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!
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...
(The entire section is 1,750 words.)