English & EAL

Much Ado About Nothing

Jamie Tak

October 5, 2020

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Contents

1. Summary

2. Themes/Motifs

3. Symbols

4. Character Analysis

5. Quote Analysis

6. Sample Essay Topics

7. A+ Essay Topic Breakdown

Much Ado About Nothing is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.

Summary

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s classic comedies, and is in fact the most performed of his plays – even more than Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. While it was also popular in Shakespeare’s time, its themes are still very contemporary. Much Ado About Nothing is a story of mixed-up love, lies and deceit, themes that are still prevalent in current hit movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, or 10 Things I Hate About You. The banter between Beatrice and Benedick is amusing and ridiculous, and the ensuing drama between Hero and Claudio is probably not far off the modern drama in the relationships of your friends.

Much Ado About Nothing explores themes of love, the ways that we can be opposed to love and relationships, the position of women and necessity of marriage, and the ways we can deceive each other and ourselves. If you’ve ever felt attracted to someone who really pushed your buttons, felt a spark with someone the first time you saw them, experienced your friends’ relationship drama, said you’d never have a relationship because study is too important, or even maybe tried to play matchmaker for two people, this play is for you! Love is a beautiful and yet frustratingly unavoidable part of life, and Shakespeare shows us the many ways in which people can react to this and manipulate this for their own desires. This play uses comedy to reassure us that mistakes and misunderstandings in love are an innate part of humanity, as we struggle to communicate how we feel towards another person. Further, it is a play about how we stage these relationships to one another and questions whether true love needs an audience at all. As you’ll see, it’s very much a play about appearance and reality, and deception and truth – these are the kinds of questions that humanity will always face when dealing with love.

Themes / Motifs

Marriage and its effects on Freedom

Marriage acts as the primary source of the drama that unfolds in the play, and the main factor that drives its romantic plot forward. Much Ado About Nothing explores the paramount importance the Elizabethan society placed upon the notion of marriage, and the threat this often placed upon the free will of many individuals. This is primarily perceivable in the characters of Benedick, who compares the married man to a tame and lifeless animal, and Beatrice, who disparages the idea of saccharin romance and thus ‘mocks all her wooers out of suit’.

Chastity and Family Honour

Much Ado About Nothing also examines the social concept that a woman should act gracefully and stay ‘chaste' until marriage in order to bring honour to her family. Claudio’s public rejection and public humiliation of Hero during their wedding ceremony acts as the climax of the plot and a direct representation of the societal values in the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare assumes an arguably feminist stance in his implied denouncement of this despotic treatment of women, who were expected to lose all social standing if they happened to lose their virginity before marriage. The extent of this cruelty is emphasised by the harsh, obliterative words of Leonato, as in his belief that Hero is unchaste, he proclaims his own daughter as ‘stained’ and ‘fallen into a pit of ink’, having brought dishonour upon his entire family.

Deception

Much of the play’s plot is driven by both accidental and deliberate deception, of which almost every character is a victim. False language in Much Ado About Nothing is so prevalent that it obliterates the truth and forms an alternate kind of society, in which characters assume the very roles chosen for them by the lies spread about them by others. For example, the rumours that Benedick and Beatrice are in love lead to their marriage, and Hero is treated as a whore by her own father due to Claudio’s denunciation of her as ‘every man’s Hero’. Despite this, Shakespeare examines both the positive and detrimental effects of such deceit; just as the duping of Claudio and Don Pedro culminates in Hero’s social demise, her faked death also allows her to reconcile with Claudio and attain her public redemption. 

Perception and Reality

The defining characteristic of Much Ado About Nothing is that nothing of material actually happens in the plot, other than marriage. There are no real fights, deaths, trials, illnesses or sexual encounters - the only perceivable change in the play is the perception of various events and characters, such as whether Hero is a virgin, or whether Claudio and Benedick will fight - hence its name, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’.

Symbols

Eyes

Used to represent the idea of perception in the play, eyes are often utilised by Shakespeare when characters’ perceptions are distorted by the deceptive actions of others. Much like Claudio’s rhetorical question, ‘Are our eyes our own?’, the play questions the extent to which others affect an individual’s way of thought. 

Beards

Beards act as a complex emblem of masculinity in Much Ado About Nothing. Benedick’s autonomous bachelorhood is symbolised by his full, rugged beard, whereas Claudio’s clean, shaven face is a token of his ‘softness’ and emotional vulnerability. In tandem with this, Beatrice’s aversion to beards represents her scorn for men in general. It is important to note that the action of shaving one’s beard is a symbol that accompanies the act of getting married - Benedick’s first action as a married man is to shave his beard, and by doing such, allowing himself to be as vulnerable with Beatrice as ‘Lord Lack-beard’ Claudio is with Hero.

The Savage Bull

Don Pedro’s taunting of Benedick that “In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke,” symbolises the act of a free-willed man succumbing to the attractive comfort of marriage. The notion that marriage can be a kind of prison to men is repeatedly alluded to in the play through the symbol of the ‘savage bull’; just as the bull is tamed by humans’ training, the free bachelor is tamed by responsibility when he is married. However, the image of marriage shifts in the play along with a transformed imagery of the bull, as Claudio assures Benedick that his horns will be ‘tipped with gold’ and love through his marriage. This suggests that while it may seem like an intimidating and suffocating prospect, marriage can also provide infinite warmth and comfort to those who embrace it. 

