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Much Ado About Nothing | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Much Ado About Nothing | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the relationship between perception and reality in Much Ado About Nothing?

Perception is far more important than reality in Much Ado About Nothing. Strangely enough the play's characters are far more likely to believe something is true if they hear it secondhand rather than face-to-face. This is because they expect conversation partners to adhere to social niceties in person, even if it means lying. For example, the messenger from Act 1, Scene 1 extols Benedick's virtues as a good soldier and person to Beatrice, but she doesn't believe him and turns his words into barbs about Benedick. Yet when she overhears Ursula and Hero singing Benedick's praises, she suddenly decides he is a man worth loving. The difference is Ursula and Hero's conversation was meant to be private (or so Beatrice thought). She figures they wouldn't lie about Benedick when gossiping between themselves. Perception of how things are leads to changes in how things really are. Beatrice and Benedick start the play at one another's throats, but when they perceive they are loved, they each make the conscious decision to love in return. This changes their reality. This can be applied to several situations in the play: Claudio believing Don Pedro wooed Hero for himself; Claudio thinking Hero was unfaithful; and even Benedick thinking Beatrice didn't recognize him behind his mask. In each instance perception changed how one character felt about another character, which altered the characters' realities.

What are the differences between male honor and female honor as portrayed in Much Ado About Nothing?

Honor was very important in Elizabethan society, particularly a woman's honor, or virtue, which was based on her sexual activities. Unmarried women who retained their virginity were virtuous and therefore desirable. Married women who remained faithful to their husbands were also honorable, and their honor reflected well upon their husbands. A woman's honor was also important because so many men feared the embarrassment of having an unfaithful wife. When Hero's honor is called into question, so is Leonato's and Claudio's. Leonato was supposed to be the protector of his daughter's chastity, and the supposed loss of her virtue makes it appear he didn't do his job properly. Claudio's honor is at stake because marriage to an unchaste woman is the equivalent of him taking on her dishonor as his own. Though men's and women's honor were entwined, a man's honor was not based on his virginity (or lack thereof). Instead, he was expected to champion Elizabethan morals and values. Beatrice calls this type of honor into question in Act 4, Scene 1 when Benedick hesitates to challenge Claudio. "But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment," she complains. "He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears at it." She's calling Claudio's honor into question because he didn't defend Hero in the face of her slander. Beatrice thinks it is more honorable to defend others than to defend yourself.

How does the title of Much Ado About Nothing relate to the content of the play?

There are three ways the title of the play can be interpreted: The literal interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing is that this play makes a big deal of things that aren't of much importance. The issues at hand are important to the play's characters, of course, but this isn't a play that deals with major historical events, nor does it offer any earth-shattering opinions about humanity. For the most part, it's frivolous and fun. In Elizabethan slang the word nothing meant "vagina," or, more technically, the entrance to the vagina. At its core Much Ado About Nothing is a play about tensions between the sexes, and the main conflict has to do with the alleged loss of a woman's chastity. "Much Ado About Female Sexuality" is a pretty good fit. There's also a second pun at play. Elizabethans pronounced nothing as "noting," which could mean "noticing" or "knowing." This alludes to the idea that the information gleaned from misinformation can cause a lot of fuss. This is also a major subject of the play for many characters believe public opinion over their own convictions.

Of what significance are the names of the characters in Much Ado About Nothing?

Some of the names in Much Ado About Nothing are inspired by one of Shakespeare's sources for the plot, "Timbreo and Fenicia" by Matteo Bandello. The main female character's father, Lionato, becomes Leonato, while King Piero of Aragon becomes Don Pedro, the prince of Aragon. Other characters' names have more symbolic meanings: Benedick's name comes from the word benedictus, which means "he who is blessed." The words bene dicte can be translated to "good speech," which matches his verbal war with Beatrice. Beatrice's name, uncoincidentally, means "one who blesses." Borachio's name comes from borracho, the Spanish word for "drunkard." This establishes him as an unsympathetic character from the very beginning of the play. Hero's name is best known for its use in Greek poet Musaeus's famous work, "Hero and Leander," in which a virgin priestess of Venus gives up her position for her lover, then drowns herself after his death. Claudio refers to this story in Act 4, Scene 1 when he accuses Hero of not living up to her name. This name is meant to show intense loyalty. Verges is the name of a walking stick used by constables for support, just as Verges supports Dogberry in the play.

