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To What Extent is Much Ado About Nothing Seen as a Satire?

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This essay will analyse the way in which Shakespeare makes this comedy bitterly satirical, and a comment on not only the pretentious style and swank of Spaniards, namely Don Pedro and his gang, but human stupidity as a whole. Much Ado About Nothing portrays the issues of sex, war, marriage and chivalric courtly love in an ironic and satirical way. On a topical level, the play satirises Spanish, Sicilian and Italian aristocrats in the 16th Century, and their comical dress sense, style of speech and general outlook and their anachronistic concepts. The appearance of Don Pedro’s group of friends from the outset would be funny, as not only do they affect this aristocratic culture and lifestyle, but also they are complete travesties of it.

Firstly, the targets of the plays satire should be studied. These are mostly Don Pedro and Don John, who display not only clear-cut humorous pretension and stupidity, but also a deeper, more worrying instability. This, while obvious to the reader, seems totally ignored and unimportant to the rest of the male clique. This latent sexual paranoia and mental issues form most of the play’s satire, and is seen more often, especially in the case of the ambiguous Don Pedro.

“If thou dost love fair Hero, cherish it, and I will break with her, and with the father, and thou shalt have her”

Don Pedro says this in reply to Claudio. I think that it is the first we see of Don Pedro’s disturbing, rather egotistical and panderous nature. He addresses Claudio in verse form, seeming loyal and noble, but the fact that he is insistent on wooing Hero himself in Claudio’s name is rather unusual, and makes us wonder what his intentions are deep down. He seems more and more self-obsessed and unstable as we progress in the play, especially in Act 2 Scene 1 where he displays the same strange traits in trying to get Benedick together with Beatrice.

“I will, in the interim, undertake one of Hercules’ labours, which is, to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other.”

In this dialogue, Don Pedro says the word ‘I’ more than anything else. His suggestion is very strange and it seems like he is a control freak, and also very lonely. However, instead of questioning his reasons, Leonato and Claudio, blinded by swank just as much, agree to it wholeheartedly. Don Pedro, in Act III Scene II, makes a terribly ironic statement concerning Benedick’s dress sense, which shows him affecting a satirical role himself, but ending up making a joke about himself.

“…a Dutchman today, a Frenchman tomorrow, or…a German from the waist downward…and a Spaniard from the hip upward, no doublet.”

This mockery of Spaniards, his own nationality, as well as Dutch, French and German men prove his ignorance of self, as well as his pretentious and egotistical nature.

Just as Claudio believes himself to be a courageous and loving young nobleman, Leonato affects to a father figure role, and believes that he is the wisest of them all, whereas in truth, he is no less jaded than any of the other characters, and is easily made a fool of.

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

Claud. : No.

Leon. : To be married to her, friar: you come to marry her.

One would think after having known these men for a long time, he would be able to recognize their intentions, and Claudio puts them very bluntly here. The darker side to this marriage ceremony becomes apparent later on. Claudio and Don Pedro state blindly that Hero is guilty, and Leonato believes them straight off without one word of doubt. Not only does Claudio obviously not know Hero’s personality in the slightest, neither does her own father, treating her like some object for sale. At parts like this the comedy aspect is lost and dark satire takes over.

“But mine, and mine I lov’d, and mine I prais’d,

And mine that I was proud on – mine so much

That I myself was to myself not mine…”

This public posturing statement from Leonato is ridiculous and makes him look like a conceited idiot. Not only does he not seem to know or care for his own daughter in the slightest, but even when she collapses and may be dead, all he can think about is himself and his honour. He even goes as far as to wish Hero were dead. This shows how the male code of honour can be twisted and warped so much as to completely blind people to the truth.

Next. I will study the dark and ominous Don John, cunning and powerful villain. Or at least he’d like to think so. John the bastard is one of the play’s anomalies as so much as he disappears without a trace when most of the other characters’ fates are decided. He affects to the role of saturnine enemy of the peace, and has two sidekicks – Borachio and Conrade. He trusts them with all his devious plots and pays them handsomely, without realizing the pay is probably the only reason they help him. None of the characters ever question his genuineness, and they all stupidly trust him without question at first, but it is obvious to the reader that in reality he puts on his role of stage villain, and is just a lonely man, upset by seeing other couples get together.

