“Much Ado about Nothing” is not about nothing despite it’s somewhat suggestive title. The play is in fact a compilation of deceit, portraying the complications of love, and deception on behalf of love, all of which entails the characters to become very much entangled in a web of facades and false talk. Shakespeare also fills his play with complex metaphors, many involving the taming of wild animals, which does dramatize the play somewhat (largely representing the manic love shared between his frantic characters and their inter-twinned love lives).
In Shakespeare’s time “nothing” was generally pronounced as “noting,” therefore making the title of the play… “Much Ado about Noting.” Unsurprisingly as a result, Shakespeare abuses this homonym at every opportunity. “Nothing” could mean “nothing;” “nothing” could denote “noting” or listening in/eavesdropping. “Nothing” was also a colloquial term for part of a woman, which was “nothing” compared to what a man had. So, the play orbits around instances of deception and eavesdropping coupled with complicated metaphors for sexual politics (and less complicated ones for sexual relations) between men and women, as was much common at the time.
The basic action of the play is hiding (deception – hiding who you really are) and overhearing. The problem that this may present to a modern audience is that very few would hold knowledge of Shakespearian time and the pronunciation and dual meanings of certain words. The possible dual meaning in the title would certainly not be grasped by a large percentage of a modern audience, especially without at least some prior knowledge of the play.
In the opening Act Shakespeare introduces the characters to the audience, the four main characters in particular. Claudio falls in love with Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick vow never to marry, a statement that neither of them were intending to break, or so it would appear. One thing that is very prevalent after examining the play in depth is that appearances can be very deceiving.
The play itself takes place in Messina, Italy. Don Pedro, the prince, and son of Leonato, has just returned from battle along with Claudio and Benedick.
Once in Messina, Claudio confides in Don Pedro and tells him that he loves Hero, Leonato (the governor)’s only child. As a thank you to Claudio for his courage and assistance in battle Don Pedro tries to make Hero fall for Claudio and the two young lovers become betrothed. In this same scene Benedick reacquaints himself with Beatrice, an old flame, with whom he engages in a relentless battle of wit with, neither wishing to portray any sign of weakness to the other and both completely against the ideas of marriage and true love… on face value anyway.
The masked ball in Act II underscores the deception theme; it is the first key scene of deception in the play, when Don Pedro pretends to be Claudio at the masked ball. This is easily done and the idea of deception could not be any more prevalent (people in masks pretending to be something else and then pretending whilst being something else to be someone else!) The trick goes wrong because he is overheard explaining his plan, but his motives are misunderstood. The listener gets an understanding that he wants Hero for himself.
When Claudio finds out that someone else is in love with Hero he is distraught. This is easily put fixed after Benedick clarifies to Don Pedro why Claudio is unwell. When Claudio enters the scene and is told by Don Pedro that he has got things wide of the mark, his mood is transformed immediately from sadness to joy. It later becomes clear that no lesson is learnt from this, as a similar deception is tried later in the play, when Claudio is fooled into believing Hero has relations with someone else…
…In fact the key focal point of deception is established with the false allegation brought against Hero.
Beatrice called Claudio, “as civil as an orange” and “jealous” which is overemphasis upon male honor and female virginity which is highly appropriate in such a patriarchal society which encourages illusion and deception.
“Give not this rotten orange to your friend”
Claudio responds, this metaphor of his basically means that Beatrice is being exceedingly hypocritical, she has a nice, attractive, appealing facade, nonetheless she is decayed and morally corrupt within. Once again a very strong theme of deception, fake outer layer conceals a bad interior.
The real Second main deception occurs in the gulling scene (Act two scene one) when Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio and Hero plan to have Beatrice and Benedick overhear conversations one about the other, in a twisted attempted to get the pair to settle their differences and re-unite..The characters an enthused to carry out this act as they want the pair to get along and stop their silly feuding, Claudio gathers people to support his plan to reunite Beatrice and Benedick, partially using their hatred for each other, by talking about false ideals in their presence that one loves the other, when in fact this is totally untrue at the time.
Hero and Ursula talk noisily with each other in the garden, making themselves easily audible,
“But are you sure
That Benedick loves Beatrice so entirely?” — Ursula
“So says the prince and my new-trothed lord.” — Hero
Saying how Benedick is in love for Beatrice, in the knowledge that Beatrice is in fact eavesdropping on the exchange is a clear ploy to lure Beatrice into hearing what the pair are talking about. They also say how Benedick has been told to keep his emotions to himself and never tell Beatrice for it would make everything awkward and he is also ashamed that she will reject him forthwith,
“But I persuaded them, if they loved Benedick,
To wish him wrestle with affection,
And never to let Beatrice know of it.” — Hero
In the same way, Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio arrange the same entrapment for Benedick who, at the time, conceals himself in a hedge while he becomes ever more entertained and fanciful about the lies the three men tell about Beatrice being madly in love with him.
