The humor of Much Ado About Nothing borrows on and transcends that of a typical comedy of errors. The play relies on tensions created by a paradoxical use of deception by its characters:  deceit can be used as an instrument with which both to disrupt love between people and to encourage and promote it. Truth and reality, the play seems to suggest, have little value when it comes to love’s pursuits.

From the moment the action begins, the characters’ use of a series of deceptions drives the plot forward until it reaches an anticipated comic resolution, when deceptions used to unite lovers ultimately succeed, and deceptions used to divide them fail. The dynamics of this plot development are revealed at its outset. In the play’s exposition, during a masked ball that serves symbolically to emphasize the deceptions to come, Shakespeare presents two potential romances. The first of the pairs, Claudio and Hero, fall in love with each other almost immediately and are then engaged. The trope is common, a simple case of “love at first sight.” The second pair, Benedick and Beatrice, engage only in witty, somewhat hostile banter. Their relationship relies on a romantic trope that carries forward into Jane Austen’s work and on into the popular romances of film and television; their scorn and hostility mask genuine attraction. Deceit initially will divide the first pair, while uniting the second.

In the inciting incident, the play’s petulant and bitter antagonist, Don John, who envies the success and celebration of his half brother, Don Pedro, determines that he will ruin the happiness of everyone. He decides to deceive Claudio, the play’s protagonist and his brother’s friend, into breaking off his relationship with Hero. The deception is simple. In a scene comically reminiscent of moments at the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, Borachio and Conrad lead Claudio to believe that Margret, Hero’s somewhat bawdy waiting maid, is the unfaithful Hero as she chats from a window with her own lover, Borachio. This deception is effective, and the damage to the relationship carries the plot forward as Claudio must struggle to overcome his mistaken belief about Hero.

In contrast to Don John’s divisive use of deception, Hero, Claudio, and Don Pedro plot during the rising action to deceive Benedick and Beatrice into recognizing their love for each other. The two are manipulated into secretly listening to “private” conversations, each of which has been scripted and staged for effect. As a result, both eventually realize and admit that they love one another. The deception unites, rather than divides the pair.

At the play’s climax, the wedding between Hero and Claudio, Don John’s deception reaches its consummation. Claudio publicly denounces Hero as unfaithful, leaving her shocked and unconscious, with her reputation in tatters. The plot moves toward its resolution as peripheral characters turn their efforts toward unraveling Don John’s deceit.

Ironically, these efforts to reunite the pair rely on additional deceptions. Following the advice of the friar and of Leonato, Hero’s father and governor of Messina, Beatrice and Benedick pretend that Hero is actually dead, convincing others that this is true. The goal, put simply, is to restore Hero’s reputation, to assert the truth about her, by misleading everyone else with a lie, at least until evidence of Hero’s innocence can be found.

It is only after a chance event, when the village watchmen hear Borachio and Conrad bragging of their deception, that it can be revealed that Hero is actually alive. The villains, after an attempted escape, are arrested, and the play’s many conflicts come to a resolution. The final, uniting deceit is revealed. Claudio, still thinking that Hero has died, seeks Leonato’s forgiveness and is told that he must wed Leonato’s “niece,” Hymen, a name symbolic of both female virtue and virginity. Claudio, bound to the agreement, soon discovers that Hymen is Hero. The final deceptions unite the pair.

The distraught lovers are reunited, and the two romantic pairs are finally wed, a conventional closing to a romantic comedy. Deceptions meant to break lovers apart fail, while deceptions meant to unite them succeed, and in the tradition of Classical Greek comedy, marriage allows life to continue and to thrive. Order is at last restored.