1. Analyse 4:1:67-82 of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Your analysis should indicate how this excerpt speaks to the larger concerns of the play.
2. What does the “nothing” in the title of the play refer to? Write an essay in which you unpack the term in a logical and coherent way. You should take care to substantiate your argument by citing from the play.
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1. 'Nothing' in the title of the play Much Ado About Nothinq can have three interpretations, and it is precisely this pun on the word which makes it so typical of Shakespeare and the diction of his era. Courtiers in the 1500's were expected to use such cleverly contrived lines, especially with sexual innuendo's, as often as possible, and to make them sound as uncontrived as possible. This would give them the appearance of elegance and humour, but with what Castiglione called 'sprezzatura', the illusion of effortlessness (Sparknotes, 1999). This is reflected in the title, Much Ado About Nothing, which sounds rather off-hand, as if a light comedy is about to follow. This is Shakespeare's ingenious way of appealing to the 'common' audience at his plays, where bawdy jokes and jibes at the fanciful language of courtiers would be well received:
BENEDICK ... his words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes. (2:iii:15-16)
At the same time, Shakespeare is broaching the more serious topics of women's role in society, and deception, to his more learned audience. In this essay, I plan to explain how he does this by unpacking the different interpretations of the word 'nothing' in the title. I also plan to explain their different meanings using quotations from the play to justify my arguments.
In Shakespearean times, the word 'nothing' in the title would have been pronounced as 'noting', and it is from this that perhaps the most important interpretation of the word arises, since the plot of the play is based almost entirely on 'notings': both visual and auditory. We fist come across this when Claudio says ".. .didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?" (1:i:114) Here, Claudio means 'notice' and is simply asking Benedick if he saw Hero. This simple 'noting' of people and events happens, as with life, continually, throughout the play. It is, however, when these notings are manipulated, either accidentally or through deceit, for either good or bad ends, that the intricate plot of the play is woven.
In Act 1 Scene ii, a servant of Antonio's overhears and accidentally 'mis-notes' Claudio and Don Pedro's conversation about Hero, and tells Antonio that the Prince woos Hero for himself. This accident has neither good nor bad consequences, but serves to show how easily things can be misinterpreted, and leads us into the following deceptions. Indeed, Leonato is even cautious enough to ask his brother if his servant is reliable: "Hath the fellow any wit that told you this?" (1:I:13) Claudio, however, is far more trusting of his informants and quick to mis-note things. He sees the Prince talking to Hero on his behalf, but Don John manipulates him into believing the Prince woos for himself. Claudio ironically says: "Let every eye negotiate for itself/And trust no agent," (2:I:133-4) but he has already mis-noted the situation by trusting Don John, and is only convinced otherwise when Don Pedro gives Hero to him.
A much more light-hearted deception and mis-noting takes place when Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio trick Benedick into believing Beatrice is in love with him, and Hero and Ursula do the same to Beatrice. In both examples, Benedick and Beatrice 'note' what is being said by eavesdropping on their deceivers, and believe every word to be true though there has been no prior evidence to suggest it. Both of them want to be loved by the other, so they willingly fall for the false 'notes' dropped for them: "Bait the hook well; this fish will bite," (2:iii:96) and ".. .the false sweet bait that we lay. (3:i:33) This 'sweet bait' is purposefully set for both the good of Beatrice and Benedick, and the entertainment of their friends.
In the very next scene however, Don Pedro and Claudio fall victim to a very different type of deception. Don John is manipulating their perception to their detriment when he stages the amorous encounter between Borachio and 'Hero' (actually Margaret). He deliberately mis-represents events to them, and though he says "If you dare not trust that you see, confess not that you know," (3:ii:84) he knows that they will both note the situation incorrectly, through his eyes.
The inadequacy of noting things simply with one’s eyes and ears, and ignoring one’s personal experience, comes across strongly in the play. The characters all seem so ready to mis-note things, against their better judgement (Chidester, 1995). At the wedding, Claudio is convinced of Hero's infidelity and notes every sign on her as a sign of proof: "Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty." (4:i:37) He asks "Are our eyes our own?" (4:i:66) expecting the answer to be obviously yes, but it is not so: Don John has successfully made them not see things through his eyes. It is only the Friar who has better judgement and knows it is wiser to trust in own experience and instinct,
By noting of the lady...
...trust not my age
My reverence, calling, nor divinity,
If this sweet lady lie not guiltless here
Under some biting error. (4:i:153-165)
He also uses deception for good when he lets the Prince and Claudio 'note' Hero's fainting as her death, so that she may live again later, untainted by this scandal.
