a possible match between Beatrice and Benedick and frames a plot to “fashion it” (II.i.328) by making each believe that the other has secretly succumbed to love; and when Hero has been disgraced, Friar Francis undertakes to “fashion the event” (IV.i.233) in such a way that the slandered girl will come in time to be “lamented, pitied, and excused / Of every hearer” (ll.214-15).

That the ego is not necessarily at odds with humane impulses is demonstrated, after all, by Dogberry's bumbling benefactions, undertaken in the public interest and entirely consonant with his conception of himself as a fine-honed instrument of justice. Particularly worthy of note is his devotion to duty in connection with Deformed, an imaginary character whose genesis requires a word of explanation. While Borachio is acquainting Conrade with the role of fashion in distorting judgment and abetting slander, a nameless member of Dogberry's eavesdropping Watch is seized by inspiration. He is as familiar with the “deformed thief” mentioned by Borachio as though the culprit's picture hung on the notice board in every post office. “I know that Deformed,” he tells his cohorts firmly (III.iii.116), and from that moment, in the minds of the Watch, a metaphor becomes a thing of flesh and blood. Deformed, it seems, “has been a vile thief this seven year,” and what is still more shocking, “‘a goes up and down like a gentleman” (ll. 116-18). No wonder, then, that the Watch—having taken Borachio and Conrade into custody—inform the suspects that they must supply the full particulars about this masquerading criminal. The representatives of the law are hot on the trail of the character who is in fact the prime bad actor in Messina, and it is inevitable that Dogberry, when the Watch have faithfully submitted their report, perceives that he is the destined adversary of Deformed. Shakespeare could not have hit upon a wittier device, or a more telling one, to dramatize fashion's skill at the confidence game whose neatest gambit is to make unwitting allies both of the easy mark and of the police. Perhaps the greatest stroke of comic art in Much Ado is that by which the apprehension of Deformed is assigned to a character whose very confidence in his powers is no less than fashion's masterpiece. Because not even Dogberry can quite contrive to free a villain who informs upon himself, the worthy constable will recover Hero's purloined reputation from the public enemy; but no informer lives whose testimony can prevail on Dogberry to note the thieving hand at work in his own exchequer.

Properly understood as a pun, the title of Much Ado provides a valuable hint for the interpretation of the play. It is concerned with nothing (i.e., false appearances) and also with noting (i.e., forming opinions about people, either by hearsay or by observing them directly). In order to reach an understanding of these phenomena as they are dramatically presented, one must note the influence of fashion upon the attitudes of all the characters—in particular of Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato—together with the parody of that influence which it is Dogberry's function to provide. Claudio may conveniently be dealt with first, because the successive roles which he adopts (or which adopt him) in the course of his strange, eventful courtship13 are so closely parallel to those outlined in Borachio's thumbnail sketch of fashion's way with gallants. “Seest thou not,” Borachio says, addressing Conrade,

what a deformed thief this fashion is? how giddily 'a turns about all the hot-bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty? sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh's soldiers in the reechy painting, sometime like god Bel's priests in the old church window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club?


Freely interpreted, fashion first creates the model soldier, gorgeously arrayed but overconfident and bent on vengeance as a means of gaining honor; then it supplies him with the outward attributes of one who cherishes a sacred trust, although he secretly abuses it; and finally it ushers in his destined role as an uxorious lover, tricked by appetite into an unmanly servitude which passes for devotion to his female captor.14 This is a jaundiced history, to be sure, but a suggestive one in context. It is fashion which, in a benevolent guise, converts Claudio's “soldier's eye” (I.i.266) into one which notices, on short acquaintance, “how fair young Hero is” (l. 272). Then, like magic, when Don John's device deceives his very eyes, Hero is transformed for him from a young lady of exemplary modesty into a wanton comparable to “pamp'red animals / That rage in savage sensuality” (IV.i.58-59). When all allowance has been made for the fact that Claudio's rejection of Hero is induced by the imposture of Don John, one nevertheless feels strongly that this sudden change from love to vindictive hatred indicates a radical deficiency of faith and charity in Claudio.

Claudio's defense would be far easier to undertake if he had justified the expectation of Friar Francis that his hardheartedness would yield in time, by inner prompting, to remorse. The idea of Hero's life the Friar optimistically believes will “sweetly creep” into Claudio's “study of imagination” (IV.i.222-23) and cause him to regret his denunciation of the lady, even though he should continue to believe her guilty. The Friar is both wise and sensitive to human qualities—in fact, he modestly enjoys possession of the very attributes which Dogberry imagines in himself—but he is deceived in Claudio, who shows no sign whatever of moderating his severe judgment upon Hero, even when he is led to believe that she died of a broken heart as a result of his unkindness. Claudio seems almost to enjoy his role of the offended lover, and he stubbornly persists in error down to the moment when his vision is at last restored by Dogberry's discovery. To be sure, Claudio can see his lady's visage once again “In the rare semblance that [he] loved it first” (V.i.239), but this is not the result of a change of heart but only of a change of verdict which, under the circumstances, neither he nor any other man could fail to make. Like Dogberry, Claudio has blundered through to truth despite, and not because of, the qualities in himself which seem to him so admirable. That such confusion, under less propitious circumstances, can become the stuff of tragedy is apparent from Othello where Iago steals away the faith and love of the magnanimous Moor. But Othello differs from Claudio in that he is, to begin with, nobler than the common run of men, and ultimately his painful recognition of the loss he has incurred more than adequately balances his error and reaffirms both Desdemona's value and his own. While Claudio does not love or suffer and repent with much conviction, neither is he guilty of irremediable wrong. The presence of Dogberry in Messina makes possible an evenhanded comic justice: Claudio retains his self-esteem and wins his bride—but at the price of being linked with Dogberry in our minds forever—and for our part we share the unearned happiness of Claudio, together with such unacknowledged debts as we may owe to the constabulary which the fates have mustered to come between disaster and ourselves.

In contrast to that of Dogberry, the overriding self-esteem of Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato is at first concealed by the amenities of courtly behavior. However, as the play proceeds it becomes apparent that the failure of these cultivated persons to react humanely to the plight of Hero is primarily the result of wounded vanity. Borachio, in outlining to Don John the plot which he has devised, shrewdly suggests that outraged “honor” can be used to achieve the transformation of an inoffensive girl into an “approvèd wanton,” fit to be scorned and cast away. In his role as dutiful informer, Don John should “intend a kind of zeal both to the Prince and Claudio,” as though he were the guardian of his “brother's honor, who hath made this match, and his friend's reputation, who is thus like to be cozened with the semblance of a maid” (II.ii.30-34). Don John faithfully takes the hint in warning Claudio that it would “better fit” his honor to put sentiment aside and break off his intended marriage before the cozening has taken place (III.ii.100-101). The mere suggestion of damage to his self-esteem is sufficient to inspire in Claudio, as his first reaction and prior to the introduction of any supposed evidence whatsoever, his resolve to shame the unsuspecting Hero at the altar—an expedient which is immediately accepted by Don Pedro. So angry are these gentlemen at the fancied blot upon their reputations that they are more than half-convinced by Don John's word alone, and one is not surprised that they have only to overhear a conversation in the dark between Borachio and Margaret, pretending to be Hero, in order to consider Hero's guilt established beyond question.

If possible, the behavior of Leonato is even more blatantly determined by his rage at the thought that Hero has dared to tarnish his repute. It would be hard to imagine a more crass reaction to a daughter's putative disgrace than that of Leonato. No sooner has he heard the accusation than he is wishing passionately that she were not actually his flesh and blood:

Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirched thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said, ‘no part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins’?


What kind of father have we here? If we are in doubt, a glance at Shakespeare's probable source for the plot of Much Ado should be instructive. In Bandello's version of the story, the reaction of the father, Idonato, differs significantly from Leonato's. Idonato is indignant at the cruelty of the disenchanted bridegroom's charge, although here it is delivered privately rather than staged at the wedding ceremony itself. He accepts the fact that the match is broken off but reasonably believes that he knows his daughter better than her accuser does. Surely, he says,

… if he repented of his promise to make her his wife it would have been sufficient for him to declare he did not want her, and not to have laid against her this injurious charge of whoredom. It is indeed true that all things are possible, but I know how my daughter has been reared and what her habits are. God who is our just judge will one day, I believe, make known the truth.15

In making Leonato dwell exclusively upon the injury which he imagines to his own dignity, while ignoring both the suffering of Hero and the possibility that she has been unjustly charged, Shakespeare converted the father into a defenseless pawn of fashion and thus strengthened the tacit association between Leonato and Dogberry—one which was insinuated in an earlier scene which we must now examine in detail.

The satiric point of Much Ado owes a great part of its mordancy to the fact that Don John's plot should have been exposed and rendered impotent soon after Dogberry received intelligence concerning it. When he and his partner, Verges, come to Leonato with the intention of reporting the discovery of the Watch, the stage is set for disabusing Claudio and Don Pedro of their false belief and for relieving Claudio of his compulsion to describe the bride-to-be in public as “a rotten orange” (IV.i.30). Appropriately, the lady has been shown in the immediately preceding scene receiving compliments on the “most rare fashion” of her wedding gown (III.iv.13-14) and choosing the most suitable rebato to be worn with it. She would be spared the trauma which is in store for her if only Dogberry were capable of delivering a simple message plainly, or if Leonato were not excessively preoccupied with the impending ceremony. But lucidity is never Dogberry's longest suit and, on this occasion being intoxicated with the notion of himself engaged on an important mission, he becomes involved in a digressive exercise in protocol while Leonato rapidly exhausts his small supply of patience. “Neighbors, you are tedious,” he exclaims (III.v.17), and Dogberry, taking this for an unusual compliment, graciously commends the Governor upon his spotless reputation and offers to bestow all of his tediousness upon him. When Verges tries to return the derailed conversation to its point, Dogberry is enraged and caustically remarks that old men “will be talking” (l. 32). All that villainy can do to prey upon the inoffensive and the credulous cannot compete for Dogberry's attention with a threat to the prerogatives of his office and the necessity that his dignity and wit be recognized. “An two men ride of a horse,” he points out with significant emphasis, “one must ride behind,” for “all men are not alike, alas” (ll. 35-38). His triumph is assured when Leonato, realizing that an affirmation is required of him, observes, “Indeed, neighbor, he comes too short of you.” Dogberry accepts the encomium with reverent satisfaction: “Gifts that God gives” (ll. 39-40). This matter having been resolved, Dogberry touches at last on the purpose of the interview. But it is too late. The impatient Governor is off to the wedding, and he pauses only long enough to assign to Dogberry the task which he would normally undertake himself: the examination of the “two aspicious persons” whom the Watch has “comprehended” (ll. 42-43). This is an event which “discerns” (l. 3) Leonato more nearly than either he or Dogberry suspects. He is about to demonstrate that he can comprehend neither an “aspicious” person nor an innocuous one, although Don John is notoriously “composed and framed of treachery” (V.i.236) and Hero has done nothing to suggest that she would commit a breach of etiquette, much less engage in sensual orgies. Elsewhere in the play Benedick remarks of Leonato that “knavery cannot, sure, hide himself in such reverence” (II.iii.116-17), but as it happens he is mistaken. If, on one occasion, Leonato can connive at changing Benedick's fashion as “a professed tyrant” to the female sex (I.i.149) into that of a confirmed lover, on another he himself proves vulnerable to fashion's underhanded knavery.

The opening scene of Much Ado contains a seemingly innocuous line which can be taken as a clue to the anatomy of fashion which informs the play as a whole. “Good Signior Leonato,” Don Pedro tells his host, “The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it” (I.i.85-87). The first clause of this conventionally courteous remark concisely states a truth which becomes increasingly apparent in the action which ensues, and the second grows ironic in the light of Leonato's subsequent experience. He is most willing to incur expense in the name of hospitality, particularly when his guest is a distinguished nobleman and overlord, but he cannot find it in his heart to spend even the smallest quantity of kindness when his loyalty to Hero comes into conflict with his belief that she has squandered a certain portion of his hoarded self-esteem. By a fine stroke of satiric art, Shakespeare assigned to his indomitable comic everyman the most direct and eloquent expression of the principle from which such stinginess of spirit is, in sober fact, derived. Just before making his final exit, Dogberry urges upon Leonato the necessity for tracking down Deformed, a malefactor who has now acquired, in Dogberry's imagination, a specific mark of identification, for he “wears a key in his ear, and a lock hanging by it” (V.i.295-96). The affected fashion of the dangling lovelock exactly conveys the notion of excessive vanity; and where the lock appears, there also is the key. Deformed is always ready to admit as evidence all that he notes, or seems to note, concerning the erroneous ways of others, and he is acutely sensitive to disparaging remarks about himself. Suddenly we realize how well we are acquainted with this personage. But it is the activity which Dogberry attributes to Deformed as confidence man which unmistakably establishes his character. He is not only unkind in himself but is the cause of unkindness in others, for he

borrows money in God's name, the which he hath used so long and never paid that now men grow hardhearted and will lend nothing for God's sake.


“Pray you,” Dogberry earnestly requests of Leonato, “examine him upon that point” (ll. 298-99). And he exits with a felicitation which, in his familiar style, is pertinently ambiguous: “I wish your worship well. God restore you to health!” (309-10). As a parting wish for the welfare of Leonato, inadvertent as it is in part, the sentiment is both generous and appropriate, for it is offered to a gentleman whose IOUs have not always been payable on demand but who now seems willing voluntarily to return at least some part of the money he has borrowed in God's name.

Having observed that Dogberry shares with Borachio the distinction of speaking some of the lines that lie at the satiric heart of Much Ado, we should now be ready to assess the sense-in-nonsense which is to be found in his notorious instructions to the Watch. Considered in isolation from their dramatic context, Dogberry's opinions on the subject of law enforcement have been praised for the splendid lunacy which they undoubtedly possess; yet one does well to remember at the outset that “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Ps. 121). The Watch, says Dogberry, may appropriately sleep while they are on duty, “for I cannot see how sleeping should offend” (III.iii.38). The “most peaceable way” for them is not to “meddle or make” (ll. 54, 49) with vagrants, drunkards, thieves, or delinquent nursemaids, for their principal concern is to preserve the peace, offending no man, and this is best accomplished by making no arrests, as “it is an offense to stay a man against his will” (ll. 75-76). All of this and more is in itself excellent foolery, but seen only as that it loses much of its humor and all of its dramatic point. Its meaning becomes apparent when we look beyond its whimsicality to its wit and notice that the apparent idiocy of Dogberry, like a grotesque choral prelude, serves to introduce the equally irrational actions of a number of important characters who will soon encounter lawlessness and bleakly fail to apprehend it.

If Hero's father and her lover are both blind to her true qualities and insensitive to her need and her distress, then they can take no action against villainy, whether its source is Don John or their own delinquent hearts. If a child cries in the night, says Dogberry, and its nurse cannot be persuaded to attend to it, then the child must wake the nurse with crying, for “the ewe that will not hear her lamb when it baes will never answer a calf when it bleats” (ll. 65-66). To be sure, an actual nurse, if not a female sheep, can be obliged by a policeman to get on with her neglected duties, and therefore Dogberry, when he is taken literally, speaks contrary to the fact. But we are dealing here with a metaphor, the tenor of which is amply borne out by the play: moral responsibility is not subject to compulsion; if it does not arise spontaneously at need, neither persuasion nor coercion can supply it. The observation forcefully applies to almost every character in Much Ado, and in particular to Leonato. Late in the play, while mourning the misfortune of a “lamb” whose “baes” he had failed to heed, he comments on the inefficacy of moral counsel when it is offered to someone whose emotions resolutely tend another way. Men, he tells Antonio,

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.


Certainly, Friar Francis was unable to arouse Leonato's emotional support for Hero, and Antonio now finds it equally futile to recommend that he suffer his grief with patience: “For there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently” (ll. 35-36). But when Antonio suggests that his brother should “Make those that do offend [him] suffer” (l. 40), he strikes a responsive nerve, and soon thereafter Leonato challenges Claudio and Don Pedro, in all seriousness, to mortal combat. Yet the experience of Leonato suggests that even an apparently invulnerable heart may be touched by humane impulses when these arise spontaneously and operate from within. Just as the Friar predicted, the anger which had made Leonato deaf to charitable counsel has modulated into remorse, and this emotion has restored his faith in Hero. “My soul,” he says, “doth tell me Hero is belied” (l. 42). To apply the metaphoric language of the Dogberry episode, Leonato has been both a thief and a victim of thievery, for he has permitted Don John to make away with Hero's reputation, thus robbing himself of his own better judgment. Now, however, time and sorrow have permitted him to recover his power of moral discernment, and the return of Hero's good repute will follow as soon as Don John's trickery comes to light and it is learned that he has fled from Messina “upon this villainy” (l. 237). Dogberry and Friar Francis are in substantial agreement that a thief, if left to his own devices, will eventually “show himself what he is, and steal out of your company” (III.iii.55-56), and their confidence would seem to be supported by events. But the prognosis needs to be qualified in one important particular: although Leonato is aware that a theft has taken place, he does not know or will not admit that he himself is implicated in the crime.

Let it be granted that moral sensitivity and responsibility are gifts that God gives and that they are not subject to compulsion. Nevertheless, as many who have read or witnessed Much Ado can testify, we feel an obligation on the part of people who are tested for these qualities and found wanting to admit their error and accept the blame for such ill effects as have resulted from it. Naturally, Leonato, and in particular Claudio and Don Pedro, are reluctant to acknowledge that they have displayed, relative to Hero, a shocking lack of spiritual generosity—the quality which Chaucer honored as “gentilesse.” It is far more convenient for them to assert and believe that they have sinned only in mistaking. But this half-truth fails to appease the offended critic who has traditionally taken his revenge on Claudio, if not on the others, by regarding him at best as shallow, vain, and priggish, or at worst as an egregious and incurable cad. Some indeed have gone so far as to pronounce the play itself radically imperfect in that its hero seems unworthy of his share in the happy amnesty which all the characters except Don John enjoy at the final curtain.16

But the critically important point about Much Ado is surely not its failure unequivocally to celebrate essential human goodness but its success in cutting through appearance with its satiric wit. The play supplies abundant evidence that its author calculated its effect with characteristic shrewdness. The rationale for the staunch self-ignorance of Claudio is suggested in the course of Dogberry's remarks on the proper handling of delinquent citizens. According to Verges, Dogberry has “been always called a merciful man” (III.iii.57). “Truly,” Dogberry agrees, “I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man who hath any honesty in him” (ll. 59-60). But Dogberry's advocacy of laissez-faire in law enforcement, although it bears a certain resemblance to the policy of wise forbearance recommended and practiced by Friar Francis, does not arise from charitable impulse nor is its source to be found in mere indifference to moral issues.17 Rather, it reflects the insistent urge of the ego to protect itself. With regard to thieves, says Dogberry, “the less you meddle or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty” (ll. 49-50). This can be vouched for on the basis of scriptural authority, for “they that touch pitch will be defiled” (ll. 53-54). It is because they fear contamination that Claudio and the others shrink from Hero—a reaction, be it noted, which converts them into accessories of the master thief, Deformed. When their pride is hurt, they warm to the task of scourging moral evil, as Hero finds to her abundant sorrow, and Dogberry faithfully reflects their pharisaical zeal when, subsequently, he invokes the full severity of the law against the “naughty varlet” who has called him ass. The point is vital to the play's satiric impact. So long as Dogberry as everyman is constable (and everyman as Dogberry wears a key beside the lovelock at his ear), the rampant ego, like Spenser's Blatant Beast of slander, need not fear imprisonment.

If the first movement of Much Ado, which concludes with Claudio's denunciation of Hero, turns on fashion's egotistical avoidance of expense, the second is concerned with its proclivity for seeking vengeance to assuage the pangs of wounded honor. It has been pointed out with some justice that Beatrice is as unreasonable in demanding that Benedick “Kill Claudio” (IV.i.285) for shaming Hero as Claudio is in committing his unfortunate faux pas.18 But Beatrice is surely the least reprehensible of the advocates of vengeance in the latter part of the play. Her anger is entirely free of that spitefulness which is the reflex of the injured ego. It proceeds from genuine concern for her cousin's anguish and from a legitimate sense of outrage at her accusers' smug self-righteousness and of frustration at her inability to make them see that they have erred. “O, on my soul, my cousin is belied” (IV.i.144), she says, when all except Friar Francis are too willing to believe the slanderous charge. Under the circumstances, the audience cannot fail to respond with gratitude to the generosity of her love, and it is significant that Benedick, who could normally be expected to side with his friends Don Pedro and Claudio, demonstrates the effect of his newly acknowledged love for Beatrice by joining the side of the faithful. Admittedly, there is an intentional irony in the spectacle of the reformed misogynist suddenly converted to knight-errantry. One can see the force of Don Pedro's sarcasm after Benedick has challenged Claudio to combat: “What a pretty thing man is,” he says, “when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit!” (V.i.192-93). He can recognize the mark of fashion in another, even if he cannot see it in himself. However, Benedick's concern for the damage done to “a sweet and innocent lady” (l. 184) stands in pleasant contrast to the cynicism which he earlier showed when he believed that Don Pedro had betrayed Claudio by wooing Hero for himself. Then he was so little offended by apparent treachery that he made Claudio's misfortune the occasion for the bluntest kind of raillery (II.i.167 ff.). Nevertheless, it goes without saying that to kill Claudio in a duel is hardly the ideal means of correcting his shortcomings or of making amends to the lady whom he has wronged, especially as Benedick must pretend that Hero has actually died as a result of shock and grief—which is happily untrue. As Leonato later puts it, “She died … but whiles her slander lived” (V.iv.66), and when all is well with her, Benedick can shrug off Claudio's taunts with a cheerful, “Come, come, we are friends” (V.iv.115).

Leonato does not fare as well as Benedick. As we have seen, his first thought upon learning of Hero's supposed depravity is of himself; and his second thought is of revenge. If Claudio and Don Pedro have wronged his daughter, he declares,

Time hath not yet so dried this blood of mine,
Nor age so eat up my invention,
Nor fortune made such havoc of my means,
Nor my bad life reft me so much of friends,
But they shall find awaked in such a kind,
Both strength of limb and policy of mind,
Ability in means, and choice of friends,
To quit me of them throughly.


When we next encounter him, his intuition has caught up with the more incisive faculty of Beatrice, but the immediate effect of his new-found belief in Hero's innocence is to bring his rage at her detractors to the boiling point. He is prepared at the first opportunity to challenge Claudio and Don Pedro (now in his mind become assassins) to the “trial of a man” (l. 66). We are now obliged to witness a pathetic display of petulance and bravado as Leonato and Antonio, oblivious of encroaching age, vie with each other in heaping offensive provocation on the heads of the able-bodied younger men. As Antonio, who is literally palsied with age (II.i.101), attempts to outdo his brother in pugnacity and invective, we are forcefully reminded of the earlier competition between Dogberry and Verges to communicate their message to the impatient Leonato. Both pairs of old men are sufficiently ridiculous, but while we are amused by Dogberry and his henchman, whose fatuity is invulnerable to scorn, we grow increasingly embarrassed by the unseemly antics of reverend gentlemen who should be as noble in demeanor as in rank. Not only is their rude display the death of dignity in itself but it makes us doubly conscious of the fact that Leonato, at the moment of Hero's need, was neither more nor less remiss than were the “fashion-monging boys” (V.i.94) whom Antonio now execrates. In many other plays Shakespeare shows the criminal destructiveness of personal revenge, but in Much Ado he makes the ego, lashing out at its antagonists, appear both ludicrous and impotent.

The essential foolishness of fashion in its guise as personal revenge is hammered home in Much Ado by means of Dogberry's conversion from a man who would not hang a dog by his will into a fire-breathing nemesis of a villain who has dared to call him ass. Dogberry begins the examination of Borachio and Conrade with his usual benign incompetence; indeed, had the Sexton not seen fit to intervene, it seems likely that the prosecutor would have found the defendants altogether blameless. “Masters,” he says, neatly inverting the usual processes of judgment, “it is proved already that you are little better than false knaves, and it will go near to be thought so shortly” (IV.ii.19-21); but when the prisoners deny the charge, Dogberry perceives that they “are both in a tale” (ll. 28-29) and, duly impressed by this coincidence, is about to make their self-styled innocence a matter of official record. This procedure is quite in keeping with his opinion that “the watch ought to offend no man” (III.iii.74-75), but his permissiveness is about to crumble in response to slander of unprecedented insolence. When the Sexton, having completed the examination, has recorded the confession of Borachio and made his exit, the incident might have been closed, but Conrade objects to being taken in hand by Dogberry. “Off, coxcomb,” he exclaims, “Away! you are an ass, you are an ass” (IV.ii.63, 67). Dogberry's response deserves its reputation as one of the great comic speeches in dramatic literature. “Dost thou not suspect my place?,” he asks, “Dost thou not suspect my years?” (ll. 68-69). He is in agony to think that the learned Sexton is no longer present to record the infamous epithet and thus assure the condemnation of a villain who is “full of piety” (l. 72); but Conrade's crime will nevertheless be “proved upon [him] by good witness” (ll. 72-73). Meanwhile, Dogberry's rebuttal holds the stage, and it is not so much a defense of his nobility as a solemn celebration of it:

I am a wise fellow; and which is more, an officer; and which is more, a householder; and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to! and a rich fellow enough, go to! and a fellow that hath had losses; and one that hath two gowns and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!

(ll. 73-80)

Like other characters in the play, Dogberry responds with passion to depravity when it assaults his self-esteem. Although a crude untruth is powerless to dull the luster of his person, learning, wisdom, and estate, his anger vibrates with determination that its perpetrator shall not go unpunished.19 All who have eyes to see must now declare themselves the partisans of justice. Yet what would become of the best of us if justice in this sense were to prevail? Savoring the effect of a stupendous irony, Dogberry calls upon his neighbors to fulfill their solemn duty: “Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass” (ll. 70-71).

Dogberry's catalogue of attributes which the world must note if it is to appreciate the enormity of Conrade's slander is, in itself, a comic tour de force; but it gains immensely in satiric point from its resemblance to the inventory made by Leonato on his own behalf in the preceding scene (IV.i.191-98, quoted above). The Governor's wealth and good repute, his powerful friends, his strength of limb and policy of mind—all these, he declares, are ready at need to square accounts with the guilty parties should it prove that his daughter has been belied. Yet while he meditates upon revenge, he has turned his back on the only adequate antidote to slander—faith in the innocence of Hero—and he has followed the fashion of the world, avoiding cost, while blustering about the power of his rank and station. In short, like Dogberry, he has unwittingly proclaimed himself an ass. The point is plain enough, but it is made still plainer by a second parallel. As it happens, a standard against which the aberrations both of Dogberry and Leonato can be measured is supplied by Friar Francis. He can see at first glance that Hero has been slandered; however, he is not concerned with tracking down and taking vengeance on her secret enemies but rather with restoring vigor to the feeble sensibilities displayed by certain of her friends. Their capacity for humane feeling, he believes, will be restored when their anger cools and they begin to recognize the value of the prize which they have lost. For the present, it is enough that he declare a confidence in Hero which he modestly supports by citing his professional credentials. “Call me fool,” he says to Leonato, Beatrice, and Benedick,

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.


The Friar knows, but does not pride himself upon, his ability to note the human spirit accurately. His powers are truly “gifts that God gives,” for they proceed from dedication to his sacred calling; and, on this occasion, his “book” is the only reliable authority upon which a just and charitable verdict can be based—the face of Hero herself, whose “thousand blushing apparitions” (l. 157) to his acute perception testify not to her shame but to her “maiden truth” (l. 162).

The parallel between Leonato and Dogberry comes to an end with Leonato's abandonment of his proposed revenge when Hero is vindicated and Claudio, believing her dead, is willing to go through the form at least of mourning for her loss. Of course, Leonato's change of heart is necessitated by the decorum of comedy, but one likes to think that it provides some justification for the belief of Friar Francis in the power of time to nurture the more magnanimous impulses of the human spirit. In a play which makes dramatic capital of the fact that even the best disposed of persons sometimes behave ungenerously, an amnesty on recriminations is in order, for the alternative is endless litigation. It is proper that Claudio should have the “resurrected” Hero for his bride, as he is not a monster after all, and the lady seems content with him. It is also not only proper but inevitable that Dogberry should preserve his outsized ego unimpaired and leave the stage entirely satisfied that he has done his duty well in apprehending Don John and Borachio, in spreading the alarm for the elusive thief, Deformed, and in maintaining his own transcendent excellence in the face of derogation by a most aspicious knave. If we can laugh at Dogberry—and heaven help the man who cannot—then we can share the acceptance of ego's blundering way which is implicit in the wry and humorous anatomy of that phenomenon in Much Ado. However the play does give a hearing to one adamant perfectionist—Dogberry himself. He never slackens in his determination to arrest and prosecute Deformed. His final words to Leonato, when translated from his idiom into that of the playwright who speaks, as it were, over Dogberry's head, seem to suggest a wish that Leonato's present access of of clear-sightedness may prove a lasting gain: “God save the foundation!” he exclaims (V.i.304), accepting the gratuity offered by Leonato in terms appropriate to a charitable institution. And after expressing a hope that God will restore Leonato to health, he adds: “I humbly give you leave to depart; and if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!” (ll. 310-12). It is no doubt too much to expect that no future “merry meeting” will take place between the Governor and his constable—either in the literal or the psychological sense. There will certainly be further meetings, and it is proper that they should be merry, for a valuable comic camaraderie is nurtured by the fact that Dogberry is no stranger to the veriest graybeards of our experience. This being granted, we must submit that Much Ado does not deserve its reputation as a disagreeable play. Its view of human nature, for all the barbs of satire which it looses, is a tolerant one; and surely none of us would hang an honest comedy by our wills, much more a play which hath the familiar and incomparable Dogberry in it.


  1. For example, T. W. Craik, at the strategic moment in a detailed analysis, announces that he takes “The comedy of Dogberry's instructions to the watch … to exist rather for its own sake than for any contribution it makes to the play as a whole” (“Much Ado about Nothing,” Scrutiny, XIX [1953], 304).

  2. “Dogberry's own view of himself is a vast misprision,” writes A. P. Rossiter, (Angel with Horns [New York, 1961], p. 77).

  3. The point is vigarously made by James Smith, one of the few critics who has suggested a comprehensive view of Dogberry's significance: “Dogberry has perfectly accommodated himself to those on whom he depends, making their ideals his own. … It needs little acquaintance with the Leonato circle to realize that for them too it is a principal concern that everything, so far as possible, shall remain ‘handsome about them’” (“Much Ado about Nothing,” Scrutiny, XIII [1946], 244).

  4. My quotations are taken from the text of Much Ado about Nothing edited by Josephine Waters Bennett in the Pelican Shakespeare edition (Baltimore, 1958).

  5. For James Smith, it is impossible that Verges and Dogberry “are being deceived merely by similitude of sounds. Rather, they are being confounded by ideas with which, though unfitted to do so, they feel it incumbent upon themselves to cope” (p. 243).

  6. S. C. Sen Gupta attributes Dogberry's delay in disclosing Don John's plot “to a peculiarity in his character which cannot be described as asinine density of intellect”; in casting about for an alternative explanation, however, he can only say that Dogberry “lives in a fantastic world of his own with its peculiar notions about man's character and his duties in relation to society” (Shakespearian Comedy [Calcutta, New York, 1950], p. 151).

  7. Bertrand Evans offers a list of parallel characters and observes most justly that “Dogberry is no Portia!” Of course, I agree that “It is one thing to share our vantage-point with an Oberon, a Portia, a Vincentio, a Prospero—and quite another to share it with a Dogberry …” (Shakespeare's Comedies [Oxford, 1960], p. 79).

  8. Cf. Smith: “The figures of Dogberry and his kind are necessary in the background, to reduce the figures in the foreground to the required proportions of apes … for whom no tricks are too ferocious, too fantastic” (p. 246).

  9. Craik has it that “In reality, Claudio is exonerated, chiefly by the facts that Don John (as villain) draws all censure to himself and that Don Pedro (hitherto the norm, the reasonable man) is also deceived” (p. 314). A similar view is detailed by Kerby Neill in an elaborate apologia for Claudio—“More Ado about Claudio: an Acquittal for the Slandered Groom,” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] III (1952), 91-107.

  10. An excellent definition of courtesy as Chaucer and Spenser appear to have understood it is provided by C. S. Lewis: “We are to conceive of courtesy as the poetry of conduct, an ‘unbought grace of life’ which makes its possessor immediately lovable to all who meet him, and which is the bloom (as Aristotle would say)—the supervenient perfection—on the virtues of charity and humility” (The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition [Baltimore, 1932-57], VI, 347). This prescription seems to me entirely consonant with Shakespeare's view as it may be inferred from Much Ado and other of his plays.

  11. Significant references to fashion in Much Ado have been assembled and convincingly interpreted by Elizabeth T. Rose in “The Subject of Fashion in Much Ado about Nothing,” Hollins Symposium (Spring 1967), pp. 91-96.

  12. Everyone in Messina, says Smith, deals charmingly in appearances, and “there is a danger that faculties, exercised exclusively on appearances, may incapacitate themselves for dealing with, or even recognizing, substance, when on occasion this presents itself. Something of the kind would seem to have happened to Pedro, Leonato, Claudio and their like; who when faced with the substance of Hero's grief, display an incompetence as great as that of any Dogberry; give rein to a hybris which is, perhaps, greater” (p. 245).

  13. Claudio, says Sen Gupta, “is not a man with an individual personality but is only a conglomeration of romantic postures” (p. 146).

  14. Cf. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, V. 5. xxiv.

  15. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough (New York, 1958), II, 118.

  16. E.g., E. J. West, “Much Ado about an Unpleasant Play,” Shakespeare Association Bulletin, XXII (1947).

  17. Such a view is suggested, for example, by A. Fred Sochatoff: “We embrace and take to our hearts this individual who provides so joyful a basis for irresponsibility!” (“Much Ado about Nothing,” Shakespeare: Lectures on Five Plays [Pittsburgh, 1958], p. 12).

  18. Craik considers Beatrice's speech “an uncontrolled violent outburst” and regards her behavior as “the triumph of emotion over reason” (p. 304).

  19. It is perhaps significantly ironic that Conrade, so far as we know, is not guilty of any misdemeanor except his affront to Dogberry.

