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Symbols in Much Ado About Nothing

In Shakespeare’s plays, eyes are often a symbol of awareness, insight, or perception. Eyes function similarly in Much Ado About Nothing, symbolizing more specifically the tendency of characters to act not on their own actual experiences but because of rumor, false perceptions, or hearsay. Clothing continues the motif of rumors and falsehoods since changes in appearance often symbolize deception. Clothing also operates on another level along with the symbol of beards: both are used to indicate to the audience a significant change in a character’s nature or values.

Symbols Examples in Much Ado About Nothing:

Act II - Scene I

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"he that hath no(30) 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...."   (Act II - Scene I)

Beatrice separates men into two categories: bearded men, who would refuse to put up with her, and beardless men, who are “boyish” and would not be able to handle her. Shakespeare thus uses beards as a symbol of masculinity. Beards (or a lack thereof) are used to characterize the men in the play as either gentle and vulnerable, or rugged and “manly.” Consider too, that Beatrice’s dislike of beards also symbolizes her resistance to men in general at this point in the play.

"I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster; but I'll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me he shall never make me such a fool...."   (Act II - Scene III)

Oysters are thought to be aphrodisiacs and are thus often used as a symbol for attraction and love. When Benedick says that he “will not be sworn but love may transform [him] to an oyster,” he means that true love may eventually affect him in the way that it does Claudio. However, Benedick stresses that until he has found a true love who possesses all of the qualities that he desires, he will not be made a fool by romance.

"Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is, how giddily he turns about all the hot bloods(120)..."   (Act III - Scene III)

Borachio comments that clothing has the capacity to conceal one’s true identity, and thus, clothing symbolizes disguise and deceit. When Borachio reflects on “how giddily [fashion] turns about” he talks about the capriciousness of fashion; people discard of clothing not when it is worn out, but when it is no longer fashionable. Since Borachio has just confessed to his part in Don John’s plot, clothing here becomes a symbol of the fleeting and fickle nature of love. Characters fall in and out of love as quickly as they change their appearances.

"Lord Lackbeard..."   (Act V - Scene I)

Benedick refers to Claudio as “Lord Lackbeard” to insult his lack of a beard and suggesting that Claudio is youthful and “unmanly.” Note too, that Shakespeare here associates beards with combat, further emphasizing the beard as a symbol for masculinity since during Shakespeare’s time women could not fight in battle.

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