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Much Ado About Nothing Themes
From love and marriage to honour and the double standard - find out about Shakespeare's key themes are and how they are presented.
It is believed that in the 16th century, the words “nothing” and “noting” were pronounced in much the same way. Much ado follows from noting: characters eavesdrop on one another, often mishear, and much ado or muddle, results. For example, Don John deliberately misleads Claudio into thinking Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself. He can do this because Borachio overheard Don Pedro talking to Claudio. Borachio notes the truth, but his master, Don John, deliberately distorts it to cause mischief. The plot fails so he tries again, agreeing to Borachio’s scheme whereby Margaret impersonates Hero to blacken the bride’s reputation. This almost works. A different kind of noting (in this case, observing) leads Claudio and Don Pedro to think they’ve seen something, which in fact is a deception.
A happier kind of noting is the ruse played upon Beatrice and Benedick, whereby each is persuaded of the other’s love. This trickery enables them to see the truth about one another, that all their verbal sparring was a kind of courting, and that they do indeed love one another. “Is not that strange?” as Benedick asks.
Nothing was also a word used to describe female genitals, as being an absence (internal, unlike a man’s penis), literally, no thing. The play contains much sexual punning, for example, from Beatrice in Act Two Scene One, where she puns on a man having good legs and feet (which could in the 16th century refer to penis), and speaks of men being cuckolded by their wives. Leonato warns her that she won’t get a husband “if thou be so shrewd of thy tongue.”
The fact that a woman could use such sexual innuendo was shocking enough for these lines to be cut in some pre- 20th century performances of the play. in a play where a woman’s worth, unlike a man’s, is dependent upon her virginity in marriage, the pun in the title of the play reminds us of a double standard whereby a woman, like Hero, could easily become nothing, a thing of no value.
Love and marriage
The main contrast in the play is between the witty, intelligent, quick-fire wordplay of Beatrice and Benedick, and the conventional, rather bland, vows of devotion between Hero and Claudio. In the latter case, there is a particular irony, since Claudio is so easily deceived about his beloved’s behaviour that he publicly humiliates her when the wedding is about to take place. Hero has to simulate her own death before this marriage can take place, and then, only after Claudio has accepted an unknown woman as his bride!
There is a kind of equality in the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick which the relatively dull personalities of Hero and Claudio cannot possibly match. Each gives as good as they get. Benedick no sooner tells her she is a rare parrot-teacher, (someone whose empty repetition could easily be copied by a parrot), than she comes back with “A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours,” – better an eloquent bird of her kind than a dumb beast like his! They continue to duel with wit throughout the play, until their mutual feelings are brought into the open. This is a mature, balanced relationship, a true basis for marriage. Hero and Claudio, by comparison, seem flat, one-dimensional, which is why we barely see them talking to one another, and when they do it’s often in verse, which in this play, lacks the vitality and credibility of prose.
Honour and the double standard
Claudio’s immediate response to Don John’s assertion that Hero is disloyal is to remark: “If I see anything tonight, why I should not marry her tomorrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her.” The idea that his bride might not be a virgin, strikes at the root of his own sense of honour, and he must re-assert that honour publicly, calling her a rotten orange, and saying to Leonato “She’s but the sign and semblance of her honour.” He is horrified that her virtuous appearance hides inner corruption – hence “rotten orange” since its skin covers the fruit within. Don Pedro takes a similar line, saying “I stand dishonoured that have gone about/To link my dear friend to a common stale.” A stale is a prostitute, and oranges were also associated with prostitution, due to the rough, pockmarked skin.
The accusation is clear and it is not one Hero can survive, since both Claudio and Don Pedro think they have seen her with another man. Hero dies morally, even before the ingenious Friar has her faking death. Even her own father, Leonato, says, “she is fallen/into a pit of ink, that the wide sea/Hath drops too few to wash her clean again.” A woman was defined by marriage, and no one would marry a dishonoured woman.
A woman cannot defend herself as a man might, which is why Beatrice exclaims “Oh that I were a man!” She has to ask Benedick to kill Claudio. In a man’s world, the standard of honour is set by men, and honour can only be redeemed via the actions and judgements of men.