The Mystical Meaning of Much Ado About Nothing
As its central theme is uncomplicated and direct, Much Ado About Nothing is an ideal play for illuminating how Shakespeare weaves his meaning into his drama through the three techniques he employs in every play: cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance.
The thematic resonance is the incessant echo of the main motifs that Shakespeare generates in his plays. Here, in Much Ado About Nothing, even the title of the play is part of this echo. In this play, the thematic resonance Shakespeare establishes is both intense and relentless, all the way from beginning to end. Here is the master playwright in his artistic element, conveying a deep message for humanity while creating a masterpiece of rapturous brilliance, both lyrically beautiful and profound.
The plays of Shakespeare often portray our human condition, a mundane state of being constrained by our inability to grasp the truth. We live in a disquieting world where our thoughts and actions are frequently born of a misperception of reality. Much Ado About Nothing focuses directly on this aspect of our lives, and its central theme may be summarized by three complementary motifs:
- Our partiality—attraction or aversion—is an imputed quality, a quality not inherent in the object of our feelings.
- Our feelings of liking or hating are often conjured up by a misperception of reality.
- These imputed feelings, born of misperception, often create unnecessary strife and turmoil, and hence “much ado about nothing.”
Thus, the title, Much Ado About Nothing, expresses exactly the message in the play. The strife and discord—the “much ado”—that arises are actually the result of feelings and attitudes that are mere imputations projected upon an object or a situation; these feelings and attitudes are not inherent in the object or situation, and hence are really “nothing.”
For example, our friend is “our friend” not because of something inherent in his or her nature; neither is our enemy “our enemy” because it is inherently so. These relationships are easily changed by external circumstances. Liking or disliking is an extraneous property we unnecessarily impute onto the object concerned, thus making our reactions to this imputation a case of much ado about something that is not real, i.e., nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing displays all the characteristic techniques of Shakespeare’s mystical art. It is easy, however, to miss the relentless echo of the play’s dominant motif—that our partiality is an imputed property often determined by a misperception of reality—because the behavior of the characters (apart from the comic ones) appear so natural. Yet it is this very point that makes Shakespeare’s message here all the more vital and necessary, since it indicates the prevalence of this very motif in our real lives.
Act I Scene 1
Characteristically, the opening scene of a Shakespearean play introduces the play’s main area of concern. Even as he introduces the main characters, Shakespeare, in the opening scene of Much Ado About Nothing, has the play’s central concern resonating throughout. He begins with the critical choice of feeling we have to make with regards to our spiritual development.
The scene opens with a messenger informing Leonato, an elderly nobleman, of the pending arrival of Don Pedro, the prince of Arragon, who is returning after a military victory over his brother Don John, whom he has since reconciled with. The messenger also brings tidings of the brave actions (in the campaign) of a young Florentine, Claudio, whose noble deeds had moved his uncle, when informed, to tears. Leonato comments on this:
Leonato A kind overflow of kindness. There are no faces truer than those who are so washed. How much better it is to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!
Shakespeare thus begins by presenting us with a reminder of perhaps the most important choice we have to make regarding our partiality: How do we respond to the suffering of others? Do we choose to secretly feel joy at the misfortune of others or do we, instead, choose compassion? Shakespeare begins with this choice of feeling because it is a critical choice with regards to our journey on the spiritual path.
Shakespeare then acquaints us with the adversity between Beatrice (Leonato’s niece) and Benedick (Don Pedro’s companion), a central issue in the play. Shakespeare introduces us to this adversity in a unique way that emphasizes the arbitrarily imputed nature of the feeling. Beatrice questions the messenger about Benedick:
Beatrice I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing.
Messenger He hath done good service, lady, in these wars.
Beatrice You had musty victual, and he hath holp to eat it. He is a valiant trencherman. He hath an excellent stomach.
Messenger And a good soldier too, lady.
Beatrice And a good soldier to a lady, but what is he to a lord?
Messenger A lord to a lord, a man to a man, stuffed with all honourable virtues.
Beatrice It is so indeed. He is no less than a stuffed man. But for all the stuffing—well, we are all mortal.
Beatrice questions the messenger, all the while mocking Benedick, even as the messenger answers, all the while praising the very same person! We are thus deliberately presented with two conflicting opinions of the one same Benedick, clearly showing the imputed nature of their differing attitudes towards him.
Don Pedro arrives and we hear the same motif echoed again in his opening words.
Don Pedro Good Signoir Leonato, are you come to meet your trouble? The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it.
