Much Ado About Nothing | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Why did Shakespeare set Much Ado About Nothing outside of England?

Much Ado About Nothing is set in Messina, Italy, as Act 1, Scene 1 opens, around the mid- to late-1500s. Messina is on the coast of Sicily, an island in the Mediterranean Sea just off mainland Italy. At the time the play takes place, parts of Italy, including Sicily, were ruled by Spain. Shakespeare most likely never set foot in Italy, but he set several of his plays there. Much Ado About Nothing takes place there for a few reasons. First of all, Italy was an exotic locale to the English of the Elizabethan era and served as an escape from the everyday drudgery of London. Secondly, citizens of the Mediterranean were rumored to be more hot-blooded, or lustful. That would have made the bawdy jokes more acceptable to a straitlaced Elizabethan audience. Lastly, Italians were primarily Catholic, and Elizabethan England was primarily Protestant, and saw the Catholic Church as a corrupt institution, which meant that audiences were very comfortable with the idea of evil or licentious Catholic characters.

What is the significance of the soldiers' return from war in Act 1, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing?

Don Pedro and his soldiers arrive at Leonato's house after an unspecified war. Victorious in battle, their arrival is a cause for celebration, particularly since "full numbers" of those who went in battle returned home alive. This good news sets the stage for the mostly happy story to come. It also accounts for the change in Claudio's thoughts on marriage. Claudio and Hero met before Claudio left for battle, but he had only "looked upon her with a soldier's eye." He didn't have the time nor inclination to think about love before going off to war. Now that it's behind him, he is able to recognize he had feelings for Hero before he left for battle. Shakespeare is insinuating it is difficult to hold both love and war in your heart at the same time. When the hostilities are over, it is possible to love again.

What is the nature of Beatrice and Benedick's relationship prior to Act 1, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing?

Shakespeare doesn't explicitly describe Beatrice and Benedick's relationship prior to the beginning of Much Ado About Nothing, but clues peppered throughout the text indicate they knew each other well enough to entertain romantic feelings for one another. In Act 1, Scene 1 the reader learns that Beatrice knows Benedick (and his verbal trickery) "of old." In Act 2, Scene 1 Beatrice tells Don Pedro that she and Benedick had exchanged hearts for a little while, but he won hers with "false dice." By this she means he cheated somehow, as if playing a game with weighted dice. Whatever happened between them wasn't good. Both so strongly oppose the very idea of love and married, it has become a defining characteristic of their relationship.

What is the significance of the discussion about Hero's parentage in Act 1, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing?

Don Pedro takes one look at Hero upon his return to Messina and says to Leonato, "I think this is your daughter." Leonato jokes, "Her mother hath many times told me so." Benedick asks if Leonato has reason to doubt this claim, and Leonato says no, as Benedick was just a little boy when Hero was conceived. This conversation tells the reader two things of importance: Honor is going to be a theme of extreme importance in this play. A woman's honor is distinguished by her virtue and a man's by his reputation. Virtuous women are, above all else, chaste before marriage. A rumor that a woman is not virtuous would hurt not only her reputation, but her husband's as well. Leonato's quip that his wife assures him Hero is his shows how words are often taken as fact. Leonato could have easily pointed out how much Hero looks like him as proof of her parentage, but instead he uses he's wife's word as evidence. In this play words are taken as fact. This exchange also gives the reader insight into Benedick's character. Leonato redirects Benedick's jab of "Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?" by insinuating he wasn't ever in doubt because Benedick, who would have been too young back then, is the only man for miles around known to woo women away from their husbands. This tells the reader Benedick has a reputation for being a ladies' man who is known to woo but never marry.

What do horns symbolize in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing?

Horns are an age-old symbol of a cuckold—a man whose wife has sex with other men. The men in Much Ado About Nothing, particularly Benedick, joke about growing horns. He tells Don Pedro and Claudio to "pluck off the bull's horns and set them in my forehead" if he ever marries, for he will surely be cuckolded as women cannot be trusted. This joking around belies the very serious concern in the Elizabethan era that women were unable to control their lust. It would be bad for a woman to be caught cheating, but it would be even worse for her husband. The idea is the cuckold would grow horns on his forehead, which everyone but him could see, thus revealing him as being duped by his wife. This would be terribly embarrassing and ruin his reputation. Horns have been associated with cuckoldry for so long it's hard to say where the idea originated. Some scholars believe it has something to do with horns growing on a castrated rooster, while others attribute it to the Greek emperor Andronicus, who rewarded the husbands of his sexual conquests with hunting privileges and marked their houses with horns. One of the most widely accepted theories is the cuckold's horns are related to Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt who transformed a man who saw her naked into an antlered deer.

Why is Benedick so worried about becoming a cuckold in Act 1, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing?

