A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010 ©
This page has been revised, enlarged, and moved to
.......Much Ado About Nothing is a stage play in the form of a comedy centering on the activities of two war heroes and the women they love. Shakespeare shifts back and forth between the stories of the couples—Benedick and Beatrice, Claudio and Hero—interweaving them into a unified whole. The story observes the three unities (place, time, and action) established by ancient Greek and Renaissance thinkers and writers: (1) It takes place in one locale, (2) it lasts about a single day, and (3) it has one main story (although some view one or the other of the two love stories as a subplot).
.......The probable main source for the play was a short tale by Matteo Bandello (1485-1561), an Italian writer who became a bishop in France. Another apparent source was Orlando Furioso, a great epic poem, by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1535).
.......The messenger has already informed Claudio’s uncle, who lives in Messina, of the young man’s battlefield heroics. So overcome was Claudio’s uncle with joy at this news that he broke down and cried.
.......When Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, inquires about Benedick, the messenger tells her that he also distinguished himself in battle. Benedick and Beatrice are old acquaintances who inwardly love each other but outwardly display nothing but contempt for each other. Whenever they meet, they spend most of their time insulting each other in a long-standing verbal war. When hearing that Benedick has become Claudio’s friend, she says Benedick will surely be a corrupting influence on the Florentine: "O Lord, he will hang upon him [Claudio] like a disease: he is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio! if he have caught the Benedick, it will cost him a thousand pound ere [he] be cured" (1. 1. 34).
.......In temperament, Beatrice is the opposite of Leonato’s lovely daughter, Hero, a delicate gentlewoman of utmost propriety who obeys her father and keeps her tongue in check.
.......After Don Pedro and his company arrive, they exchange pleasantries with Leonato, and Don John expresses remorse and repentance for waging war against his brother. Inwardly, however, he seethes with bitterness and looks for an opportunity to gain revenge. When Claudio first beholds the sight of the comely Hero, he falls madly in love with her. She is to him the paragon of young womanhood—as sweet as honey, as innocent as a lamb. Hero does not shy away from Claudio’s wooing eyes.
.......Meanwhile, when Benedick sees Beatrice and she sees him, they fall madly in hate all over again even though they secretly love each other. Of course, as they parry savage insults that burn to the quick, the audience and the reader realize that the sparks they make will eventually ignite the fires of passion.
.......At a masked ball, Beatrice asks a masked man whether he knows Benedick, not realizing that the man is Benedick himself. Playing a little game with her, Benedick denies knowing the man and asks who he is. Beatrice replies, “Why, he is the prince’s jester: a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders: none but libertines delight in him; and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy” (2. 1. 64). (An interesting argument could be made here that Beatrice does, in fact, know that she is addressing Benedick and, further, that she improvised the insult to prick his ego.)
.......Later, when they confront each other without disguises, Benedick returns the insult when, in a conversation with Governor Leonato, he compares Beatrice to a harpy, a hideous winged monster in Greek mythology. Don John, the revenge-seeking troublemaker, tries to thwart the flourishing romance between Claudio and Hero. Claudio, after all, won glory in the military action that subdued Don John. He had humbled and humiliated Don John. Did not Claudio, therefore, deserve a comeuppance of his own? Don John then tries to convince Claudio that Hero loves Don Pedro. After much ado and confusion, his plan fails, and it is agreed with the governor’s blessing that Claudio and Hero will marry.
.......While all Messina prepares for the wedding, Don Pedro sets himself to a Herculean task: making Benedick and Beatrice fall in love. With the help of Hero, Don Pedro arranges occasions in which Benedick overhears that Beatrice loves him, and Beatrice overhears that Benedick loves her. Their enmity for each other softens; their love for each other quickens.
.......In the meantime, the evil Don John tries another scheme, designed by his henchman, Borachio. Borachio tells Margaret, one of Hero’s servants, to dress in Hero’s clothes and stand at Hero’s window at midnight on the evening before the wedding. Margaret is only too willing to do as she is told, for she is sweet on Borachio. However, she is unaware that she is about to take part in a plot against Hero. Just before midnight, Don Pedro and Claudio arrive in an orchard nearby, having been told by Don John that Hero has been trysting with another man and that she will meet with him again that very night. While they watch, Margaret appears at the window in Hero’s clothes and Borachio, pretending to be a paramour, climbs out while Margaret bids him loving farewells. In the darkness, Don Pedro and Claudio fall victim to the deception and believe Hero has surrendered herself to some unnamed man.