Leonato Never came trouble to my house in the likeness of your Grace, for trouble being gone, comfort should remain, but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.
Here, the imputed nature of liking the visit of Don Pedro is emphasized. This feeling is not something inherent in the event; it is Leonato’s choice.
Now Benedick and Beatrice encounter each other directly, and we are entertained with a witty battle of words between them. Shakespeare’s focus is still on the same theme, however, since the changing relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, through extraneous circumstances, is part of the play’s main plot that emphasizes the imputed and arbitrary nature of their feelings towards one another.
Still on cue, Shakespeare next introduces the other main plot in the play: the changing relationship, again through extraneous circumstances, between Hero and Claudio. With characteristic structural artistry, Shakespeare presents this through a dialogue that mirrors the earlier one between Beatrice and the messenger.
Claudio confesses, to Benedick, his love for Hero, the daughter of Leonato, and seeks Benedick’s opinion of her. This begins a dialogue that parallels the earlier one involving Beatrice and the messenger, where, once again, conflicting opinions over the same person—in this case, Hero—are expressed. Here, Claudio, enchanted by his new-found romance, zealously extols Hero’s virtues, while Benedick, the professed cynic of any romance, with equal fervor, derides Hero’s apparent flaws.
Benedick Why, i’faith, methinks she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.
Claudio Thou thinkest I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik’st her.
Benedick Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?
Claudio Can the world buy such a jewel?
Benedick Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow? Or do you play the flouting jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?
Claudio In mine eyes she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.
Benedick I can see without spectacles, and I see no such matter. There’s her cousin, an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December. But I hope you have no intent to turn husband, have you?
Claudio I would scarce trust myself, though I had sworn the contrary, if Hero would be my wife.
Thus, in a dialogue that mirrors the earlier one, we are introduced to the relationship between Hero and Claudio much the same way we were introduced to that between Beatrice and Benedick: in each case, with two contrasting opinions over the same person. These parallel dialogues serve to emphasize the key motif of the play—that our feelings for another person are generally imputed arbitrarily upon that person, and are not qualities inherent in him or her.
We are next introduced to Benedick’s aversion towards romance and marriage, another aspect of the main plot of the play. Here we encounter an instance of antipathy that is thoroughly arbitrary—and hence an imputed quality upon the subject—since, with an equal lack of logic, Benedick could just as easily hold as strong an affinity towards marriage as he is now against it. The play proceeds to demonstrate exactly this, something the audience may well have anticipated upon hearing Benedick’s challenge:
Benedick Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid.
Don Pedro Well, if ever thou dost fall from this faith, thou wilt prove a notable argument.
Benedick If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me, and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder and called Adam.
Don Pedro Well, as time shall try. In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.
Benedick The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write “Here is good horse to hire” let them signify under my sign “Here you may see Benedick the married man.”
Shakespeare takes great pains to emphasize Benedick’s challenge because it is part of the main plot that reflects the play’s central theme concerning the arbitrary and imputed nature of our likes and dislikes.
We can see that, up till now, Shakespeare has focused every part of the play on this central theme. This thematic resonance is a characteristic feature of Shakespeare’s art: the main motifs reverberate incessantly throughout. There is no respite, and thus practically no extraneous parts in Shakespeare’s plays. He focuses virtually every action on the message he means to impart.
Even in the scene’s closing dialogue, between Claudio and the Prince, concerning Hero, Shakespeare again takes the opportunity to reiterate the same theme:
Don Pedro Dost thou affect her, Claudio?
Claudio O, my lord, When you went onward on this ended action, I looked upon her with a soldier’s eye, That liked but had a rougher task at hand Than to drive liking to the name of love. 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 the wars.
Here Shakespeare tells us again, in the words of Claudio, how unrelated external factors can affect our likes and dislikes; and thus, once again reemphasizing how our feelings are merely imputed entities and not properties inherent in the subject concerned.
At the end of this first scene, Don Pedro informs Claudio that he will woo Hero under the guise of Claudio, and thus win her for him. A most unusual way to gain the hand of a lady, to be sure; but this action, as we shall see, serves Shakespeare well, for it facilitates the introduction of a main facet of the central theme: that our feelings of attraction and aversion are often the result of a misperception of reality.
