Study Guide

Much Ado About Nothing Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Marriage

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    Marriage is front and center in Much Ado About Nothing. In the first scene in the first act, Claudio sets eyes on Hero and intends to marry her. (He moves fast.) The plot thickens: there’s scheming to marry Beatrice and Benedick, to un-marry Hero and Claudio, and then to actually marry Hero and Claudio.

    Marriage, though it’s the primary source of the drama, is treated like a necessary thing, otherwise the characters wouldn’t go through all the trouble it takes to get hitched. Still, though marriage is foregone conclusion, it’s also treated lightly as a constant source of jokes. Benedick only teases about marriage so much because it’s such an ever-present part of life. Another central component of marriage is the issue of deception; the butt of the marriage jokes is how everyone cheats on everyone.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why are Beatrice and Benedick so adamant about never falling in love? Do their comments stem from their inability to love, or fear of getting married?
    2. Is marriage a reward or a punishment in the play? Why is it spoken of so negatively, but sought after constantly?
    3. Why does Hero acquiesce when her father wishes her to marry Don Pedro? What does it mean that she just as easily consents to marry Claudio?
    4. Could it be argued that Hero’s view of marriage is the exact opposite of Beatrice’s view? What are their respective views?
    5. Is the meaning of marriage different for the men of the play than the women of the play? How? Is there any common ground?

    Chew on This

    Beatrice pretends to despise marriage because she’s secretly afraid no one will love her. She is not actually against marriage, she just puts up hatred as a front against rejection.

    Beatrice has seen too many women like Hero—women for whom marriage stifles their independent will—to be in favor of marriage. She could marry if she wanted to (as when Don Pedro proposes to her), but the entire institution is contrary to her ideals.

  • Lies and Deceit

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    Lies and cheating is ever-present in Much Ado About Nothing... but the characters never expect it. This is one gullible crew.

    Deception appears as the tool of villains to spread chaos and unhappiness. However, it’s also a device used by friends to improve each other’s lives. Everyone from scoundrels to nice daddy’s girls to clergymen use deviousness—so deception doesn’t come with a value judgment, it’s neither absolutely good or absolutely bad. Whether deception is okay or not depends on the intentions of the deceivers—if the intention is to promote happiness, then the deceiver is a good friend, but if the deceiver intends harm, then he’s a nasty jerk. 

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Is deception presented as morally wrong in the play? Does anyone worry about morality, or is deception accepted as a natural, neutral fact of life?
    2. Why does Don John love deceiving others so much? Are you satisfied with Shakespeare’s answer that Don John is just naturally bad? How does Don John compare to Shakespeare’s other famous deceiving illegitimate son, Edmund from King Lear?
    3. The play seems to suggest that there can be good deceptions, but this raises the question of whether deceiving Benedick and Beatrice was necessary to get them to fall in love? Is it OK that their courtship is built on a lie?
    4. Why does Friar Francis insist that they all keep up the lie about Hero’s death after the first wedding? Why also does Leonato let Claudio think Hero is dead until the moment she unmasks herself at the second wedding?
    5. Does the play deal too lightly with deception and its potentially harmful consequences? Does the play ever address what these consequences might be, or apologize for them?
    6. Much of the manipulation in the play seems unnecessary (especially in the masquerade scene – with Don Pedro’s wooing of Hero and Don John pretending to think Claudio is Benedick). What’s the point of all this? Is Shakespeare just trying to thicken the plot, or is this unnecessary manipulation a reflection of real life?
    7. Manipulation in this play is not unlike the manipulation that occurs in Shakespeare’s tragic romance Romeo and Juliet, like when Juliet makes everyone think she’s dead, but she isn’t really, and it costs her lover’s life. What distinguishes comedies and tragedies in Shakespeare? Is it only the outcome of the manipulations?

    Chew on This

    Deception is not to blame for the mishaps in the play. All of the major plots are actually set in motion by the characters’ susceptibility to suggestion. They only see what they want to, and they are no more misled than they allow themselves to be.

    Deception is inherently bad. It is used in this play to sometimes bring out positive results, but those outcomes are actually artificial, and easily undone.

