The Importance of the Theme of Deception in “Much Ado About Nothing”
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William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a play based upon the drama created by a series of deliberate deceptions between the central characters; some benevolent, others malevolent. The play opens with the return of Don Pedro of Arragon, his “bastard” brother Don John and courtiers Claudio and Benedict to Messina, a country governed by Leonato-father to Hero and Uncle to Beatrice. It is quickly established with the audience that Claudio covets Hero romantically whilst Benedict is engaged in a battle of egos or “kind of merry war” with Beatrice. The contrastive relationships between these pairs of characters in turn allows the audience to identify with the dramatic tensions and psychological illusions created by open romantic love and hidden sexual attraction. The plot hinges upon instances of deceit that are developed when characters, and with them-audience, “note” one another’s behaviour and language-with regards to love and marriage. This relates to one interpretation of the play’s title.
According to research, during Shakespearean times “nothing” was pronounced “noting”. The “much ado” in the title could refer to the way that much drama is created by the character’s all “noting” what each says or does. In addition to this, Shakespeare frequently used “ting” to describe the female genitalia throughout many of his plays. With the already mentioned pronunciation of “nothing” as “noting”, the title “Much Ado About Nothing” could also refer to a large fuss created about “no ting”, i.e. no sexual intercourse. This relates to Claudio’s reaction to seeing who he thinks is his wife having sex with Borachio.
In Act 1 scene 1 the audience is introduced to the history and nature of Beatrice and Benedict’s relationship, characterised as a “skirmish of wit”. The language they both use to insult each other and state their positions is passionate and emphatic. Beatrice declares that she would “rather hear her dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me” whilst Benedict reveals that “truly I love none”. Both use language as a way of distancing themselves from their true feelings and consequently language becomes a means of practising self- deception. They are a good match for one another -intellectually and socially.
This contrasts with the match between Claudio and Hero where he is so overwhelmed by Hero’s appearance he ascribes her qualities he does not “know” she possess. This is shown when Claudio declares that Hero is “the sweetest Lady that I ever looked on”. This reveals that Claudio has romanticised Hero based on what he sees. It is this illusion that allows Don John to maliciously deceive Claudio later in the play. It could be argued that Shakespeare knew his audience would be able to see beyond these forms of deception and question the idealistic “romantic” way Claudio sees Hero. Likewise they may recognise that behind the seemingly casual displays of wit lies true depth of feeling. Beatrice and Benedict loudly protest against love and marriage, but it is with “too much” passion. This insight allows the audience to identify more strongly with them and engage with Don Pedro’s motivation to unite them.
Don Pedro’s plan to “humour” Beatrice so that “she shall fall in love with Benedict” builds on and develops the theme of deception further by making it more plot and character driven. Having established the self-deception of Beatrice and Benedict in Act 1 scene 1, Shakespeare introduces a plan which capitalises upon their vulnerabilities- that they deny and hide from themselves but are apparent to their friends. Leonato argues that despite being “born to speak all mirth and no matter” Beatrice nonetheless shows a “little of the melancholy element in her” and has “often dreamt of unhappiness”. Clearly there is a depth to Beatrice’s feelings which she hides behind humour-hence why Don Pedro suggests “humouring” her contrary nature. This revelation is important as it makes the audience privy to the Beatrice behind the “public performance” and more able to see her as a rounded character. The gap between the public and private Beatrice is then exploited through plot and language.
The plan is conceived during the masked ball and this setting has a crucial dramatic function. By virtue of wearing physical masks, the characters of Beatrice and Benedict are given the freedom to be more honest- this conversely develops the theme of deception. The audience learn more of their shared history during Don Pedro’s conversation with Beatrice where she admits to having once had feelings for Benedict. When Don Pedro teases her about losing Benedict’s heart she replies:
“Indeed my Lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one, marry once before he won it of me, with false dice, therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it.”
Then Beatrice then goes on to explain she puts Benedict down “So I would not he should do me, my Lord lest I should prove the mother of fools” Clearly the banter between them is in fact a self-defence strategy driven by the need to protect pride. Having revealed Beatrice’s Achilles heel, Shakespeare is then able to use dramatic irony on two levels. The audience know of Don Pedro’s ruse but Beatrice and Benedict do not. Moreover, we know it will work and why. At this point the deception is developed through the language that Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato and then Hero and Ursula use to convince them to fall in love.