Act I Scene 2
This scene is an excellent example of Shakespeare’s use of what may be called “focused allegorical scenes.” These are scenes that may be omitted without affecting the main action of the play. Nonetheless Shakespeare includes many such scenes in practically every one of his plays. This is because they serve an important purpose. They are part of Shakespeare’s technique to make clear his intended meaning for the play. These focused allegorical scenes are included because, if they do not move along the main action of the play, they are there to artistically intensify the meaning of the play.
The short second scene of Act I focuses on an error made by Antonio’s man when he overhears the conversation (enacted in the preceding scene) between the Prince and Claudio—he mistakenly concludes that the Prince himself seeks the hand of Hero. Antonio is speaking to his brother, Leonato:
Antonio … brother, I can tell you strange news that you yet dreamt not of.
Leonato Are they good?
Antonio As the events stamp them, but they have a good cover; they show well outward. 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.
Leonato Hath the fellow any wit that told you this?
Antonio A good sharp fellow. I will send for him, and question him yourself.
Leonato No, no, we will hold it as a dream till it appear itself.
This Scene 2 would be totally redundant, and serve no purpose whatsoever, if we contend—as some critics actually do—that Shakespeare has no intended meaning to convey in his plays. Ironically, because of its apparent redundancy, this scene is now of extreme importance in the debate over authorial intention, i.e., the question of whether or not Shakespeare intends any underlying meaning in any of his plays.
Note that this short Scene 2 does not, in any way, move the main action of the play along. Neither does it function as a comic interlude since there is little humor in it. It also does not serve as a filler needed to link two parts of the action. Furthermore, there is no consequence whatsoever that can be attributed to the scene, since the mistaken notion—as reported to Leonato—that the Prince intends to marry his daughter, takes no real hold on Leonato, and we do not even get to see his reaction when the truth is later revealed.
Why then does this scene exist at all? If Shakespeare intends no underlying meaning to his plays, this scene would certainly be deemed purposeless and redundant. The scene would hardly be missed if it disappeared altogether. It would appear best then that the scene be deleted entirely … unless, of course, Shakespeare actually has a reason for including it.
That this scene exists at all is thus evidence that Shakespeare does indeed carefully craft his plays with an intended meaning, because the scene specifically emphasizes the point that mistaken perception is a vital aspect of the play’s message. This short second scene is a focused allegorical scene that expands on the main theme that was echoed incessantly in the first scene, and thus serves a very real artistic purpose. And here, Shakespeare deliberately presents it as a complete scene, all by itself, to stress the point that he is, in fact, making a point.
Act I Scene 3
Scene 3 continues to expand on the main theme of the play. Here, we are presented with a man, Don John, who arbitrarily chooses his attitude, not based on reason, but on habit. He is in dialogue with Conrade, one of his associates.
Conrade What the goodyear, my lord, why are you thus out of measure sad?
Don John There is no measure in the occasion that breeds. Therefore the sadness is without limit.
Conrade You should hear reason.
Don John And when I have heard it, what blessing brings it?
Conrade If not a present remedy, at least a patient sufferance.
Don John I wonder that thou, being, as thou sayst thou art, born under Saturn, goest about to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief. I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man’s jest, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humour.
Don John is disposed to being morose and resentful; it is in his nature, he claims; in one sense, that is true, but only because being morose and resentful has become a thing of habit with him.
Shakespeare thus continues echoing his central theme, since Don John’s feelings about his situation have more to do with himself than with the situation. His feelings and attitude are not inherent in the situation he finds himself in, but are extraneous entities imputed upon it. If he were of a different character, his feelings may well be very different.
Conrade reminds Don John of the need for caution since he had only newly been forgiven for opposing his victorious brother, Don Pedro. Don John, responds by proudly re-asserting his preference to be surly, and thereby stress, once again, Shakespeare’s point that his attitude is an imputed thing:
Don John I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied that I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.
Borachio, another of Don John’s associates, arrives with news—more accurately overheard this time—that Don Pedro, on hearing of Claudio’s affection for Hero, plans to woo Hero on behalf of Claudio.
Don John treats this piece of information as possible fodder for mischief, a means for revenge upon Claudio who has glorified himself with his role in Don John’s defeat. His reaction upon learning of Claudio’s affection for Hero is to sabotage the relationship, a complete contrast with Don Pedro’s reaction to the same thing, which is to help cement the relationship. Thus, the central theme of the play is again emphasized—the two contrasting feelings about the same subject are clearly not inherent in the subject, but merely imputed upon it.
