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‘Much Ado About Nothing’, written in 1598 and set in Messina (Sicily) is one of Shakespeare’s comedies which addresses some very serious social and cultural issues inherent in Renaissance (Elizabethan) society. The play focuses on the relationships and attitudes to marriage of two couples; the mature Beatrice and Benedick and the much younger Hero and Claudio.
The couples are of noble rank. Benedick and Claudio are brother officers and noblemen, Lords of Padua and Florence respectively. Benedick is a mature and experienced man in his thirties whilst Claudio is barely out of his teenage years. Hero is the young and innocent daughter of Leonato the Governor of Messina, in whose villa the play is set, whilst Beatrice, his ward and niece is much older. Both couples are in search of love, for Hero and Claudio Shakespeare makes this very explicit whilst that of Beatrice and Benedick is rather more implicit.
Firstly, the relationship between Claudio and Hero, both young, naï¿½ve and impressionable individuals. Claudio is so infatuated with Hero at first sight that he immediately falls in love and wants to marry her. However he is shy and unsure of his own desires, he constantly seeks praise and reassurance from others and trusts Don Pedro to act as a kind of ‘go between’ to help him secure Hero’s love. Hero a beautiful and demure young heroine is portrayed as a faithful and dutiful daughter obedient to her father’s wishes and lacking in independence; indeed she is on the receiving end of Claudio’s romantic speeches during Act 1 and says absolutely nothing in return. Claudio speaks convincingly of his love in verse.
Their attitudes to marriage are somewhat different. For Claudio marriage is a financial matter as wealthy young women came with substantial dowries thus enabling a gentleman to provide a suitable lifestyle for his future family. A man was required to marry a woman of equal social standing. As Hero was the only child of Leonato, Claudio was also desirous of an additional sum by way of an added inheritance. Hero like most young noblewomen at that time was eager to please and simply wanted to secure a husband of equal or better social standing than themselves. Claudio being a Lord of Florence fitted the bill perfectly, being handsome and dashing was just a bonus. A woman’s job was primarily to run the household and produce male heirs to inherit their husband’s title and fortune.
As a conventional and dutiful daughter she was prepared to accept her father’s choice of partner. Here Shakespeare is alluding to the stereotypical young noble woman of the time when arranged marriages were accepted as the norm in upper class society. This scenario would appeal to contemporary audiences composed largely of working people who had paid a small sum to be entertained each afternoon. They would have enjoyed watching such upper class antics as a kind of the ‘escapism’ from their rather dull and dreary lives. Indeed traditional love stories such as this had proved popular with audiences before in plays such as Romeo and Juliet. A modern audience maybe frustrated by Hero’s actions because today the sanctity of marriage is not as well respected and most people embrace the notion of sexual equality.
Despite their apparent naivety, both Hero and Claudio have more complex sides to their characters which are reflected in their actions during the play. Claudio shows extreme jealousy when informed of Hero’s treachary in Act four. He is vengeful, jealous and impetuous as he immediately rejects Hero, refusing to marry her without even discussing the matter and calling her a “rotten orange”. Hero does nothing to defend herself when accused of this infidelity and accepts the scorn of others including her own father Leonato who rejects her immediately without question. Such actions illustrate the ‘double standard’ regarding sexual relationships that existed in Renaissance times. Women were expected to maintain their purity and enter marriage as virgins, not to be so was regarded as a cardinal sin and would bring utter disgrace not only to herself but to her entire family who ran the risk of being permanently outcast from upper class society.
This illustrates how vulnerable women in Renaissance times were to accusations of bad treatment. Claudio had to shun Hero in order to maintain his honour as an officer and a gentleman, being engaged to a ‘loose woman’ would bring nothing but shame. Confidence is shown in Act four when Claudio willingly agrees to participate in a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. However later in the play he is remorceful as he agrees without question to marry Leonatos niece. Depite her innocence and vulnerability Hero is sexually aware as she plots with Ursula to convince Beatrice that Benedick loves her. Nevertheless Hero often responds to a situations initiated by others; when she agrees with the Friars plan to win back Claudio and pretends to die, the deceitful nature of her character is revealed.
