Themes in Much Ado About Nothing
Perception vs Reality: One of the most important themes in Much Ado About Nothing is the theme of how perception relates to reality. Characters are constantly taking rumors and appearances at face value and basing important decisions on these appearances. Subsequently, this means that appearances govern the characters’ lives—specifically their love lives. Characters frequently meddle in other characters’ romantic affairs, using masquerades and disguises to do so. As such,courtship and warfare become synonymous when characters see courtship as an exciting “game” in which marriage is the endgame, that either offers satisfaction or inhibits freedom.
Themes Examples in Much Ado About Nothing:
Act I - Scene II
"but I will acquaint my daughter withal, that she may be the better prepared for an answer, if peradventure(20) this be true...." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
“Peradventure” is an archaic form of the word “perhaps,” meaning that Leonato is somewhat suspicious about the truth of the rumor he has just heard. However, Leonato asks Antonio to make sure that Hero is “prepared for an answer” since he wants to warn her of Claudio’s potential proposal. Shakespeare here introduces the theme of the performative nature of love. Hero is essentially being instructed on how to behave in this situation before it happens (like an actress.) At the same time, Claudio and Don Pedro are staging their own play of sorts to win Claudio Hero’s affection.
"the prince discovered to Claudio that he loved my niece your(10) daughter..." See in text (Act I - Scene II)
Antonio is relating information that he has heard through his “sharp” trusted servant, but Leonato is not entirely convinced of its veracity. Here, Shakespeare introduces the theme of perception, miscommunication, and misconception. Throughout the play, pay attention to the ways in which characters’ perceptions of reality are determined by misunderstandings, rumors, and deceit.
Act II - Scene I
"I will in the interim undertake one of Hercules' labours, which is, to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice(320) into a mountain of affection the one with the other. ..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Don Pedro says that although it will be difficult, he will attempt to bring Benedick and Beatrice back into “affection” with one another. Here, Shakespeare again complicates the theme of deception. Though Don Pedro’s motives may be noble, he is essentially plotting in secret once again. The characters in Much Ado About Nothing constantly meddle in the affairs of others. While such schemes are often initiated with the best intentions, they ultimately manipulate the emotions and consequent decisions of others, leading the audience to wonder whether they are really all that harmless.
"that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
“Poniards” are small, slim daggers. The fact that Benedick is so hurt by Beatrice’s pointed criticisms indicates that he cares very much about her opinion of him. Note again the imagery of weapons and battle in these lines, further emphasizing the theme of love and courtship as warfare. In a more general sense, Benedick and Beatrice’s constant verbal sparring also resembles a war of sorts.
"Speak low if you speak love...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Don Pedro suggests that there is a romantic element to secrecy in courtship, but pay attention to the ways in which the play illustrates that secrecy can be highly destructive. Claudio worries that his good friend Don Pedro is secretly plotting to court Hero for himself. Throughout the play, secrets lead to jealousy in general.
"Speak low if you speak love...." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
Don Pedro, disguised as Claudio, courts Hero, again comparing love and courtship to a masquerade. When Don Pedro says “Speak low, if you speak love,” he further relates courtship to secrecy, which is ironic because he is pretending to be Claudio and the secrets are actually being kept from Hero.
"Scotch jig..." See in text (Act II - Scene I)
A “Scotch jig,” or “Scottish Jig,” is a type of fast-paced and lively folk dance. Here, Beatrice compares love and courtship to a dance. She divides love into various stages: it begins swiftly and excitedly, but it slows significantly after marriage before eventually meeting its end. Shakespeare thus shows the theme of love as a kind of masquerade or game. Courtship is a series of whimsical, but fleeting stages and social procedures, rather than a unique and lasting connection between individuals.
Act II - Scene III
"Ha! ‘Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.’ There's a double meaning in that. ‘I took no more pains for those thanks than you took pains to thank me.’(235) That's as much as to say, ‘Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks.’..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
Benedick takes the rumors he has just heard to be true on faith, despite Beatrice’s continued icy manner towards him. He interprets reality differently based entirely on hearsay, wholeheartedly believing that she loves him. Keep in mind, however, that the true nature of Beatrice’s feelings for Benedick are still unclear. Regardless, language and deception both continue to shape characters’ perceptions of reality.
"Note this before my notes; There's not a note of mine that's worth noting...." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
This is a heavily layered pun. Balthazar says that one should take “note.” He then says that there is not a musical note of his that is worth listening to (“noting”) or worth anything (“nothing”). Balthazar’s pun on “noting” and “nothing” reflects the the pun in the play’s title. Much “ado” (needless commotion) ensues throughout the play because characters continually make “note” of “nothing.” They make a fuss over perceptions of things rather the things themselves.
"I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armour; and now will he lie ten nights awake..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
The drum and fife are military instruments that symbolize warfare. The tabor and pipe are more sweet and gentle, associated with fun and dancing. Benedick continues to contrast courtship with warfare. He suggests that love has softened Claudio, a soldier by trade, and is upset by his engagement. Benedick’s annoyance at Claudio may indicate that Benedick himself feels pressured to get engaged.
