In Shakespearean works, audiences had become accustomed to plays in which their attention would be fixated entirely on the intricately constructed plots and sub-plots unraveling before them, as well as the carefully created personalities of each character whose position within the plot was inextricably linked with the eventual success of the play on the whole. These characters had to be people whom the audience felt some sort of empathy toward and had to be in positions which could be related to by the audience. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is no different in this respect and two characters stand out head and shoulders above the rest in terms of importance. This is the fiery couple, Benedick and Beatrice whose relationship is filled with uncertainty throughout, over whether or not they will marry, however the air of inevitably is never removed.
From other Shakespearean comedies, some conventions had come to be expected. One of these was the use of comedy characters. In plays such as Twelfth Night, we see Malvolio’s naivety in being tricked into believing that completing a list of ridiculous acts would prove his devotion towards his sweetheart and thus, persuade her to love him as well as the comedy of Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch. Similarly, in Midsummer’s Night Dream, ‘the Mechanicals’ provide humour in not being able to see their obvious hopelessness when performing their play. Shakespeare has also used employed fools or jesters in his plays to create humour. Although we do once again see the use of comedy characters in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ with Dogberry and Verges, there is a more subtle and sophisticated use of humour which comes about largely through Benedick and Beatrice.
One of the most crucial lines of the entire plays comes about very early on when Leonato says, ‘There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and Beatrice; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.’ In terms of the play, Leonato is addressing those characters around him, informing them not to be worried by the sharp insults being exchanged by Beatrice and Benedick, indicating that neither will be offended by the comments of the other and the events unfolding between them are nothing out of the ordinary. However, this message is more importantly being conveyed to the audience letting them know that this is what they should come to expect from these two characters for the duration of the play, that there is no reason to be alarmed and that this sparring is there to be enjoyed..
Their constant bickering and verbal sparring, which form part of their ‘merry war,’ result in some vicious insults although as these are taken so light-heartedly, the audience feels able to find these insults funny. One such example would be Beatrice telling Benedick that ‘a bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.’ Normally this could be viewed as a quite spiteful comment but the audience has already been made aware that both Beatrice and Benedick have the attitude and intellect to both deal with this sort of comment as well as being able to retaliate sufficiently. The very term ‘merry war,’ used to describe the way in which Benedick and Beatrice battle each other, is also an interesting one. The juxtaposition of two words whose association would usually be considered highly unlikely is bound to startle the audience into thoughts of what a ‘merry war’ may entail and they soon find out that in this case it is a perfect way to describe their relationship.
Being a Shakespearean comedy, other conventions possibly expected to be fulfilled would be the use of puns and witticisms. Throughout the play, we see both of these from Benedick and Beatrice. When told that Benedick is ‘a good soldier too, lady,’ Beatrice’s swift response of ‘and a good soldier to a lady,’ indicates her superior wit and quickness of mind. This being one of many examples of her funnier moments, each one serves to increase her popularity with the audience. She is especially admirable to the audience of the time being a woman, who would not usually have been associated with this kind of independent thought and clever use of language. The natural flow and rhythm of their words allow them a kind of supremacy bringing an immediate appeal to the characters.
Benedick and Beatrice are given freedom others do not have. With no natural relatives both are given an independence at the start of the play. Leonato has Hero, his daughter, Claudio has his love interest Hero, Don Pedro has his brother Don John as well as his friend and companion Claudio leaving Benedick and Beatrice relatively unattached. The very fact that they almost always speak in prose is also key, as along with the Dogberry and Verges, they are the only characters who do so. Claudio Leonato, Antonio and Hero all veer towards speaking in verse. Both are proud of their lack of ties with Beatrice even mocking Hero’s obedience toward her father;
‘It is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say, father, as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin let him be a handsome fellow, or else another curtsy and say, ‘father, as it please me.’
However, their constant pride at being unattached and their adamance that they would not fall in love becomes ironic later in the play, if not immediately so, as their affections for each other have already been implicitly implied. This pride is shown when Benedick resolves to ‘live a bachelor’ and when Beatrice remarks, ‘I had rather have my dog bark at a crow than have a man swear he loves me.’
There is the suggestion of a chequered history between the two when Beatrice says, ‘Marry, he won my heart of me with false dice.’ They cannot help but bring each other up in conversation and this is synonymous with Shakespeare’s style in the majority of his plays where he refuses to simply lay down facts for us to absorb, he prefers to imply things which must be analsysed and the result in this case is an anticipation for the eventual union of Benedick and Beatrice. Their preoccupation is obvious when Benedick is invited to praise Hero but ends up talking of the beauty of Beatrice. ‘There’s her cousin, an if she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December.’
Beatrice similarly is drawn to criticize Don John but instead compares him to Benedick. ‘He were an excellent man that were made just in the midway between him and Benedick.’ The plot is then riddled with dramatic irony with the audience seeing it as being inevitable that Benedick and Beatrice will eventually fall in love. The interest has been built up and the audience then desires and awaits this satisfaction. Pairs are very quickly formed in this play and with Beatrice’s early remarks regarding the whereabouts of Benedick and their witty battle soon after, it is obvious that this is one of the pairs to be associated together. Even their names seem to match, with Shakespeare deliberately giving the only two names beginning with the letter ‘B’ to these two characters. Following this, both their names were also associated with very positive meanings at the time. ‘Benedick’ was said to have meant blessed and ‘Beatrice’ was ‘the bringer of joy.’
