Commentary by Maria Rioux
The play is a comedy of errors, although it contains a dark element in the form of Don John. One sympathizes with him to some extent in that he has to bear the sins of his father through the social stigma of being a bastard son. He is silent for the most part, which gives him a sort of brooding air. At the opening of the play we are struck by the almost excessive politeness of both Leonato and Don Pedro. Leonato makes it seem as though having troops at his home for a month is something for which he has hoped; he eagerly anticipates hosting the men, and would in fact lose his smile were they to deprive him of their presence. Anyone who has had guests for more than a week suspects he is less than truthful. By contrast, Don John is socially rebellious and rude. “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace; and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all…” This suggests that his ill humour is due in part to the fact that he will never fit into the society to which he has been born. He reminds us to some extent of Shylock, for he bears similar injustices due to circumstance of his birth which are out of his control. He can no more help the fact that he is a bastard than Shylock could have avoided being Jewish. It is Don John and his manipulations that give the comedy it’s dark, foreboding feel.
One other point of interest: Leonato comments at the opening of the play, “How much better it is to weep at joy than joy at weeping.” Don John seems to delight in the misfortunes of others. There is that part of him which suggests that he would matters were otherwise, and for this we pity him to some extent. He would like to enjoy the same sort of friendship and respect that exists between Claudio and Don Pedro. “That young start-up has all the glory of my overthrow; if I can cross him anyway, I bless myself every way.”
Themes: Gossip, Social Norms, Infidelity
Romantic love, familial love and obligation, platonic love
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about miscommunication and gossip. The title alone suggests this. The word “nothing” would actually have been pronounced “noting” in Shakespeare’s time, and he makes wonderful word plays on this. It is because few note what is actually happening that misunderstanding result, making much out of nothing. Claudio asks, “Didst thou note the daughter of Leonato?” to which Benedick replies. “I noted her not, but I looked on her.” He then begins to make jokes about her appearance. It is an interesting exchange because Claudio claims to have noted her, but has really only seen her, that is appreciated her on the surface level. Benedick knows the difference. He admits to not having noted her, but then assaults her appearance. Anyone can take in the superficial qualities of another at a glance. One cannot love another, appreciating the good found in them, at a glance. Claudio, who apparently trusts his senses implicitely without any appeal to the use of reason, may not be capable of “noting” anything until at the end he finally does note Hero in the guise of her cousin. Once Hero has been won, and the two plan to marry, Claudio says, “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy.” Seen in the context of the play, these are possibly the wisest words Claudio has ever spoken, but unfortunately, he doesn’t note them. Had people spoken less, none of this would have happened. On one other occasion, Claudio speaks a great line which sums up the play and the theme of gossip and its effects: “O what men dare, what men may do! what men daily do not knowing what they do!”
As an aside, it is indicative of the shallowness of their relationship that once won, neither have a thing to say to each other.
Benedick and Beatrice, on the other hand, note everything that does not have a direct bearing on themselves. In their own case, they appear to be blind, but then, isn’t love always a bit blind? Leonato comments on this when he says, “Cousin, you apprehend passing shrewdly.” (This is also a sort of a backhanded compliment because there is a sort of reference to shrewdness in the word play as well. Earlier Leonata had said Beatrice would never marry “if thou be so shrewd of tongue.”)
Fr. Francis is one of the few who notes things and discerns the truth by doing so. He notes Hero’s reaction to the charge of infidelity and is thereby convinced of the truth. He “plays God” by arranging for her death, and Claudio resurrects her through his sacrifice of marrying Hero’s cousin.
There are further word plays on the noting, for there are many references to music (the playing of notes). Don Pedro says, “I will teach them to sing, and restore them to the owner.” He will teach them to make note of things, and so restore order. Later on Balthasar makes the connection even stronger: ” Because you talk of wooing, I will sing:…Note this before my notes; there’s not a note of mine that’s worth noting.”
Miscommunication is rampant. Don Pedro is overheard by two persons, but only one of them hears and understands. This leads to all sorts of misunderstanding, but the most interesting is Claudio. He readily believes his good friend will play him false. One wonders if Claudio has any real relationships or has ever known trust. Claudio has a similar reaction when he believes Hero to be unfaithful, but in that instance we can forgive him. He barely knows her, although he could probably pick her out in a line up. He seems to have fallen for the appearance of virtue…or appearance alone, and takes no time at all to see anything deeper.
