In “Much Ado About Nothing” Shakespeare demonstrates the shallowness of the traditional view of courtly love and the greater value of real loving kindness; an appealing message whatever the audience.
Shakespeare demonstrates the shallowness of courtly love mainly through Claudio and Hero, who are the central characters of the main plot. The couple’s relationship however, does not appeal to the audience as greatly as the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick does. Even to an Elizabethan audience, where the traditional courtly love relationship is particularly common, the greater value of real loving kindness that Beatrice and Benedick share is far more likely to catch our attention.
A courtly love relationship is typical mainly of aristocratic lovers, essentially with the unconsummated love between a bachelor knight and his lord’s daughter. Secrecy and jealousy are often involved, and the idealistic relationship is often based on beauty and image. Shakespeare uses Claudio and Hero to portray this image as Claudio has chosen the daughter of Leonato (a respected governor). Hero is therefore, in terms of a courtly love relationship, a ‘worthy’ match for Claudio according to Don Pedro, particularly as she is Leonato’s ‘only heir’. She can guarantee him future wealth and status if her father approves of the couple. Hero appears to accept Claudio as a suitable husband, which is expected, as she has a father and must abide by her father’s wishes and play by society’s rules. Although this is typical of a shallow courtly love relationship, it is recognised by most audiences, as women have until now, had little freedom and relied on their parents for advice and protection.
Beatrice and Benedick are both from a wealthy background as well as an appropriate social background, similar to most couples in a courtly love relationship. However, unlike Hero, Beatrice has no father to please, therefore she has more independence and is able to find a suitable match for herself. For example, when she states how she ‘had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me’, her words are of such a strong nature that if she were to fall in love it would be genuine, as her wit protects her from anything otherwise and prevents her from being influenced by social customs. Benedick also has no family to influence him, meaning that he plays by his own rules unlike Claudio, who conforms to the rules of Messinan society. Benedick reminds us on a number of occasions how he will ‘live a bachelor’ showing that, just like Beatrice, he is extremely unlikely to fall in love with someone, unless they are the ultimate match.
Beatrice and Benedick are both highly intelligent characters, suiting each other well. They use sophisticated wit (a typical feature in a romantic comedy) to test and judge whether they are both at the same level of intelligence, by throwing various insults such as when Benedick claims that Beatrice has ‘a predestinate scratched face’. Although the two characters are unaware of their feelings for each other at this stage, it is clear to the audience that they love each other. Beatrice and Benedick appeal to the audience for this reason, as they are unconventional, strong characters who are not playing by the shallow courtly love rules and actually communicate with one another. Therefore, their relationship is less predictable as the relationship between Claudio and Hero, making them more interesting to watch.
Claudio and Hero both use blank verse when communicating with one another, as well as with any other members of the Messinan society, which is more simple and lifeless than the powerful prose that Beatrice and Benedick use. For example, when being wooed by Don Pedro, Hero says how ‘you walk softly, and look sweetly’, even though she cannot see his face, which is hidden by a mask and has hardly spoken to him. The language that they use, as a result seems artificial and empty, lacking affection and desire for one another. The couple seem quite stupid to the audience, as they have fallen in love so easily. Neither have shown any signs of testing the other, as Beatrice and Benedick do, to see if they make a suitable match. Their behaviour is prim and conventional in their society, so is recognised particularly by an Elizabethan audience, where courtly love was more common than in modern society. However, even an Elizabethan audience would have preferred the more complex and exciting relationship that Beatrice and Benedick share, as it is far more entertaining, genuine and realistic.
Throughout the beginning of the play, Beatrice and Benedick refer to each other when they are not together. Benedick gives his opinion of Hero to Claudio, but somehow manages to speak about the beauty of Beatrice, when he says how she has ‘as much in beauty as the first of May’. Beatrice also appears to talk about Benedick, when it is unnecessary, as she compares Don John to him, saying that he is ‘too like an image’. Although the couple claim to detest each other, it is clear to the audience that they secretly have deeper feelings for one another or they would not feel the need to speak about them at all. This is confirmed, when they confess their love for one another very soon after being tricked by their friends, for example, Benedick tells us how he does ‘spy some marks of love in’ Beatrice. Even when the deception is revealed, the couple remain together, wit Benedick saying how ‘I will have thee’, showing that even though the couple have been deceived, they love one another despite this and their relationship is still based on real loving kindness.
