Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare

Synopsis and Commentary 1

Parents and Children; Social Expectation

In all his comedies Shakespeare explored the relationship between parents and children, linking it with broader questions of the dynamic between old and new generations. In Much Ado About Nothing, he expressed this through the contribution made by parents in the marriages of their children. Leonato is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. Although Beatrice's parents do not appear in the play, she makes one reference to her mother:

"the other [Benedick] too like my lady's eldest son, evermore tattling." (2.1.8-9)

Here Shakespeare gives us a glimpse of the family circle that he has chosen to exclude from the play. Beatrice is free from parental supervision. Shakespeare makes her independent in this way in order to draw a contrast between her and her cousin Hero, who is subject to her father Leonato. The two girls are at marriageable age, and Hero's family circle is on the look-out for a suitable husband for her. Beatrice, on the other hand, must take care of herself. In Act 2 Scene 1 Beatrice describes the perfect husband, suggesting as she does so that such a man is unattainable:

"He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him." (1.2.31-34)

Amused and, we suspect, somewhat exhausted by Beatrice's wit, Antonio (Hero's uncle) turns to his niece, saying,

"I trust you will be ruled by your father."

Beatrice picks up on this expression of patriarchal dominance and makes a joke out of it:

"Yes, faith; it is my cousin's duty to make curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please you'. But for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say, 'Father, as it please me'". (1.2.46- 49)

Underneath Beatrice's humour is a seam of truth: it is Hero's duty to obey her father. Beatrice points out the gravity of this subjection in her next speech:

"Would it not grieve a woman to be over-mastered with a piece of valiant dust?
To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I'll none." (2.1.53-56)

Beatrice's independence allows her to resolve not to marry; Leonato's paternal authority and his conventional expectations of his daughter would make it impossible for Hero to do the same. However, Beatrice's freedom comes at a price. Later in Act 2 Scene 1 Beatrice admits to Don Pedro that in the past she and Benedick have had a relationship:

"Don Pedro: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signor Benedick.
Beatrice: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double
heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it." (2.1.255-58)

Beatrice was free to be involved with Benedick without being married to him, but this has caused her pain. Hero, on the other hand, barely speaks to Claudio before they are betrothed. This, however, does not spare her pain. Hero's engagement to Claudio is arranged by Leonato and Don Pedro. In the opening scene Leonato remarks that "Don Pedro hath bestowed much honour on a young Florentine called Claudio". Most productions have this line spoken in a slyly suggestive way, with Leonato looking at Hero, who blushes amid the nudges and giggles of Beatrice, Margaret and Ursula. At the end of 1.1 Claudio confesses his love for Hero to Don Pedro in what seems like standard courtly language. Benedick, who has been teasing Claudio about Hero, leaves, and the register immediately moves from prose into poetry. Claudio's first question is about Hero's inheritance; he asks, "Hath Leonato any son, my Lord?" (1.1.273)

Don Pedro understands Claudio's meaning at once and answers him in kind:

"No child but Hero; she's his only heir." (1.1.274)

The fact that Claudio has to ask about Hero's family shows us just how little he knows her. However, as the play goes on to demonstrate, he does not need to know more of her than that she is wealthy, pretty and a virgin. In this scene Don Pedro emphasises Hero's virtue and beauty: he calls her "worthy" twice and describes her twice as "fair Hero". Claudio echoes this, saying,

"But now I am returned and that war-thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars." (1.1.280- 84)

Claudio describes his love as a phase into which he can now enter fully; before this point he has been too busy with the war to think seriously of Hero as his wife. Don Pedro tells Claudio, "thou shalt have her": it was standard in Renaissance literature to describe a man as "having" a woman in the sense of winning her, and should not inflame any post- feminist sensibilities. However, Shakespeare was too skilful a playwright not to challenge the language of his day, and there is no doubt that the tone of this phrase is meant to make us distrust Don Pedro and Claudio. The Prince then proposes that he woo Hero on Claudio's behalf. The audience can only wonder why this should be necessary apart from as a plot contrivance; the answer is so that Shakespeare can expose Don Pedro as over- fond of meddling in other people's business and Claudio as easily persuadable. These are crucial elements in their characters that Shakespeare will explore fully over the course of the play.