Character Analysis

Beatrice

  • Niece of Leonato and cousin of Hero.
  • Although kind to her loved ones and described as ‘pleasant-spirited’, she is extremely witty and cynical, particularly towards Benedick, whom she once loved but now engages in constant bickering with.
  • Shakespeare’s symbol of early feminism, as she is a character of justice and female autonomy, vowing at the beginning of the play that she will never marry a man in order to keep her freedom.

Benedick

  • A lord, recently returned from fighting in the wars.
  • Just like Beatrice, he also vows that he will never marry and stay a liberal bachelor.
  • Although he often retorts Beatrice’s snide remarks and sarcastic wit with insulting retort, his observant friends perceive an underlying affection for her beneath his facade of apathy. 
  • The main character through which Shakespeare explores the theme of deception and performance; as a natural entertainer, it is difficult for the audience to comprehend whether he is merely pretending to be in love with Beatrice, or genuinely in love with her. 

Hero

  • The beautiful, gentle and graceful daughter of Leonato.
  • The quintessential and ideal woman of the Elizabethan era, as she is obedient to her father and cherished for her perceived pureness and chastity. 

Claudio

  • A young, handsome and widely appraised soldier who has attained great public acclaim through his noble fighting under Don Pedro’s command. 
  • Falls in love with Hero immediately upon his return to Messina.
  • Although depicted as the ideal male Elizabethan hero, his suspicious and doubtful nature results in his downfall, as he is quick to fall for deliberate lies and wicked rumours, even about those closest to him.

Don Pedro

  • Sometimes referred to as ‘the Prince’, Don Pedro is an established nobleman from Aragon and longtime friend of Leonato.
  • A character with two faces; although socially adept and courteous in his public actions, he is, like Claudio, quick to fall for rumours and takes hasty revenge on those who fail his expectations. Through this characteristic of Don Pedro, Shakespeare condemns the hypocrisy of societal expectations, presenting the idea that propriety can often cover devious intent. 

Don John

  • Also referred to as ‘the Bastard’, Don John is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro. 
  • Perpetually melancholy and dispirited due to his social standing as an outcast, he devises a treacherous plan to ruin the happy courtship between Hero and Claudio. 
  • Despite Shakespeare’s depiction of Don John as the villain of the play, many of his characteristics suggest  rather that he is merely an individual driven to commit evil deeds due to his inherent inferiority to his brother, and constant rejection by a prejudiced society. 

Quote analysis

“He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me; and he that is less than a man, I am not for him.”
  • This quote by Beatrice represents her aversion to the idea of marriage and her belief that no man will ever be able to satisfy her. 
  • As it was widely believed that the beard of a man symbolised his manliness and maturity, this conundrum suggests that Beatrice believes that no man, whether a man without a beard or a boy with one, will be able to win her love or admiration. 
“The savage bull may, but if ever the sensible Benedick bear it, pluck off the bull’s horns and set them in my forehead, and let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write ‘Here is good horse to hire’ let them signify under my sign ‘Here you may see Benedick, the married man.”
  • This quote is Benedick’s mocking, sarcastic reply to Don Pedro’s adage about how all men, even the wildest of them,  eventually settle down to become married. 
  • The ‘sensible Benedick’ here refers to a Benedick who is too clever and pragmatic to yield to the fleeting attractions of true love, as he knows that he will be disappointed by it soon enough. His imaginative scene of himself with ‘bull’s horns’ on his head symbolise the Renaissance belief that cuckolds, or men whose wives committed adultery, grew horns on their heads due to their futility. Thus, Benedick here is implying that part of his disinclination towards marriage stems from his fear that his wife will be unfaithful to him. 
“But now I am returned and that war thoughts have left their places vacant, in their rooms come thronging soft and delicate desires, all prompting me how fair young Hero is, saying I liked her ere I went to wars.”
  • Claudio here describes his swift transformation from a war hero to a passionate lover of Hero. The change that occurred in Claudio is so rapid that it is more of a passive event that occurred to him, rather than something that he chose of his own volition. 
  • As such, Shakespeare uses this quote to emphasise his volatile character and foreshadow the swiftness with which Claudio later disowns his feelings for Hero and humiliates her.

Sample Essay Topics

Quote-Based Essay Prompt

1. "I am a plain dealing villain." Don John is the only honest character. Discuss

How-Based Essay Prompt

2. How does Shakespeare use music and poetry to convey love and the intricacies of communication?

Metalanguage-Based Essay Prompt

3. Discuss Shakespeare's use of symbols throughout the play and how they relate to the concepts of appearance and reality.

Note: You’ll notice that each essay (or prompt, as we like to use interchangeably), has been labelled a particular type of prompt (theme-based, character-based, etc.). While we won’t go into detail with the types of prompts in this blog, in LSG’s How To Write A Killer Text Response, we explore the five different types of essay prompts. By identifying the type of essay prompt, you’ll immediately understand how you should answer the essay prompt so that you satisfy the VCAA criteria for your SACs and exams. This approach to essays is incredibly valuable as it saves you precious time during assessments, while ensuring you don’t go off topic.