“If I had my mouth I would bite; if I had my liberty I would do my liking: in the meantime. Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”

For someone who claims to be a man of little words, John does a good job of pouring out his heart in this outburst. There are many similarities to Don Pedro’s style here. He does not speak in blank verse, but again the number of ‘I’s and the yearning for power show his egotistical and unstable nature, and also his liking for longwinded pretentious speeches. After studying these different characters it becomes apparent that they all have vital similarities – At some point they are all totally ignorant of the truth, all because of the deception of ‘honour’ and the trickery and plots, whether benign or malicious, of other people. This male role-play is the result of some deep-seated insecurity, most probably sexual. Don John’s inflated saturnine style works with the other men, who respect and even fear him, but Borachio sees the truth of it, a clear weakness, and uses John’s vain blindness to exploit him and his money. This blindness in itself drives the plot forward.

At the very start of the play, we see Beatrice’s satirical nature as she addresses the messenger, bringing news of the wars won, and the bravery of certain soldiers. The mood in this opening dialogue would be deadly serious if it wasn’t for Beatrice making a mockery of the brave and valorous ‘Signor Mountanto’.

“How many hath he killed? For I promise to eat all of his killing.”

She claims here that Benedick doesn’t actually have the stomach to kill anybody, and retorts to every sincere statement with a wry satirical comment about Benedick’s courage. This sort of language is constant throughout the play, and makes Beatrice the foremost satirical character, along with Borachio in the first part of the play.

Women in Elizabethan England were expected to know their role, and stay at home under full control of the dominant husband. Whilst more respected than in subsequent centuries, they did not have the right to vote, were given little independence outside the house and were definitely not allowed to act in theatre. Because of this, small effeminate boys played the part of women in Shakespearian plays. This was male chauvinism at its worst, and Shakespeare makes a humorous joke about it with Beatrice’s line “Would I were a man”, which was sure to get a laugh from his audience, as the line was delivered by a boy. This in itself says a lot about male sexual paranoia, and the anxiety of being dominant in acting as well as everyday life.

Later on in scene 1, the na�ve Claudio inquires after Hero, and asks Benedick what he thinks of her. He immediately mocks the way in which Claudio talks about her, and questions his amorous intentions.

“…do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder, and Vulcan a rare carpenter?”

This is a subtle satirical bite at courtly love. Words like ‘hare-finder’ are obvious double-entendres with strong sexual implications, which Claudio seems to miss completely. Here we see that Benedick’s tongue is just as sharp at Beatrice’s, and the two witty and also wisest of characters are introduced. When Claudio mentions marriage with Hero, this disappoints Benedick, and he immediately launches into a stab at ‘the married man’.

“In faith, hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion?”

This is an obvious reference to cuckolding. A cuckold in Shakespearian times was always shown wearing two large horns on his head in theatre, like a yoked and chained bull. The regular references to horns also relate to this, and are of low sexual humour. Again later on, when Don Pedro and Claudio are persuading Benedick that he will get married, he replies with seeming horror.

“If I do, hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me, and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder and called Adam.”

All this fiery wit and language may be obvious satire, but we wonder here if Benedick is not a ‘professed tyrant to their sex’, but merely afraid of relationships. Therefore he himself is at first victim of the playwright’s satire. However, although part of the male clique at the beginning, he is never as blindly devoted to it as the others are, and shows his sense through mocking the idea of courtly love, and also poetry writing – “I was not born under a rhyming planet, nor I cannot woo in festival terms”. When his love for Beatrice is realised, he more or less completely detaches from the male group, and shows his true nature as an intelligent and satirical individual; he removes his metaphorical blindfold and is now able to see all the other characters for what they really are.

The moment Benedick leaves, we see a new form of satire in Claudio and Don Pedro. One that is not straightforward and funny, and one that is not realised by the characters themselves. Shakespeare portrays these two in particular as noble upholders of chivalry and courtly love, but as we read through the play it becomes evident that they are victims themselves, affecting style and swank, but not having much other than blind narcissism and insecurities underneath their thin facades.

The underlying psychological mechanism of the play is that all the characters at some stage make much ado about absolutely nothing. For instance, everyone’s trust in Don John and the way Claudio completely overreacts to his lie about Don Pedro wooing Hero, and plays up on his self-dramatisation. “…trust no agent; for beauty is a witch / Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.”

Dogberry and Verges, the obviously stupid and barely understandable watchmen, are in a sense a microcosm of the play as a whole. Their embarrassing malapropisms and creation of the imaginary character ‘Deformed’ are a parody of the other characters’ pretensions. While characters such as Leonato ignore and patronise them, the aristocrats themselves are no more intelligent.

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