Benedick and Beatrice are both deceived by what they hear, while Claudio and Don Pedro are deceived by both what they hear and see. The senses cannot be trusted. It is not until various persons take the time to make a note, to write down, all that has been happening that matters are righted. Even in the case of Benedick and Beatrice, as they are on the point of marrying and declaring their love, they miscommunicate, resulting in misunderstandings which threatens their relationship. It’s only through their written words, produced by Claudio and Hero, that they recognize they do indeed love each other.
Dogberry is especially helpful to the plot by showing us, by his own words, just how confusing speech can be. He is also the one who insists on a written report, probably because he’s used to having to sift through his own muddled thoughts and expressions and knows the benefit of the written word.
Both Leonato and Benedick express the fear that men have with regard to infidelity. Where children are involved, there is never any doubt who the mother is. Men, on the other hand, can never be certain of their paternity (this is before the days of test tubes and DNA). Leonato hints at this theme at the outset: “I think this is your daughter.” “Her mother hath many times told me so.” Benedick prefers to remain a bachelor than to chance wearing the “bull’s horns”, which is the mark of a cuckold husband. These references prepare us for Claudio’s reaction to Hero’s apparent infidelity.
Hero and Claudio represent romantic love, although, again, it is so unreasonable and almost impersonal, it is hard to find it at all believable. Hero is at first willing to accept Don Pedro, but readily agrees to Claudio in his stead. She seems more interested in pleasing her father and being obedient than in matrimonial happiness. Claudio is equally detached. He claims to love Hero, but easily dismisses her, first when he believes Don Pedro to be wooing for himself, and later when he agrees to marry Hero’s cousin by way of atonement. It is interesting to note that it is only then that Claudio seems to really see Hero for herself. He cries out, “Another Hero!” to which she responds, “Nothing certainer.” which is again a play on the words “noting” and “nothing.” Claudio has apparently learned to look a little deeper.
Benedick and Beatrice both have a dim view of marriage. Beatrice: “Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?” The use of “overmastered” suggests that she fears tyranny rather than submission in principle, which explains why she would be willing to marry Benedick later on in the play. She appreciates the merit of man, for she does not want a boy who could be easily mastered. “What should I do with him” dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting gentlewoman?…he that hath no beard is less than a man…and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.” She recognizes the equal dignity of man and woman: “Adam’s sons are my brethren,” and refuses to settle for any relationship that does not respect this. “Contempt farewell, and maiden pride, adieu! No glory lives behind the back of such. And Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand..” This passage supports the notion that Beatrice sees the good of marriage and wishes this for herself. She will happily submit to a loving hand. It is interesting to note that Benedick shaves his beard when he begins to woo Beatrice: he is a man, for he has the ability to grow a beard, but he shaves it off for her, who has already said she ” could not endure a husband with a beard on his face.”
Benedick fears the threat to his honor. He does not want to trust his honor to a woman who, through her unfaithfulness, can cause him to have to wear the “bulls’ horns”. On the other hand, both see good in matrimony and urge Don Pedro to find himself a wife.
“Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.” This is one of the best lines in the play. It suggests that they are among the few who approach matters of the heart without the rose-colored glasses. They cannot woo peaceably because they are not willing to blind themselves to the other’s faults. This will undoubtedly cause some strife. It does not impede their ability to love. When Benedick asks Beatrice if she loves him she responds, “Why no. No more than reason.” He feels similarly. Real love does involve reason and an appreciation of the good we find in others. Beatrice is not a silly girl who will happily fall for anyone who gives her a second glance, as opposed to Hero, for whom that is apparently the only criteria. She has more self-respect than that, and for good reason. She and Benedict battle with wits, and Beatrice is the victor. She and Benedick have much in common. They both lay clain to cold hearts, which points more to the tendency in both to rely upon their head more than their hearts.
Platonic love: Friendship is exemplified by Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro. The deceit Claudio believes Don Pedro of is forgiven among good friends because “Friendship is constant in all other things save in the office and affairs of love…” Beatrice insists that this friendship be subservient to the friendship between lovers when she requires Benedick to prove his love for her by killing Claudio.
Deceit: Don Pedro and Claudio are deceived by Don John through Borachio and Margaret. Margaret, in her turn, is deceived by Borachio, who is simply using her. Benedick is deceived by Claudio and Don Pedro; Beatrice by Ursula and Hero.
One interesting scene occurs between Beatrice and Benedick. She fails to recognize him beneath his mask and tells him Benedick is the Prince’s jester. Later, in retelling the tale, which has stung him to the quick, Benedick who has removed his mask and revealed himself, acts out the events and becomes what Beatrice called him.