Don John now strives to wreck Claudio’s relationship with Hero, and in such a way that also illustrates the other aspect of the play’s main theme, i.e., he makes use of deviously engineered false perceptions to alter Claudio’s imputed feelings about Hero, thus demonstrating how our feelings can be determined by misperception.
Act II Scene 1
In case we missed the key point of the last scene in Act I, Beatrice reminds us of it, immediately at the beginning of Act II, by comparing the disposition of Don John with that of Benedict’s.
Leonato Was not Count John here at supper?
Antonio I saw him not.
Beatrice How tartly that gentleman looks! I never can see him but I am heartburned an hour after.
Hero He is of a very melancholy disposition.
Beatrice He were an excellent man that were made just in the midway between him and Benedick. The one is too like an image and says nothing, and the other too like my lady’s elder son, evermore tattling.
Don John and Benedick are such contrasts in melancholy and good humor that neither attitude can be adequately accounted for by external conditions. Their attitudes, thus, have more to do with themselves than with their external circumstances, and their feelings are largely imputed properties that could easily have been so different even with the exact same circumstances.
The conversation now proceeds to display Beatrice’s charming wit in proclaiming her aversion towards marriage, which neatly complements Benedick’s earlier proclamations of his own distaste for the same.
Leonato Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.
Beatrice Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none. Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.
Beatrice’s aversion to marriage, complementing Benedick’s, sets up one of the main comedic elements in the play: their later reversal of attitude, achieved through the contrivances of the Prince and his co-conspirators in feeding them the mistaken perceptions that gull them into a state of mutual romance. All this presses home the message that our feelings or partiality are only imputed entities, easily changed, and largely the result of misperception.
We are next presented with the masked ball, another focused allegorical scene in the play, that again echoes the same theme as the above. The masked ball symbolizes our usual mundane state of being: a state of groping around without knowing the true situation.
The first three sets of dialogue during the masked ball—between Hero and Don Pedro, Margaret and Balthasar, Ursula and Antonio—establishes the tone of uncertainty, a sense of groping in the dark, as each lady cannot be sure of the identity of her masked dancing partner. And just as in the real world, where ignorance of the true situation prevails, errors begin to surface.
We witness the first error when Beatrice dances with the masked Benedick, who pretends to be someone else.
Beatrice Will you not tell me who told you so?
Benedick No, you shall pardon me.
Beatrice Nor will you tell me who you are?
Benedick Not now.
Beatrice That I was disdainful and that I had my good wit out of The Hundred Merry Tales! Well this was Signor Benedick that said so.
Benedick What’s he?
Beatrice I am sure you know him well enough.
Benedick Not I, believe me.
Beatrice Did he never make you laugh?
Benedick I pray you, what is he?
Beatrice Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool, only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him, and the commendation is not in his wit but in his villainy, for he both pleases and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in the fleet. I would he had boarded me.
Benedick When I know the gentleman, I’ll tell him what you say.
Beatrice Do, do. He’ll but break a comparison or two on me, which peradventure not marked or not laughed at, strikes him into melancholy, and then there’s a partridge wing saved, for the fool will eat no supper that night.
Beatrice disparages Benedick more than she would have intended had she known whom she was addressing, but with Benedick maintaining his pretense to be someone else, she is unable to sense the hurt rendered by her words. It is an error born of ignorance, a consequence of groping in the dark, not realizing the true situation—the same state of being we are often in, in the real world.
The next error arising from the masked ball is a variation of the same groping in the dark. Here Claudius sets up a trap for himself by believing that Don John—who actually knows his real identity—has mistaken him for Benedick.
Don John (to Claudio) Are not you Signor Benedick?
Claudio You know me well. I am he.
Don John Signor, you are very near my brother in his love. He is enamored on Hero. I pray you, dissuade him from her. She is no equal for his birth. You may do the part of an honest man in it.
Claudio How know you he loves her?
Don John I heard him swear his affection.
Borachio So did I too, and he swore he would marry her tonight.
Don John Come, let us to the banquet.
Don John deliberately plants a false perception into Claudio’s mind, and leads him into a state of jealous resentment against the Prince. However, as this mistaken perception of Claudio is soon corrected with no lasting effect, this entire short episode (of Claudio being temporarily deceived) would appear redundant to the play and thoroughly inconsequential … if not for the fact that it serves one very real purpose. It is part of the thematic resonance that Shakespeare is establishing in the play. This episode is included because it stresses again the incessantly resonating theme: that in a state of ignorance of the true situation (which is, unfortunately, our usual state in the real world), our feelings are often determined by false perceptions.