Hero's scandal brings us to the second interpretation of the word 'nothing' in the title. For Shakespeare's contemporaries, 'nothing' was a condescending term for the female genitalia, thus the title would present to us a play where 'much ado' occurs over women. This is clearly shown in the aforementioned wedding scene, where everyone makes much fuss over Hero's apparent infidelity. Claudio feels cheated, angry and extremely embarrassed. Leonato is disgraced, as his daughter's loss of honour would permanently damage his name and social standing. He shows this almost to the point of conceit when he says, “Hath no man's dagger here a point for me?" (4:i:72) where he would rather die then live with his shame.
Hero's life, after this disastrous public humiliation, is utterly ruined, and everyone present knows it. Beatrice even asks Benedick to fight Claudio on behalf of Hero; dueling being a thing men often did over women in those days. In fact, 'much ado' was often made over women, the objects of men's sexual and social desire. Even Benedick attempts a love sonnet for his woman, and risks humiliation over quitting bachelorhood and marrying her.
Yet without these female 'nothings' and the constant mis-notings in the play, there would be no play, and the third interpretation of the 'nothing' in the title is exactly that: nothing. Behind all the deception and the noting, and all the uproar over Hero, is nothing at all. The prince did not woo for himself, Hero was not unfaithful and did not die, and Beatrice and Benedict were not as mad for each other as claimed. As a 16th century courtier would say with 'sprezzatura', "What an ado over nothing!"
I believe that Don John speaks more truth then he realises when he says "Note notes, forsooth, and nothing." (2:iii:49)
2. The word ‘Nothing’ in the title of Shakespeare’s social comedy Much Ado About Nothing, has a number of connotations and meanings. These are based on word-play and on sexual innuendo, pertain to the structure and plot development of the work itself, and often make reference to Shakespeare’s personal views on the mindset and conduct of Elizabethan society. I aim to discuss just a few of these explanations, which serve to suggest the intricate and sensitive manner with which Shakespeare named his work.
In Elizabethan times, ‘Noting’ and ‘Nothing’ were interchangeable words, and hence the title could be read as ‘Much Ado About Noting’ (Schalkwyk , 2003). In many instances in the play, characters claim to be noting, observing, or seeing events, qualities and circumstances which do not exist outside of their individual perceptions. The most obvious example of this, is Claudio’s erroneous noting of ‘Hero’s infidelity’ on the eve of their wedding day. Another is Leonato’s perception of his daughter Hero’s character: a father who should be able to see and know his own daughter and her moral stature, automatically assumes she is guilty of adultery when the misinformed Claudio and Don Pedro (whom Leonato holds in higher esteem than his own child), assert it. Much Ado About Nothing is about seeing and seeing incorrectly. The characters choose what they want to see or and selectively recognise certain things as valuable. Additionally, they have been conditioned by society to understand reality in a certain way and reflect this in their observations.
The pun on nothing-noting is further marked by Don Pedro’s humourous sparring with the musician Balthasar in Act 2:3: 54-58:
DON PEDRO: Nay, pray thee, come;
Or if thou wilt hold longer argument,
Do it in notes
BALTHASAR: Note this before my notes:
There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.
DON PEDRO: Why, these are very crotchets that he speaks.
Note notes, forsooth, and nothing.
Balthasar claims that none of his musical notes are worth taking notice of, or writing into musical notation. Don Pedro teasingly reassuring him that his ‘crotchets’ are “both quarter notes and trivial eccentricities” (Zitner,1994:131-132) and urges him to play on: “Note notes (music), forsooth, and nothing (else).” This play on words was delightful for audiences at the time. Musical notation and songs play an important role in this play. Balthasar’s song ‘Sigh No More, Ladies’ has particular consistency with the themes of the play such as suspicion of the opposite sex, and the role of women in Elizabethan society.
Over and above musical notation, the themes of the play are foregrounded through Shakespeare’s use of sexual euphemism and his emphasis on sexuality. In Elizabethan times, a ‘thing’ signified male genitalia and ‘nothing’ consequently signified female’s (lack of) genitalia (Zitner, 1994: 14-15). It is not known for sure if Shakespeare intended the title of the play to contain sexual reference, but it certainly underlies a basic premise of the play: the obsession with sexual betrayal and the maintenance of male ‘honour’. The joys of sexuality are highlighted in the plays jokes and puns, but the power of sexuality - especially that power that women hold over men - is underscored by the male characters’ fear of disgrace and dishonour through female infidelity. It is this reason why Benedick seems all too suspicious of women and why Claudio feels so debased after Hero’s sexual betrayal. This attitude is also evident in Don Pedro in Act 4:1: 63-65:
DON PEDRO: What should I speak?