.......At the altar the next day, Claudio condemns Hero as a whore for making love with another man on the eve of her wedding. He tells Leonato, “Give not this rotten orange to your friend. . . . She knows the heat of a luxurious bed” (4. 1. 25. . . 34). Hero faints. Her father, Leonato, takes Claudio at his word, believing Hero is indeed a whore.
.......Only Benedick and Beatrice—as well as the local priest, Friar Francis—believe in Hero’s innocence. After they plead their case in Hero’s favor, Governor Leonato has second thoughts about his daughter, and Friar Francis persuades Leonato that it would be best to pretend that Hero has died of grief. The friar says,
Your daughter here the princes left for dead:.......Thinking Hero dead, perhaps Claudio, out of grief and sympathy for his former beloved, will change his opinion of her. That is the idea, anyway. Benedick and Beatrice, meanwhile, argue about what to do next. During their conversation, Benedick tells Beatrice that he truly loves her. But Beatrice, in a torrent of tongue-lash, challenges Benedick to kill Claudio because he has dishonored Hero. Benedick cows before her verbal onslaught and agrees to do her bidding. But—what ho!—Leonato has already challenged Claudio. Now convinced of his daughter’s innocence, he means to kill her dastardly accuser. When Leonato and Claudio are about to square off, everyone learns of Don John’s treachery. It seems that Borachio was overheard bragging about his plot against Hero to one of his cronies, Conrade, and they confess the crime to the local constable, Dogberry. Dogberry makes one of the henchmen confess again before Claudio, Leonato, Benedick, and all the others.
.......Claudio repents and praises the “dead” Hero to the highest of heavens, then vows to do whatever penance Leonato imposes upon him. Leonato says Claudio can redeem himself by marrying someone else:
Be yet my nephew: my brother hath a daughter,.......Claudio embraces the offer. On the day of the wedding, Claudio discovers that the bride is really Hero, who swears that her virginity is intact. The friar then bids everyone to follow him to the chapel. On the way, Claudio produces a secret love sonnet that Benedick wrote to Beatrice. Hero produces another secret sonnet expressing Beatrice’s love for Benedick. Benedick and Beatrice exchange final insults while agreeing to marry, but Benedick has the last word, saying, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” (5. 4. 104). Then he kisses her. While the couples marry, Don John escapes but is captured and brought back to await justice. Benedick says he will devise a fitting punishment for him, then order pipers to play. All ends joyfully with music and dancing.
The road to marriage is often lined with pitfalls and impediments. Benedick and Beatrice are hostile lovers before they warm to each other. Claudio doubts Hero's chastity before he is proven wrong.
People often wear masks to disguise their true feelings. For example, Benedick and Beatrice pretend to despise each other even though they love each other, and Don John pretends to be remorseful when all the while he is plotting revenge.
All is not what it seems. Mistaken identities, false accusations, misleading conversations, and ironic outcomes all confound the principle characters. This theme is a variation of Theme 2.
Love is NOT blind. Benedick well knows that Beatrice has a sharp tongue whose stings he must endure if he is to be her husband and live with her for decades to come. Likewise, Beatrice well knows Benedick's faults. Yet, before the end of play, they acknowledge their deep love for each other and marry.
Love IS blind. Hero ignores Claudio's faults. For example, she accepts Claudio as her husband even though only a short time before he so readily believed the slanders against her, called her a "rotten orange," and agreed to marry another in her place. Moreover, she never questions his motives—one of which, apparently, is to marry into money. (He had previously inquired whether Governor Leonato had a son and was told Hero was Leonato's only child and, thus, sole heir to his property.)
A woman's chastity is a treasure no man should possess except in marriage. The brouhaha over the false charge that Hero slept with a stranger underscores the high regard that the central characters in the play have for a virginal bride.
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Much Ado About Nothing occurs, according to the first definition, when Claudio rejects Hero on their wedding day in the mistaken belief that Hero has yielded to another man the day before. According to the second definition, the climax occurs in the final act when Beatrice and Benedick grudgingly acknowledge their love for each other and marry in the same ceremony uniting Claudio and Hero.
