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Much Ado About Nothing
A Study Guide
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Table of Contents


Type of Work

William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is a stage play in the form of a comedy. It centers on two couples and the trials they encounter on their way to the altar. Shakespeare knits the separate stories into a unified whole. The play is unusual for Shakespeare in that the characters speak in prose rather than verse most of the time. Prose is the everyday language of conversations, news reports, essays, and letters. Verse is an elegant, poetic means of self-expression in separate lines of limited length, usually about ten syllables.

Composition and Performance

Shakespeare wrote the play between 1598 and 1599. It was first performed on a London stage before 1600 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, an acting company.

First Printing

Much Ado About Nothing was first published in a quarto edition in 1600 by printer Valentine Simmes (1585-1622) for booksellers Andrew Wise and William Aspley. A quarto was a sheet of paper folded in half to create four pages. Friends of Shakespeare published the play again in 1623, seven years after the author's death, in a collection that included thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. This collection was carefully edited and proofread, then printed in a folio edition. A folio consisted of a sheet of paper considerably larger than a quarto. Like a quarto, a folio was folded to create four pages. Because the folio book was the first publication containing a collection of Shakespeare's plays, it came to be known as the First Folio after other folio editions were published in 1632, 1663, and 1685.

Sources

One of the main sources for the play was a novella in a collection of tales by Italian writer Matteo Bandello (1485-1561). Another source was Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1535). The poem was published in Italian in 1516. Sir John Harington translated Orlando Furioso into English for an edition published in 1591. Shakespeare may also have used Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier), by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529). It was published in Italian in 1528 and in English in 1561 in an edition translated by Sir Thomas Hoby (1530-1566).

Setting

The action takes place in northeastern Sicily in the province of Messina, a busy port and trading center only about five miles from the Italian mainland. Messina is a mountainous province blessed with fertile fields for agriculture. The capital bears the same name as the province, Messina. The modern city of Messina has well over 200,000 inhabitants.

Characters

Benedick: Young lord from Padua, Italy, who thinks he despises Beatrice but really loves her. He is friendly, has a quick and witty tongue, and generally maintains an even temperament.
Beatrice: Niece of the governor of Messina. She thinks she despises Benedick but really loves him. Like Benedick, she has a quick and witty tongue. Beatrice is loyal to her friends.
Leonato: Nobleman and governor of Messina who is the uncle of Beatrice and the father of Hero.
Don Pedro: Prince of Aragon, a region in northeastern Spain. He led his army to victory in a war against his brother, Don John. Don Pedro is intelligent, confidant, diplomatic, and gallant.
Claudio: Young lord from Florence, Italy, who distinguished himself in the war against Don John. Claudio falls in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero. He seems knightly and pure, but his conversations suggest that his attraction to Hero results partly from the fact that she will one day become a wealthy heiress.
Don John: Don Pedro's bastard brother, a wicked fellow who was defeated by Don Pedro. Although Don John has far fewer lines than other characters, it is his desire for revenge against his battlefield foe, Claudio, that causes the deception, confusion, and mix-ups that drive the plot.
Hero: Leonato's prim, proper, beautiful, gentle, and obedient daughter. She falls in love with Claudio but becomes the innocent victim of a plot that turns Claudio against her. She is the cousin of Beatrice.
Margaret: Hero's attendant. She has a penchant for speaking risqué wisecracks and witticisms. Margaret is the girlfriend of Borachio.
Ursula: Another of Hero's attendants.
Antonio: Leonato's brother.
Balthazar: Don Pedro's attendant.
Borachio: A comrade and cat's-paw of Don John and the boyfriend of Margaret. He is a key participant in Don's John's scheme to ruin Hero's reputation, he
Conrade: Comrade of Don John.
Friar Francis: Priest who helps Hero regain her reputation.
Dogberry: Constable of Messina. He is memorable as a comic character for his bumbling manner and ludicrous malapropisms. A malapropism is the unintential misuse of a word as a result of confusing its pronunciation with that of another word.
Verges: Headborough and sidekick of Dogberry.
Hugh Oatcake, George Seacoal: The only two of Dogberry's men who can read and write.
Sexton: Man who helps Dogberry and his police force to expose the plot against Hero.
Boy: Errand boy for Benedick.
Minor Characters: Messengers, Watchmen, Attendants.

