Tools of Characterization
Speech and Dialogue
What’s spoken, and how it’s spoken, is very important in this play, as it clues us in to the types of characters we’re dealing with.
Much of the play centers on the characters’ wit. While Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato, and even Margaret are occasionally witty, the real standout performers in this realm are, of course, Beatrice and Benedick. Beatrice is arguably more sharp than Benedick (remember he’s always dropping out of the battle of wits first), and their language is symbolic in its content, full of puns and jokes. However, the very fact of their grasp on language is symbolic as well—it elevates them above the other characters and chaotic action—in order to be a witty observer, you have to be observant.
Beatrice and Benedick have an ability to see everything around them clearly (remember, Beatrice never suspects Hero even when everyone else does, and Benedick is the first to piece together that Don John is at the bottom of the deception). Of course, though, they can’t see their own love when it’s right in front of them.
Benedick and Beatrice’s witty language also functions as a contrast to Dogberry’s horrific use of language. Dogberry attempts to use his language to prove himself a gentleman and a man to be reckoned with, but his failing with language actually reveals that he’s a doofus. Though he tries hard to use big SAT words to communicate important messages, he constantly misses his mark. (Ironically, Beatrice and Benedick hide their important feelings and thoughts with silly language.)
Other characters’ speech also provides revelations about their personalities. Claudio is prone to hyperbole—think of when he says Hero seems chaste as Diana, but is really as wanton as Venus. Or when he says he’ll never love ever again, and he’ll never think of beauty as gracious ever again. This hyperbole reflects how passionately (and rashly) he often feels.
Hero, by contrast, speaks very little. When she does speak, it tends to be beautiful and gentle. This fits with Hero’s character; her quietness displays her meekness, and the beauty of her language (when she does speak) shows her to be a lovely person.
Names in the play are rich with significance: Don Pedro’s name is a Spanish variant of Peter (a New Testament man said to be the "rock" of Jesus' new church). The name "Pedro" originates in the Greek, and means stone. Don Pedro (except when he’s deceived by Don John) is generally unmovable, and thought to be one of the more sensible characters in the play. Like a rock.
Beatrice’s name is of Latin origin, and means "voyager through life," like how Beatrice seems to sail above the marriage-fray and traditional expectations of women. Beatrice's name also has a second meaning, "blessed," which also is what Benedick means. Thus the two are linked together by their very names. They are blessed in general... but they’re especially lucky to find each other.
Finally, Benedick has "bene" at its root, which means "good." You can’t be a bad guy when your very name means good, right?
If you think this is all a stretch, wait for this one: Claudio is of Latin origin and means "disabled," coming from the root "claudus" for "lame or crippled." Our young Claudio is crippled in that he can’t see what’s clearly in front of him, is generally unable in matters of his own love life, and can’t avoid trouble.
Hero is also a little doomed with her name. The most famous Hero is from the Greek legend of Hero and Leander. Hero was a virgin priestess of the goddess Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus), and young Leander fell in love with her. Leander convinced Hero to sleep with him because he claimed the best way to worship Aphrodite, goddess of love, was to not be a virgin. Hero gave her virginity to Leander, and the two of them loved happily and in secret. Then, Leander drowned, and Hero killed herself. How’s that for a fateful name? Anyway, Hero’s name is kind of ironic. While Hero of Much Ado is accused of being like the Leander’s Hero, she’s actually quite the opposite (chaste).
Shakespeare also manages to throw in some ridiculous names—Dogberry gets a nonsense name that’s as silly as he is, and Borachio sounds like "borracho," the Spanish word for "drunk."
Words that are written or sung are interesting in this play often because they lack luster compared to the excellent and witty speech that’s always being bandied about.
Benedick uses poetry when he is trying to woo Beatrice, and he comes up with an awful little poem. Claudio also comes up with a rhyme for Hero’s epigraph, and if you read it aloud, you’ll hear how awkward it is. Not only is the cadence off and the rhyming simple, but the poem doesn’t communicate anything particularly lofty—instead of being about Claudio’s tragic and momentous wrong, or his great love for Hero, it reads more like a Hallmark greeting card. Scratch that. An e-card. (Shudder.)
Knowing what we know about Shakespeare’s incredible ability with poetry, both in its content and its form, he’s got to be deliberately saying something by making these two characters’ poetry suck so much. Our thought is that Claudio is incapable of deep feelings, and thus deep expression; while Benedick’s type of affection isn’t suited to the romance of poetry.
The play also has a lovely set of songs—the first sung by Balthasar, and the second sung at Hero’s funeral. Balthasar’s song sums up some key points on love and faithfulness in the play. He tells the ladies to stop sighing and be happy, because they should just accept that men will be cheating, lying jerks. It’s also funny that though the song is sung only in the presence of men, it’s actually supposed to be addressed to women (hence, "sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more.") So the song is a man’s opinion on how women should ideally handle men’s foolishness. Interesting.