‘Much Ado About Nothing’ would have been pronounced ‘Much Ado About Noting’ in Shakespeare’s time. Noting would infer seeing how things appear on the surface as opposed to how things really are. This provides an immediate clue as to how the play and the presentation of the story of the two pairs of lovers would be received by an audience of the time, living as they did in a patriarchal society which was based on social conventions and appearances. It can also be taken as an initial comment by Shakespeare about that society and its values and moral codes. Modern audiences, however, live in a more sexually egalitarian society. Although appearances are still important, values are more dependent on self-analysis and self-knowledge.
It is significant that the story of Hero and Claudio, the first of the pairs of lovers, is one that Elizabethan audiences would have probably been familiar with. Ariosto and also Spenser in the ‘Faerie Queene’ had presented this love story as a tale of chivalry and high morality. Therefore the audiences of the time would be familiar with the conventional characters of Claudio and Hero.
Hero displays all the qualities the Elizabethan audience would have admired in a woman. She knows her place in society. Her father is there to be obeyed, and she herself recognises how she should be punished were the charges against her proved to be true,
‘ O my father
Prove you that any man with me conversed
Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death.’
There is an absence of dialogue by Hero in the opening act, the demure silence admired in women of the time. She is beautiful according to Claudio, ‘In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.’
This makes her the ideal woman of her time. She behaves in the manner society expects and does not question it at all.
Claudio too is every bit the courtly hero of tradition and convention as demanded by the society of the time. He is a dashing young count returned from the wars in a blaze of glory. Claudio represents the romantic, with the flowery speech of a lover. He says of Hero;
“Can the world buy such a jewel?”
His love is based on an appreciation of her looks and status.
In Elizabethan times women were wooed in the presence of and often on behalf of other parties as in the play. Thus the business of Don Pedro at the masked ball wooing Hero on behalf of Claudio, rather a strange concept to modern audiences, would be totally accepted as normal to a contemporary audience. Shakespeare introduces devices of masks and deception to underline the superficiality of a society where truths are hidden below appearances.
Throughout the first acts of the play, Hero and Claudio behave and proceed with their courtship in a manner befitting the conventions of the time. Claudio wants to be sure that Hero would make a suitable bride before he pursues her. He asks Don Pedro: “Hath Leonato any Son, my Lord?”
This would not be unreasonable at the time, as suitors were expected to find a partner who was of a similar social standing to themselves. He also enquires about Hero’s reputation. Women were expected to be sweet and pure as well as submissive. While Hero and Claudio play by the rules of society, Shakespeare is constantly pointing to the superficiality of that society. In what would have appeared a truly shocking concept to audiences of the time, the episode of Hero’s supposed deception and impurity would also imply that as the lovers play by society’s rules, so they are injured by these rules. Claudio does not know Hero on any deeper level which would ensure he would suspect foul play instead of assuming what he had seen at her window was true. Hero is treated cruelly by Claudio and her father on her wedding day and has to tolerate it. Modern women would never tolerate such behaviour. But Hero really has no choice. At the time women were reliant on men for their existence. The Elizabethan audience would have understood why Claudio and Leonato wished to leave Hero for dead after the accusations in the church.
Towards the beginning of the play, Claudio asks Benedick:
“Is she not a modest young lady”
This question would be highly inappropriate in the modern world. It would seem offensive and sexist. In fact, the inference of Hero’s alleged affair with another, even on the eve of her wedding has less of the original impact in a far more permissive society fed on daily soap opera fare. The reaction of Claudio and Leonato seems excessively harsh, especially when they leave her for dead. Thus Shakespeare’s presentation of the lovers may have less impact. Modern audiences may find it hard to believe in their relationship as anything more than short-lived lust.
However, Hero also displays a certain firmness of mind when she says to Margaret on the subject of the wedding dress: “My cousin’s a fool, and thou art another, I’ll wear none but this”.
This shows us that she does have a mind of her own and with it she chooses to conform.. She also seems to understand why she must appear to have died in the church in order to have a successful relationship with Claudio after Don John’s plot has been revealed. The accusation of dishonour had sullied her name whether or not she was guilty; a fact of the times. She therefore appears to see more clearly how society requires her to shed the slur of accusation totally in order to be accepted by all. Claudio, by contrast, still appears to be willing to make the ‘blind’ choice convention demands of him. He is willing to accept the masked maiden who happily turns out to be Hero. Again, Shakespearian audiences would be aware of the message that society is dependent on superficiality and that conventional relationships are therefore subject to grave difficulties.
