Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 557-620).
Act 1, Scene 1
This play is determined to make light of everything, as we can see from the outset. The male characters are just returning home from some nondescript war, only to find they must fight new battles in the cause of love. Even before Benedick catches sight of Beatrice, she is already mocking his valor in front of anyone who will listen: “But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing” (44-45). As Leonato says, “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (61-64). Beatrice tries to paint him as an object of ridicule: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick, nobody marks you” (116-17). And Benedick, in turn, claims that Beatrice is the only woman in the world who is not in love with him.
Benedick himself is aware that he is of two minds concerning women—something he reveals when Claudio asks him for advice about Hero. He can offer “simple true judgment,” or play the tyrant to all womankind. Of course, Benedick’s simple judgment turns out to be tyrannical enough—he is absurdly perfectionist about them. To both Claudio and Don Pedro, Benedick explains that he simply will not enter the fray when it comes to love, neither trusting nor mistrusting women but simply refusing to have any serious dealings with them. Don Pedro is not impressed with this line of reasoning, and insists that he will one day see Benedick “look pale with love” (247). I think Don Pedro shares Shakespeare’s sense of love’s power as something that simply cannot be denied except at great cost. What we will see in this play is the light-hearted side of the truth Shakespeare states darkly in Sonnet 129: “none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”
Don Pedro agrees to help the naïve, inexperienced Claudio by wooing Hero in his name. We need not make too much of this, except perhaps to say that Claudio really hasn’t fought his own battle here, which may in part account for the ease with which Don John’s villainy will fool him in the next act: he really doesn’t know Hero in the deepest sense, but is in love with a romantic ideal.
Act 1, Scene 2
Leonato’s brother Antonio seems to have heard a garbled account from Borachio of the conversation between Claudio and Don Pedro; he tells Leonato that the Prince himself means to woo Hero rather than that the Prince is going to do Claudio’s wooing for him.
Act 1, Scene 3
Don John is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, and is an unhappy, superfluous man in the felicitous social order of Messina. He had lately been in rebellion against his brother, who promptly forgave him. But Don John needs enemies. He really has nothing much to do except to make trouble for everyone else. He seems to be constitutionally depressed, and paradoxically revels in his own unhappiness: “There is no measure in the occasion that breeds, therefore the sadness is without limit” (3-4). Now here’s a man whose grief has no trace of what T. S. Eliot would call an “objective correlative.” His political grievance is that his brother has all the power, but that hardly seems to be a sufficient reason for Don John’s non-Messina state of mind. Revealingly, his watchword is “seek not to alter me” (37), and nobody with that attitude could fare well in a comedy. So when Borachio enters with the alleged news that “the Prince should woo Hero for himself, and having obtain’d her, give her to Count Claudio” (61-64), Don John immediately sees potential for mischief; he feels that the young man has been given honors lately far beyond his desserts. Jealousy is the law of Don John’s being, apparently.
Act 2, Scene 1
Beatrice offers Leonato a comically exclusive explanation of why she still has no husband: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him…” (36-39). This is all very logical, but Beatrice is playing the goddess Diana in her lighthearted way—following this advice would rule out any man whatsoever.
Well, Beatrice and Benedick have been publicly raking each other over the coals for some time, but it is a one-on-one meeting that really begins to change things between them. As Oscar Wilde would say, give someone a mask and you will get the truth. That is just what happens when Benedick, in disguise, dares to ask Beatrice what she thinks of him, and he hears “Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders” (137-38). As we soon see, this comment strikes home with Benedick. he exclaims, “But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me!” (203-04) and is still worked up about it when he converses with Don Pedro afterwards around lines 239-61. Beatrice, he insists, gives him no peace of mind.
Around line 164, Don John sets his plot in motion, telling Claudio that the Prince is wooing Hero himself. Claudio believes this lie without hesitation, being able to marshal only the truism, “Friendship is constant in all other things / Save in the office and affairs of love” (175-76). With this sentence, he dismisses Hero. Soon, however, at least this misunderstanding is cleared up by Don Pedro himself, who is able to report that he has won Hero for Claudio.