Protagonists: Benedick and Beatrice, arguably, because they are both real, hotblooded characters who are far more interesting than the other protagonist candidates, Claudio and Hero. The latter two are less animated, rather shallow characters, who idealize courtly love.
Antagonists: Don John; mix-ups and misconceptions

Plot Summary

After defeating his troublemaking brother, Don John, in a military campaign, Don Pedro of Arragon (Shakespeare's spelling of Aragon) and several of his compatriots decide to visit relatives and other friends in Messina, a province in northeastern Sicily. Leonato, the governor of Messina, receives word that Don Pedro is but three leagues off (about nine miles) and will arrive in Messina in a few hours with a company of men, including the defeated Don John. Also with Don Pedro are two of his most valiant soldiers, Benedick of Padua and Claudio of Florence. A messenger tells Leonato that Claudio performed heroically: "He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion: he hath indeed better bettered expectation than you must expect of me to tell you how" (1.1.8).

The messenger has already informed Claudio’s uncle, who lives in Messina, of the young man’s battlefield heroics. So overcome was Claudio’s uncle with joy at this news that he broke down and cried.

When Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, inquires about Benedick, the messenger tells her that he also distinguished himself in battle. Benedick and Beatrice are old acquaintances who display nothing but contempt for each other even though inwardly they probably love each other. Whenever they meet, they spend most of their time insulting each other in a long-standing verbal war. When hearing that Benedick has become Claudio’s friend, Beatrice says Benedick will surely be a corrupting influence on the Florentine: "O Lord, he will hang upon him [Claudio] like a disease: he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio! if he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere [he] be cured" (1.1.34). In temperament, Beatrice is the opposite of Leonato’s lovely daughter, Hero, a delicate gentlewoman of utmost propriety who obeys her father and keeps her tongue in check.

After Don Pedro and his company arrive, they exchange pleasantries with Leonato, and Don John expresses remorse and repentance for waging war against his brother. Inwardly, however, he seethes with bitterness and looks for an opportunity to gain revenge not only against Don Pedro but also against Claudio, who won high praise for his heroics against Don John.

"I had rather be a canker [disease] in a hedge than a rose in his grace (1.3.10)," Don John says of his brother. Moments later, he says of Claudio: "That young start-up [upstart] hath all the glory of my overthrow [of overthrowing me in my fight with my brother]: if I can cross him any way, I bless myself every way." (1.3.24)

When Claudio first beholds the sight of Leonato's beautiful daughter, Hero, he falls in love with her. She is to him the paragon of young womanhood—as sweet as honey, as innocent as a lamb. The fact that she is her father's only heir further enhances her as young woman worthy of Claudio's attention.

Meanwhile, when Benedick sees Beatrice and she sees him, they fall madly in hate all over again even though they harbor unexpressed romantic feelings toward each other. Of course, as they parry savage insults that burn to the quick, the audience and the reader realize that the sparks they make may eventually ignite the fires of passionate love.

At a masked ball, Beatrice asks a masked man dancing with her whether he knows Benedick, not realizing that the man is Benedick himself. Playing a little game with her, Benedick denies knowing the man and asks who he is. Beatrice replies, “Why, he is the prince’s jester: a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders: none but libertines delight in him; and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy” (2.1.64). (An argument can be made here that Beatrice does, in fact, know that she is addressing Benedick and, further, that she improvised the insult to prick his ego.) Later, when they confront each other without disguises, Benedick returns the insult when, in a conversation with Governor Leonato, he compares Beatrice to a harpy, a hideous winged monster in Greek mythology.

After Don John hears of Claudio's love for Hero, he tries to thwart the flourishing romance between them. Claudio, after all, won glory in the military action that subdued Don John. Claudio had humbled and humiliated Don John. Did not Claudio, therefore, deserve to work a comeuppance of his own? Don John then tries to convince Claudio that Hero loves Don Pedro. After much ado and confusion, his plan fails, and it is agreed with the governor’s blessing that Claudio and Hero will marry.

While all Messina prepares for the wedding, Don Pedro sets himself to a Herculean task: making Benedick and Beatrice fall in love. With the help of Hero, Don Pedro arranges occasions in which Benedick overhears that Beatrice loves him, and Beatrice overhears that Benedick loves her. The result of this little trick is that the enmity of Beatrice and Benedick for each other softens, and their love for each other quickens.

In the meantime, the evil Don John tries another scheme, designed by his henchman, Borachio. Borachio tells Margaret, one of Hero’s servants, to dress in Hero’s clothes and stand at Hero’s window at midnight on the evening before the wedding of Claudio and Hero. Margaret is only too willing to do as she is told, for she is sweet on Borachio. However, she is unaware that she is about to take part in a plot against Hero. Just before midnight, Don Pedro and Claudio arrive in an orchard nearby, having been told by Don John that Hero has been trysting with another man and that she will meet with him again that very night. While Don Pedro and Claudio watch, Margaret appears at the window in Hero’s clothes as Borachio stands below, as if he had just climbed out of the bedroom window. Borachio and Margaret exchange loving farewells, making it seems as if Borachio is Hero's secret lover. In the darkness, Don Pedro and Claudio fall victim to the deception and believe Hero has surrendered herself to Borachio. (The play does not indicate where Hero is while Margaret is impersonating her. Is Hero sleeping soundly in the same room? Is she in another room? Shakespeare leaves the answers to the imagination of audiences and readers.)