.......Much Ado About Nothing centers on the activities of two war heroes and the women they love. Shakespeare shifts back and forth between the stories of the couples—Benedick and Beatrice, Claudio and Hero—interweaving them into a unified whole. The play observes the three unities devised by ancient Greek and Renaissance thinker and writers: (1) It takes place in one locale, (2) it lasts about a single day, and (3) it has one main story (although some view one or the other of the two love stories as a sub-plot).
Prose vs Verse
.......The play is unusual for Shakespeare in that the characters speak in prose rather than verse most of the time. However, even when the passages are in prose, they contain the brilliant imagery typical of Shakespeare. The characters who speak most often in verse are Claudio and Hero, perhaps as part of an effort by Shakespeare to demonstrate—and sometimes to mock—their lofty feelings of love, and Leonato and Friar Francis, perhaps to express the formality of their roles as governor and priest, respectively.
.......Shakespeare often uses animal imagery in exchanges between Beatrice and Benedick and in references to them by other characters, perhaps to suggest the wildness of the love/hate relationship between the two. The following exchange between Beatrice and Benedick in Act I, Scene I, demonstrates this point:
..............BEATRICE.....I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
..............BENEDICK.....God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other
..............shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.
..............BEATRICE.....Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.
..............BENEDICK.....Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.
..............BEATRICE.....A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.
..............BENEDICK.....I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. (1. 1. 53-58)
Benedick declares that if he ever succumbs to the pangs of love, he will be like a trapped animal: “If I do [submit to love], hang me in a bottle like a cat and shoot at me; and he that hits me, let him be clapped on the shoulder” (1. 1. 101). When Don Pedro tells him that even a “savage bull” (1. 1. 103) must in time yield to the yoke of love, Benedick says that
The savage bull may; but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it [the yoke], pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead: and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write 'Here is good horse to hire,' let them signify under my sign 'Here you may see Benedick the married man.' (1. 1. 104).......When Leonato and Antonio tell Beatrice that her tongue is too cursed to ever get a husband, Beatrice answers, “Too curst is more than curst: I shall lessen God’s sending that way; for it is said, ‘God sends a curst cow short horns’; but to a cow too curst he sends none” (2. 1. 12).
.......Benedick goes to extremes when he compares Beatrice to a harpy, a hideous winged monster in Greek mythology, telling Don Pedro that he will perform any service for him rather than be made to converse with Beatrice. The complete passage is worth repeating here for its use of hyperbole:
Will your Grace command me any service to the world's end? I will go on the slightest errand now to the Antipodes2 that you can devise to send me on; I will fetch you a tooth-picker now from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you the length of Prester John’s3 foot, fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s4 beard, do you any embassage to the Pigmies, rather than hold three words’ conference with this harpy.5 You have no employment for me? (2. 1. 114)When Beatrice finally acknowledges her love for Benedick, she also implies that she is like an animal who needs to control her feral instincts: “Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, / Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand" (3. 1. 117-118).
Metaphors of Fire
.......In spite of his outward disdain for Beatrice, Benedick inwardly burns with love for her, as the following passage suggests: “That I neither feel how she should be loved nor know how she should be worthy, is the opinion that fire cannot melt out of me: I will die in it at the stake” (1. 1. 94). Hero repeats this motif when she says it is better for Benedick to be consumed by the fire of his passion than to die from Beatrice’s tongue-lashings:
Therefore let Benedick, like cover’d fire,
.......Dogberry is an archetype for bumbling police officers in modern film and television comedies. Among movie and TV policemen who followed in his footsteps are Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Smoky and the Bandit), Inspector Clouseau (The Pink Panther), Maxwell Smart (Get Smart), and Barny Fife (Andy Griffith Show). However, Dogberry gets laughs mostly for verbal faux pas—in particular, malapropisms—rather than for slapstick. Examples of his malapropisms are the following underlined words:
1. “You are thought here to be the most senseless [sensible] and fit man for the constable of the watch” (3. 3. 11).
In your opinion, why do Benedick and Beatrice at first refuse to acknowledge
their love for each other?
Announce, make it known.