  • Language and Communication

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    In a play involving so many schemes, language is an important tool (for both good and semi-evil, naturally).

    Characters’ feelings and intentions are hidden as often as they are illuminated by their language in Much Ado About Nothing. Total miscommunication—both intentional and unintentional—summons the drama llama, and when a character uses strong language there's a 99% chance that they're lying through their teeth.

    But even with everyone lying, most characters tend to take for granted that what others say is actually true... without considering other points of evidence. This, of course, leads to more troubles, and more Shakespearean comedy mayhem.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Does language have a moral dimension? What does it mean that the most honorable characters (Beatrice and Benedick) speak in the most veiled language, while the thoroughly bad Don John speaks straight (if false) throughout the play?
    2. Shakespeare uses Dogberry as a caricature of all the people who aspire to speak above their "station" in life. Is Shakespeare being classist here?
    3. What do you make of the fact that Benedick can speak so wonderfully in his daily life, but writes so badly in his poems to Beatrice? 
    4. What does it mean that Hero and Claudio are constantly silent during their courtship? The two seem to not have a single proper conversation until Claudio denounces Hero on their wedding day. Does this undermine their supposed love for each other? Is it possible to love someone without ever really communicating with them? 

    Chew on This

    Language conveys both the station and the intelligence of characters. The quicker a character’s speech, the more thoughtful he or she is.

    Communication is less important in this play than miscommunication.

  • Love

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    Ah l'amour.

    Love in Much Ado About Nothing is a super-complicated topic. First of all, none of the characters explicitly seek love out—love is always second to something else in this play. Love might be the inadvertent result of hatred, or the incidental fact of marriage. Though the play is about romance, the plot seems to highlight the fact that love is only one of many factors that goes into a love affair. Love often comes with difficulty or complication from outside circumstances (like a scheming villain), but it’s just as often thwarted by lovers themselves.

    Questions About Love

    1. How does loyalty in the play work as a kind of love? Which characters are loyal, and to whom?
    2. When Claudio says that he should’ve known friendship wouldn’t be able to stand up to love (when he thinks that Don Pedro has stolen Hero from him), is he projecting his own weak allegiances and inability to love both friends and lovers?
    3. How does love between Beatrice and Benedick compare to love between Hero and Claudio? Are both pairs definitely in love?
    4. What do you make of the fact that after both Beatrice and Benedick hear the false conversations about the other’s love, they’re most struck by their friends’ assertions that they’re too proud? Is Benedick and Beatrice’s love for each other true romantic love, or self-indulgent proof that they can love? Why were both characters so ready to believe that the other was desperately in love with them?
    5. Can love be built on a foundation of mistrust? Can Hero and Claudio’s relationship ever recover from Claudio’s suspicion of Hero? Would Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship change if they knew they had been tricked into being together?

    Chew on This

    Claudio does not love Hero—his marriage to her is a mere formality, entirely performed in public and orchestrated through third parties.

    Love in the play is incidental; the formal duty of marriage is more important.

  • Respect and Reputation

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    Reputations in Much Ado About Nothing seem to be easily made... and just as easily lost. The primary conflict of the play surrounds Hero, one of the female leads, unfairly losing her reputation as loyal and chaste woman. 

    Much of the interesting drama action happens because reputations are in no way guaranteed to be accurate. What’s said or believed about a character (even though it’s taken as gospel) is as likely to be true as it is false. For example, we hear a report of Claudio before we meet him, and though the messenger praises Claudio’s maturity, Claudio proceeds to be immature for the remainder of the play.

    Finally, reputation also impacts how characters view themselves; characters who get wind that they have a bad reputation often attempt to improve themselves. Overall, reputation is not a reliable gauge of character in Much Ado About Nothing.