At the altar the next day when the wedding ceremony is about to begin, Claudio condemns Hero as a whore for making love with another man. He tells Leonato, “Give not this rotten orange to your friend. . . .  She knows the heat of a luxurious bed” (4.1. 25 . . .34). Hero faints. Her father, Leonato, takes Claudio at his word, believing Hero is indeed a whore. Only Benedick and Beatrice—as well as the local priest, Friar Francis—believe in Hero’s innocence. After they plead their case in Hero’s favor, Governor Leonato has second thoughts about his daughter, and Friar Francis persuades Leonato that it would be best to pretend that Hero has died of grief. The friar says,

Your daughter here the princes left for dead:
Let her awhile be secretly kept in,
And publish it that she is dead indeed;
Maintain a mourning ostentation
And on your family’s old monument
Hang mournful epitaphs and do all rites
That appertain unto a burial. (4.1.206-212)

Afterward, says Friar Francis—who perceives wronged innocence in Hero's eyes—information may emerge that will prove that Hero was the victim of slanderous plot.

Benedick and Beatrice, meanwhile, argue about what to do next. During their conversation, Benedick tells Beatrice that he truly loves her. But Beatrice, convinced of Hero's innocence, says she will have nothing to do with Benedick unless he challenges Hero's principal accuser, Claudio, to a duel. Benedick bows to her wishes. Later, Benedick and Claudio exchange insults at Leonato's house in the presence of Don Pedro, and they agree to duel. When Benedick leaves, he further insults Claudio, addressing him as "boy" (5.1.89), and informs Don Pedro that Don John has fled Messina. This news causes Don Pedro to wonder whether his brother ran away to escape punishment for troublemaking—troublemaking that could have been related to Hero and her public disgrace.

Meanwhile, as Friar Francis had hoped, new information does indeed come to light about the accusations against Hero. It seems that Constable Dogberry has arrested Borachio and Conrade after his watchmen overheard Borachio bragging to Conrade about his part in the plot against Hero. With the help of the sexton, Dogberry questions the suspects at the local prison. One watchman provides specifics, saying Borachio received a thousand ducats from Don John for his part in a scheme to defame Hero. After further questioning their suspects, the law officers take their prisoners to Leonato at his home. Don Pedro and Claudio are there. (Most of the other principal characters gather there also as the final act of the play unfolds.)

When Don Pedro recognizes Borachio as one of Don John's men, he asks him why he was arrested. Borachio then admits his guilt, recounting "how Don John incensed me to slander Lady Hero" and "how you were brought into the orchard and saw me court Margaret in Hero’s garments." Upon hearing this confession, Don Pedro asks Claudio, "Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?" (5.1.172). Claudio replies, "I have drunk poison whiles he utter'd it" (5.1.173).

Claudio repents his condemnation of the "dead" Hero and praises her to the highest of heavens, then vows to do whatever penance Leonato imposes upon him. Leonato, of course, has been pretending that Hero is dead. He continues the deception, telling Claudio that he can redeem himself by marrying someone else:

Be yet my nephew: my brother hath a daughter,
Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,
And she alone is heir to both of us:
Give her the right you should have given her cousin,
And so dies my revenge. (5.1.214-218)

Claudio embraces the offer.

On the day of the wedding, Claudio discovers that the "new" bride is really Hero, who swears that her virginity is intact. The friar then bids everyone to follow him to the chapel. Before the group leaves Leonato's home, Claudio produces a secret love sonnet that Benedick wrote to Beatrice. Hero produces another secret sonnet expressing Beatrice’s love for Benedick. Benedick and Beatrice exchange final insults while agreeing to marry, but Benedick has the last word, saying, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” (5.4.104). Then he kisses her. A messenger then arrives to announce that Don John has been captured and is being returned to Messina. Benedick says he will devise a fitting punishment for him, then orders pipers to play. All ends joyfully with music and dancing that precede the weddings.

Tone

The tone of the play is generally merry, playful, carefree, and mischievous. However, dark moments occasionally alter the mood. The most noteworthy of these are scenes in which (1) Don John complains about his melancholy spirit, then plots against Hero; (2) Claudio accuses Hero of betraying him; and (3) the normally even-tempered Benedick becomes angry and challenges Claudio to a duel.