Ruth Nevo (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Nevo, Ruth. “Better Than Reportingly.” In William Shakespeare's ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 5-19. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, Nevo suggests that by putting the Hero/Claudio and Beatrice/Benedick plots in Much Ado about Nothing on equal footing, Shakespeare focused our attention on the conflicting motifs of the play.]

Much Ado about Nothing contrasts notably with the early Shrew, which is similarly structured in terms of antithetical couples, not only in its greater elegance of composition and expression, but in its placing of the comic initiative in the hands of its vivacious heroine Beatrice. In both plays, as indeed in all of the comedies, courtly love conventions and natural passion, affection and spontaneity, romance and realism, or style and substance, saying and believing, simulation and dissimulation interlock; while the dual or agonistic structure of courtship allows for reversals, exchanges and chiastic repositionings of those contraries during the dynamic progress of the plots. In Much Ado, moreover, Shakespeare modifies his usual multiple-plot practice. He normally has a sub- or midplot which functions as a distorting mirror for the main plot, exaggerating to a degree of positive aberration the deficiencies adumbrated in the latter, while the lower-order fools provide at once a ridiculing parody of the middle characters and a foil for the higher recognitions of the higher ones. As Salingar points out, “it appears to be necessary for the lovers to act out their fantasies, and to meet living images or parodies of themselves before they can rid themselves of their affectations and impulsive mistakes.” Here, however, as in The Shrew, it is at first blush hard to tell which is model and which parody. Beatrice and Benedick's unorthodox views on marriage are a parody of normal conventions and so confirm Hero and Claudio in their soberer ways. Only later do we perceive that it is the conventionality, and subsequent frailty, of the Hero/Claudio relationship that provides a flattering reflector for the freewheeling, impulsive, individualist demands of Beatrice and Benedick.

That it is the authenticity of the subplot Beatrice-Benedick relationship which is finally paramount is vouched for by the response of audiences. From its earliest appearances the play was received as the story of Beatrice and Benedick—Charles I himself is a royal witness. But this again does not do justice to the whole. D. P. Young would have us “stop speaking of plot and sub-plot in Shakespearean comedy” altogether, finding the “uniqueness of the form” in the mirroring of themes in all the strands of action. But it is the specific equilibrium of the two plots in Much Ado, with Hero and Claudio remaining insistently, and not only formally, the official main protagonists, and Beatrice and Benedick challenging their monopoly of attention, which buttresses our perception of the dialectic of contraries the play embodies. As Alexander Leggatt has skillfully argued, in opposition to those who tend to ignore Hero and Claudio, or to find them insipid or pasteboard figures:

The love affair of Beatrice and Benedick, so naturalistically conceived, so determined by individual character, is seen, at bottom, as a matter of convention. In praising its psychological reality we should not overlook how much the pleasure it gives depends on the essential, impersonal rhythm it shares with the other story.

Benedick and Beatrice are the latest in a line of heretics and mockers and the most complex. In the earlier comedies the lover is perceived as the absurd and predictable victim of his love-longing and his lady's imperious aloofness, and is mocked by impudent individualists like Speed and Moth. Shakespeare's dialogue with the courtly lover has advanced in stages, and by the constant locating and relocating of couples in dynamic opposition to each other. In The Comedy of Errors it is the Antipholus twins who are opposing doubles: one the worried, married man—a realist; the other the ardent and idealistic courtly lover. In The Shrew there is a neat reversal of oppositions which foreshadows Much Ado: the antiromantic couple find love-in-marriage, the apparently ardent lovers find cold comfort in theirs. In The Two Gentlemen doubles appear again, more complexly, in Valentine the devoted ex-heretic, and Proteus the treacherous ex-votary of courtly love. The deadlocking of these extremities is resolved only by the substantial presence of the loving Julia. In Love's Labour's Lost all the men—initially heretics—become courtly-love romantics, while all the women play the role of satirical realists. Berowne, who mocks love, both style and substance, becomes an advocate and acolyte of the very dolce stil nuovo he formerly disdained. But he can still be fooled by a reliance on rhetoric which lacks real substance, as Rosaline points out. The conventions and the substance of courtly love are turned upside down for the doubled couples in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but balance is restored through the “cure” of the married lovers. Anne Page and Fenton, those honest bourgeois lovers, have no romantic style, overshadowed as they are by the matrimonial problems of the stout matrons of Windsor; but they sensibly make off, leaving their worthy parents to patch up their marriages as best they may. Now Benedick and Beatrice, forewarned apparently, disavow love, placing no faith in its conventional vows and protestations, but are very much affected by the substance of the passion; while for Claudio and the compliant Hero the courtly love conventions camouflage a courtship of convenience, the substance of which will be tested and found wanting. Further turns are to come. Rosalind, deeper in love than there are fathoms to measure it, becomes a pert Moth herself, mocks her sonneteer lover, and exposes the conventional style of the quasi-courtly lovers Phebe and Silvius as very cold Pastoral and quite empty of substance; while Orsino, the very impersonation of the courtly-love style, is liberated from its insubstantiality by the substantial discovery of a girl in his personable young page's clothes. And there the dialectic rests, a romantic heroine having been created whose various follies, acted out, prove transcendently beneficial, and whose self-assured wit can contain even what Leggatt calls “the comically unoriginal situation of being in love.”

What is wanting at the outset of Much Ado is a match for Claudio, and a match for the high-spirited Lady Beatrice—the two “matches” are poised against each other in double antithesis. Claudio, back from the wars and eager to “drive liking to the name of love,” replies gratefully and decorously to the Duke's offer of intercession:

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


But already in act 1, scene 1, Claudio's “Hath Leonato any son, my Lord?” alerts us to the substance behind the rhetoric of “Can the world buy such a jewel?” “Seven hundred pounds, and possibilities, is a goot gift” as Evans sensibly put it in The Merry Wives. Matchmaking is afoot and Claudio has a weather eye for material circumstances. “Love's griefs, and passions” are perfunctory, the accepted, conventional, romantic rhetoric which masks a relation essentially impersonal. Claudio is asking “Who is Hero, what is she?” but his enquiries it will be noticed, are about others' opinions of her, with which to endorse her value for him. And the Prince's agreement to act proxy suitor for him is both further endorsement that the match is desirable, and further indication of the absence of need on Claudio's part for the direct challenges and intimacies of courtship. He does, when he feels himself cheated, bitterly exclaim:

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.


But his eye is on the treachery of the proxy suitor, not on the object of his attentions.

Nothing could be more appropriate than that such a relationship should be vulnerable to the slightest breath of scandal. Nor that in the church scene Claudio should utter the contemptuous

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


He is accusing a business associate of bad faith in the conveyance of shoddy goods, and blatantly violating all accepted convention to do so. But he also thereby gives expression to the animosity latent behind the chivalric mask. Poor Hero faints away under the shock, as well she might. For this is her world upside down—a nightmare of hostility, a midsummer night's dream without benefit of magic, and a revelation of the hollowness and inauthenticity of their relationship.

The match has been counterfeit; its romantic rhetoric camouflage for purely practical proprieties and proprietorships; and it is consonant with the exquisite symmetry of this play that Claudio's second wedding, formally reversing the ill effects of the first, is with an anonymous and unknown—a camouflaged—bride. It is her anonymity, however, that turns out to be, mercifully, counterfeit. Unreconstructed aggressiveness has been exorcized in the church scene and the ritual expiation makes possible a second chance.

Against this pair, stand Beatrice and Benedick. These would-be lords and owners of their faces are sturdily nonconformist. “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me” (1.1.131-32). Thus Beatrice, and Benedick is of a similar mind: “God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face” (1.1.133-35). Benedick is a professed tyrant to the opposite sex, an “obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty” (1.1.234-35), and Beatrice, too, a confirmed “batchelor”:

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


In these two hostility is not latent but flagrantly proclaimed. They give each other no quarter in the merry war. Benedick is a braggart, a stuffed man, little wiser than a horse, as fickle as fashion itself, caught like a disease, the prince's jester, a dull fool; it is a dear happiness to women that he loves none. Beatrice is Lady Disdain, Lady Tongue, a parrot teacher, a chatterer, a harpy; he will go to the world's end rather than hold three words with her. However, though they maintain loudly that they cannot stand each other it does not require superhuman powers of perception to observe the marked interest, little short of obsession, they take in each other.

It is no other than Signior Mountanto that Beatrice enquires about, and no other than Beatrice who occurs to Benedick as the model with which to compare Hero, to the latter's disadvantage: “There's her cousin, and she were not possess'd with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (1.1.190-92). Their antiromantic posture is therefore also a mask, as has frequently been noted, aggressive-defensive and designed to forestall the very pain it inflicts. For example, “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick, nobody marks you” (1.1.116-17), is an interesting opening ploy. It translates into a whole set of messages. First of all, someone does. She does. Clearly she has, provocatively, caught his attention, when (we infer) he was ostentatiously not marking her. Then, I wish no one did mark you, you great fool, not being marked being the greatest punishment possible to a boaster like yourself, and therefore a good revenge. Revenge for what? Not for your not having marked me, certainly. Don't imagine that I mark you, or that you are the least important to me, or that I in the least care whether you mark, marked, or will mark me. “What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?” (1.1.118-19). And they are off.

What came between these two in the past is half concealed and half revealed. One infers a quarrel: “In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man govern'd with one; so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse” (1.1.65-70). One infers a roving eye on Benedick's part: “He set up his bills here in Messina and challeng'd Cupid at the flight” (1.1.39-40) and “He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat: it ever changes with the next block” (1.1.75-77). Later, we hear explicitly: “Indeed, my lord, he lent it [his heart] 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” (2.1.278-82).

Benedick's protestations too, partly conventionalized caution against cuckoldry, smack of the once bitten, who now demonstratively projects an image of invulnerability: “Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker's pen, and hang me up at the door of a brothel-house for the sign of blind Cupid” (1.1.250-54). “Alas, poor hurt fowl! Now will he creep into sedges” (2.1.202-3), says Benedick of Claudio, whose proxy wooer has stolen his girl, it seems; and immediately reverts to his own affront: “But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me!” (2.1.203-4). A similar image appears again, significantly, just before the gulling of Beatrice:

For look where Beatrice like a lapwing runs
Close by the ground, to hear our conference.


One infers wounded susceptibilities on both sides and one therefore perceives that where Claudio's idealization of love-and-marriage is the packaging he and his milieu regard as suitable for an eminently practical and profitable marriage arrangement, these others deidealize love and marriage as an insurance against a recurrence of loss.

At the masked ball the comic disposition of Messina is paradigmatically dramatized. Hearsay and conjecture dominate. That the Prince woos for himself is assumed by all, and how can one know with so much rumour about? The point about the limitations of knowledge and the tendency to jump to conclusions is made graphically by the masked ball itself. Pedro and Hero evidently recognize each other. Margaret and Balthasar (possibly) don't; Ursula knows Antonio, whom she recognized by the wagging of his head and whom she flatters upon his excellent wit, though he swears he counterfeits. What of Beatrice and Benedick? Who is pretending? Does Benedick, recognizing her, take the opportunity of a gibe about her having her wit out of the Hundred Merry Tales? Does Beatrice, as he evidently believes, not recognize him and therefore speak from the heart when she calls him “the Prince's jester”? Or is this taunt her knowing revenge for Benedick's gibe about the Hundred Merry Tales? Which possibility is confirmed by Benedick's soliloquy after the ball: “But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me”? Does he mean at the ball specifically, or in general? Is he angry at not being recognized, or at not being appreciated? These two take particular pride in their wit, it will be noticed, and no affront will be less easily forgiven than disparagement on that score. Whether both now assume that the other really means the wounding things he or she says, or both know that the other was intentionally meaning to wound, a new turn is giving to the warfare between them. We no longer witness the reflection of an old quarrel but the quick of a new one. There is no reason, however, why the spiral should ever stop since the dynamics of self-defence will ensure that the more they pretend to ignore each other the more they will fail, and the more wounded their self-esteem will become. It is a knot too hard for them to untie, but fortunately there are plotters at hand.

The comic disposition of Messina is thus to be taken in: to dissimulate, or simulate, to be deceived by appearance, or by rumors. The sophisticates go further. They do not believe what they really want to believe, or do believe what they perversely do not want to believe. “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). Or, for that matter, they believe what they really do not want to believe, like Leonato, who says in the church scene

Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie,
Who lov'd her so, that speaking of her foulness,
                                                  Wash'd it with tears?


It is, indeed, precisely the last of the logical possibilities that the remedy in this play must bring about, causing both couples, reassured, really to believe what they really want to believe without recourse to defence or counterdefence maskings.

Even the good Dogberry masks his ineptitude with liberal borrowings from the learned languages but—a tertiary irony—when he most desires that Borachio's aspersion of assdom be recorded, so that the mockery of the law it implies be made public, all that he succeeds in making public is the open and palpable truth of the aspersion, Masking in this play is a fertile generator of dialectical ironies.

Only Don John, who despises “flattering honest men,” cannot hide what he is. He would rather “be disdain'd of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any,” and boasts of not wearing a mask—he is a plain-dealing villain, he says. But this is his illusion, of course, since in his plot to defame Hero he does precisely “fashion a carriage,” and it is only that sharp lot, the constabulary, who capture the deformed thief Fashion wearing “a key in his ear and a lock hanging by it” (5.1.308-9)—a piece of creatively significant nonsense—that save the day.

The comic device—both eavesdropping tricks—ironically both deception and source of truth, is perfectly adapted to mesh with, exacerbate and finally exorcize this comic disposition. One eavesdropping strategem is benignly plotted by the well-meaning Duke who aims to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection “th' one with th' other,” the other malignly staged by Don John who aims to cross the marriage his brother has arranged; and both are marvellously counterpointed by the inadvertent overhearings of those stalwart guardians of the law and the city—Dogberry's watch. It is worth noticing that when the first plot of Don John fails he at once sets about devising another, any marriage his legitimate brother arranges being grist to his mill; and the failed plot at the masked ball deftly gives us advance notice of the play's modalities of masking and mistaking, of tests and testimonies.

Don Pedro's plot provides the plotters with the opportunity to tease their victims with some home-truths real or imagined. On the men's side:

DON Pedro:
She doth well. If she should make tender of her love, 'tis very possible he'll scorn it, for the man (as you know all) hath a contemptible spirit.
He is a very proper man.
DON Pedro:
He hath indeed a good outward happiness.
Before God, and in my mind, very wise.
DON Pedro:
He doth indeed show some sparks that are like wit.
And I take him to be valiant.
DON Pedro:
As Hector, I assure you, and in the managing of quarrels you may say he is wise, for either he avoids them with great discretion, or undertakes them with a most Christian-like fear.


And the women's:

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


But the cream of the jest in the eavesdropping scenes is that those who speak the truth believe that they are inventing it.

Beatrice and Benedick are thus equivocally provided with apparently “objective” testimony concerning the real state of the other's affections, and the defensive strategy each adopted becomes supererogatory. Benedick, abandoning his armour, contrives to preserve some semblance of a complacent self-image:

Happy are they that hear their detractions, and can put them to mending. … I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me, because I have rail'd so long against marriage; but doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.


But Beatrice abandons hers with an immediate generous contrition:

Can this be true?
Stand I condemn'd for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.


Whether Beatrice and Benedick were hiding their real selves until reassurances of reciprocity overcame psychological barriers, or whether they were caused to suffer love by the magic of knowing themselves recipients of affection, they both abandon themselves to the fantasy of love. Their status, however, as objects of comic mockery is skillfully preserved by the necessary time lag of the contrivance. When Benedick is convinced that he is loved while Beatrice is still her old self, the folly of rationalization displays itself at large before our very eyes. Benedick's response to Beatrice's as yet untransformed scorn is ingenuity itself, at work upon most unpromising material:

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.”


And when each in his or her transformed state—transformed be it noted into the very style of suffering love they originally ridiculed—when each meets his or her friends, each undergoes the teasing equivalent of the scorn they once poured upon lovers, and survives!

The benignly staged eavesdropping releases undissimulated feeling in Beatrice and Benedick by apparently disclosing the feelings of the other. It is paralleled by the malignly staged eavesdropping, which apparently exposes Hero to Claudio by its sham disclosure of her dissimulation, and releases the passion in which Claudio will destroy (temporarily) his own happiness, and a lovely lady, in the church “unmasking.”

The point I wish to emphasize is the consummate realization of the Shakespearean comic therapy which these symmetries produce. Both plottings bring out, in diametrically opposed ways, the implications of the protagonists' masks; both trigger an acting out of what was hidden and latent: the joyous dream of love proved and requited—a homeopathic remedia amoris—in the case of Beatrice and Benedick; a nightmare fantasia of enmity in the case of Claudio and Hero.

Don John, says Anne Barton, “a plot mechanism more than a complex character in his own right, appears in the play as a kind of anticomic force, the official enemy of all happy endings.” It is a striking insight, for 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—the comic resolving principle itself. Much Ado achieves what the double plot of The Merchant fails to achieve: exorcism without a scapegoat, and comic metamorphoses in which the fooled outwit, in their folly, the wisdom of the foolers.

In addition to the admirable ordering of affairs in the higher stratum of society the burlesque eavesdropping of the watch is a tour de force of comic subplot strategy. Unstaged and inadvertent, it discloses counterfeit and exposes truth without the vessels of this providential occurrence having for one moment the dimmest conception of what is afoot. It is therefore ironic foil to the benign fooling of the good plotters and their victims who do know, at least partly, what they are about, and ironic parody of the folly of the malignant plotters and theirs.

Dogberry's anxiety to be star performer at the enquiry occurs just as Leonato is hurrying off to the wedding and cannot, understandably, take the time clearly required to get to the bottom of Dogberry's dream.

A good old man, sir, he will be talking; as they say “When the age is in, the wit is out.” God help us, it is a world to see! Well said, i'faith, neighbor Verges. Well, God's a good man; and two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind. An honest soul, i'faith, sir, by my troth he is, as ever broke bread; but God is to be worshipp'd; all men are not alike, alas, good neighbor!


This anxiety culminates only in disappointment at not having been written down an ass, but he does succeed in exposing the crafty Borachio and Conrade for the wrongdoers they are.

Dogberry's comic hybris or “delusion of vanity,” his blithe confidence in the “gifts that God gives,” thus mocks that of all his betters. He is the fulcrum upon which the wit-folly dialectic turns, in a riot of ironic misprisions. He is also the cause of the play's double peripeteia: the climactic church scene, which he could have prevented, and the confession of Borachio, which he nearly does prevent. This double peripeteia marks the final exhaustion of the comic device. Both plots, the benign and the malevolent, have succeeded. Beatrice and Benedick have been tricked into love, Claudio and Hero tricked out of it. The apparently deceitful Hero is unmasked, and this precipitates the unmasking to each other of Beatrice and Benedick, each knowing the other indirectly, by hearsay, rumour and opinion, and only presently to know each other through direct confrontation.

When they reveal themselves to each other, Benedick boldly and Beatrice now hesitant, their knowledge is unmediated either by others, or by their own self-induced obliquities. Now they will really believe what they really want to believe, and have in practice already believed “better than reportingly.” But the repudiation of Hero presents them with a further acid test. It is a test of trust, which is as different from belief as knowledge from opinion. “Kill Claudio” is Beatrice's demand that he trust absolutely her absolute trust in her cousin's innocence. It is a dangerous moment. Beatrice plays for high stakes—her lover for her cousin. And if he agrees he will wager beloved against friend. It is the moment of incipient disaster for which the fortunes of comedy produce providential remedies—in this case the voice of that sterling citizen, Dogberry, uncovering the thief Fashion—“flat burglary as ever was committed”—in the next scene. Beatrice puts the reluctant Benedick to the oldest of chivalric tests—to kill the monster and rescue the lady, thus proving his valour and his love. It is a fantasy of knight errantry, and his commitment to this mission, in response to her fierceness, transforms the whole flimsy romance convention into the deadly seriousness of his challenge to Claudio. This is a reversal of all expectations and roundly turns the tables upon the tricksters.

Beatrice's violence is more than passionate loyalty to her cousin. In the war of the sexes with Benedick, Beatrice's combativeness is self-defence, self-assertion, the armour of a vulnerable pride. But when she says “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 cold of wayward marl?” (2.1.60-63); or replies to Pedro's “Will you have me lady?” with “No, my lord, unless I might have another for workingdays. Your Grace is too costly to wear every day” (2.1.327-29), we are invited to perceive an added ingredient. She will not have a husband with a beard, or without one; she will not have a husband at all. St Peter will show her where the bachelors sit in heaven and there “live we as merry as the day is long.” She will be no meek daughter like her cousin: “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’” (2.1.53-56). She will be won on her own terms or not at all.

It is a grave demand for independence she is making; and it is possible to infer from her mockery of Benedick's soldiership and from the significant touch of envy in the remark, “he hath every month a new sworn brother” (1.1.72-73), that it is at the circumscription of her feminine condition as much as anything that the Lady Beatrice chafes. She suffers, as we are to discover, love. But before she is love's sufferer she is love's suffragette. And when she says with passion

you dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy … O that I were a man … O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place … or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake … I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.

(4.1.298-323 passim)

she is far from the acceptance of biological fact. And so Benedick's acceptance of her challenge, in love, and in trust, and in identification with her point of view, proves the very safety valve Beatrice's accumulated truculence requires. In As You Like It there is a reverse, though precisely equivalent moment when Rosalind faints at Oliver's story of Orlando's rescue and wounding, and the episode serves quite clearly as a safety valve for Rosalind's hidden and temporary stifled femininity. There, too, the episode marks the exhaustion of the device (the disguise) and precipitates recognitions.

What Much Ado invites us to understand about its comic remedies is only fully articulated by the end of the dénouement. Act 5 has to do with question of the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen, upon which trust ultimately depends. There is no need for trust if all is open and palpable. Since, in human affairs, nothing is ever open and palpable, much ado about nothing or “noting” ensues. By noting of the lady, says the Friar

                              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


and his proposal is to allow time and the rehabilitating “study of imagination” to bring

                                        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


while Hero herself, given out as dead, be concealed from sight.

The theme is plentifully embodied in act 5. First in the further glimpse of the incipient tragic possibilities; the father's grief, which he refuses to hide, the young men's self-righteous callous arrogance. This is followed by the appearance of a Benedick, outwardly unchanged, inwardly transformed, outdaring his friend's baiting concerning “Benedick the married man.” Finally, taking in that Benedick is in “most profound earnest” for, Claudio is sure, the love of Beatrice, Don Pedro's contemptuous dismissal: “What a pretty thing man is when he goes in his doublet and hose and leaves off his wit!” (5.1.199-200). This immediately precedes Dogberry's entrance with the bound Borachio and the revealed truth. Borachio rubs it in: “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light—” (5.1.232-34) but no new pieties about “what men daily do, not knowing what they do,” will bring Hero back. Claudio must clear his moral debt and he must be seen to do so. It is fitting that he do this by placing himself totally in Leonato's hands:

                                        O noble sir!
Your overkindness doth wring tears from me.
I do embrace your offer, and dispose
For henceforth of poor Claudio.


It is himself that he surrenders to Leonato and to his masked bride. And while Claudio thus places himself in trust with Leonato, Beatrice and Benedick flaunt their hidden trust with an outward show of their old defensive combativeness, and a mock denial, till their own letters give them away, of the love we have heard them confess.

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.


The masked wedding neatly symbolizes the antinomies of seeing and knowing. Benedick's kiss stops not only Beatrice's mouth, but the seesaw of hearsay and double talk, of convention and counterconvention.

The taming of Beatrice has been a more formidable undertaking than that of Katherina because she supplies more varied and imaginative occasions for the comic pleasure wit provides; and with no remedy will we be satisfied that denies us these. If humour and vivacity, individuality, resilience, spontaneity, fantasy and irony are to be the price of wedding bells, no marriage Komos will seem to us a celebration. But the beauty of it is that comedy's double indemnity is triumphantly validated in the final teasing. We are to have our self-assertive witty cake and eat it, too, con amore; the remedy—this imagined possibility of remedy—for that suffering state not being such as to deprive us of the value of Beatrice's and Benedick's wit once its function as protective mask is rendered unnecessary. Head and heart, style and substance, convention and nature, are for once—man being a giddy thing—in consonance.

But if the battle of the sexes has thus been won to the satisfaction of both parties, as is comically proper, it is still, in Much Ado, by means of a heroine only half divested of her traditional feminine garb. Even “Kill Claudio” is a command which reflects the immemorial dependence of lady upon knight, and, as we have seen, the lady Beatrice chafes at it. The next step, however, is presently to be made, in As You Like It, which also harks back to an earlier play. And just as the comparison between Much Ado and The Shrew (or Love's Labour's Lost) provided a measure not only of the scope and subtlety of Shakespeare's growing art but of the changes in its nature, so does comparison between the page disguise of the forlorn Julia and that of Rosalind.

Paul Mueschke and Miriam Mueschke (essay date winter 1967)

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SOURCE: Mueschke, Paul, and Miriam Mueschke. “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado about Nothing.Shakespeare Quarterly 18, no. 1 (winter 1967): 53-65.

[In the following essay, the Mueschkes present Much Ado about Nothing as a play primarily about honor and dishonor, particularly “feminine honor sullied by slander.”]

The gaity of Much Ado About Nothing is consistently praised; its somber aspects are either ignored or disparaged. Most critics agree that Much Ado is the gayest of Shakespeare's three joyous comedies, that its theme is courtship, and that the main plot centers on the wooing and winning of Hero. These basic assumptions lead to a number of widely accepted conclusions: since the subplot is more original than the main plot, the witty lovers overshadow the troubled lovers; Hero, shadowy and silent, is not a credible heroine since the audience assuming a vindication of her innocence is imminent takes her plight lightly; Claudio, the titular hero, is a cad who should not be rewarded by marrying the lady he has flagrantly slandered; John, the nominal villain, is unconvincing because he delegates his plotting to Borachio; and finally, the repudiation scene, though theatrically effective, is a blot on an otherwise brilliant comedy.1

The interpretation of Much Ado developed in this article is, point for point, at variance with the view generally accepted. We hold that the theme of this comedy is honor, that its spirit is less joyous than reflective, and that courtship, a peripheral concern, is presented as an imminent threat to masculine honor. Once the accent on honor is established, interest in the witty lovers becomes subordinated to interest in the troubled lovers; John, the malevolent match-breaker, becomes more than a nominal villain; the main plot focuses less on the birth and growth of love than on the death and rebirth of love. Finally, seen in the light of lost faith restored and sincere atonement for “unintentional” injury, the recantation scene (V.iii) restores the moral equilibrium lost in the repudiation scene (IV.i) with the result that Hero becomes more credible and Claudio more admirable. The intermittent gaiety of Much Ado is not an end in itself, it serves as a foil to the gravity. This comedy is of mingled yarn, in which the grave and the gay are at times contrasted, at times fused—so artfully that they sometimes temper, sometimes enrich each other.2

The structure of Much Ado—composed of three hoaxes, four witheld secrets, and three metamorphoses—achieves organic unity through an integration of subplot with main plot. This integration, based on parallel construction, is elaborated by opposing antithetical images, ideas, characters, motives, or scenes. The first four scenes, like the first three scenes in Othello, are treated as a prologue to the main action; in both plays the villain's initial attempt to sow dissension is short lived, but his subsequent slander, supported by ocular and auditory proof, is devastating. The Claudio-Hero alliance is the exciting force which precipitates the conflict between the benevolent Prince and his malevolent brother as they play their respective roles of matchmaker and matchbreaker.

The Prince, matchmaker in main plot as well as subplot, devises the amiable hoax which facilitates the marriage between the wary lovers. Aided by members of Leonato's household, Don Pedro creates the illusion which culminates in Benedick and Beatrice's self-appraisal, followed by their commitment to reciprocal love (II.iii; III.i). In both main and subplot, marriage is delayed by internal impediments, not by external obstacles; the malicious hoax generates an illusory impediment; the amiable hoax dissolves actual impediments. John's ruse culminates in undeserved suffering; Pedro's ruse creates a love that expands into compassionate sympathy for those who suffer.

John, assisted by Borachio, instigates the malicious hoax, which, by playing on the latent fear of cuckoldry, culminates in Claudio's tearful disillusionment and Hero's symbolic death (IV.i). The Bastard's vicious slander generates much ado about nothing, since Hero, who is unequivocally chaste, must be, and finally is vindicated. Through the device of the withheld secret, which heightens suspense, her vindication is deliberately delayed until late in V.i. Just as the rising action up to and through the climax in IV.i depends on the interplay of the three evolving hoaxes, so does the falling action depend on the interplay of the four withheld secrets that culminate in the three metamorphoses of Hero. The first withheld secret, that Hero is belied, culminates in her metamorphosis from virgin to wanton (IV.i); the second, that Hero is alive, culminates in her transfiguration from sinner to martyr (V.iii); the third, that Hero “died … but whiles her slander liv'd”, culminates in her metamorphosis from martyr to bride (V.iv). The fourth, that Benedick and Beatrice have been snared into love, a secret withheld from them until near the close of the fifth act, adds greater depth as well as piquancy to their repartee of courtship at the end of II.iii and after III.i.

Our more detailed interpretation of Much Ado (1598-1599) is divided into four interlocking sections, developed in the following sequence:

(I) A nexus of hearsay and ordeal not only infiltrates both plot and subplot but also unites them. Emanating from this nexus are hitherto unnoted overtones of thought and feeling which are implied or expressed by a varied range of rhetorical and technical devices.

(II) The rigid concept of honor which flares up in the crises and climax of Much Ado is illuminated by references to Castiglione's Courtier (trans. Hoby, 1561) and Peter Beverley's Ariodanto and Ieneura (1565-1566). Once this courtly ethos is seen as the determining factor in Hero's three transfigurations, a significant number of characters and scenes take on an added dimension.

(III) A reexamination of tone, role, structure, and imagery in key scenes provides a broader perspective, from which Much Ado emerges as a masterpiece of Shakespeare's maturing dramaturgy.

(IV) This play, a milestone in Shakespeare's development, is less closely related to the two “joyous comedies” with which it is generally associated than with the history plays with which it is contemporaneous and the tragedies by which it is followed.

In the crises of this far from joyous comedy, hearsay creates illusory dilemmas which seemingly necessitate hasty commitment; ill-advised commitment culminates in serio-comic ordeals. Hearsay in the sense of a reported report—as well as such related forms as noting, reputation, rumor, insinuation, and slander—are freighted with or colored by either accidental or deliberate distortion. Distortion due to ignorance, inattention, fear, pride, or malice motivates impulsive and precipitate action which in turn creates or accentuates apprehension, misunderstanding, dissension, and realignment of the individuals or groups in conflict. The impact of hearsay, or its collateral equivalents, alters existing relationships between two pairs of brothers, two pairs of lovers, a trio of gallants, and a father and daughter, when successive conflicts crystallize in a sequence of ascending crises.3

The power of hearsay and the potency of defamation that are topics for jesting in the subplot (III.i) become sources of anguish in the main plot (IV.i). What was a jocular phrase is transformed into a shocking act; the figurative becomes the literal; the impersonal generalization foretells a personal catastrophe. Hero, who jests about hearsay, is martyred by hearsay; she, the deviser of the comic trap, is herself caught in a vicious trap. Unlike the “honest slander” with which she proposes to stain Beatrice, John's furtive slander almost destroys not only Hero but also those who cherish her. She herself discovers “How much an ill word may empoison liking” (III.ii.86), when she is deserted by father and lover, who discredit her truth in favor of the Bastard's perjury (IV.i).4

The impact of hearsay is singularly pervasive; it not only colors dialogue, motivation, and action, but also gives rise to a cryptic irony which is as characteristic of this remarkable comedy as is the wit of Benedick and Beatrice. Intermittent irony frequently stems from crisply phrased oxymoron—a rhetorical device deftly used to intensify the present, recall the past, and foreshadow the future. The comedy opens with a glowing report of Claudio's valor, followed by the messenger's paradox, “joy could not show itself modest enough without a badge of bitterness” (ll.21-22). The tone and tenor of this reflection is underscored by Leonato's prophetic response, “How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!”—(as John invariably does). This remark, early in the play, sets off the enigmatic overtones of the dialogue. These overtones—like those in Troilus and Cressida (1601-1602) and Othello (1604-1605)—sometimes contrast, sometimes fuse, joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, emotion and reason, love and hate, honor and shame, and substance and shadow. Viewed as reflections of Shakespeare's concern with the fallibility of the senses and the ravages of mutability, these and similar stressed dichotomies somehow evoke the inexpressible about the riddle of existence and the mystery of the human predicament.

Honor, whether the setting be the court of Beverley's Jenevra, the palace of Castiglione's Courtier, or the court-oriented house of Leonato, is the primary virtue in a caste-conscious society. Uncrowned by honor, all other gifts of nature, fortune, or culture are debased and worthless. The honorable lady must be modest and chaste; the honorable gentleman, loyal and valorous. At all costs, not only honor, but also the reputation for honor, must be zealously preserved. Man's reputation depends on unsullied valor; woman's, on unstained chastity. Once lost, a reputation for either valor or chastity can never be wholly regained. Castiglione, as translated by Hoby, expresses this idea more colorfully; “And even as in women honestye once stained dothe never retourne againe to the former astate: so the fame of a gentleman that carieth weapon, yf it once take a foile in any little point through dastardliness or any other reproche, doeth evermore continue shameful” (Bk. I, p. 48).5

Honor in Much Ado, as in The Courtier, is a rigid, compulsive force which varies from but retains vestiges of the chivalric code exemplified by The Historie of Ariondanto and Ieneura.6 Whether clad in satin or steel, a “worthie” gentleman must be ever ready to vindicate a victim of calumny. In Beverley's verse romance, the champion enters the lists to save the perjured Jenevra from an actual death by fire; in Much Ado, Leonato, Antonio, and Benedick in turn challenge Claudio to a duel, charging that his slander has slain Hero (V.i). In the narrative as well as in the drama, suspense is heightened when the belied lady as well as her defender suffers an undeserved ordeal. Beverley's ordeals are spectacular and sensational, those in Much Ado are seriocomic. Jenevra faces literal death, Hero suffers figurative death; princess and lady alike almost become martyrs of slander.

In both cases, heedless of the law of church or state, their defenders take justice in their own hands. Theirs is the stock response of their caste—once honor is impugned shame must be dissolved in blood. Their courtly code forbids turning the other cheek, it prescribes vengeance through bloodshed. As Castiglione confirms: “me thinketh it a meete matter to punish them … sharply, that with lyes bringe up a sclaunder upon women. And I beleave that everie worthie gentilman is bounde to defend alwaies with weapon … when he knoweth any woman falslye reported to be of little honestie” (p. 249).