In fact the wooing plan goes disastrously wrong, thanks to the intervention of the villain Don John. He persuades Claudio to think that "the Prince woos for himself" (2.1.159), and sends Claudio into a disappointed sulk. In his soliloquy Claudio makes the point that he neglected in the earlier scene when the plan was made:

"all hearts in love use their own tongues.
Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent..." (2.1.162- 64)

Claudio has not been betrayed by Don Pedro; as Benedick says a few lines later when he enters to find Claudio looking melancholy, "the Prince hath got your Hero" (2.1.176). The ambiguity of the line means that Claudio can reply, "I wish him joy of her", but the audience knows that Don John is not to be trusted (he said in 1.3.62-63 that "if I can cross him [Claudio] any way, I bless myself every way"). Claudio's false assumption that Don Pedro has betrayed him acts as a prelude to his later, more serious belief that Hero has been unfaithful, and reinforces our impression of Claudio as being vulnerable to persuasion. The engagement of Claudio and Hero takes place entirely independently of Leonato. In 1.2 Antonio tells Leonato that,

"The Prince and Count Claudio, walking in a thick-pleached alley in mine orchard, were thus much overheard by a man of mine: the Prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your daughter, and meant to acknowledge it this night in a dance; and if he found her accordant, he meant to take the present time by the top and instantly break with you of it." (1.2.7-14)

Leonato therefore operates under the false assumption that Don Pedro wants to marry Hero. At the beginning of 2.1 he says to Hero,

"Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer." (2.1.58- 60)

This is ironic: Leonato is telling Hero to act according to his instructions, but he does not know what the situation really is. He is powerful in the sense that he can instruct Hero and expect her to obey him, but powerless in the sense that the Prince and Claudio have actually arranged everything. Leonato's role as the organiser of his daughter's marriage has been usurped just as he has retired from the battle-field, only able to utter aphorisms about war while no longer being able to actually take part in the fighting (see 1.1.8-9). Shakespeare has set up a dynamic between old and young in which the younger generation rises to overtake the elder. This, as in King Lear and The Tempest, exists in Much Ado About Nothing in the form that the younger generation succeeds by its vitality alone. Claudio and the Prince are in the wrong: they should not have by-passed Leonato in their plans for Claudio and Hero. Their lack of wisdom or experience becomes more serious as the play goes on. Act 5 Scene 1 shows Don Pedro and Claudio using brute force alone to show their superiority over Leonato and Antonio, who they describe as "two old men without teeth" (114-115). They refuse to hear Leonato's accusation that they have wronged Hero and mock the two old men who in fact deserve their respect. Don Pedro is using his social superiority and greater strength to ridicule Leonato; suddenly social codes of politeness are breaking down as the characters' allegiances become very clear.

Claudio has inherited traditional expectations and images of women: the woman he choses as a wife must be a virgin before her wedding and faithful after it. Don John, motivated by hatred of Don Pedro and Claudio, intervenes to thwart Claudio's expectations. He and his hench-man Borachio plan that Borachio will seduce Margaret, Hero's "waiting gentlewoman", and call her Hero while they are having sex. Don John will bring Claudio and Don Pedro to see them, with the aim that the Prince and Claudio will mistake Margaret for Hero and so think that Hero has been unfaithful. Because of Claudio's susceptibility to such slanders, the plan works perfectly and Hero is unjustly disgraced. Claudio choses to expose her at her wedding in language which shows his anger not just at Hero's disloyalty, but also at the way in which she has shattered his expectations. He calls her a "rotten orange", an "approved wanton", a "pampered animal / That rage[s] in savage sensuality" and Don Pedro calls her a "contaminated stale" (4.1.30- 64). Claudio's first lengthy speech in this scene is underpinned by images of illusion and reality. Hero is "but the sign and semblance of her honour"; she blushes "like a maid"; in fact everything in her external appearance suggests purity and virtue:

"Oh, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid
By these exterior shows? But she is none;
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty." (4.1.31-40)

Claudio cannot see beyond what Hero seems to be to what she really is; the irony is that her appearance and her true character correlate exactly, and if Claudio had known her as a person and not just as an image then he would not have distrusted her. Worse still than Claudio's accusation of Hero is Leonato's compliance with it. Don Pedro, Claudio and Don John dominate the action until their exit at line 110, showing the tendency of the young people to take over even when they are in the wrong. After they have gone, however, Leonato moves into their role as the indignant accusers. He uses the same strong, cruel language as Claudio:

"Oh, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul tainted flesh!" (4.1.137-41)

Leonato has brought Hero up to be the model of a virtuous young girl; he too is having his image of her shattered, and this provokes such a strong feeling in him that he says he would rather she died than live in such shame. Social expectation has created a situation where men are judging a woman for not conforming to a stereotype that they have created. The irony here is that Hero does conform to this stereotype and that she has never questioned the way in which she has been expected to behave. Social stereotypes, Shakespeare points out, are the combined product of those who set them and those who fulfil them. In Act 4 Scene 1 he makes his characters act not according to who they really are but according to the roles they think they must play. This forces us to ask to what extent we are the roles we play.