Conflicts

The main conflicts in the play center on the following:

  • Don John's hatred of his brother, Don Pedro, who defeated Don John in battle.
  • Don John's hatred of Claudio, a hero in Don Pedro's war against Don John.
  • Claudio's rejection of Hero after Don John's plot impugns Hero's reputation.
  • The verbal sparring that Beatrice and Benedick engage in, wittingly or unwittingly, to avoid acknowledging their love for each other.

Title Meaning

The title suggests that the characters in the play pay too much attention to trivial matters. (Ado means fuss, bother, commotion, confusion, or trouble.) But beware of the word nothing. Elizabethans sometimes used this word as a term for the female sex organ, which resembles the mathematical symbol for nothing, 0. Now consider that much attention—that is, much ado—is focused on Hero as a prospective wife. At a masked ball, Don John woos Hero in the name of Claudio, who has become entranced with Hero's angelic beauty. The scheme results in the betrothal of Claudio and Hero.

Meanwhile, the evil Don John and his partners carry out a plot that makes Hero look as if she yielded her virginity to Borachio. In Claudio's eyes, the angelic Hero then becomes reduced to a besmirched "nothing." Claudio publicly rebukes and humiliates her. Beatrice, however, stands by Hero, refusing to believe the accusations that Claudio so readily accepts as true. Beatrice then urges Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel to defend Hero's reputation. To avoid losing Beatrice's love and respect, Benedick does so. But at the very moment that Benedick challenges Claudio, Dogberry and his assistants arrive on the scene with Don John's henchmen, Borachio and Conrade, in bonds. Borachio admits his role in the scheme to ruin Hero's reputation and reveals all the details of the plot. His confession exonerates Hero and ends talk of a duel.

Thus, the title may refer to all the fuss and bother resulting from Hero's supposedly tainted "nothing." Did Shakespeare have have this meaning in mind when he wrote the play? We don't know. But, considering all the puns and jests in the play about sexual intimacy and infidelity, it's a strong possibility. If Shakespeare did not intend a double meaning for nothing, perhaps Shakespeare scholar G. B. Harrison was right when he observed: "The play should not be taken too seriously. Shakespeare is providing entertainment for two hours, very varied and agreeable, but for all that, as it turns out, "much ado about nothing." (Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 700).

Climax

The climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Much Ado About Nothing occurs, according to the first definition, when Claudio rejects Hero on their wedding day in the mistaken belief that Hero yielded to another man the day before. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Hero unmasks herself and the two couples—Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio and Hero—joyfully dance before going to the altar.

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Themes

Deceit

The play relies mainly on deceit for its effectiveness. For example, at the outset of the play, Don John pretends to be remorseful for rebelling against his brother. However, inwardly he seethes with hatred for his brother and looks for an opportunity gain revenge for his humiliating defeat on the battlefield. Also early in the play, Beatrice and Benedick pretend that they do not like each other, let alone love each other. Whenever circumstances bring them together, they spend their time exchanging insults. In their first appearance together in Act 1, Benedick is enjoying a conversation with Leonato and Don Pedro when Beatrice interrupts and a verbal skirmish ensues.

BEATRICE:  I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks [notices; listens to] you.  
BENEDICK:  What! my dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?          
BEATRICE:  Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.  
BENEDICK:  Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of [by] 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.  
BEATRICE:  A dear happiness to women: they would else [otherwise] have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that [I also love no one]: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.  
BENEDICK:  God keep your ladyship still in that mind; so some gentleman or other shall ’scape a predestinate scratched face. (1.1.49-54)

Of course, as the plot progresses, it becomes obvious that Benedick and Beatrice are deceiving each other and everyone else, for in reality they love each other. Meanwhile, Claudio confesses to Don Pedro that he has an eye for Leonato's daughter, the comely Hero. Don Pedro then proposes that he woo Hero for Claudio at a masked ball, saying,

I know we shall have revelling to-night:  
I will assume thy part in some disguise,          
And tell fair Hero I am Claudio;  
And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart,  
And take her hearing prisoner. (1.1.144-148)

The deceptive scheme works and Don Pedro seals the deal by getting Hero's father, Leonato, to agree to a marriage between Claudio and Hero. Enter the evil Don John. After learning that Claudio—his hated battlefield foe—plans to marry Hero, he oversees a plan to break up the romance and thereby gain revenge against Claudio. In the dark of night, Borachio appears at Hero's bedroom window and converses with Hero's attendant, Margaret, who is dressed in Hero's clothes. Don Pedro and Claudio are observing from an orchard a short distance away and think Margaret is Hero. Don John had previously poisoned their ears against Hero, saying she was a wanton and telling them they could witness her misbehavior themselves at night from the orchard. What they see and hear suggests that Borachio and Hero have just made love. The deception works, and Claudio denounces Hero at the altar on the day of the wedding.

