Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

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At a Glance

  • 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.

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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!

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...

(The entire section is 1,750 words.)