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Much Ado About Nothing Characters
Learn all you need to know about the major characters in the play with our character analysis and selected essay examples.
Beatrice begins the play as “Lady Disdain” – Benedick’s words. She is witty, sharp-tongued and a match for anyone (particularly Benedick, with whom she engages in a constant verbal duel). There is no stronger character in the play, which is notable in itself, since she’s a woman in what is very much a man’s world (bear in mind when Shakespeare wrote the play, England was ruled by a queen, who had needed all her wits to stay alive and remain on the throne). The only character who can compete with her is Benedick himself, and the merry war between them, dominates the play. The plays resolution depends on the eventual mutual recognition of an unlikely love, but even then Beatrice is hard-headed enough to lament “Oh that I were a man!” - knowing she must persuade Benedick to challenge Claudio on her and Hero’s behalf.
The first thing that Beatrice says about Benedick is “I wonder that you will still be talking...nobody marks you.” To a man who prides himself on his verbal fluency, nothing could be more insulting. Although he is quite capable of sparring with Beatrice (on this occasion he replies “Are you yet living?”) there’s no doubt her words affect him. He complains that “she misused me past the endurance of a block.” All the more extraordinary when he believes what he overhears: that she loves him. He is as quickly “gulled” as Beatrice, persuading himself that he spies “marks of love in her.” The comedy lies in this trick, but it depends on the underlying mutual attraction of the two main characters. Benedick’s realisation – “I do love nothing in the world so well as you, is not that strange?” – is a question, one that comes from a man astonished at his own lack of self-knowledge. Fortunately, since this isn’t a tragedy, he doesn’t have to act upon his promise to “kill Claudio.” Instead he ends the play advising Leonato to get a wife!
Compared to the two main characters, there is little individuality in their counterparts: Claudio and Hero. Claudio is twice tricked by Don John, firstly into believing Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself, then, much more seriously, into accepting the fiction that Hero has been unfaithful. Persuaded that he has seen her chamber window entered, he deliberately waits to humiliate his bride publicly in the church, before all the assembled guests. Then, thinking Hero dead, he compliantly agrees to marry Leonato’s niece, whom he can’t have met since she doesn’t exist! All ends well for him when Hero reappears. He is forgiven, but, compared to Benedick, he cuts a poor, immature figure.
Don John is the villain of the play. There is no subtlety about his characterisation. Although it’s not until Act Four that he is referred to by Benedick as John the Bastard, stage directions have already identified him as the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro. Straight away he declares “I cannot hide what I am: I must be sad when I have cause, and smile at no man’s jests.” He follows his own guidance throughout the play. It would appear he has “of late stood out against [his] brother,” and although back in favour, Don John plots against Don Pedro, confessing to being a plain-dealing villain. As a bastard he is viewed as nothing since he has no legal status. The fact that his plotting is easily exposed by Dogberry and the Watch, tells us that in a comedy we need not over-emphasise villainy. Don John, customarily clothed in black, exists as a contrast to highlight the comedy of love which, by demanding a happy ending, stops his clumsy scheming.
Dogberry and the Watch are characters straight from Elizabethan London. They have nothing in common with the aristocratic society around them. However, in a play which depends so much upon witty verbal exchanges, it is notable that it’s Dogberry’s unwitting misuse of language that provides the comedy. The word malapropism comes from a different play not written in Shakespeare’s time, but he did know about the humour that comes from using the wrong, but similar sounding, word. Examples of Dogberry’s malapropisms are “desartless” when he means deserving, “odorous” for odious, and so on. By chance, the Watch overhears, or notes, Borachio and Conrade boasting of their plot to slander Hero. Dogberry’s inept interrogation of the two villains, just about manages to expose Don John’s plot and save the day.