    Questions About Respect and Reputation

    1. Why is Claudio introduced as a young soldier who has earned a good reputation in battle before we actually meet him? Does this color our thinking of him at all? Do you think it influences Hero? Finally, does Claudio live up to that reputation?
    2. What is Beatrice’s reputation in Messina? Her uncle hints that she’s an old maid and therefore destined for hell, but he seems to love her anyway, and doesn’t push her to marry like he pressures Hero. Does this mean her family has written her off as a lost cause? Do others perceive her as a happy woman or as a shrew?
    3. Hero is among the many people willing to say she might as well have been dead while her reputation was stained. Is this a bit melodramatic, or could her reputation really mean that much?
    4. What role do public declarations play in the story? If Hero had really been dead, would it simply have satisfied Leonato for Claudio to declare her innocence publicly at her tomb? What other public (or non-personal) declarations are there in the play?

    Chew on This

    Reputation is more important than love to Hero and Claudio.

    In Much Ado About Nothing, reputation is in no way related to the depth of a person’s character.

  • Transformation

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    Transformation is kind of bizarre in Much Ado About Nothing. Ultimately, the good characters stay good and the villain remains bad. It's not like Don John is cuddling puppies at the end of the play, or Hero is getting in fistfights.

    There are, however, a lot of little changes that occur along the way, as the characters learn about themselves and each other. The largest transformations are characters moving from hating each other to loving each other... and vice versa. It’s also important that the characters begin their metamorphoses as a result of trickery or deception, both the mean-spirited and well-intentioned types. This deception tends to cause strong emotions, which ultimately drive the transformations. 

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Are any of the characters meaningfully transformed by the end of the play? Do Hero and Claudio grow at all?
    2. Are Benedick and Beatrice actually changed from haters into lovers? Were they secretly in love this whole time, making the whole falling-in-love thing more of a revelation than a transformation?
    3. Does Benedick’s loyalty truly change at all throughout the course of the play? Is it meaningful that the play began with a discussion of the battle in which Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio were all allies? How does the relationship between these three men change through the play? Can things ever be as they once were between them?
    4. What brings Leonato back to Hero’s side after he’s already denounced her? If Claudio’s sudden hatred for Hero is understandable, how do we explain Leonato’s sudden hostility toward him? Does he really lose faith in his daughter and gain it back again?
    5. What makes Borachio suddenly decide to confess his crimes and repent them? Why doesn’t this happen with Don John? Which outcome is more believable? Why is Don John inexplicably evil, and why is he so hell-bent on not changing at all? Is this a cheap plot device?

    Chew on This

    Transformation is a plot device in the play, not a realistic portrayal of any believable or meaningful changes in the characters.

    Masks are present as a potent symbol in the play because none of the characters have truly revealed what or who they are. The whole notion of "transformation" is just a misinterpretation; characters aren’t changing... they’re just revealing more of their true selves.

  • Gender

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    Gender (always a loaded theme) is super-loaded in Much Ado About Nothing.A bunch of characters are subject to limitations and expectations because of their gender: Hero willingly submits to her father as his daughter, but she’s equally willing to submit to her husband as his wife. 

    Still, more than in many of Shakespeare’s other plays, gender is often used as a cover or excuse. Benedick and Beatrice claim to be looking for impossible idealized forms of the other sex; but in reality, they’re likely just afraid of admitting they’re in love. In addition, both genders have the same expectations about each other in love—the men joke about being cuckolded (as if they expect women to be unfaithful) and the women are told they must put up with men’s deception too. 

    In a play where a woman (Beatrice) is arguably the most interesting and strong character, gender limitations aren’t as central as the expectations each gender has of the other.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Are either Hero or Beatrice held up as the ideal form of a women in the play? Do we have any sense of what an ideal woman is like in the world of this play? (Perhaps from Benedick’s speech or Claudio’s reactions to Hero?) Are the female characters in the play idealized, or realistic?
    2. Let’s play Freud for a little while. Does Beatrice have penis-envy (meaning, wish she were a man)? Is that potentially the root of all of her male-bashing? Is there any evidence that she’s cued in to the inequality that exists between men and women, and resents it?
    3. When Beatrice talks about how "manhood as melted into curtsies" (4.1.315), is she guilty of idealizing men? Does her wish for men to be both gentlemanly and full of brute force seem unfair? If she does have ideal notions of what a man should be, why does she refuse live up to men’s ideal notions of what a woman should be? (Or does she?)
    4. Is there a double standard for the two sexes in the play? Are the ailments of the play (suspicion, pride, etc.) gendered, or are they equally distributed among all the characters, regardless of gender? Do any characters seem to be a certain way because of their gender, or is it more their natural temperament that defines who they are?

