Much Ado About Nothing Themes

  • Shakespeare emphasizes deception and false appearances in Much Ado About Nothing. Early in the play, Don Pedro disguises himself as Claudio to help him woo Hero. Later, Don John deceives Claudio into believing Hero is unfaithful. Shakespeare proves that deception isn't always a bad thing.
  • Beatrice and Benedick illuminate the differences between the genders. Their battle of wits plays on traditional gender roles, delineating the different codes of behavior imposed on men and women in Shakespeare's time. In the end, women appear to win the battle of the genders as Hero is vindicated and Benedick proclaims his love for Beatrice.
  • Love drives the entire plot of Much Ado About Nothing. Claudio's immediate attraction to, subsequent disavowal of, and eventual marriage to Hero underscores the often comic vicissitudes of love, which strikes seemingly at random and is as vulnerable as it is grand. In the end, love wins over treachery, and two happy couples are united.

Themes

Given the evident centrality of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick to the narrative line of Much Ado, one of the salient themes of the play necessarily revolves around gender, gender roles, and the differences between men and women. Through Beatrice and Benedick, this theme is enacted in playfully antagonistic terms. At the very start of the play, Leonato says to a messenger bringing word that Benedick will soon arrive in Messina's court: "You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never met but there's a skirmish of wit between them" (I.i.61-64). It is a duel of wits and of will that informs the relation between the two main characters of the play. Yet this is the tip of the iceberg. In Messina, there is a sharp demarcation between the respective worlds of men and women. According to the prevailing norms of Messinian society, men rule and are bound together by a quasi-military camaraderie, a male code of behavior that places high value on honor and on hierarchical rank. By contrast, women are expected to submit to men and their honor is defined in terms of its reflection upon the good repute of the closest males. Apart from this, however, as epitomized in Beatrice, the female world is compassionate and intuitive; Beatrice comes to Hero's defense without a shred of concrete evidence to rebut the charges of infidelity against her cousin. In the end, male honor seems faintly ridiculous, while female intuition is triumphant. Indeed, it is only when Benedick crosses over to Hero's side that he becomes genuinely worthy of Beatrice.

The gender roles assumed by all of the characters in the play (including Beatrice and Benedick) are poses. As such, they reinforce a second main theme of Much Ado, the disparity between reality and appearance. All of the main characters in the play are either deceived by others and/or take part in a plot (or plots) intended to deceive others. Misperception and "misprising" abound in Much Ado....

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Advanced Themes

The War of the Sexes
The differences between men and women—how they relate to each other, misunderstand each other, love and repel each other, is a common theme in motion pictures, comics, television comedies, and world literature. It appears throughout Shakespeare's comedies as well, and Much Ado is no exception to the pattern. In Much Ado, much of the conflict between the sexes concerns Beatrice and Benedick, with their relentless disdain for each other. Each tries to outduel the other in crafting the most clever and most deflating remark, and the impression is given that their sparring has a long history which precedes the action of the play. The goal of each is not to deliver the most crushing, hot-blooded blast, but to offer the most coolly disdainful remarks possible. In Act I, and in Benedick's absence, Beatrice begins by likening him to a disease: "God help the noble Claudio, if he have caught the Benedick." The war of the sexes begins in earnest with Benedick's arrival, the two fencing verbally and giving the impression that each considers the other not worth noticing.

In their absence, Don Pedro and the newly betrothed Claudio and Hero decide to give the war an interesting twist by attempting to bring together Beatrice and Benedick as lovers. Their plans succeed, but upon the disgracing of Hero, love faces a cruel ordeal, turning from tenderness to heated, near-frantic rage on the part of Beatrice after Benedick hesitates at her command, "Kill Claudio." Here she turns from employing wit to questioning Benedick's manhood, calling him "Count Comfect, a sweet gallant surely!" In one of the most-often quoted sections of Much Ado, she declares, "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." This sentiment is one with the words of Bal-thasar's song, from Act II, scene iii: "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever / One foot in sea, and one on shore, / To one thing constant...

(The entire section is 923 words.)