What are the differences in the portrayal of the upper class and lower class in Much Ado About Nothing?

The main characters in Much Ado About Nothing are all nobility, and one would assume they would conduct themselves according to rank, exhibiting good behavior and general courtesy while the lower class acted out. That's not the case at all, for the upper class plays pranks and acts dishonorably while the lower class restores order. Don Pedro has the highest rank of all of the characters; and though Don John is not a prince, he is still pretty high on the social ladder. The brothers are behind most of the trickery in the play, as Don John causes strife with his villainy and Don Pedro masterminds the prank to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. Leonato, the second-highest ranking official, is fully onboard with Don Pedro's ruse. He delights in pulling the wool over the eyes of Beatrice and Benedick, and he has no qualms with deceiving Claudio and Don Pedro after Hero's slander. With the exception of Don John, who just wants to make mischief, Claudio is probably the most dishonorable character in the whole play. He ruins a good woman's reputation in an effort to preserve his own honor. Dogberry, though rough of speech and low of class, wants to do right by the people of Messina. He makes sure Borachio and Conrade are arrested and put on trial, then punished for their misdeeds. The men of the watch—probably the characters of the lowest rank in the play—have the most honor of all. They immediately apprehend the men they overhear talking about wronging a lady, going against their superior's suggestion to avoid criminals in case their reputation rubbed off from sheer proximity. The men of the watch catch the perpetrators of the wrong done to Hero and clear her name.

What makes Beatrice and Benedick the protagonists of Much Ado About Nothing?

A protagonist is a main character of a fictional text. When Much Ado About Nothing was written and first performed, Beatrice and Benedick would have been seen as comic relief, not the main story. Yet upon closer inspection, Beatrice and Benedick better fit the profile of protagonists than Hero and Claudio. Beatrice is the focus of the opening scene of the play, and the audience is most closely acquainted with her feelings through Act 2, Scene 1 which is when she tells Don Pedro she and Benedick have a romantic past. Benedick's thoughts also come to light in Act 2, Scene 1 as he admits how much Beatrice's words hurt him, and the audience gets to know him even better as he vows to return her love in Act 2, Scene 3. These intimate confessions give Beatrice and Benedick an emotional closeness with the audience, which is lacking with the other characters. Though the main conflict of the story is Hero's slander, Beatrice and Benedick are the only two characters who take any action to clear her name. The rest of the group passively waits for Claudio to feel bad about her death. Beatrice spurs Benedick to challenge Claudio to a duel. Though it never comes to fruition, Benedick's challenge is more action than was taken by anyone else. Beatrice and Benedick also take steps to resolve their own conflict. Beatrice, in particular, has the most power in their story line because she is the one who refuses to publicly acknowledge her feelings. Her decision to finally give in and let love win is the lynchpin of their happy ending.

How was Shakespeare influenced by other writers in the creation of Much Ado About Nothing?

It was common for writers of Shakespeare's time to lift their plots from older stories. Two in particular seem to have served as inspiration for the Claudio/Hero plot of Much Ado About Nothing: Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and "Timbreo and Fenicia" from La Prima Parte de le Novelle by Matteo Bandello. Both stories are about a woman who has been unfairly slandered. Arisoto's version is told from the point of view of Dalinda—the Margaret character in Much Ado About Nothing. Dalinda is duped into taking part in a plot to frame her mistress, Genevra, as an unvirtuous woman, thereby breaking up her marriage. Much Ado About Nothing follows Bandello's version even more closely, right down to the names of some of the characters (Fenicia's father, Lionato de'Lionati becomes Leonato; King Piero of Aragon becomes Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon). In both stories engagements are broken off because of rumors and false evidence that lead to the questioning of a woman's honor. Deaths are faked, and the original couple marries at the end. Scholars believe the Beatrice/Benedick plot to be Shakespeare's own creation, and some think he was inspired by his own earlier plays, particularly Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labours Lost. The Taming of the Shrew features two sisters, one modest and mild, the other outspoken and "shrewish." They may have been the groundwork for Hero and Beatrice's characters. The shrewish sister, Kate, is paired with a man whose wits match hers, just as Beatrice is matched with Benedick. Love's Labours Lost also examines relationships between men and women, and as in Much Ado About Nothing, bachelorhood is abandoned for the love of a good woman.

