Setting in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’
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Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” unravels the powerful pressure that society places upon an individual, because at the heart of this play is the society of Messina which powerfully influences the characters and the way they live their lives. The Messinian society of the 16th Century is in stark contrast to our own busy and hyped society of today where words are quickly losing their importance and prominence, as other forms of communication are taking over. Shakespeare structures this play around the code of conduct that governs Messinian society and forces its citizens to judge each other on appearance rather than on any sort of truth. This play, structured as it is around the complexity and conventions of Messinian society, uses these confines to skilfully unravel a story of tragedy and comedy whilst exposing the diversity of the human mind. Shakespeare composes this text using a variety of language structures to create different atmospheres and dimensions between the characters who, interestingly, still appeal to a 21st century audience.
The most important character in “Much Ado About Nothing” is Messina itself, because it is the structure of Messinian society that has shaped the characters into the people they are. In Messina, characters find it easier to believe in words ‘about’ people than in people themselves, which is a solid foundation for the many deceptions and lies that are prevalent amongst the characters. Initially we see Messina in many ways attractive because it is presented to us in the opening scenes as busy, lively, witty, teasing, socially animated and entertaining. But it is not until we scratch under the surface of its superficial appearance that we realise it is also brittle and fragile, exposed to treacherous misrepresentations and too much at the mercy of slander, malice and abuse. Messina is a deeply convention bound society which pivots around honour, trust and social rank. To save ourselves and the play from the emptiness of gossip, which is so intertwined in this play, we need to understand the conventions of the code of honour which govern the society of Messina if we are to fully understand the reasons for Beatrice and Benedick and Hero and Claudio’s thoughts, behaviour and actions.
We must enter their world of conventions, traditions and social pressures which are a part of courtly life in Messina, based as it is upon appearances and representations, because it is these pressures which cause the majority of the problems that these characters must confront. It is precisely because of the importance placed upon appearances and status that this society is teetering on the edge of social corruption. Its unrealistic expectations, namely that males belong to a male code of honour and females are spotless virgins until their wedding day, together with the crushing of individuality and freedom, has given birth to an inordinate amount of eavesdropping and instant gossip and it is these inaccuracies which sow the seeds that drive the storylines forward. Shakespeare gives us two sets of protagonists, the convention bound Claudio and Hero, idealists who represent Messinian values, and then contrasts them with Beatrice and Benedick, ‘realists’, who dare to reject the values of the society they live in. It is one of the play’s ironies that it is the play’s ‘realists’ who will not take appearances at face value but seek to get behind them and get to know each other based on their true worth and not their social status and reputation.
In stark contrast to the society seen in Messina, society in the 21st century is different, lacking as it does the lively, witty, teasing and socially animated aspects captured in the opening scenes of “Much Ado About Nothing”. Today this vibrancy has been replaced by monotony and the constant drone of everyday routine as people go about their lives separate from one another, involved only in matters that will benefit themselves rather than being a part of a community that works together to accomplish a synchronised lifestyle. Messina is a society where the ‘code of honour’ binds its men to each other in an unspoken marriage that simultaneously prevents them from showing unconditional love in their own relationships with the opposite sex, which is brilliantly illustrated in the tension that exists in the traditional relationship between Claudio and Hero. Likewise it is not until Benedick can put his loyalty towards Beatrice before his loyalty to the brotherhood, that their relationship becomes pure, honest and durable and based on unconditional love for each other. Benedick cannot give himself wholly to Beatrice whilst his trust and loyalty Is committed elsewhere and it is this idea of ‘honour’ that distorts Messinian values and judges its citizens based wholly on representation and appearance.
Appearance is everything, witnessed through others’ eyes, but these representations are mere abstractions and can only appear in the signs of their existence. We ‘see’ honour in the respect paid to a seemingly honourable man and we ‘see’ its antithesis shame, the loss of honour, in the isolation to which the shameful are condemned, which to Messinian society is the worst fate imaginable. Not surprisingly this male brotherhood still exists today in our modern society, visible in the bond that binds rugby teams together, or the bond that sees a group of men watch sport together and it is clearly evident when comparing both these societies that sacrifices are crucial to the success of the brotherhood. Another questionable aspect within Messinian society is the heavy importance placed upon appearance and status which corrupts this society and puts relentless pressure on its residents to meet society’s social expectations. In Messina these expectations include Leonato and Claudio’s assumption that Hero is a virgin. When Leonato’s daughter’s virtue is impeached, Leonato, with a complete disregard for his daughter’s feelings, publicly humiliates her, as he personally feels the inordinate shame that Messinian society is condemning him to. All the males involved in Hero’s debasement have a misogynistic vocabulary of accusation ready at hand with which to condemn her.