A modern day audience would be more likely to empathise and to direct their sympathies and admiration towards the characters of Benedick and Beatrice, who immediately show themselves to buck the conventions of their society described above in the direct style and nature of their quipping.
“O God, sir, here’s a dish I love not; I cannot
endure my Lady Tongue.”
Similarly, Beatrice interrupts the conversation between Leonato and the messenger with:
“I pray you, is signor Mountanto returned from
the wars, or no?”
Although this would go unnoticed in the today’s society, at the time she would have appeared as very bold. One of the caricatures of Elizabethan society echoed in drama was the ‘scold’ or the sharp-tongued woman. Beatrice avoids this label as it is quickly established that she is amusing rather than unpleasant.
”You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her.”
Here, Leonato explains Beatrice’s quick comments are humorous to enlighten other characters in the play as much as the audience.
Beatrice’s behaviour is unconventional as is her independence and honesty.
“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear
he loves me.”
To the modern audience familiar with high-spirited and fiercely independent females who run their own lives, she is familiar. Her openness and honesty show a degree of self-knowledge which is illustrated in the scene where she overhears truths about her behaviour when Hero is attempting to make her love Benedick.
“What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?”
To the Elizabethan audience she was breaking society’s rules which demanded females say little. They would have found her role as equal to Benedick surprising. Her appraisal of her cousin is one of reality, she ‘knows’ Hero is innocent.
Benedick has very similar qualities to Beatrice and they appear to be ideally suited. He is outspoken, but nevertheless likes to use his wit to demonstrate a degree of honesty, and this is underlined in both the case of Benedick and Beatrice in their stark language which compares to the flowery usage of Claudio.
Like Beatrice, he also flouts convention. This is shown as he stays behind to tend to Hero in church. He thus demonstrates a kindness which puts humanity before social boundaries.
He also responds to Beatrice’s demand of him to kill Claudio afterwards despite his loyalty and allegiance to his friend. He is prepared to flout society’s rules once again. This would not have been lost on the audience of the time. Today, it would have little impact in terms of the overall unravelling of the plot.
Beatrice: “Kill Claudio”
Benedick: “Ha! Not for the wide world.”
Beatrice: “You kill me to deny it. Farewell.”
The love between Beatrice and Benedick, although confused in the initial banter between the two, is based on deeper understanding. When each assumes they have overheard something they should not have, they are both deceived successfully by characters they know and trust.
Ursula says to Hero:
” But are you sure that Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely?”
“So says the prince and my new-trothed Lord”
Although the two are influenced by others, the outcome is determined by their own knowledge of the situation. Unlike Claudio and Hero, they trust their own opinions rather than those of others. For example, Beatrice ‘knows’ Hero, and understands immediately that she has been wronged. Benedick asks her, ”Think you in your soul the Count Claudio has wronged Hero?”
She then replies, ”Yea, as sure as I have thought or a soul”.
Benedick then prepares to act on this knowledge. Both characters’ judgement depends on a deeper knowledge and understanding of the situation rather than an appraisal of appearances. At the time this play was written, this would have been unusual. Thus the way the two are persuaded to look at their own feelings for each other is the only method Shakespeare could have used to successfully fool these two quick thinking characters. They would not have blindly accepted what they were told like Claudio did confronted with Hero’s ‘deception’.
This deeper form of understanding between two lovers would not occur in the normal course of events of the time, and the success of their relationship depends upon flouting conventions as discussed.
In ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, one may argue that Shakespeare decided to have two sets of lovers to provide the audience with contrasting perspectives on similar situations. One may also argue that the two contrast between what was expected at the time against the unconventional. In both cases Shakespeare’s presentation of the relationships between these two pairs of lovers implies criticism of his shallow society and its conventions. Perhaps he set the story in Italy as he may not have wished to upset his benefactors at home.
Modern audiences may only perhaps gain an appreciation of this element in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ as a study of Elizabethan society.
Their empathy and interest may therefore be based to a greater degree in the characterisation of Benedick and Beatrice.