After asking Beatrice if she will marry him and finding her pleasantly unwilling, Don Pedro declares to Leonato that they really ought to bring the interests and Benedick together—he enlists Hero in deceiving Beatrice, while he and his friends will take care of deceiving Benedick. And it’s clear that Don Pedro thinks this would be quite an accomplishment: “If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods” (384-86). So there are good plots and bad plots in this comic play—deception is a good thing if it helps bring two lovers together.
Act 2, Scene 2
Meanwhile, Borachio and Don John are at work effecting their wicked designs. This plot turns upon mistaken identity: while Don Pedro and Claudio are induced to look on, Borachio will dally with the maid Margaret, calling her Hero while she calls him by his own name. (As the editors point out, there seems to be a slip at line 44; it makes no sense that Margaret would call Borachio Claudio.)
Act 2, Scene 3
Benedick sums up his perfectionist attitude with the declaration, “till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace” (28-30). In Benedick’s presence, Balthazar sings a song aimed foremost at ladies: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever,” etc. This song may be a clue to what really underlies Beatrice and Benedick’s hesitation. But it’s also interesting in its urging to turn passionate lamentation into cheerful nonsense: “be you blithe and bonny, / Converting all your sounds of woe / Into hey nonny nonny” (67-69). Now that would be true liberation, we might suppose—but of course a comedy of manners with a strong love-plot can’t grant the main characters such freedom from the imperative of erotic attraction. Well, Don Pedro and Claudio and Leonato play their parts to perfection, giving out that Claudio had told him Beatrice was enamored of Benedick. Don Pedro even throws in the barb that Benedick ought to realize he is unworthy of so fine a woman. Benedick is profoundly impressed by all of this: “They say the lady is fair; ‘tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous; ‘tis so, I cannot reprove it” (230-32). And at long last he gives in to the dictates of society: “the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married” (242-44). As so often, people only desire what they know others find worthy of desire.
Act 3, Scene 1
Beatrice is similarly impressed with the report that Benedick is in love with her, and casts away her hesitations so enthusiastically as to make it seem she was never serious about them: “Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much? / Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!” (108-09) She is more open to the experience of love than we (or she, perhaps) had thought.
Act 3, Scene 2
Don John is up to his devious tricks again, this time proclaiming to Claudio in supposed confidence that Hero is not what the young man thinks she is: “the lady is disloyal” (104). And Claudio, naïve as he is, believes the older man, though with potentially graver consequences than Benedick’s crediting of Don Pedro because of his white beard. Claudio will humiliate Hero in public, right at the moment when they are to be married, if he finds that she is disloyal. This is unattractively ostentatious, to say the least.
Act 3, Scene 3
Constable Dogberry enters the play here with Verges, both uttering one confused line after another, as when Dogberry says to the first watchman, “To be a well-favor’d man is the gift of fortune, but to read and write comes by nature” (14-16). Dogberry is a malapropist who prides himself on being a man of means and an upholder of authority: “you are to bid any man stand, in the Prince’s name” (25-26). And he is a constable, after all, so he bears responsibility for a part of the realm’s safety. He has trouble making himself understood, yet thanks to his two vigilant watchmen, he helps to expose Borachio and Don John’s plot against Hero. One thing that marks the Constable’s character is charity: as he says, “I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man who hath any honesty in him” (63-64).
Act 3, Scene 4
Beatrice and Margaret exchange pleasantries as they wait the arrival of Hero’s wedding to Claudio. Margaret notes the change in both Beatrice and Benedick.
Act 3, Scene 5
Dogberry and his companion acquaint Leonato with the arrest of Borachio and Conrad. But they are so prolix that Leonato becomes impatient to be off to the wedding, and misses his chance to learn about the details of the plot against Hero.