Shakespeare’s plays have an abundance of these apparently extraneous episodes, only they are not really extraneous. These episodes are all there for a purpose, and now, in fact, offer the best clues to Shakespeare’s intentions in his plays. All these episodes can be shown to be either part of the thematic resonance that Shakespeare crafts for each play, or they serve as focused allegorical scenes that depict symbolically the very same theme the recurring motifs present.
This episode of Claudio’s unwarranted jealous resentment of the Prince clearly demonstrates yet again the theme that our feelings are often the result of misperception, and hence are merely imputed entities not inherent in the subject concerned. The rest of Act II Scene 1 continues to relentlessly echo this resonating theme, like a lyrical dance on our subconscious, dipping in and resurfacing with rhythmic regularity. We witness Claudio’s resentment at the Prince, Benedick’s anger at Beatrice, and Beatrice’s continued disdain for Benedick, as well as her aversion to marriage—feelings that will all be completely reversed later, thus demonstrating that they are merely arbitrarily imputed entities. The incessant nature of this theme throughout the play points clearly to Shakespeare’s intent.
This is the mystical art of Shakespeare in its element. We are made to live through the message that is continually echoed without respite. The recurring motifs play on the hidden depths of our heart, like a piece of music with an ever-resounding echo, continually impressing and weaving through our train of thoughts, over and over again, in a lyrical dance that pulls at the strings of our subconscious. If we can understand Shakespeare’s intended meaning consciously and clearly, the effect may even be enhanced, for the ever-resonating motifs, in their surging and receding waves, may also grip our consciousness in a way that guides us towards a thematic stirring of our inner soul. Such is the methodology of Shakespeare. The thematic resonance he creates moves us—both consciously and subconsciously—towards a reverberating rhythm of meaning, entrancing and immersing our inner being into the message.
Back at the scene, Claudio soon realizes that the Prince has actually secured for him the hand of Hero, and so his feelings for the Prince completely reverse. And at the end of the scene, the Prince reveals his intention to reverse some other feelings as well, namely “to bring Signor Benedick and Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection, th’ one with th’ other”—all of which goes to show that these feelings are merely imputed entities and thus readily changed, even reversed thoroughly.
Act II Scene 2
The next scene finds Don John in dialogue with Borachio:
Don John It is so. The Count Claudio shall marry the daughter of Leonato.
Borachio Yea, my lord, but I can cross it.
Don John Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him, and whatever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. How canst thou cross this marriage?
We are reminded again of how Don John’s reaction to Claudio affection for Hero differs completely from the reaction of the Prince. Also, following right on the heels of the Prince’s plan to bring Benedick and Beatrice together (in spite of their current mutual aversion), we now hear of the reciprocal plan of Borachio and Don John to separate Claudius and Hero (in spite of their current mutual attraction and commitment to each other).
Naturally, being a Shakespearean play, all this serves to maintain the same thematic resonance that has been reverberating throughout. The differing feelings of the Prince and Don John towards the pairing of Claudio and Hero, are thus shown to be merely imputed entities, since they differ so markedly even though the subject their feelings is one and the same. Likewise, we will soon find—when the plans of both the Prince and Don John are enacted—that the feelings of Claudio for Hero, of Benedick for Beatrice, and of Beatrice for Benedick, are also arbitrary imputed entities, subject to change and even reversal, when influenced by false perceptions.
In the rest of the scene, Borachio outlines to Don John, his scheme to separate Claudio and Hero: Since he (Borachio) is in the favor of Margaret, the waiting gentlewoman to Hero, he will arrange for Margaret to pose as Hero at her lady’s chamber window and converse with him, standing below the window, in the middle of the night on the eve of the wedding. Meanwhile, Don John, having first informed Claudio and the Prince that Hero is unfaithful, and hence unworthy of Claudio, as proof of this allegation, is to bring Claudio and the Prince as witnesses to this midnight encounter between Borachio and Margaret who, aided by the dark of night, will be posing as Hero. Thus will they feed the false perception to Claudio and reverse his feelings for Hero.
Act II Scene 3
In a Shakespearean play, the main plot provides the key thrust of the message, while interspersed between, are scenes designed to create thematic resonance and allegorical representations of the very same meaning, scenes that sometimes also expand on the message by highlighting important aspects of the central theme in order to broaden its impact. These other minor episodes thus play a vital supporting role in promoting the message of the play, and prepares us for the finesse in its meaning, usually delivered by the main plot at its climax.
