‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is essentially a romantic comedy. One of the central themes is love and the plot centres on the characters’ expectations and the way in which they deal with ‘love’. Although Much Ado About Nothing is typical of many of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies there are ‘dark’ elements, which run throughout the play.
As soon as the play begins in the first scene, the reader is introduced to Don Pedro and Don John: two brothers. Don Pedro is an important nobleman from Aragon; he is socially superior to everyone else and is often referred to as ‘Prince’. Don John on the other hand is the illegitimate brother; he is often referred to as ‘the Bastard’. In Elizabethan times illegitimate children were perceived as evil, they were socially inferior as a result of the circumstances in which they were conceived. They were often seen as a representation and reminder of the sin through which they were created.
Illegitimate children in Shakespeare’s time were regarded with suspicion and caution; they were seen as a threat and a possible problem when it came to inheritance.
Shakespeare immediately establishes a strong connection between the negative connotations and attitudes that were present in Elizabethan society at the time regarding illegitimate children and Don John’s character. He does this by ensuring that the reader notes the dark shadow that Don John’s presence casts during the otherwise happy and jovial first scene where everyone gathers to welcome Don Pedro and his men back from the war.
At first during Act I Scene I there is no mention of Don John in the conversation, and there is no direct speech addressed to him. Only once Leonato has finished greeting Don Pedro, and Beatrice and Benedick have exchanged wry remarks, does he eventually turn to greet Don John. This implies that although Don John and Don Pedro are brothers and should be treated as equals, Don John is treated as an inferior simply because he is illegitimate.
As a contrast to the jovial exchange between Leonato and Don Pedro, the exchange between Leonato and Don John is short and succinct. Don John’s reply to Leonato’s greeting, Act I Scene I Lines 140-41 ‘I thank you. I am not of many words, but I thank you’ implies that he is a brooding man, that he has deep-rooted issues and troubles and is very melancholy. His disposition and nature all seem to be a result of his unfortunate background.
As a result of his background Don John appears to be extremely resentful. His resentment is manifested through his actions and behaviour. Right from the beginning of the play from when we are introduced to Don John he is presented in a negative light.
During Act I Scene III Don John is in the company of one of his followers and companions, Conrade. During this scene Shakespeare reveals Don John’s unpleasant nature. Conrade asks Don John why he is so miserable and dejected. Don John replies’ ‘There is no measure in the occasion that breeds, therefore the sadness is without limit.’ Don John is telling Conrade that there is no limit to his misery. Don John’s reply indicates that he is self-indulgent, his anger and frustration at his situation has led him to become embittered. He is so self-absorbed that he refuses to let anyone talk him out of his anger.
When Conrade presses him for an answer Don John replies telling him that even if there was a reason it would make no difference. Already Shakespeare is presenting Don John to the audience as an unreasonable and melancholy man who will not change for anyone. Shakespeare emphasises this aspect of Don John’s character through his next speech, where Don John professes his stubborn and insensitive character.
‘I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jests; eat when I have stomach, and wait for no man’s leisure; sleep when I am drowsy, and tend on no man’s business; laugh when I am merry, and claw no man in is human’
Again Shakespeare emphasises Don John’s self-centred nature by the repetitive use of ‘I’.
Don John appears to hold deep hatred for Claudio, for no apparent reason, other than the fact that Claudio has taken his place as his brother, Don Pedro’s, right hand man.
Don John is the antithesis of Don Pedro; he is the opposite of everything the play wants to be about. The dastardly plan to ruin Claudio and Hero’s wedding is as a result of his hatred for marriage, as well as his resentment towards Don Pedro and anyone who is close to him.
It is the ideal of ‘marriage’ that has caused him to be in his unfortunate position. The fact that he was born out of wedlock may have led him to hold a deep hatred for marriage. If there were no marriage, if marriage did not exist, he would not have to endure the ridicule and degradation that he suffers at this moment.
As well as Don John’s ‘plain dealing villain’ there are other elements of darkness throughout the play. Shakespeare uses the device of deception in different instances to show the reader that all is not as it seems, and often judgements made on observations are wrong. There are two main instances where the plot involves deception and deceit. Firstly there is the plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together and second there is the more malicious plot, devised by Don John, to ruin Claudio’s marriage to Hero.