"I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviours to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn(10) by falling in love..." See in text (Act II - Scene III)
Here Shakespeare establishes the theme of love and desire as foolish. These forces can turn the lover’s behaviors irrational and impulsive. Note, too, that Benedick expresses another theme here: marriage as a loss of freedom. When he says that Claudio has “become the argument of his own scorn,” he is suggesting that Claudio’s love for Hero has made him helpless and without his characteristic determination. Pay attention to how this theme becomes complicated. As the play moves forward, characters’ actions are increasingly influenced by love and jealousy.
Act III - Scene I
"They did entreat me to acquaint her of it;..." See in text (Act III - Scene I)
It is clear that there are multiple levels of deception here. Hero intends to trick Beatrice into falling in love with Benedick. However, Hero is acting according to the lie Don Pedro told her about Benedick’s affections for Beatrice. Thus, none of the characters in the scene understand the full picture. One of the central themes of the play is the use and consequences of deception.
Act III - Scene II
"And, as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her.(110)..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
Note that Don Pedro and Claudio, though still unconvinced, immediately decide that they will shame Hero if they find Don John’s account to be true. This again illustrates the heightened male anxiety surrounding a woman’s possible infidelity or “impurity.” Women were expected to be chaste and virginal at the time of marriage. Claudio and Don Pedro are preparing Hero’s public humiliation at the mere thought of her not being either.
"civet..." See in text (Act III - Scene II)
“Civet” is a strong, musky perfume. Benedick’s appearance and attitude have changed drastically now that he has fallen for Beatrice. Don Pedro and Claudio are teasing Benedick for falling in love here, something that Benedick has mocked them for ceaselessly. Note that Benedick’s transformation also underscores the theme of love as masquerade. Whether intentionally or not, love causes the lover to wear a different mask.
Act IV - Scene I
" O, what men dare do! what men may do! what men daily do, not knowing what they do..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
When Benedick refuses to kill Claudio for her, Beatrice wishes that she were a man so that she could do it herself or that Benedick were “man enough” to do it. Beatrice’s lines here emphasize the motif of masculinity in the play. She says that “manliness” and valor have deteriorated into mere language rather than action. This underscores the theme of language and “nothingness,” talk with no action produces nothing.
"That I myself was to myself not mine, Valuing of her—why, she, O, she is fallen(145) Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
When Leonato says that Hero has “fallen into a pit of ink,” he means that she has been tainted, which is reminiscent of Dogberry’s line “they that touch pitch will be defiled.” Note again how swiftly men (even Hero’s own father) believe a woman to be adulterous. As we have seen with Claudio and Don Pedro, Shakespeare here underscores the extent to which men are mistrustful of women. The play illustrates that this mistrust often emanates from a fear of being made a cuckold and a sense that men have some kind of control over a woman’s sexuality.
"There is not chastity, enough in language(100)..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
When Don Pedro starts to describe what he witnessed, Don John interrupts and says not to speak of it, since there "is not chastity enough in language.” Don John is essentially suggesting that Hero’s villainy is too terrible to be articulated, but this is actually a ploy to prevent Don Pedro from revealing details that would lead to Hero’s acquittal. Don John’s strategies once again involve performance and manipulation of language, underscoring the theme that language can determine one’s perception of reality.
"And seemed I ever otherwise to you?..." See in text (Act IV - Scene I)
It is interesting that rather than immediately defending her innocence, Hero asks how she “seemed” to Claudio. Claudio’s argument here is based on the fact that Hero seemed to be different than she is. This emphasizes the theme of perception versus reality. Characters continue to take appearances and hearsay as reality and fact.
Act V - Scene I
"Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.(210)..." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Dogberry once again attempts to use overly formal speech to give his words authority. Ironically, this actually undermines his authority, resulting in his failure to communicate effectively. This once again underscores the theme of “nothing.” He speaks many words, but ultimately says nothing.
"Charm ache with air and agony with words...." See in text (Act V - Scene I)
Antonio (Leonato’s brother) attempts to console Leonato in his grief “with words,” but Leonato says that those who are not experiencing grief cannot possibly help or understand those who are. Leonato here highlights the inability of language to console those that are suffering, and the inadequacy of language in general.
Act V - Scene II
"Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably...." See in text (Act V - Scene II)
This line offers a reason why Benedick has a hard time writing trite love poetry about Beatrice. In conventional love poetry, the woman is an object of the male speaker’s gaze. She never speaks or offers her side of the story. Unlike the woman in a sonnet, Beatrice’s wit is a perfect match for Benedick: she is not an object but an empowered character within the play. Therefore, Benedick cannot write poetry that would make objectify her and rob her of her voice.
Act V - Scene IV
"That eye my daughter lent her...." See in text (Act V - Scene IV)
Leonato suggests that Benedick and Beatrice perceive one another a certain way because they have been “given eyes” by the other characters in the play. This underscores the theme of perception and reality, because their romance has ultimately blossomed because of a clever ruse. This again suggests that our eyes are “not [our] own,” in answer to Claudio’s question in Act IV, scene i. Our perceptions and consequent decisions are influenced by those around us.