Like many of his comedies, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing involves young couples getting together, or trying to get together, and ends with the happy lovers getting married. On the surface this appears to be a rather fairy-tale like ending, and both sets of lovers in this play, Claudio with Hero and Beatrice with Benedick, seem to end the play in a happy relationship.
However, if we say, as William G. McCollom does in his essay “The Role of Wit in Much Ado About Nothing”, that “the governing action (the activity guiding the characters) could be formulated as the search in love for the truth about love” (165), then we can view the two sets of lovers as contrasting commentaries by Shakespeare about what constitutes “true love”. Looking at the play in this way, we can say that in Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare makes the point that true love is achieved with understanding, trust, and commitment by examining the relationships of the contrasting sets of lovers: the shallow relationship of Hero and Claudio, and the deeper relationship of Beatrice and Benedick.
Before this subject can be tackled, it seems important to define what we are talking about when we say “true love”. This subject alone could probably fill several philosophical essays, so for this essay let us define true love as being a relationship that is based on something more than outward appearances or material goods, and being a relationship in which both lovers are prepared to be committed to the other despite any hardships or mistakes their partners might make.
It seems self-evident that in order for a couple to have a romantic relationship, they need to have a strong understanding of one another. They need to have connections and shared experiences built through past encounters. Claudio and Hero, however, have no past encounter, while Beatrice and Benedick have a previous history.
Despite never having met her before the start of the play, Claudio has an immediate attraction to Hero. When he is alone with his friend Benedick, Claudio tells him that “In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on” (I.1.180-181). It would seem that this attraction Claudio has for Leonato’s daughter is purely the result of, first, physical beauty and, second, the desire to marry a noble and virtuous woman. While Claudio can’t be faulted for desiring such qualities in a wife, it is telling that he is ready to marry her after only this first meeting and that he goes to Leonato, not Hero herself, to purpose marriage.
In his essay, “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing”, Richard Henze writes, “as Claudio falls in love with Hero’s beautiful face but not with her feelings while Don Pedro arranges a profitable marriage, convention is excessively restrictive and sincere human feeling is deficient” (192). This “window shopping” manner of selecting a wife completely eliminates any meaningful interaction between the couple and doesn’t allow for any understanding or emotional connections to develop. This lack of connection is in large part what allows Claudio to be tricked by Don John later in the play.
In contrast to Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick have a previous history with one another before the opening moments of the play, and though they play the part of not liking each other, it is clear that the seeds for a blossoming romance are already in place. Beatrice’s first line in the play, in fact, in response to the news that Don Pedro is returning to Messina, is to ask, “is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” (I.1.29-30).
Though she pretends indifference, Beatrice asks several questions about Benedick and seems generally interested in his current welfare. Not only do Beatrice and Benedick know each other at the start of the play, but there is evidence that at one point they may have even tried to start a romantic relationship. In response to Don Pedro’s jest that she has “lost the heart of Senior Benedick”, Beatrice replies, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one.
Marry, once before he won it of me with false dice; therefore your Grace may well say I have lost it” (II.1.263-268). Clearly, unlike Hero and Claudio, Beatrice and Benedick have the past history with one another in order to build a relationship that is based on something other than physical beauty or money. Instead, the relationship “is characterized by sincere feeling and trust” (Henze 193). In short, Beatrice and Benedick understand each other, while Claudio and Hero don’t even know each other.
It is this type of understanding between people that leads to the second ingredient that Shakespeare is demonstrating to be a part of a successful relationship, which is trust. On two occasions during Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio is shown to have no faith in his relationship Hero, accusing both friends and Hero herself of betraying him. This lack of trust grows from the fact that Claudio and Hero haven’t had the chance to connect with each other in any meaningful way. Beatrice and Benedick, once they have finally admitted to having feelings for the other person, do have strong level of trust, however, as demonstrated by their staying together when the actions of Claudio threaten to tear them apart.
Claudio’s lack of trust is first demonstrated by the ease in which Don John is able to persuade him that Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself. When Don John, pretending to think that Claudio is Benedick, tells Claudio that Don Pedro has confessed his love to Hero, Claudio doesn’t bother to seek further proof, instead immediately lamenting:
Thus answer I in name of Benedick,
But hear these ill news with the ears of Claudio.
‘Tis certain so. The Prince woos for himself.
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love;
Therefore all hearts in love use their own tongues.
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.
This is an accident of hourly proof,
Which I mistrusted not. Farwell therefore Hero! (II.1.166-176)
With no other evidence other that the word of Don John, Claudio is ready to believe that his friend Don Pedro has betrayed him. Without any emotional connection to Hero, Claudio cannot trust her or anyone who interacts with her on his behalf, and so he is quick to believe the worst.
Claudio’s lack of trust is preyed upon by Don John again later in the play, with much harsher results, when Don John convinces him that Hero has been having an affair with Borachio. Again, Claudio makes no attempt to investigate the situation further once he is shown the false scene in the window, and he immediately makes plans to humiliate Hero at their wedding tomorrow. This event is also important because one of the most attractive features of Hero to Claudio, her virtuousness, has in his eyes been spoiled. Without an emotional attachment to Hero, Claudio has no reason to trust her, thus she is easily made into a villain in his eyes.