The whole farce through which Benedick and Beatrice are eventually brought together and led to reveal their true feelings for one another is carried out using the device of deception. Although there is no malicious intent in this case, the act of deception its self is negative as it is based on toying with people’s feelings.
The same principle whereby the characters are led to believe something through small snippets of information that they have heard and been given is employed by Don John in his plot to shame Hero and ruin her marriage to Claudio. The night before the wedding he asks Borachio to seduce Hero’s maid Margaret, but call out Hero’s name during their encounter. Don John then brings Claudio to the scene, from where he is totally convinced that Margaret is Hero. Claudio being a petulant and impulsive individual immediately overreacts; he is totally devastated and decides that he will publicly shame Hero. Therefore Don John’s plot is a success and the following day at the wedding Claudio shames Hero at the altar.
The scene in which Claudio shames Hero is the manifestation of all the ‘dark’ elements that have been present in the play up until that point. Act Four Scene One is the dramatic climax where we see displays of human character at its worse.
Firstly there is Claudio, who is cruel and unruly in his behaviour towards Hero. His behaviour is totally unjustified and even if it were totally excessive. He throws a barrage of insults upon Hero, which leave her in total shock. His bitterness and resentment is clear in the sarcastic nature of his remarks towards Leonato.
‘And what have I to give you back, whose worth
May counterpoise this rich and precious gift?’
Claudio then proceeds to publicly humiliate Hero, referring to her as a ‘rotten orange’. He uses this description in the context that Hero has deceived him and is
‘but the sign and semblance of her honour.’ She has been putting on an act and her outward perfection hides her rotten insides.
Claudio describes Hero’s crime in an excessive way, in order to make it sound as bad as possible. He taunts her, as she describes how ‘She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.’ This makes her sound lustful, as though she instigated the encounter and revelled in it. Claudio takes subversive delight in the shaming Hero publicly, seeing it as revenge and a way of protecting his reputation.
In Act IV Scene I Shakespeare showcases some of the worst aspects of human character in certain characters behaviour towards Hero. Along with Claudio’s obvious cruelty, another example of this is Leonato’s reaction and subsequent behaviour towards Hero after Claudio has accused Hero of being unfaithful. He immediately turns against his own daughter, Claudio’s accusation along with Don Pedro’s acknowledgement leave him with no doubt in his mind that Hero is guilty.
Leonato’s violent and frantic behaviour indicate that although he loves his daughter, his respect for Don Pedro and Claudio lead him to believe them without even questioning them or Hero. His treatment of Hero is extremely unfair and unjustified, as well as rash and maniacal. Leonato has no compassion and does not stop to think for one second that this could not be true, he simply takes Claudio’s accusations on face value.
This theme, that nothing is as it seems, is carried throughout the play by Shakespeare. It is key to all the deception that takes place in the play, and because all the characters involved believe all the information they are given the deception is successful on all counts.
The plot is centred on deception and deceit, although in the end the deceit and lies are uncovered and the truth wins, Shakespeare clearly proves that deception can be extremely powerful and destructive.
As well as the obvious darker elements of the play, there are other less obvious implications in other parts of the play such as ‘The Song’ sung by Balthasar in Act II Scene III.
‘The Song’ focuses on the treatment of women by men, primarily on how badly men treat women. Balthasar starts off by labelling men as ‘deceivers’ and then reflects on how men can never be satisfied with one thing, in this case one woman,
‘One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.’
He urges all women to forget men and their ‘woes’ and to be ‘blithe and bonny’. Shakespeare emphasises Balthasar’s point through the repetitive structure of ‘The Song’. Balthasar then goes on to sing of how men have been this way since the beginning of time, or as he puts it ‘Since summer first was leavy.’ He finishes by repeating once again his plea to women everywhere to forget about men and to be ‘blithe and bonny’.
‘The Song’ is a sorrowful song, which tells of men as deceitful and ungrateful towards women, it again focuses on a negative aspect of human character. Shakespeare also touches on deception with Balthasar mentioning ‘The fraud of men’.