Courtly honor is the matrix of the ironies and reversals which characterize Hero's two rejections (II.i; IV.i) and three metamorphoses (IV.i; V.iii; V.iv). Whether Hero acts or fails to act is less significant than what she essentially is; what she is, less important than what she symbolizes. Even were one to ignore, as many critics still do, Hero's obediently guarded repartee during the courtship by proxy in II.i, her chaste thoughts and language during the snaring of Beatrice in III.i, and her virginal forebodings about marriage in III.iv, she still remains the embodiment of the courtly concept of ideal daughter and bride. Emblem of the sheltered life—crowned by beauty, modesty, and chastity—she is bred from birth for a noble alliance which will add luster to her lineage.

In the crises, Hero is intentionally portrayed as vulnerably passive. Her passivity as well as her innocence not only intensifies the shock of her martyrdom but also heightens the dramatic effectiveness of her three transfigurations. The centrality of Hero's role must be reestablished, emphasis must be shifted from her function as foil to Beatrice, to her function as center of the mores, the imagery, and the irony of the action.

Thematically linked to the direct attack on honor, which separates the hearsay-crossed pair in the climax, is the covert fear of dishonor, which keeps the taunting lovers of the subplot apart in their initial skirmish for ascendancy. Verbally, Benedick flees while Beatrice pursues (I.i.117-146). That the maid is far from reticent in her pursuit of the bachelor is as apparent as that he is no less attracted by her than fearful of her wit and disdain. The reason for his fear of Beatrice and matrimony is elaborated later in the scene when Claudio hazards ridicule by admitting an inclination toward marriage.

Comically aghast at the prospect of separation from his brother-in-arms, Benedick inadvertently reveals his own hidden fear of the tender trap. Haunted by phantom horns, the professed misogynist attempts to dissuade his enamored friend from courting cuckoldry: “Is't come to this? In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion?” (ll. 199-201). When accused of being “an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty,” Benedick not only reaffirms his mistrust of women and marriage but also again reveals his fear of cuckoldry. So even in the subplot, where courtship is dwelt upon and depicted with inimitable verve, the accent is on honor—not on the raptures of courtship, but on the gnawing fear which discourages marriage: “That a woman conceived me, I thank her … but that I will have a recheat winded in my forehead, or hang my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is, for the which I may go the finer, I will live a bachelor” (ll. 240-248).7

The cuckoldry jest, ubiquitous in Renaissance and Restoration comedy, has lost much of its evocative power for the modern mind. Yet even now, witty allusions to cuckoldry trigger the wry laughter which stems from an awareness of the distrust and antagonism between the sexes; an antagonism which is heightened when women challenge male dominance and upset the status quo. Although the timeworn taunts of cuckoldry have lost the full measure of their emotive impact, in context, they still are much more than obsolete obscenity. This antic wit, often offensive as the phallic pun, is still laden with invaluable clues to Renaissance thought and mores. Then as now, a dominant wife implies an inadequate husband; a weak husband led by a wily wife portends dishonor. Then, before marriage, a man's honor is his own responsibility; only real or apparent breach of faith or lack of valor can debase him. After marriage, part of his honor passes into his wife's keeping; her actual or seeming unchastity blots his escutcheon.8

Honor is the warp of the three hoaxes, hearsay is the weft, and illusion spins the web. Don Pedro's amiable hoax unites the subplot lovers, Don John's malicious hoax separates the main-plot lovers, and the Friar's benign hoax reunites the hearsay-crossed pair. The purpose of each of the three hoaxes is to reverse existing relationships. Each hoax is designed to create the specific illusion which will secure such a reversal. Dupes of illusion, both pairs of lovers are somewhat plot-ridden; they act less than they are acted upon.

The Prince, blithely unaware that the Claudio-Hero alliance is being undermined, concerns himself solely with the amiable hoax, directed toward the bickering pair, which is intended to create faith by destroying fear and distrust. John's malicious hoax, directed against the Claudio-Hero alliance, is based on the latent fear of cuckoldry; it subverts instinctive love and faith by substituting in their stead doubt, confusion, and shame. The malicious hoax induces Claudio, Pedro, and even Leonato to credit and support the slander which in IV.i culminates in Hero's first metamorphosis from virgin to wanton. To counteract John's hoax, the Friar devises the benign hoax which culminates in Hero's second transfiguration—from wanton to martyr (V.iii). Hero's third metamorphosis—from martyr to bride—is reserved for the surprise and discovery in the denoucement, where the masked “niece” of Leonato is discovered to be Claudio's slander-slain betrothed who died “but whiles her slander liv'd” (V.iii.66).

The malicious hoax, the most complex of the three, is prominent in both the rising and falling action of the main plot. That Borachio, not John, concocted the scheme is relatively unimportant, that John never appears in person after IV.i is even less significant. Coleridge was essentially right in observing, “Don John, the mainspring of the plot, is merely shown then withdrawn.”9 Modern critics who quote Coleridge usually omit the all important appositive, “the mainspring of the plot.” Consequently they fail to see that, once injected, the venom of John's slander spreads its infection. Whether he is present or not, evil dominates good, judgment is poisoned, will is perverted, shadow becomes substance, and undeserved ordeals proliferate.

John is actually the mainspring of the counterintrigue in the main plot. The force of his villainy is not rooted in a talent for plotting; his power stems from a tenacious will, implemented partly by his familiarity with the peculiarities of the courtly code, and partly by his talent for distortion, hyperbole, and innuendo. Impresario of fantasy, he fashions hydras from latent fear of cuckoldry. The sly treachery with which John drops insinuation into the initially unreceptive ears of Claudio and the Prince recalls Iago, that other dissembling rogue who, posing as a plain-dealer, “twists suspicion into assurance.” Both villains are qualified by nature and experience to play on the passions of their betters; both know how to sting emotion until reason dissolves, how to arouse a sense of betrayed honor, and how to goad illusory betrayal into rash action.

Spawn of paternal venery, John envies his more fortunate brother's power and prestige; Pedro, the licit heir, inherits honor and authority, the Bastard is born to shame and subjection. The frustrated malcontent is obsessed by a desire to debase others as he himself has been debased, to cause suffering as he himself has suffered, and to dishonor as he himself has been dishonored. Act I, scene iv traces the Bastard's metamorphosis from passive malcontent railing at Fortune into an active villain eager to hamper the very alliance his brother is attempting to assure. At first John's mood is that of a muzzled mastiff unable to lick festering wounds. His ego smarts, he recalls his abortive revolt against his brother and winces at the very mention of Claudio, who had the “glory of his overthrow”; nothing will soothe his smarting pride except an opportunity to crush the “start up” Claudio, and to pit wit and will against those of his invulnerable brother. After hearing the report that the Prince intends to woo Hero for Claudio, John invites his cronies to help devise a means of forestalling the anticipated match.

Out of the kaleidoscopic merriment of the masked revelry scene—a perfect setting for a miniature comedy of errors—John emerges as matchbreaker (II.i.). Here, the villain pretends he has mistaken the masked Claudio for Benedick; Claudio, in turn, deliberately encourages the seeming error. So the curious youth (like the subplot lovers in II.iii, III.i) by eavesdropping hears more disturbing gossip than he had anticipated. The villain makes his dupe's ears tingle by confiding, “my brother … is enamor'd on Hero … dissuade him … she is no equal for his birth” (ll. 169-172).

The embittered lover releases pent emotions in a soliloquy: “Friendship is constant in all other things / Save in the office and affairs of love” (ll. 182-183). These verses condone Pedro's seeming violation of trust, the next lines bemoan beauty's mystic power to ensnare and to betray: “beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood. … Farewell, therefore, Hero!” (ll. 186-189). Reasoning in metaphorical absolutes, Claudio decides: Friendship shrivels in the flame of desire; his patron has become his rival; Hero who has bewitched the Prince is to blame; she alone is the source of dissension; she must be rooted out of Claudio's mind and heart.10 This sudden, short-lived rejection of Hero is a prelude to the longer lasting, more shocking repudiation at the altar.

Claudio's susceptibility to suspicion emanating from hearsay indicates that under stress the immature lover values friendship for the Prince, who appears faithless, above love for Hero, who appears fickle. When finally aware that both Claudio and Benedick assume Pedro has wooed Hero for himself, he assures them that he has not only won her for Claudio but has also gained Leonato's consent to an immediate betrothal. Obviously, John's initial attempt to frustrate his brother by destroying the Claudio-Hero alliance has been a fiasco. At this point, there is a triple irony of situation; on the one hand, John's abortive attempt to sow lasting dissension fails; on the other, neither the Prince nor his favorites suspect John of renewed treachery; and most ironical of all, the mutual faith binding the trio of gallants is strengthened by the very trial to which it was subjected.

In III.ii, the Prince and Count, who in the first half of the scene are genial jesters at Benedick's metamorphosis into an avowed lover, are themselves transformed in the second part to dazed dupes of John's calumny. This sort of ironical reversal, which is both typical of and recurrent in Much Ado, probes deeper beneath the surface of events than is customary in Shakespeare's earlier comedies. Toward the middle of III.ii, the matchbreaker traps the matchmaker and undermines Claudio's certainty that he will wed Hero on the morrow; by whipping up stock responses to illusory dishonor, John impels her admirers to become detractors. After arousing the apprehension of the Prince and Claudio by demanding a private conference on a mysterious matter which deeply concerns both patron and lover, the villain implies that if Claudio knew what John knows, he would shun marriage. The villain obliquely suggests a secret impediment which threatens honor; he implies, then asserts, Hero is unchaste; her unchastity is the impediment which must be faced (ll. 84-110). The entire process of leading up to the slander is calculatingly ambiguous. 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 make an immediate and irrevocable choice between tainted love or undefiled honor.

Mercilessly, John's defamatory taunts dare the beguiled Prince and Count to swear what they would do if the unchastity charge were true, before it has been proved true. Vacillating between faith that the unchastity charge is false and fear that it is true, Claudio resolves his dilemma with the promise, “If I see anything to-night why I should not marry her to-morrow, in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her” (ll. 126-128). And the Prince adds, “as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her” (ll. 129-130).

The repudiation scene (IV.i), the adroitly delayed climax of the malicious hoax, depicts prescribed response to apparent unchastity. John's hoax, never staged, intermittently reported—part slander, part timing, part mistaken identity, part perjured witness, and part duped witnesses—creates an illusion of dishonor that engenders delusion and revulsion. Convinced that father and daughter have connived to conceal Hero's unchastity at the expense of her bridegroom's honor, Claudio enters the church determined to turn the tables by publicly shaming those who had conspired to dishonor him. On the other hand, Leonato, confident that he is about to witness a union of virtue and valor, is perplexed but not deeply disturbed when Claudio, with the deliberate ruthlessness of a disillusioned idealist, turns the words of the marriage ceremony itself into an inquisitor's catechism (ll. 11-31). Soon, cryptic quibbles about secret impediments turn into outright rejection, as Claudio cries, “She's but the sign and semblance of her honour. … Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty” (ll. 34-43).

Vainly, Leonato seeks reassurance from the Prince, who scoffs, “I stand dishonour'd that have gone about / To link my dear friend to a common stale” (ll. 65-66). After Hero denies guilt, Pedro challenges her denial: “Upon mine honour, / Myself, my brother, and this grieved count / Did see her, hear her … Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window; / Who hath … Confess'd the vile encounters” (ll. 89-94). John, at the height of his Pyrrhic victory, gloats, “pretty lady, / I am sorry for thy much misgovernment” (ll. 99-100). In riddling oxymoron Claudio laments the loss of love and faith: “But fare the [sic] well, most foul, most fair! Farewell, / Thou pure impiety, and impious purity! / For thee I'll lock up all the gates of love, … turn all beauty into thoughts of harm” (ll. 104-108). Again, as in the initial rejection (II.i), Claudio fears and denounces the enigmatic power of defiled beauty. Struck by irony, hyperbole, antithesis, and paradox, the thread of laughter vibrates fitfully as deluded father and lover grapple with illusory unchastity.

Leonato, convinced of Hero's infamy, thinks of his dishonor, not of her plight; he demands, “Hath no man's dagger here a point for me?” (l. 110). Perhaps the audience are not unduly perturbed, since the Watch have overheard Borachio's inadvertent confession (III.iii), and even though neither Dogberry nor Verges understands the tenor of the drunkard's babblings, the audience does. Nevertheless, though the audience may be certain that Hero is belied, her father, her bridegroom, and the Prince, convinced of her guilt, play their roles with tragic intensity. Leonato's despair submerges his judgment, he accepts appearance for reality, perjury for proof; love turns to loathing, his cherished daughter dwindles from virgin to wanton (ll. 122-144). Obsessed by illusory dishonor, the Bastard's dupes intensify their own seriocomic ordeals. The malicious hoax has created havoc. There is a realignment of forces, the duped patron, the embittered lover, and the distracted father flee into John's camp to escape contagion! Friendship displaces courtship or fatherhood; male honor withdraws from female defilement. The Lady is a harlot; let her die for shame. Theirs is the stock response of their caste, the rigidity of the courtly code sanctions little compassion for frailty or dishonor.

The repudiation scene, examined with the courtly code of honor in mind, is much more than a coup de théâtre. In terms of Renaissance mores, it is a scene of poignant disillusionment and despair. In the conflict between appearance and reality, between emotion and reason, tension increases when lover turns inquisitor and father turns executioner. Here, in a conflict between good and evil, truth clashes with error in a charged atmosphere of contradictory moods and shifting relationships while the outraged moral sense oscillates between absolute praise and absolute blame. Here, when malice triumphs, shame so submerges compassion that slander, mirage, and perjury are accepted as ocular and auditory proof. Incensed by defiled honor, men argue in absolutes shorn from any rational mean, and under the aegis of the courtly code act and react with prescribed cruelty.

The significance of the Friar's role, in and after the climax, has never been recognized; it is his wisdom that casts out the demons of despair; it is his compassion that substitutes symbolic death for literal death. After the exit of the Count and Princes, Hero revives from the swoon that resembles death. Leonato, convinced that Hero is “mir'd with infamy”, believes honor prescribes that she, like Lucrece, should literally die for shame. That is why he cries, “O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand. / Death is the fairest cover for her shame” (ll. 116-117). The Friar, aided by Benedick and Beatrice, gradually leads the distraught father's thoughts from fatalistic acceptance of shame to active vindication of honor. After the Friar argues that “ocular proof” may be an illusion, and after Benedick suggests that the Bastard belies Hero, Leonato's wrath turns from his daughter's shame to her detractors' slander. Leonato urges vindication through bloodshed. The Friar prefers a ruse designed to change slander to remorse: “She dying, as it must be so maintain'd, / Upon the instant that she was accus'd, / Shall be lamented, pitied, and excus'd” (ll. 216-218).

What is trite chronological narrative in Bandello and Beverley becomes foreshadowing through prophesy in Much Ado, as the Friar foresees and foretells the psychology of Claudio's remorse: “When he shall hear she died upon his words, / Th' idea of her life shall sweetly creep / Into his study of imagination” (ll. 225-227). Throughout his incisively truncated recantation, Claudio does mourn; throughout his rapt vigil he mourns the martyr slain by slanderous tongues. Hero, glowing with more than mortal glory, does rise before his inner eye. In the penultimate scene, the vision which elevates Hero displaces the illusion which debased her. The intensity of Claudio's remorse atones for the cruelty of the public repudiation at the altar.11 Staged in retarded tempo, embellished by stylized movement, haunting music, and appropriate lighting, the recantation scene not only ennobles Claudio, who lost stature in the repudiation scene, but also sanctifies his delayed union with Hero. To appreciate the organic unity of Much Ado in terms of illusion and metamorphosis—the tense climax (IV.i), the evocative recantation (V.iii), and the animated denouement (V.iv) must be envisioned, though they seldom are, as mutually illuminating.

The recantation scene, a miniature masque, depicts the ritual of expiation performed by Claudio, shortly before his union with Leonato's “niece.” By torchlight, Claudio, accompanied by his Prince and several other witnesses, solemnly approaches Hero's ancestral tomb to propitiate her “bones” and absolve his blood guilt. The tapers flicker on the mourning weeds of the celebrants, as, bowed with contrition, Claudio ascends the seven steps of atonement. The lyric intensity of this requiem masque is heightened by the hour, the setting, and the allusion: (1) The scroll which bears the epitaph is unrolled; (2) the retraction is read aloud before hushed mourners, “So the life that died with shame / Lives in death with glorious fame” (ll.7-8); (3) symbolically, the recantation is eternized by hanging the epitaph-bearing scroll on the tomb, “Praising her when I am dumb [dead]” (l.10); (4) the music is prelude to a dirge burdened with contrition and a plea that the penitents responsible for the virgin's death be forgiven, “Pardon, goddess of the night, / Those that slew thy virgin knight” (ll.12-13); (5) with ritualistic solemnity, the procession circles the tomb; (6) as coup de grâce, Claudio, still intent upon perpetuating the bitter-sweet memory of his betrothed, pledges, “unto thy bones good night! / Yearly will I do this rite” (ll.22-23); (7) finally, with an insight which begets empathy, Claudio, aware that he is no longer Fortune's favorite, begs Hymen to guard Leonato's “niece” from the woes experienced by his daughter, “Hymen now with luckier issue [speed's] / Than this for whom we rend'red up this woe” (ll. 32-33).

The power of language to create an illusion which either elevates or debases a relationship has been stressed not only in our comparison of the function of illusion in the subplot with that in the main plot, but also in our integration of the shifting imagery with the ironies and reversals clustering about the three transfigurations. Our integration of imagery with action demonstrates that the precarious equilibrium of the volatile aristocrats is disturbed less by ocular illusion than by verbal delusion; in the crises, not ocular proof but hearsay and insinuation twist suspicion into assurance. The sporadic word-play on “die for love” which snares the wary couple into both declarations and reaffirmations of reciprocal love is paralleled by the more grim and pervasive word play on “die for shame” which first separates, then, after literal death is transmuted into symbolic death, finally unites the hearsay-crossed pair.

The tantalizing ambiguities in the subplot lovers' repartee of courtship has fascinated critics; but even the most astute commentators have ignored the multifaceted word-play on death which centers on Hero's transfigurations. This intricate pattern of calculated ambiguity sustains suspense throughout the falling action: the climax ends with the Friar's paradox, “die to live”; the three challenges of Claudio are justified by the iterated refrain, slander slew Hero; Claudio recants by playing variations on the theme, “done to death by slanderous tongues”; and finally, in the denouement, martyred Hero, who “died defil'd,” is reborn through vindicated fame and becomes the bride of Claudio, who, chastened by remorse and atonement, becomes a more deserving bridegroom.

The contrast between the adroit use and the maladroit abuse of language which distinguishes the speech of Dogberry, Verges, and the Watch from that of the articulate aristocrats is no less self evident than an endless source of delight. The aptly inept word-play of Dogberry and his flunkies has been explored with gusto—not only as an end in itself, as a means of characterization, and as a comic foil for the subtler wit of Benedick and Beatrice, but also as a technical device for delaying the exposure of John's defamation. Word-play in Much Ado, unlike that in the earlier romantic plays, is ever closely integrated with and dependent on action—as it runs the gamut from broad low comedy to sophisticated high comedy. Laughter in Much Ado is frequently ironic; pervasively reflective. The symbolism in the much maligned main plot is at least as significant as is the comic potential in the deliberate use and inadvertent abuse of language in the subplots. The enigmatic word-play of John, Hero, Claudio, Leonato, and the Friar, too long overlooked, is at least as important for a balanced appraisal of tone, structure, and values as are the inimitable ineptitudes of Dogberry and Verges, or the widely heralded witticisms of Benedick and Beatrice.12

Much Ado (1598-1599), as we interpret it, is closer in spirit to Henry IV (1597-1598) than to the two joyous comedies (As You Like It, 1599-1600; Twelfth Night, 1599-1600) with which it is generally associated. Written contemporaneously, the comedy of private conflict and the chronicle of public strife, though seldom compared, are reciprocally illuminating. The accent in both plays is on honor; dishonor in the comedy is illusory, dishonor in the history play is real. Honor, in the one, is viewed in terms of seeming and being; honor, in the other, is discussed in terms of a mean contrasted with two extremes.13 The conflict in the comedy centers on feminine honor sullied by slander; that in the chronicle, on male honor tainted by cowardice or foolhardiness. The dominant ethos in both plays is rooted in the courtly code that prescribes modesty and chastity for women, valor and loyalty for men. In the comedy all four attributes of honor come into play; in the chronicle where the attributes of feminine honor are less relevant, the interest is centered on the attributes of masculine honor.

The tragicomic ordeals in Troilus and Cressida (1602-1603) which culminate in disillusionment and the serio-comic ordeals in Much Ado which culminate in delusion differ less in tone than in sustained intensity. Both center on violated fidelity; real violation in the former, seeming violation in the latter. Whereas Claudio's delusion can be and is dispelled by exposing its contrived origin, Troilus' disillusionment, battening on mutability, corrodes faith in love and in valor. The implications of the action in the problem play are predominantly cynical largely because the amorous entanglements of Priam's sons are as costly to the walled Trojans as the bickering between the strategists and warriors is to the encamped Greeks. The oath of fealty, the Achilles tendon of the chivalric code, is stretched to the snapping point, no less by the deteriorating military alliances between the Greeks than by the amatory misalliances and political expediencies of the two willful Trojan princes.14

Troilus, enmeshed in his own casuistry, is first apostle and later victim of appetite; his own misalliance like his sophistic defence of Paris' stolen love is steeped in bitter irony. The fine amour of Troilus, abetted by Pandar, culminates in copulation and is interrupted by the fortunes of war. Separation imminent, Troilus insists upon iterated vows of eternal fidelity which the worldly-wise Cressida reluctantly swears. Later, after his unsuspected rival in turn appropriates Troilus' mistress, his love-tokens, and his charger, his love affair shatters into irrational disillusionment. Betrayed, in varying degrees, by Fortune, by Cressida, by Paris, and by his own rash words and acts, Troilus, seemingly impervious to death, hazards foolhardy valor.

Finally shocked out of the confines of the wish to die into the realm of Trojan survival by the murder of Hector, Troilus belatedly comes of age when he instinctively dons his slain brother's mantle by assuming leadership of a doomed nation. Seen in the light of pagan-humanism, the subsequent repudiation of Pandarus is an additional indication that Troilus, seasoned by ordeal, frees himself from the debilitating influence of Paris and dedicates his valor and his future to Hector's vision of enduring glory. Throughout the martial as well as throughout the extra-marital crises in this controversial play, character, dialogue, and incident fuse in an enigmatic atmosphere of cosmic irony which grows less oppressive in V.x, where Troilus' spirit soars above self-indulgence and adversity.15

The similarities between Much Ado and Othello (1604-1605) are more numerous than are those between any other comedy and tragedy in the entire Shakespeare canon. The exciting force in both plays is an alliance between virtue and valor which the villain intends to destroy by creating an illusion that the heroine is unchaste. In the comedy the first four scenes—in the tragedy the first three scenes—are treated as a prelude to the main action; a prelude in which the villain's initial attempt to create havoc fails. In both plays a strong-willed villain is substituted for the rival lover of the source. In both, the power of insinuation to engender, heighten, and sustain relatively flimsy ocular proof is stressed.

The process by which the villain dupes the gullible soldier-lover, the illusion by which faith is transformed into doubt, love into loathing, and pride into shame—is fundamentally the same in the two plays. The delusions of both bridegrooms—the recurrent lapses into soul-searing dichotomies, the tensions between emotion and will—are expressed in oxymoron. The heroine's inability to foresee and cope with the hero's change in attitude toward her is similar in kind, though in the tragedy increased in degree. Honor in each case is a compulsive force which incites the warrior-lover in the comedy to cruelty; in the tragedy, to crime. The cultural milieu, the philosophical, and ethical assumptions in Much Ado, Troilus and Cressida, and Othello are similar. In all three, the fallibility of the senses and the vulnerability of reason contribute to the mutability of fame and glory. Illusion, which shatters into metamorphosis and culminates in ironic disillusionment, characterizes the tone of the climax in Much Ado, the falling action of Othello, and almost the entire action of Troilus and Cressida.


  1. All these points are covered by Brander Matthews, Shakespeare as Playwright (New York, 1913), pp. 152-156. In modified form, and with varying emphasis, they are restated by: Oscar James Campbell, The Living Shakespeare … (New York, 1949); Hardin Craig, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951); George Lyman Kittredge, Sixteen Plays of Shakespeare … (Boston, 1946); William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill, The Complete Plays … (Cambridge, Mass., 1942); Thomas Marc Parrott, Shakespeare: Twenty-three Plays … (New York, 1938).

  2. A preliminary version of this article was presented in a paper read at the MLA [Modern Language Association], Sept., 1949.

  3. For distinguished comments on the philosophic and aesthetic implications of “noting-nothing” see Paul A. Jorgensen, “Much Ado About ‘Nothing,’” SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] V (1954), 287-295.

  4. Citations from Shakespeare in our text are to The Complete Plays, ed. W. A. Neilson and C. J. Hill (1942).

  5. Ed. Walter Raleigh (London, 1900).

  6. Charles T. Prouty, The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing … (New Haven, Conn., 1950). The “lost” text of Peter Beverley's adaptation from the Orlando Furioso is here reprinted for the first time—pp. 76-140.

  7. See G. L. Kittredge's notes on cuckoldry, p. 133 et passim.

  8. Curtis Brown Watson, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor (Princeton, 1960): “much modern Shakespeare criticism reveals, on many key points of ‘interpretation’, … historical ignorance … [and] a basic lack of sympathy with Renaissance pagan-humanist values in general and Shakespeare in particular … our critics are often insufficiently aware of their own preconceptions and of the many respects in which our democratic ideals in the 20th century basically contradict the aristocratic assumptions of Elizabethan society” (p. 9 et passim).

  9. T. M. Raysor, Coleridge's Shakespeare Criticism (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), I, 226.

  10. Cf. C. T. Prouty, Sources—friendship is reduced to “a conventional tag”, p. 9 et passim.

    See Kittredge on “image magic” (p. 119, l. 187). Combining his suggestion of literal black magic with the more obvious implication of metaphorical witchcraft explains why Claudio momentarily envisions Hero as a Medea, and instinctively rejects her. Perhaps he recalls that his knowing friend Benedick, wary of Beatrice, compared her to the “the infernal Ate in good apparel” (II.i.263).

  11. Despite varied explanations of Claudio's motive for rejecting Hero before the altar, most critics still agree that the repudiation is unforgivably cruel, and that his repentance is an inadequate atonement for his offence. Professor Prouty argues that Claudio, a realistic not a romantic lover, needs no apology for publicly rejecting a damaged bride who apparently defrauds him, since his was merely a “mariage de convenance” (Sources, p. 46)—“essentially a business arrangement” (p. 50). Conversely, Miss Dorothy C. Hockey points out that Much Ado loses “meaning” if we assume with Miss Nadine Page (“The Public Repudiation of Hero”, PMLA [Publications of the Modern Language Association of America], L (1935), 739-744) and Professor Prouty “that Claudio is merely making a typical realistic Elizabethan marriage …” (Citation from Miss Hockey). If depicted as a mercenary not a romantic lover, why should Claudio grieve at the idea of a stolen Hero? “Why should he sing romantically at her tomb and promise to repeat the rite each year? “Notes, Notes, Forsooth …,” SQ, VIII (1957), 356, n. 10. For a cogent critique of Prouty's Sources, for insights into Shakespeare's alterations of Ariosto, Bandello, et al., and for a novel apology—see Kerby Neill, “More Ado About Claudio: An Acquittal for the Slandered Groom,” SQ III (1952), 91-107.

  12. For recent comment on the wit of Benedick and Beatrice see G. K. Hunter, Shakespeare: The Late Comedies (London, 1962), pp. 22, 26-32. For a more comprehensive discussion see A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns … (London, 1916). His pertinent comparison of “Wit with nitwit” is focused on the “linguistic mishaps and semantic excesses of Dogberry,” p. 70 et passim. His distinctions between quibble and relevant wit (pp. 68-69), and his theory of “two-eyedness” (a facet of word-play) as the source of the serio-comic is stimulating (p. 62 et passim).

  13. For a recent amplification of this point, see Alan S. Downer, William Shakespeare: Five Plays (New York …, 1957), p. xiii.

  14. For five provocative interpretations see Discussions of Shakespeare's Problem Comedies, ed. Robert Ornstein (Boston, 1961), pp. 1-34.

  15. Our reading of V.x is partially anticipated in a generally ignored footnote in The Art and Life of William Shakespeare by Hazelton Spencer (New York, 1940): “Troilus does not fail; Cressida fails him, but that failure rather strengthens the fibre of his nature, as Coleridge saw, so that … after the death of Hector he comes forward as the leader of the Trojans. (‘Troilus and Cressida,’ London Times Literary Supplement, May 19, 1932, pp. 357-358.)”—p. 409, n. 1.

Page R. Laws (review date 2002)

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SOURCE: Laws, Page R. “Much Ado About Nothing.Theatre Journal 54, no. 2 (2002): 305-07.

[In the following review, Laws describes how New York's Aquila Theatre Company successfully turned Much Ado about Nothing into a giddy spoof of television's secret agent shows of the 1960s and 1970s.]

Shakespeare's classic insights on true love's weal and woe still prove uncannily accurate whether actors wear tights or no. There was certainly much undone to rev up Much Ado in The Aquila Theatre Company's outrageously premised 2001 touring production. The respected Anglo-American company based at New York University turned the 1599 comedy into a spoof of 1960s-70s TV and film secret agents. Messina becomes Spy-versus-Spy Land; there is little loss of the play's essence in the temporal transfer and a surprising gain in its inherent giddiness (cf. Benedick's “for man is a giddy thing and this is my conclusion” [5.4.108-9]).

Shakespeare's themes of love versus war and love as war are well intact. The recently demobbed Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are looking for love in all the right places. Peter Meineck, Aquila's Producing Artistic Director and Robert Richmond, Associate Director and author of this adaptation, give us a rectangle of rope laid on a bare stage to mark the sparring area where this “merry war” (1.1.62) between the sexes takes place. The eight cast members, many doubling or tripling roles, are clad, if female, in skin-tight black shiny vinyl (sort of a James Bond-age look) and, if male, in black bowlers and suits resembling the get-ups of John Steed of TV's 1960s Avengers series. Both sexes spend a lot of time vamping and then freezing in tableaux. They form martial silhouettes of gun-shooters and kung fu fighters against red or blue-lit backgrounds, much in the manner of a Bond film's opening credits. The clue and indeed the glue to the whole stylization is Anthony Cochrane's musical score, full of twanging electric guitar, creeping xylophone and suspenseful bongos. It is derivative of 007 film scores, but that is just the satiric point. Cochrane, who also plays a sturdy Benedick, has composed an up-tempo, danceable version of “Hey nonny nonny” (2.3.62-74) that alone is worth the ticket price.

Robert Richmond's version of the play really lies on the borderline between an adaptation and a heavily cut original text production. Characters entirely cut out include Leonato's brother Antonio, Ursula, and such minor folks as Balthazar the singing attendant and Conrade, one of Don John's henchmen. The low comic crowd has been thinned out to just Dogberry (Louis Butelli imitating Henry Winkler's “the Fonz”) and Verges (Nathan Flower). The duping of Beatrice (Lisa Carter) has been moved from an outdoor bower to an indoor table scene, allowing for some admirably theatrical shtick. The play's cleverest effects are wrought, in fact, with stools, newspapers and expert timing. The tomb song has been cut, a move possibly misguided on Richmond's part, given the play's general tip towards the frivolous. We never really feel Claudio's (Nathan Flower) anguish when his misplaced machismo apparently prompts Hero's (Shirleyann Kaladjian) death. Other cuts include some of the lengthier “quibbles,” to borrow Dr. Johnson's term, plus the removal of lines offensive to the modern ear (e.g., “If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain; if I do not love her, I am a Jew” [2.3.262-63]). Inevitably, however, when coupled with certain acting decisions, such cuts do take their toll on characterization. Don John, played as a less-than-threatening automaton by Louis Butelli, could and should be much darker. Hero could likewise show more capacity for suffering. Amid the flashing lights of this brightly-colored mod version, we are blinded to the darker elements of Shakespeare's chiaroscuro work.

A welcome exception to the caricaturing of the characters is a Don Pedro (Richard Willis) who suggests the poignancy of being the odd lover out. He must act as a Cyrano wooing Hero for his friend Claudio and we see he could be attracted to Beatrice, were she not already spoken for in the comic dance by her natural partner, sharp-tongued Benedick. While Anthony Cochrane holds his own as Benedick, there is little chemistry between Carter, the best actor in this capable cast, and himself. And given the potential poignancy of Don Pedro being left without a mate, it seems unwise to have him cavorting with sluttish Margaret (Cameron Blair) in the comic finale, a swinging reprise of “Hey nonny nonny.”

What is really gained for the audience in this updating is the fun of catching the rapid, pop cultural allusion. Although Beatrice is no Mrs. Peele (the Avenger immortalized by Diana Rigg), the two women do have their quick wits in common. Both are liberated ladies who naturally come across as shrews to a misogynist. Likewise, Charlie's Angels figures prominently, with the three female actors taking every opportunity to strike a triple Angelic pose. In the masked party scene, the males sport phallic noses reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. And Alex Webb's (Leonato's) stiff mechanical arm—not very funny here—is arguably borrowed from Kubrick's comedy Dr. Strangelove.

In Aquila's Much Ado, the gain in giddiness seemed worth the loss in darkness and the narrowing of each actor's performance range to fit the cartoonish concept. But that is only so because we have Shakespeare's text to come home to, after all is said and done.

Toby Young (review date 17 August 2002)

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SOURCE: Young, Toby. “Unapologetic Crowd-Pleaser.” Spectator 289, no. 9080 (17 August 2002): 45-6.

[In the following review, Young declares he was completely won over by the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2002 production of Much Ado about Nothing, set in Mussolini's Italy.]

During the interval of Much Ado About Nothing, the RSC's summer block-buster, I sidled up to Ned Sherrin in the bar and started peppering him with questions. Why does Don John hate his brother? What's the back story? And how does Don John hope to get his revenge on his brother by sabotaging the marriage of Hero and Claudio?