Claudio’s humiliate of Hero at their wedding, interestingly enough, is the event that proves Beatrice and Benedick’s trust in one another. After Claudio has made his accusations and left, Beatrice is the first and, along with the Friar, only one to come to Hero’s defense, immediately denying the charges Claudio has put upon her cousin. Later in the scene, when Benedick tells Beatrice he loves her, she asks him to kill Claudio. He refuses, but Beatrice makes her case for Hero’s innocence. Although Benedick is still reluctant, he puts his trust in her opinion:
Benedick. Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?
Beatrice. Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.
Benedick. Enough, I am engaged. I will challenge him. (IV.1.327-330)
We see, in the face of Claudio’s lack of trust, the trust Benedick has in Beatrice, as he is willing to challenge his friend to a duel on the word of the woman he loves.
When a romantic relationship has understanding and trust, commitment follows close behind according to the view Shakespeare is demonstrating in Much Ado About Nothing. Consequently, because they lack understanding or trust, Claudio and Hero’s relationship feels flimsy, and Claudio himself shows in several scenes a lack of emotional commitment to the woman he wants to marry.
With our second couple, however, the relationship seems to be much deeper and more likely to persist into the future, not only because of Beatrice and Benedick’s understanding and trust of one another, but also, as David Bevington writes in his introduction to the play, “because of their refusal to settle for the illusory clichés of many young wooers” (219).
Claudio’s commitment to Hero is in question from the play’s very beginning. As Don Pedro and Benedick are inquiring about Claudio’s feelings for the young woman, Claudio says, “If my passion change not shortly, God forbid it should be otherwise” (I.1.209-210). According to Carl Dennis, in his essay “Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado About Nothing”, Claudio in this passage “seems to admit a lack of complete confidence in the strength and stability of his emotions” (231). Later, immediately upon seeing the scene in the window between Borachio and Margaret, Claudio rejects Hero in his mind with no further proof. We are told of his reaction through Borachio’s retelling of the story to Conrade, when he says, “away went Claudio enraged; swore he would meet her, as he was appointed, next morning at the temple, and there, before the whole congregation, shame her with what he saw o’ernight and send her home again without a husband” (III.3.156-160).
This, again, seems to be a very sudden rejection of a woman he supposedly loves based on minimal evidence, but Dennis notes that “Claudio is disposed to accept flimsy appeals to his senses because he has never fully committed himself to Hero, never rejected his suppressed doubts about the value of love”. He goes on to write that “If love means anything here it should mean a special will to believe in the goodness of the beloved. Because Claudio’s love is superficial, that special will does not exist” (232-233). Claudio’s opinion of Hero quickly reverses yet again towards the end of the play when he finds out she has been framed by Don John and Borachio:
But did my brother set thee on to this?
Borachio. Yea, and paid me richly for the practice of it.
He is composed and framed of treachery,
And fled he is upon this villany.
Sweet Hero! Now thy image doth appear
In the rare semblance that I loved it first. (V.1.241-246)
Because Claudio is only concerned with Hero’s virtuousness, his commitment to her is only as strong as his belief and faith in this fact about her. Since we have already seen that this faith is easily shaken, we know his commitment to her cannot be very strong.
Projecting the patterns of behavior we see from the characters in this play, it is quite easy to create a “virtual future” for Claudio, Hero, Beatrice, and Benedick. Without a solid base of understanding or trust, there can never be a real commitment from Claudio to Hero unless they can develop emotional connections during their marriage. This seems difficult to imagine, being the pattern that emerges in the play of Claudio’s complete lack of trust in Hero.
It seems more likely that, since he was so easily made to believe that Hero had betrayed him before, Claudio will constantly be battling against jealousy and concerns about Hero’s faithfulness to him, a battle that would surely drive a wedge into their relationship. Beatrice and Benedick, however, seem destined to have a strong marriage built on their mutual understanding, trust, and commitment to one another.
Although it may appear at first that Much Ado About Nothing is just another of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies with a typical happy ending in which everyone gets married and lives, presumably, “happily ever after”, a closer examination shows that Shakespeare has actually used his young lovers as a comment on the meaning of love and relationships. Given how common the Claudio/Hero type of quickly arranged marriage was during the Elizabethan age, this message would have been of importance to the audience of the time. In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare is giving his opinion on the issue of true love versus sudden romance, and he is weighing in favor of true love.
Bevington, David. “Introduction to Much Ado About Nothing”. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Fifth Edition. New York: Pearson, 2004.
Dennis, Carl. “Wit and Wisdom in Much Ado About Nothing”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13.2 (1973): 223-237.
Henze, Richard. “Deception in Much Ado About Nothing”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 11.2 (1971): 187-201.
McCollom, William G. “The Role of Wit in Much Ado About Nothing”. Shakespeare Quarterly 19.2 (1968): 165-174
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Fifth Edition. David Bevington, ed. New York: Pearson, 2004.