But the good guys also use deceit. To save Hero's reputation from further damage, Friar Francis proposes to Leonato that they pretend Hero died of shock after Claudio verbally assailed her in the chapel. As part of the plan, they pretend to entomb Hero. While she lies "dead," the friar says, information may surface proving that Hero is a victim of foul play. The scheme works, and Don John, Borachio and another partner in their evildoing, Conrade, are exposed as villains who plotted against Hero.

Claudio repents for having so readily condemned Hero in public as a whore and tells Leonato that he will submit to any punishment. Leonato replies,

To-morrow morning come you to my house, 
And since you could not be my son-in-law, 
Be yet my nephew. My brother hath a daughter, 
Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,         
And she alone is heir to both of us: 
Give her the right you should have given her cousin, 
And so dies my revenge. (5.1.214-220)

Claudio agrees to marry the young woman. But Antonio's "daughter" is really Hero. The next morning, Hero carries the deception further by wearing a mask when she appears before Claudio. Leonato then makes Claudio take her hand and swear that he will be her husband. Claudio does so. The bride-to-be then reveals herself as the real Hero and says, "Surely as I live I am a maid [virgin]" (5.4.71).

There are other examples of deceit, such as the rehearsed conversations meant to be overheard by Benedick and later Beatrice, and Antonio's concealment of his identity from Ursula at the masquerade party. Deceit, of course, is part of everyday life, and one of Shakespeare's talents is to hold a mirror to life to reflect it.

The Class System

Much Ado About Nothing reveals the flaws of the class system in England and elsewhere in Europe. The most obvious flaw is its unfairness. Those born into the aristocracy receive rights and privileges unavailable to commoners. They also receive far more wealth and property, as well as benefits such as political power and favors resulting from their connections with fellow aristocrats. Consequently, a wide gap separates the upper classes from the commoners.

Those born into the aristocracy usually have a prestigious title, such as count or countess, duke or duchess, lord or lady. Moreover, they generally receive a superior education that includes instruction in the fine arts and social graces. Most of those born into the lower classes lack the titles, privileges, and benefits of the upper classes and haveto work long hours to put a jingle in their pockets.

Sometimes, though, the class system and its laws adversely affect aristocrats. In Much Ado About Nothing, Don John is a case in point. He is a bastard, a child born outside of marriage. Under English law, as well as the law of many other European countries, a bastard cannot inherit his father's property except in rare cases. Moreover, under unwritten law, a bastard often does not receive as much respect as a legitimate child. Don John's bastardy no doubt accounts in whole or in part for his hatred of his brother. It also probably accounts, at least in part, for his mean disposition. Benedick takes note of Don John's status when he comments that Don Pedro and Claudio appear to have been deceived in regard to the accusations against Hero:

If their wisdoms be misled in this,         
The practice of it lives in John the bastard,  
Whose spirits toil in frame of villanies. (4.1.190-192)

The class system also imposes limitations on aristocratic female children. For example, the laws governing the system state that men, not women, should inherit property and wealth. Also, custom and tradition under this system dictate that a highborn young woman should to obey her father at all times, even when he commands her to marry a man of his choosing. In the play, it is assumed that Hero will obey her father after he agrees with Don Pedro that Claudio would be a good match for her. After all, Claudio is a count. His rank would enhance the standing of Hero. Moreover, it would assure the continuance of a noble family into the next generation.

Beatrice, however, refuses to accept the traditional role of women.

Whether Shakespeare's depiction of aristocrats and commoners in the play was his way of advocating changes in the social system is arguable. Most likely, he simply wanted to present life as it was, not as it should or should not be. If audiences wanted to respond to what they saw and heard, advocating change or defending the status quo, all well and good. One suspects, though, that Shakespeare delighted in presenting bumbling commoners doing what their supposed superiors could not do: unmasking villainy and saving the reputation of an innocent young woman.