“I know your game,” said the presenter of Loose Ends. “You want to find out how it ends so you can leave without having to sit through the second half.”

If he'd said this to me at either of the other plays I saw last week he would have been right, but in this case he was wrong. At the beginning of the evening I was prepared for the worst, having sat through eight other RSC productions in the past year, but by the time the interval rolled around I was completely won over. Much Ado About Nothing is the best Shakespeare production I've seen since taking over this column.

Set in Italy under Mussolini, it's an unapologetic crowd-pleaser, with plenty of song-and-dance routines, a beautiful heroine in the form of Kirsten Parker and two scorching central performances by Harriet Walter and Nicholas Le Prevost. Le Prevost is particularly good as Benedick, whom he plays as an irascible old drunk who's rescued by the love of a good woman. The scene in which he challenges Claudio to a duel, having been put up to it by Beatrice, is absolutely spellbinding. Claudio and his patron, Don Pedro, can hardly believe it when their old sidekick, a buffoon who's used to singing for his supper, unexpectedly lays down the gauntlet. Can this be the same Benedick who usually trots at their heels like a trained poodle? Le Prevost appears to grow before your eyes until he towers above his former masters, terrifying them out of their codpieces. It's heart-stopping stuff.

C. O. Gardner (essay date October 1977)

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SOURCE: Gardner, C. O. “Beatrice and Benedick.” Theoria 49 (October 1977): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Gardner argues that Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing are not always given their full due as lively, exciting, and even weighty characters.]

Another essay on Beatrice and Benedick! … This one is offered, needless to say, in the belief that there is still more to be said about them. It is not offered, however, in the belief that most of what has been said so far is false. On the contrary, my impression is that, though misinterpretations and inadequate accounts have of course been perpetrated, a fairly large proportion of what has been written about these two characters—and perhaps indeed about Shakespeare's work in general—is valid. Shakespeare was, as Coleridge has said, myriad-minded; many different intuitions about the plays and many different points of view seem to be able to complement one another (though I don't believe, as some recent critics seem to, that two quite contradictory interpretations of a play are permissible). Moreover Shakespeare has called forth, as one might have expected, the liveliest imaginativeness in many of those who have tried to articulate their response to him.

If then this essay is in any sense a ‘revaluation’ of Beatrice and Benedick, it is certainly not an attempt to present a completely new assessment of these two characters and their significance. I am attempting, rather, to revalue them in the sense in which the word is now used by economists: I hope to increase their value, or rather (in literature it amounts to the same thing) to increase our awareness of their value. And indeed—particularly at a time when in the affairs of the mind and the heart as well as in the field of finance devaluation seems usual—there is perhaps some point in setting forth once again the notion that the best task of criticism is to add to our ability to apprehend, and our reasons for valuing, the greatest literature.

My subject is Beatrice and Benedict rather than Much Ado About Nothing as a whole. The reason for this is not that I believe that the two most important characters in the play can be completely detached from their context, but simply that it is about them—or, to be more precise, about the parts of the play which they appear in or affect—that I have something to say. A great deal has been written in the last twenty-five years about the play as a whole; the chief question that has been discussed is the success or failure of the Claudio-Hero plot. I do not propose to reopen the discussion here. I myself am content—or almost content—to acquiesce in the view of those who hold that the play is effectively unified—that it does indeed ‘come off.’


What I wish to suggest is that, for all the perceptive and admiring comments they have evoked, Beatrice and Benedick have still not been given their full due. No critic, as far as I have been able to discover, has sufficiently recognized and accounted for the excitement and the fellow-feeling that from the very first—it seems to me—they arouse in reader or audience. We do not associate ourselves with them entirely, of course: we know that they are only partly conscious of what they are doing—playing an aggressive paradoxical game in which, fairly clearly, for both of them, failure and success are going to coincide. But there is, within and beneath their ‘merry war,’ a node of magical, almost Dionysian delight which has not yet been given proper critical definition.

There has never been any difficulty in appreciating the liveliness, the intelligence and the wit of Beatrice and Benedick; but critics have failed properly to detect the undercurrents out of which the jets of life and humour erupt. We find J. R. Mulryne, for example, saying in a recent study:

Critics have never been in doubt as to the dominant figures of the play's first movement. … Nor is there dispute about the type of experience these two figures convey. ‘The mirth of Beatrice (and no less that of Benedick) is an outbreak of the joyous energy of life’ (Dowden); ‘… the exuberant quality of lively minds which strike fire by scoring off each other … competitive vitality’ (Rossiter); ‘gay, light-hearted critics of every illusion’ (J. R. Brown). These are phrases typical of the agreed response: abundant vitality, gaiety, self-confidence, a brilliantly witty command of language, are the qualities all of us respond to, and which bulk large in our experience of the play's initial movement.1

These descriptions of Beatrice and Benedick are clearly very far from being false; indeed they seem to me vivid and eloquent. But they fall short of true comprehensiveness, I believe, in placing so much of their emphasis upon the spirit implied in ‘mirth,’ ‘competitive,’ ‘light-hearted,’ ‘gaiety’: they do not suggest the stature and the weight of the two comic-heroic (not mock-heroic) protagonists.

An earlier critic, George Sampson, recognizes something of this weight when he declares that ‘it is not a paradox to say that the comedy of Beatrice and Benedick is the only serious part of Much Ado.2 But then he goes on to say that ‘it is the best of human comedy, because it is near to tragedy’ and to suggest that the two ‘fine spirits’ are ‘conscious of each other's powers and therefore instinctively hostile through fear’—thus (while hitting part of the truth) misjudging the confident self-delighting energy which animates both of them at almost every moment, and which maintains a pressure and a tone that we know are never really in danger of becoming tragic.

A few recent critics bring us somewhat closer to what seems to me a fuller account of the interplay between Beatrice and Benedick. David Horowitz quotes Professor Andrew Chiappe as saying:

Benedick and Beatrice rail at each other, which is proper for civilized people in love, because love implies the greatest of indignities to be suffered: to give oneself.3

Horowitz himself adds, later: ‘The very basis of their resistance to the notion of human love was their precise knowledge of what was at stake;’ and: ‘Their critical realism gives to the bond that is between them a resilient strength.’4 Valuable as these remarks are, however, Horowitz does not tell us very much about the state of mind and heart from which such resistance and such ‘realism’ spring. We are told considerably more both about the protagonists and about their effect upon us by R. A. Foakes:

Perhaps it is not so much the quality of their witty exchanges that makes them such powerful and vibrant figures, as the energy and skill with which they parry each other, and so preserve a stance of tough-minded independence.5

The words ‘powerful,’ ‘vibrant,’ ‘energy,’ ‘skill,’ and perhaps ‘parry’ take us towards the core of the relationship; but ‘preserve a stance,’ though it is of course partly justified by the deceptions and self-deceptions that are an important aspect of what makes us laugh, fails to convey the reality of the desire, or partial desire, for ‘tough-minded independence.’ Foakes seems (to me) unable to conceptualize what he has intuitively felt. Later in his essay he slips into a more conventional and limited account of the play's concerns:

The supremity of intelligence, or wit, in the values of the world of the play helps to account for both its brilliance, and its prose. The brilliance is achieved centrally in Beatrice and Benedick, but a price is paid for it; there is a coolness about the gaiety of this world, where to score a point in conversation matters most.6

Perhaps the best brief account of the significance of Beatrice and Benedick is that of G. K. Hunter. In his formulations we sense a responsiveness that is both highly sophisticated and thoroughly lively:

Beatrice is admirable … as an independent person, whose high spirits express an individual control over her own happiness. It is not for her, in following the downward path described by Congreve's Millamant as ‘by degrees dwindl[ing] into a wife,’ to have the independence knocked out of her by masculine violence, however jovial.7

… The wariness and defensive banter of Beatrice and Benedick, their unwillingness to abandon self-sufficiency or commit themselves too far—as we may suppose Claudio does, with his ‘I give myself away for you, and dote upon the exchange’—can be seen as a proper poise.8

Even these statements, however, seem to me to do less than justice to what I have tentatively called the Dionysian element in the emotions and reactions of the protagonists—the startling and wonderful ferocity of their exchanges. In fact Hunter appears even to distrust this ferocity when he says: ‘But the nearness of Beatrice to a shrew must be faced and admitted if we are to preserve the balance of the play.’9 It is true, of course, that Beatrice, like Benedick, is shown to be wrong, or partly wrong, in some of her earlier assertions, that she can be said to change her mind; but we are, I believe, so aware—consciously or unconsciously—of the creative vitality within her earlier attitude that we cannot accept the word ‘shrew.’ Hunter himself seems a little uneasy about the sentence that I have been commenting on, for he continues: ‘Admitting the quality of aggression in her nature is not quite the same thing as condemning her. …’ The view which I shall put forward is that her aggression is an important part of what we feel to be her glory.

Useful contributions towards a full understanding of Beatrice and Benedick have been made by some of those critics who have responded to the fact that Much Ado About Nothing represents, more richly than any other play of Shakespeare's, the Renaissance spirit at its most assured and its most splendid—the spirit that we associate with Castiglione and with the portraits of young men and women painted by Raphael and Titian. Some of the statements made by D. L. Stevenson are particularly pertinent. Speaking of what he calls Shakespeare's ‘love-game comedies,’ he says: ‘Their criticism of the accepted behaviour of lovers takes nourishment from all the humanistic forces working through Renaissance life.’10 Stevenson fills out this observation in his discussion of Lady Emilia Pia and Lord Gaspar Pallavicino, the two characters from The Book of the Courtier who have often been compared with Beatrice and Benedick:

The similarity of these two attendants at the court of Urbino to two of Shakespeare's dramatic characters is, it would appear, not so much causal as parallel. That is to say, once the Renaissance assumed the social and emotional equality of the sexes, love generally became not a question of acceptance or denial (as it was to Elyot), but a quarrel between the ideal and the psychologically possible. … It was a quarrel brought about by the sturdy, critical spirit of the age. … The attempt to accommodate a romantic attitude to the life of a gentleman and to the newly apprehended lady of the court, then, represents the intrusion of Renaissance reality into medieval courtly ideals whether illustrated in drama, in conduct book or in fact.11

Stevenson notes, too, that

… unlike the characters in Love's Labour's Lost and in As You Like It, Beatrice and Benedick remain as shrewdly enlightened creatures of the Renaissance after they have agreed to marry as they were before. … Benedick's statement to Beatrice, ‘Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,’ is a fitting summary of the implications to be drawn from their particular courtship.12


I pray you, is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars, or no?
I know none of that name, lady; there was none such in the army of any sort.
What is he that you ask for, niece?
My cousin means Signor Benedick of Padua.
O, he's returned, and as pleasant as ever he was.
He set up his bills here in Messina, and challenged Cupid at the flight, and my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subscribed for Cupid, and challenged him at the bird-bolt. I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed. For indeed, I promised to eat all of his killing.
Faith, niece, you tax Signor Benedick too much; but he'll be meet with you, I doubt it not.

(I i 28)13

Beatrice's first, memorable question betrays the concern of a potential lover. Yet her tone is flecked with an irony that contrives to be both aloof and playful. What strikes us most forcibly, however, in the opening sentence of the ‘merry war’ is its implied challenge—a challenge which is amusing but none the less real. The war, we soon grasp, though merry, is a war indeed. Beatrice's interest in Benedick and her mocking resistance to him are communicated simultaneously; and she pictures him in a state of combat—as a fencer, as indeed a master of the upward thrust.

Beatrice's opening remarks show, as most commentators have stressed, a large degree of witty control: those actresses who have attempted to play her as a spinster with a broad streak of neurotic cantankerousness have of course missed much of the humour and much of the point. But on the other hand we are in danger of losing contact with her—and, I believe, of denying some of our own deepest responses—if we allow ourselves to think of her as merely or mainly a witty young lady. Her control is superb; but it is something important that she is controlling, something which any lively and sensitive person must have had some experience of. What I wish to suggest is that Beatrice and Benedick evoke even more excitement than has been explicitly recognized because their concerns are more significant, more centrally a part of the human condition, than critics seem to have noticed.

He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it; he is a very valiant trencher-man, he hath an excellent stomach.
And a good soldier too, lady.
And a good soldier to a lady. But what is he to a lord?
A lord to a lord, a man to a man, stuffed with all honourable virtues.
It is so, indeed; he is no less than a stuffed man; but for the stuffing—well, we are all mortal.
You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war between Signor Benedick and her; they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.
Alas, he gets nothing by that. In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one; so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse; for it is all the wealth that he hath left, to be known a reasonable creature. Who is his companion now? He hath every month a new sworn brother.
Is't possible?
Very easily possible: he wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block.
I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books.
No; an he were, I would burn my study. …

(I i 44)

Beatrice's is a remarkable virtuoso performance, and it is clear that she is deriving from it the same kind of pleasure as the audience enjoys. Yet this is far from being mere performance. As a proud and noble creature she is displaying her plumage, but she is doing so not so much in order to show how worthy she is of a mate as to show how thoroughly she deserves to remain herself. She rejoices in herself, as well she might; but she feels her self-sufficiency threatened by the man to whom she is (largely unconsciously) attracted. The relentlessness with which she pursues Benedick with her mocking tongue indicates the gay and poised half-desperation of a person for whom attack seems somehow to have become the best method of defence. With comic exuberance she resists the menace so tryingly yet so piquantly thrown before her by life itself, indeed by her own emotions. She embraces Benedick in a spirit of joyous but serious contradiction and denial.

It is conventionally assumed that young men and young women drift naturally into love and mutual devotion and mutual service. Beatrice (like Benedick) is sufficiently proud and sufficiently perceptive to discern that this ‘natural process’ is in many respects highly unnatural—that it is in fact something of an outrage. She knows that her emotional and intellectual quality, her force of personality, must be given its due, must be given its head. And in implicitly asserting this she is—even though the play proves her partly wrong in the end—neither an emotional cripple, nor a crazed blue-stocking, nor even, like Congreve's Millamant (for whom one has very considerable sympathy), a self-consciously bewitching and somewhat over-sophisticated mademoiselle. Beatrice's protest against what she feels to be the intolerable laws both of life and of society springs from the healthy and intelligent vigour of her own self-delight. And it is impossible for the audience to be deeply critical of Beatrice's valuation of herself when it finds itself largely sharing that valuation: we like Beatrice, and, though our critical faculties are not wholly converted by her, distinctly we like her as she is.

Benedick's stand (for it is a stand rather than a stance) is fundamentally the same as Beatrice's. It is perhaps slightly less astonishing than hers, since we are rather more accustomed to rebellions and surprises in the behaviour of men. But the two protagonists are fairly evenly matched in their energy and in their attractiveness, and it is this fact, of course, which makes us steadily more aware that a very fine match could be made between them.

I wonder that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick; nobody marks you.
What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signor Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.
Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for, truly, I love none.
A dear happiness to women; they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor! I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that; I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.
Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way a' God's name, I have done.
You always end with a jade's trick; I know you of old.

(I i 108)

Again, one's immediate impression is of marvellously accomplished fun. But why is it that this snatch of dialogue is obviously so much more solid and significant than any fragment that one might select from Noel Coward or from Oscar Wilde or indeed from Congreve? In the words of Beatrice and Benedick, modulating as they do from controlled disdain to vigorous and brilliant abuse, there is a touch of living fierceness, an emotional pressure, which makes us constantly aware that we are in the presence not of skilled or even consummate artifice but of something which we are made—by the art, of course—to feel as a part of everyday reality.

I have expressed my disagreement with George Sampson's view that the drama of Beatrice and Benedick is ‘near to tragedy’: the tone of their exchanges is confidently and securely comic. But it is important to remember that great tragedy and great comedy, even at their purest, have rather more in common than perhaps we are in the habit of realising. Each represents a serious mode of apprehending human life. Even a discussion between Dogberry and Verges is appreciably less distant from the world of tragedy, less a denial of it, than a conversation between Algernon Moncrieff and Lady Bracknell. In this little altercation between Beatrice and Benedick—comic as it is—there are tensions and cross-currents of feeling that can perhaps be said to inhabit the same realm of being as those which a few years later were to express themselves in tragedy:

                                                                                O, thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!

(Othello, IV ii 66)

Indeed Shakespeare's great tragic period seems to result partly from his having recognized, as many other major Renaissance artists did, some of the flaws in—maybe the ultimate insufficiency of—the exuberant self-reliant world and spirit that Much Ado celebrates.

To pursue this line of thought, however, would be to leave the play behind. But it is necessary to grasp how real are the feelings, how sharp the cutting edge, embodied in the exchanges of Beatrice and Benedick. There may be some value, too, in bringing out a similarity that has not often been noted:

No, uncle, I'll none. Adam's sons are my brethren, and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.

(II i 55)

Why Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal. 'Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.

(I Henry IV, I ii 104)

Shall I never see a bachelor of threescore again? Go to, i'faith; an thou wilt needs thrust thy neck into a yoke, wear the print of it, and sigh away Sundays.

(I i 185)

I would you had but the wit: 'twere better than your dukedom. Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; nor a man cannot make him laugh; but that's no marvel, he drinks no wine.

(2 Henry IV, IV iii 85)14

Falstaff is, of course, incomparable; but no characters are closer to him, in some of his aspects, than Beatrice and Benedick. The movement of their lively and flexible prose cannot but remind us of his (it is interesting to note, incidentally, that Much Ado may well have been written immediately after Henry IV). Falstaff stands opposed to all the conventions of virtue and sober respectability and military honour; Beatrice and Benedick reject the norms of love and marriage. In him and in them we hear a call of nature that is wild, alarming, profound. Perhaps the chief feature of our response—if we allow ourselves to chart our feelings without prejudice—is a sense of liberation. We experience a gust of fresh and new air, not simply because it is delightful to abandon briefly the burdens of accepted knowledge and responsibility, but because Beatrice and Benedick and Falstaff are expressing and embodying a permanent, though perhaps inconvenient, facet of human truth. It is true that love and marriage—especially the conventional versions of these things—are an imposition upon decent freedom and self-respect, just as reputable life and honourable death are an affront to the ordinary human vitality which in Falstaff reaches almost titanic proportions. It is because they boldy incarnate bracing, life-giving truths that these three can be said to be heroes—albeit comic heroes.


It is worth asking why, if the challenge that they offer to conventional wisdom is an important one, Beatrice and Benedick should nevertheless be so richly comic.

Obviously we laugh at them partly because they are deluded or half-deluded: they erect stong and proud barriers against love, but of course amor vincit omnia. This aspect of the comedy, central though it is, I don't propose to deal with; it has been discussed often. We laugh too, with them as well as at them, because they are genial, witty, gamesome, exuberantly non-tragic. Their critique of the ways of society, for example, is pointedly different from Don John's; indeed Beatrice's shrewd comment on the latter tells us a good deal about her own quality: ‘How tartly that gentleman looks’ (II i 3). But perhaps the deepest vibration in our laughter forms part of our response to precisely that essentially serious challenge that I have been attempting to define.

Bergson stressed that comedy is born when living people, who should be alert and flexible, behave stiffly and mechanically. Beatrice and Benedick become, amusingly, if not mechanical at least predictable when they succumb to love. But in so far as they defy the norms of love and marriage (and this defiance they maintain, to some extent, to the very end of the play) they have the laugh of all the others—not only Claudio and Hero, indeed, but the reader or audience as well. Shakespeare turns comedy inside out: part of our pleasure lies in our own discomfiture; or rather, one part of ourselves mocks another part.

But the mocking of mechanical actions and reactions is perhaps only the negative side of the comedy. The humour that springs from Beatrice and Benedick does not only chastise: it rejoices. We enjoy the truth and reality of their intuitions as we enjoy all truth and reality. But we laugh, we undergo that peculiar form of nervous release, because we find ourselves in the presence of forces of life that are powerful and exhilarating, forces that bear us upwards—just as, in tragedy, we feel fearful because we encounter forces that chill us and bear down upon us. Beatrice and Benedick strike us as funny because they reveal new or partly new ways in which life, the life within us, is or may be fun; and an ancient, boisterous, partially iconoclastic recognition stirs in our depths. Laughter is a way of saluting life at its most propitious; almost effortlessly it searches out and proclaims nature beneath convention, the earth of the flesh beneath the air of theory, the heart's vital truth beneath the mind's cramped duty. Perhaps the key word or phrase is one that I have used once or twice already—self-delight. Self-delight, involving as it does relationships with other people's self-delight, is not a peaceful occupation, however: Beatrice and Benedick are ‘too wise to woo peaceably’ (V ii 66).

A maker of comedies, especially one who succeeds in getting us to laugh out at profound human truths, must write from a certain poise, a stance of relaxed humane vision. Stance and poise depend to a large extent, often, upon the state of the culture in which the writer finds himself; and yet the achievement itself must always belong ultimately to the artist himself. It is interesting to compare some of the assertions that Shakespeare formulates or enacts in Beatrice and Benedick with some rather similar assertions made or implied by D. H. Lawrence. Sometimes of course Lawrence can be very amusing in his treatment of the relationship between man and woman, as for instance at certain moments in the nouvelle The Captain's Doll. Perhaps rather more characteristic of him, however, is a passage like this, from Women in Love:

The old way of love seemed a dreadful bondage, a sort of conscription. What it was in him he did not know, but the thought of love, marriage, and children, and a life lived together, in the horrible privacy of domestic and connubial satisfaction, was repulsive. He wanted something clearer, more open, cooler, as it were. … On the whole, he hated sex, it was such a limitation. It was sex that turned a man into a broken half of a couple, the woman into the other broken half. And he wanted to be single in himself, the woman single in herself.15

In writing these words, Lawrence is clearly feeling the need to open up a new path for human attitudes and actions. The Shakespeare of Much Ado, on the other hand, seems almost to watch the new path opening of its own accord, and he enjoys fully the implications of what he sees. Lawrence, great as he is, tends often to insist upon the validity of the vision that he is expounding (even though, when he is writing at his best, he manages to detach himself from his protagonists), whereas Shakespeare, for all the punch and fire of Beatrice and Benedick, appears content to allow their vigorous truths to unfold freely and in the end to merge harmoniously into the total meaning of the play.

And yet at the same time, Shakespeare is never guilty of that partial irresponsibility which one associates with most of the comedy of the Restoration period: his humour is always deeply life-giving and therefore serious. Indeed, if Shakespeare's vision in this play is on the whole more generous and relaxed than Lawrence's, it is obviously more wholesome than that of the Restoration dramatists. Their plays are marred by sophistication; the thought is often over-elaborated, while the feeling tends to become salacious. In Beatrice and Benedick wit and emotion, liveliness and humour are one.

The fact that the hero and heroine live and have their being in prose is not fundamentally to be explained in terms of (to use Foakes's words) ‘the supremity of intelligence, or wit, in the values of the world of the play.’ In Much Ado, as in several of the other plays Shakespeare wrote between about 1597 and 1602, prose is often the instrument of ‘nature’ as against artificiality or emotional narrowness. Our knowledge that Shakespeare is the greatest of poets seems often to blind us to the fact that in five or six of his plays he chose to make many of his most imaginative and disturbing formulations in prose rather than in verse. He seems at this time to have felt that the number of thoughts and feelings that could be crystallized in verse, or at least in his own verse as it had developed up to that point, was limited, and thus verse was able at times to become for him the vehicle for attitudes of mind and heart which lack the full weight of passionate commitment. One of Benedick's comments on the love-sick Claudio may well contain something of the playwright's own feeling on these matters:

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

(II iii 18)

There can be little doubt that the new vigour and flexibility that we find in the verse of the great tragedies stems from the period in which Shakespeare cultivated the virtues of prose.


No critic of any importance has failed to respond to the brilliance and the power of the exchange in which Beatrice tells Benedick to kill Claudio. Its full significance and its relation to what has happened earlier in the play have not, however, been generally recognized. It is certainly true that the protagonists reveal themselves in this scene more richly and more movingly than they have done before; but—as my earlier observations imply—it is inaccurate to say that they are now for the first time ‘reacting with real feeling,’16 that they ‘shed briefly their armour of wit, and speak plainly and directly,’17 or even that they ‘in the end uncover their hearts.’18

The whole exchange pulsates with energy, with the clashing and mingling of cross-currents of vitality. At first this energy is held in, understated, touched with a little humour, as Beatrice absorbs the meaning of the harrowing scene of the broken wedding and Benedick tensely and sympathetically watches her reactions. Because Beatrice is aware of the new development in her relationship with her ‘antagonist,’ her kind concern for Hero flows naturally, inevitably, into a slightly veiled but nevertheless probing challenge:

Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!
Is there any way to show such friendship?
A very even way, but no such friend.
May a man do it?
It is a man's office, but not yours.

(IV i 258)

Worked upon by the intimacy of these insinuations, and responding (as she does too) to a sense of crisis, Benedick utters his love. Beatrice hesitates, equivocates, at first shyly, then good-humouredly, and finally brings out a passionate yet poised declaration:

I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.


At this Benedick explodes with a lover's full-flowing liberality—‘Come, bid me do anything for thee’—only to find his impulse met by what strikes him as a violent contrary force: ‘Kill Claudio’. At first, he fails to recognize the implications of what he is up against—of what he is involved with and in—and he gaily refuses to act; but the sheer power of her conviction overbears his opposition:

(taking her by the hand): Tarry, sweet Beatrice.
I am gone though I am here; there is no love in you. Nay, I pray you, let me go.
In faith, I will go.
We'll be friends first.
You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy.
Is Claudio thine enemy?
Is he not approved in the height a villain that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.


By the end of the exchange Benedick is wholly convinced that his love for Beatrice must make him fight Claudio.

We see, then, that the energy of the lovers—that which they possess as individuals and that which they generate together—runs in a number of different directions. But what is most important is that the ‘field of force’ that is displayed here is precisely the one that we have seen and experienced from the first.

Beatrice and Benedick were introduced to us as creatures with an intense sense of individuality—both their own and other people's—and with therefore, among other things, a keen awareness of sexual differences. Both because of the healthy turbulence of their emotions and because of the need to ward off soul-destroying influences, they were apt to be pugnacious, to conceive of life as a war—a ‘merry war.’ Their championing of themselves, however—quite unlike Don John's embittered and envious self-indulgence—by no means dammed up the flow of sympathy and generosity towards others; freely themselves, they were always free to respond where a response seemed called for. And it turns out that, though they have their moments of comic humiliation, even falling in love is not incompatible with dynamic self-assertion. They need themselves, but they also need what their selves need—and each self requires another complementary self, partly as something to fight with, something in terms of which and against which it may live and be defined, but also, of course, as a point of focus for that welling sweetness, that strange love of other life, which accompanies and interpenetrates the robustness of merry warriors. Only those who have achieved independence can give themselves fully in love. And self-aware beings naturally expect the highest standards in their sexual partners (as indeed Beatrice and Benedick have hinted from the first); the complementing, the mutual reinforcement, must be well done, and each must value the other's distinctive pride. Moreover this enlargement, this expansion of the area of self-fulfilment, must inevitably produce not introversion but an even wider sympathy, and not sentimentality but a toughness and crispness of feeling.

The scene that we have been looking at is thus a continuation and a blossoming of the movement of feeling which was begun in the first scene of the play. Of course it surprises us, as all great art must, and as all living human responses must. But at the same time we can recognize that it is right that Beatrice and Benedick should be so alert in their emotions, so subtly mobile in their moods. It is right, too, that Benedick's sympathy should make Beatrice implicitly both call upon and mock his manhood, and that this should lead to his declaration of love, in the course of which, newly conscious of his sexual identity, he refers to his sword, that sword that as Signor Mountanto he was wielding when first Beatrice brought him before our eyes:

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?


And the great ‘Kill Claudio,’ astounding as it is, summarizes and fulfils the whole meaning of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. It is in itself the most concentrated and fierce of all her rapier-like utterances; in it she demands that Benedick make real use of his man's sword. Held within Beatrice's passionate command, beside her affection for the injured Hero and her contempt for the contemptible action of Claudio, is her burning knowledge (there is no trace of lukewarm calculation in it) not only that love must prove itself by a willingness to risk all and to commit itself entirely, but that in some ultimate sense to love—to live absolutely—is to fight. Beatrice and Benedick must, in various ways, continue to live by the sword, and Claudio's base act, like his earlier mawkishness, provides an occasion for them to show the mettle of which they are made.

Beatrice takes the lead (as the heroines so often do when Shakespeare is in an untragic mood), but Benedick follows her fairly swiftly:

Princes and counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect; a sweet gallant, surely! O, that I were a man for his sake, or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
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.


The word ‘soul’ suggests the fullness of Beatrice's humanity. And it is a largeness and complexity which impresses us in Benedick's reply; he is sternly resolved, he shows his love for Beatrice and his concern for Hero, and yet even here there is a touch of the play's pervasive humour:

Enough, I am engaged; I will challenge him, I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account. As you hear of me, so think of me. Go, comfort your cousin. …



What allows the slightest suggestion of laughter to colour Benedick's resolution is, of course, our knowledge that it can't end like this. Dogberry and Verges do their belated bit, mistakes are undone, and the proper comedy-conclusion is ushered in. The vivacity of the hero and heroine is able to stream back into the now harmonious warfare of bellicose affection:

A miracle! Here's our 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.
(kissing her) Peace! I will stop your mouth.

(V iv 91)

That kiss is impressive as well as funny because we know what lies behind it. And we feel the full weight of the protagonists' energy, firmly and creatively channelled, in Benedick's final invitation:

Come, come, we are friends. Let's have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels.

(V iv 115)


  1. Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing (London, 1965), pp. 15-16.

  2. Much Ado About Nothing, ed. George Sampson (Cambridge, 1923), p. xlviii.

  3. Shakespeare: An Existential View (London, 1965), p. 14.

  4. Ibid., p. 35.

  5. Much Ado About Nothing. ed. R. A. Foakes (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 8.

  6. Ibid. pp. 10-11.

  7. Shakespeare: The Later Comedies (London, 1962), p. 18.

  8. Ibid., p. 21.

  9. Ibid., p. 18.

  10. The Love-Game Comedy (New York, 1946), p. 7.

  11. Ibid., pp. 120-121.

  12. Ibid., p. 214.

  13. All quotations are from R. A. Foakes's New Penguin edition.

  14. See also I i 222 and 1 Henry IV, V iii 57.

  15. London, 1921, p. 208.

  16. Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare's Prose (London, 1968), p. 193.

  17. R. A. Foakes, op. cit., p. 19.

  18. John Palmer, Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1946), p. 121.

Steven Rose (essay date April 1970)

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SOURCE: Rose, Steven. “Love and Self-Love in Much Ado About Nothing.Essays in Criticism 20, no. 2 (April 1970): 143-50.

[In the following essay, Rose argues that in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare offered some serious and often somber observations on the nature of love.]

Is Much Ado really ‘about’ nothing? The throw-away title—like that of its immediate successor As You Like It, or the sub-title What You Will to the third of this central group of comedies—is surely more a challenge to the audience to think of a better one than a proclamation of the play's own triviality. Whatever Beatrice, who could see a church by daylight, may prove to symbolise by her realism, she is not a nobody. And Benedick has an equivalent stature.

The plot of Much Ado About Nothing, as has often been pointed out, revolves around ‘hearsay’:

                                                                                Of this matter
Is little Cupid's crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay.

Through hearsay Leonato is led to believe that Don Pedro is seeking Hero's hand; and later Claudio believes this of his friend too. Beatrice and Benedick are both tricked into believing the other in love with them. Through Don John's machinations Claudio and Don Pedro first think Hero is faithless and then, through the Friar's, that she is dead. Ironically, hearsay also provides the solution to both plots: the Watch overhear the details of Don John's conspiracy in the one and in the other two love-sonnets addressed to each other stolen from the pair (a kind of hearsay) finally link Beatrice and Benedick. This structure is, I think, central to an understanding of the play. For, like most of Shakespeare's comedies, Much Ado is About Love. And, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream the way in which the lovers swap partners is both comical and at the same time a comment on the essentially arbitrary nature of human passion, so here where love and hatred are governed by another kind of magic juice—hearsay—the plot carries with it a similarly serious comment. It is this which I propose to examine.

At the beginning of the play we are presented with two pairs of protagonists whose relationships are apparently clearly defined: Claudio and Hero are in love and Beatrice and Benedick are at war. This at any rate is the situation as we see it by the end of the masked ball. It is in a sense the romantic conception of love, which permits only love or enmity and nothing in between—a situation akin to that found in the opening scenes of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Moreover these passions and antipathies are presented as spontaneous and inevitable: Beatrice and Benedick never meet ‘but there's a skirmish of wit between them’; and Claudio, though he has been away to the wars, still finds his original liking for Hero as strong as ever. Instead of thoughts of battle,

Come thronging soft and delicate desires
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying, I liked her ere I went to wars.

To this conventional view, however, Shakespeare has already inserted several important qualifications. First of all, Hero has been wooed by proxy. That is to say her love has partly been governed by another man's intepretation of Claudio's affection. It is in fact a kind of hearsay. We know it to have been important in affecting her decision because a little while earlier she was actually prepared for a proposal from Don Pedro. Secondly, Claudio's love is also qualified by the way in which at a word from Don John he suspects his friend Don Pedro of having wooed on his own behalf—thus preparing the audience for his graver suspicion later on of disloyalty in Hero herself. His affection, we see, is easily dislodged by vanity and injured pride. And love that can be moved by vanity is perhaps based on vanity. Thus what Shakespeare has done here is subtly to have undermined our belief in romantic love. From a view of it as something essentially spontaneous and ineluctable love is being shown here to depend on the vision we have of our beloved through the eyes of others. The implications of this I shall discuss in a moment.

Now at first sight Beatrice and Benedick will seem to present a parallel to all this. For just as Claudio and Hero are parted through hearsay, so Beatrice and Benedick are united by similar means. And (ironically) vanity, though it is viewed in a comic light, plays a large part in this plot also. Throughout the gulling of Benedick the conspirators constantly stress Beatrice's sufferings and at the same time praise Benedick's virtue (except in pitying her distress), all of which is nicely calculated to appeal to his very considerable male vanity. In Beatrice's case the emphasis is laid more on her pride than on Benedick's sufferings; in their verbal exchanges she had perhaps been the crueller of the two and would possibly have more to repent. She is also a little less vain:

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.

Yet this too is double-edged. Will she love him because she loves him, or simply in order to live up to an image she would have of herself? It is a question posed by both Beatrice and Benedick in their different ways.