Essay Topic Breakdowns

Character-based essay prompt 

Much Ado About Nothing is primarily Shakespeare’s strong argument for feminism and female autonomy.
Plan:

1. Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing utilises the character of Beatrice as the quintessential strong female hero, and thus encourages female autonomy. 

  • Beatrice’ strong, independent spirit and fierce wit defines her as the most powerful female character in the play. Her desire to remain a ‘maid’, uncommon in the times as every woman was expected to aspire to marriage, is a striking emblem of feminism, as her self-governance and liberated spirit is depicted.
  • Beatrice is also perceivably masculine - she even expresses her desire to have been born a man in her patriarchal society, stating, ’I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.’ As such, Shakespeare advocates that society should accept a more diverse range of women, including those with more masculine characteristics. 

2. In tandem with this, the character of Hero is employed as an instrument through which Shakespeare condemns the harsh societal expectations of women. 

  • The public humiliation of Hero as ‘unchaste’, or sexually loose, results in her rejection both from society and her own family, including her previously doting father, Leonato. 
  • As such, Hero’s devastating plight reminds the audience that being a woman in the Renaissance meant that one was constantly vulnerable to inferior treatment compared to men, and their harsh judgments - even from male relatives or close ones.

3. Ultimately, the repeatedly negative connotations of marriage expressed by female characters highlights the lack of autonomy women possessed in the Shakespearean era.

  • Beatrice’s extreme aversion to marriage, as she ‘cannot endure to hear tell of a husband’, suggests that it was not all women’s choice to marry but rather a heavy societal burden placed over their heads.
  • Hero is perceived to have almost no agency or self-determination when choosing a life partner, perceivable by Leonato’s reminder to her, 'Daughter, remember what I told you. If the Prince do solicit you in that kind, you know your answer.’ As Hero expresses that her heart is ‘exceedingly heavy’ on her wedding day, the audience is positioned to question the extent of power that fathers held over their daughter’s fates in the Elizabethan era.

Theme-based essay prompt

In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare argues that deception always results in negative consequences. 

Plan:

1. Deception is portrayed as a negative tool in Much Ado About Nothing, as trickery leads to tragic events, as Don John’s lies directly results in Hero’s social demise and the destruction of her relationship with Claudio. 

  • Don John’s deceitful words to Claudio before their wedding, “I came hither to tell you, and, circumstances shortened—for[Hero] has been too long a-talking of—the lady is disloyal,” lead to Claudio’s public humiliation of Hero as every man’s Hero’ - an unfaithful woman.
  • The catastrophic outcome of this highlights the negative power of deception and the danger of being swayed by mere hearsay, as Hero is not only scorned by all of society, but also disowned by her own father, who wishes death upon himself and his ‘stained’ daughter.

2. Despite this, deception is not always detrimental in Much Ado About Nothing, in which deliberate trickery leads to the resolution of the main romantic conflict between Beatrice and Benedick. 

  • The act of deceiving Benedick and Beatrice that the other is in love with them eventually leads to their marriage - the resolution of the main conflict of the play. 
  • Although Benedick is firmly against the idea of being contained by marriage in the beginning of the play, he becomes a passionate lover as soon as he hears the false words, “Did you know Beatrice is madly in love with Benedick?”, declaring that he ‘will be horribly in love with her’ thenceforth. 
  • Similarly, Beatrice is also positively influenced by deceptive words, as the audience can discern her transformation from a ‘flighty maid’ to a woman full of genuine affection of Benedick - perceivable by the end of the play, in which she delivers the lines, ‘Benedick, love on, I will requite thee, taming my wild heart to thy loving hand,’ as if releasing the very last fragment of her stubborn heart to him. 

3.  In a similar vein, Hero’s staged and thus deceptive death results in her social and familial redemption, as well as the saving of her marriage with Claudio. 

  • In order to punish Claudio for his mistakes, Leonato’s household publicly ‘publishes’ that Hero has died. 
  • The idea of Hero’s death brings so much guilt to Claudio that he begins to remember all of her benevolent qualities in a fit of misery, delivering the lines, ‘Sweet Hero, now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I loved it first.’ 
  • Leonato asks Claudio to marry his niece (Hero in disguise) instead of the ‘dead’ Hero, and as Claudio tearfully agrees, the redemptive masquerade through which Hero and Claudio reconcile symbolises the positive factors of deception. 

Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. If you're you’d like to read completed A+ essays based off the two essay topics above, as well as the ones listed below,  complete with annotations on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can emulate this same success, then I would highly recommend checking out LSG's Killer Text Guide: Much Ado About Nothing. In it, we also cover themes, characters, views and values, metalanguage and have 4 other sample A+ essays completely annotated so you can smash your next SAC or exam! Check it out here.

Extra Resources

The Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response

How To Write A Killer Text Response Study Guide

How to embed quotes in your essay like a boss

How to turn your Text Response essays from average to A+

5 Tips for a mic drop worthy essay conclusion

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