The supporting scenes function by drawing our subconscious into the message of the play through ever-repeating motifs and symbolical depictions that convey the same essential meaning as the main plot. There are thus no redundant scenes in a Shakespearean play; both the main plot and the supporting scenes draw us towards the same message, and establish an atmosphere of resonating meaning that enraptures and captures our inner being.
Act II Scene 3 of Much Ado About Nothing provides a good example of Shakespeare’s use of supporting scenes, as focused allegorical scenes, in a way that enhances the message of the main plot. This scene opens with Benedick calling his page:
Benedick In my chamber window lies a book. Bring it hither to me in the orchard.
Boy I am here already, sir.
Benedick I know that, but I would have thee hence and here again.
Benedick deliberately misunderstands the boy—who is only saying essentially that “it’s as good as done”—thus demonstrating how our words can be interpreted differently depending on how we choose to view them. This Scene 3 opens with a misinterpretation of words, and in characteristic Shakespearean artistry, also ends with a misinterpretation of words, as we shall see. There is, however, a difference between the two instances: At the beginning of the scene here, Benedick, out of a sense of playfulness, deliberately misunderstands the words said to him; at the end of the scene, however, he genuinely misunderstands the words spoken to him, because his feelings have interfered with his interpretation.
Here is characteristic Shakespearean artistry. He expands on the central theme—that our feelings are often the product of misperception—by showing us how our feelings then, in turn, can lead us to further misperception: here through a misinterpretation of words brought about by the wish to justify our feelings.
Shakespeare now continues focusing on the main theme, by presenting instances of how feelings for any subject may differ greatly between different persons, and even in the same person over the course of time. These differences in attitudes and feelings occur because they are merely imputed entities, extraneous things that are imposed upon, and not inherent in, the subject itself.
Benedick I do 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 by falling in love—and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife, and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armour and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. He is wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier, and now is he turned orthography—his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.
While Benedick bemoans Claudio’s inconsistency, this soliloquy also highlights the fact that one’s attitude towards one subject also influences one’s likes and dislikes on other things, which is what Benedick finds with Claudio.
Benedick ends his soliloquy by considering the possibility of himself changing in a like manner. Such a contemplation naturally disposes the audience to practically wait for exactly such a change to occur. True enough, and in line with the main theme of the play, this change in Benedick’s attitude comes about. Benedick, influenced by the false perceptions planted by the Prince and his co-conspirators, soon becomes enarmoured with love, rendering his present comments on the inconstancy of man’s likes and dislikes, as well as his scorn at Claudio’s changeable nature, another characteristic example of Shakespearean irony. Also characteristic of a Shakespeare is the fact that this entire matter, as with every other part of the drama, serves to promote the main message of the play. Such is the intense constancy of the thematic resonance he creates.
Back at the scene, the Prince, Claudio, and Leonato soon enter, together with Balthasar, a musician. Benedick, on hearing their approach, decides to hide himself in the arbor, and to listen in on them secretly.
Don Pedro Come, Balthasar, we’ll hear that song again.
Balthasar O, good my lord, tax not so bad a voice To slander music anymore than once.
Don Pedro It is the witness still of excellency To put a strange face on his own perfection. I pray thee, sing, and let me woo no more.
Balthasar Because you talk of wooing, I will sing, Since many a wooer doth commence his suit To her he thinks not worthy, yet he woos, Yet will he swear he loves.
Don Pedro Nay, pray thee, come, Or, if thou wilt hold longer argument, Do it in notes.
Shakespeare keeps the central theme of the play resonating. Even the talk between Don Pedro and Balthasar echoes the theme that our likes and dislikes are variable and not inherent in the subject. Don Pedro soon convinces Balthasar to sing, but not before Benedick weighs in with his opinion as well, quietly, while hiding behind the bushes.
Benedick (aside) Now, divine air! Now is his soul ravished. Is it not strange that sheeps’ guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies? Well, a horn for my money, when all’s done.
Shakespeare uses Benedick’s opinion to further stress the difference in attitude over the singing. Now Balthasar embarks on his song, and what do we hear?
Balthasar Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever One foot in sea and one on shore, To one thing constant never. Then sigh not so, but let them go, And be blithe and bonny, Converting all your sounds of woe Into Hey, nonny nonny. Sing no more ditties, sing no mo, Of dumps so dull and heavy. The fraud of men was ever so, Since summer first was leavy. Then sigh not so, but let them go And be you blithe and bonny, Converting all your sounds of woe Into Hey, nonny nonny.