The implications of all this, if true—and for the moment I only want to argue the more sombre aspects—are disturbing. Shakespeare has apparently undermined not only our notions of romantic love but in a sense our notions of the integrity of the human personality. If at the beginning of A Midsummer Night's Dream someone had told Demetrius that before the night was out he would utter sighs of love for one whom he now spurned, like Beatrice or Benedick he would have laughed the person to scorn. And Lysander like Claudio would have found it impossible to believe that within a short space of time his beloved could appear hateful to him. Yet it was so. Which, then, was the true Demetrius—the one that loved or the one that scorned? Which the true Claudio? The true Beatrice or Benedick? Is there one? If not, love is a fiction. For a marriage of true minds implies two whole and distinct personalities, distinct both in themselves and from each other—otherwise what would they have to offer each other? In Much Ado About Nothing, however, the characters seem to be in love, not with their partners, but with convenient and fickle images of them presented by others. In Twelfth Night Orsino and Olivia suffer from a like sickness, only they are in love with images they have created for themselves. But the effect is the same in either case: subject and object merge, the beloved becomes simply an extension of the lover, to accord with his fantasies. Soon there is only self and self-love.

A deeper and more sombre exploration of this theme is to be found in a play which bears certain striking affinities to Much Ado—the domestic tragedy of Othello. The similarity is not simply one of plot, but more interestingly of the discrepancies in plot. In both cases, we note, use is made of a somewhat unconvincing innocent accomplice (Margaret and Emilia) and in both plays the heroine could not possibly have had the opportunity to commit the acts of continuous infidelity, the ‘thousand times’ (both Claudio and Othello use the phrase), of which they are accused. Now these ‘errors’ are significant because the less convincing the plot (from the victims' point of view as well as ours), the less easy it is either to understand or forgive Claudio's or Othello's being deceived. Is not the readiness, then, with which they believe the charges an important comment on the nature of jealousy and indeed of love? What Shakespeare is saying is that a man whose love can be destroyed so easily by jealousy is not, as Othello seems to believe, one ‘that loved too well’, but rather one who never loved at all. We can imagine Othello at the end denying such a charge with an almost despairing vehemence, and pointing by way of proof to his burning forehead, his raging heart, as if to say—What is the cause of this if not love? That, however, is the appeal of the emotionalist, who would judge the truth of any passion by the extent of the agitations within the lover rather than by the constancy with which the passion attaches itself to and draws inspiration from the beloved. But, as Socrates proves in Plato's Symposium, love which is not directed towards some demonstrable ideal cannot be said to exist; or, more exactly, that love devoid of any external object is necessarily only self-love. This is Othello's case (and indeed the case of Claudio and Orsino too). After all, if someone whose word we have no immediate reason to suspect slanders a loved one, in what are we to put our trust? The only answer, surely, is in our knowledge of the beloved. Othello could never have known Desdemona and therefore could never have loved her. She existed for him only within the realm of his fancy, just perhaps as the Othello she saw was an Othello of her imagination—a man whom she married ‘for the dangers he had passed.’ There was never really any point of contact between them. Desdemona's final ‘Commend me to my kind lord,’ seen as any sort of judgment on her husband, is as absurd as Othello's ‘she was a whore.’ As to Claudio and Hero, the possibility of mutual knowledge or love between two partners who literally address no more than twenty-odd words to each other during the whole course of the play is inconceivable. Thus the implication is that in neither case did the plotters, or Shakespeare, need to have to imagine any very elaborate scheme in order to part the lovers: they had only ever been united in each other's imaginations and an image has only as much resistance to calumny as its owner wishes to give it, changing from god to devil in an instant.1

Othello's jealousy is, of course, insane and monstrous. Yet the fact that so pure a creature as Desdemona shows signs of a similar divorce from reality would indicate that Shakespeare's insights in this respect are of wider application than to the merely abnormal. Freud himself warns us that ‘the state of being in love threatens to obliterate the boundaries between the ego and the object.’2 The problem, then, must be to obtain a relationship at once close and loving but where the partners still preserve their own separate identities. For to guard this jealously in oneself is to respect it in the other person. Only in such a way is it assured that the partners will love each other for what they really are—which can be the only lasting motive for love—and not out of a desire for self-aggrandisement, the inevitable corollary once the ego begins to subordinate the object of its passion to any purely personal consideration. This last can take many forms. Among them, of particular importance in the present discussion, we have to include the desire, however sincere, to love someone because we believe that they love us. What is being advocated, then, although it would appear a kind of contradiction in terms, is the idea of disinterested love. But how can we find a formula for such a proposition?

We have to turn back, I think, to Much Ado About Nothing and in particular to Beatrice and Benedick. Now the first thing to note is that their attachment was never really a result of the conspiracy. Don Pedro and the others go off well pleased with their efforts but in fact, as most audiences realise, the pair had been on the verge of love from the beginning. The very first person that Beatrice inquires after on hearing of the army's return is Benedick, albeit with the usual irony:

I pray you, is Signor Mountanto returned from
the wars or no?

It soon becomes evident from their verbal exchanges that the pair take an uncommon delight in being rude to each other. Only as in all lovers' games it is easy to overstep the bounds of mere play: thus when Beatrice takes advantage of the masked ball to say a number of particularly cruel things to Benedick he is genuinely hurt—‘O she misused me past the endurance of a block … She speaks poniards and every word stabs.’ In fact the pair are rather afraid of each other and conceal their true feelings only lest the other should take advantage of the slightest sign of vulnerability to pour scorn on them. So in the end the plotters did not have an awful lot of work to do. Only a word was really necessary to break down the defensive wall that had been set up between them. Indeed Benedick's very eagerness to be ‘tricked’ as he rationalises away all his previous objections is one of the most amusing things in the play:

When I said I would die a bachelor I did not think
I should live till I were married.

What conclusions can be drawn from all this? Well, we know that true love has not after all been tampered with. The bond between Beatrice and Benedick is something genuine and not merely a fabrication resulting from an appeal to vanity on both sides—the vanity of believing that one is the object of love. However, in order to provide a sufficent counterweight to the darker implications of the Claudio-Hero plot (which despite the happy ending are never entirely dispelled) we must know precisely in what the genuineness of this relationship consists, we must see it in action. The crucial scene here, I think, is that in which Beatrice persuades Benedick to defend her cousin's honour and challenge Claudio. In particular, her impassioned outburst against the latter is especially revealing:

Is he not approved in the height a villain that hath slandered, scorned, dishonoured my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What, bear her in hand, until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour—O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-places.

But the point is, she is not a man. She needs a man. Only Benedick is capable of tearing Claudio's heart out in the market-place. Here, perhaps, is our formula for a disinterested love—need. In the past Beatrice had always asserted that she was independent, that when she went to heaven St. Peter would show her the place ‘where the bachelors sit’ and there she would live in perfect contentment. Yet suddenly she is confronted by a situation to which her own resources are entirely inadequate. A woman cannot fight for the honour of her cousin. It is this situation more than anything else which provides the turning point in her relationship with Benedick, and clarifies its true nature. She loves him, we see, not because they told her he was desperate for her, or because, like Desdemona, she has created a world of fantasy around her lover which she wishes to enjoy vicariously, or because she wants someone to whom to sacrifice herself, or for any of the thousand other self-regarding and ultimately disastrous motives for love; she loves him because he is a man, because he is Benedick, the person in the world whom she knows and wants and needs. Such a need is not egocentric because it is not something which can be thought of as existing apart from Benedick. It is he who has created the need. The external situation merely brings home to Beatrice the fact that a woman can never truly be sufficient unto herself. Similarly Benedick's need of Beatrice is stressed by the fact that rather than lose her love he is prepared to challenge even his best friend. In this last there is even something a little sinister. But then a love-pact of its nature excludes the rest of the world.

The play closes thematically with the episode of the stolen love-sonnets. Here, like the name of an evil demon chanted backwards to destroy his power, hearsay is presented in an inverted guise and thus its ghost finally laid to rest. As before the lovers are influenced in their relationship by the reports of a third party but this time those reports are merely reproductions of their own inmost feelings. The decision that they should fall in love was taken by no one but themselves. Cupid's bow, belying the initial quotation, has after all struck directly, mysteriously.


  1. The last stage in this aggrandisement of the self, that reached by Othello, is the point where fantasy begins to intrude upon and actually replace external reality, involving a complete loss of personality. The ego no longer having anything outside itself by which to judge and measure itself begins to lose all sense of identity. The self-dramatising tone of Othello's last speeches—is there not a parallel in Claudio's rather melodramatic funeral rites at Hero's tomb?—can thus be interpreted as the tragic attempt of a man in whom all sense of personal identity has been destroyed (which is the true Othello—the one that loved or the one that murdered?) to construct a personality for himself, or at least one that will satisfy his audience. Ironically enough, in this last respect, up to the present century at any rate, he has had a fair measure of success.

  2. Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents.

Thomas W. Ross (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Ross, Thomas W. “Maimed Rites in Much Ado About Nothing.Costerus: Essays in English and American Language and Literature 5 (1972): 125-34.

[In the following essay, Ross compares Much Ado about Nothing to Shakespeare's problem plays and notes the play's elements of disharmony and ethical ambiguity. Ross contends, however, that the play is not a failure, but “succeeds brilliantly in conveying its bitter-sweet power.”]

Critics have never accepted Much Ado as a problem play—or as a forerunner of the Last Plays, the romances or tragi-comedies. Yet if we are made aware of this drama's affinities with these kinds of play, we can understand and enjoy it more readily. We can balance extravagant critical pronouncements about it—as, for instance, that it is a “wedding of love and humor”1 and thus is like most of the comedies of the 1590's; or that it is a peculiarly “venomous play” with its distinctive “foul odor.”2

In its ambiguous effects, it is akin to the problem plays; in its ritual movement—though Shakespeare chooses not to develop this idea—it is like the romances. Much Ado is a problem play because it conveys to us a sense of ethical imbalance; and, instead of fulfillment through ritual (the theme of the Last Plays), it offers only “maimed rites.”3

Despite some confusion about the nature of the problem play, we can find considerable agreement among the scholars. Boas identified the theme as the “weakness, levity, and unbridled passion of young men.”4 Tillyard agreed, adding that the central action is “a young man gets a shock.”5 He also found that a major motif in such plays was the relationship between the “old and new generations”; the young characters are “forcibly brought to maturity in the course of the play”; and the “business that most promotes this process of growth is transacted at night” (p. 9). Summing it all up, Lawrence saw that the problem-play situation permits “different ethical interpretations” (p. 4).

Lawrence's words describe what I have called “ethical imbalance.” In Much Ado it starts with the outrage aroused by Claudio's epithet for his bride-to-be, Hero—“rotten orange” (IV. i. 33; 1689).6 And there is no alleviation of our sense of shock as the play progresses. It is not fair that this despicable puppy should have a second chance and be awarded Hero again. There are obviously parallel injustices in All's Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus.

Following the Lawrence-cum-Tillyard formula further, we find that Much Ado is indeed a play about the old and new generations, as Tillyard says a problem play should be. The confrontation between youth and age comes to a climax in the pathetic encounter between the old men, Leonato and Antonio, and the “fashion-monging boys” (V. i. 94; 2181), Pedro and Claudio.

All four lovers are compelled to “grow-up”—and Hero's maturation is described as a rebirth. The “business” which promotes Claudio's growth (such as it is) is of course the ritual scene in the church (V. iii), which does take place at night. Though Tillyard did not comment on the importance of a nocturnal setting, it may be observed that it establishes the dark-to-light movement which, along with parallel patterns like winter-summer and death-life, is common in Shakespeare's comedies and not just in the “problem” plays. In Much Ado, however, the “light” at the end of Act V is dimmed by the unconcern of those who were injured in Act IV.

If we expect a tidy gratification of our need for poetic justice, Much Ado will not do. It satisfies us in ways which are not those of the happy comedies like As You Like It or Twelfth Night. In Much Ado there is a disharmony7 among the three major sets of characters, even though Shakespeare knits them carefully together. They are Hero and Claudio; Beatrice and Benedick; and Dogberry, Verges, and the Watch. One need not even consider the obviously discordant misanthropes, Borachio, Conrade, and the villainous Don John, who at the end of the play remains unpunished.

The first group of characters, the romantic young lovers, seems at first to fulfill all the traditions of sentimental wooing. They fall in love at first sight. There is a barrier to their love (Don Pedro seems to woo Hero for himself—II. i. 169-181; 569-580), but the obstacle quickly disappears and they rush to church as fast as decency permits. The bridegroom complains, like Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream and a dozen others, “Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites” (II. i. 372-373; 752-753). Then until they are actually before the altar in the presence of Friar Francis all is conventional smooth sailing.

The incomparable Beatrice and Benedick provide a contrasting theme of a kind which is almost as familiar as the boy-gets-boy-loses-boy-gets pattern set up for Hero and Claudio: it resembles the Berowne et al. theme in Love's Labour's Lost. Here the two sworn enemies to the blind bow-boy find out too late that they have been tricked into betrothal. Both themes turn a little sour—that of the young lovers and that of the older and more worldly Beatrice and Benedick.

Dogberry and his simple cohorts are mechanically necessary to the plot. As Borachio admits, “What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V. i. 238-240; 2314-2316). They must discover Don John's guile and in their maddeningly slow and malapropistic way disclose it so that Hero can be rehabilitated and Benedick will not have to carry through with his challenge to Claudio. Leonato ridicules them mercilessly, but they are stupidly unaware of it. Though I should not like to press the point, I might suggest that the “ugliness” of this episode parallels the humiliation of Hero and the discomfort of Beatrice and Benedick.

Leonato tells Dogberry and the rest, “Neighbors, you are tedious” (III. v. 20; 1613). They discover Hero's innocence, but too late. She is “dead” and we cannot forget her stricken silence in the church—or the bitterness in Benedick's challenge to his old comrade in arms. Benedick himself seems to have forgotten it as the play comes to an end, and Claudio never was much affected by it—both responses which are of considerable significance, as I shall point out later on.

Shakespeare thus provides mechanical links among all three parts of the plot. There are other unifying devices—less evident, perhaps, but nonetheless significant. All three lines of movement depend upon mistaken appearances and eavesdropping;8 and, despite the confusion present in all three threads of plot, they thrust forward to the recognition of identity and regenerative festivity which typify Shakespearean comedy.9

Actually Shakespeare works out the structure very neatly and the apparent discords seem to be resolved. But before the harmonies of Act V are sounded, there are those disturbing moments which one cannot forget, no matter how melodious the denouement. They center upon Claudio's character and behavior. We are not reassured when critics tell us that the “Claudio-Hero plot has light entertainment as its object.”10 Neither in Shakespeare's day nor in ours have audiences been so callous as to find amusement in the public humiliation and apparent death of an innocent and lively girl. Nor can we laugh at Beatrice's “Kill Claudio” (IV. i. 291; 1952)11 or at the brilliant portrayal of controlled ferocity and guffawing incredulity among the three blasé friends, Benedick, Claudio, and Don Pedro (V. i. 111 ff.; 2200 ff.). The latter two are shown—here and elsewhere in the play—as bored aristocrats to whom everything is a joke. Don Pedro can hardly believe that Benedick is in earnest (197; 2279). He thinks that it is all too, too silly. But we are not amused.

The parallels with All's Well—which has been pretty well established as a problem play—are obvious. Helena is humiliated publicly, and Bertram, like Claudio, fails to win our respect, even though he gets the heroine in Act V. Parolles is humiliated too (somewhat like Dogberry), in a movement parallel with the Bertram-Helena action; however, he recognizes his weaknesses and descants upon them with a disarming candor which is of course quite beyond the Constable and the members of the Watch.

Both Much Ado and All's Well exhibit that ethical ambiguity which is a hallmark of the problem play.12 Just as this ambiguity is centered on Bertram in the later play, so too it depends upon Claudio, his counterpart in Much Ado. Don John's opinion of the young soldier and lover is of course colored by his prejudices. Still, his sneers should alert us: “the most exquisite Claudio” and “a proper squire” (I. iii. 52, 54; 389, 391) are bitterly ironic, but they are right. As judgments of the protagonist's character they are confirmed by Beatrice's shrewd and annoyed “Count Comfect, a sweet gallant, surely” (IV. i. 318-319; 1978). Even if we regard Claudio “historically”—that is, as a realistic Elizabethan patrician—and defend his callous inquiry about Hero's financial prospects,13 we are still aware, as Frye puts it, that:

Claudio becomes engaged to Hero without also engaging his loyalty; he retains the desire to be rid of her if there should be inconvenience in the arrangement, and this desire acts precisely like a humor, blinding him to the obvious facts of the situation. In his second marriage ceremony, he pledges his loyalty first, before he has seen the bride, and this relieves him from his humorous bondage.

(p. 81)

Though we should probably disagree about Claudio's being a “humour” character, these remarks put the finger on his moral flabbiness. He is “prim and shallow”14—or worse. We may well compare him with the Claudio in Measure for Measure or with Bertram, the “proud scornful boy” in All's Well (II. iii. 158; 1054).

This comparison of Claudio and Bertram reveals the similarities between the two problem plays. Now as we turn to the parallels between Much Ado and the romances, we find that they are mainly associated with Hero. Frye gives us a clue (without, however, observing that Much Ado foreshadows the late, romances):

In Much Ado we have the same theme of calumniation [as that in Terence's Hecyra], but Shakespeare has put it in something much closer to a primitive society by suggesting so strongly that Hero actually dies and revives in the play.15

After Hero's calumniation, Friar Francis persuades Leonato to agree to the “dead Hero” ruse, promising “on this travail look for greater birth” (IV. i. 215; 1877); he encourages the humiliated child with “Come, lady, die to live” (255; 1918). It is obvious that the great theme of regeneration which Shakespeare develops in all his romances is also played, in prelude form, in Much Ado. Marina, Imogen, and most clearly Hermione, Perdita, and Miranda—all share in this stirring movement from death to birth.

However, the Last Plays are based on the dual theme of regeneration and forgiveness. Hermione (The Winter's Tale, III. ii. 124; 1303) speaks of “pity, not revenge” and in The Tempest Prospero pardons his enemies (V. i. 78; 2034). In these plays the sacrifice of innocence has its hoped-for effect. The ritual movement from evil-doing through recognition to atonement touches the lives of all the other characters in the romances and they are the better for it. The tempest purges and makes everyone more fully themselves, when their lives had previously been incompletely realized (cf. The Tempest, V. i. 212-213; 2194-2195).

The same great theme is initiated in Much Ado About Nothing but—oh, the pity of it!—it has no effect. Though Claudio learns the truth, it does not arouse remorse or penitence in him. Instead he offers a glib excuse for his inexcusable brutality: “Yet sinned I not / But in mistaking” (V. i. 284-285; 2358-2359) and speaks of himself as “poor Claudio” (305; 2381). Shakespeare has previously sounded this disagreeable note of self-pity in the earlier scene where Hero's father Leonato accepts his daughter's guilt without demur and can do nothing but speak of the dishonor to himself (IV. i. 122 ff.; 1783 ff.).16

In the romances, supernatural powers (e.g., Apollo in The Winter's Tale) often set in motion the ritual of forgiveness and atonement. In Much Ado, however, the ritual scene (V. iii.; 2521-2553) is scanted—a paltry thing. In 33 lines, Claudio recites his expiatory verses (confused doggerel they are, too); calls for a hymn; and is ready to change into his finery for the second wedding. No god appears. Instead there are perfunctory allusions to Diana, Phoebus, and Hymen. The ceremony is as mechanical and casual as the turning of a prayer-wheel—progressing, all too smoothly, from the idea of Hero's chastity (Diana); to the promise of morning (Phoebus) after the “night” of the heroine's humiliation; and then to the sacrament of marriage (Hymen).17

What disturbs us is that Claudio never says, “I ask your pardon” (contrast Leontes, for instance, in The Winter's Tale, V. iii. 147; 3361). Further, Benedick never begs pardon of Claudio, nor does Claudio implore forgiveness of his sworn brother. Hero's placidity is worst of all. We certainly do not want her to be self-righteous, but we anticipate the expression of some feelings about her denunciation and “death.” Yet Shakespeare denies us this gratification. All we get is a paradox in sing-song iambs:

One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.

(V. iv. 63-64; 2621-2622)

Perhaps we are to understand that she tacitly forgives Claudio. If so, his reaction is all the more appalling—astonishment but no remorse.

Hero's sacrifice of her virginity in the second marriage does not release the “contained” or “controlled energy”18 which is the latent power within it. Even Parolles in All's Well acknowledges this power. Characteristically, as he sees it, the force is unleashed only when the virgo intacta ceases to exist:

There's little can be said in 't. 'Tis against the rule of nature. … Virginity murders itself and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature. … Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon. Keep it not. You cannot choose but lose by 't!

(I. i. 148 ff.; 140 ff.)

Helena, to whom these words are addressed, releases the energy of her virginity through the “bed trick,” and Bertram is, in some measure, restored thereby. But Hero's sacrifice of her maidenhood touches no one, not even herself. The “sanctimonious ceremonies” which make up the last two acts of The Tempest (see IV. i. 16; 1668) are ignored in Much Ado. Shakespeare does not bring into action those healing powers which can be liberated through ritual.

Much Ado amuses and distresses us. It is a distress which we can identify as similar to that aroused by the other problem plays—a discomfiture aroused by an incompletely developed romance of tragi-comedy. This is the effect for which Shakespeare was striving. The inequities leave us puzzled and pained, just as they do when we read its sister-plays—Measure for Measure, All's Well, and Troilus. Puzzlement does not mean that the drama has failed, however. As a combination of problem and romance, it succeeds brilliantly in conveying its bitter-sweet power.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned, as in Yeats' poem. Rites are maimed. Though the sacrifice is punctiliously performed, no matter “how ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly / It was i' the offering,” it does not have the anticipated effect (cf. The Winter's Tale, III. i. 7-8; 1153-1154). The rites in Much Ado are marriages and a ritual of atonement. The personages involved ignore them, almost entirely. Life is not often like The Tempest or, for that matter, like As You Like It. Sometimes it is a combination of unresolved discordant ingredients like gaiety and cruelty, and these make up the subject matter of Much Ado About Nothing.


  1. Donald Stauffer, Shakespeare's World of Images (New York, 1949), p. 68.

  2. E. J. West, “Much Ado About An Unpleasant Play,” Shakespeare Association Bulletin, XXI (1946), 30, 34. Among the few scholars to take the play seriously, though they do not identify it as a problem play or describe its parallels with the romances, are Paul and Miriam Mueschke, “Illusion and Metamorphosis in Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Quarterly, XVIII (1967), 53-65. They find that it has more in common with Troilus and Cressida and Othello than with As You Like It, “with which it is generally associated” (p. 64).

  3. Since 1896 when F. S. Boas coined the term “problem play,” those critics who have found the concept useful have agreed that under the rubric should be included All's Well, Measure, and Troilus. To these Boas added Hamlet. W. W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (New York, 1931), and E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (New York, 1964), followed suit. In The Problem Plays of Shakespeare (New York, 1963), Ernest Schanzer retained Measure but found that it had closer affinities with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra than with the other “traditional” problem plays.

  4. Quoted in Schanzer, p. 188.

  5. P. 6. In an acrimonious review of Tillyard's book, Derek Traversi, “Academic Criticism Today,” Scrutiny, XVII (1950-1951), 181, claimed that it failed to identify the “characteristic modes of expression which differentiate these plays, by their possession of common qualities, from the rest of Shakespeare's production.” But is Traversi's own definition better? See An Approach to Shakespeare (New York, 1956), pp. 61, 62: “From the point of view of Shakespeare's developing dramatic art, [the problem plays] show a notable concentration on two related problems—the consistent presentation of character and the projection into a coherent dramatic pattern of complex states of experience. … All these plays are concerned, each after its own fashion, with the effort to arrive at some kind of personal order in a world dominated by contradiction and obscurity.” Such bland remarks could apply to Lear as well as to Prometheus Bound or The Bald Soprano.

  6. All Shakespeare references are from the Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York, 1952); following the conventional references are numbers indicating the Through Line Numbering System of The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, ed. Charlton Hinman (New York, 1968), as explained on p. xxiv of that edition.

  7. William G. McCollom, “The Role of Wit in Much Ado About Nothing,Shakespeare Quarterly, XIX (1968), 165, observes the apparent disunity (“the main strands of action do not at first seem very well joined”) but finds that unity is achieved through wit, which is “organic” (166). Charles T. Prouty, The Sources of Much Ado About Nothing (New Haven, 1950), states that through his “creative reinterpretation of his sources” and the “recurrent device of overhearing Shakespeare secures a unity of tone, exactly as he had secured a unity of idea by emphasizing the essential realism of the characters in both plots” (pp. 16, 64).

  8. James Smith, “Much Ado About Nothing,” Scrutiny, XIII (1946), 246.

  9. Northrop Frye, A Natural Perspective (New York, 1965), pp. 46, 119, 136-137.

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

  11. At a recent London performance the audience did laugh nervously at “Kill Claudio.” They were not schoolboys (often one's fellow spectators at English Shakespeare performances) but adults—probably tourists. Their response may have been naive, but it did betray the fact that the line arouses emotion: the uncomfortable giggle was their way of expressing shocked outrage. Like most people, they were not familiar with the play or with Shakespeare's problem comedies generally. The alarming words took them by surprise. In a more recent television production, the great Maggie Smith spoke the lines with appropriate seriousness and menace. However, half the cast spoke dialect, sounding like Sicilian gangsters, and Don John was played as a leering buffoon in Regency costume. The director thus achieved a fair consistency of tone (frenetic gaiety) but only by doing violence to Shakespeare's poetry.

  12. Lawrence, p. 4. In dealing with Troilus, Traversi speaks of the “emotional ambiguity” in that problem play (An Approach, p. 63). I think he means the same thing as I do by my “ethical ambiguity” or “imbalance.”

  13. Kerby Neill, “More Ado About Claudio: An Acquittal for the Slandered Groom,” Shakespeare Quarterly, III (1952), 91, calls him “a realistic young Elizabethan seeking a good match according to the mercenary standards of his age.” Barbara Everett, “Much Ado About Nothing” in Essays in Shakespeare Criticism, ed. J. L. Calderwood and H. E. Toliver (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970), p. 279, says that he is making his choice on the basis of “female good looks plus paternal income.” These and other critics naturally draw parallels between Claudio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. They go on to point out that Benedick is similarly venal when he says that if he should ever marry, “rich she shall be” (II. iii. 31; 861-862). However, Benedick is not talking about Beatrice here; the love affair has not yet begun. Prouty, p. 51, insists upon the “historical” reading, while admitting that Much Ado comes dangerously close to the problem plays All's Well and Measure for Measure. However, he will not admit the play to the category because it involves “the non-serious presentation of a realistic situation” instead of “the serious presentation of the same thing.” He admits that the denunciation is “unpleasant and even brutal” to the modern reader, but “to Shakespeare's audience, fully cognizant of arranged marriages, there was no such reaction” (p. 62). He does not deal with Benedick's challenge as a piece of serious and ugly realism.

  14. Smith, p. 244.

  15. Frye, p. 63.

  16. In “Much Ado About Something,” Shakespeare Quarterly, XV (1964), 152, Walter N. King observes: “Friar Francis' scheme is equally ineffectual with Claudio and Don Pedro.” McCollom, p. 167, adds Margaret to those untouched by the horrifying events: “After the rejection of her mistress, we see [her] enjoying herself in a bawdy dialogue with Benedick, for all the world as if it were still Act I.” Denzell D. Smith, “The Command ‘Kill Claudio’ in Much Ado About Nothing,” English Language Notes, IV (1967), 183, observes that “The command makes clear that love is a powerful agent for virtue” and asserts that “it works to secure honor and truth.” There is really no basis for this claim: the challenge of Claudio by Benedick does not “secure” anything for any of the characters in the play.

  17. The Mueschkes, p. 62, claim that the recantation scene has “lyrical intensity” as a “requiem masque”; I deny the first (a matter of interpretation of the tone of the poetry, I suppose) and I do not understand the second.

  18. Frye, pp. 152-153.

Markland Taylor (review date 30 September-6 October 2002)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. “Much Ado About Nothing.Variety 388, no. 7 (30 September-6 October 2002): 36.

[In the following review, Taylor examines the Hartford Stage/Shakespeare Theater 2002 staging of Much Ado about Nothing, directed by Mark Lamos. Taylor finds the production “surprisingly bloodless and lacking in spontaneity.”]

Mark Lamos opens the company's 39th season with this anyone-for-tennis? staging of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Set mostly in the garden of an English country house in the 1920s, this Ado—a co-production with D.C.'s Shakespeare Theater, where it plays next—looks glossily expensive and is clearly and intelligently spoken, complete with a variety of English accents. But Shakespeare's comic wit has been blunted here, and this staging is surprisingly bloodless and lacking in spontaneity.

Karen Ziemba, the award-winning Broadway musical performer noted for her dancing, plays the anti-romantic Beatrice. She is to be applauded for taking it on, and does have presence and verbal fluency. But the witty cut and thrust between Beatrice and her equally anti-romantic foil, Benedick (Dan Snook), just doesn't manifest itself, and as the production progresses, Ziemba seems to be more and more a shrewish Kate than a disdainful Beatrice. Neither is she flattered by her hairdo nor some of Catherine Zuber's many sumptuous costumes, which keep drawing attention to themselves rather than helping the characterizations of the thespians wearing them.

As Benedick, Snook is too lightweight, especially opposite Ziemba's sturdy Beatrice. And at times he's far too cutely coy.

These two roles are problematic because they're actually peripheral to the play's plot, which revolves around Hero (Kathleen Early) and Claudio (Barrett Foa). The role of Claudio is even more problematic since he, on the flimsiest of evidence, has to turn on his beloved Hero at their wedding and denounce her as unfaithful. Early is an attractive little Hero, without being quite a strong enough presence, and Foa isn't able to fully negotiate the great leaps of feeling and attitude Claudio is asked to make.

Peter Rini is an elegant Don Pedro, and Glenn Fleshler aptly nasty as his evil bastard brother, Don John. Richard Ziman and Edwin Owens get their laughs as the comic constables Dogberry and Verges (though they are a bit plodding); Owens reappears later as an effective Friar Francis. Two of the best performances come from Michael Santo as Leonato, Hero's father, and Nafe Katter as his brother Antonio. Their maturity pays off.

Riccardo Hernandez's vast setting is all manicured lawn, topiaries and white stairs and balustrades. Popular music of the '20s is used (although at one point a pun brings in the strains of “Speak Low,” a song from a 1943 musical). The production ends with a rug-cutting arm-and-leg flinging dance for the whole cast.

Hugh M. Richmond (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Richmond, Hugh M. “Much Ado About Notables.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 49-63.

[In the following essay, Richmond traces the historical precedent for the villainous Don John in Much Ado about Nothing and proposes literary analogues for the play's comic lovers, Beatrice and Benedick.]

From Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, with its bitter warnings to his colleagues against upstart plagiarists, down to Geoffrey Bullough's recent encyclopedic account of Shakespeare's sources and analogues,1 Shakespeare's capacity to build on other men's work has been recognized as intrinsic to his mode of composition as an Elizabethan dramatist. As we shall see, even such a play as Love's Labor's Lost, which lacks literary sources, reflects detailed and systematic exploitation of the lives and personalities of the contemporary French aristocrats whose names recur in the majority of the play's principal characters. Shakespeare's procedure in composition shows Elizabethan “invention” to have been more syncretic than wholly original in nature: the adjustment of a series of pre-existing resources to form a fresh pattern. Characteristically, he excerpts provocative motifs from some archetypal legend or history which is rich in bizarre incident; then he interpolates diversifying characters and incidents from other sources to provide contrast or reinforcement; and finally he heightens the contemporary immediacy of the whole by an overlay of disconcertingly modern allusions whose anachronism is offset by the witty self-consciousness of the author. Overall nothing could be further from Aristotle's prescription that “it is not the poet's province to relate such things as have actually happened, but such as might have happened … according either to probable or necessary consequence,”2 for ironically, in view of his seemingly improbable themes, many of Shakespeare's plots and characters also have at least faint precedents or analogues in history, if not fully historical prototypes. This is true of elements in plays which we are not accustomed to considering documentary—whether it be the Orsino of Twelfth Night, the Berowne and Longueville of Love's Labor's Lost, or the curious coincidences between Lear's misfortunes and those of the aging Brian Annesley in 1603-04, involving the inheritances of his three daughters, among them his favorite, Cordell.3 Such analogues and resonances may encourage us to see that, despite the apparent archaism which Shakespeare often favored in taking plots from sources like Plutarch, Holinshed, or Painter, many of their details do hold “the mirror up to nature” and serve as “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,”4 paralleling or alluding to the experience and first-hand observation of his Elizabethan audiences. This surface realism of his plays makes them vivid and convincing and is intrinsic to his theatrical technique.

Keeping these considerations in mind, we can better understand the procedures and aims of Shakespeare when they appear to elude modern understanding, as they do at times in even his most popular plays. For example, a lively, realistic comedy like Much Ado seems to such critics as its Pelican editor to suffer from the fact that “the Hero-Claudio story must be regarded as the main plot because of its melodramatic and spectacular character, yet Shakespeare carefully keeps us from entering into the emotions of either Hero or Claudio.”5 Similarly Bullough feels that this quaint episode, cut from the thirteenth-century setting established by Bandello's novella, is “the core” of the play;6 but he also asserts that Shakespeare does adjust it to Elizabethan taste, because “natural villainy was becoming more desirable, more popular—in the second lustrum of the nineties, with its Malcontents and men of strange Humours. … So he invented Don John, ‘bastard brother to Don Pedro,’ ‘a plain-dealing villain’ and a Malcontent of a kind just emerging in satire and the theatre.” Bullough contemptuously adds that “Don John is a very small villain to cause so Much Ado.”7 However, the development of such eccentric characters affords useful clues to the methods of composition of Shakespeare, for it is significant that the major additions which Much Ado makes to its prototype in Bandello lie in the characters of Don John, and of Beatrice and Benedick. The three seeming “originals” turn out to share more complex derivations than Bullough allows, for they are neither well-classified as Shakespeare's entire “invention” nor do they prove as Bullough argues of the lovers, “that Shakespeare needed no specific source for his happiest creations.”8

That Shakespeare wanted a contemporary setting for Much Ado rather than a medieval one is evident in all three characters added to the Bandello story, but most overtly in the choice of name for his villain. For the appearance of the portentous figure of Don John the Bastard at Messina is no theatrical accident but a fact of sixteenth-century history, whose ingenious introduction into Much Ado gives us an excellent miniature illustration of Shakespeare's characteristic mode of composition. While no personality resembling Don John appears in the Bandello source, and he has no association with the massacre of the Sicilian Vespers with which that novella begins, nevertheless Don John was not only closely linked with Messina during Shakespeare's lifetime—he stands there to this day, before the cathedral. The reason that the fine statue by Calamech was placed there in 15729 is more than adequate, for Shakespeare's Don John the Bastard bears the name and shares many of the attributes of Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V, half-brother of the King of Aragon (and the rest of Spain), who led the fleets of Christendom from Messina to the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto—one of the turning points of European history. And he returned to Messina after his victory on the 7 October 1571, under conditions analogous to those at the play's start.

