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How in “Much Ado About Nothing” Does Shakespeare Create Dramatic Tension?

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“Much Ado About Nothing” is a romantic comedy and conventionally these involve characters whose amorous bliss is disturbed by an unanticipated threat. However this danger is short-lived and their happy fate is fulfilled. Shakespeare sets about adding interest and diversity to what otherwise could have been a monotonous series of events with the creation of dramatic tension and comedy through the use of various dramatic devices.

One main plotline which provokes a lot of dramatic tension is Don John’s malicious attempt to “cross [Claudio] any way”, something which he chooses to do through the soiling of Hero’s name. Act II Scene I proves to be a preview of the impending potential danger of Hero and Claudio’s relationship. The fact that Shakespeare allows Claudio to think that Borachio and Don John are taking to Benedick, and therefore that what he hears must be true, would indeed lead to a sense of uneasiness among the audience on hearing Claudio’s words of “’tis certain so; the Prince woos for himself”. The audience would feel a sense of tension from the idea that the love of this couple could be jeopardised so early on. However, this incident and Claudio’s readiness to be untrusting of Hero merely serves as an echo for Don John’s next accusation, which brings about more calamitous outcomes.

Tension is heightened further once Don John’s first plan to ruin Hero’s relationship with Claudio at the masquerade ball goes awry and he becomes more determined as he is filled with “displeasure to [Claudio] and whatsoever comes athwart his affections comes evenly to [Don John]”. As Shakespeare places this threat so early on in the play, this adds a certain sense of inevitability to the following episodes of the play. When we learn of Don John’s allegation the fact that we know that Hero is innocent of promiscuity fills us with the desire for Don Pedro and Claudio to discover the truth also. Nevertheless they are so gullible to the villain’s lie that “the lady is disloyal” that we fear Don John may succeed in his malevolence, a fear that is heightened by the progressively bad sense created by the juxtaposition of the following four scenes.

Dramatic tension is also created via postponement and humour with Shakespeare’s inclusion of Dogberry and the Watch, whose haphazard manner of law enforcement reflects that the play is a comedy, something that may have been forgotten during the intense atmosphere of Act III Scene II. However, Dogberry never realises that he and the Watch become painfully close to the key of all of the false accusations made in “Much Ado About Nothing”. As Shakespeare chooses for us to hear their misinformed reactions along with the truth from Borachio, this means that as Don Pedro and Claudio are pushed further away from the truth, the tricks have worked and therefore the audience’s anxiety grows. The watch, however, believe that all of the malice was caused at the hands of a being named “Deformed”. There are clear links between this character and Don John who apart from being the mastermind of the misdemeanours, is also “a bastard”.

Postponement is again evident in the roundabout way in which Dogberry informs Leonato of their findings in the next scene. We are made to feel empathetically frustrated as Leonato states “I would fain know what you have to say…I am now in great haste, as it may appear unto you”. Leonato’s hastiness is partially the reason why he fails to hear what would spare Hero’s humiliation, and thus becomes susceptible to Claudio’s words of slander. Tension comes with this burning opportunity for the truth that Leonato blindly misses, giving the events at the wedding scene even more poignancy. This also adds a bittersweet atmosphere to the next scene of the play, in the dramatic irony and pathos created where Hero and her assistants prepare gaily for the wedding.

The weight of the dramatic tension that is carried throughout the first three Acts of “Much Ado About Nothing” is brought to a climax at the wedding of Hero and Claudio in Act IV Scene I, where Claudio fulfils his intention to denounce his prospective wife. However, Shakespeare delays the moment of accusation by way of Leonato’s constant interjections:

Friar: You come hither, my lord, to marry this lady

Claudio: No

Leonato: to be married to her, friar: you come to marry her.

Here Claudio’s brewed desire to condemn Hero is simultaneous to our prolonged apprehension. Also, the confidence expressed in the admittance that Leonato is willing to give her daughter to Claudio as “freely, son as God did give her me” makes Claudio’s consequent words all the more callous. Furthermore, as we have just witnessed the arresting of Borachio and Conrade, Hero’s innocence is made all the more prominent by her unjust condemnation. In effect, although we have seen the play reach its most tragic point, now that we know that somebody knows the truth, we await how Hero’s absolution, and a happy ending, will come about. Therefore not only is this false accusation made all the more poignant, but a new focus of dramatic tension also begins.

Indeed, by Act V Scene III everyone has learnt of how “Don John…incensed…to slander the Lady Hero” and Don Pedro and Claudio have set about vindicating themselves. Hero’s absolution is not truly reached until the last scene, hence sustaining the audience’s concern in the play. As at the masquerade ball, dramatic irony and the dramatic device of disguise are used here to build up tension, for although Claudio believes that he is marrying Antonio’s daughter, both the audience and many of the wedding party know that underneath the veil lies Hero. It is only after Claudio has passed the test of vowing to marry his mystery bride – “for this I owe you” – that he is rewarded with the knowledge that his first love lives on and he need no longer feel guilty.