Women's Inferior Status

In Elizabethan England, women generally were subservient to men. In all things, each woman was expected to yield to the will of a father, husband, brother, uncle, or fiancè. A woman was frowned on if she attempted to pursue a career as an architect, an attorney, a merchant, a diplomat, a politician, a law-enforcement officer, or even an actor. (In Shakespeare's day, men and boys acted all the parts in stage plays, even the parts of women.) Women could not vote and were not entitled to a formal education, although upper-class women often learned under tutors. Lower-class women could become cooks, servants, washerwomen, midwives, and perform various menial tasks. Upper-class women were expected to remain in the home to carry out the following duties: to please their husbands, bear children, rear the children with the help of attendants, oversee the preparation of food, and conduct social entertainments. Although an unmarried woman could own property, she had to yield it to a husband if she married. A widow could inherit property but had to give it to the oldest son when he grew up.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is an example of a highborn Elizabethan woman who accepts her inferior status without complaint. Young men regard her almost as if she were an object to be bought, sold, or given away. For example, when Claudio asks Don Pedro for his opinion of Hero, Benedick replies, "Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?" (1.1.72). He's only half-joking. Though Hero's father loves her, he treats her the same way—as an object to be guided by him. For example, when he is told that Don Pedro may ask for her hand, he tells her, "Daughter, remember what I told you: if the prince do solicit you in that kind [if the prince asks you to marry him], you know your answer" (2.1.23). After Leonato learns that it is Claudio, not Don Pedro, who wants to marry Hero, Leonato readily approves of the match.

Beatrice, on the other hand, rebels against the established order, saying she will marry a man of her choice—but only if he measures up to her high standards. Her behavior may have shocked some members of Shakespeare's audience, but it may have heartened women yearning for more freedom. The fact that their queen was well-educated and independent-minded no doubt gave them hope that Beatrice was the wave of the future.

Use and Misuse of Language

The use and misuse of language in the play help Shakespeare to develop his characters and themes, call attention to social conventions, and present comic episodes.

Beatrice uses biting insults and witticisms to stand fast against the age-old belief that men are superior to women. She is a tigress who will claw at any man, especially Benedick, who tries to better her. Benedick acknowledges her verbal ferocity, saying it serves notice on men to stay away from her to “escape a predestinate scratched face” (1.1.54). Benedick responds with insults and witticisms of his own. All the while, readers and audiences suspect that both have the same hidden motive for their caustic criticism of each other—namely, that they are in love but regard love as a threat to their independence and freedom.

Leonato and Don Pedro generally use gracious and elegant language to reflect their generosity of soul and the refinement and nobility expected of highborn leaders, as in the following exchange:

DON PEDRO: Good Signior Leonato, you are come to meet your trouble [the burden and expense of hosting me and my men]: the fashion of the world is to avoid cost [such trouble], and you encounter it.   
LEONATO:  Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your Grace, for trouble being gone, comfort should remain; but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.   
DON PEDRO:  You embrace your charge [your burden] too willingly.

Margaret's language, on the other hand, is down to earth and at times vulgar. It may be that Shakespeare uses her words to satirize the rarefied language of courtiers and the sometimes priggish language of ingénues like Hero, as in this exchange:

HERO:  God give me joy to wear it [this dress]! for my heart is exceeding heavy.
MARGARET:  ’Twill be heavier soon by the weight of a man.   
HERO:  Fie upon thee! art not ashamed?  
MARGARET:  Of what, lady? of speaking honourably? is not marriage honourable in a beggar? Is not your lord honourable without marriage? I think you would have me say, "saving your reverence, a husband": an [if] bad thinking do not wrest [misinterpret] true speaking, I’ll offend nobody. Is there any harm in ‘the heavier for a husband?’ None, I think, an [if] it be the right husband and the right wife.” (3.4.14-17)

Moments later, Beatrice complains of symptoms of a cold, saying that her nose is “stuffed” (3.4.33) and she cannot smell. Margaret replies, “A maid [virgin] and stuffed! There's goodly catching a cold” (3.4.34). Margaret is saying, in effect, that being “stuffed” by a man is a pleasant way to catch a cold.

If there is a prize for misusing the language, Dogberry and his watchmen should win it handily for their malapropisms. A malapropism is an unintentional misuse of a word because it sounds like or in some other way resembles the right word. An example is watchman Verges' misuse of salvation in the following lines, spoken when Dogberry is instructing his men.

DOGBERRY: Are you good men and true?
VERGES: Yes, or else it were a pity but they should suffer salvation, body and soul.

Verges means to say damnation.

In the following passage are other examples of malapropisms. The speaker is Dogberry, who is addressing a watchman who has learned to read and write.

Well, for your [good looks], sir, why, give God thanks, and make no boast of it; for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity. You are thought here to be the most senseless [sensible] and fit man for the constable of the watch; therefore bear you the lantern. This is your charge: you shall comprehend [apprehend] all vagrom [vagrant] men; you are to bid any man stand, in the prince's name. (3.3.11)

Dogberry is an archetype for bumbling police officers in modern film and television comedies. Among movie and TV policemen who followed in his footsteps are Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Smoky and the Bandit), Inspector Clouseau (The Pink Panther), Maxwell Smart (Get Smart), and Barny Fife (The Andy Griffith Show). However, Dogberry gets laughs mostly for his malapropisms rather than for slapstick. Other examples of his malapropisms are the the following.