Nor has the dramatic potential of this figure been wholly ignored outside literary criticism; indeed, in his magnificent study of The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, Fernand Braudel with unconscious irony salutes Don John as “a Shakespearean hero,” even while detailing many of the sinister traits which Shakespeare's villain shares.10 However, Braudel does not stress the concerns which transformed the hero of Lepanto into a monster for all loyal Englishmen of Shakespeare's generation. To them he seemed to “surpass Circe,” and an English ambassador could write that he made “such earnest and vehement offers of his faith and service to our sovereign, as I doubt him more than others trust him; for I see his deeds contrary to his words, using concert in secrecy with Her Majesty's rebels.”11 Although Don John's brutal triumph over the Turks marked a decisive reassertion of European supremacy over Mohammedan sea power, his character was by no means simply positive. Raised in obscurity under another name and acknowledged only in 1559, Don John had many of the more oppressive traits of his time and culture. He was acutely sensitive to his ambiguous status, and this led to many painful episodes with his half-brother, King Philip II. Thus he fled the Spanish court in 1565 in an attempt to assert his will to pursue a military career and returned “embarrassed and humiliated” without success: “in the knowledge that if he persisted in his intention Philip's officers had instructions to place him under arrest, Don John surrendered.”12 His career was full of such abortive attempts at self-assertion echoed by Shakespeare's Don John, who admits “I cannot hide what I am” (I.iii.11), only to be admonished by Conrade: “but you must not make the full show of this till you may do it without controlment. You have of late stood out against your brother, and he hath ta'en you newly into his grace, where it is impossible you should take true root but by the fair weather that you make yourself” (I.iii.17-22). The historical prototype frequently failed to recognize such necessities.

Don John's career was deeply conditioned by the ambivalent social standing resulting from his bastardy, and his touchiness on points of honor was as acute as any other Spaniard's. At the funeral of Queen Isabella his pride “received a wound which to his sensitive imagination seemed mortal. By the neglect of a Court chamberlain, or possibly the malice of the Prince of Eboli, Don John was given a place in the church unbecoming to his rank. Deeply mortified, the young admiral requested permission of the King to retire from Court and to withdraw to the austere discipline and sombre cloisters of the Franciscan monks of Abrojo … in his hour of humiliation and injured vanity.”13 It is not surprising that Braudel considers him “the most volatile” of Philip's ministers and “isolated from his contemporaries.”14 His primitive rigor with the rebellious Moriscoes of Granada in 1569 reached a grim climax at the conclusive siege of Galera, whose resistance provoked Don John's sinister vow: “I will take Galera and raze it utterly to the ground. Every man, woman and child within its walls shall be put to the sword, and I will sow the earth on which they stood with salt.”15 This oath he firmly achieved, except that he agreed with his protesting troops that this involved the waste of some fairly serviceable women, so that a fraction of them and their children were ultimately spared.

Despite his military prowess, Don John was never secure in his relations with his half-brother, and after Lepanto they even became exacerbated, so that some have considered “the king's chief motive was a desire to humiliate Don John.”16 Commentators have described many of the king's orders in such terms as “a stab in the back for Don John from his half-brother,” or again: “Philip's orders seemed tantamount to disgrace.”17 Other instructions so affronted Don John that “upon discovering the limits they imposed on his authority, [he] fell into a rage bordering on despair. … They showed him that his subordinate position as a bastard was irremediable and that the king placed little confidence in him.” This last episode occurred a few weeks before he first arrived at Messina in 1571, and the tensions persisted throughout his stay there, largely explaining “the single-minded passion of his temperament” thereafter, although he was often ill: “plagued by three or four complaints.”18 Like Richard III, and reinforced by motives such as Edmund's, “Don John was undoubtedly tempted by the desire for a princely throne, an overwhelming passion which gave him little rest. … In fact what tempted Don John more than effective power was the title. In a Europe besotted with precedence and hierarchy, all young princes dreamed of crowns. … Don John, bitterly resentful of his bastard status, granted only the inferior rank of Excellency, dreamed longingly of the French crown when it was briefly unclaimed on the death of Charles IX in 1574; and his last years in the Netherlands were haunted by fantasies about an English throne.”19

Such ambitions for what Tamburlaine calls “the sweet fruition of an earthly crown” (Part 1, II.vii.29) led Don John to defy Philip's orders in 1573 in order to seek the throne of Tunis, taking “measures which were subsequently to expose him to the criticism, if not the reproaches, of his brother, and to play a part in the tangled drama of secret jealousy and frustrated ambition.”20 One can recognize these aggressive moods in Shakespeare's John, who bitterly insists: “I must be sad when I have cause … and wait for no man's leisure … and tend on no man's business” (I.iii.12-15), and he goes on to denounce his half-brother: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace … I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog … if I had my liberty, I would do my liking” (I.iii.24-32). These are the motives behind the resentment that governed the historical John's disobedience of Philip's instructions, and his restless pursuit of a kingdom of his own. It was also just this desire to become a monarch by conquest which made the hero of Lepanto a monster in the English imagination. We find that even before the failure of the Tunis enterprise in 1574, “Charles IX of France had been urging Elizabeth to ally herself to him against Spain, in fear that Don John of Austria, having secured Spain in the Mediterranean, might raise a force in the Netherlands to descend upon England, liberate the captive in Sheffield Castle, and assume with Mary Queen of Scots the dual crown of Scotland and England.”21 Moreover, “Mary's eagerness to marry Don John” was well established.22 Under such circumstances Don John “found himself the natural candidate of a score of eloquent conspirators” whose initiatives first define the concept of the Spanish Armada against England in practical, political terms. Don John began detailed planning for the invasion with figures like Thomas Stukeley in 1575.23 By 1576, the whole project acquired official standing in Spain as a factor in sending Don John to supervise the restoration of Spain's crumbling authority in the Netherlands.

There is ample evidence that Europe as a whole, and the English government and people in particular, were fully apprised of the paranoid temper and ambitions of Don John from this time onwards. In the Netherlands his appointment as regent was publicly attacked by figures like the Prince of Orange who warned the States “of Don John's proud and cruel disposition,” and that “he will always be suspicious and distrustful. … He has used menaces.”24 The Prince of Orange also warned Queen Elizabeth of Don John's desire “to exterminate the reformed religion” by fomenting “a rebellion in England against the Queen under colour that the Papists should demand publicly the exercise of their religion, and that there were several great people mixed up in this conspiracy. They had further taken steps to poison the Queen, and the marriage of Don John with the Queen of Scots was already arranged, so that not only would he be the head of affairs in the Low Countries, but also possess the kingdoms of England and Scotland.”25 By 1577 these plans were also fully known to the common people of England, for in the spring of that year the Bishop of Chichester wrote nervously “to Mr. Secretary Walsingham: Those that are backward in religion grow worse on the report of Don John's coming to the Low Countries,” and the Bishop recommended a new administering of “the oath of supremacy.”26 Henry, Earl of Huntingdon wrote even more bluntly to Walsingham, at the same time: “I trust there be no truth in what I saw in a letter this day that Don John of Austria should marry the Scottish Queen. Our Papists expect and desire it.”27 English agents were warned by Secretary Wilson “to have a good eye to the Duke of Guise's doings and to learn who they are that pass between him and Don John. I fear the greatest mischief will be practised that way.”28 Mary Stuart's mother was Marie de Guise, and Don John's marriage to the Scottish Queen would strengthen the Catholic League in France, as well as the Catholic cause in Britain.

English agents and ambassadors now consistently warn their government of John's erratic personality: “He is besides by blood illegitimate, young and inexperienced, and not worthy of the obedience of the nobility. … He is besides arrogant and choleric, and has more crafty speech than judgment.”29 Ambassador Wilson notes to Walsingham that “assurance is there none that Don John will deal uprightly,”30 and Agent Rogers reports to him that the Prince of Orange is worried that a local governor will “be corrupted by Don John,” whom another report describes as “scheming everywhere” so that “People's minds here are diversely agitated. The most part have a great fear of Don John … although he has been held of small account.” Agent Davison expresses to Walsingham his amazement that Don John can secure any trust: “The proceedings of these men are so strange that I cannot tell what in the world to make of them; if they be not wilfully blind they cannot but see the great peril which hangs over their heads by losing time in treating with him from whom they can expect no good … a practice growing from ill passion. … He may perhaps be brought to keep truth in some small things to gain the more trust in greater that he may afterwards abuse them with his greater advantage. … Yet would Don John rather hazard and try his uttermost fortune, such is his cruel and insolent nature, than depart with that note of dishonour to be expelled and chased out of his government by a sort of drunken Flemings.”31 Any audience must share the incredulity expressed by the Agent here, when it sees the acceptance of Don John's corrupt advances by the aristocrats in Much Ado, evil designs which are detected only by the jaded and skeptical Benedick:

The practice of it lives in John the bastard,
Whose spirits toil in frame of villainies.


The historical Don John's pathological pride in the face of defeat is also shared by Shakespeare's figure: “This may prove food for my displeasure. That young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow. If I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way” (I.ii.57-60). This kind of neurotic envy appears in another report by the English Agent Davison: “Don John doth very ill digest the receiving of the Prince into this town, for such as come thence say it doth fret him to the heart”;32 and when Davison finally reports John's death, he notes it came after the frustration of his schemes, “partly as some think of very grief and melancholy.”33 This compulsively self-destructive nature of Don John is summed up in Walsingham's comments to “Mr. Vice Chamberlain” Hatton: “We are amazed to see Don John continue the war finding nothing to induce him to do so save some particular respects which are of more force with him than that which in duty he owes to the King his brother. If the mischief likely to ensue by his not yielding to a peace lighted only upon himself, the harm would be less: but it seems most clearly that her Majesty and the Crown of England will be partakers of it.”34 Don John's morbidity of mind was even the subject of a formal address by “the States General to the King of Spain,” which observed that “We have regretted more than we can say the apprehension which has seized Don John of some plot against his person. … In spite of all we could say he persisted in his fears … in a fashion that has scandalized everybody.”35 Yet if this paranoid figure died before Shakespeare ever came to the London theater and his intended Queen by then had also met as grim a fate, Don John remained a crucial reference for Shakespeare's generation, for it was his ingenious plan to reconquer England for Catholicism by force which planted the seeds of the Armada in the mind of Philip II, even if, as Ambassador Paulet reported during John's lifetime, “the time does not yet serve for the execution of it.”36 So the victor of Lepanto became in the English mind the tutelary demon presiding over the doomed Armada.

There is little difficulty in seeing how Shakespeare might come to update the deeply medieval world of the Sicilian Vespers used in Bandello by introducing Don John into the play's Messina. Shakespeare alludes with precision in Love's Labor's Lost and Hamlet to episodes in Brabant when the Princess of France of the former play visited Don John and met him on the River Meuse, in a spirit reminiscent of Cleopatra's descent on Antony (another, if less successful, wager of a sea-battle below the heights of Actium).37 Thus Shakespeare certainly had a detailed knowledge of events during Don John's administration in the Netherlands, as well as of his character and antecedents. He saw no point in fully recreating such characters as Bandello's “Carlo II, King of Naples” who challenged the authority of “King Piero of Aragon” when he reconquered the rebel Sicilians in 1283. However, the account of Piero's naval victory seems to have suggested the useful contemporary analogy of the bloody battle of Lepanto to Shakespeare: “He went against him with what array of ships and galleys he possessed, and meeting him in battle great was the combat, with cruel slaughter of many men. In the end King Piero defeated King Carlo's fleet, and took him prisoner; and, but better to carry on the war, he withdrew the Queen and Court to Messina.”38 The pattern of Piero's activities is similar to Don John's Lepanto campaign based on Messina. Shakespeare followed his customary tactful policy around 1598, of avoiding provocative names (Oldcastle had recently become Falstaff, and the speeches of Henri of Navarre, by then Henri IV, were ascribed to “Ferdinand” in the early scenes of the quarto of LLL [Love's Labour's Lost]), so the reigning Philip II (also King of Aragon) does not openly usurp the role of Piero, even though his historically erratic relations with his now-dead bastard brother provide a ready-made resource for the emotional derivation of Don John's conspiracy in the play. This change allows Shakespeare to refocus the malevolence of the two misguided lovers required in Bandello into the single character of Claudio, a simplification no doubt also required by the fusion of Hero's story with the “new” material of Benedick's affair with Beatrice. Don John provides a more contemporary figure than Timbreo's conventionally jealous rival in Bandello and illustrates a type which clearly interested Shakespeare and his contemporaries greatly, as Bullough noted, for Don John sustains the line from the Bastard of Orleans in Henry VI, Part I, and the Bastard Faulconbridge of King John, to Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and the Bastard Edmund of King Lear.

If Don John affords Shakespeare a notorious contemporary example of the malcontent figure which he so frequently favors in developing a source, Beatrice and Benedick are no less fashionable and contemporary figures. In Love's Labor's Lost Shakespeare had drawn on the names and attributes of witty aristocratic lovers of the current Valois court, who were known personally to such of his patrons or their associates as Essex, Southampton, and Derby. Berowne and Rosaline in particular are considered prototypes for the later pairs in Much Ado,39 and since Berowne at least was directly modelled on the historical Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron (not to discuss the complex precedents for the Princess, Katherine, Maria, Longueville, and Dumain),40 we may be encouraged to feel that the later warring lovers are less unprecedented than we are usually told. However, the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick has been sufficiently misread for only the faintest analogues for this witty pair of lovers to have been proposed, the most interesting perhaps being in Castiglione's Courtier, even though the exchanges of Emilia Pia and Gaspare Pallavicino are scarcely more relevant to Beatrice and Benedick than the witty repartee of innumerable other courtiers, recorded with at least as much historical veracity both in the pages of the Heptameron and in the gossip of Brantôme's memoirs such as his Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies. There may seem to be a specific aptness in the remark of Castiglione's Count Ludovico that “I have seene a most fervent love spring in the heart of a woman, towarde one that seemed at the first not to beare him the least affection in the worlde, onely for that they heard say that the opinion of many was, that they loved together.”41 Unfortunately, as too few scholars have recognized, the love between Beatrice and Benedick is explicitly not one occasioned only by such advocacy of others as Ludovico describes. Shakespeare's conspirators merely delude themselves in hoping that they “are the only love gods” (II.i.344)—as their own later humiliation confirms. For the Penguin editor rightly detects that from the start “Beatrice's disparagement only emphasizes the fact that she can think of nothing else” but Benedick.42 The case for such an interpretation appears vividly in Catullus' epigram (as briskly translated by Swift):

Lesbia for ever on me rails,
To talk of me she never fails.
Now, hang me, but for all her art,
I find that I have gained her heart.
My proof is this: I plainly see
The case is just the same with me;
I curse her every hour sincerely,
Yet, hang me, but I love her dearly.(43)

Benedick's permanent attraction to his “Lady Disdain” is equally outspoken—comparing her to Hero, he says that Beatrice “exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December” (I.i.170).

Far from being tricked into love, then, Beatrice and Benedick are already in love; and they are not even betrayed into admitting a love that exists without their having fully recognized it. The plot goes a whole stage further than this by establishing that they are aware of having already been mutually-committed lovers. Any idea of the virginally man-fearing Beatrice is necessarily false: she is the resentful, jilted mistress. When Don Pedro observes to her that “you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick,” she responds quite openly that “Indeed my lord he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it—a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your grace may well say I have lost it” (II.i.249-52). It is a disconcerting fact that as late as 1900 Furness can note that “into no discussion that I can recall is any weight given, or indeed any reference made, to this speech. Enough is here told to explain Benedick's first greeting to Beatrice as Lady Disdain. Between the lines, there can be almost discerned the plot of another play.”44 Bearing his note in mind, we may conclude Furness is surely correct that, though in his time the implications were “always overlooked,”45 the speech establishes a complex previous relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, in which Benedick gave her his heart, but not sincerely, and later withdrew his love. So that, if he played false then, her present malice merely reciprocates his bad behavior—returning him his own bad faith (or “double heart”). This interpretation may be confirmed by her earlier observation to Benedick: “You always end with a jade's trick. I know you of old” (II.i.129-30). It needs no very subtle gloss here to suggest that Beatrice has suffered an earlier mishap from his “throwing over the traces,” and the word “end” suggests the kind of broken relationship she later claims as justifying her malice.

The neglect of this crucial aspect of the lovers' relationship explains in part why Shakespeare's historical and literary models have proved elusive. The play's plot as a whole has not always been accurately registered, and the processes of its construction are therefore less than fully understood. We need to see that Shakespeare wants to give immediacy and contemporary bite to his characterization. The result of the replacement of an amatory rival to Claudio by the political figure of Don John is to enrich the range of modern male misconduct in the play. If Don John extends the spectrum into the negative far beyond Claudio's shallow censoriousness, this is balanced by the seductive and relatively innocuous complacency of Benedick. Moreover, Don John of Austria serves to update an archaic story by a modern association in ways shared by Benedick and Beatrice, who are scarcely less authentic sixteenth-century figures and ones whose dynamism equally overshadows the archaic conventionalities of Bandello's story, with the new values of the French court. Tudor court and artistic life was lived under the shadows cast by the pyrotechnic culture and society led by the Valois dynasty, which had transposed Italian cultural supremacy to France almost as literally as Francis I uprooted Leonardo de Vinci himself and created the social modes recognized in Love's Labor's Lost. As Shakespeare was later to describe in the first scene of one of the last plays with which he was associated, Henry VIII evaluated himself by comparison with Francis on such occasions as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and was pathetically susceptible to the charms of women trained by the earlier Marguerite de Navarre, Francis' brilliant sister, whose court furnished Henry not only with mistresses like Mary Boleyn, but trained Anne herself in that sexual virtuosity which Henry (and Wyatt) initially found so irresistible. In fact, the widowed Marguerite was even proposed as Henry's wife at one point; and the youthful Princess Elizabeth's first published work was a translation of Marguerite's Mirror of the Sinful Soul, probably made from the very copy inherited from her mother, which Anne kept as a momento of her happier days in France and may even have carried with her to the scaffold itself.46 Marguerite's reputation and influence in Elizabethan England was thus inevitably great and is reflected in innumerable ways, not least by the popular selection from her tales in the Heptameron published in William Painter's anthology The Palace of Pleasure. The Heptameron is an updating of Boccaccio's Decameron, vividly illustrating the impact on sixteenth-century social and moral values of the combined effects of the Reformation and the Renaissance. Many of the tales are thinly disguised accounts of the amatory experiences of the Valois court, and scholars have had little difficulty in identifying Marguerite and Francis themselves as characters in certain stories.47

One of these, the fifty-eighth tale in the Heptameron, appears as the sixty-first in Painter's first volume, and we may be sure that Shakespeare read it because Painter's anthology also provides sources for The Rape of Lucrece, Romeo and Juliet, and All's Well that End Well. The Heptameron's fifty-eighth tale illustrates the dynamic social role of women which both Marguerite and her brother agreed to advance in their court. Indeed some scholars have even seen in the heroine indications that she may have been Marguerite herself, so that the lover would be one of her erratic admirers, like the talented yet obtuse Admiral Bonnivet (who supposedly figures so grotesquely in the fourth tale also): “In the court of King Francis I, there was a lady of very lively wit who, by her good nature, worthiness and pleasing conversation had gained the heart of many suitors without dishonour, entertaining them so agreeably that they did not know what to make of her, for the most confident were in despair, and the most despairing were encouraged by her. All the same, in mocking most of them, she could not avoid loving one of them a great deal, whom she called her ‘cousin,’ so that this name would justify a deeper understanding. And as nothing is fixed, often their love turned to anger, and then returned more strongly than ever, so that the court could not ignore it.”48

The witty and elusive lady is of a temperament very like that of Beatrice. One should note that her tension-ridden relationship with her admirer also corresponds far more exactly to the full “history” of the fluctuating relationships of Beatrice and Benedick than can be recognized from the conventional viewpoint of their mere entrapment by others into a fresh and unexpected love. Yet this very theme of cathartic “deception” is also the point of Marguerite's tale, for the ladies of the court of Francis agree to trick the untrustworthy lover of the witty lady, when she proposes that he be betrayed into ridicule by a profession of unqualified passion on her part. The lady's motive is explained as bluntly as Beatrice's censure of the untrustworthy Benedick for winning her heart “with false dice” (II.i.251): “You know how many wicked tricks he has played on me and that when I loved him most, he made love to others, from which I had more pain than I let appear. Well, now God hath given me the means to revenge it.” The other court ladies are the more willing to go along with the deception in that, like Benedick in his “merry war” with Beatrice (I.i.54), the French courtier affects misogyny: “there was no gentleman more committed to war against the ladies than he, and he was so loved and admired by everyone that no one dared risk becoming the victim of his mockery.” It is thus agreed that his erstwhile mistress shall feign passion for the gallant, and entrap him into covert approach to her bedchamber, when all the conspirators shall abruptly challenge him by screaming “stop thief” at the top of their voices, so that the whole chateau shall know of his passion and thus ensure the humiliation of a professed despiser of women. In the event the aristocrat is ridiculed publicly as planned; “but he had his responses and ripostes so neatly that he made them all think that he was not keen on the enterprise and that he had agreed to visit the lady just to give them amusement. … But the ladies would not accept this truth, of which there are still good grounds for disbelief.”49

Such merry wars as these illustrate vividly that the vagaries of the Battle of the Sexes which are so amusing a feature of Shakespeare's comedy find some of their most vivid and immediate precedents and analogues in the Heptameron—certainly closer than those in Castiglione's decorous Courtier. Indeed, Benedick's final rueful concession of his own and all male volatility is anticipated strikingly in the thirty-seventh tale of Marguerite's collection, in which an untrustworthy husband is tamed by a similar trick. The male narrator concludes with this advice: “I beg you, ladies, if God should give you such husbands, that you don't in the least despair until you have persistently tried every means to overpower them, for there are twenty-four hours in the day in each of which a man may change his opinion.”50 Not only are we reminded of Benedick's unexpected confession that “Man is a giddy thing” (V.iv.6) but also of the admonitory song in Much Ado, with its feminine perspective:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more!
          Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea, and one on shore;
          To one thing constant never.


An even more provocative analogue for Beatrice's behavior in Much Ado can be seen in the shared sexual psychology of its famous church scene and that in another episode of Valois history, closely associated with the Guise family which supported Don John's marriage to Mary Stuart. For in Colynet's history of France (which also affords parallels for both Love's Labor's Lost and Henry V), there is a disturbing seduction scene in which the lover of some ladies of the Guise faction is dextrously excited to “exalt the Church” and serve the cause of honor by killing a man they feel has slighted them. The women passionately exploit the same techniques of incitement used by Beatrice in serving Hero when they assert that “if they were men or if they could be so transformed into men that they might have accesse to the tirant, they would find it in their hearts to stabbe him: that is a special point of honor which they do proffer him to doo such a famous deed … hee is a man endued with strength they have been his good Ladies, they have favoured him greatly and pleasured him in anything that ever he requested. What, will he not do so much at their request: they must die … what a good deede it is to save the lives of Princesses, Ladies. …”51 One recognizes an analogy to the aggressive sentiments of Beatrice in the famous church scene, with her passionate admonition to her lover to “Kill Claudio” (IV.i.297), which she follows up with her sexist reproaches at his hesitation: “O that I were a man! … O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place. … O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had a friend would be a man for my sake. … I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” In each case the male succumbs to the sexual pressure to prove less effeminate, but Benedick stalls long enough to avoid killing Claudio, while the historical Frenchman did in fact murder Henri III.

The implications of these historical precedents or analogues for aspects of the supposedly most “original” characters of Much Ado: Don John, Beatrice, and Benedick, are significant for the understanding both of Shakespeare's procedures in compiling his plays and of their curiously vivid and authentic impact. Having uncovered in Bandello yet another conventional illustration of the idealistic lover's incompetence which he had so often previously used, in plays like The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet,52 Shakespeare sought ways of enriching and updating this archaic material. On the one hand he ascribed the evil genesis of the Messina plot to one of England's contemporary enemies; on the other he turned to France (as he so often did in his comedies) to provide himself with a lively contemporary mode of positive, dynamic, and subtle sexual relations. If his comedies find their prototype in the transcription of historical French personalities like Charles de Gontaut, duc de Biron, Catherine de Bourbon, and others in Love's Labor's Lost,53 it is hardly surprising if the behavior of their successors in Much Ado should prove to resemble scarcely less closely that recorded in the Valois courts. In the most literal sense, Shakespeare's play at its best proves to be “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time” (II.ii.512) and not just the spontaneous product of a fertile imagination. The strength of Shakespeare's art lies less in the inspiration of his own private fantasy than in alertness to established tradition and in his preference for giving immediacy to such traditions by dextrous transpositions from contemporary events and characters. Like its prototype, Love's Labor's Lost, the extraordinary vitality and convincingness of the characterization in Much Ado derives much from Shakespeare's transposition of the most picturesque personalities and manners of sixteenth-century life on to the Elizabethan stage.


  1. Geoffrey Bullough, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London: Routledge, 1957-75).

  2. Aristotle, Poetics, ed. T. A. Moxon (London: Dent, 1949), p. 20.

  3. See Bullough, II, 269; I, 428-30; VII, 270-71, respectively.

  4. Ham., III.ii.20-21 and II.ii.512 in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), pp. 949, 952. All further Shakespeare line references are to this edition.

  5. Josephine Waters Bennett, in Harbage, p. 274.

  6. Bullough, II, 62.

  7. Bullough, II, 71-72.

  8. Bullough, II, 78.

  9. For excellent illustrations of the statue see William Stirling-Maxwell, Don John of Austria (London: Longmans, 1883), I, 459; II, 340.

  10. Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York: Harper, 1975), II, 1088.

  11. George Slocombe, Don John of Austria (London: Nicholson, 1935), p. 283.

  12. Ibid., p. 42.

  13. Ibid., pp. 62-63.

  14. Braudel, II, 1128, 843.

  15. Slocombe, p. 108.

  16. Braudel, II, 1116.

  17. Ibid., II, 1064, 1136.

  18. Ibid., II, 1098, 1130.

  19. Ibid., II, 1131.

  20. Slocombe, p. 225.

  21. Ibid., p. 228.

  22. Ibid., p. 229.

  23. Ibid., pp. 244-45.

  24. Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1575-1579, ed. Allan J. Crosby (London: Longman, 1880), p. 511.

  25. Ibid., p. 516.

  26. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series of the Reigns of Edward VI, Mary, Elizabeth, 1547-1580, ed. Robert Lemon (London: Longman, 1856), p. 539.

  27. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series of the Reign of Elizabeth. Addenda, 1566-1579, ed. Mary A. E. Green (London: Longman, 1871), p. 511.

  28. Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1577-1578, ed. Arthur J. Butler (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1901), p. 119.

  29. Calendar, Foreign, 1575-1577, p. 462.

  30. Ibid., p. 514.

  31. Calendar, Foreign, 1577-1578, pp. 29, 166-67, 153-54.

  32. Ibid., p. 206.

  33. Calendar, Foreign, 1578-1579, p. 233.

  34. Ibid., p. 175.

  35. Calendar, Foreign, 1577-1578, p. 143.

  36. Calendar, Foreign, 1575-1577, p. 576.

  37. Slocombe, pp. 301-02, 346. For an outline of the detailed sources involved in LLL, [Love's Labour's Lost] see Richard David's Arden ed. (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. xxv, xxix. The curious resemblances between Ophelia's death, the Cydnus episode, and passages in LLL on the one hand and events during the visit of the French princess to Don John can be recognized in Marguerite's own account: Marguerite de Valois, Memoirs, trans. Violet Fane (London: John Nimo, 1892), pp. 174-87. Detailed discussion of the relationships can be found in Abel Lefranc, Les éléments français dePeines d'amour perduesde Shakespeare (Paris: Revue Historique, 1936), though many of his broader conclusions from this data are questionable.

  38. Bullough, p. 112.

  39. Ibid., p. 71.

  40. See Abel Lefranc, Sous le masque de William Shakespeare (Paris: Payot, 1919), II, 45ff. Again the detail is accurate, but the ultimate conclusions drawn from it are quite misleading. A review of current data and views may be found in Hugh M. Richmond, “Shakespeare's Navarre,” due to appear in The Huntington Library Quarterly, 43 (1979).

  41. Bullough, pp. 78-80.

  42. Josephine Waters Bennett, in Harbage, p. 274.

  43. The Latin Poets, ed. Francis R. B. Godolphin (New York: Random House, 1949), p. 10. Catullus' poem (XCII) begins “Lesbia mi dicit. …”

  44. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, ed. Horace H. Furness (rpt. New York: Dover, 1964), pp. 88, xxi.

  45. For further discussion of the implications see Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), pp. 185ff.

  46. For details of the relations between Henry VIII, Anne, and Marguerite, which bear on this treatise, see the preface to The Mirror of the Sinful Soul: a Prose Translation from the French of a Poem by Queen Margaret of Navarre Made in 1544 by the Princess (afterwards Queen) Elizabeth, then Eleven Years of Age, ed. Percy W. Ames (London: Asher, 1897).

  47. See Marguerite de Navarre, L'Heptameron, ed. Michel François (Paris: Garnier, 1967), pp. 134, 453, 472, etc.

  48. Ibid., p. 357.

  49. Ibid., pp. 358-59.

  50. Ibid., p. 268.

  51. Antony Colynet, The True History of the Civill Warres of France between the French King Henry the 4, and the Leaguers, Gathered from the yere of our Lord 1585 untill this present October, 1591 (London, 1591), p. 403.

  52. See my Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy for further discussions of this aspect.

  53. David, pp. xxv-xxx, provides a survey of scholars exploring this kind of parallelism, including Joseph Hunter, H. B. Charlton, Frances Yates, and others.

Anthony B. Dawson (essay date spring 1982)

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SOURCE: Dawson, Anthony B. “Much Ado About Signifying.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 22, no. 2 (spring 1982): 211-21.

[In the following essay, Dawson discusses how messages and their interpretation (or, more often, misinterpretation) not only propel the plot in Much Ado about Nothing, but also act as signs, or clues, to the play's major themes.]

Thinking about Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing led me to thinking about messages and the process of interpretation imposed by the delivery of messages. The play takes up this perfectly ordinary, everyday activity and subjects it to comic scrutiny. In doing so, the play highlights the act of message-sending itself, as well as the subsequent act of interpretation or, more often, misinterpretation. The characters certainly make much ado about such acts, which are indeed a kind of “nothing,” if we regard nothing in a paradoxically active sense, as a free form, an act liberated from content. The title's well known pun on “noting” coalesces with this sense of “nothing”:1 observing, and the interpretation that goes with it, becomes not only an action that impels the plot, but the very subject of the play, the nothing about which there is, indeed, much ado. A sentence in Barthes's Sade/Fourier/Loyola is appropriate here: “I listen to the message's transport, not the message.”2 “Transport” (emportement) carries the double sense of the act of delivery and the delight (for the spectator) attendant upon that act. For us who contemplate Much Ado, the pleasure resides in the transport rather than the content of messages, and the world the play creates is one in which attention is directed as much to the way meaning is produced as to what the meaning is.

The play begins with news, with a messenger. All plays begin with news of some sort; they have to tell us something in order to get us started. but Much Ado, unlike most plays by Shakespeare, begins with a messenger actually bringing news from somewhere else. We could say, for one thing, that this opening schematizes the dramatist's need to provide us with initial information. But the messenger does more. He poses the problem of reliable meaning, of interpretation. We know this only in retrospect, once we have become familiar with the multiplicity and ambiguity of messages that this play contains. But at the very outset, both characters and audience receive and assess news, and are thus put in the same structural position that they will be in throughout the play. In general, 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.

Eavesdropping is, in fact, a favored form of activity in this play, even more than it is in Hamlet. Theatrically, the play offers its audience the dominant, recurrent spectacle of one character, or group of characters, overhearing another group, and interpreting, re-interpreting, or misinterpreting what has been seen or heard. The pervasiveness and fallibility of such activity are first suggested by Antonio in the second scene when he describes how his man “overheard” how “The Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter” (I.ii.9-11).3 In the next scene, Borachio tells Don John how he has overheard the Prince and Claudio “in sad conference” (unlike Antonio's man, he gets his facts almost right). Later, Borachio is in his turn overheard by the Watch, whose comic misinterpretations nevertheless yield accurate results. Benedick and Beatrice eavesdrop on their friends and are won to each other by falsehood. Claudio and Pedro eavesdrop on “Hero” (offstage) and are also deceived by falsehood. They proclaim their plain truth (they are less cautious about the reliability of messages than Beatrice and Benedick), are equally plainly wrong, and are only dismissed into truth through being deceived once more by false report.

The central action of the play, then, is delivering messages, and we may start our investigation with a question about one of the most puzzling instances of this. Why does Claudio have Pedro do his wooing for him? This is not a question about character or motivation. From that point of view, it seems easy to solve. An actor, of course, has to find an answer (Claudio is young, shy, inexperienced or whatever), but that isn't what concerns us here. Our question might be re-phrased as follows: what is the pattern that, from the point of view of the play as a whole, will reveal the contextual appropriateness of Claudio's action (presuming for the moment that it is appropriate)?4 The indirectness of the act makes it peculiar, especially in the light of Shakespeare's other comedies, where normally wooers energetically pursue their own wooing. (Where they don't, as with Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, or “Mr. Brook” in Merry Wives, the effect is to discredit the lover; Sir Andrew is a fool, “Mr. Brook” a stock jealous husband with ulterior motives.) At the outset, Claudio lets someone else woo for him; later he lets someone else woo him out of love; and at the end he allows himself once more to be led, and bound, to a veiled bride who, by an appealing semiotic shift, becomes once again the original target of the indirect pursuit. His passivity and gullibility are obvious enough, but in themselves are not very interesting. What makes this indirectness significant is its relation to the other forms of interaction in the play—notably the tricking of Beatrice and Benedick (they don't really woo for themselves either—they are won first and woo later), and the apprehension and examination of the villains by Dogberry and his cohorts.

