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The theme of deceit is apparent throughout the whole play and it helps to propel the plot forward.
At the start of the play we are introduced to the idea that there is a gap between illusion and reality when Claudio is described as having “the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.” Despite being youthful, he is deceptively strong.
Furthermore, “Lady Disdain” is presented to the audience as a contented maid, cynical about love “I would rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loved me.” And Benedick is presented as a man who values his freedom and independence and proclaims that he would never succumb to marriage, he claims if he does his friends are free to “pluck off the bull’s horns and plant them in my forehead.” Both of these claims are false, as ironically, the two marry at the end of the play.
The feuding pair, Beatrice and Benedick form a platform for the theme of deception as beneath the antagonism and mockery lies deep rooted emotions for each other. Their hatred is simply and illusion as a “false face” is presented to the world. Later in the play their love blossoms and Benedick’s views are ironically transformed “get thee a wife”
Deception is further highlighted where Don Pedro offers to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf. “I will assume thy part in some disguise.” Don Pedro’s dominance leaves the reticent Claudio no choice but to accept his offer and under a “mask” he woos the unsuspecting Hero. Deception is used here to form relationships.
Masks are used to confuse illusion and reality in the ball Beatrice speaks openly about her thoughts on Benedick “why he is the prince’s jester” It is debatable whether Beatrice knows that Benedick is the stranger behind the mask but if she does happen to know this then she is deceiving him to make a fool out of him.
In a lighter manner, Benedick and Beatrice are deceived into love by their matchmaking friends. In frivolous Messina the joy of courtship and matchmaking helps to highlight the trivial society in which they exist. Through eavesdropping they listen to false claims about love. Claudio claims that Beatrice is sick in love with Signor Benedick and “baits the fish” as they reel him in with intrigue and swelling pride. Similarly, Beatrice’s friends hope that “her ear lose nothing of the sweet bait we lay for it…” and both characters are tricked into love as their friends orchestrate a cunning plan.
The most prevalent form of deception is used when the malevolent Don John uses deception to break the fragile relationship between Claudio and Hero at the climatic point of the play. He uses the male fear of cuckoldry to forge and administer his plan. Through claiming, ”the lady is disloyal” he deceives his brother and encourages Claudio to believe the innocent Hero is “soiled” deceit is used here to slander an innocent maid.
Rather that fall foul to the shame of infidelity, Claudio publically shames Hero and refuses her on the basis that she is a “rotten orange” again suggesting that outer appearances can be deceptive and she is rotten at the core. This sparks a catalyst for further deceit where Hero “fakes” her death.
False friendships between Claudio and Benedick are exposed “I must discontinue your company.” and the calm, tolerant Leonato is unveiled to reveal a more aggressive and violent character who fears dishonour and public shame. “hence…let her die!” he would rather his daughter die than face the public humiliation.
The tangled web of deceit continues where Leonato insists that Claudio marry his niece who is infact the “re-born” and cleansed “Hero” of the story. Claudio is deceived into thinking that his bride is dead. His willingness to accept the unknown, “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” shows that marriage for social grace is more important than love but also shows his commitment to show remorse.
Finally, the very language of Much Ado about Nothing helps to illuminate the key theme of deception as the pomp of the aristocracy and the use of elaborate language encourages the audience to assume a moral and ordered society; yet lurking beneath this lies sinister and deceitful behaviour often born out of jealousy and desire.