The echoing of the central theme continues even with the song. Balthasar sings of man’s propensity to be unfaithful, completely in line with the main theme of the play that man’s partiality—liking or disliking—is a very inconstant thing. The echoing of this theme yet continues unabated:
Don Pedro By my troth, a good song.
Balthasar And an ill singer, my lord.
Don Pedro Ha, no, no, faith, thou sing’st well enough for a shift.
Benedick (aside) An he had been a dog that should have howled thus, they would have hanged him. And I pay God his bad voice bode no mischief. I had as lief have heard the night raven, come what plague could have come after it.
Balthasar’s protestations against his own singing may perhaps be passed off as merely a show of humility on his part, but Benedick also adds his voice against Balthasar’s singing. This would be a more genuine distaste for the singing, a distaste brought about by his aversion—or at least a professed aversion at this time—towards romance in general. And it all serves to illustrate how our partiality towards an entity is not inherent in the entity itself.
Finally, after all these supporting scenes, the main plot re-emerges, a plot that also serves to convey the very same message. After Balthasar leaves, the Prince, Claudio, and Leonato—all aware that Benedick is listening in from behind the arbor—sets out to gull the unsuspecting eavesdropper into falling in love with Beatrice.
Don Pedro Come hither, Leonato. What was it you told me of today, that your niece Beatrice was in love with Signor Benedick?
Claudio Oh, ay. (aside to Don Pedro) Stalk on, stalk on, the fowl sits.—I did never think that lady would have loved any man.
Leonato No, nor I neither, but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signor Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviours seemed ever to abhor.
Benedick (aside) Is’t possible? Sits the wind in that corner?
Leonato By my troth, my lord, I cannot tell what to think of it, but that she loves him with an enraged affection, it is past the infinite of thought.
With words of this nature, the Prince and his co-conspirators thus set out to “so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice.” Benedick, unaware that the whole performance is being staged purely for his benefit, listens in amazement to elaborations of Beatrice’s secret torment resulting from her deep love for none other than himself, a commentary also freely interspersed with lavish praise for her worthiness. Nothing, perhaps, better inclines a man into a state of affection than the knowledge that a most worthy and sweet lady is secretly and passionately in love with his very own self, and learning how, as a result of this passion, she suffers dearly for it. And so it is that Benedick, fed with these deviously planted false perceptions, finds awakening in himself, a sense of affection towards the Lady Beatrice, as well as a kindling of his sense of justice that her long-suffering love should be well requited.
After a long discussion over Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick—all staged for the ears of Benedick himself—the Prince, Claudio and Leonato leave for dinner, with the intention of later sending Beatrice herself out to invite Benedick in for the meal. Alone, Benedick now comes out of hiding.
Benedick This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requitted. I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly, if I perceive the love come from her. They say too that she will rather die than give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair; ’tis a truth, I can bear them witness. And virtuous; ’tis so, I cannot reprove it. And wise, but for loving me; by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument for her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her!
Benedick’s aversion for Beatrice seems to have disappeared, replaced now with affection—a transformation that has nothing to do with the real Beatrice herself! Nothing has changed with Beatrice. Benedick’s feelings for her have more to do with Benedick himself than with Beatrice. His feelings are thus merely imputed upon, and not inherent in, Beatrice; the change actually comes from Benedick himself, a change kindled by mistaken perception.
This is the very point in Shakespeare’s message: our feelings are not only imputed but are often the result of false perceptions. Strife and suffering consequent upon such feelings, then, are truly “much ado about nothing.” The entire play—every part, with no exception whatsoever—has, up till this point, focused on imparting this central message. We shall now see why Shakespeare takes such pains to ensure that there is so little chance of mistaking his meaning.
Beatrice now enters, sent by the Prince and Leonato to call Benedick in for dinner.
Beatrice Against my will, I am sent to bid you come in to dinner.
Benedick Fair Beatrice, I thank you for your pains.
Beatrice I took no more pains for those thanks than you take pains to thank me. If it had been painful, I would not have come.
Benedick You take pleasure then in the message?
Beatrice Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife’s point and choke a daw withal. You have no stomach, Signoir. Fare you well.
Benedick 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.” That’s as much as to say, “Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks.”
