Much Ado About Nothing Themes
The main themes in Much Ado About Nothing are appearances versus reality, gender, and love.
- Appearances versus reality: Deception is figured as both a hindrance to love and, on occasion, a necessity. Though Don John's deception forms the central drama, duplicity also allows for the happy engagements of both Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick.
- Gender: Beatrice and Benedick's battle of wits plays on traditional gender roles, delineating the different codes of behavior imposed on men and women.
- Love: Claudio's immediate attraction to, subsequent disavowal of, and eventual marriage to Hero underscores the oftentimes fickle and unpredictable nature of love.
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. A crucial instance of the gap between reality and appearance occurs at the start of Act IV, when Claudio denounces Hero and says:
O Hero, what a Hero hadst thou been, If half thy outward graces had been placed About thy thoughts and counsels of thy heart! But fare thee well, most foul, most fair! Farewell, Thou pure impiety and impious purity! (IV.i.100-104)
At this juncture, the misled Claudio compares Hero to a "rotten orange," having only the "semblance of honor." Because the audience knows that Claudio has been hoodwinked by Don John, these words turn against the youthful suitor. Claudio's concern with how his honor appears to others (that is, to other males) imparts a cruel edge to his repudiation of Hero (which he carries out in public), suggesting that there is something rotten beneath Claudio's own skin. The devices of eavesdropping and hearsay that propel the narrative line of the play are entirely congruent with this theme. Indeed, the word "nothing" in the play's title is a homonym for "noting" which, in Elizabethan slang connoted "eavesdropping."
One of the most prominent symbolic motifs in Much Ado is fashion or clothing. In a world where appearance is as (or more) important that reality, clothes make the man. Beatrice recognizes this in one of her earliest jibes at Benedick when she says that he "wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block" (I.i.75-77). Benedick returns the slur by calling Beatrice a "turncoat" and then, in Act II,...
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he remarks that Beatrice is an infernal Ate in good apparel. Elsewhere, Beatrice asks Don Pedro if he has a brother since "Your Grace is too costly to wear every day" (II.i.328-329), while Benedick contrasts the amorous Claudio with the man as he used to be: "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" (II.iii.14-17). Indeed, attention is drawn to this motif by the relatively minor characters of Borachio and Conrade when they engage in a long, seemingly irrelevant dialogue about fashion in Act III, scene iii.
There is a pervasive hypocrisy afoot in Messina. Artificial gender roles, deception, eavesdropping, and fashion are the stuff of which Messinian society is constituted. Granted, each of these themes is a source of amusement. Yet, at the same time, Messina is a weak patriarchy in which villains like Don John remain at large, Dogberry serves as the chief law enforcement officer, and the town fathers, notably Leonato, are all too easily deceived and disposed to judgments that could have tragic consequences. What prevents this is not a change of patriarchal policy but the interventions of Beatrice and her female sensibility and of Friar Francis and his Christian (non-secular) wisdom.
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 never." This song, one of the loveliest in all of Shakespeare's plays, is repeated in several places in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version of Much Ado, becoming, through repetition, the play's theme.
Appearance vs. Reality The theme of appearance versus reality has long been considered central to the play's structure and tone. As one can see from the Plot Synopsis, all of the main characters deceive or are deceived by others at some point during the play. On this theme of deception, much critical comment has surrounded the view that the very title of the play contains a key Elizabethan pun, with Shakespeare punning on nothing and noting, meaning eavesdropping. However, some critics have observed that the key to the play's unity lies in equating noting with observation; that is, we take note of a situation and make judgments based on our observations. In Much Ado, there is a failure, some critics argue, to observe and act sensibly. While critics have often noted that the theme of appearance versus reality is articulated in most of Shakespeare's plays either by circumstances or by deliberate acts of deception by the characters, some commentators maintain that neither pattern pertains to Much Ado, as deception and false perceptions are not undone; rather, they are characteristic of the norm of Messina society.
Critics agree that Much Ado concerns, in great part, misunderstandings of various sorts—some deliberate, some unintentional. In terms of this play, the term "love's truth," or "love's faith," has been described by one critic as "the imaginative acting of a lover and the need for our imaginative response to it, the compulsion, individuality, and complexity of a lover's truthful realization of beauty, and distinctions between inward and outward beauty, appearance and reality, and fancy and true affection." Shakespeare's ideas about love's truth inform the structure, characterization, dialogue} and other elements of Much Ado. Scholars have written extensively about the common device Shakespeare uses for presenting a lover's imagination, the "play-within-a-play"; and in Much Ado this device is used often. Several significant deceptions are carried off by the play-within-a-play, notably the deception of Benedick into believing that Beatrice is in love with him, by the play-acting Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio; and the tricking of Beatrice into believing that Benedick is pining for her, by the conspirators Hero and Ursula.
In each of these cases, there must be "Much Ado" in straightening out the tangled misperceptions each lover holds for the other, but, as critics have noted, it is part of Shakespeare's intent to suggest that those who engage in a quest for love's truth find that the longest course of action, involving "Much Ado," is often the only one that seems possible to them.
Music and Dance Critics have long noted the significance of music in Much Ado, both in the text itself and in the form of the play. Balthasar's song, "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more," has been commented upon often, in part because it is performed in a crucial point in the play, which ends with a wedding dance. Commentators have remarked on similarities between the action of the play itself and a dance, with couples engaging, turning, performing intricate movements together, and retiring.