  • True, and they are to meddle [mingle] with none but the prince’s subjects. You shall also make no noise in the streets; for, for the watch to babble and to talk is most tolerable [intolerable] and not to be endured” (3.3.15). (Note: The use of "for, for" after "streets" is as Shakespeare wrote the words. The first "for" is a conjunction and the second, a preposition.)
  • Truly, I would not hang a dog by my will, much more [less] a man who hath any honesty in him (3.3.25).
  • Adieu: be vigitant [vigilant], I beseech you (3.3.36).
  • Goodman Verges, sir, speaks a little off the matter: an old man, sir, and his wits are not so blunt [keen] (3.5.9).
  • Comparisons are odorous [odious] (3.5.11).
  • Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended [apprehended] two auspicious [suspicious] persons" (3.5.23).
  • Is our whole dissembly [assembly] appeared? (4.2.3).
  • O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption [perdition] for this” (4.2.32).
The malapropisms of Dogberry and the other watchmen serve to underscore the educational gap between the lower and upper classes. Ironically, though, it is the watchmen who discover the wrongdoing against Hero, proving that they can sometimes be more valuable to society than their learned and refined superiors.

Importance of Reputation

Having a good reputation was extremely important to aristocrats in Renaissance Europe. For men, it meant treating a spouse or fiancée with gallantry, maintaining loyalty to family and friends, and performing courageously in war. For women, it meant obeying the will of parents, guarding virginity in the nubile years, and remaining faithful to a husband after marriage.

Examples of references to these standards include the following:
  • Praise for Claudio and Benedick in fighting with valor for Don Pedro in his war with his rebellious brother, Don John.
  • The disloyalty of Don John in his relationship with his brother.
  • Hero's willingness to accept her father's approval of a marriage between her and Claudio.
  • The respect Claudio exhibits for Hero after their betrothal.
  • The disrespect Claudio exhibits for Hero after Don John impugns her virginity.
  • Beatrice's loyalty to Hero in the face of the shocking accusation against her.
  • Benedick's willingness to risk his life in a duel rather than lose Beatrice's respect nd love for him.
  • The frequent jests centering on unfaithful wives.

Revenge

Revenge against Claudio and Don Pedro motivates Don John to develop the scheme that impugns Hero's reputation and casts a pall over the festive atmosphere of the play.

Love Is Blind

Hero ignores Claudio's faults. For example, she accepts Claudio as her husband-to-be even though only a short time before he so readily believed the slanders against her, called her a "rotten orange," and agreed to marry another in her place. Moreover, she never questions his motives—one of which, apparently, is to marry into money. (He had previously inquired whether Governor Leonato had a son and was told Hero was Leonato's only child and, thus, sole heir to his property.)

Love Is NOT Blind

Benedick well knows that Beatrice has a sharp tongue and feisty spirit that he must accept if he is to be her husband and live with her for decades to come. Likewise, Beatrice well knows Benedick is not the kind of man she can dominate. Yet, before the end of play, they acknowledge their deep love for each other and marry.

Animal Imagery

Shakespeare often uses animal imagery in exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick and in references to them by other characters, perhaps to suggest the wildness of their love/hate relationship. The following exchange between Beatrice and Benedick demonstrates this point:

BEATRICE: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
BENEDICK: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.
BEATRICE: Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.
BENEDICK: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
BEATRICE: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
BENEDICK: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. (1.1.53-58)

Benedick declares that if he ever succumbs to the pangs of love, he will be like a trapped animal: “If I do [submit to love], hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder” (1.1.101). When Don Pedro tells him that even a “savage bull” (1.1.103) must in time yield to the yoke of love, Benedick says, "The savage bull may; but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it [the yoke], pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead: and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write "Here is good horse to hire," let them signify under my sign "Here you may see Benedick the married man."  (1.1.104)

When Leonato and Antonio tell Beatrice that her tongue is too cursed to ever get a husband, Beatrice answers, “Too curst is more than curst: I shall lessen God’s sending that way; for it is said, ‘God sends a curst cow short horns’; but to a cow too curst he sends none” (2.1.12). (Here, horns may be a phallic symbol, representing the penis.)

When Beatrice finally acknowledges her love for Benedick, she also implies that she is like an animal who needs to control her feral instincts: “Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, / Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand" (3.1.117-118).

Imagery of Fire

Shakespeare uses images of fire to demonstrate the passion with which characters express their viewpoints or feelings. An example is an exchange between a messenger and Beatrice in a conversation about Benedick.

MESSENGER:  I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books [not a favorite of yours in your book].
BEATRICE:  No; an [if] he were, I would burn my study. (1.1.31-32)

Another example is Benedick's reply to Don Pedro and Claudio during a discussion of Hero.