In all of these cases the action and discourse are indirect. The indirectness is linked to the persistent dramatic image of eavesdropping which, as I said, is what most of the characters are doing most of the time. To eavesdrop is to be at one remove from the dialogue (even when, as in the scenes where Beatrice and Benedick are gulled, the eavesdropper is involved in a plot laid by those to whom he listens), just as wearing a mask is, as an action, oblique, off-center, not straightforward. Hence the masked ball, where the process of penetrating or not penetrating a mask is enacted, is the perfect setting for the indirect wooing of Hero. She expects, because of previous misinformation, to be wooed by Pedro. She is wooed by a man in a mask who is in fact Pedro, but an oblique Pedro wooing in the name of Claudio. Claudio is, in a sense, Pedro's mask. Pedro is Claudio's voice. As audience, we don't know whether Pedro is pretending to be Claudio or simply speaking on Claudio's behalf. What, we may wonder, does Hero think? The scene, to make matters more impenetrable, takes place offstage, while onstage Claudio, masquerading as Benedick, hears a false report of what is happening offstage from Don John and Borachio, who know perfectly well they're talking to Claudio, not Benedick. The discourse and the dramatic movement could hardly be more elliptical and indirect. As an audience we are necessarily conscious primarily of the oblique quality of this interplay.

The appeal of Don John in Much Ado's world of masks and mistaking is that he offers certainty—what Othello will later call “ocular proof.” He promises “further warrant” for his slander of Hero in III.ii, and challenges Claudio and Pedro with the words “If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know” (III.ii.115-16). Like certain pronouncements of Iago, this sentence appears more meaningful, even portentous, than it actually is. It cheats the listener by pretending a meaning that it fails to deliver, thus giving the impression that Don John knows what he is talking about. His messages are often of this type—they lure their hearers with the promise of directness and certainty in a world of uncertainty and obliqueness. Hence slander is the appropriate crime for this villain in this world. And the stance he adopts of a pretended concern for the purity of language is consistent with this false promise: “The word [‘disloyal’] is too good to paint her wickedness” (III.ii.105-106). Hero's sins, he claims at the aborted marriage, are “not to be named. … There is not chastity enough in language / Without offense to utter them” (IV.i.94-97). Language is vulnerable, easily tainted, its chastity needs protection. Again, Don John promises a wholeness of meaning, opposed to the malleability of meaning current in the rest of the play, where the emphasis is on the process of signifying rather than on the fixed meaning. Don John's falsified certainty thereby offers a threat to the very basis on which reality is constructed in this world.

Thus, the messenger who enters at the beginning may be seen in retrospect as problematic, in one particular sense. He introduces a world of messages, a world in which the act of message-sending and receiving is itself highlighted and in which the processes of interpretation and misinterpretation are integral to both the comic obstacles (those features which retard the resolution of the comic action), and to the resolution itself. Hence messages become in themselves signs, as well as vehicles, of the major concerns of the play. This process is revealed most clearly and fully in the eavesdropping scenes with Benedick and Beatrice, and in the Dogberry scenes.

The gulling of Benedick in II.iii begins with Benedick's comic soliloquy in which he declares his own immunity to love and ridicules Claudio for becoming a lover and, accordingly, turning his language into a “fantastical banquet,” a gourmandizing love rhetoric which carries its own sexuo-culinary message (cf. The Joy of Cooking—Joy of Sex association, and, too, the many instances in the language of the play of a connection between food and love).5 But Benedick quickly falls prey, not so much to love, as to the seductiveness of the message itself. The soliloquy over, he spots his friends and hides in the arbor to listen. As for most of the characters, eavesdropping for Benedick is a natural, spontaneous gesture. He prefers it to saying hello. But a complex game is being played. He thinks he is eavesdropping on Leonato, Pedro, and Claudio, but in actuality they are spying on him. He is aware of the possibility of the game, but rejects it: “I should think this a gull but that the white-bearded fellow speaks it” (II.iii,121-22). He listens intently. His interest sparks Claudio's comment, “He hath ta'en th' infection” (124). This last word is a significant one since it implies a symptomatology, a sign language. It is of course a conventional metaphor, but in this semiotically charged context, it has added force. “Infection” carries its own sign system: symptoms on the surface are an index of the infection below. But the infection that Benedick has caught is not that of love, or not only that of love, but of the sign itself, the message. He is not yet showing the traditional signs of love. Rather the symptoms he is showing, his posture, the strain to overhear, the comic surprise (the theatrical “take”), indicate a fascination with the act of overhearing what is being said, with the message's transport as much as with the message itself. By the time he has been fully “infected,” he is able to reinterpret Beatrice, to “spy some marks of love” (II.iii.241-42) in her that he had not perceived before. The final part of the scene gives us a wonderfully comic enactment of this process of reinterpretation. Beatrice, in line with the pattern we have been tracing, brings a message (one, significantly, connected with food): “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner” (243-44). But Benedick interprets it as a message of love: “There's a double meaning in that” (255). He thanks her for her pains. “I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me” (246-47), she replies, which he later construes to mean, “Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks” (257-58). Thus is the plain message made ambiguous; and thus does misinterpretation lead to love.

In a theatrically daring move, Shakespeare treats us to the gulling of Beatrice in the very next scene. Here, the emphasis is less on the seductiveness of the message itself and more on the possible transformation which can be the message's most vivid consequence. The scene begins with a speech which merges the motifs of message-sending and eavesdropping, both within a deliberately delusive context. Hero tells Margaret to go whisper in Beatrice's ear

                                        and tell her, I and Ursley
Walk in the orchard, and our whole discourse
Is all of her. Say that thou overheard'st us.


Hero's message is false (since it is part of the plot), but it looks true to Beatrice when she arrives, since their discourse is of her. Within the plot, the game that they are constructing, Hero and Ursula speak of Beatrice's very real disdain, her pride and scorn, which “ride sparkling in her eyes, / Misprizing what they look on”—misprize in the sense of not understanding (misinterpreting), as well as contemning. She misconstrues Benedick and therefore mistakes his worth. Failure of perception, as it is in King Lear, is failure of valuing. But the context is comic, the tendency to misprize can be reversed, and sight transformed through the false message. Beatrice comes to see both Benedick and herself better. The dominant metaphor of the scene is one of trapping, but the metaphor seems deliberately inapposite. Beatrice isn't trapped, she is interpreted, and Benedick is reinterpreted for her and, subsequently, by her. The result is that her discourse is transformed through the false discourse which she has overheard:

For others say thou dost deserve, and I
Believe it better than reportingly.


The concern of the whole play with signs is reflected whenever love becomes the subject of conversation, since love is manifested primarily in a series of signs: “If he be not in love with some woman,” says Claudio of Benedick, “there is no believing old signs; 'a brushes his hat o'mornings … the barber's man hath been seen with him … 'a rubs himself with civet. … That's as much as to say, the sweet youth's in love” (III.ii.39-51). The greatest note of it, as Pedro observes, is Benedick's melancholy, which, like love, is itself registered in a code, a prescribed repertoire of gestures (cf. Democritus Junior and Jaques). Love, then, is a kind of language; but it also has a language, one which Benedick, after mocking Claudio for adopting it, tries unsuccessfully to master.

Love is like fashion, another sign system whose arbitrariness and instability are alluded to in the play (“But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is” [III.iii.124-25]). But it is language itself, as the most fully elaborated of all sign systems, that provides the paradigm (“I know that Deformed; 'a has been a vile thief this seven year”);6 and it is Dogberry who most pointedly fixes the problem of language and its interpretation at the center of the play.

Dogberry and Bottom make an interesting contrast. Bottom is involved in drama, he seeks to play all roles, he is transformed in the course of a metadrama which reflects the concern of A Midsummer Night's Dream with metamorphosis and the art of the drama. His blithe unawareness of the conditions and constraints of theatrical “reality” (in contrast to, say, Puck's very sharp awareness) is a large part of his humor. Dogberry, on the other hand, is involved in investigation, in seeking out the truth. His language is peppered with malapropisms, which distort language as, analogously, Bottom distorts dramatic conventions, and which reveal Dogberry's proud concern with language just as Bottom's theatrical bravado reveals his egotistical interest in the drama. Dogberry, again like Bottom, is blithely unaware of his humorous incompetence. Thus, at the very core of what makes each of them funny we can perceive the central concerns of the plays they inhabit.

The gap between Dogberry's professional involvement with investigation, with clues that lead to truth, and his evident failure to master the relations between reality as he perceives it and language (his malapropisms frequently mean the opposite of what he “means”), is central to the comic irony of the play as a whole. It is precisely gaps between modes of interpretation which give structure to the plot and fascinate both the characters and the audience. Language is central to interpretation, both as a model for it, and as the medium in which it is carried out. This double function is one of the sources of confusion and uncertainty in the play.

Dogberry's speech on being called an ass offers an illustration:

Dost thou not suspect my place? Does thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow; and which is more, an officer; and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina. … Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!


The humor in the substitution of “suspect” for “respect,” “piety” for “impiety,” is itself a sign of insufficient control over the process of signification; but this failure of control becomes most explicit and most humorous in the play with the word and concept “ass” and the application of that word to Dogberry. Again a contrast with Bottom is instructive. In keeping with the codes of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bottom is turned literally (or should we say, “theatrically,” as part of the show) into an ass. Here, in order to bring out the analogous asininity of Dogberry, a linguistic rather than a theatrical code is invoked. In both plays, too, an ironic truth is discovered in asininity, in A Midsummmer Night's Dream as a result of Bottom's dream (I am thinking of the underlying sense of value, of concord generated out of discord, that ultimately emerges from his dream and his hilariously confused discourse about it);7 in Much Ado as a result of the success of Dogberry's investigation. In the speech under discussion, Dogberry's syntax and the oppositions he creates (“I am an ass … I am a wise fellow”), leave us momentarily uncertain whether he truly understands the word “ass.” We know he does, but the syntax works against our accepting the fact—“yet forget not that I am an ass.” Alternatively, one could say that the word Dogberry misunderstands in “am”; he uses it as if it could have only one kind of locutionary force, or only one tone (as in “So I'm an ass, am I?”) or one meaning (“he says I am”). Just as we have to supply the right word in order to get the humor of “Dost thou not suspect my place,” so we have to supply the right construction in the sentences that follow. In order to laugh, we have to remind ourselves of what Dogberry “really” means, and at the same time be aware of the appropriateness of what he actually says. Hence the simple correlation, ass-Dogberry, is complicated by a series of interpretative interventions on our part, a series which goes something like this: he is saying he's an ass; he doesn't mean what he says; this is not because he doesn't understand the word “ass” or the word “am,” but because he lacks the linguistic power to achieve control over his meaning; nevertheless, what he is saying is true; in fact saying it shows him to be an ass. Thus the process of signification itself, so crucial to this play, is brought into humorous relief, exactly as in A Midsummer Night's Dream the process of dramatic representation is highlighted by Bottom's transformations.

The distinction between spoken and written language is another of Dogberry's concerns. The exaggerated respect of the unlettered for the written word is part of what is behind Dogberry's desire to be written. But beyond that, he alludes to the primacy of writing in the law, and by extension in culture in general. “It is written” is the mark of cultural validity. To become part of a text is to become official; to be writ down an ass would, ironically, fix Dogberry, making him an ass for all time. This, of course, is exactly what Shakespeare has done, though in a slightly different sense than that Dogberry has in mind when he seeks his own textualization.8

The problem of the transference of messages is raised most cunningly within the play in the scene in which Dogberry comes with his report to Leonato just before the wedding. The audience cannot help feeling tantalized here, knowing the importance of Dogberry's message and yet becoming increasingly aware of the fact that Dogberry does not realize its importance, and is probably ignorant of what the real crime, and hence the real message, is. As we watch, we begin to realize that he will not be able to get the message across to Leonato in time to prevent the breaking of the nuptial—except by chance, through some random statement that Leonato will suddenly be able to perceive as significant. But the more Dogberry rambles on, the more likely Leonato is to dismiss him; as an audience we are thus caught in a squeeze, knowing that Dogberry has to be allowed to ramble in order to stumble into revealing the crime and yet realizing that Dogberry's vice of rambling is likely to lead to his quick dismissal. Wanting the message to come through, we are yet caught between the logic of that desire and our enjoyment of the comedy of misinterpretation. The difficulty of getting the message across thus enters directly into our response—we are teased, desiring the discovery and resisting it at once.

As much as the Dogberry scenes, though in a different way, the wedding scene focuses on the process of signifying. It offers us the spectacle of a dramatic clash of interpretations. Hero's appearance and behavior are textualized, raised to the level of a sign, and interpreted. Claudio's is the subtlest reading, but also the most naive. He sees the sign as disconnected from its proper referent, as an appearance only:

She's but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
.....Comes not that blood, as modest evidence,
To witness simple virtue? …
.....Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.


Denying the accepted relation between signifier and signified, he reinterprets the sign, investing it with new semiotic value, as proof of his contention that “she knows the heat of a luxurious bed.” He is, we might say, redefining the language of the blush. Claudio's relation to signs, though he thinks it subtle, is in fact acutely misguided. He continually misreads his closest acquaintances. His mistaking of Hero in the wedding scene is confirmed in his next appearance, not only by his callous response to the news of her “death,” but by his misreading of Benedick's message and intent when the latter comes to challenge him. Benedick's pallor and intensity (V.i.130, 139-40), like Hero's blush, are symptoms whose source Claudio is unable to fathom. Claudio, in fact, seems unaware of the possibility of misreading. His reinterpretation of Hero stems from the fact that he has been tricked by what Othello longs for, “ocular proof,” but such “proof” is itself a kind of message and hence obscure and subject to misreading, as Othello, to his horror, finally learns. The friar, unlike Claudio, sees the signs in context and interprets differently (as does Beatrice)—his “noting of the lady” reveals her “maiden truth” (IV.i.156, 163).

In Othello, to digress briefly, eavesdropping and misinterpretation lead not to comic redefinition but to tragic mistaking. As has been frequently observed, Othello can in many respects be seen as the tragic converse of Much Ado;9 in it, the play of signification becomes very serious indeed. Exactly as Claudio redefines Hero's look, seeing her blush as guiltiness not modesty, so Othello redefines Desdemona's beauty, seeing it as a mark not of faithfulness but of treachery: “Was this fair paper, this most goodly book, / Made to write whore upon?” And just as Claudio justifies himself at the end of Much Ado, “Yet sinned I not / But in mistaking” (V.i.275-76), so Othello excuses himself by pleading that he was perplexed in the extreme, that he loved not wisely but too well. The process of investigation is central to Othello as well, and the key scene is once again one of eavesdropping. The grotesque comedy of Iago questioning Cassio about Bianca, while Othello hovers in the background, misinterpreting every leer and giggle, seems almost like a dark parody of the scene in Much Ado where Benedick is won to Beatrice through the lure of the message. Othello's deafness in the scene signals his defeat, the abandonment of investigation. The sign for him is empty, he fills it with his own debased meaning. He, like Benedick, is “infected” by the message but of course the causes, symptoms, and consequences of infection are utterly different. Misinterpretation leads to hate, and finally to murder.

In Much Ado, the breakdown of the wedding prompts Benedick's remark, “This looks not like a nuptial” (IV.i.67). The broken nuptial, in this as in many of Shakespeare's plays,10 poses a semiotic problem. The critical term “broken” is apt—it suggests the fracture of a complex social sign into fragments and shards. The highly unorthodox wooing that follows the “wedding,” based on the injunction “kill Claudio” and leading to a repudiation of the traditional language and forms of courting, continues the motif of a fracturing of conventional signs. Eventually Claudio is led to a blind reacceptance of the traditional form in which “Another Hero,” who turns out to be the same Hero, is represented; hence the original ritual, once again intact, is reinstated, now, presumably, free of the threat of breakage. Beatrice and Benedick, by contrast, move to an enlightened acceptance of the unorthodox deceptions which have brought them together. Like the signs by which he sustains himself and constructs meaning, “Man,” as Benedick observes, “is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion” (V.iv.107-108).

The play ends, as it began, with a messenger. Like the first one, this messenger is a pure function of plot. He signals the end, totality, all the strands tied together (Don John is captured), just as the first messenger signalled the beginning—an arrival. But the framing of the action of the play by these messengers signals more than that. It suggests that the “jeu de signification” (Derrida's term) exceeds what is signified, that Much Ado as a whole, is itself a play of signification.


  1. Dorothy Hockey, in “Notes, Notes, Forsooth …” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 8, no. 3 (Summer 1957): 353-58, was I believe, the first critic to discuss this pun in any detail. She argues that noting and mis-noting constitute the primary theme of the play.

  2. Roland Barthes, Sade/Fourier/Loyola, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), p. 10. The French text reads as follows “J'écoute l'emportement du message, non le message, je vois dans l'oeuvre triple le deploiement victorieux du texte signifiant.” Barthes is talking about the text in relation to its reader or audience; I am extending his sense to include the interactions within the work as well as those between the work and the audience.

  3. The text of Much Ado About Nothing referred to here and throughout the essay is the Signet edition (New York: New American Library, 1964), ed. David L. Stevenson.

  4. Both Hockey and Bertrand Evans, in Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1960), p. 69, discuss this incident, Hockey in terms of the pervasiveness of “noting” and Evans in terms of the “alacrity to perpetrate a practice which infects people of this world.”

  5. See Richard Henze, “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing,” SEL [SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900] 11 (Spring 1971):196, for a discussion of this aspect of the play's language.

  6. The way the word “deformed” becomes the elaborately described character Deformed is one of the funniest instances in the play of the power of the sign to slide away from its meaning and take on a reality of its own. See V.i.308-13, and see also William Carroll's Comments in The Great Feast of Language in “Love's Labour's Lost” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press 1976), p. 35-36.

  7. I have explored this point further in my book Indirections (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978), pp. 68-70. See also, David Young, Something of Great Constancy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1966).

  8. The idea of the primacy of writing, of the social function of the written “text,” is elaborated by Lotman and Pjatigorskij in “Text and Function,” Soviet Semiotics, ed. Daniel Lucid (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 125-36.

  9. Critics often mention, but usually don't develop, the connections between Much Ado and Othello. Rosalie Colie, for example, in Paradoxica Epidemica (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1966), p. 240, calls the former a “comic rehersal” for Othello while Bertrand Evans, p. 81, contrasts Othello's and Claudio's reactions to similar circumstances.

  10. The “broken nuptial” in this and other plays was the topic of a paper delivered by Carol Neely at the conference of the Shakespeare Association of America in 1979.

Jeanne Addison Roberts (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Roberts, Jeanne Addison. “Strategies of Delay in Shakespeare's Comedies: What the Much Ado Is Really About.” In Renaissance Papers, 1987, edited by Dale B. J. Randall and Joseph A. Porter, pp. 95-102. Durham N.C.: The Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1987.

[In the following essay, Roberts examines Shakespeare's use of obstacles and delay in Much Ado about Nothing and his other comedies, and contends that the delays “provide audiences with the pleasant anxieties of sustained anticipation.”]

Audiences of Shakespeare's tragic drama predictably and recurringly experience the desire to hold back the rising tide of tragic action, to arrest time, to allow a few more moments for Juliet to awaken and embrace Romeo, for Emilia to enlighten Othello, for the servants to muster the courage to save Gloucester's eyes, or for someone to rescue Macduff's wife and children from Macbeth's murderous rage. The impulse to delay persists in spite of the certain knowledge that disaster will not be averted, and indeed in spite of the grim cathartic satisfaction of being swept away by the inevitable flood of catastrophic events which converge into the mainstream of tragedy. Similarly in Shakespeare's comic theater, two conflicting impulses contribute simultaneously to audience pleasure. The overwhelming current of comedy, as Northrop Frye has demonstrated in “The Argument of Comedy,” moves toward sexual consummation.1 It is anticipation of this happy outcome which engages audience attention and sustains interest through the progress toward this inevitable culmination, and which may arouse in audiences a desire to speed things up, to help the characters get on to the main event.

And yet immoderate speed destroys the comedy. Milton tells us in Paradise Lost that the Edenic Adam discovered very early the delights of his spouse's talent for “sweet reluctant amorous delay” (Bk. III, l. 311), and one remembers the immortal words of Mae West: “I like a man who takes his time.” One might well contend that the true “argument” of comedy is not the movement toward consummation but the elaboration of strategies to delay such consummation. Shakespeare shows impressive variety and skill in designing these strategies in his comedies and romances.

Probably the most obvious device for preventing the immediate union of the young is parental disapproval. This stumbling block is used rather conventionally in Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night's Dream to propel rebellious daughters from the comforts and convenience of conformity into the uncharted territory aptly symbolized by the wild forest, where they will help to shape their own destiny, a destiny characterized in each case by faintly unsettling but adequate new attachments. Parental plans are similarly circumvented by forest intrigue in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale parental disapproval again fractures familial relationships and precipitates journeys toward self-discovery and sexual satisfaction. In The Tempest Prospero's mild restraints serve only to prolong courtship, not to subvert it.

The flouting of paternal authority may not have been for Shakespeare primarily a laughing matter, however, for the use of this theme is not a favorite delaying technique in his comedies. It has often been observed that the shadow of death hovers over a large number of the comedies, serving either to initiate confusion or to block fulfillment. In Love's Labor's Lost and Two Noble Kinsmen death defers nuptial celebrations. In The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream the menace of death or supposed death inaugurates the action. In The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure the threat of death interrupts connubial progress. And in Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles, and The Winter's Tale a supposed death stretches out the central portion of the dramatic action.

Rather less ominously Shakespeare develops in several comedies the use of the play as foreplay—a device used somewhat sketchily in Love's Labor's Lost and in its full glory in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the rude mechanicals' “Pyramus and Thisbe” is especially designed as nuptial entertainment and offered in answer to Theseus's plea for some diversion “To wear away this long age of three hours / Between [our] after-supper and bed-time” (V.i.33-34). Prospero evokes a nuptial masque for Ferdinand and Miranda to amuse them while waiting for the fitting moment to untie Miranda's maiden knot, and in Much Ado About Nothing the drama on the balcony masterminded by Don John and overheard by Dogberry's watchmen temporarily prevents the expected marriage of Hero and Claudio.

Even more common than the diversionary interlude of the play-within-a-play is the more extensive and inclusive form of play embodied in games. Comic games in Shakespeare range from the masked encounters of the ladies and the “Muscovites” in Love's Labor's Lost and the masked ball of Much Ado About Nothing through the almost incidental chess game of The Tempest. Games provide opportunities for confusion and discovery, and they prolong the intervals between the inception and completion of the central courtship. In The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice games constitute the occasion for a terminal testing of lovers. In Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night games launch the Beatrice and Benedick romance and the Malvolio subplot—both of which threaten to eclipse the main action while deliciously prolonging it. And in The Merry Wives and As You Like It the “love” games of the wives and Falstaff and of Rosalind and Orlando move to the main plot—becoming in the latter case the very heart of the play.

Although all these complications—parental opposition, death and threat of death, plays, and games—serve in Shakespeare's comedies to guarantee that the course of true love will not run smooth, and to provide audiences with the pleasant anxieties of sustained anticipation, by far the most common device for complicating the action is the multiplication of lovers. Multiplication occurs in every one of the comedies and romances—if one allows for the two generations of The Winter's Tale and counts both Ferdinand and Caliban as lovers in The Tempest. The causes and the effects of this multiplication are far too numerous and too varied for detailed analysis here. Sometimes, as with the quintupled pairs of Love's Labor's Lost and the quadrupled pairs of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, the proliferation serves mainly to emphasize the absurd, capricious, and inevitable contortions of human beings when the amorous fit is upon them. Twelfth Night, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Cymbeline use diversity of lovers to provide the impetus for self-discovery and personality readjustment. In each case sorting out all these characters takes time and fills the gaps in the comic continuum.

However, the examples of multiple lovers that interest me especially and to which I should like to draw particular attention are those where romantic figures seem curiously flat and/or schematically interrelated. These cases encourage audiences to view the stage action as a sort of psychomachia, even as they appreciate its imitation of life, and to anticipate resolutions which harmonize warring psychic elements even as they resolve complications of plot.

The affinity between the dialectical nature of drama and the allegorical habit of mind is abundantly illustrated by medieval morality plays; and it is obvious that a strong taste for allegory survived into the Renaissance. To categorize Shakespeare's drama as allegory is to diminish it; but to recognize traces there of the Renaissance proclivity for viewing human beings as composed of faculties and humours is to add resonance and historical texture to its characterizations and plots. An example of a play that invites such interpretation is The Comedy of Errors, where the female characters form a paradigm of stereotypes of women: the virgin, the whore, the virago, and the mother turned nun. It is one achievement of the play to harmonize the female fragments and to reconcile female principals with male prototypes—themselves functionally split into father, husband, and lover. Although the origin of this vision of divided psyches is in Plautus, Shakespeare responded to it enough to reproduce it; and because of it his play has an enduring mythical resonance which helps to account for its continued popularity. As I have shown elsewhere, the women of The Taming of the Shrew, particularly Katherina and Bianca, may be viewed like those of The Comedy of Errors as complementary facets of one whole—the ubiquitous fair and dark heroines of fairy tale and romance. The process of merging these two figures provides one dimension of the reluctant, amorous delay that constitutes the body of the comedy.

Much Ado About Nothing similarly rewards analysis as a study of delay caused by the need to integrate parts—in this case with emphasis on the males. Names provide some clues to the function of the parts. The name Claudio, perhaps because of its association with such Claudian emperors as Nero and Caligula, seems to be linked in Shakespeare's mind with varieties of illicit sexuality—manifesting itself in the readiness of this Claudio to imagine sordid sexual dalliance, as well as in the premature embraces of the Claudio of Measure for Measure, and culminating in the incestuous sheets leapt to with such dexterity by Hamlet's uncle. Hero's name is mythical, androgynous, and as blankly unspecific as her character. The delightful Beatrice and Benedick, apparently Shakespeare's original inventions, are universally agreed to be the soul of the play. And yet, in spite of their vitality, their very names suggest more baldly than most Shakespearean denominations their salient qualities. Beatrice, born as she says under a dancing star, is a woman who brings blessedness. And Benedick is not only blessed but also one who speaks well—he has more lines than anyone else in the play, and, as Beatrice remarks, he is (at least in the first two acts) always talking. In many ways he is the central character of the drama, even more than Beatrice since we see more of him and have more insight into the stages of his conversion. And yet Beatrice, usually a reliable witness, calls him a “stuff'd man” (I.i.58-59) and one who has lost four of his five wits and is now “govern'd with one” (I.i.66-67).2 I should like to suggest that the delaying action of Much Ado is actually the process of restoring Benedick to his full faculties and that his psychic drama is played out by other male characters in the play.

Benedick arrives in Messina a successful warrior and an experienced man of the world—one whom Beatrice says she knows of old (I.i.144-145) and one who has previously won her heart with false dice (II.i.280-281). He talks wittily and well, but he harps even more obsessively than other Shakespearean males on the specter of cuckoldry which haunts his vision of the marriage bed. Beatrice says, “he hath every month a new sworn brother” (I.i.72-73) and asks of the messenger who announces the soldiers' imminent arrival, “Is there no young squarer now that will make a voyage with him to the devil?” (I.i.81-83). Such an alter ego does indeed appear in the form of the curiously characterless Claudio, whose outstanding qualities are his youth and his vulnerability to deception. One can easily imagine him to personify a younger Benedick, one who might have played his lover false out of his own insecurity when faced with the uncertain nature of sexual fidelity. This is the Claudio who watches with credulity the dumb-show of sexual betrayal on Hero's balcony and whose rash acceptance of appearance metaphorically destroys his betrothed bride. This is the Claudio who must indeed—as Beatrice later commands—be killed, or at least recognized for what he is and brought under control before Benedick can achieve a harmonious union. Benedick does successfully master this latent side of his nature, as he reveals in the final scene when, after Claudio identifies his friend with “bull Jove” in an image which joins the divine and the animal, Benedick calmly accepts the designation, signifying perhaps that godlike reason must cohabit with bestial passion, and adds that such a bull was the father of the bleating, calf-like Claudio.

If Claudio represents the callow, youthful Benedick, Don Pedro suggests a more sedate and parental aspect of his character. Don Pedro actually identifies himself with Jove when he is dancing with Hero at the masked ball. As the diviner aspect of Benedick he twice expresses a serious desire to marry Beatrice, valuing her justly and without any sense of risk in his proposal. He is declined because Beatrice wants a complete man and sees that he is only a part to be worn on Sunday. But the noble Don Pedro is brother to Don John, the darker side of rationality. Don John is a one-dimensional villain—the embodiment of lurking resentment and malice, which though once forgiven, reappears to destroy relationship. It was such a shadowy, suppressed self, we feel, who earlier could have caused Benedick to play Beatrice false. As a manipulator of unresolved doubts and suspicions, Don John orchestrates the midnight scenario which plays out Benedick's nightmare and demonstrates the consequences of mistrust. A kinship between Benedick and Don John is first signalled by Beatrice, who, noting that Don John rarely speaks and that Benedick talks too much, suggests that an excellent man could be made “just in the midway” between him and Don John (II.i.6-7). Benedick himself reveals his intuitive knowledge of John's nature after Hero's betrayal when he leaps instantly to the conclusion that “The practice of it lives in John the Bastard, / Whose spirits toil in frame of villainies” (IV.i.188-189). The process of recognizing and dealing with Don John coincides with Benedick's realization of his ability to love Beatrice, and remarkably this revelation does indeed change his pattern of speech. After more than two hundred lines in the first two acts, Benedick speaks only six lines in Act III, gradually regaining a modified and less frivolous verbal dominance in Act V. In III.ii Don John enters to reveal to Claudio Hero's reputed “infidelity” at precisely the moment when Benedick has retired with Leonato to request Beatrice's hand. It is almost as if the imminence of commitment has conjured up the previously suppressed malign agent.

But this same dangerous moment calls up another figure from the murky recesses of Benedick's mind—the valiant Constable Dogberry. If Dogberry is one of Benedick's missing wits, he is the “common wit” which grounds the other four. Bumbling, illiterate, and only dimly if stubbornly competent, he seems the obverse of the eloquent and articulate courtier, but the two men share the love of language, the experience of reverses, the hope to “comprehend all vagrom men” (III.iii.25), and the desire to have “every thing handsome about” them (IV.ii.85-86). And it is Dogberry's stumbling progress toward the revelation of truth which condemns Don John to “everlasting redemption” (IV.ii.56-57) and frees society, at least momentarily, of his presence. Dogberry is the weak but persistent voice of instinct which helps Benedick to believe Beatrice and resolve to “kill” the rejecting Claudio. Since Benedick never shares the stage with Dogberry nor Dogberry with Don John, the characters provide interesting opportunities for doubling of roles. Either Dogberry and Don John or (less plausibly) Dogberry and Benedick could be played by the same actor.

Once Benedick has, in the words of Margaret, “become a man” (III.iv.87) by uniting his own quality of speaking well with the soberer aspects of Don Pedro and Dogberry and by reconciling himself to Claudio and acknowledging Don John, the amorous delay is prolonged only by the dance which Benedick insists must precede the wedding in order, as he says, to “lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels” (V.iv.118-119). The future looks bright for both the loving couples. But it is not without a lingering shadow. Prompted perhaps by Claudio's reference to “bull Jove,” Benedick makes one last horn joke, urging the Prince to marry, and assuring him that “There is no staff more reverent than one tipp'd with horn” (V.iv.124). It is as if the word “horn” evokes the memory of Don John, and the play ends with the news that his flight has been arrested and that he will be brought back to Messina. This is not good news, and it is perhaps significant that Benedick rather than Don Pedro or Leonato promises to devise “brave punishments” for him on the morrow (V.iv.128). We are left to wonder whether he can also live at peace with this thing of darkness he has now implicitly acknowledged as his own.

In Much Ado About Nothing the slow, painfully pleasurable process of uniting Benedick's five wits and effecting his betrothal to Beatrice reminds us of the importance of reluctance as well as delay in the argument of comedy. It would be hard to imagine two more determinedly reluctant lovers than Beatrice and Benedick. This reluctance adds greatly to our pleasure in their courtship and capitulation. It is not just that easy victories are boring victories, though it is partly that. And it is not just that we enjoy seeing long-vaunted independence humanized. It is also that reluctance is a genuine and powerful component of sexual encounters. One does not give up individual identity easily or relinquish it permanently.

In Milton's description of Eve's “sweet reluctant amorous delay” the word “reluctant” sounds a jarring note in Paradise, even as it serves onomatopoetically to retard the cadences of the line and contribute to its hypnotic euphony. Milton uses forms of the word “reluctant” five times in Paradise Lost, and in every other case it is associated with serious revolt, usually resistance against God. We cannot afford to underestimate its weight in the description of Eve. We remember that she was in fact openly reluctant when, soon after her creation, she preferred the enchanting grace of her own reflected image to the less obviously attractive manly virtues of her new spouse. Reluctance is a stage of her discovery of marital bliss and remains a pleasurable dimension of its enjoyment.

A similar pattern prevails in Shakespeare's comedy, which, though it often seems to be much ado about nothing, is as deeply concerned with the business of life as his tragedy is. Shakespeare shows us in his comedies that, like Cressida and Cleopatra, and Eve and John Milton, and all the writers of so-called “new comedy,” he understood the pleasures of sweet amorous delay. But he also alerts us to the stubborn, perhaps irreducible reluctance that paradoxically enhances rather than diminishes the miracle of harmonious union.


  1. Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 44-45.

  2. Quotations from Shakespeare refer to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Paul Skrebels (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Skrebels, Paul. “Transhistoricizing Much Ado About Nothing: Finding a Place for Shakespeare's Work in the Postmodern World.” In Teaching Shakespeare into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Ronald E. Salomone and James E. Davis, pp. 81-95. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Skrebels attempts to bring out the universal human themes in Much Ado about Nothing by comparing the circumstances of the characters in the play with those of members of the British royal family in late-twentieth-century England—a pedagogical approach Skrebels calls “transhistoricization.”]

