‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Essay, Research Paper
Each of the main characters in Much Ado About Nothing is the victim of deception, and it is because they are deceived that they act in the ways that they do. Although the central deception is directed against Claudio in an attempt to destroy his relationship with Hero, it is the deceptions involving Beatrice and Benedick which provides the play’s dramatic focus. Nearly every character in the play at some point has to make inferences from what he or she sees, has been told or overhears. Likewise, nearly every character in the play at some point plays a part of consciously pretending to be what they are not. The idea of acting and the illusion it creates is rarely far from the surface – Don Pedro acts to Hero, Don John acts the part of an honest friend, concerned for his brother’s and Claudio’s honour; Leonato and his family act as if Hero were dead, encouraged to this deception by, of all people, the Friar who feels that deception may be the way to get at truth; and all the main characters in the plot pretend to Benedick and Beatrice so convincingly that they reverse their normal attitudes to each other. In I.1 Don Pedro offers to play Claudio and win Hero for him. This plan is overheard, and misreported to Antonio. His excited retailing of the false news of Don Pedro’s love for Hero to Leonato is, however, not without some caution: the news will be good as ‘the event stamps them; but the have a good cover, they show well outward’ (I.2.6). Leonato shows a sense here that he could well do with later in the play: ‘Hath the fellow any wit that told you this?’ . . . ‘we will hold it as a dream’ . . . ‘peradventure this be true’. Admittedly he does not question the ‘good sharp fellow’ who overheard, any more than he examines Dogberry’s prisoners as he should, but the caution of the two older men about what would be only too delightful for them to believe is in sharp contrast to the readiness with which they believe in Hero’s disgrace. The first introduction of the motif of overhearing is more important than it might seem at first sight. Eavesdropping is almost a full-time occupation in Messina: virtually everybody does it. Don Pedro and Claudio eavesdrop on the conversation between the supposed Hero and Borachio and draw the inferences that Don John’s lie prejudiced them to draw. Benedick and Beatrice think they are eavesdropping on their friends’ conversation, not realising that it is being held deliberately to deceive them. Beatrice is trapped into listening to Ursula and Hero by Hero’s making Margaret pretend she has overheard a conversation about her (III.1.6). The importance of the introduction of the idea of eavesdropping and mishearing in I.2 is stressed by the scenes that immediately follow. In I.3 the theme of deceit is again signalled. Don John reveals his true nature as an unscrupulous schemer, and his malevolence towards his brother – hidden under an apparent reconciliation, which all but his cronies have to accept at face value. Antonio’s man was not the only one to overhear Don Pedro and Claudio: Borachio reports correctly what Don Pedro’s plan is. Don John’s love of vindictive mischief breaks out in the twisting of the “>true<-”> report to the “>false<-”> one that Antonio gave Leonato. After the masked dance, in which people tacitly (by disguise) or openly deny their identity – ‘At a word, I am not’ (II.1.101) – he completely convinces Claudio that the man he has every reason to trust as his lord and patron has betrayed him. Seeing Claudio, Benedick is taken in too – because he trusts Claudio, his comrade in arms, as a sensible man; and the matter is only straightened out by Don Pedro himself and the public betrothal of Hero to Claudio. This, the first of Don John’s attempts at mischief, is easily got over; but it puts down a marker for Don John’s second, much more serious, attack on the equilibrium of the world of Messina. In a parallel case, Don Pedro’s initial acting the part of Claudio to win Hero puts down a marker for his second, greater, plan of deceiving Benedick and Beatrice into ‘a mountain of affection th’one with th’other’ (II.1.339-340). The basis of both plots is getting the victims to overhear other people speaking, as they think, honestly. In fact, therefore, we are being presented with two types of deceit: that which is benevolent, like Don Pedro’s or the Friar’s seeking ultimately a harmony that can be expressed in marriage, and that which is totally destructive, like Don John’s. The success of each type of deceit depends on a manipulation of language and an alteration of behaviour and appearances – and on the readiness of the victims to judge from what is presented to their eyes and ears. Beatrice and Benedick have both played a role so long that their associates have come to expect it of them: the whole joke of Don Pedro’s plot depends on the assumption that the two are virtually irreconcilable to each other. Yet they fall for the deceit that is practised upon them: each believes the other to be in love with them, and decides to respond in accordance with that. Each of them adopts the role and the appropriate language of a lover, just as Claudio adopts an appropriate language and behaviour for his betrothal to Hero, for his demonstration of outraged honour, for his repentance, and finally for his marriage. Both of them exist, in the world of the play, not as doers but as talkers. Each of them is living in a world created by the momentum of their own language and wit, expressive of the masks they have chosen for themselves. As soon as they speak, they dominate the company: both of them seize and keep the conversational initiative, manipulating their interlocutors until they ask for mercy: ‘I will hold friends with you Lady’ (I.1.84); it is only after Benedick goes in I.1. that Claudio can really break the matter of his marriage with Don Pedro with a seriousness signalled by the shift to blank verse. But at times the mask, behind which they seem so secure, so dominant, betrays them into a raw world where they are no longer in control: Beatrice’s wit flows freely until it is suddenly stopped by the quietly serious question she had not expected and has to answer: ‘Will you have me, Lady?’ (II.1.301). This is the first occasion in the play where she is almost at a loss: she almost apologises for her customary public face and the language that goes with it – ‘all mirth and no matter’ – and she rapidly, and not without some embarrassment, extricates herself from a situation she no longer fully controls. Similarly, Benedick’s playing of the passionate lover trying to convince his mistress (IV.1) of his devotion may be genuine enough; the fact is that in requesting any task to be set him to prove his love he is playing the copy-book romantic lover, familiar from centuries of fiction. But he isn’t expecting to be set such a difficult task – ‘Kill Claudio’. His reaction, like Beatrice’s, is to retreat: ‘Ha, not for the wide world’. And after that moment the advantage is Beatrice’s. In these two figures Shakespeare has given us something far more subtle than merely true love finding its mate: they underline more than anyone else in the play the power of language to alter reality, and the issues of conscious or unconscious deceit. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in the body of the play those who are masters of a language of extraordinary wit and polish – language that seems to guarantee rationality and good judgement – get things almost completely wrong. The resolution of the play comes via the agency of the people whose discourse is an assault on language, who are dismissed – by Leonato – as ‘tedious’ when they should be patiently listened to. But, as Borachio says ‘what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light’ (V.1.221-222). And even more disturbing, that resolution comes by mere accident: by the chance overhearing of a conversation.