I stand dishonoured, that I have gone about
To link my dear friend to a common stale.
It is the political nature of controlling erotic desire that is brought to the fore, and through this play Shakespeare investigates how personal desires frequently clash with social structures and how sexual desire often evolves into marriage, or prohibits it.
However, it is a cunning plan of deception that brings on the marriage of the two feuding personalities of Beatrice and Benedick. And very craftily, Shakespeare seems to incorporate Beatrice and Benedick’s ‘noting’ as a plot methodology. In Act 2:3 and Act 3:1 when Beatrice and Benedick are ‘tricked’ into overhearing their friends talk about each one’s love for the other (Mandel, 2003). Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio hide in the orchard so Benedick can ‘note’ their conversation. They drop hints and clues so Benedick can ‘note’ Beatrice’s love for him. (Ironically, the conversation is essentially false, because it was merely a fictitious construction of Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio, yet the content is essentially true - but neither Beatrice nor Benedick are willing to bring it ‘out in the open’, and both, before ‘noting’ these deceitful conversations, refuse to ‘note’ each one’s love for the other.) It is possible that the false stories of love that Beatrice and Benedick overhear, serve to create a mutual affection between the two, where none existed beforehand. Here the idea of false noting is not only encouraged and celebrated, but used as a plot device!
Another manner through which Beatrice and Benedick are trapped into revealing their love for one another is when textual evidence – in the form of sonnets written in praise of each other – is found in their pockets. These notes, plus other forms of physical texts, often uncover the true reality of various false ‘notings’. In Act 4:2:40-41, at the jail, Dogberry commands the Sexton to note the true events of the night of Hero’s accused infidelity:
DOGBERRY: Write down Prince John a villain. Why this is flat perjury to call a princes brother a villain.
It is this written manuscript that changes the characters’ perception of Don John as noble prince, to that of a person with a great capacity for evil; and uncovers a perceived infidelity to be a staged deception. These notes have the power to elucidate an event or a character’s personality.
Although in this instance ‘nothing’ has a very literal meaning, it can be understood that the title Much Ado About Nothing may refer to more general ideas in the play. For instance, Shakespeare might have called the play ‘Much Ado About Hero’s Infidelity’ - an act which is falsely accused, therefore Claudio and Don Pedro get into a state over nothing - or ‘Much Ado About Bachelorhood’ - a position that Beatrice and Benedick praise to the highest degree, yet proves unsuitable for them in practice. Maybe the ‘nothing’ Shakespeare was referring to is the insubstantial nature of the declarations of love - such as those of Claudio and Hero - that proved to be based on whim, convenience, and sexual attraction, as opposed to trust, compassion and respect. Maybe it was the dismissal of the idea of preserving male honour, and the need for men’s desire for control over female sexuality, that Shakespeare seemed to view with a critical and reproachful eye.
In conclusion, it must be ‘noted’, that the action of the play comes full circle. The ‘plan’ is for Claudio to marry Hero, but there is ‘much ado’ about Hero’s supposed infidelity, that leads to Claudio publicly humiliating Hero on their wedding day, calling off the marriage, destroying Hero’s relationship with her father, blackening her name, and forcing her family to pretend she is dead in order to provoke sympathy and remorse from Claudio. Yet, as Georg Brandes observes, “Hero is innocent, the accusation slander, she is not really dead, the sorrow for her loss is groundless, and Claudio marries her as planned.” (Brown, 1979:). So, it can be argued that, in a sense, in Shakespeare’s great work Much Ado About Nothing, nothing happened - because what was supposed to happen, happened anyway! Such ado about nothing…
· Brown, J.R. 1979. Much Ado About Nothing and As you Like it: A Casebook. Macmillan. London.
· Mandel, S. 1999. “Noting” in SparkNotes on Much Ado About Nothing. vailable online: <http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/muchado/themes.html>. Date accessed: 21 March 2003.
· Schalkwyk, D. 2003. Lecture Notes. University of Cape Town.
Shakespeare, W. Much Ado About Nothing. ed. S.P. Zitner. 1994. Oxford University Press. Oxford.