    Chew on This

    Beatrice knows the restrictions that should limit her as a woman, but she initially escapes them by not being a wife. She hesitates to marry Benedick at the end because she knows she will have to fall into the subservient role of a wife.

    In this play, men and women alike are subject to foibles, not because of their gender, but because they are human. Men and women are not treated differently in the play at all—they’re all equally ordinary (and subject to ordinary human failings).

  • Pride

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    Pride is everywhere in Much Ado About Nothing—not because any of the characters suffer from pridefulness, but mostly because characters are made susceptible when their pride is wounded. 

    Pride is damaged and preyed upon more often than it’s inflated in this play. Both Beatrice and Benedick are inspired to love each other when they’re accused of being too prideful to do so. Claudio and Leonato both suffer wounded pride when Hero is thought to be disloyal, and ultimately Claudio tries to rescue his pride by defaming of Hero. Though pride is not often an explicit motivation or end for any of the characters, it’s a powerful force that influences their actions and feelings.

    Questions About Pride

    1. Are Beatrice and Benedick in fact prideful, or just afraid of love? How does their sudden love for each other fit in with their own wounded pride?
    2. Why doesn’t Hero defend her innocence more passionately at her wedding? Is she too proud to stoop to fighting off the accusations?
    3. Claudio doesn’t seem to have a broken heart after his failed wedding. He’s not even really sad that Hero has died. If he’s not really in love with Hero, what is it that upset him about her supposed disloyalty? Is it just that his pride was wounded? Why did he make the whole scandal so public?
    4. What makes Leonato react so strongly against Hero after Claudio has denounced her? Where is the turning point from defending his child to believing the accusation? From his speech after the failed wedding, do we get the sense that he’s disappointed in Hero, or that he’s lashing out because he’s been publicly humiliated?

    Chew on This

    Claudio chooses to publicly humiliate Hero to restore his pride, which was publicly wounded by her apparent disloyalty.

    While none of the characters ever explicitly say that they are acting for their own pride’s sake, all rash actions and over-the-top feelings can be explained by wounded pride.

  • Maturity

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    Maturity operates in Much Ado About Nothing as a marker of age and veneration, but also of personal growth. The young characters—Claudio, Benedick, Beatrice, and Hero—are all immature in matters of love, because they have yet to figure out how to deal with it in a way that doesn’t compromise them. 

    The older characters, like Leonato and Don Pedro, have the respect that comes with age—they’re wiser in the ways of the world—but they lose out because of their age too. When Claudio refuses to fight Leonato and Antonio, he says it’s because they’re old men without teeth.

    Questions About Maturity

    1. Are there any truly emotionally mature characters in the play? Leonato and Don Pedro are the oldest of the main characters, but do they exhibit maturity to fit their years? How do we explain their susceptibility to Don John’s plot, and their harsh unwillingness to believe in Hero’s purity?
    2. Is Hero mature for accepting Claudio’s love in the second round wedding?
    3. Is it fair to characterize Claudio as immature? Are his rash feelings and judgments the result of his youth? Is there hope that he’ll get better, and have more discretion in the future?
    4. Is Beatrice and Benedick’s eventual decision to marry a sign of their maturation? When they were averse to marriage, was it solely because they were immature? Is their growing love for each other linked to their growing maturity? Or were they always in love but too immature to admit it?
    5. Is maturity linked to age in the play? Is maturity wrongfully ascribed to Don Pedro and Leonato because of their age? Is that a reflection of what happens in real life?

    Chew on This

    Maturity is the trait most lacking in all of the play’s characters; their susceptibility to pride and deception, and their inability to think before drawing their conclusions, are more about immaturity than any other quality.

    Benedick and Beatrice are immature throughout the play. In the final scene, where they nearly fail to admit their love for each other, they prove that they have not matured at all throughout the course of the play.