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Much Ado About Nothing | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Shakespeare incorporate tragedy into Much Ado About Nothing?

Though Much Ado About Nothing is classified as a romantic comedy, the fun and farce comes screeching to a halt in Act 4, Scene 1. Most comedies would end with the wedding, but at theirs Claudio accuses Hero of knowing "the heat of a luxurious bed." This change in tenor puts the audience on edge, particularly when it is decided Hero should play dead until Claudio loves her again. That's purposeful on Shakespeare's part. Just as there is no light without darkness, humor wouldn't exist without sadness. The events of Act 4, Scene 1 make the rest of the play, particularly the ending, seem joyous. Shakespeare brings tension to the play's climax so he can release it at the resolution.

What accounts for Leonato's reaction to Claudio's accusations about Hero's infidelity in Much Ado About Nothing?

Leonato is completely enraged by Claudio's accusation that Hero "knows the heat of a luxurious bed." He's not mad at Claudio, though—he's mad at Hero. A woman's virtue, including her virginity, meant everything in the 16th century. It designated her as a respectable person with good morals. As important as a woman's virtue was to her own reputation, it was even more important to the men in her life. An unmarried woman was considered to be the responsibility of her father, whose foremost duty was to protect her chastity. He would be considered as much at fault as his daughter. While the rumors about Hero's infidelity will ruin Hero's life, they will also reflect poorly on Leonato, who is well-known and respected in Messina due to his position as governor. That's why when Claudio accuses Hero of being unchaste, Leonato says he wants to die; then after her collapse, he states if he weren't so sure she was close to death, "Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches, strike at thy life." He is more worried about his reputation than his daughter's.

What is the major difference between the nature of the insults traded by Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing?

Beatrice and Benedick's "merry war," as it is described by Leonato in Act 1, Scene 1, is full of clever turns of phrase and witty repartee. There is a marked difference, however, in how Beatrice speaks to Benedick and how Benedick replies. Beatrice is positively venomous when she's talking about and to Benedick. She insults his intelligence, his skills in battle, his appearance, and even his relationship with Don Pedro. Benedick is particularly insulted when she refers to him as "the Prince's jester, a very dull fool." Beatrice wants her words to wound, and she succeeds. Benedick says "she speaks poniards [small, narrow daggers], and every word stabs." Benedick, on the other hand, rarely says anything negative about Beatrice unless she's standing right in front of him, and even then he makes sure to only comment upon her verbal gymnastics. This is purposeful. As he tells Margaret in Act 5, Scene 2: "A most manly wit, Margaret, it will not hurt a woman." Benedick considers himself a gentleman above all else, and he would never intentionally try to harm Beatrice. These differences suggest the unspoken history between Beatrice and Benedick. Beatrice clearly feels she has been wronged by Benedick, who she says won her heart with "false dice." It's unclear how long ago this happened, but it affected her so much she still wants to punish him for it. Benedick may also view himself as being in the wrong, as his only ill-willed remarks about Beatrice are in response to her comments about him. He has no score to settle with her.

What truth is there to Beatrice's claim in Act 2, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing that Benedick is the prince's jester?

Benedick is very affronted by Beatrice's pronouncement in Act 2, Scene 1 that he is "the Prince's jester, a very dull fool." She says this to get under his skin, but there's more than a grain of truth to her prodding. This is evident in Act 5, Scene 1 when Benedick comes to challenge Claudio to a duel. Claudio and Don Pedro are shaken after their encounter with Leonato and Antonio, and Claudio says "We have been up and down to seek thee, for we are high-proof melancholy and would fain have it beaten away. Wilt thou use thy wit?" Benedick is in no mood to entertain, but Claudio doesn't let it go. This is proof Claudio, if not Don Pedro, sees Benedick as fulfilling the court jester position. This makes Benedick angrier than he already was, which stiffens his resolve to fight Claudio over Hero's honor.

What is significant about who restores Hero's honor at the end of Much Ado About Nothing?

By its very definition as an Elizabethan comedy, Much Ado About Nothing has a happy ending. However, the way Shakespeare gets there may seem strange to today's audiences. It isn't one of the leading men—Claudio, Benedick, or Don Pedro—who clear Hero's name, nor is it Hero herself. It is actually a villain, Borachio, who sets things right between Hero and Claudio at the end of the play. This is notable for a few reasons: When Hero vowed that she was innocent, none of the men except the friar and Benedick believed her, and Benedick needed Beatrice's assurances before he accepted Hero's words as truth. Hearsay about her honor is more influential and persuasive than the actual truth about her honor, especially when the truth comes from the woman in question. The heroic soldiers who have just come back from war aren't actually all that heroic when it comes to defending a maiden's honor. Claudio and Don Pedro are more worried about their own reputations than that of a gentlewoman they, up until that point, very much admired. They believe their reputations are more valuable than hers.

How does Don Pedro's social status change during the course of Much Ado About Nothing?

Don Pedro is the Prince of Aragon, Spain. At the time Much Ado About Nothing was written, Spain controlled Sicily, where Messina is located. Therefore Don Pedro is the highest-ranking person on Leonato's property and in all of Messina. Leonato, who is the governor of Messina and high ranking in his own right, defers to Don Pedro in everything, even going so far as to ask the prince to lead the group into Leonato's own home. To his credit Don Pedro doesn't take advantage of his position and treats Leonato as an equal, taking his hand and telling him "We will go together." Don Pedro remains in charge during the next few acts of the play. He secures an engagement to Hero for Claudio and devises the plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together. Not until Act 5, Scene 1—when Don Pedro and Claudio find out the truth behind Hero's slander—does Don Pedro's power start to slip. He feels awful for his part in Hero's alleged death, and Leonato capitalizes on that by accusing Don Pedro of being one of the villains responsible for Hero's demise. "I thank you, princes, for my daughter's death./Record it with your high and worthy deeds./'Twas bravely done, if you bethink you of it." This is all out insubordination on Leonato's part, but Don Pedro doesn't protest or reprimand his inferior. Instead, he vows to do whatever Leonato wishes. He doesn't regain his superiority even after it is revealed Hero is alive, and instead remains a peg below his host.

How does Dogberry represent the role of the clown in Much Ado About Nothing?

Elizabethan drama was rife with clown roles both in comedies and tragedies, and Shakespeare's plays were no exceptions. They were played by famous and beloved comedic actors, and the clown roles were usually designed to play to a specific actor's strengths. Shakespeare's most famous clowns are found in Hamlet and Macbeth, both tragedies where their humor stands out among the doom and gloom. Dogberry, though a character in a comedy, also fits the profile of one of Shakespeare's clowns. Clowns were traditionally used to lighten the mood of the play. In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry's scenes come immediately before and immediately after Claudio slanders Hero at the altar. While Shakespeare's plays were often about nobility, the clowns were always commoners. If the play took place in a foreign land, the clowns had English names and English references. Such is the case with Dogberry, who sports a far more English name than Don Pedro or Leonato, and is about as low class as one can be. He also speaks in much plainer language, which would resonate with much of the Elizabethan audience. Clowns are used not just for comedy, but to help the audience connect with the themes of the play. The thought is the "common man" can explain ideas viewers may have missed during the more intense moments of the play. Dogberry's scenes are full of garbled words and silly situations, but he also does a very good job reinforcing the themes of honor and language. His comment about not standing near a thief for fear his reputation will spread is a more basic explanation of how Claudio feels about marrying an unchaste Hero.

Why is Don Pedro so melancholy in Act 5, Scene 1 of Much Ado About Nothing?

Don Pedro has the most status and the most power of everyone gathered at Leonato's home, but even those things don't bring him any joy at the end of Much Ado About Nothing. In fact they might be the cause of his sadness. Don Pedro has been palling around with Claudio for many months, and with Benedick for even longer. They battled together, joked together, and made eyes at maidens together. When Benedick and Claudio suddenly decide to get married, the boys' club breaks up and Don Pedro is all alone, which is why Benedick insists, "Get thee a wife, get thee a wife." Unfortunately, that's not as simple as it sounds. Don Pedro tried to get himself a wife in Act 2, Scene 1 when he offered himself to Beatrice. She politely refused him by saying, "Your Grace is too costly to wear every day." Thus Don Pedro is without a wife while his closest friends celebrate their newfound happiness.

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

Masks are symbolic of the need to hide oneself when dealing with matters of great vulnerability, such as love. Masks are first worn at the dance on the evening Don Pedro and his soldiers arrive in Messina. The prince disguises himself with a mask to woo Hero for Claudio, as Claudio feels he cannot adequately express his love for Hero on his own. Benedick wears a mask as he asks Margaret if she likes him, and Antonio wears a mask as he teases Ursula. It is easier to be denied or rejected when one hides one's true "self" behind a mask. Masks are worn again during the second wedding ceremony, but this time it's the women who wear them. This signifies a switch in gender roles. Claudio has no option but to marry whomever Leonato presents to him, much as women in Elizabethan times often didn't get a say in their own marriages.

What does poetry symbolize in Much Ado About Nothing?

Poetry was commonly used in the Elizabethan era as a medium for declaring one's romantic love. Beatrice and Benedick aren't immune to this phenomenon. They both write sonnets to one another, which Claudio and Hero use as proof the two are actually in love. These poems don't come easily. In Act 5, Scene 2 Benedick frets about not being able to find the right rhymes with which to tell Beatrice his feelings but forges ahead anyway. The resulting poem, which Claudio refers to as a "halting sonnet," might be lackluster, but the intent is there. These poems symbolize Beatrice's and Benedick's attempts to make their feelings for one another fit within the framework of a conventional romance. The poems do end up proving their love for one another, but the difficulty with which they were written proves this romance will be anything but normal.

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