Whilst Hero and Claudio represent the Elizabethan norm in marriage, the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is more profound and less conventional for the time. At the start they play down and are cynical about the subject of love and marriage. Both characters are talkative, outspoken and full of wit; they hide their feelings for one another by engaging in a “merry war” (1. i. 56 ) of verbal sparring. This is illustrated in the first scene when Benedick says of Beatrice:
Benedick: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
Beatrice: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
Benedick : I would my horse have the speed of your tongue, …… (1. i. 128-130)
Benedick a mature and worldly wise character cannot make up his mind about marriage and privately believes he is unsuitable. His words are whilst witty are often shallow and destructive illustrated in the final line of the quote above Beatrice on the other hand a very clever, independent, strong and feisty female who is suspicious of men, scorns the institution of marriage, rejects men and rebels against the unequal status of women. In Act 4 she says “O that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! … I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I die a woman with grieving”(1V. i. 321-31)
She defends at all costs her spinsterhood, being jealous of Hero she is afraid of becoming an ‘old maid’ and remaining the dependent niece of Leonato. Beatrice is clearly unhappy with her current status in society. Whilst a modern emancipated audience would easily be able to identify with Beatrice’s complaints, a Shakespearean one would find her character both fascinating and outrageous. Nevertheless this controversial story line would add spice to the play and foster discussion and audience participation, thus making it an enjoyable and entertaining experience.
In vowing never to marry, Benedick sets himself up for a fall, openly he is full of bravado for example when he opens up to Don Pedro; he constantly performs to the audience and other characters, by exaggerating everything. In Act 2 Scene he begs Don Pedro to send him away when Beatrice enters “Will your grace command me any service to the world’s end ? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes…. I will fetch a toothpicker now from the furthest inch of Asia; bring you the length of Prester John’s foot; fetch you a hair off the Great Cham’s beard; ….. rather than hold three words conference with this harpy”. ( 11. i. 246-254)
When he hears that Beatrice is in love with him he promises to love her better, however he hides his deeper emotions until the latter stages of the play when he falls victim to a deception. He is totally unaware of the plot by Claudio and Don Pedro to bring Beatrice and himself together and believes every word he overhears in the garden during the second act. Similarly Beatrice is also unaware of Hero and Ursula’s deception indicating the couples’ general gullibility. Like Claudio Benedick has a deeper side to his character such as when he agrees to Beatrice’s request to kill Claudio after he jilted Hero.
As far as language is concerned Shakespeare uses both verse and prose. He uses verse to characterise Claudio and Hero and express deep emotion to make it sound convincing, a regular and rhythmic pattern is used. This is illustrated in the last scene when Claudio finally marries Hero:
Claudio: Give me your hand before this holy friar.
I am your husband if you like of me.
Hero : And when I Liv’d , I was you other wife;
And when you lov’d , you were my other husband. ( V, iv, 58-61)
Prose is chosen to represent the more serious interaction between Beatrice and Benedick. It is also more accessible to a largely uneducated audience who might have difficulty understanding the more complicated verse. Shakespeare also uses language to differentiate between the social classes. Noble well to do characters speak in flamboyant fancy language indicative of their importance and education whilst ‘common’ barely educated characters such as Dogberry and Borachio speak in plane and simple and often inaccurate terms. For example Dogberry often gets his words completely wrong and makes ridiculous mistakes. In Act 3 Scene 3 he says “Why, then, depart in peace, and let the child wake her with crying; for ewe that will not hear her lamb when it baes will never answer a calf when he bleats”. (3.3.74 – 76).
In conclusion the play illustrates a kind or irony. The young passionate relationship between Hero and Claudio based on shallow first appearances deepens. As Claudio matures he begins to appreciate Hero as a real person when he realises her innocence and finally marries her. Beatrice and Benedick’s innate love is cemented, when in the final scene, they begin to realise the game they have been playing and see each other for who they really are. Benedick finally silences Beatrice with a kiss, and thus like all Shakespeare’s comedies the play ends in marriage between the two couples, allowing his audience to return home satisfied and in good spirit.
1. Much Ado About Nothing – William Shakespeare – Arden (2001)
2. Much Ado About Nothing – Film starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh.
3. Much Ado About Nothing – York Notes (1980)
4. Much Ado About Nothing – Spark Notes
5. Internet www.gcseguide.co.uk