What is the importance of language in Much Ado About Nothing?

Language is one of the keys to understanding the characters of Much Ado About Nothing. It shows who they are and who they want to be. Benedick and Beatrice, for example, use their words to entertain those around them while simultaneously needling each other for past wrongs. Beatrice uses her words as defensive weapons, trying to keep Benedick from worming his way into her heart again. Benedict feels the pain of her sharp words and retaliates with insults of his own. But unlike Beatrice's language, his words are never meant to seriously injure. Beatrice and Benedick's fast-paced exchanges rely on clever wordplay and double entendres. Their comfort with language is an indicator of their social status—they are clearly well-educated and intelligent. Yet language can also depict a character as being at the other end of the spectrum. Dogberry's malapropisms—humorous confusion of words that sound alike but have different meanings—make him sound like he's of lower class than he might actually be. The situational irony here is Dogberry is using big words in an effort to sound like he's a member of the upper class. He wants Leonato's and Don Pedro's approval, but makes himself look like an idiot in the process. Other characters change their language as the play progresses. Benedick notes Claudio speaking more like a lover than a soldier in Act 2, Scene 3, and Margaret emulates Beatrice's witty repartee with Benedick in Act 5, Scene 2. Like Dogberry both characters use language as a means of becoming someone else. Claudio wants to be the quintessential noble lover, while Margaret wants to move out of the lower class.

How does Shakespeare address the theme of trickery in Much Ado About Nothing?

Most of Much Ado About Nothing is built upon trickery and deception. The first trick is when Don Pedro masks himself so he can ask Hero to marry Claudio. At the same time Don John tricks Claudio into thinking Don Pedro woos Hero for himself. This ebb and flow of deception for good and deception for evil continues throughout the plot of the play, and one trick stems from another. Since the use of trickery for good and evil is evenly balanced, it doesn't seem as if Shakespeare is commenting on the morality of using deception as a means to an end. He does point out the pitfalls of trickery, namely the deceiver is usually caught in the end, and hurt feelings are a possibility even when the intentions behind the trick are good. It's also notable Shakespeare only portrays nobles as being agents of deception. Most of the plots are devised by Don Pedro, Leonato, and Don John, which makes them a product of the extremely privileged. The closest the watch comes to trickery is hiding in the shadows when Conrade and Borachio talk about the events of the night before the wedding. That's not so much deception as it is smart police work. Thus Shakespeare shows untrustworthiness of nobility and the truthfulness of the working class.

What lessons about marriage can be learned from Much Ado About Nothing?

Much Ado About Nothing ends with two impending wedding ceremonies, but on the whole it is not very complimentary about the institution of marriage itself. Benedick and Beatrice spend the first portion of the play rationalizing why marriage isn't a good idea. Benedick fears being yoked to a woman who will most likely prove to be unfaithful, while Beatrice has no interest of making "an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl"—she wants to be in charge of her own life. Yet Benedick and Beatrice both voluntarily give up the notion of the single life once they realize they love one another. They can offer no explanation for their change of heart except, as Benedick says, "man is a giddy thing" and can change his mind on a whim. In Beatrice and Benedick's case, marriage is worthwhile when you have found the right person. Claudio and Hero's romance offers a bleaker perspective on marriage. They rush into their engagement after just a few moments together despite the fact they know nothing about one another. Though Hero's slander prevents their first wedding ceremony, Claudio was perilously close to tying himself to someone whose reputation could not be trusted. He deserts Hero, only to marry her again once her name has been cleared. For them marriage is tricky business that leads to betrayal and heartbreak on the way to the alter. From a textual standpoint this can be interpreted as a warning about linking yourself with someone you don't know very well.

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