Act 4, Scene 1
Claudio behaves cruelly towards Leonato and Hero, shaming her in front of the entire wedding party: he says that Hero is “but the sign and semblance of her honor” (32). At this point, he seems incapable of telling the difference between a flesh and blood human being and an abstract category. Of course, Don Pedro is also thoroughly taken in and believes he is an eyewitness to Hero’s shameful conduct. Leonato is so distraught that he is almost ready to strangle his own daughter, and talks of suicide. But Beatrice, Benedick, and Friar Francis know better. Benedick says outright that the villain must be Don John, while Francis cooks up a scheme whereby Hero will disappear and everyone will be told that she has died. The extreme suppositions, the rashness, of Claudio and his supporters must be cured with a show of extremity of another sort. As Francis says, this plan will instill remorse in those who have been so quick to condemn Hero.
Beatrice and Benedick at last confront each other face to face, and declare their love. It takes a bit of talking to get there, and Beatrice demands that Benedick “Kill Claudio” (289) to prove his loyalty to her. At first he refuses—the male social bonds are very strong in this play, as we can see from the ease with which the men band together and take one another’s word for holy writ—but gives in without much prodding: “Enough, I am engag’d, I will challenge him” (331-32).
Act 4, Scene 2
Dogberry is astonished when he hears the details of what Borachio and Conrade have done in the service of Don John, and is determined to make it known. Don John himself has departed the scene. But above all, Dogberry is upset that Conrade has called him an ass; this insult jars with his own rather high estimation of himself: “I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to, and a rich fellow enough. . .” (80-84).
Act 5, Scene 1
Leonato and Antonio at first make a show of dealing with the wrong done to Hero by violence, but even before Dogberry exposes Don John’s plot at the end of the scene, they have set forth a very different solution: Leonato pronounces, “My brother hath a daughter, / Almost the copy of my child that’s dead, / And she alone is heir to both of us. / Give her the right you should have giv’n her cousin, / And so dies my revenge” (288-92).
Act 5, Scene 2
Now comes a comic scene in which Benedick first talks to Margaret and is forced to confess that he “was not born under a rhyming planet” and that he “cannot woo in festival terms” (40-41). In truth, neither he nor Beatrice is capable of conforming to stereotypical love language or conduct. Once they realize they are in love, they are free to return to their battle of wits, though in a more affectionate manner. As Benedick says, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” (72).
Act 5, Scene 3
Claudio must show remorse for the supposed death of hero, and to facilitate this Leonato has arranged a nighttime ceremony. Claudio reads from the scroll the epitaph lines, “Done to death by slanderous tongues / Was the Hero that here lies” (2-3).
Act 5, Scene 4
And one more thing he must do: marry a woman he supposes to be the daughter of Leonato’s brother Antonio. This promised, Hero is free to unmask herself. Leonato explains, “She died, my lord, but while her slander lived” (66). Beatrice and Benedick discover that they have been duped into declaring their love, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. They are able to go forwards with their marriage with their usual sarcastic flourish. Benedick claims to take pity on Beatrice, and for her part, she says she will marry him “to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption” (95-96).
Benedick now insists he cares nothing “for a satire or an epigram” (102). He is determined to be married, and now will hear nothing against the institution. His conclusion? Simply that “man is a giddy thing” (108). He even recommends marriage as medicine for Don Pedro, who seems to be the only sad person present. Finally, we hear that Don John has been captured, but Benedick says thought about him can wait until tomorrow.
What is the “nothing” about which there is so much ado? Well, I suppose it’s female chastity and male honor. Not that Shakespeare really would have wanted to tear these concepts down altogether—he has good things to say about them elsewhere. But one can lean on them too heavily—and it’s always dangerous to “lean on” notions so liable to be misunderstood as hollow shells lacking substance, as a cover for narrow-mindedness, inexperience, and insecurity.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake