An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible. Love comes about as a conspiracy. That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy. A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other. Love-relations are arranged by the community. They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness. It is the community that decides who loves whom. It is the community that makes love-relations possible.
We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play. Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato. Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject. He will be Claudio’s intercessor:
The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit. ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].
Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.
Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero? Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name? Why does Claudio not do the courting himself? Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata? Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?
The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third. A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary. Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.
Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i]. Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”
As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers. (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.) And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor. Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).
Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:
I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].
Notice the use of the verb “fashion.” Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors. What chthonic beast will he slay? Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.
And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:
I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].
Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends. Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.
This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio). This is a conspiracy of marriage. Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick. When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?
Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him. He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice. Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):
I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].
“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice. When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect. His superior desires Beatrice. So must he.
In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped. Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.
The exact scene is replicated in the third act. Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her. Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:
“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].
Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.]. “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.
Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].
She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing. / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.
Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda. And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)? Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not. The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will. The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will. Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil. The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard. A melancholic bastard. And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.
What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations. Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.