Throughout the play, which is laced with darker themes, there is still a strong sense of humour and comedy. This is mostly conveyed through the fast and witty exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick. Their relationship brings a lighter mood to the play, and at times is extremely amusing.
As with most of the play, Shakespeare still retains an element of darkness throughout their relationship. From the very beginning the reader is given a hint of a past relationship between the two, which ended unpleasantly, when Beatrice replies to Don Pedro’s remark of losing ‘the heart of Signor Benedick.’ Beatrice mentions how Benedick had
‘lent it me a while; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,’
This indicates some history between them, and that Benedick mistreated Beatrice in some way by cheating her with ‘false dice’. Although the merry war of words between Beatrice and Benedick can be taken as entirely in jest, there are often double meanings and extremely cutting remarks which add a darker side to their exchanges.
Their relationship itself could also be said to rely on deception, as they are both deceiving on another by not revealing their true feelings.
Shakespeare uses deception again to further the plot at the masked ball. Here Benedick approaches Beatrice, Beatrice pretending to be unaware that it is Benedick launches a verbal assault on Benedick, knowing that he will be unable to defend himself as he is masked and pretending to be someone else.
She ridicules him calling him a ‘very dull fool’ and stresses how his only gift is ‘in devising impossible slanders.’ Beatrice knows that this will greatly upset Benedick and carries on remarking how only ‘libertines delight in him’ but not for his wit, but for his slander. She adds how he ‘both pleases men and angers them’ as they laugh at his remarks about others, but are angered by those he makes about them.
Here in this exchange, instead of the usual witty jocular remarks, Beatrice simply insults Benedick, as she knows he will be unable to defend himself. As a result, Benedick is extremely insulted.
Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship is never perfect, and even after they have professed their love for each other, there are times when they do not agree. One of these points is at the climax of the play, just after Claudio has humiliated Hero. Beatrice is enraged by Claudio’s behaviour and demands Benedick to kill Claudio if he truly loves her. Benedick is shocked and refuses ‘Ha, not for the wide world’.
This request is full of aggression, Beatrice is asking Benedick to kill one of his good friends, and has given him an ultimatum. When he refuses she is even more angered and wishes that she were a man so she could kill Claudio herself.
‘O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.’
Beatrice’s actions and words all contain violent implications. If Benedick does choose to duel with Claudio, not only is there the violent nature of the duel itself, but the souring of their relationship. There is potential for deep resentment and tension between the two, which in itself creates a dark atmosphere.
Although Shakespeare manages to resolve all these tensions, and the duel between Benedick and Claudio never occurs, the relationship between Benedick and Claudio is never how it was before.
Shakespeare ties up any loose ends, with the final scene where Claudio and Hero are finally married. But this also bears a hint of deception as this time Claudio is deceived as he believes Hero is dead. Beatrice and Benedick also decide to tie the knot in the final scene, finally dropping their facades and publicly acknowledging their love for one another.
The final scene of Much Ado About Nothing is typical happy ending, but there are still questions, which can be raised about the characters futures. Will Claudio and Hero be happy together? And will Beatrice and Benedick last? And there is always the question of Don Pedro, it seems everyone is now attached except for Don Pedro, will he ever be happy and find his match?
I feel that Claudio and Hero’s relationship will last, although it will be due to the fact that Hero is prepared to play the role of a typical Elizabethan wife, who is gentle, forgiving and submissive. On the other hand Beatrice and Benedick’s marriage is sure to be extremely tempestuous and fiery, this all due to the fact Beatrice is the total opposite of Hero. Beatrice is loud, brash, extremely intelligent and definitely not afraid to voice her opinions. There is also a slight shadow of doubt that if Benedick broke Beatrice’s heart once before, he is surely capable of doing it again, but what I think is clear is that they do share a genuinely true love for each other, which I am not sure if Claudio and Hero do.
There is a slight shadow cast over the end of the play, where a messenger brings the news that Don John, who fled after being caught, has been found and is being brought back to Messina. This raises questions over what exactly will happen to him when he returns and how he will be punished.
In conclusion although Much Ado About Nothing has a ‘happy ending’ Shakespeare never quite makes it clear whether they’ll all live happily ever after.