Their similarities had been noted by some of the other characters in the play and this leads to many of the other conventions of a Shakespearean comedy being fulfilled by Benedick and Beatrice. We had already seen mistaken identity at the masked ball when Beatrice is very much aware that she is speaking with Benedick although he is not sure that she knows. This is shown when Beatrice mentioned Benedick in conversation and Benedick responds by asking, ‘What’s he?’ Beatrice replies, ‘I’m sure you know him well enough.’ This facilitates both the dramatic irony and confusion associated with many Shakespearean plays. In other plays, we have also seen Shakespeare use eavesdropping as a way to create confusion with the listener gathering the wrong information or with those being listened to being aware that the other can hear what they are saying and therefore using this to their advantage. The second is done here with both Benedick and Beatrice listening in on conversations designed for them to hear. Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio intended on giving Benedick the impression that Beatrice has strong feelings towards him and the success of this plan is confirmed when Benedick asks, ‘Is’t possible? Sits the wind in that corner?’ This whole incident provides humour and enjoyment for the audience.
There are slight differences between the two scenes used to trick Benedick and Beatrice. Both involve one listening in on a conversation however, in Benedick’s case it was who instigated this situation whereas Beatrice had to be enticed into the scene using her eagerness to be aware of things being said about her. Beatrice is also forced to listen through much harsher criticism than Benedick. She is told that she has ‘disdain and scorn riding sparkling in her eyes,’ that ‘she cannot love,’ and that ‘nature never framed a woman’s heart of prouder stuff than that of Beatrice.’ It is possible that Shakespeare is being intentionally critical of Beatrice here as a message to others, against having such proud and arrogant personalities as well as criticizing human nature to eavesdrop.
This would provide some shock value for the audience who will already have gained a liking for Beatrice and would not expect to see this harsh level of criticism being handed out so openly. Shakespeare is also very critical and satirical at other times in the play. For example, Benedick and Beatrice are shown to be rather naï¿½ve in mocking those around them falling in love when not long after, they are the couple most truly in love. The love between Claudio and Hero is always shown to be more ‘above the surface.’ Claudio proclaims his love for her without ever having spoken a word to her and they are soon agreeing to get married without ever being shown to have a conversation alone. The fragility of their relationship is then emphasized by the fact that without any evidence and without consulting Hero, Claudio completely believes a story of her unfaithfulness and sets out to publicly humiliate the women he is supposed to be in love with.
I feel that the build up to the marriage itself and also the immediate aftermath serves no other purpose in this play other than to provide a backdrop for the growth in maturity and substance of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. I would go as far as to say that it is in fact the events which unfold between these two characters which are the main plot whereas all other events are simply sub-plots either to divert attention and ensure a lack of repetition or boredom creeping in, to show contrasts emphasizing the differences between these two characters and the others, build anticipation, or even to increase dramatic impact of the events which follow involving Benedick and Beatrice. Act four, scene one, the wedding scene, widely acclaimed the most important scene in the play is itself simply shaped to create the strongest demonstration yet, of the development of Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship.
After the utter humiliation of Beatrice’s cousin Hero, Benedick and Beatrice enter their most intimate conversation thus far. Benedick pleads with Beatrice to believe that he is indeed truly in love with her first telling her ‘I do love nothing in the world so well as you’ shortly followed by ‘I protest I love thee.’ Beatrice, finally accepting this, takes advantage of Benedick’s ‘bid me do anything for thee’ by replying sternly, ‘Kill Claudio.’ This outrageous request is met with an expected response of ‘Ha, not for the wide world,’ but the very fact that later in the scene he is actually contemplating this, highlights his love for Beatrice and his desire to prove it.
Claudio and Hero’s relationship is intentionally run parallel to that of Benedick and Beatrice. Throughout, the contrasts are plain to see. For example, all Claudio and Hero’s most important scenes take place in public. They are never shown speaking alone, Claudio confronts Hero over her infidelity in the most public place possible and even Claudio’s epitaph is not carried out alone. Claudio is even willing to marry a complete stranger days after his fiancï¿½e, the woman he was supposedly in love with, collapses and dies at the altar. Benedick and Beatrice are the opposite in every way possible. They have known each other ‘of old’ therefore their love is not spontaneous and they do not share any really intimate, private moments whilst in public. Claudio and Hero’s relationship is in tatters in seconds after Don John had concocted his story of Hero’s betrayal and yet, Benedick and Beatrice can continue their relationship even after one has asked the other to commit murder on their behalf. In saying that, their relationships still seem to take similar paths in so far as that following the instigation of the feelings of love between the couples, both then face major challenges, after which we see the confirmation that this couple is indeed going to be together through their respective marriages.
It is through Benedick and Beatrice that the majority of Shakespearean elements are fulfilled. Through them we see confusion, dramatic irony, comedy, puns, witticisms and insults and although some of these are seen elsewhere in the play, I am of the opinion that it is their story which is the main focal point of this play. Even the title seems to be referring to them: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ could be pointing out the delay in their getting together when it is inevitable from start to finish that it will happen, yet it almost takes an eternity to come about. Therefore it was no surprise for me to learn that at one point, Shakespeare had even titled this play, ‘Benedicke and Betteris.’ It is through the other characters and sub-plots going on that we are able to see the ‘resolution, revelation and restoration’ format executed, which has been associated with many of Shakespeare’s works and also other plays, however without Benedick and Beatrice, I feel that the play would lack any substance and it is they who make the play the success it has become. This restoration and resolution is pressed home to the audience and emphasised by the return to the ‘merry war betwixt between Beatrice and Benedick’ and the revival of their regular witty battles.
Benedick: Do you not love me?
Beatrice: Why no, no more than reason.
Beatrice: Do you not love me?
Benedick: Troth no, no more than reason
Benedick: Come, I will take thee; but by this light, I take thee for pity.
It is clear that marriage will not change their relationship and the audience leaves with the ultimate satisfaction; all is well and their ‘heroes’ have found their rightful place in society.