Analyze the subplot of Dogberry and the watchmen. In what way does this subplot comment on the play’s main action?
With the comic subplot of Doberry and Verges, Shakespeare exposes human beings’ tendency to misinterpret one another—a theme that runs throughout the play. Beatrice and Benedick, for example, delay resolving the problems in their relationship by continuously making errors in “notation,” or ways of perceiving and describing the world. This habit of misreading later takes a sinister turn in the story of Hero and Claudio. By comically exaggerating the range and effects of human folly, the Dogberry subplot focuses our attention on the subtler, more realistic examples of flawed communication throughout the play.
Dogberry acts as a clown in Much Ado About Nothing, consistently mangling his sentences, conflating connotations and denotations, and failing to gauge the importance of details in his interactions. He often slows down the course of the play with his absurd malapropisms; for example, he declares that Borachio is worthy of “redemption” when he clearly means that Borachio is worthy of “condemnation.” He risks his salary when he laughably misinterprets his employer’s expectations; having insisted that his job is merely to “watch,” he says that a watchman is not required to detain and question suspicious characters. When he foils Borachio’s plot, he seems more concerned with Borachio’s use of the term “ass” than with the far graver threat Borachio has posed to Hero. (Thus, by frequently reminding the other characters that Borachio has insulted him, Dogberry proves that he is indeed an ass.) In cartoonish, implausible ways, Dogberry embodies the human tendency to make errors of perception and interpretation.
Following Dogberry’s example, Beatrice and Benedick postpone their own happiness by making communication as difficult as possible. Beatrice playfully misinterprets Benedick’s quite skillful joking as evidence that he lacks wit, and so she will not consider marrying him. Benedick puts aside his own obvious affection for Beatrice by declaring that he is immune to love. Beatrice makes a far more intelligent variation on an error typical of Dogberry when she says she cannot marry a man, for all mankind is her “brother.” These sly examples of masquing and misreading provide entertainment for Beatrice and Benedick, but they also have the effect of delaying confirmation of what the other party really feels: The two lovers could marry happily in Act One if they simply stated their feelings in clear, accurate language.
The effects of false notation become even more serious in the Hero-Claudio plot. Shakespeare hints that all is not well between these two lovers early in their story: Rather honestly and openly declare his love for Hero, Claudio has Don Pedro dress as Claudio to declare his friend’s love for Hero. Deception marks the relationship from the beginning. The dire consequences of “misprision” reach a peak when Claudio falsely concludes that Borachio is sleeping with Hero. Leonato then misreads Hero’s genuine grief—a grief that is visible to the friar, who hardly knows her—as playacting, and so he encourages Claudio in his hasty denigration of Hero. Each of these upsetting plot twists hinges on a miscommunication, similar in kind, if not degree, to the errors that Dogberry commits throughout his diverting subplot.
By exaggerating the human capacity for linguistic and perceptual error, Dogberry’s story throws into relief the more plausible notational mistakes of Beatrice, Benedick, and Claudio. The play’s title reinforces his idea of chronic misinterpretation: Pronounced by an Elizabethan actor, “nothing” sounds like “noting,” and thus the titular “ado” is a result of our constant inability to note what is actually happening around us. In Dogberry, this inability is laughable, hyperbolic, and absurd. Yet Dogberry’s clowning calls our attention to the more serious consequences of error in our romantic and family lives—where a misunderstood sentiment can result in a broken engagement or frayed relations between father and child.