In contrast to the often intense storyline concerning Hero and Claudio, the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick proves to be overall more comic and entertaining. The fact that the two relationships are very diverse in this play proves to be very important, as the humour from one story line can be used to alleviate tension from another, thus creating an interesting dramatic interest and emotional rollercoaster for the audience. With this storyline, Shakespeare sets up tension leading to the declaration of love between Beatrice and Benedick from the very opening of the play. This is immediately apparent as soon as Beatrice asks the messenger “is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” (Act I scene I). This nickname she gives for Benedick implies what Leonato later confirms, “there is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her: they never meet but there is a skirmish of wit between them”. This wit is demonstrated shortly after this comment is made, with the pair engaging in what may resemble the now common playground teasing between enamoured pairs in denial. As a result of this comment, the audience may often expect an entertaining sexual tension in following scenes between the two comedians, in the sense that Shakespeare delivers hints into a certain past between Beatrice and Benedick; note how Beatrice is eager to find out Benedick’s whereabouts and that their fights are described as “merry”, almost as if there is an element of enjoyment in them.

At the masquerade ball Shakespeare’s creation of dramatic irony places the audience in a position of superior knowledge to Beatrice. Her unintentional calling Benedick “the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool” to his face offends him, yet another hint into a potential romantic quality to their relationship. In addition there is an expression of similar approaches to romantic love, together with the appearance that their attitudes towards each other are rooted in something deeper than “impossible slanders”. This is suggested by Beatrice stating “he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one” and Benedick suggesting he would not marry Beatrice when nobody suggested he should. Such comments add not only intrigue to the play, but also the opportunity to express amusement at their behaviour towards one another, especially in their readiness to accept a requited love.

Beatrice calls not having a husband a “blessing”, and Benedick seems to take pride in saying “I will live a bachelor”. However, everyone else seems to disagree, and on the words of Don Pedro they “bring Signor Benedick and Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other”. This conspiracy to draw the two together is the second element of rising tension in the romance of Beatrice and Benedick, as we the audience find out whether the pair feel love for each other as we had expected. Through overhearing, we see a change from stubborn discontent to sudden gullibility, and the revelation of true feeling as a result. In Act II Scene III – Act III Scene II, the struggle between the curiosity of Beatrice and Benedick and their reactions to comments from the tricksters would create humour for the audience dramatically, something that is much needed to alleviate the tension from the previous scenes in which we hear of Don Pedro’s second plot.

In contrast to their public attitudes towards one another with such nicknames as “Lady Disdain” and “Signor Mountanto”, the pair suddenly consider the idea of love for one another. The fact that prior to his tricking Benedick states ” I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates such behaviours to love, will…become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love” creates a sense of inevitability as we antcipate that his own reckoning will be realised and he will be forced to retract his words of criticism. Convinced by what he hears, he testifies, “This can be no trick…it seems her affections have their full bent…it must be requited”. Here Shakespeare has framed the trickery with Benedick’s conflicting attitudes to emphasise the contrast and boost the comedy. The following conversation with Beatrice, and Benedick’s assumption of a “double meaning” in her words would cause further comedy due to the irony in his idiocy which has been created by the trick. Almost in an echo to Benedick’s conviction (perhaps this is Shakespeare underlining a perfect match) Beatrice discloses in Act III Scene I “Benedick, love on, I will requite thee”. Beatrice’s verbal reactions to the words of her friends are not as comic or ironic as those of Benedick, and we get the impression that what she feels is a genuine requiting of love, as well as confirmation that her wit had been a defence for her true love.

Meanwhile, the newly amorous Benedick faces a conflict of his own when he is asked to “kill Claudio”, one of his esteemed companions. Whilst he wants to demonstrate his love for Beatrice, his established loyalty to Claudio creates a moral dilemma for this recently subdued individual. Thus dramatic tension is created in wondering whether Benedick will actually kill his friend for the sake of love. The fact that Don Pedro and Claudio continue to make jokes makes the scene more poignant, as they remain oblivious to this serious problem.

Despite further less calculated taunting from the other parties, for example with the remarks of “the barber’s man hath been seen with him” implying a smitten Benedick, both parties seem unwilling to admit to their new found love, for example when we see humorously that both Beatrice and Benedick use physical illnesses to hide their true feelings. Although the pair have confirmed their love to themselves, they have yet to declare to the other characters, or even to each other, and therefore the dramatic tension is sustained until the end of the play. This not only gives this romantic comedy its appropriate ending but also signifies the importance of written evidence in the play, for it is Beatrice’s letter and Benedick’s sonnet that eventually effect what the audience, and perhaps many of the people in the play, have been waiting for: a public declaration of love.

Shakespeare’s skilful creation of dramatic tension, is best appreciated when we note that much of the fuss in the play was unwarranted. Beatrice and Benedick knew deep down that they were still in love with one another; they only had to admit this to themselves and not be afraid of taking the first step. Furthermore, if Claudio had trusted Hero more, and was not so gullible, perhaps he would not have allowed himself to be deceived by Don John’s trickery. Therefore Shakespeare had to literally make something out of nothing. As, indeed, much of the play concerns itself with “Much Ado About Nothing”, the play can be seen as a message that scepticism is not always the best option in life, as it leads to unnecessary turmoil and heartache.

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