Teachers and students studying Shakespeare's plays in the classroom (and teaching is surely another form of study) face a crisis, but the crisis is not a new phenomenon. It has existed at least since the early years of the twentieth century, when bodies charged with implementing educational policies in English-speaking societies—the Newbolt Committee in Britain after the First World War is often cited, but each nation has its own equivalents—saw fit to reaffirm the place of “Shakespeare” in the school curriculum as a cornerstone of literacy and a mark of the educated citizen. The resulting establishment-sponsored educational programs, supported by the New Critical agenda of academics on both sides of the Atlantic, took root very quickly, so that the heads of English Literature departments in schools and colleges who declare Shakespeare study optional sooner or later find themselves called to account by concerned civic groups, often via the press.

The attitude of Professor Michael Wood, in a keynote address to British English teachers, that “Shakespeare can look after himself, he is not an endangered species, and doesn't need our protection” (Wood 1994, 19), may be refreshing to some and profoundly threatening to others. But without the daily classroom efforts of teachers, the species' gene pool surely would have diminished to the point where the creature would now be confined to a highly specialized habitat and only occasionally observed at night. Our concern that this may already be the case is not eased by Wood's adding teasingly that if Shakespeare “couldn't look after himself, it would not … be at all a bad idea for someone else to have a spell as national poet. Marlowe, for instance, or Webster, or Aphra Behn” (19). Fine, but those of us in the rest of the English-speaking world committed to and charged with passing on Shakespeare to the next generation might be left crying, like Caliban, “The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (Temp 1.2.366-67), as we scratch around desperately looking for a replacement. Our “national poets” occupy a different cultural space from that allotted to Shakespeare, whose work, historically placed at the very brink of the English colonial project, is one of the few common links we have between “English” cultures that need not involve the names of fast-food chains or multinational media empires. And emerging anglophone societies (including economically advanced ones like Australia, struggling to define itself through concepts such as multiculturalism) seem constantly to find in Shakespeare a perfect forum for questioning and experimenting with the culture which, willy-nilly, is theirs as well.

Given the prominence of Shakespeare in our heritage and his place in our educational systems, what then is the “crisis”? It is simply when students find themselves unable to engage with a text—typically an early modern one—either at the formal linguistic level, or at the broader narrative or structural level, the elements of which are usually taught under the labels of plot, character, and theme. This in turn gives rise to a condition of aporia that causes many students to dismiss the text as boring, old-fashioned, and irrelevant.1 They have a point. Recent critical discussion has reaffirmed the place of the reader/auditor/viewer in the process of making meaning, particularly in the interdisciplinary activity of sign system analysis called Cultural Studies. Antony Easthope, a proponent of the Cultural Studies line, explains the old “modernist” literary studies method as one which treats the text as “a self-defining object … sufficient to itself,” and then brings the reader to the text to appreciate its inherent and unified meaning. This process Easthope diagrams as

Reader r Text (=Author)

because it also involves a wish “to disclose the personality within the poem, the author within the text” (Easthope 1991, 12).

The emphasis now is on the inherent pluralities of texts, which do not exist independently of readers. It is the reader who imposes unity on a text, and readers can interpret texts in many different ways according to the circumstances of their reading. The process is one “in which text and reader interact dialectically” (20-21), thus:

Reader x Text

The equal place afforded to readership in this paradigm raises the issue of the place a text can have in the lives of those who either cannot read it or cannot identify with it. For while it may be argued that even a papyrus scroll to someone unversed in hieroglyphics may convey an aura of “Ancient Egyptianness,” its inaccessibility as literary text must limit its role in the life of the observer. In our society, too, “Shakespeare” and “Shakespearean” can connote many things—usually associated with a hierarchy of cultural values—even for those who have never read a playtext or watched a performance. But what service are we doing students if our teaching of Shakespeare only reinforces such vague and possibly damaging associations, and fails to achieve at least a few points of reconciliation between them and the text?

Henry Giroux, in a recent article about the pedagogical value of cultural studies to modern youth, expresses urgency in his appeal for teaching practice to address students' changing needs:

This is a world in which old certainties are ruptured and meaning becomes more contingent, less indebted to the dictates of reverence and established truth. While the circumstances of youth vary across and within terrains marked by racial and class differences, the modernist world of certainty that has traditionally policed, contained and insulated such difference has given way to a shared postmodern culture in which representational borders collapse into new hybridized forms of cultural performance, identity, and political agency.


In a culture where “identities merge and shift rather than become uniform and static” (288), it is not—and probably never was—enough to “do Shakespeare” and trust that exposure to the great man's work will cast its civilizing spell. Objects preserved in glass cases, as beautiful and valuable as they may be, are still only the detritus of the past. In preserving them we render them fixed and lifeless, and leave to chance the possible impact they may have on people's lives. But to insist that a cultural product be maintained within the curriculum is to state ipso facto that it is of vital importance in the lives of our students. More than ever, students need strategies for understanding—or at least coming to terms with—the world in which they must operate. Writing about the place of historical novels in children's literature but expressing similar concerns, John Stephens says that ours is a “highly technological and extremely acquisitive society, with great personal mobility and information resources,” but whose “systems and structures … tend to value doing and getting more than being” (203-4). A consequence of this has been “a loss of curiosity about and devaluing of interest in the historical past in late twentieth-century Western society caused by pressures to exist in the present and consider only the immediate future.” His conclusion should be regarded as foundational for the present discussion: “For teachers, the question becomes a matter of how readings of the past can be offered as a corrective to living in a fragmented, reified world” (203-4).

The methodological basis for teaching Shakespeare has to be derived from finding a place for his work in the postmodern world, and I believe that this concern already drives, at least implicitly, most pedagogical approaches. Teachers and educational resource groups strive constantly to make literary texts “relevant.” In the case of Shakespeare this involves strategies such as cartoon Macbeths and rock-opera Tempests, which under the formalist banner of New Criticism (the critical school which informed the learning of most teachers of English Literature) are scorned as paraphrase. Teachers may feel guilty that their classes are not really studying “literature”—perhaps they are not, and that may be a good thing. But while it is not the purpose of this paper to deal with the linguistic difficulties students may have in making meaning from Shakespeare, I hope to assuage some of the guilt by suggesting a way (or lending support for existing ways) of reading his plays within the specifics of the culture in which teachers and students coexist.

There is a certain irony underpinning this conciliatory process. Although students tend to feel more keenly any gaps between the teaching of literature and their perceived needs in the “real world,” the theoretical positions of teachers and students often reflect the opposite. Michael Wood sums up this “most common clash between student and teacher in our discipline today” thus: “The teacher's a historicist and the student isn't. The student believes in universals and the teacher doesn't” (18). The point is well made, for even without the support of theory the teacher is more likely to promote a contextual approach simply through a wider knowledge of the circumstances of a text's production, setting, characters and so forth. This difference also, I suspect, has something to do firstly with the way people, particularly the young, are positioned by the media as “global villagers” and consumers of information, entertainment, and products promoted and distributed on a worldwide basis. Education and social status tend to make teachers more resistant to (but by no means immune from) this positioning, as does time of life, which is the second factor. Young adults are facing up to the “big questions” of existence for the first time, so that attention is directed to universal emotions at the expense of immediate cultural and historical circumstances. Nevertheless, as Wood points out, “The students are not wrong, of course; or rather the teachers are not simply right.” Whatever our “different critical heritages, … we need a dialogue here, not a simple conversion experience” (18).

That students are better at dealing with universals than with contingent aspects of Shakespeare's plays is likely to become more pronounced when the play under study is not obviously historiographical. The romantic comedies of the 1590s are particularly difficult to historicize: they seem to be “about” universal binaries such as love/hate, loyalty/deceit, and trust/jealousy, with little concern for the precise time and location of the action and fairly tenuous links to the political and social issues of the era of their production. It is no wonder that so often they are produced with eclectic, ahistorical, or anachronistic costumes and settings (“When in doubt, choose the Edwardian era,” I once heard a theater practitioner say), Kenneth Branagh's film version of Much Ado About Nothing being an obvious example. During my one opportunity so far to teach Much Ado, my efforts to deal with the play along broadly historicist lines proved rather limited. Students were able to describe the possible literary sources of the play, and to note that these in turn were indebted to classical sources.2 Acknowledgment of the influence of Castiglione's The Courtier on the exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick elicited discussions about relations between the sexes among the aristocracy, and spilled over into considerations of Elizabethan notions of courtliness. But for the most part, there was the ever-present danger that students would regard the play rather as Ben Jonson damned the efforts of Shakespeare and other rivals as “a mouldy tale, / Like Pericles, and stale / As the shrieve's crust” (Jonson 1975, 283). This seemed particularly so when dealing with the linchpin of the plot, Don John's slander against Hero's virginity and Claudio's subsequent denunciation of her. While some students saw this as an inroad for considering Elizabethan sexual politics, their overriding reaction was that the incident no longer carried the same weight as it once may have. The significance of the episode was, for the students, grounded firmly in the past, and served to reinforce their sense of alienation from the text. Thus I ended the semester with a strong sense of missed opportunity, and a desire to historicize the play, and probably Shakespeare generally, from a different angle.

The poststructuralist critical project called New Historicism3 in the American academy and usually equated with Cultural Materialism in the British calls for texts to be read not as simple reflections of larger historical movements or of unified world pictures, but as constituents of the thing itself we call “history.” This thing in turn “is always ‘narrated’,” so that the past itself can only be “represented” as a text, and the concept of “history” as a single entity becomes instead a collection of “discontinuous and contradictory ‘histories’” (Selden 1989, 95). A literary text should be seen “as largely replicating in its own dynamics and structure those of the culture at large … a molecular representation of the entire cultural organism, as it were” (Buchbinder 1991, 114-15). In other words, the tensions, contradictions, and struggles in the society in which the text was produced may be read in the text, as well as/instead of society's dominant and apparently unifying ideologies and philosophies.

There is another side to the new historicist agenda, however, which is of great value to the teacher of literature but which tends to get lost in the rush to revise our concepts of Elizabethan England or Romantic Europe. For if history is always a process of mediating the past, then

We can never transcend our own historical situation. The past is not something which confronts us as if it were a historical object, but is something we construct from already written texts of all kinds which we construe in line with our particular historical concerns.

(Selden 95)

Thus the new historicisms would seem to have more to offer the teacher of literature if the shift in emphasis moves away from analyzing past cultures through plays, popular songs, legal documents, iconography, travelers' tales, and so on, to examining aspects of our own culture and the way its texts are constantly shaped out of a reading of the past. Howard Felperin states the case well, in an essay which admits an important place in modern criticism for the often discredited romanticist notions of an idealized Shakespeare:

At a certain level, the historical text must always offer itself, and be received, as timeless and universal textuality even as it remains at another level remote and specific historicity—if it is to [be] interpreted at all. Otherwise the historical text would remain mute and impenetrable to any but its own culture and movement.

(14; original emphasis)

We are at last well on the way to reconciling the predisposition our students have for the universal qualities in texts with our own niggling concerns that somehow we must contextualize works within the specific cultures of their production. By allowing, as Felperin claims Coleridge and Hazlitt did, “for the possibility of analogy and communality between past and present based on linguistic and cultural continuity, … for a certain transhistoricity (as distinct from ahistoricity or transcendence),” we can be released from “the historical meaning of the text” (15), so that the culture we may concentrate on in our classes is our own.

Given this approach as a basis for classroom practice in the teaching of Shakespeare, the first step is to choose material from our own culture for reading (or viewing or hearing) in parallel with the play. The Cultural Studies agenda is concerned with “outlining ways high and popular culture can be studied alongside each other as forms of signifying practice” (Easthope 103), one of its premises being that “the split between high and popular culture—and the hegemonic effect likely from the superiority of high over popular culture—is vanishing in postmodern culture” (102). It might be added that this split was partly a product of time: what was “popular” once (commercial theater in Elizabethan times, for example) became “high” later; and partly of ideology: certain texts are privileged over others within a culture because they are seen to define a particular view of its “essence” (“conservative” Shakespeare is a compulsory part of the British school curriculum; “radical” Milton is not). The principle of a canon of literature works on what Easthope calls “the usual binary structure which includes one by excluding the other” (103), but in our eclectic world of information overload, can we justifiably study one text and not another on canonical grounds if “both … develop equally on the common ground of textuality” (103)?

I do not wish to promote, or be accused of, the idea that Cultural Studies and the new historicisms are merely different labels for the same set of practices. Nor do I have any illusions as to what we get up to as teachers of English Literature. As long as the discipline survives—and Easthope and others maintain that it has not much life left—English Literature will be about privileging certain texts in a manner with which exponents of Cultural Studies need not (and certainly would not) concern themselves. This discussion, after all, is about maintaining such a position for Shakespeare. But in the postmodern eclectic spirit we can borrow from the shared aims and methodologies of the new historicisms and Cultural Studies to break down some of the elitism associated with “Eng. Lit.” Both schools of criticism “defy traditional distinctions between high and popular culture by breaching disciplinary boundaries” (Easthope 120) in their willingness to read non-canonical texts in conjunction with accepted literary ones. And the image of the “cultural materialist believ[ing] that his or her head is already under the water” rather than “standing safely on shore and gazing at the sea of history” (Hawthorn 1994, 134) is a valuable one for teachers adopting a historicist approach to literature. It

requires that the investigator take full account of his or her historical location and of the historical life of literary works (including their life in the present time of the investigator), not just the historical situation of the work's creation and composition.

(134; my emphasis)

The approach outlined below does not dwell much on the theory that says that all text-making is ideological; nor does it prescribe necessarily “correct” readings based on class, gender, race and so on. Nevertheless, it is hoped that what follows upholds what Mellor and Patterson call “the right of English to claim for itself a specific type of pedagogy: one that focuses on developing in students the ability to interpret texts through the technique of ‘problematisation’” which in turn gives rise to the “production of particular readings” (49). And for those who think this is ideologically too thin, remember that teaching practice is ideological: by bringing cultural studies/new historicist methods to bear in literary study, we are adopting a specific ideological stance in relation to traditional hegemonic views about “literature.” This in itself should serve as a caveat to the unwary teacher who, casting about widely for texts from high and popular sources, may be called to account for those choices by students, parents, school heads, and the media.

The slur on Hero's chastity and her rejection by Claudio at the wedding is the aspect of Much Ado About Nothing which to modern readers might justify the play's title. This incident and the two characters involved are strongly tied to the generic formula of comic (but typically bordering on tragic) love complications and their eventual resolution. The whole originates from the older stories that make up the play's sources (reappearing in various forms in Othello, The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline [Cook 1980, 31]), and is an obvious target for the “mouldy tale” accusation. As such, it tends not to attract the same sort of interest as those things we like to think of as uniquely “Shakespearean,” epitomized in Much Ado in the characters of Beatrice and Benedick and their verbal battles. It is, after all, the “gloriously witty couple” (Branagh 1993, vii) that many famous acting duos choose to play. The challenge, then, is to transhistoricize the characters of Hero—described by one actress as “A dull and boring girl” and “a terrible part which it is almost impossible to make interesting” (quoted in Cook 49)—and Claudio—“an impossibly unromantic figure” (Mulryne 1965, 35; original emphasis)—and their predicament such that postmodern readers can accommodate them within their own culture.

One solution lies in teaching Much Ado in concert with the vast amount of material about the Charles and Diana scandals in the British royal family. Leonato's household is for all intents and purposes a court in miniature, and the manners and attitudes of its members and guests represent the traditions and customs common to contemporary European nobility. These traditions, customs, and attitudes still exist in the form of the various royal families of Europe, and nowhere more so than in the British monarchy, its very large extended family, and the aristocratic system actively promulgated in British society. Attitudes that the members of this system no longer have any influence must be qualified not only by the fact of their still considerable wealth, but by the amount of media space they continue to occupy and the debates in which they feature, for instance in Australia, where the pros and cons of republicanism flare up with every royal indiscretion revealed. The place of gossip, slander, and scandal in any construction of fame or celebrity is an important aspect of research into the lives of “the rich and famous,” and provides a convenient and, in terms of the popular culture in which our students are steeped, relevant point of entry for comparing the contexts and concerns of Shakespeare's era with our own.

Leonato may use the image of his daughter “fall'n / Into a pit of ink” (4.1.139-40) to describe the blackening of her honor, but the British royals would regard this as a very apt description of the gallons of printer's ink expended in exposing every aspect of their lives and reputations in recent years. The anecdotes, observations, surmise, gossip, and media “beat-ups” published in unchartable numbers are the modern equivalent of the old chronicles in which “most chroniclers tended to take their information as they found it, and made little attempt to separate fact from legend” (Abrams 1988, 26).4 The brief analysis that follows draws on a number of the more “respectable” of these latter-day chronicles: mainly works that have appeared in book form—although a number have been serialized in newspapers, particularly the Murdoch press—some shorter news items, and a television documentary. The Branagh film merits attention not only because for many students it is likely to be the first, if not the only, means of dealing with the play as a performance text, but for its part in the current celebrity/royal-watching process. Less squeamish researchers will find the pit of ink getting deeper (and murkier) as they delve into the seemingly endless mass of related material appearing in the tabloid press, gossip magazines, current affairs television, and even the odd mini-series. Nevertheless, the value of such an undertaking in terms of the space that it creates for Shakespeare study in the postmodern world, and for the light it sheds on our own culture, cannot be overestimated, and should by no means be regarded as trivial or undignified.

The question of Hero's virginity is not simply one of whether or not she is a virgin. Don John's scheme involves Claudio's witnessing Hero supposedly playing the “contaminated stale” (2.2.25) the very night before her wedding, so the focus is not so much on virginity for its own sake as on “Hero's disloyalty” (2.2.48) and subsequent rejection in the interests of what “would better fit [Claudio's] honour” (3.2.104-5). Claudio's denunciation of her at the wedding is nevertheless couched in analogies of chastity and its opposite.

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. …


His classical reference begs for comparison with the Dian[a] of our own era, the Princess of Wales, who, despite attacks from her in-laws, the publication of a taped phone conversation with an alleged lover, and photographs of her bathing in the Caribbean or working out in a gym, manages still to maintain—as Hero does to Claudio, indicated in his use of “seem” and not “seemed”—an aura of the wronged heroine and the victim of the machinations of palace and media.

Diana's rise from “stunning mediocrity” (Dempster and Evans 1993, 58) to “Pop Princess” (Burchill 1992, 237) was a direct result of her suitability as a virgin bride for the Prince of Wales:

Unlike some of the prince's previous girlfriends, she had no “past,” no lovers to “kiss and tell.” Nor had she been in love before; the prince could expect that, as her first love, he would also be her last. She was young enough to be moulded to the role of wife and mother according to the needs of the monarchy.

(Dimbleby, 16 Oct. 1994: 2.1)

Innocence makes Diana malleable—grist to the monarchy's mill, to be refashioned into a future queen—and “in love.” Yet, just as Benedick ironically calls the newly smitten Claudio “Monsieur Love” (2.3.35-36) because one who “was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier” (18-19) has now become “the argument of his own scorn by falling in love” (11-12), so Charles, brought up in a family notorious for its lack of emotional display, was out of his depth in playing the Inamorato. Thus “the Prince's attitude towards women was hardly admirable,” and according to “one of his polo friends,” in a tone that might well be Benedick's, Charles “is shy, he is sensitive, he is sometimes devastatingly lonely, but he is also a shit” (Dempster and Evans 105). But what is not mentioned in the many unfavorable reminders of Charles's response “Whatever ‘in love’ means” in the television interview given after the announcement of their engagement, is that Diana choruses “Yes” (The Windsors part 4). The dynastic imperative forces love out into the margins of marriage—an optional, if desirable, extra; hence the importance of loyalty as the standard for judging the behavior of both Hero and Diana.

Claudio's efforts to assess Hero's suitability also seem quite loveless. He bothers Benedick with “Is she not a modest young lady?” (1.1.153) and “I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik'st her” (165-66), and to Don Pedro's recommendation that “the lady is very well worthy” he asks brazenly, “Hath Leonato any son, my lord?”—to be reassured that “she's his only heir” (274-75). In a similar mix of uncertainty and brashness, Charles formed one attachment after another, and had no qualms when “the faces [of his girlfriends] … were paraded—like bartered brides-to-be—before the populace for its delectation” (Dimbleby, 23 Oct. 1994: 2.2) by a story-hungry press.5 Meanwhile, “The difficulties of finding a suitable bride were becoming larger every day, given the age factor—the older Charles got, the more difficult it was going to be to find a convincing and tasteful virgin—and given the press attention that by now was building up around the issue” (Dempster and Evans 106). Wilson obviously has missed the point in wondering “how or where this obsession with virginity developed” (Wilson 1994, 48), but he notes that “by the time Prince Charles was thirty years old, the mood had reached fever pitch” (48).

Charles at last made his choice in Lady Diana Spencer, and the fever pitch was such that their wedding on 29 July 1981 became “the greatest ceremonial event ever mounted in the history of the British monarchy” (Dempster and Evans 126). It was “the subject of the stupendous, unimaginably intense observation: 600 million people watched it on television” (Wilson 175), with the Archbishop of Canterbury—crosier in hand like Prospero's staff—declaring it “the stuff of which fairy tales are made” (Dempster and Evans 126). But if the romance comedy tradition as employed by Shakespeare in the 1590s demonstrates anything, it is that the story often does not end with the wedding:

either a wedding is legalized or about to be celebrated, or a union is consummated, early or in the middle of the play, but then the completion of the marriage is abruptly interrupted, and the heroine or her allies must perform a difficult task or resolve a quandary connected with the law before there can be a celebration on the stage.

(Salingar 1974, 302)

In Much Ado, Hero is denounced in the “overtly ‘theatrical setting’” of the church wedding itself (Mulryne 35), and must “die” in order to be “reborn” as the chaste and fitting bride for a suitably chastened Claudio. Diana, “a real-life Cinderella—a bride who had so recently been the unhappy child of a broken marriage, miraculously reborn as an instant princess” (Dempster and Evans 126), soon found herself and her marital problems exposed to “all eyes, tongues, minds, and injuries” (4.1.243) on the stage of the world media.

In hindsight, there were signs threatening the fairy-tale image of the Wales' marriage from the outset. Charles, ever vacillating, and now lacking the guidance of his uncle the Earl Mountbatten, his Benedick and Don Pedro rolled into one but killed by an IRA bomb in 1979, came close to calling off the engagement, especially when Diana asked, “Would you marry me if I were not a virgin?” (Dempster and Evans 118). On a broader social scale, at the actual time of the wedding there were riots, looting, and burning in various parts of England, most notably at Toxteth, carried out by a “deprived, unhappy, disadvantaged population” (The Windsors part 4). The very minor position occupied by ordinary people in any construction of romance is made very clear in representations such as Branagh's film, where they are servants, revelers (only a step or two away from becoming rioters), and the crowd at the wedding, but voiceless and powerless otherwise. Their only champions in the play, Dogberry and Verges, are portrayed at the very least as ridiculous and in the Branagh film as “mad” (Branagh 58 and 75), and the household breathes a sigh of relief as they exit.

Phyllis Rackin notes that “In a chronicle, the story of England is the story of its kings” (24), and Salingar points out that during the 1590s, “Shakespeare was writing comedies in alternation with the national history plays … And his comedies are related in form to his chronicles of the national monarchy” (254). Both form a part of the publicity that the Tudor monarchs actively sought “to authenticate their questionable claim to the throne” (Rackin 1990, 4), and Steven Mullaney's observation about how this was achieved makes clear how the process of textualizing authority positions us—the “common people”—as outside looking in:

In forums ranging from wonder cabinets to court masques and popular romances, from royal entries and travellers' narratives to the popular playhouses of Elizabethan London, the pleasures of the strange are invoked to solicit our attention as spectators, auditors, or readers.

(Quoted in Rackin 15)

Here we are, too, peering through chinks in the palace walls by means of television (the “wonder cabinet”), newspapers, and fifth columnist royal observers. The Windsors have been branded “the greatest performing monarchy in history” (Dempster and Evans 126) in their own efforts to court popularity and publicity, but as the current chronicles tell, they have paid a heavy price. Instead of being satisfied with covering royal turns at special occasions and then going away, like the helpful but aggravating Dogberry, the media intensified its royal watching to the point where they have been accused of anything from causing the breakdown of the three Windsor children's marriages to actively plotting the overthrow of the monarchy itself in the interests of republicanism.6 Shakespeare's plays, too, position audiences as royal watchers: his “stage world gravitates towards the great house or the court. He depicts the gentry from the outside, but they stand at the centre” (Salingar 255). But while “the Privy Council and the Court nourished the professional drama … because it served their own interests” (Montrose 58), the drama in turn could not always accommodate the wish-fulfillment of its patrons. The requirements of the genre, rather than “doctrinal ends” (66), determine the world-picture. Call the tale a romantic comedy and the protagonists are set “on the threshold of marriage and parenthood” but not yet at the stage of “the consummation and procreation which guarantee the continuity of the socio-economic order” (67). On the other hand, call it a chronicle and the dictates of time take over, and “Time reveals not the restorative action of romance but the destructive action of history” (Kastan 1982, 75).

In recording the action of time, the chronicles of Diana and Charles show how the marriage soon made Diana feel the opposite of the fairy-tale princess. In Much Ado, Hero's continued attraction for the menfolk despite (and maybe even because of) her supposed guilt is revealed in the curiously paradoxical terms of her denunciation at the wedding, where she is called “pretty lady” (4.1.98), yet “most foul, most fair” (103) and “pure impiety and impious purity” (104). Diana, rapidly acquiring star quality “of truly international magnitude” (Dempster and Evans 138) the more she was courted by the media and the public, and for whom “the world was now literally a stage” (Burchill 238), nevertheless felt herself “the biggest prostitute in the world” in having “to live someone else's idea of who and what [she] should be” (Morton 1994, 2:1). Although the target of Don John's calumny, Hero is more the victim of the credulousness of Don Pedro and Claudio and their puffed-up sense of honor, not to mention her own father's willingness to join in the denunciation. Similarly, whatever stories might be circulated in the media, Diana's feelings of guilt and inadequacy arise from the attitude of the royal household itself, exemplified by the “four stinging letters from the Duke of Edinburgh” which “argued that Diana was far from innocent in the breakdown of her marriage and that it was difficult to blame Charles for seeking comfort with [Camilla] Parker Bowles” (Morton 1994, 2:2). By contrast, the Duke wrote Charles “a long and sympathetic letter … praising what he saw as his son's saint-like fortitude” (Dimbleby, 23 Oct. 1994: 2.3). Small wonder that Diana “began to suspect plots against her” (Morton 1994, 2:2), or that the rest of the chronicles to date tend to deal with Diana's exacting retribution from the Windsors in ways that cast her as Hero, Claudio, and even Don John. The necessarily brief summary that follows is nevertheless sufficiently revealing.

As Claudio she becomes jealous and uncertain herself, suspicious “that her husband was persistently unfaithful” despite Charles's Hero-esque “declarations of loyalty and fidelity” (Dimbleby, 16 Oct. 1994: 2.2). As Hero she feels martyred to the cause of the monarchy: “Docile Diana” (Dempster and Evans 141) through whom “the royal family would be renewed, protected and loved for generations to come” (133). Yet just as Hero is reborn “Another Hero” while reasserting herself “a maid” (5.4.62 and 65), so Diana has re-emerged as “the Princess as Pop Star” and “an icon of sexy saintliness” (Burchill 240 and 243)—no longer a maid, to be sure, but one who attracts a loyalty that operates “beyond divorce and dishonour” (244). Part of this process of self-fashioning (to use a term of New Historicist guru, Stephen Greenblatt) involved Diana's almost certain active collusion in the production of that landmark chronicle of the Windsors, Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story, which painted the Wales' marriage as fraught with problems between an insensitive husband and a long-suffering wife (Wilson 1994, 54 and 143). Charles in turn authorized Dimbleby's biography, initiating “an extraordinary war … in print between the Prince and his wife … to bring [each] other into ridicule and contempt” (144). Like Don John, both parties cry out, “How canst thou cross this marriage?” (2.2.8).

It is as a potentially destructive influence on the Windsors that Diana plays Don John. In a secretly taped telephone conversation to a supposed lover in December 1989 published in the press as the so-called “Squidgygate” transcript in 1992, Diana bemoans the emptiness she feels “after all I've done for this fucking family” (Dempster and Evans 240), and makes other disparaging remarks about the Windsors.7 New historicist criticism often focuses on the way rulers legitimize their authority by making use of “already constructed dichotomies which establish the deviance of certain classes and groups” in order to “cast out specific others” (Selden 97). One of these forms of deviance is perceived as “sexual liberty” (97); but if the “demonisation of sexual deviance” is a means of reasserting “the relations of power” (97), then the assertion of sexual liberty can be regarded as a means of establishing a form of autonomy from the main power structure. Diana's apparent adultery (in word if not deed) is an assertion of this autonomy, and reinforces the chastity/loyalty association that prizes the virgin with no other loyalties, past or present. The extent to which she has become powerful enough in her own right to resist being cast out by the palace (and of the latter's growing impotence in her case) may be gauged in comparison to the fate of her sister-in-law, Sarah, Duchess of York.

Sarah tried to follow Diana's example by getting the press onside in her own marriage breakdown with Prince Andrew. But with the publication of the notorious “toe-sucking” photographs, the demonization of Sarah was complete: “Her position was irrecoverable … and her sordid life … contributed to the general cheapening of the Royal House in the eyes of the Press” (Wilson 1994, 153).8 Curiously, the Branagh film chose for its Margaret character a red-haired and freckled actress very reminiscent of Sarah. Yet in the film's depiction of the indiscretion which Borachio sets up to discredit Hero (which is only reported in playtext), there is no real possibility of an audience mistaking the Margaret-actress for the petite brunette cast as Hero.9 The film (made in 1992, The Windsors' annus horribilis) seems to highlight the moralistic/voyeuristic dichotomy intrinsic to our constructions of celebrity: “Everyone agreed that it was morally insupportable that such photographs [of Sarah's St. Tropez holiday] should be in circulation, and everyone bought the Daily Mirror on the morning that they were published” (Wilson 152). Helped by the conventions of romantic comedy, Margaret finds forgiveness in Leonato's household; lacking the support of media, public, and palace, Sarah is banished from the royal circle “under a cloud” (Campbell 1993, 207).

The transhistoricization of Much Ado opens up many other possibilities for analysis. One is the use of trickery and deception as romantic comedy trope and for gathering news. In the Branagh film point-of-view camera angles, eavesdropping, masquerade, and decoying are all used to excellent effect, suggesting paparazzi with telephoto lenses, bugged telephones, leaked stories to the press, and other devices that have eked out the Diana and Charles chronicles. Another issue is the nature of status, privilege, and celebrity, which not only depend upon publicity yet are so easily its victim, but also seek legitimation through mutual association. Thus members of the royal family try to broaden their popularity base by sharing the spotlight with film and media stars, from the Mountbattens visiting Chaplin in the thirties to the Windsors taking part in a celebrity TV game show in the eighties. Again, the Branagh film is a useful springboard in its transatlantic mingling of old- and new-world dynasties of stars celebrating a common Shakespeare heritage.

This discussion has attempted to support and develop the ways in which classroom teachers keep open a dynamic space for Shakespeare in the postmodern world, which is much more than just helping him to maintain a precarious foothold associated with half-forgotten rituals in rarefied environments. As Hamlet urges Polonius to see the members of the acting troupe “well-bestowed” and “well used,” because they (“and presumably their product” [Patterson 1988, 100]) “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,”10 so should we teachers of Shakespeare—frequently in danger of becoming Polonius-like in our opinions of our own learning—not scorn the use of the chronicles of our time to bridge the critical gap between “universal human themes” and the specific historical and cultural circumstances of a text's production and reception.


  1. See Hawthorn 6-7 for an explanation of aporia. My use here is in the generalized sense of “irresolvable doubts and hesitations thrown up by the reading of the text” (Hawthorn 7). While Hawthorn points out that the term is “not normally used … in a pejorative sense” by critics (7), I believe that my use of the term is apt. Getting students to the stage of using this condition as a “site” where they discover “the freedom to play with the text” (7) is of course the rationale of this paper.

  2. See Humphreys 5-23 for a detailed discussion of the play's sources.

  3. Throughout this paper, New Historicism/Historicist denotes the specific (mainly American) school of criticism; new historicism/historicist is used for the general poststructuralist movement regardless of national/cultural adherence.

  4. Wilson also employs the term “chronicles” to describe these texts (for example, page 46).

  5. Some idea of these “faces” may be gained from the photographs in Dempster and Evans and in Campbell. The photographs in Morton, Diana: Her True Story, not only parade the stages of Diana's life before the reader, but do so in an intimate and perhaps even questionable manner, in effect positioning the reader as “catalogue browser” and Diana as potential “mail-order bride.”

  6. See, for example, The Windsors part 4 for opinions about the role of Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation papers have regularly printed controversial material about the Windsors. Murdoch's status as Australian-turned-American citizen with huge interests and influence in Britain carries many resonances for an “empire writes back” perspective and critique. His father, Keith, a news correspondent in World War I, set a family precedent for attacks on the British establishment by daring to lay the blame for the military disaster at Gallipoli in 1915 on the ineptitude of British generalship; see C. E. W. Bean, Anzac to Amiens (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1946), 170.

  7. Charles, of course was guilty of his own indiscretions in the “Camillagate” tape made at almost exactly the same time as Diana's conversation, and published in January 1993. While there was obviously a great deal of the double standard operating in relation to the two incidents in official circles, Charles seems to have lost much popular support as a result of the revelation, and “A sense of shame tormented him for months” (Dempster and Evans 220). Transcripts of both tapes appear in Dempster and Evans 231-64. See also Campbell 157-58 for some startling claims about parts of “Squidgygate” not released for publication.

  8. The details of the incident are described in Dempster and Evans 205-8, who claim that the revelation of “Squidgygate” four days later actually saved Sarah from further ordeal by the media (208). It should be bourne in mind that Sarah was already separated from Andrew at the time; Diana and Charles were not yet separated when the “Squidgygate” and “Camillagate” tapes were made.

  9. “One seriously cool gal” claims the caption to an off-camera shot of her with sunglasses and cleavage (Branagh 126), as if desperately trying to offset the “boring girl” image of Hero and substitute instead a version of “pop princess.”

  10. I owe the use of this quotation from Hamlet 2.2 to Patterson's very fine New Historicist “recovery” of the circumstances surrounding Shakespeare's theater.


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