Beatrice tests Benedick’s love for her when she asks him to ‘Kill Claudio’. If he is prepared to put her before his friend, then his love for her must be genuine. What seems to be a test of unnecessary extremity to the audience is prevented by the discovery of Don John’s treachery. However, Beatrice’s demand causes intense excitement for the audience, particularly as he tells her that he ‘will challenge him’, proving his love for her. The testing and challenging evidently shows that Beatrice and Benedick’s love is real and therefore more appealing to any audience, as the couple are ensuring that they make the correct and ideal match for one another.
Claudio and Hero fall in love at first sight, based on appearance and status and without testing one another. They assume from their first impressions of one another, that they are the ultimate match. However, the shallowness of this is evident when Claudio reacts so swiftly and angrily over the discovery from Don John of Hero’s apparent infidelity. Claudio asks ‘Is this face Hero’s?’, telling us that Claudio has discovered that Hero’s appearance does not correspond to the innocent image that he loved. Claudio has become so obsessed with the idea of love that he loves Hero as a name and for her beauty, rather than for who she really is. Therefore, as he does not really know Hero well enough, he lacks the trust and respect for her that should feature in any loving relationship. Claudio takes her for granted and becomes jealous of the accusations that are made, which is a typical feature of a male courtly lover.
The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is of a far higher level of intelligence than Claudio and Hero. The couple frequently speak in prose, resulting in a personal and intimate relationship, talking directly to one another, with no other characters present The relationship is private, with nobody else involved, therefore making it more realistic. Beatrice and Benedick frequently tell each other of their ‘love’ for the other, for example Benedick claims that he loves Beatrice ‘with all thy heart’. This passionate language appeals to the audience, particularly as the couple knew each other before falling in love.
Claudio and Hero rarely talk directly to one another and are never alone together. Hero is wooed by Claudio publicly and formally. He tells Benedick and Don Pedro how Hero ‘is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on’, rather than telling her and asks Don Pedro to woo her for him. Claudio also shames Hero in public, and publicly apologises for his behaviour when he learns of her innocence. The couple are conventional, loving by the courtly love rules and wooing through intermediaries. Claudio makes no effort to get to know Hero to see if their personalities are a suitable match, resulting in a very impersonal and artificial relationship.
The value of real loving kindness is also evident between Beatrice and Benedick as their relationship is physical, for example, when Benedick leans to ‘kiss’ Beatrice’s ‘hand’. This also appeals to the audience, as the couple are prepared to share their feelings for one another, unlike Claudio and Hero, who play by courtly love rules and do not kiss. A further example of the more passionate relationship can be seen when Benedick says, ‘I will stop your mouth’. The intimacy between the couple is, to some, unconventional and therefore more exciting. However, the fact that the couple kiss is also more romantic and realistic than those who conform to the shallow tradition of courtly love, even to an Elizabethan audience, where chastity was an important part of society.
Claudio and Hero have no physical contact, which is typical of a courtly love relationship and a romantic comedy. The couple do not kiss as Beatrice and Benedick do, at any point during the play. Even when encouraged by Beatrice to ‘stop his mouth with a kiss’, the couple decline from kissing one another. The relationship is unnatural and the lack of physical contact also suggests that the couple are in love with the idea of being in love, rather than being in love with each other. It is a further example of how the relationship is based on beauty and image rather than the greater value of real loving kindness.
In conclusion, the true value of real loving kindness, demonstrated mainly through Beatrice and Benedick appeals a great deal more to any audience of the play. The couple have challenged and tested one another, they communicate alone regularly, throughout the play. The couple also share a physical relationship and tell their feelings for one another. Their love is therefore more genuine, realistic and easier to relate to, as well as being very entertaining. Claudio and Hero, however do not appeal as much to the audience, due to their shallow and artificial courtly love relationship. They conform to the traditional rules of Messinan society, by speaking in public, and having no physical contact with one another. Claudio and Hero share an idealistic relationship based on wealth, status and beauty, and featuring jealousy and lack of trust. Although this is recognised by most audiences as it is traditional, the relationship is still far more inferior to Beatrice’s and Benedick’s. Even an Elizabethan audience, where courtly love often occurs, still look upon Claudio and Hero as boring and unrealistic. In my opinion, Beatrice and Benedick are far more appealing, as they love one another, despite the deception of their friends and their previous behaviour towards each other in the play. Claudio and Hero share a shallow relationship, which is clear particularly when Don John’s scheming and villainous plan is set into action. However, the couple both play by the shallow rules of their society and live in the same convention and are therefore, a suitable match for one another.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, The New Penguin Shakespeare.
Andreas Cappelanus: The Art of Courtly Love, Ed. Locke.