In addition to the benign deceptions that take place there are also deceptions developed that have sinister and malicious intentions. The main instigator of these kind of deceptions is Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John -a man who by his own admission is “a plain-dealing villain” Moreover, he refuses to observe the polished social manners practiced by the other characters; he would “rather be a canker in a hedge” than loved by his brother. He is at least honest about his dishonesty which makes him an interesting villain. Driven by jealousy Don John elicits the support of Borachio to destroy Claudio’s impending marriage to Hero. The deception aims to “misuse the Prince, to vex Claudio, to undo Hero, and kill Leonato” by making it appear that Hero is a “contaminated stale”.
Borachio offers to contrive a situation where he will “woo” Hero’s waiting gentlewoman at her chamber window. As Margaret resembles Hero physically, it only leaves for someone to “note” what appears to be Hero having pre-marital sex for her reputation to be irrevocably destroyed. This aspect would clearly resonate with a Shakespearean audience and reveals the social mores and ideology of the time. Women were defined in terms of a Madonna/Whore dichotomy and female worthiness was intrinsically linked to chastity. The plan not only exploits romantic- idealist Claudio’s tendency to believe only what he sees on the surface but furthermore divides the audience along gender lines. The deception hinges on the use of dramatic irony and this has a huge impact. The audience become morally involved in the plot and are complicit in a variety of deceptions.
As discussed earlier, Hero’s dishonour in a social and historical context is hugely significant. The impact of Don John’s deception is most acutely felt in Act 4 scene 1 when Claudio publicly denounces Hero at their wedding, accusing her of being a “rotten orange” and an “approved wanton”. This not only destroys Hero’s social standing and integrity but those of her entire family by association. The only way in which she, and they, can distance themselves from this reputation is for Hero to “die” and for the “death” to purge her soul of the alleged crime. Thus the Friar devises a plan to stage her death and by doing so “change slander to remorse”. Claudio’s adherence to strict social conventions and his damaged male ego-“a manhood melted into curtsies” has proven greater than his love and trust in Hero. Claudio’s love is idealistic and immature and he becomes a victim not only of Don John’s malicious deception but of his own illusions. The Friar is a progressive character as his plan is designed to make Claudio see beyond Hero’s “crimes” and reveal whether Claudio’s “love had interest in his liver”. The plan isn’t just about Hero’s social redemption, it is about changing Claudio’s attitude to the woman he loves.
The various loose ends of the play are tied up in the last scene. With the play’s two main couples united in marriage and Don John and Borachio receiving their comeuppance. Claudio agrees to marry Hero’s “cousin” to show his true remorse but when the veil is removed, he finds himself confronted by Hero and finally receives the chance to “give her the right she deserves”. Benedict and Beatrice are also united but not after one final “skirmish of wit”. After finally admitting love for each other, Benedict remarks that “I shall have thee . . . but take thee for pity” by which Beatrice responds “I would not deny you this right”. There are some discrepancies with the dramatic ending to the play. When Hero was believed to have had sex before marriage, she was humiliated by Claudio and shunned from the town; but when it is discovered to have been Margaret who had sex before marriage and was “in some fault for” the main deception of the play, she receives no reaction whatsoever. She is forgiven by Leonato who states she did this “against her will”. This would not have been the reaction of the time but may have been left in such way in the play as to ensure the fairytale “…happily ever after” ending wanted by Shakespeare.
In conclusion, I believe deception not only plays a vital role within the play but it is the theme upon which the play has been created. The majority of the characters are deceived and it is because of this that they act in the way they do; deceiving either malevolently or benevolently, it is all done for the greater good of the play and results in the fairytale ending that brought people from all over the country to see “Much Ado About Nothing” The deception also brings about strong feelings from the audience by touching on many subjects that contained moral issues they can relate to. Sexism, hierarchy and crime and punishment to name but a few. The sexist content came a long time before feminism was firmly established in society but aroused debate from the audience over the issues the play had noted. This was one of the first major plays to look at the issue of sexism and helped many other playwrights feel more comfortable with writing about issues before seen as “untouchable”.