They call her a ‘rotten orange’, ‘a common stale’, ‘an approved wanton’, raging like an animal ‘in savage sensuality’ and by their actions show that she must be shamed and anathematised for her sins. Fortunately similar expectations for women do not exist in our modern society today and it is no longer socially mandatory that a woman remain a virgin until marriage. The introduction of birth control has given women control over their bodies and it is it now common for women to do what they please, when they please, when it comes to sexual relations outside of marriage. However the lack of individuality and freedom that constricts Messinian society is still constricting our modern lives today and today’s ‘individuals’ are reigned in by a continual need for political correctness, which is destroying the diversity of modern society as it spirals steadily downwards towards creating an emotionless, identical, robotic mass. Shakespeare’s genius lies in capturing the essence of Messinian society in words which, through the language of these disparate people, cleverly represents their place on the social ladder and their prominence in society.
Words are extremely important in Messina, because they reveal this society’s emotions and feelings, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the sparkling exchanges of wit heard between the warring lovers Beatrice and Benedick. In Act 1 Scene 1 Beatrice and Benedick enter into a battle of nicely chosen words while their friends turn aside. Benedick claims, ‘I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none,’ to which Beatrice mockingly replies, ‘I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me’. During this time, before the digital age, speaking and writing words were essential for communicating feelings and Beatrice and Benedick’s rage, passion and love for each other underpins their every utterance. But these same words were also an effective method for spreading innocent and malicious gossip and rumours such as the spiteful gossip concerning Hero’s virtue in Act 4 Scene 1 where her father Leonato is only too willing that she should die rather than live in shame.
‘Oh she is fallen into a pit of ink, that the wide sea hath drops too few to wash her clean again, and salt too little, which may season give to her foul tainted flesh.’ In a time where communication was solely by word of mouth, miscommunication was one of the biggest dangers in a society obsessed with keeping the conventions and codes of behaviour intact. It did not seem to matter that innocent citizen’s lives were shred apart by misinformation and shattering Hero’s innocence by intentionally giving misinformation to the right people is indicative of this society’s obsession with keeping its strict codes of behaviour. Shakespeare structures the language in “Much Ado About Nothing” by alternating between verse and prose to demonstrate the division between the social classes that existed in Messinian society. Only one third of “Much Ado About Nothing” is written in blank verse which makes it a play of the people. High status characters such as Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro use verse in the more serious situations but switch to elegant prose when more relaxed, whereas lower status characters such as Beatrice and Benedick instinctively speak in prose to reflect their rational and worldly wise outlook on life and love, and it is this worldliness which we as an audience respond to.
These witty lovers find prose the more effective medium for their conversation, choosing only to speak in verse at dramatically intense moments such as when Beatrice is overcome with emotion at hearing of Benedick’s love for her during Act 3 Scene 1. Here Beatrice speaks for the first time in verse using not just blank verse, but rhyming verse in abbreviated sonnet form. ‘If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee to bind our loves up in a holy band, for others say thou dost deserve, and I believe it better than reportingly’. But generally prose best suits the earthy realism of these principal wits upon whose quick, spontaneous repartee this comedy rests. Modern society has travelled huge distances from the “Much Ado About Nothing” world of verse, prose and Shakespearean language and today no longer is the use of language an indication of position on the social ladder or prominence in society. Nor is the spoken word essential to the conveyance of emotions, giving them less significance than they bore within Messinan society.
‘I love you’, in the 21st century is conveyed in various forms as casually as we say hello or goodbye. Feelings of anger, mistrust or disappointment are evident in sharp or sarcastic remarks and blasphemy, rather than the exquisite and versatile use of language used in “Much Ado About Nothing” to insult people. Today words are dissected, misspelt and undermined to make them as short and quick as possible to feed our demanding commercial and instantaneous needs. No longer do words flow freely as they did from the Messinan residents’ mouths, capturing a society in poetic motion. Today new generations are using language to its full potential less and less, erasing the once quirky and subtly manipulative aspects of verse and prose demonstrated in the ‘merry war’ of words between Beatrice and Benedick. Words that were once separated by spaces in writing are now separated by time delays in cell phone networks and interrupted by ads on the internet. Commercialism has constricted the English language to those words that have an immediate impact, their sole purpose to make our lives that tiny fraction more accessible.
Instead of alternating between verse and prose, in modern society, we alternate between those words or phrases used by the younger, more ‘hip’ generation and the words of the previous generation who have not yet caught up with ‘the times’. There is however one very prominent link between the use of language in today’s society and the society of Messina, and that is gossip, the use of language to convey idle talk or rumour. Gossip is inevitable, it seems, in any society, and miscommunication is still a shattering issue. Today a shred of misinformation spread through gossip can still devastate its victim, proving that it is the code of conduct governing a society, where it is easier to believe in words about people than in the people themselves, that force its citizens to judge each other based on appearances rather than on any sort of truth. Under society’s rigid rule it is a rare individual indeed who can stand alone.