This is possibly the most key scene in the play. If this trap was not laid for the two characters to later fall for each other, then possibly the play would make no sense and have no firm founding. This plan would have some resonance with a modern audience as I am sure many of them would have tried to set up friends with other people before, deceptive lies that bond people together are all too common.
Whilst these events unfold another key part in the play is being schemed by the most evil character. Don John and his fellow deviants by the names of Conrad and Borachio, conspire to have Claudio and Don Pedro see what they believe is Borachio and Hero, having intimate relations together, when it is actually Margaret disguised as Hero. This act of deception is, believed by Don John, to be a plan to get Claudio to ditch Hero and for Hero to go to him as he is still much in love with her.
Upon witnessing, what they believe to be Hero cheating on Claudio, Claudio and Don Pedro swear to make a total fool out of Hero at the wedding. Yet again this is more deception as they plan to act like everything is normal until Hero gets to the point of vows. This would resound very solidly with modern audiences. I believe they would be able to competently understand the situation; however, whether they would restrain themselves in such the same manner is somewhat debatable.
Dogberry and his watchmen overhear the Borachio talk about the plot after it has happened. The villains are arrested, but Leonato is too busy with wedding preparations to hear the constables’ report.
When the wedding day finally comes Claudio rejects Hero on the ground of the previous deception by Don John. He believes she is a cuckhold and has been “sleeping around” so to put it.
((This was already known to be likely to happen by the audience as they have the advantage of being able to see all the play as it unfolds)).
He goes on to call her a “a common stale.” The situation is all too traumatic Hero faints and Claudio, Don John and Don Pedro leave in anger (although secretly Don John believes his plan has worked and he will have hero). To avoid conflict and more stress Leonato, Hero, Benedick, Beatrice and the Friar agree to pretend that Hero is dead, which is a plan by the Friar, because he believes that the truth will come out if Claudio thinks that Hero is dead.
If the slander can be overturned, she can re-emerge and may choose to marry Claudio. If not, she can be hurried away, concealed, never to return! Claudio basically condemns Hero for the supposed act of love she engaged in the night prior to the wedding. He denounces her for the way he thinks “outward graces” as chaste as Diana (which is actually very ironically true as she is totally innocent, her appearance is in fact not deceiving as she has done nothing wrong at all and is in fact caught up in a mean plot against her) and her unruly blood or corrupt heart, are totally different, which again is ironic as it is an illusion because there is nothing wrong with her heart or blood as she has not done anything that of which Claudio believes she has.
This is the last key bit of deception in the play and is very amusing for the audience (also somewhat frustrating) and sad at the same time. They realized Hero is not dead and that she has not done anything wrong, but the characters do not. This is an interesting situation as the crowd would know something that the characters, are currently, totally unaware of (of course not if they have read their scripts properly).
Thanks to Dogberry the plot to slander Hero is revealed to all, as they tell how it was not hero up on the balcony that night, but Margret. In his humiliation, Claudio agrees to marry whomever Leonato desires… he falters in his humiliation and simply asks, “Which is the lady I must seize upon?” he is ready and willing to commit the rest of his life to one of a group of unknowns (V.iv.53). His willingness stems not only from his guilt about slandering an innocent woman but also from the fact that he may care more about rising in Leonato’s favor than in marrying for love as he has done his family wrong, and dishonored them. Leonato tells Claudio he has a niece who bears a resemblance to Hero. Claudio agrees to the marriage, and is delighted when it is Hero who emerges. Beatrice and Benedick also agree to marry, and only the prince is left without a wife.
The constant play of deception raises the issue of the subjectivity of perception and makes drama itself a key theme with plays developing within the play itself. The audience can gain from this that’s the actors are playing characters who are actually also playing other parts within the play. Although the theme of deception is constant throughout the play and it all ends happily, it is clear from the play that it can often end in destructiveness as with Hero, she nearly lost Claudio due to it. From the play itself perhaps the question could be asked that what is actually real. As everyone is deceiving each other throughout there appears to be no firm grounding on which to base this answer, however, it would appropriately appear to be love, even though indeed love begins in illusion.
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