‘Much Ado About Nothing’: A Test of Pride and Love

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Much Ado About Nothing is an accomplished comedy that can be compared to Twelfth Night and As You Like It. In this play, the Bard brings warfare to the bedroom. We don’t see a real combat in a battlefield. What we witness is a trial of lovers. So, who is testing their love? Is the Bard using a structural device in the play? Let us unravel the specific, deep, and complex meanings that make this play a masterpiece of world literature.

Old inkstand near scroll on canvas background.
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare uses different blocks and tests to investigate the emotion of love. (Image: cosma/Shutterstock)

Imagine that we have to attend a performance of Much Ado About Nothing at a local theater. We glance a copy of the play before entering the theater. We get to know that it is a comedy that was written probably around 1598.

So, even before the curtain rises, we can surmise that Much Ado About Nothing is surely about the block to young love. And it’ll surely show the resolution of that block in a three-part structure: block, escape, return.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The First Scene in Much Ado About Nothing

The play starts with Leonato, the governor of Messina, with his daughter, Hero, and his niece, Beatrice. They are hearing a report that the young lords of the city are returning from a victory in battle, and that one of them, Claudius, has particularly borne himself well in the fight.

This opening scene tells us that we won’t see a tragedy unfold on the stage because the deeds of warfare are finished. The young lords are coming home, and the story indeed will be a comedy, dealing with love and courtship.

Next, we see Beatrice speaking up, going back-and-forth with the messenger to hear news of one Benedick, and making all sorts of jokes at his expense. The poor messenger doesn’t even understand what’s going on. Leonato then offers an explanation, “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signor Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

While we are thinking about the reason behind this “skirmish” between them, the victorious young lords appear onstage, and it is Benedick who catches our attention.

Learn more about the comic tools in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Pride: The Block in Much Ado About Nothing

Benedick’s first lines are all jokes and puns and Beatrice picks him out as the butt of her own humor. “I wonder,” she asks him, “that you will still be talking, Signor Benedick. Nobody marks you.” And he instantly turns to her and exclaims, “What, my dear lady Disdain! Are you yet living?”

Picture shows John Gielgud, playing the role of Benedick in a 1959 Broadway production.
John Gielgud was a famous English actor and a master of Shakespearean verse.
His role as Benedick in a Broadway production of Much Ado About Nothing was much appreciated. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

This exchange begins a volley of witty barbs that continues for the next 25 lines! These lines mainly tell us how much they don’t want to love anybody. But, we are reading between the lines.

When a man and woman go to such efforts to make fun of each other, and deny strenuously that that they like each other, or indeed like anybody, it means only one thing. They actually like each other very much, but can’t find a way to express or confess that love.

As we are searching for the block to the young love of Beatrice and Benedick, which we know a comedy must feature, we can see that it does not come from a father figure or a person of law or authority. Rather, it comes from within the young lovers themselves—their own pride keeps them from confessing their mutual love.

The Essential Test of Love in Shakespeare’s Comedies

Since we know that a test must occur in a comedy, we are already suspecting that the Bard will test the pride of the young lovers, Beatrice and Benedick. The test will tell us how much they are unwilling to take the chance of telling each other about their love.

We are seeing glimpses of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen heavily derived the storyline of her popular novel from this play, and it shows us Shakespeare’s enduring influence on all subsequent English literature.

And indeed that’s how this play will play out: Beatrice and Benedick continue to go back and forth in delightful repartee, but the audience sees, and indeed all the other characters see, that they actually love each other. In fact, they are the perfect match for one another—they’re the only characters smart enough to appreciate the other, for one thing.

Learn more about the key principles for understanding and appreciating Shakespeare’s comedies.

The Comic Double Plot in Much Ado About Nothing

All this while another couple’s love story is at work. Hero and Claudio love each other and their story follows a more conventional comic path. They are perfect for one another, Hero’s father is also happy with the match, but there is a block in their story: the play’s villain, Don John. He plots to poison their love by slandering Hero’s reputation.

We don’t see the lower class group such as Bottom and the mechanicals in this comic double plot. We see the courtly figures. However, there is a memorable comic figure in Much Ado About Nothing. Dogberry, the ridiculous constable has a small but funny role.

The parallel love plots, with different blocks and tests, combine to provide an unusually rich investigation of love. While Beatrice and Benedick’s story is lighthearted and witty, Claudio and Hero’s relationship borders closely on the tragic, especially when everyone thinks Hero has died. At the end, it is revealed that miraculously she is still alive and is reconciled with Claudio.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

The Bard’s Use of Tragedy in His Comic plays

We know that the Bard uses this technique in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The closer the comedy approaches to tragedy, the more successful it is as comedy. That’s how the two plots function in Much Ado about Nothing.

The seeming death of Hero, her rescue through the investigation of Dogberry, the intervention of a good-minded friar, and Claudio’s sincere repentance create the comic vision of the play.

In Much Ado about Nothing, as Stephen Greenblatt explains, “Shakespeare creates a balance of laughter, longing, and pain that he equals only in two other great romantic comedies from the same period, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.” (Norton).

Common Questions about Much Ado About Nothing: A Test of Pride and Love

Q: Who is Hero in Much Ado About Nothing?

In Much Ado About Nothing, Hero is the daughter of the governor of Messina. She is in love with Claudio.

Q: Who took inspiration from Much Ado About Nothing to write a novel?

Jane Austen relied heavily on Much Ado About Nothing to create a storyline for her novel, Pride and Prejudice.

Q: What is the block in the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing?

In Much Ado About Nothing, the relationship of Beatrice and Benedick face a block that comes from within the young lovers themselves—their own pride keeps them from confessing their mutual love.

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