Here, at the end of Scene 3, we have a reprise of the misunderstanding of words that began the scene. Then, Benedick had deliberately chosen to misunderstand; now, however, he genuinely misunderstands. The reason for this is Shakespeare’s point: Benedick misunderstands the words because he, in a sense, chooses to misunderstand them—only this time he is unaware that he is doing so; it is not deliberate. Benedick is, inadvertently, trying to fit the words so that they match his feelings for Beatrice; he wants the words to justify his new-found affection for her.
Often, in this way, our feelings influence our understanding. Just as his misperception has influenced his feelings, Benedick’s feelings now, in turn, influence his understanding. It is a vicious cycle of misperception, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation, that leads to still further misperception, misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Shakespeare, naturally, is well aware of this ability of words to convey different meanings to different people. Because our feelings influence our interpretation, we often read things into words that were not originally meant. This is almost unavoidable. How then is Shakespeare to convey a particular message through the aesthetic medium of a play—in such a way as to touch not only the conscious mind, but to move the inner subconscious as well—and yet make the message unambiguous? How is he to make the meaning of his words specific when, to quote Feste from Twelfth Night: “words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them”?
There is truly only one way to prevent a free-falling disintegration of an author’s intended meaning in an aesthetic medium like a play, and that is to repeat the message many times. And so, Shakespeare, more than any other author or playwright, repeats his meaning incessantly, and does so with practically any opportunity he can seize upon. In this way, even with the unavoidable ambiguity of words in any sentence (an ambiguity Shakespeare himself often demonstrates), a continually repeated meaning, taken as a cohesive set, will withstand distortion and misunderstanding sufficiently to allow his intended meaning to come through. While there may still be some unavoidable variability in interpretation, this variability should now be constrained within reasonably narrow limits.
We need to recognize this reason for Shakespeare’s continual echo of his intended message: apart from establishing a thematic resonance that engages our subconscious, this echo also serves to constrain, within narrow limits, the ambiguity often inherent in transmission of meaning through words. In order to avoid rendering obsolete this purpose behind Shakespeare’s incessant echo of his intended message, we must, therefore, avoid piecemeal analyses of Shakespeare’s plays—avoid interpretations that only fit arbitrarily selected portions of his play, while rendering the rest irrelevant, or even contradictory, to our interpretation. The meaning of Shakespeare’s plays are only constrained within reasonable limits, as Shakespeare intends, if we interpret each of his plays as a tightly bound unit that conveys its meaning as an integrated whole—a unified, cohesive and complete entity that is deliberately and meticulously crafted. This then is Shakespeare’s third technique of delivering his intended meaning: a cohesive unity, such that the meaning is to be derived from the play in its entirety. Shakespeare ensures that every part of the play contributes to its meaning, so there can be no mistaking what his intended meaning is. This is the cohesive unity that can be found in every play that Shakespeare writes.
In Much Ado About Nothing, we also find unmistakable evidence of Shakespeare employing his technique of thematic resonance. Up till this point, every part of the play has focused on one and the same theme. And, as we shall see, this focus continues, without respite, right to the end of the play. There can thus be no reasonable doubt about Shakespeare’s intentions, as well as the message he is trying to convey.
Shakespeare now closes Act II with some remarkable words from Benedick, words that reiterate yet again, but now in a strikingly bizarre manner, the central theme of the play:
Benedick If I do not take pity of her, I am a villain. If I do not love her, I am a Jew. I will go get her picture.
These words are replete with underlying meaning. After deriding Beatrice all through the play, Benedick would now consider himself a villain if he does not pity her. This alteration in his attitude has occurred without any change in Beatrice herself—it is all due to feelings he has imputed upon her, feelings conjured up by a misperception of reality.
Benedick then utters what would, today, amount to a flagrantly politically incorrect statement: “If I do not love her, I am a Jew.” Shocking racism, we would say. But it is shocking only because Benedick has, yet again, imputed his partiality upon a subject—this time upon an entire race and with a partiality that does not inherently belong to the race. Racism is nothing other than imputed partiality—and that is Shakespeare’s point. Benedick’s statement thus highlights again the central theme of the play.
Benedick then concludes with some intriguing words: “I will go get her picture.” Lovers at that time had a tendency to carrying around pictures of the objects of their affection. Shakespeare uses this inclination to provide a brilliant symbolical depiction of the central theme of the play. The picture is not the reality. Yet lovers carry pictures of their loved ones around because it is made into a thing of pleasure by the imputations they project onto the picture. This symbolically represents a very common situation in the real world—what we see is a representation created by our minds (like the picture) and not the reality itself.
Copyright © 2021 by Kenneth K C Chan. All Rights Reserved.