A cuckold is someone whose wife sleeps with another man. Shakespeare uses cuckoldry as a source of joke material in many of his plays. But the underlying fear of becoming a cuckold was exceptionally real during Elizabethan times for a few reasons: Though Elizabethan society was accepting of sex as a matter of nature, women's sexuality was something to be feared. Women were thought to be unable to control their lust. A woman's virtue—which usually refers to her virginity—was a reflection of her father and, later, her husband. That's why a woman who maintained her virginity until marriage was so widely valued. Benedick worries not only any woman he marries will be unable to remain faithful, but her infidelity will make a public spectacle of him. Benedick has established himself as a good soldier, a gentleman, and a man of class. The embarrassment of being labeled a cuckold is not something he's eager to endure.

What is the root of Don John's villainy in Much Ado About Nothing?

Don John is one of the least-developed characters in Shakespeare's long line of villains. Shakespeare isn't subtle on this point: Don John comes right out and tells Conrade he's "a plain-dealing villain" in Act 1, Scene 3. His desire to make mischief most likely stems from his status as a bastard, or man of illegitimate birth. Don John's illegitimate status is mentioned in the character list of the text version of the play, as well as in some stage directions, but theater-going audiences don't hear the word "bastard" spoken aloud until Act 4, Scene 1, when Benedick says the plot to slander Hero was probably the work of "John the Bastard,/Whose spirits toil in frame of villainies." Don John is known for doing terrible things, but everyone except Benedick seems to forget that. Because of his illegitimacy, Don John isn't a prince (though some characters mischaracterize him as one). This undoubtedly causes a strain in his relationship with Don Pedro. There was a falling out between the two half-brothers, and as Don John tells Conrade, it is only recently they have come back together. In the meantime Don Pedro and Claudio have become close. Don John blames "that young start-up" for "the glory of my overthrow." He wants to punish Claudio for taking what he feels is his rightful place next to his half-brother the prince, which is why he tries to prevent Claudio from securing a happy marriage.

What is the importance of Don John's first plan to prevent Claudio from marrying Hero in Much Ado About Nothing?

At the masquerade ball in Act 2, Scene 1, Don John and Borachio tell a masked Claudio—pretending they think he is Benedick—Don Pedro is going to ask for Hero's hand in marriage for himself, not Claudio. The plan ultimately doesn't work; Claudio soon discovers Don Pedro fulfilled his promise to woo Hero for Claudio. This first attempt at ruining Claudio's chances for a happy marriage is important for a few reasons. It shows how far Don John will go to destroy Claudio. He's not taking a lot of risk by just starting a rumor, but people will undoubtedly find out he was its source. That makes him look bad. The more important aspect of Don John's first plan is it establishes Claudio as a gullible target. Being a young and new recruit, he may not be as familiar with Don John's villainy as Benedick and is willing to trust a man most people deem untrustworthy. This makes Claudio's decision to trust Don John later in the play more believable while also calling his own judgment into question. He falls for the same trick from the same man twice, which doesn't speak volumes about his own intelligence.

How does Don Pedro's self-image in Much Ado About Nothing compare or contrast to the way other characters think about him?

Don Pedro wears the title of royalty and is warmly welcomed everywhere he goes. He has a good record in battle, and he's genial and fun to be around. His men all admire him, Claudio in particular. He's an all-around well-liked guy. One of his more interesting personality characteristics, however, has to do with women. Don Pedro is convinced he is the mortal version of a love god. Not only does he play Cupid's role in getting Beatrice and Benedick together, but he assures Claudio he can successfully woo Hero in Claudio's stead. "I will fit thee with the remedy," he tells Claudio, then describes how he'll tell Hero he is Claudio and then "unclasp my heart/And take her hearing prisoner with the force/And strong encounter of my amorous tale." Not everyone shares Don Pedro's view of himself. When he offers to get Beatrice a husband in Act 2, Scene 1, she tells Don Pedro she would rather have "one of your father's getting," for his father "got excellent husbands." Then Don Pedro offers himself to Beatrice and she respectfully declines unless she "might have another for working days." The men look to Don Pedro for advice about love, but the women aren't nearly as impressed.

How does Claudio's newfound interest in love alter his manner of speaking in Much Ado About Nothing?

In Act 2, Scene 3 Benedick notices Claudio has changed a lot since he fell in love just a few days before. Up until that point, Bendick always viewed Claudio as a soldier. They shared a mutual disdain for marriage during their time in the army, and Benedick finds it jarring Claudio's view could change so quickly. He is particularly attuned to the change in Claudio's speech. On the frontlines Claudio "was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier" but "now is he turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet." Claudio is suddenly speaking in an overly precise manner and at very great length. This is most likely because he's trying to establish himself as a nobleman worthy of Hero's love and Leonato's fortune. It strikes the verbose and verbally gifted Benedick as being false. He feels this clumsy new wordsmith is not the real Claudio, but someone putting on a show and using language to do it.

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