CLAUDIO:  That I love her, I feel.  
DON PEDRO:  That she is worthy, I know.  
BENEDICK:  That I neither feel how she should be loved nor know how she should be worthy, is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me: I will die in it at the stake. (1.1.92-94)

When Hero and Ursula are discussing Beatrice's verbal assaults against Benedick, Hero says,

     Let Benedick, like cover’d fire, 
Consume away in sighs, waste inwardly: 
It were a better death than die with mocks,          
Which is as bad as die with tickling. (3.1.83-86)

Upon hearing this observation, Beatrice, hidden nearby, says to herself,

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true? 
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much? 
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu [French for good-bye]!          
No glory lives behind the back of such. 
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee [return your love]. (3.1.113-117)

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in Much Ado About Nothing.

Alliteration: Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or syllables.

God sends a curst cow short horns (2.1.12)

Unless he have a fancy to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is. (3.2.18)

O! what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal. (4.1.28-29)

If  Cupid have not spent all his quiver in Venice, thou wilt quake for this shortly. (1.1.106)
(Note that c and q have the same consonant sound.)

Anaphora: Repetition of a word or a group of words at the beginning of a sentence, clause, or phrase.

If I had my mouth, I would bite;  If I had liberty, I would do my liking. (1.3.10)

One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well. (2.3.8)

Antithesis: Presentation of contrasting or opposing ideas in a sentence or group of words with balanced construction

How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping! (1.1.13)

Thou pure impiety, and impious purity! (4.1.101)

Hyperbole: A gross exaggeration.

Thou wilt be like a lover presently,
And tire the hearer with a book of words. (1.1.130-131)

Benedick goes to extremes when he tells Don Pedro that he will perform any service for him rather than be made to converse with Beatrice. He says, "Will your Grace command me any service to the world's end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes [opposite side of the earth] that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John’s foot, fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy. You have no employment for me? (2.1.114)
Prester John: Legendary king of a Christian nation in Asia
Great Cham: Title of the ruler in Mongolia and certain other Asian countries in medieval times
harpy: In classical mythology, a monster that was part woman and part bird of prey. Here, Benedick is comparing Beatrice to a harpy.

Irony, Dramatic: Situation in which the reader or audience is aware of what a character is not

Dramatic irony occurs throughout the play. For example, readers and audiences know that Don John, who supposedly has made peace with his brother, despises him. Readers and audiences also know that Hero is innocent of wrongdoing when most of the other characters believe she is guilty.

Metaphor: Comparison of unlike things without using like, as, or than

BENEDICK:  Would you buy her, that you inquire after her?  
CLAUDIO:  Can the world buy such a jewel?  (1.1.72.73)
(Comparison of Hero to a jewel)

Alas! poor hurt fowl. Now will he creep into sedges. (2.1.100)
(Comparison of Claudio to a fowl)

Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites. (2.1.150)
(Comparison of time to a crippled person)

My talk to thee must be how Benedick
Is sick in love with Beatrice: of this matter
Is little Cupid’s crafty arrow made,
That only wounds by hearsay. (3.1.22-25)
(Comparison of hearsay to the effect of the arrow of Cupid, the god of love)

Disdain and scorn ride sparkling in her eyes. (3.1.56)
(Comparison of disdain and scorn to sparkles)

Oxymoron: Use of contrasting or opposing words side by side

merry war (1.1.27)
hot January (1.1.38)
You could never do him so ill-well (2.1.51)

Paradox: Use of contrasting or opposing words or groups of words

    He hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing in the figure of a lamb the feats of a lion. (1.1.8)
    (Comparison of Claudio to a lamb that fights like a lion)

Simile: Comparison of unlike things using like, as, or than

He [Benedick] will hang upon him [Claudio] like a disease: he is sooner caught than the pestilence. (1.1.34)
(Comparison of Benedick to a disease)

For look where Beatrice, like a lapwing, runs. (3.1.28)
(Comparison of Beatrice to a bird)

Runs not this speech like iron through your blood? (5.1.172)
(Comparison of speech to iron)

Synecdoche: Use of a part to represent the whole, as in "all hands on deck"

The ladies follow her and but one visor remains.
(Visor represents a disguised person at the masquerade party.)

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1.. In your opinion, why do Benedick and Beatrice at first refuse to acknowledge their love for each other?
2.. Who is the most admirable character in the play? Who is the least admirable? Explain your answers. 
3...Write an essay comparing and contrasting Benedick and Claudio.
4...Write an essay comparing and contrasting Beatrice and Hero
5...Write an essay that argues for or against the belief that love is blind.

 
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